Friday, June 27, 2008

An Interview with Thomas Phillips

This feature is part of the FIRST Wild Card Tour, BUT Thomas Phillips has also graciously answered some questions about his new book, The Molech Prophecy, and his incredible writing journey. His is a fascinating story of transition and obedience, from secular to Christian fiction. Sit back and enjoy a this wonderful story of God's grace and blessing!

Thomas Phillips grew up with a reading disability. He did everything possible not to read. It wasn't until he was in seventh grade that he finally read a book from cover to cover. Now a voracious reader and prolific writer, Phillips uses his accomplishments as a motivational backdrop for speaking at school assemblies.

Born and raised in Rochester, New York, Phillips has worked as a freelance journalist and currently works full time as an employment law paralegal. When he isn't writing, Phillips plays his guitar, is active in his church, coaches his children's Little League team, and plots his next story. The Molech Prophecy is his first published Christian novel.

Visit him at his MySpace, ShoutLife, and blog.

Thomas, you have a very interesting story behind how you became a Christian Fiction Writer. Can you share that with us?

In 1995 I began my professional writing career with the sale of my first short story. From there, I went on to sell more than 70 short stories and articles until in mid-2000, my first secular novels was published. By 2003 I had five mystery novels under my belt. And then in April, everything changed.

I became a Christian.

It wasn’t that anyone told me to stop writing, or to change the way I wrote. It was that I realized the books I’d written did nothing to honor God. With sex, bad language and graphic, senseless violence filling my pages, I knew I needed to take a break.

It was bad timing for my then-publisher. My first hardcover had recently been released, and I decided not to do much to promote it. As a New Christian, I was confident that the works I’d written—as I said—did nothing to bring honor and glory to God. At that point, I quit writing, more or less.

But, eventually, I got into writing weekly devotionals for my church’s e-newsletter.

In late 2005, I began a journey into a deep, dark valley. I felt like God was testing me. As time went on, I realized, the valley only got deeper and darker. In the fall of 2006, I was inspired to write a new mystery novel. But this would be a Christian themed work.

I believe that God allowed me to begin to work my way out of the valley through writing. Only this time, He wanted me to write books that glorified Him (and not just feed my own insatiable need for fame).

When I completed the manuscript, I managed to sign with an awesome agent and she placed the work with Whitaker House in just a few months.

See, my earlier works were all released through small presses. Overall sales were small. But, at the time, I was happy to be publishing at all.

The big difference is that for the first time, I’ve landed a large publisher. An awesome publisher, I might add. And I believe that this happened because I’ve changed from secular to Christian writing. I like to believe that God is blessing this new ministry I’ve undertaken, and that, perhaps, He is more pleased with my writing than He has been in the past.

The key, however, will still be visibility. Getting my name out there. There are so many talented suspense writers. Before, for me, it was about competition. Now, it’s not. It’s about spreading a message. Sharing my faith through my stories in some way. And I’ve talked with some great writers (James Scott Bell, Mark Mynheir, Eric Wilson) who have been nothing but supportive and helpful.

I want to be sure I answer the questions. There is a difference. It’s not about making money. Not this time around. Sure, I’d love to make my living writing full time. What writer wouldn’t? But I’m not consumed with that thought – the way I used to be.

And I think my latest works are some of the best stuff I’ve ever written. You always hear writers say things like, You have to write for you. That was the old me. Now, when I write it is for me, yes, but for others, as well. And although I guarantee my characters are flawed, and like real people, there will always be God’s presence in power, and love fit in between the pages. I didn’t have that before. Thankfully, I have that now.

Where do you feel God is leading you on this journey?

To be honest, I wish I knew. It’s a question I ask myself all the time. I want to say He wants to see me on some best seller list. But I know that is not His goal—or if it is, there is a bigger reason for that ever happening, lol! All I know is, despite the tough times I am dealing with in my personal life, I know that God is still with me. I know I don’t deserve that kind of unconditional love. I just pray that, as He leads me I follow.

What is your main inspiration behind your stories? Behind your characters?

Although I believe I write solid mysteries with plenty of tension and suspense, I like to pride myself on my characters. A lot of the characters I use are me. Or from bits and pieces of me. I am a huge people watcher. I compile profiles mentally all the time. My family, friends and strangers inspire both the stories and the characters. In The Molech Prophecy, the book starts with a church being defaced with spraypaint. Most of the first chapter is all true, unfortunately. In real life, those responsible were never caught. In my book, there is resolution.

What roll do you think Christian fiction plays today within the church and within the lives of Christians?

It seems like Christian fiction has been around for some time, but is only now being recognized as a legitimate genre. There are plenty, numerous, writers putting out high quality work. James Scott Bell is, in my opinion, better than any legal-thriller writer out there. The challenge, I think, is to tell a story that has God in it, working, doing miracles without preaching – this way the book can be read and appreciated by Christians, and more importantly, non-Christian readers. When I finish a well-written Christian fiction novel, I share it with non-Christian readers. It is like the perfect witnessing tool. A book exchange. Non-threatening. And I hope and pray that people see that quality and opportunity with the books I write, and share them with as many people as possible.

What have you found to be the most challenging aspect of Christian fiction?

Balance. Again, it’s telling a story without preaching. Adding just enough of this and that to keep it edgy, without crossing that line. But, for example, my second and third books are far better than even my first. Why? Because I am still learning. The Molech Prophecy is fast, tight, and people will enjoy the tale. I believe this. But it is really the very first Christian piece of fiction I’ve ever written. And to think I signed with an agent and sold it is amazing – on a first try? That blows my mind when I think about it. But that’s how I know God is in this. He has to be.

Can you give us a glimpse into your next book project?

Love to … (tell me if you see any parallels between Noah Fuller and myself … I think it would be hard to miss if you’ve read this interview, lol).
Best-selling mystery author, Noah Fuller, shocks his readers when he announces that he’ll only be writing mysteries with a Christian theme from now on. When angry letters are sent to the publisher, his agent and even to his house, Fuller is certain the storm will pass. But when his four-year-old son is abducted from a grocery store parking lot, the police suspect the author’s fans are more than just fanatical.

In an attempt to employ his fame, Fuller utilizes the media to generate a nationwide search for his son.

However, the police investigation uncovers a dark secret about Fuller’s past that threatens to kill his new writing career, his marriage and the very life of his son…
… Well? How does that sound? Hopefully this book, I call Convicted, will be released next summer from Whitaker House, as well.

Sounds absolutely riveting, Thomas! Thank you for sharing your amazing story.

Chapter One

The first things I noticed when I pulled into the church parking lot were the two police cars. Instinct wanted to kick in, but I stopped myself from turning my car around. The police weren’t there for me—couldn’t be there for me. I’d done nothing wrong. I wasn’t the same man. My days of running from the police had ended when I became a Christian. I reminded myself of this simple fact and felt a grin play across my lips. Thankfully, my days of running from the police ended four years ago.

On any given Sunday, I have come to expect many things from Faith Community Church. And why not? I have been attending weekly services for years. I expect smiles from Faith’s Greet Team—from those helping direct cars in the parking lot to those handing out programs and pencils at the sanctuary doors. I expect powerful worship music, a variety of jokes from Pastor Ross—some funny, some not so funny—and I expect, each week, a message that will impact the way I live the rest of my life.

But what I did not expect this morning was what I saw next: the complete defacing of the church building. Black spray paint covered the pecan-colored bricks in horrific graffiti.

After parking, I sat silently in the car, taking it all in. A large pentagram—an encircled, upside-down, five-pointed star—was displayed at the center of it all. Painted on every other available surface were words like “Death,” “Die,” “Faggots,” “Hypocrites,” and “God Is Dead.”

Seeing all of the graffiti felt like a punch to the gut. Faith Community was like my second home; the people who attended were like my second family. It was impossible not to take this attack personally.

Slowly, I climbed out of the car, ignoring the early November morning chill. The wind blew relentlessly all around me, howling and moaning as if it too was furious and saddened and confused by the desecration.

Other cars pulled into the lot. The people get-ting out of them emerged as slowly as I must have. I could see the stunned expressions on their faces—dropped jaws and wide eyes that surely matched my own.

Who would vandalize a church like this? I wondered as I walked toward the entrance. As I stopped in front of the pentagram and took in the mess that attempted to dirty my church, I realized that who-ever did this was hurting—hurting badly. That thought did not stifle the anger—the righteous anger—I felt boiling deep inside.

I nodded a grim good morning to the greeter who held the front door open as I walked into the church. The atrium is usually packed with people mingling before the start of the service. Free coffee, hot cocoa, and doughnuts set out on a table each and every week encourage people to arrive early for fellowship.

This morning, however, only a few people lin-gered in the atrium. Whispers were all I heard. As I entered the sanctuary I saw that this was where everyone had gathered. I usually sit toward the back, far right, as if there were assigned seating. The things I’d seen outside left me feeling hollow and alone. Today, I sat closer to the front, middle row.

I nodded hello to people here and there. Many sat with heads bowed, deep in prayer. I decided praying would be a good use of the extra time before the service.
I tried to cope with a flood of mixed emo-tions, such as anger, sadness, confusion, disbelief, and then, once again, anger. Instead of praying, questions ended up filling my mind: Who could do such a thing? Why would someone do such a thing? How are we going to get that filth off the bricks? If I ever get my…. I broke off the last thought before it got out of hand. I’m in a church, I reminded myself. There is no place for thoughts like that, but especially not in a church.

The service did not start the way services nor-mally did. The church band usually opened wor-ship with a fast-tempo song, one that got those present up on their feet, clapping and singing along, and one that brought those lingering in the atrium into the sanctuary.

Today, in dead silence, Senior Pastor Ross Lobene walked out and stood center stage, grip-ping the podium. He seemed at a loss for words. I think he knew what he wanted to say but was afraid that if he tried speaking too soon, he might lose his composure. I wouldn’t blame him.

As usual, roughly two thousand people filled most of the available seats. Two large projection screens hung on the wall at either side of the stage. Both showed a close-up of the pastor’s face. He could not hide his red eyes—or stop his quivering lips.

Pastor Ross opened a Bible, and when he finally started to speak, his voice was weak and shaky, as if he were on the verge of crying. “I want to read Matthew, chapter five, verses ten through twelve: ‘God blesses those who are persecuted for doing right, for the Kingdom of heaven is theirs. God blesses you when people mock you and persecute you and lie about you and say all sorts of evil things against you because you are my followers. Be happy about it! Be very glad! For a great reward awaits you in heaven. And remember, the ancient prophets were persecuted in the same way.’”

He bowed his head.

I felt sorrowful pain in my chest.

“Shock. Pure shock,” Pastor Ross said. “You don’t think stuff like this will happen here. It will happen elsewhere, like in run-down, gang-ridden areas, so we think. But from what I know of human nature, it happens everywhere, because people can be dark-hearted everywhere. God is always in con-trol, and He wants us to learn to deal with prob-lems in God-honoring ways. I have come to realize through this incident, and through other incidents that have occurred in our church family, that our enemy, Satan, attacks those churches that are a threat to him and his evil ways.”

I nodded in agreement, listening intently and watching as Pastor Ross released his white-knuck-led grip on the podium and began to come into his own. He paced back and forth on the stage, addressing the congregation, righteous fire heating this impromptu sermon.

“Jesus tells us in Revelation three, verses four-teen through seventeen, that He will spit out of His mouth the church whose people are lukewarm in their faith, because they are neither hot nor cold. It is my desire for Faith Community Church to be a church that is hot, making a difference for Christ and His kingdom in Rochester and the surround-ing area.”

As Pastor Ross paused, he stroked the sandy-colored goatee that covered his chin and used a handkerchief to wipe away the beads of sweat that formed on his bald head. “This, friends, this is a great opportunity for us to love our enemies as ourselves.” He pointed out at us and then pointed back at himself. “It is my desire to see everyone at Faith truly model this command from Christ and not become bitter by this incident. I pray that we have an opportunity to minister to the needs of the person or people responsible, so we can share the life-changing message of the gospel with them.

“I have known many people who have been enslaved in the bondage of satanism and witch-craft, and although the hold these things have on them is strong, it is no match for our all-powerful, all-loving God. It will take time, but if we can be models of Christ’s love to this person, I have full confidence that he will become a child of the light instead of a slave to the darkness.” A second, brief pause followed. Then Pastor Ross added, “Don’t get me wrong. I also hope that the person who did this crime is caught and processed fairly through our justice system.”

I tried to let my own anger subside. If Pastor Ross could move on, so could I. All I needed now was help unclenching my hands, which had been rolled into solid fists since the beginning of service.

Used by permission of the publisher, Whitaker House ( ). All rights reserved.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

The Third Attitude of Waiting

WaitinghandsThe last two weeks I’ve talked about the significance of waiting in our spiritual lives. Click here to read part one. Click here to read part two. Today I’ll continue with the final attitude of waiting.

Waiting Expectantly.

We all inevitably have times of waiting for God to move. Through time and trial, we learn to wait patiently as we come to understand God’s faithfulness, and trusting God seems to be the heart and soul of just about any issue we face in our lives. But how much do we trust God? How far are we willing to trust him?

Read the rest at S.U.M.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Interview with short filmmaker,
Eric Albertson

Friends, a real treat today! Filmmaker, Eric Albertson is here to talk about his short film La Liberte' de l'Interieur, his inspiration for this power house clip, and how he envisions his work in the ongoing transformation of the world.

About the film…
La Liberte' de l'Interieur is a film about how a man, confined to a door-less, window-less cube is helped to freedom by a mysterious stranger. He finds that the ultimate source of freedom is found within and explores what his response should be to this liberating gift.

Click here to view this inspiring short film (it's about 5 minutes in length).

Eric, share what inspired you to enter the world of short films and combine inspirational images with rich and symbolic imagery?

Making films has always been a dream of mine. As a kid, I made movies with my dad’s movie camera and throughout high school my friends and I had fun making movies. Liberte’ was my first real film, however. In the last few years, I had been working toward making a film (saving up money, learning software. . .), when my wife found out about a film contest and encouraged me to enter. I'd had the idea for Liberte’ for a long time and thought that it would be a great first movie (one set, one actor, one line that has one word. . . which is in French). The story really resonated with me personally and I thought that others might like it too. As far as the symbolic imagery, I thought those images might help to convey the spiritual messages of the film in a visual way.

What specifically was your inspiration behind La Liberte' de l'Interieur?

Well, La Liberte’ de l’Interieur means Freedom Within in French. The film is about how a man discovers that the path to freedom really starts on the inside. It is my own journey. There are times in my life that I felt stuck, but with a little help from others pointing the way, I found a tremendous source of power inside. Once I found that, it began to transform the rest of my life.

There were two elements that I really appreciated because of their strength in communicating a transformation, without a single spoken word. One, the transition from monochrome to color, and two, at the end when he picks up the sign and runs toward the other “prisons.” Share some of your thinking in creating this imagery.

As the man begins to experience freedom, his world begins to come alive. I wanted to show the transformation from a hopeless, trapped existence to one where there was life and freedom. I felt color would be a way to visually represent that change, moving from a gray, monochrome palette to one full of color.

I saw the sign as a way that people could share the message of freedom to one another. At the end, when he runs toward the other prisons holding the sign, we realize that he has chosen to use his freedom to help others find their own freedom.

From start to finish, can you give us a brief glimpse into the process of making such a film?

Sure! It started as simple sketches in my notebook. When the idea came to me, I began to draw the things I saw in my mind. I kept thinking about the story and then drew more storyboards. When it came time to make the film, I drew more detailed storyboards and made an animatic (a simple version of the film, using my video camera, an action figure and a small cardboard set) to help figure out camera angles and timing. From there I designed and built the set, purchased costumes, made props, got permits (to film in the park), recruited people to help and learned how to operate the camera.

The preparation took about a month and a half. Then, we spent about a week filming. We filmed at night from 8:00–10:00 pm and then spent one very hot weekend filming the exterior shots. After that, I spent about two weeks (working at night) editing the film and then spent another two weeks working with the audio and special effects. I got a chance to work with a composer who is extremely gifted. He was 14 at the time and he wrote, performed and recorded the music in about 3 hours. In all, the film took about 3 months to complete from start to finish. I had help from co-workers, family members, neighbors and friends. We had so much fun.

The Jesus films seemed to break ground in using film to communicate the salvation message, and more and more I’m seeing video used to proclaim even more about the kingdom of God. Do you think this form of communication is more effective to today’s busy generation and is it effective?

In our fast-paced society, people look for ways to get their information quickly and usually turn to video- or film-based sources to get it. Because of that, films that accurately communicate spiritual truths, especially short films, can be very effective in helping folks understand the kingdom of God and visualize realities of the spiritual world.

Do you feel the work you’re doing is fulfilling God’s calling on your life?

I feel that God has given me the ability to think visually, a love of storytelling, a knack for problem solving and a passion for making films. I have gotten a chance to use these skills to make films and it has been an exhilarating journey walking with God through the filmmaking process.

I understand you recently completed your latest short film, entitled Freeway Dating. Can you give us a glimpse of this new story?

Absolutely. Freeway Dating is a mockumentary about people who find love while they are driving on the freeway during their morning commute. It follows an author who has written a book about the topic “Romance or Roadkill: The Ins and Outs of Freeway Dating,” a couple who met on the freeway and an expert freeway dater who shares some tips for successful freeway dating.

What part of this process have you enjoyed the most?

While I have been fortunate to have won some awards at some film festivals and competitions, I am most excited about how people have seemed to find a connection with the film. Many people have told me that they have found something special in it for them and that is really exciting to me.

Eric, thank you so much for sharing with us and giving us a peek into the world of shortfilms!

Some additional exciting news about Liberte':
Liberte' is one of 19 films selected to be shown at The Indigo Film Festival (TIFF) during World Youth Week in Syndey, Austraila. This is a huge spiritual gathering for youth sponsored by the Catholic Church (the Pope goes there to speak on the last day).

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

The Second Attitude of Waiting

WaitinghandsLast week I talked about the significance of waiting in our spiritual lives. Click here if you’d like to read that post. This week I want to explore the next attitude of waiting.

Waiting Patiently.

Our natural tendency leans toward a continuous sense of movement. When we feel our progress stalling, we grow agitated and antsy. Think of traffic. You’re moving along, thinking you might actually get home, or wherever, in a decent amount of time. Then one after another, you see those taillights glow a bright red and you moan along with the hum of your breaks. So much for that idea. Now you’re stuck, creeping along with no idea what’s causing the hold up or how long a delay lies ahead.

You’ve just lost control of your agenda.

Read the rest at S.U.M.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

The Attitudes of Waiting

WaitinghandsHow much time in a day do you spend waiting for something?

We wait in car lines to pick up our kids. We wait in line to pay for our groceries. We wait for our food to arrive at a restaurant.

On a spiritual level, I’m beginning to think we spend a lot of time waiting there as well. We wait for God to answer our prayers. We wait for unbelieving loved ones to finally embrace Christ as their Savior, and most importantly, we wait for Christ to return.

I also think this kind of “spiritual” waiting is the most difficult. If you wait in a car line, you know your kids are going to come (at least you hope so!). At the grocery store, you know you’ll eventually get your turn at the cashier. And as far as restaurants go, wait too long and the waiter (now there’s another person waiting!) risks losing a nice tip, but you will get your food. All of these kinds of waiting have tangible and guaranteed outcomes. Not necessarily positive, but the waiting does end within expected and controllable parameters.

That’s not the case in the spiritual realm.

Read the rest at S.U.M.

Friday, June 06, 2008

Fossil Hunter by Dr. John Olson

It is time to play a Wild Card! Every now and then, a book that I have chosen to read is going to pop up as a FIRST Wild Card Tour. Get dealt into the game! (Just click the button!) Wild Card Tours feature an author and his/her book's FIRST chapter!

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

Today's Wild Card author is:

and his book:

Fossil Hunter
Tyndale House Publishers (April 2, 2008)


John Olson is an award-winning novelist and speaker who lives with his wife Amy and two children in San Leandro, CA. John earned a Ph.D. in biochemistry from the University of Wisconsin at Madison, and did postdoctoral research at the University of California at San Francisco. After eight years as a director and principal scientist at a major scientific software company, John has quit his day job to devote himself full-time to a ministry of writing and speaking. He has won several awards for his writing, including a Christy Award, a Christy finalist, a Silver Angel award, and placement on the New York Public Library’s Books for the Teen Age.

John's book is part of the Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed campaign. Ben Stein's movie Expelled is now available on DVD. Find more details at Expelled the Movie.

Visit his website.


Chapter One

Katie braced her shoulder against the ladies’ room door. Heavy knocks pounded into her arm, rattling the metal door against its frame.

“Katie, come out right now!” Dietrich Fischer’s voice echoed through the tiled bathroom. “Already we are six minutes late. Everyone is now waiting!”

Squinting her eyes against the hard fluorescent light, Katie tried to clear her mind, but the faces wouldn’t go away. An old man in a brown suit. Bloodshot, yellowing eyes. A generous dusting of dandruff on his shoulders, more on the left than on the right. The Asian woman standing in the back with the Mi-nolta camera clasped tightly in long, manicured fingers. The fat man in the straining yellow polo. The four undergrads in the front row, whispering and nudging when she poked her head into the room . . .

“So what is it that is wrong? You are being sick?” Dietrich’s voice broke through the battery of faces. “Answer me!”

Katie lifted a hand to her cheek. Her skin was cold and moist. Her stomach felt like it was going to boil over. Maybe if she just told him . . .

“Katie?” Dietrich hammered on the door, three piercing blows that buzzed into her brain.

She turned to face the door. “I told you . . . an intimate seminar-—just for the department. You promised.”

“I did. I invited only the department. They made to put up the flyers, but I told them no.”

“But the conference room’s almost full. You know I can’t . . . We had a deal.”

“Katie, listen to me. These people are already liking you. They want to meet this smart, brave fossil hunter they read about in the papers. You should be happy to have such fans. What do you want? To disappoint them?”

“But I . . . you know I can’t do this. It’s too many people. I’ll just make a fool of myself. Maybe if I did a webcast for every-one. I could include pictures and all my data. They’d actually get a much better—”

The door pushed in on her, skidding her ridiculous heels clackety--clack across the tiled floor. Dietrich’s jowly face ap-peared in the doorway, squinty eyes darting around the room before settling on her with a frown.

Pulling herself up straight, Katie stared back at him. She wasn’t budging from the ladies’ room. If he wanted a confronta-tion, he was going to get it right here.

“Katie . . .” Dietrich cleared his throat uneasily. “Katie, I know you don’t like much the speaking to crowds. But I need you to do this. I and the whole lab. We need you.”

Katie searched Dietrich’s face. Something was wrong. Great beads of sweat were rolling down his expansive cheeks. His pupils were too contracted. “This isn’t about the depart-ment, is it? Something else is going on.”

“Nothing is going on with anything. It is a seminar. That is all. A simple seminar in which Thomas Woodburne just hap-pens to be in the audience. But not to worry about him. He’s one of your biggest fans. He told me this himself. Just tell the story of Peru. Show the pictures of the Pericetus. You’ll be very good.”

“Thomas Woodburne? The guy from the Smithsonian? What’s he doing here?”

“He’s very important in Washington. In the NAS.”

“Since when do you care about the National Academy?”

“Since always I care about the Academy. Our grant . . .” Dietrich’s face contorted into a scowl. He cocked his head and turned to face the wall. “Grant money does not grow on the trees, you know. This affects your research as much more than mine.”

“My research?” Katie stepped toward Dietrich, forcing him to look her in the eye. “You said they’d renewed the grant. You said it wasn’t a problem.”

Dietrich took a couple of shuffling steps backward until he hit the wall. “It won’t be. I’m filing an appeal. Once they find out about your new work . . .”

“So you invited Woodburne without telling me? Who else did you invite? Half of Albuquerque’s in there.”

Dietrich looked down at his watch. “Eight minutes late! We must go out there now.”

“Fine; go ahead. I’m not stopping you.” Katie turned to walk away, but a meaty paw pulled her up short.

“Just tell the story of Peru. The capture of the fossil thieves. That is just what they would like to hear.”

“But there isn’t anything to tell. They destroyed the fossil before I could even look at it.”

“Katie, please.” His hand tightened around her shoulder. “I need you to do this. Without the grant renewed . . . we’ll be out of money by November. I won’t be able to pay your salary. Hooman’s salary. Wayne’s, Peggy’s . . . No money, no re-search.”

Katie took a deep breath. The room was so crowded. . . .

“You want I should tell Hooman he has to go back?”

“Okay, I get the point. I’m being blackmailed.” She resisted the tug on her shoulder.

“Whitemailed only. I’m the good guy boss. Yes?”

Katie couldn’t help smiling. She stopped resisting and al-lowed herself to be led back to the door.

“This will be very easy. You will see.” He held the door open for her and guided her through. “They are all your biggest fans.”

Katie focused on her adviser’s voice as he led her down the hallway. She could do this. It was just like her thesis de-fense. The number of people didn’t matter. Four or four hun-dred. It was all the same—as long as she didn’t look at them.

Dietrich opened the auditorium door and the roar of voices filled her ears. God, help me. Please . . . She looked down at the floor, allowing herself to be guided to the front of the room. Her heart pounded in her chest, pulsing through her neck. She couldn’t breathe. There was too much pressure.

“Everyone, thank you for being so patient. . . .” Dietrich’s voice beat against the roar. Seats squeaked. Desktops clanged into place. Zippers, papers, the shuffling of feet . . .

Katie tightened her grip on Dietrich’s arm, leaning against his bulk for balance. One step at a time, she focused on each carpeted stair tread as she climbed higher and higher onto the stage. The murmur of voices assaulted her. She could feel thousands of eyes staring at her. She was naked, exposed, on display for all the world to see.

God, please . . .

“. . . earned her PhD in earth and planetary sciences here at the University of New Mexico, where she was the first to dis-cover . . .”

Katie gripped the podium with both hands and pulled her-self up straight as Dietrich introduced her. The Pericetus whales, the geology of South America . . . She could do this. She didn’t have many geology slides, but she could start with her latest findings and use them as a segue into her research on the Pericetus fossils. And then maybe, if everything was going okay, she’d tell them about Peru. It was the only thing people seemed to care about these days—even the other pale-ontologists were more interested in Peru than in her research. Nothing ever changed. Even behind bars the fossil poachers were still stealing her science.

A burst of applause washed through the auditorium. Flashes of blinding light. Katie stared determinedly down at the laptop on the podium. Her ears and cheeks were burning scar-let. Who was taking pictures? She was going to look like a blushing radish.

“Thank you for coming.” Her words came out strong and clear. “Before I start talking about ancient whale anatomy, which is, I’m sure, the reason you’re all here—” Katie took a calming breath as a ripple of laughter ran through the room—“I’d like to give a brief summary of some recent work I’ve done on the geology of South America.”

The auditorium was perfectly still. Katie relaxed her grip on the podium. She could do this. Piece of cake.

“As you all know, the Tethys Sea, which once covered In-dia, Pakistan, and most of what is now the modern Middle East, was home to the earliest archaeocetes we’ve uncovered to date: the pakicetids, ambulocetids, protocetids, basilo-saurines—”

“Katie, a tiny minute please!” Dietrich called out from the corner of the stage. “For the undergrads and guests . . . Per-haps you must explain the evolutionary significance of these early whales. What is it, the reason of their importance?”

“Okay . . .” Katie closed her eyes and focused on her breathing. She wouldn’t let him get to her. Now wasn’t the time. “Fifty years ago—” she chose her words carefully—“whales were held up as an argument against the evolutionary model. If modern whales evolved from terrestrial mammals, why didn’t we see any evidence in the fossil record? Why didn’t we see any intermediary forms?

“Since then, however, paleontologists have uncovered scores of putative intermediary whale forms. The pakicetids, first discov-ered in Pakistan by Gingerich in 1981, were fleet-footed land animals with very few adaptations for marine life except for a few features of their ears. They lived roughly 50 million years ago during the early Eocene sub-epoch.

“The ambulocetids, or so-called walking whales, also lived during the early Eocene of Pakistan. They too seemed primarily terrestrial and had well-developed limbs and feet.

“The protocetids of the middle Eocene, however, were primarily aquatic. The Rodhocetus, for example, swam using elongated, paddlelike hind feet and the side-to-side motion of its powerful tail.

“Later, during the late Eocene, we get the appearance of the basilosaurines and durodontines, which were fully aquatic and swam like modern whales using an up-and-down motion of their tale flukes. These archaeocetes differed from modern whales in that they had very small, almost vestigial, hind limbs. They also lacked blowholes on the tops of their skulls.”

Katie glanced over at Dietrich and received a curt nod. So far so good. “Okay, as I was saying before, most of the earliest whales have been found in and around the Middle East, but due to certain social and political, um . . . factors, most Western paleontologists haven’t been able to get into these areas for a long time. A few privileged scientists have obtained exclusive permits to go into Pakistan, and one scientist in particular, who shall remain nameless, has recently made some pretty amaz-ing discoveries there, but since the fossils aren’t allowed out-side the country, none of the rest of us have been able to verify them. So those of us who want to study ancient whales are pretty much out of luck. Until now . . .

“It just so happens that the geology of the western South American continent is very similar to that of the Middle East. In theory we should be able to find the same types of whales there that Nick Murad, our unnamed scientist, has found in Pakistan but without all the social and political factors that make expeditions to the Tethys region so prohibitive.

“As many of you know, I had the opportunity to explore a middle Eocene plain in Peru and was able to demonstrate the presence of whale fossils there. Unfortunately, the fossil I found was destroyed before I had the chance to study it. The part of the skull I could see looked fairly modern, but until we return to the area and uncover another one, we won’t know for sure whether the whale had hind limbs and nostrils at the front of the snout like a Rodhocetus or a strong swimming tail and a blowhole on the top of the skull like the more modern Perice-tus whales we’ve already found in Peru. The sooner we—”

“Katie, a question.” Dietrich called out. “Sorry to be inter-rupting again, but Dr. Webb has a question.”

Katie gripped the podium tighter. She could feel the pres-sure building in her chest. “Okay . . . Dr. Webb?” She kept her eyes fixed on the laptop keyboard.

“So what makes you question the age of the layer? Was it the appearance of the fossil or the geology of the layer itself?”

“I’m sorry.” Katie ran through the question in her mind. “I wasn’t questioning the age of the layer. It’s definitely middle Eocene. Several other finds confirm the geology report.”

“Then how can you question the morphology? If it’s middle Eocene, it has to be a primitive whale, an Archaeoceti.”

“How can I question it?” Katie took a deep breath and let it out slowly. “I question it because it’s not known yet. Until we find another fossil, we can’t know for sure what it will look like. For all we know, it could have the morphology of Shamu, the killer whale.”

A gasp sounded somewhere in the auditorium. So much for her attempt at levity.

“Dr. James,” a woman’s voice called out from the back of the room, “this whale you’re talking about—the one that was destroyed—it was the reason you were attacked by fossil poachers?”

“Yes, I . . .” Katie could feel the blood rushing into her cheeks. “With more and more private collectors buying fossils on the black market, fossil poaching is getting to be a huge problem, especially in impoverished countries where—”

“Could you confirm the report that you single-handedly captured five armed men?” A man’s voice.

“I . . .” Katie’s face was burning now. “Yes, there were five of them. But I . . .”

“How did you do it?” The woman again. “How did you stop so many men?”

“How did I stop them?” Katie sagged against the podium. Weren’t these people listening? “I didn’t stop them. I tried, but by the time I got back to camp, they’d already started digging. And then, like an idiot, I let myself get captured. By the time I got back in control of the situation, they’d already powdered the fossil. We think they were looking for teeth. A tooth from a T. rex can sell for as much as five thousand dollars.”

She hit the Page Down key on the laptop to bring up her first slide. “The whales I typically study, including the Pericetus whales I want to talk about now, don’t have teeth. They have baleen, which they use to—”

“But how did you do it? How did you get away?”

Katie gripped the podium tighter. “It wasn’t a big deal. They weren’t paying attention so I . . . whacked them on the head.”

A volley of flashes hit Katie in the face as a wave of shouted questions washed over her. She squeezed her eyes shut. Tried to tune out the voices. “Baleen whales—”

“Dr. James! Please! Dr. James!” The woman’s shouts rose above the roar, beating the other voices down to a low murmur. “Dr. James, please. How do you expect us to believe you hit five men over their heads?”

“Not all at once. They only had two men guarding—”

“Dr. James!” Webb’s bellowing voice. “Back to the subject at hand. You still haven’t answered my question!”

Katie looked up from the podium. The Asian woman in the back. Her hand was still raised. A man, freckles and thinning red hair, was holding out a microphone. The man with dandruff. The woman beside him, twisting a finger through her hair. Drooping earlobes with big dangly earrings. Mark Cranley from the White lab. Joe Sayers . . . They were all staring, watching. . . .

Katie’s stomach surged. Cold sweat streamed down her face. She felt dizzy. Couldn’t breathe. Please, no . . . not again!

Pushing away from the podium, she staggered across the stage to the stairs. A shoe twisted beneath her foot, sending her crashing down the steps. She hit the carpeted floor and rolled back onto her feet, running. Up the side aisle. Out the door.

The echoes of clacking footsteps chased her down the hallway and into the bathroom. Through the swinging door, into one of the stalls, she collapsed onto her knees in front of a toi-let.

Reporters . . . Dietrich was such a liar. He’d promised inti-mate, but he’d invited reporters! A shudder convulsed her body. She took a long, deep breath. It would serve him right if she walked into his office right now and quit. Let him find someone else to lead the next Peru expedition.

Katie stood up slowly, bracing herself against the stall par-tition. The pressure in her stomach was subsiding. She took a few experimental steps.

Of all the childish stunts . . . She tottered over to the coun-ter, pulled out a wad of paper towels, and started dabbing her skin. It’d serve him right if the visas were denied. She leaned against the sink, staring at the drain to avoid the reflection that hovered mockingly in the mirror. All those cameras. Thomas Woodburne. She’d looked like an idiot.

A knock sounded at the door. Katie spun around, bracing herself for another encounter.

“Katie?” It was Hooman, one of the grad students from Dietrich’s lab. “Katie, are you all right? Dr. Fischer sent me. He asked me to make sure you’re okay.”

Great . . . Does he have to yell? Katie took a step toward the door. Why didn’t bathroom doors have locks?

“He wants you to come back to the conference room as soon as you feel better, okay? There are some people in the audience who want to meet you.”

An unfamiliar voice sounded in the hallway. Another voice, this one female. Katie cast a glance back at the mirror. Tendrils of fine dark hair were plastered to the side of her sweat-beaded face. She was white as a ghost.

“Katie, are you there?”

Katie glanced around the room. A window was partially open. It looked big enough.

Tiptoeing to the back of the room, she slid the frosted glass panel all the way up and stuck her head out. The courtyard was three stories below her, but at least it was empty. And the ledge was more than wide enough. . . .


Glancing back at the door, Katie kicked off her heels and tossed them through the window. Then, lifting a leg cautiously over the sill, she ducked through the opening and stepped gin-gerly out onto the pigeon-stained ledge.

An image flashed before her eyes. She was five years old, scaling a rocky cliff on the Navajo reservation. Her father was down below, calling up to her with a ragged voice. A geyser of panic surged through her body, freezing her against the dusty wall. Her father . . . She couldn’t lose her job. Not now. Her father needed her.

She swung a knee over the windowsill and ducked her head back inside. If Dietrich didn’t get his grant renewed . . . because of her freaking out . . .

Another knock rapped at the bathroom door. The murmur of anxious voices. How many people were out there? It sounded like the whole seminar room.

Katie’s head started to throb. What was the point? She took a deep breath and stepped back onto the ledge. Going inside would only make it worse. Throwing up on the reporters wasn’t going to get Dietrich’s grant renewed.

Gripping the bricks with her fingertips, she inched her way along the ledge, careful not to look down. Heights didn’t bother her, but if someone was down there watching her . . . if the crowd from the auditorium . . .

Flashing cameras lit her memory. The man with red hair. Orange-brown freckles framing pale blue eyes. The man with dandruff . . .

Stop it! Katie stared hard at a grainy line of off-white mortar. What had gotten into her? She was acting like a baby.

She worked her way around a projecting windowsill and si-dled to the corner of the building in long, determined strides. She swung herself around the corner and looked down at the roof of the adjoining building. Only a ten-foot drop. Piece of cake.

Pushing off the wall, she twisted her body into the shrieking air. Pain stabbed into her feet as she hit and rolled across a sweltering surface of gravel and tar. Hot! She hopped from foot to foot across the burning rooftop and flung herself at the edge of the building. Clinging to the blistering cornice work, she swung her legs over the side and climbed down the ladderlike arrangement of ornamental bricks before dropping onto the ground below.

Brilliant. Katie lay on her back, combing her feet through the soothing coolness of the grass. Jumping barefoot onto a blazing-hot rooftop. Katie James, brilliant fossil hunter. For her next trick she would jump barefoot into a hot unemployment line.

Nick Murad leaned against an outcropping of rock and wiped his face with the back of his sleeve. The dusty fabric gritted like wet sand-paper. His right eye burned as a drop of sweat rolled across his upper lid. He raised a hand to wipe his face, but his fingers were coated with a paste of sunscreen and dirt. His shirt, his hat, his pants . . . the grit was everywhere. Eating its way like hookworms into every crease and crevice of his body.

He squeezed his eyes shut and shook his head from side to side, flinging away drops of sweat like a big Labrador after a swim. Beautiful . . . Now both eyes were burning. What he needed was a shower. A hot shower using nonbiodegradable soap and a towel that wasn’t full of sand. He stood slowly, arching his lower back against the Pakistani sunset.

Tomorrow . . . less than twenty hours away. He checked his watch, automatically subtracting nine hours in his mind. It was almost 5 a.m. in New York. Cindy would already be at the air-port by now. He could see her standing in line at the flight counter dressed to the nines in an impossibly impractical but totally seductive skirt and blouse. He tried to imagine her car-rying twice her limit of suitcases by herself, but his mind’s eye kept drifting to her face. Soft, limpid eyes. Full, pouty lips. Her dark sapphire necklace caressing soft, creamy skin.

A hungry ache coiled around Nick’s chest, squeezing him until he couldn’t breathe. “Okay. Enough.” He dropped back to the ground and retrieved his geology hammer from the rocky shelf he’d been working on since noon. He’d see Cindy soon enough. But only a third of the whale vertebra was exposed. If he was going to get it pedestaled before he left, he had to hurry. He grabbed a chisel and started chipping away at the mudstone that encased the fossilized bone. His students wouldn’t have time to finish the excavation before their expedition to Iraq, but he at least wanted to know what it was he’d found.

A soft cry drifted up from the valley. Nick stopped chiseling and turned back to stare into the setting sun. The clank of metal on metal. Nick held his breath, listening.

Maaaah, maaaah. The bleating of sheep.

Diving for his pack, Nick pulled a radio out of one of the side pockets.

“Okay, people, we’ve got sheep!” He threw open the bag and started stuffing it with gear as the static of answering calls filled the air.

“Nick, this is Andy. Annalise is down by the ridge with Ahamed. Waseem, where are you?”

“Karl here. Waseem’s with me. We’re at the ridge, but An-nalise isn’t here.”

“Annalise, where are you? We’ve got sheep coming through!”

Nick swung the pack onto his shoulder and ran sliding and skidding down the gravelly slope. When he got to the bottom, he held the radio to his mouth. “Everybody, this is Nick. Get to the camp right away. Karl, tell Waseem I need him to find An-nalise now!”

Leaping a clump of polygonaceae shrubs, Nick took off running toward a point just to the right of the ridge excavation. If Annalise had gone off on her own to do some prospecting, she’d probably work her way west along the hills. That’s what he’d do.

A bell clanked—just beyond the rise. Nick, already panting for breath, pushed his burning legs to move faster. The bedouin tribes in the north were usually pretty friendly, but this close to the Afghanistan border all bets were off—especially after what happened to the GSP team in western Baluchistan.

A burst of static cut through the radio. “Nick, this is Andy. We’ve got Annalise. She and Ahamed were already on their way back to camp.”

Relief washed through Nick’s body, turning his legs to jelly. He slowed to a jog and turned back in the direction of the camp. “Okay, everybody. Stay inside! Have Waseem watch the trucks. . . . I’ll be right there.”

By the time Nick reached the campsite, only a half mile separated him from the advance guard of the camel-mounted bedouins. He risked another backward glance. Still too far to make out their features. Unless they had binoculars, they couldn’t be sure he was a Westerner. Lots of Pakistanis wore baseball caps.

He jogged into the circle of four tents and three vehicles that made up their camp. Karl and Andy were shuttling equipment from one of the transport trucks to the cook tent at the base of a rocky mound. Annalise was rolling up the win-dows of one of the jeeps.

“Michigan students out of sight now!” Nick leaned over, swept up a pack emblazoned with a big gold M, and tossed it into the cook tent. “Waseem, stay with the trucks. Ahamed, you’re with me. Make sure you keep your hands out of sight!”

Nick paced the length of the camp, inspecting all of their visible gear. Some pickaxes, a tripod and surveyor’s scope, a field laptop wrapped in a sheet of plastic . . . There was a lot of expensive -equipment, but nothing to indicate the presence of Westerners. Theft was the least of his concerns. Bedouins weren’t generally thieves—even the poorest of them. But with all the anti-American sentiment these days, he couldn’t afford to have their whereabouts leak out. Even if they weren’t harboring terrorists, bedouins liked to talk. And no news traveled like the news of American scientists prospecting alone and unprotected out in the middle of the Baluchistan desert.

The echo of Pakistani voices carried across the thin desert air. The clomp of heavy hooves. Nick hurried over to his tent and crawled past Ahamed, who was already sitting in the entrance, his right arm extended awkwardly back inside the tent like he was holding a concealed weapon.

“Okay . . . everybody quiet.” Nick hissed in a whisper loud enough to carry to all the tents. “I hear one word of English and I’m shipping you back to the States.”

“Jee haan maan.” Urdu for Yes, Mommy. . . . Nick couldn’t tell whether it was Andy or Karl. A feminine giggle broke the silence off to the right.

“I’m serious.” Nick put a hand to his mouth even though none of his students were there to see his smile. “We’ll pack this camp up and leave that Basilosaurus behind.”

A voice jabbered off to the left. The bedouins were almost even with the camp. Keeping well back from the tent opening, Nick angled forward until he had a clear view of the pass. It was getting darker. The shadow of the tents already stretched most of the way across the camp. If those bedouins didn’t hurry up . . .

A pang stabbed through him like a knife. Surely the bed-ouins wouldn’t set up camp so close to their campsite? He had to drive to Quetta in the morning. He needed time to shower and shave and get a haircut. Cindy would be there by noon. If he was going to have any time at all to clean the apartment, he had to leave by 5 a.m. Why hadn’t he gone with his instincts and cleaned up before he left?

Come on. Hurry up. Nick’s eyes strained into the shadows, willing the bedouins to appear. Maybe they’d already stopped for the night. At least that way the road would be clear for him. As long as they didn’t see him leave . . .

Beautiful. Two camel riders plodded into view—not more than a hundred feet from where Nick sat crouched in the shad-ows of his tent. The bedouins stared back silently at the camp, long rifles still holstered against the sides of their complaining mounts. Go on. Keep on going. . . . Nick repeated the words like a prayer as one rider after another passed, guiding a stream of dust-colored sheep.

One of the riders, a tall, lanky, dark-skinned man in a cloak of dusty brown, pulled his mount over to the side and stood facing the tents. He waved with his left hand, keeping his right hand within easy reach of his rifle. Nick crept around the back of the tent until he could see Waseem wave from one of the trucks. Waseem’s movements seemed wooden, like he was nervous . . . hiding something. Of all the stupid mistakes . . . He should have put Ahamed in the trucks.

He moved back to the right. The bedouin was just sitting there, staring at the camp. Nick shrank even farther into the tent. Of course the guy was staring. They should have been cooking, preparing for the approaching night.

A musical ring tone shattered the silence. Ahamed jumped like he’d been shot. Nick searched frantically about the tent, his eyes finally settling on his nylon pack. Crawling over to the bag, he ripped open the outer compartment and pulled out his satel-lite phone. Just as he was about to hit the Off switch, he no-ticed the name glowing on the display. It was Cindy. . . .

The phone rang again.

Had there been another travel advisory? Had they can-celed the flight? Please, no . . . She wasn’t chickening out again. Not now!

He stabbed at the green button and pressed the phone to his ear, turning away from the entrance. “Hello?” he whispered into his cupped hand.

“Hello, Nick? Are you there? I can’t hear you.” Cindy sounded frantic. Something was wrong. He had to talk to her.

“Hey, Cindy. I really can’t talk now. Can you call back in a few minutes?” Nick raised his voice to a hoarse whisper.

“Nick, is that you? I can barely hear you.”

“I hear you fine. What’s wrong?” His voice sounded like a shout in his ears.

“Must be a bad connection. Anyway, I . . .” Cindy was about to panic. He could hear it in her voice. “The Middle East is all over the news. New fighting in Iraq. Pakistanis protesting the president’s visit. I . . . It just doesn’t seem like a good time.”

“No . . . it’s fine. There’s nothing to worry about.” Nick knew he was talking too loud, but he had no choice. He couldn’t let her back out now. Not after all his plans . . .

“You’re sure? They showed a huge crowd on the news. They were yelling and burning American flags.”

“That’s just for the cameras. Just get on the plane. You’ll be safe. I promise. Okay? Just get on the plane. I’ve got every-thing planned. I even have a surprise.”

“A surprise?” Nick could hear the life coming back into her voice. “What kind of surprise?”

“Just get on the plane, okay? You’ll see when you get here.”

“You’re sure it’s safe?”

“I’m positive. I love you, okay?”

“Nick, I . . .”

“I’ve got to go now. Bye.” Nick switched off the phone and turned back to the opening of the tent. The bedouin was still watching their camp, his face lit by the faintest hint of a smile.

Ahamed turned and looked back at Nick, shaking his head and rolling his eyes. “I love you too . . . honey.”

Wednesday, June 04, 2008

More Landmarks...

Who would have thought ironing could be so poignant and memorable? Last Friday I pressed my daughter's graduation gown. Then I noticed one of the family albums poking out of the shelf. Turned out to be the album my mother made for me with pictures from babyhood to my embarkation to college. (Funny how that happened.) Of course, I had to look. Then my girls wanted to have a glance too. Ah the memories we explored that day. (And amazing how little graduation robes have changed!)

As you can see from her graduation picture, my Rachel is expressive! She's an artist to the core and in the fall will pursue a degree in illustration. So much talent. Her ceremony brought me to tears to hear her goal stated in front of everyone. "To one day have a painting in a museum." Yes, she's truly an artist. We won't tell her how most artists got there. LOL!

Next week, my Leslie will graduate middle school and make the journey to high school. I can't wait to see what these years bring her. She's already so passionate about her future. And so gifted!

God has truly blessed me as a mother. Times like these make the trials and the pains of the past years easy to forget. Let's just say God is very faithful. These two smiling faces are my proof.

Tuesday, June 03, 2008

The Choice

520021_chained“I feel like a failure.”

“I can’t seem to do anything right.”

“Why can’t I overcome this?”

“How can God still love me when I keep screwing up?”

Do any of these statements sound familiar to you?

Click here to read the rest...

Sunday, June 01, 2008

And The Winning Name Is...

Wow! Over 50 comments poured in to name this cute little dude. And after much (And I mean much—that's why I wanted a whole month!) deliberation, we now have a name.

Drum roll please...

Smudge the Paradox!

Special thanks to our winner Gina Conroy for her awesome suggestion of "Smudge." Too cute! And so fitting. Smudge says "meeeeeeoooooooooow."

Special thanks to Scott Neth for suggesting "Paradox," because, well, kittens coming from eggs is really a paradox. I liked this concept so much I decided to give Smudgy a title. (See? Nicknames already!)

Gina and Scott, be sure to EMAIL ME and send your mailing information. I have prizes ready for you!

And thank you to everyone who participated in my quirky contest. Keep your eyes open as Smudge makes more appearances in book reviews, contests, and just to say a purrrrrry hello.