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Excerpt from: Bookmarked for Murder

Prologue

Eddie waited in a crouch, his sweaty hands clutching the M16. Clouds alternately hid and revealed a new moon, softening edges of scrub oak and barbed wire on the obstacle course. His heart galloped, his throat felt as parched as the surrounding weeds looked.

Monday night. His folks thought he was studying at Joey's house. Eddie was learning, all right, how to stay alive if he ever had to defend Oklahoma and the U.S.A.

If Gib knew how scared he was about this first live-ammo exercise, Eddie would never hear the end of it. Gib loved everything about modern warfare, from its futuristic night-vision glasses and remote-control gun emplacement to its eons-old human responses of blood, sweat and fear.

Fortunately, Gib wasn't here to observe Eddie's fright. He had gone off somewhere with the Major and a sergeant tonight.

"Ro-o-o-o-l out!" The command finally came.

Two fifty-caliber machine guns, set forty-two inches high, chattered out of the darkness ahead. Eddie worked his way forward, staying low to avoid the tracer bullets. Rocks and briars tore his hands and clothing. His rifle caught on a stabbing branch, and he paused to work it loose.

After what seemed ten miles, he arrived at the machine-gun nest, first of his squad. Tired but proud, he flung himself down against a tree, his mind wandering to his favorite daydream.

A mortar directly ahead had the unit trapped. Armed only with a knife, Eddie crawled from the ravine and around behind the enemy. As a shell dropped to the casing bottom, he stepped up and deftly slit one man's throat, then the other's. Afterwards, a properly modest Eddie was basking in his buddies' grateful praise when … a movement against his leg startled him. Still half in the fantasy, he froze. He was about to be attacked as he had surprised his enemies just now, and he would die.

The snake, finding a human in its path, changed course and crawled away into the brush.

Slowly, Eddie inhaled. He felt sick, struck by a sudden realization. He now knew twenty ways to kill or disable another guy, maybe one like himself, doing a job in spite of fear. What he was involved in was serious. Deadly serious.

Chapter One

Before the events of that spring, Juanita Wills would have claimed one advantage of her job was the unlikelihood of ever being a murder target. On a professionals-getting-hit-most-often list, she would have ranked librarians below cable installers and pizza delivery guys, slightly above cloistered nuns. Later she would admit, to herself only, that what happened was partly her fault, the result of what her fellow, Police Lieutenant Wayne Cleary, called her super-snoop mentality. But the main cause was someone else's hate.

One chilly evening in March, Juanita strolled home from Wyndham Public Library after working late on a report. Street lights illumined fronts of modest bungalows, while housebacks disappeared into night. Darkened windows indicated their residents were already abed. A truck rumbled by on Center Avenue one block over. A breeze carried the scent of long-dry leaves.

Ahead, Wyndham United Methodist Church stood out like a scene on a sympathy card, its white-frame facade and low spire luminous in a street lamp's glow. Juanita whistled contentedly under her breath. What could be more peaceful than a church in a small Oklahoma town on a Monday night?

"No! Don't--!"

Gulping back a note, she paused mid-stride. The yell had come from the direction of the church. Now she heard scuffling noises. A crash. A muffled cry. A thud. Two soft clunks.

"What in the wide world--"

Silence, for a moment. Then running footsteps inside the building. Juanita saw the church door stood ajar, a javelin of light marking the edge.

The entry flew wide. Three men burst through. They paused just outside, lit between vestibule light and street lamp. Juanita's breath caught in her throat. All wore dark clothing, all had their faces covered.

One started her direction, then, noticing her, paused uncertainly.

"GET HER." Another strode purposefully toward Juanita.

Her heart trip-hammered. Her feet wouldn't move.

"No! Run!" The third man raced after the second, yanked on his sweater and pulled him to a stop.

The second man's fist curled mere inches from Juanita's chin. She stared into shadowy sockets in his ghostly stump of a head.

"Don't wimp out now," he growled.

"I said run!" The third man again.

To Juanita's astonishment, her would-be attacker obeyed. He turned away, following the others around the corner of the church into an unlit brushy area. Tinder-dry foliage rustled. Twigs snapped. A voice cursed an ensnaring vine.

Quiet descended.

Juanita's heart rate slowed. She felt like a tornado survivor, dazed but vastly relieved.

She should call the police, but where from? The parsonage next door looked dark like the surrounding houses, and her own home was still four blocks away.

The church entrance yawned invitingly.

She hesitated. What had the trio been up to? Not burglary. At least they hadn't been carrying anything. Besides, this modest house of prayer must offer little to steal.

Wayne would tell her to leave and phone for help. What she considered lively curiosity, he called nosiness.

"And with your general laxness about safety, babe," he had told her once, "that could get you killed some day."

A low moan came from the direction of the sanctuary. A fourth intruder inside, wounded? Or someone else? Whoever it was sounded in pain.

She should go call for help, leave any heroics to professionals.

Another groan, barely audible this time.

Then she remembered a weapon forgotten in the sudden confrontation. Since getting mugged last year in New Orleans, she had carried mace.

"Now I think of it." Adrenaline surging, she took the can from her shoulder bag and entered the church. Hurrying through an orderly foyer, she stopped to listen at the open sanctuary door. The sounds of distress had come from this area, but all she heard now was her own rapid breathing.

She edged into the big room. Down front in the podium area, some radiance at floor level illumined an odd tumble of objects. That looked wrong.

Mace at the ready, she groped along the door facing for a light panel. Finding none, she tried the other side with no more success. Then she recalled hearing that when the church had been built years ago, its first pastor had had most electrical switches installed in the office to control utilities usage.

Suppressing her irritation, she crept down the sloping aisle, her nostrils registering some odor alien to the church smells of old hymnals, candle wax and furniture polish.

As she neared the front pew, her eyes swept a chaotic scene. A table lolled on one side. Headrest down across it, legs raking the air, lay a high-backed chair. Toppled candelabra snuggled between the lectern and--a man.