Chapter 1


Mike talked excitedly about tomorrow’s run, the “prizes,” easy pickins from a small town upriver. Big Phil hushed him, saying the boss needed to see him right away, and Mike stopped talking like he had plowed into a concrete wall. Both men knew that Big Phil, a seasoned captain, answered to Ajax for everything. Mike had never sat across from Ajax.

The boss arrived and left only during the night hours. Minutes ago, inside his tent, without a candle or a lantern, with only the distant light from another slaver’s campfire, Big Phil couldn’t tell where Ajax’s body ended and the darkness began. His eyes played tricks. He saw things in the tent he didn’t like and ignored them, concentrating on Ajax’s voice, which was soothing and gentle. When the flap of the tent opened and a guard came in, he thought he saw a hatchet on the table.

Editor’s Note: Click here to read the first chapter of Pulse of the Goddess, book 1 in the series. And click here to purchase Slaves Beneath the Stars on Amazon.

Big Phil joked that maybe Mike was getting a promotion. When Mike started to spit out his defense about never touching the kid, Big Phil simply put out his hand and Mike handed him the rope that was tied to a leather belt around the teen’s waist.

Rising, Mike stumbled and then stared at the teen. The fire’s light showed a desperate man wanting to change places with the shivering teenager destined for slavery. Big Phil looked at the youth, too, thinking he would never do this to his own kids even though they hated him and had gone to live with their mom as soon as Phil and his wife were separated.

Mike aimed for the tent and disappeared inside.

The first scream sounded like a movie scream, scary but rehearsed. Big Phil knew that Hollywood hired people to scream and laugh. Maybe Mike was so rattled that when Ajax pointed at the chair, he imagined he saw a claw instead of a hand. There were those rumors, along with disfigurement.

The next scream was different. He had heard this scream when men were set upon by dogs and they made a futile attempt to fight and shield their balls and face. To be bit and eaten was a bad way to go. But there were no dogs in the tent. Ajax wasn’t fond of them.

The tied kid shook violently and Big Phil tugged on the rope, signaling the boy to settle down, that he was safe. Phil had been practicing his nonverbal commands for months and liked that he could control his catch without cursing or beatings. The most he ever had to do was administer a slap across the face. As a crane operator and foreman in his old life, before the world went dark, he had gotten a lot communicated with just a look. Positive transfer of skills came to mind, and he smiled.

The screams rose to autopilot intensity, a condition that always bothered Big Phil the most. These screams were uncontrollable and somehow separate from the man and wouldn’t stop until death. Then a strange thing happened, at least that’s what Big Phil thought. Timed with a long screech, Mike’s body hit the side of the tent before it ricocheted off the opposite wall a fraction of a second later, cartoon-like. It happened so fast that Mike could not have run, and Ajax could not have flung the man around so easily.

Then Phil understood and breathed a sigh of relief. Large pieces of Mike were being tossed about the tent.


Chapter 2



Cricket motioned with her hand for the group to halt. Ethan, Lily, and Lee Ann froze and scanned the trees the way Cricket had taught them, shifting their gaze to maintain depth perception and peripheral vision. Lee Ann bobbed her head like a bird, getting a smirk from her older sister and a quiet laugh from Cricket.

Cricket raised her hand and pointed to a figure in the next clearing, backlit by the morning sun, a scarecrow “on fire.” Was it walking toward them? Ethan fired his .22 Winchester, and the girls gasped in unison.

“What are you shooting at?” Cricket scolded the fourteen-year-old. “That bullet can travel over a mile. You could’ve killed an innocent person.”

“I thought we were in danger.”

Cricket silently agreed with Ethan. Danger was everywhere; they lived in a new age of criminal gangs attacking those with food, guns, and shelter.

“Ethan, you still have to think. Keep your head on straight”—a favorite expression of her father’s, which she had more than once abandoned since the collapse of civilization. “C’mon, kids, take a few steps forward, figure out what you’re looking at. Avoid tunnel vision when you’re startled by something new in the surroundings.”

The children did as instructed. Lee Ann, eleven, started to discuss the creature and was shushed by her older sister. Cricket had rescued the two young girls in late summer from savages who had slaughtered their parents.

“It’s not a real man,” Lee Ann said, not interested in keeping her mouth shut.

“I know that,” Lily replied, snooty-like, her two extra years giving her a lifetime more experience.

“Did you come out here and make a target for us?” Ethan asked.

“You have me working waytoo hard in your imagination.” Cricket rested the rifle barrel on her shoulder. “Anyone want to take a guess?”

“The more I look, the scarier it gets.” Lily took a step backward, and Ethan kept still.

Lee Ann said, “Grandpa Holaday would know what this thing is. He knows everything about these woods.”

Cricket agreed. Hank Holaday had been a blessing for everyone. He was a man who could soothe a child with a smile and a story. And adults fared well in his company, too.

Cricket watched the scarecrow dance, and it seemed that the blowing arms and legs conveyed anger, treachery. Closer, she noticed that the head was made of several branches bent and tied into an oval and stuffed with twigs and leaves. Another step and the lowered head lifted and faced her with empty sockets.

For a moment, they all stood still and watched the flaming figure, its translucent “flesh” illuminated by the sun. The tree’s dead branches had been pruned, its eastern side scooped out to allow room for the blowing plastic scarecrow. The figure appeared to be lunging from the mouth of a cave.

When Lee Ann stepped forward, Ethan stopped her with his arm.

“We got to watch out. Scarecrows are really cool, but sometimes they decide to climb down from their stake and go hunting,” the boy said seriously, and Cricket frowned at his attempt to scare the girls.

“We’re all being silly.” Lily’s voice shook. “It’s just a bunch of plastic stuck to a tree.”

“Why did you say that?” Lee Ann faced her sister, hands on her hips, adopting Ethan’s vocabulary. “I was seeing all kinds of really cool stuff.”

Both Ethan and Lee Ann ran to the figure: a dead, medium-size tree with plastic hooked and stretched along the trunk and branches, forming a man. Though the spell was broken, Cricket disliked the hunched figure, its long arms. The children circled the scarecrow, eyeing it with caution.

“It’s weird,” Ethan said. “Why would somebody do this?”

Cricket looked over the luminous man with its plastic flapping like a cape. It reminded her of those inflatable men waving outside used-car lots.

“I don’t like it.” Lee Ann walked right up to the dancing man and stared at his featureless head, fastened with a thin rope.

“I don’t either.” Cricket pulled off plastic from an arm and let the wind carry it off.

Lee Ann followed, ripping off a section of its right leg. Ethan jumped for a long piece near the chest and missed.

“Save me a leg,” Lily called out, her tone implying it was all silly but she’d join in just the same.

The new game was fun until a shotgun blast had Cricket yelling for them to hit the ground. She spun around, rifle raised, and saw only Ethan standing.

A second blast and Cricket watched an old man emerge from the woods, yelling something, shotgun lowered. Cricket kept her rifle on him.

“Stop right there,” she yelled, and the old man waved her off.

“This is my property,” he scolded. “Including my man stuck in the trees to scare away the deer. I’ve got an apple orchard close by. The deer follow a well-worn path right through this clearing to my fruit trees. What the hell is wrong with you people?”

“You didn’t have to shoot at us.” Cricket kept the rifle pointed at the old guy, who kept his shotgun cradled in his right arm, pointed down.

The man said, “Warning shots. Besides, lady, you shot at me first. Knocked an apple right out of the tree I was standing under.”

The girls looked at Ethan in awe.

Cricket finally lowered her rifle.

“We’re with Hank Holaday.”

“Yeah, that’s my neighbor. Good people.”

“What’s your name?” Cricket asked.

“Ed Cline. My farm’s three miles north of the Holaday’s. And you?”

“Emily Cricket Hastings,” she said, before introducing the children.

“She goes by Cricket,” Ethan volunteered.

“Thank goodness,” Ed replied. “Thought I’d have to address her by all three names. That’d be a real mouthful.” He took a moment to look over all six feet of her: the single braid touching the middle of her back, large brown eyes, athletic from top to bottom and not a curve missing.

“I want to be tall like Cricket someday, and run five miles without breathing hard, and still look beautiful,” Lily said.

“How about you? You must like something about her,” he gruffly asked Ethan, who responded with a goofy smile.

“Cricket is serious, but she’s a lot of fun, and she really cares about us,” Lee Ann volunteered.

Ed Cline stared at the ground, nodding his head, rummaging around for his next thought. “Your reputation is being shouted all over the Hilltop, Miss Cricket.” He cleared his throat. “The folks below us in Marietta are starting to hear your name, too, and the stories. A bit different from what your admirers hereare saying.” He perked up, eyeing her. “I’m surprised you didn’t shoot me.”

Cricket swung the rifle onto her shoulder. “I figured it was warning shots. Well, eighty percent sure. You want us to put your dancing scarecrow back together?”

“Nope, season’s just about over. I should take it apart myself. Don’t want to announce to the scoundrels headed this way that a farm is nearby. My family and I are well-hidden and want to keep it that way.”

“Mr. Cline, would you like to come by tonight for our Halloween celebration?” Lee Ann asked.

“Too busy for any celebrating right now, young lady. But thanks for the offer.”

Cricket interrupted Lee Ann’s next question. “You mentioned scoundrels?” The children’s eyes were on the old farmer.

“Prisoners coming upriver.”

She looked at the three kids and her heart broke. They stood tense and thoughtful, understanding what it meant to be brave. Every day they saw and heard things children should never have to bear. The man noticed it too and gave the kids a soldierly nod before continuing. “They kept ’em under lock and key with generators since the lights went out. But fuel shortages, sabotage, who knows? They’re on the loose.”

“We need to ban together,” Cricket said matter-of-factly, “and live on one farm.”

Lee Ann politely raised her hand. “My sister and I have learned a lot on the farm. We could help each other if we lived in one place. Honey bees especially need lots of attention.”

The adults smiled at Lee Ann, but the man lost the smile first, prompting Lee Ann’s next pitch. “This coming summer I’m going to read the Declaration of Independence at a big picnic we’re going to have on the Fourth of July. We should all get together and make plans for it. Cricket keeps a copy of the Constitution in her back pocket. She reads to us—”

Lily grabbed her sister’s hand and shushed her once again. Ethan beamed at Lee Ann’s perseverance.

“Young lady, it’s October,” Cline replied impatiently, winking at Lee Ann. “We’ve got time to figure out picnic food for Independence Day.” He turned his attention back to Cricket. “All of us living together? It’d never work. Across the Hilltop we’re starting to patrol together. That’s good enough. You keep protecting yourselves and these children here, and we’ll protect ourselves. Got thirty family members. Some you probably met on patrol.”

Before Cricket could reply, Ed Cline abruptly turned without another word, now talking to the trees and sky as he headed north through the woods.


Cricket stared at the blue flame hollowing out a half-eaten log. Dreamy, her breathing changed toward sleep.

The tall bonfire tanned her new friends and husband Fritz in a reddish light, all seated in Adirondack chairs made by Hank long before his retirement. Everyone had been talking, the boys asking questions, when Ethan rose and pointed at the woods, a stone’s throw away. Diesel, Cricket’s black Lab, turned his snout in the same direction and growled.

Cricket and Fritz jumped from their chairs, moved away from the fire, and drew their guns. Stepping out from the moonlit trees were three people in costume: Scream, Frankenstein, and Jason of hockey-mask fame. They all carried sacks that bulged, and Fritz yelled for them to identify themselves.

Hank Holaday raised his 12-gauge shotgun. Cricket glanced back at the barn and saw that Sister Marie had drawn her weapon and was imploring Lee Ann and Lily to step farther inside, past the horse stalls, beyond the table of cookies and punch softly lit by orange battery-powered lanterns. The mechanics, Forrest and Oakley, both held pistols trained on the intruders, and the boys waited for instruction.

Hank took a few steps toward the trio. “I got ’em covered. Watch out for others rushing us.” Cricket swung 360 degrees, two hands on the Colt. Fritz backed up his grandfather.

“We’re not playing games!” Cricket shouted at the intruders, whose masks hid the real monsters beneath. Jason’s long, matted hair stuck out on the sides, and his neck was wet with blood. “Boys, stay put!” Ethan and Caleb moved closer to Cricket and her husband. Ethan drew his knife and held his brother’s hand.

One of the intruders grumbled, “Trick or treat” and turned his sack upside down, and out spilled the viscera of some butchered animal. Caleb hit the ground when three rapid shots came from the barn and the trick-or-treaters started to collapse, but not before attempting to draw their weapons. Sister Marie kept yelling, “The pasture!”

Off Cricket’s left, popping up from their bellies in the throes of a war cry, were six savages carrying machetes and guns. All dressed strangely, some wearing headdresses, and they shot their guns into the air like they were performing a raid of shock and awe to impress rather than kill. Cricket felt a moment of dreamlike paralysis before she and Fritz fired away, helped by the rifleman, who slayed two of them immediately. Hank fired the shotgun and one attacker fell, before a bullet collapsed Grandpa Holaday. One maniac, already shot multiple times, still charged screaming, swinging his machete overhead. Cricket took aim and creased his face with a .45 round.

Two Disney characters rolled over the ground in agony, and Cricket sprayed them with bullets. Goofy still tossed about as she snapped in a new magazine. Growing deaf from the mayhem, Cricket heard only gibberish, not the curses from the savage who still had the strength to flip her off. Several rounds reduced mask and flesh into a bloody paste.

Fritz went to his grandfather, and Cricket continued to sweep the area with Ethan at her side. Caleb cried, calling for his parents. At the entrance of the barn, Sister Marie stood shoulder to shoulder with the rifleman, Doctor James Claubauf.

Cricket saw that all the attackers were costumed, one dressed as a woman wearing a Donald Duck mask. “Ethan, get inside the barn with Caleb. Help Sister. Help the girls. Now!”

Ann, the boys’ mother, came running from the house yelling their names.

Ethan sheathed his knife and took Caleb’s hand, meeting their mom inside the main barn.

The bonfire still raged; the night air was still cool and sweet, but mixed with gunpowder and the smell of the dead. Weapon raised, Cricket moved closer to her wounded friend. He was bleeding from his side, and Fritz was applying direct pressure to the wound.

“Move your hands and feet,” Fritz commanded, and his grandfather did, smiling painfully. “We got to get you to the house, and we need blankets.”

Hank’s eyes watered at the attention. He went to say something, and Fritz told him to save it until later.

Ethan ran to Cricket’s side, and his mom screamed for him to come back.

“Wait at the barn,” Cricket said. “We go back to the house all together. Stay away from the attackers and stick close to your mom and brother. Keep your head on straight.” The boy did as told, and Cricket moved toward the woods and the dead trio. She heard the tractor start up.

She had witnessed rounds tear off faces and brutalize chests and necks and was pretty sure the attackers from the meadow were dead, but she needed to be completely sure. The first Halloween “guests” emerging from the woods had fallen quickly. Looking past the bonfire, did she see an arm move in the moonlight?


Reminder: Click here to read the first chapter of Pulse of the Goddess, book 1 in the series. And click here to purchase Slaves Beneath the Stars on Amazon.