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For The Strength of Youth

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Submitted by kerry blair on 23 May 2007 - 1:22pm.

Chapter 1

He formed many different words, but there was one word he never could manage to form, although he wished it very much. It was the word ETERNITY.
(The Snow Queen, Story the Seventh: The Palace of the Snow Queen & What Happened There At Last, 1845)

“’Pay careful heed to the beginning of this story,’” Libby James read aloud, “’for when we get to the end of it we shall know more than we do now about love and greed and the ice that can freeze in our hearts.’”

She read The Snow Queen, but Libby’s voice was like sunshine and held a promise of romance and mystery that most of the children in this shabby school library would discover only in the pages of the books she brought to life. The kids seated cross-legged on the worn, wooden floor were sixth graders, and though most of them considered themselves too old for fairy tales, they leaned forward eagerly, basking in the warmth of Libby’s smile and entranced by the luster in her wide, pewter eyes.

But nobody in the room paid closer attention than their teacher, David Rogers, because nobody had more interest in how a story about greed would turn out. He was a newcomer to this small, conservative town, and though he claimed to have come to teach, he had actually been sent to learn—learn, that is, what the beautiful bibliophile “Libby James” was up to.

David crossed his arms and leaned one broad shoulder against a bookcase as his gaze slid from the librarian’s sleek, honey-colored ponytail down her shapely tanned legs to her sandal-clad feet. Her dress showed taste and style and subtle curves. Her toenails were unpainted, he noted, as were her fingernails and lips. Not that she needed make-up. The glow that the Arizona sun had lent her delicate features was more complimentary than any cosmetic.

Though in person she scarcely resembled the stylish woman in the photographs, David knew that she was the suspect from his electronic case files. This Libby James was really Elisabeth Jamison, one of the richest, most powerful women in corporate America. Moreover, she was suspected of selling complex missile designs to terrorists.

“The story begins with a wicked hobgoblin,” Libby told the children in a hushed, mysterious voice. “He was the worst. And he only came out from hiding when he wanted to cause mischief.”

Which was, ironically, the opposite of what she’d done, David thought. The “mischief” at Jamison Enterprises—in the form of yet another sale of classified technology-laden microchips to Iran—had coincided too perfectly with Libby’s anonymous arrival in Amen, Arizona to be much of a coincidence. No matter how she told that story, he thought as he continued to admire the storyteller, the theme was treason.

“The antagonist in the story is the Snow Queen.” Libby cast David a look cold enough to remove his eyes from her bare legs, at least for the moment. “Though she was made of ice, she was fair and beautiful and her eyes sparkled like bright stars.”

She had that part right. Try as he might, it took more self-control than David could muster not to stare. And maybe lust. She was a gorgeous traitor to her country; he’d have to grant her that.

But Captain Rogers didn’t like traitors. It was that prejudice that had initiated his covert move from NASA to the CIA and landed him here in yet another episode of “Mission: Improbable.” He might be onboard a space shuttle right now if not for what he’d seen—and overheard—on the space station. His over-developed sense of honor had taken him from the pilot’s chair on the Endeavor to the Internal Affairs Center at NASA and from there to a Central Intelligence Agency office in Washington. Sworn in at the CIA, David had gone back to NASA undercover to help crack a potentially disastrous conspiracy.

David hadn’t known what to expect after his former shuttle commander was arrested along with two foreign spies. Maybe a congressional medal, citation of valor, or some other hardware to pin to his uniform? He’d hoped it would cause his grandfather, the four-star admiral, to finally take notice—as his graduation near the top of his class at Annapolis and assignment to the space program had not. David never found out because all he’d been given was another undercover assignment—this time to a godforsaken place near the suburbs of obscurity.

He looked over his ragtag class and tried not to grimace. Sure, he’d taken an oath to protect and serve the United States of America—and he’d meant it—but who’d have guessed he’d be asked to do it this way? Babysitting a gang of hick pre-adolescents while spying on a turncoat with the legs of a goddess and the face of a saint? It was downright funny when he thought about it.

“One day, when he was in a merry mood,” Libby read, “the hobgoblin made a looking-glass which had the power of making everything beautiful that was reflected in it look hideous. The loveliest landscapes looked like boiled spinach, and people?—well, even one freckle on the nose appeared to spread over the whole of the face.”

The children giggled at the face Libby made. David almost grinned himself.

“This is what?” a man’s voice asked quietly from behind him. “A hob—? Hob-gob-lin? You might tell me, please?”

“Omar,” David said without looking.

Who else? David had been in town for only a day and a half and already he knew that Amen was not what it seemed. Sure, it looked like a little town dying in the desert foothills outside of Phoenix, but it was actually more like a thriving desert island inside the Bermuda Triangle. There must be some cosmic undercurrent of weirdness to account for all the misfits who’d washed up here—like this new Egyptian PE coach, for instance. An astrophysicist by education and training, Omar had married the local vet and settled in Amen where his considerable intellect was put to use organizing games of kick ball on a dirt playground.

David turned. “A hobgoblin is a, a . . .” What the heck is a hobgoblin, anyway? Fairy tales hadn’t been part of his curriculum in military school.

It didn’t matter that David didn’t know. Omar had turned away to listen intently to Libby’s story. And no wonder. The century-old words rolled easily from her tongue and her expressive face told more than the words. She was a natural storyteller. No wonder she was so good at covering her tracks.

“As the clock in the church tower struck twelve,” she read, “the boy Kay said, ‘Oh! Something has struck my eye!’ Sweet Gerda put her arm around his neck, and looked into his eyes, but she could see nothing. ‘I think it is gone,’ she said. But she was wrong. It was not gone.”

Libby’s face clouded as she continued, “’It was one of those bits of the evil looking-glass. Poor little Kay had received a small grain in his eye, and another in his heart, which very quickly turned to a lump of ice. He felt no more pain, but the glass was there still.’” She closed the book and smiled when the children groaned in disappointment. “It’s almost three o’clock,” she said, looking up at the clock. “Time to go home.”

“But what happens next?” asked a redheaded girl.

“Kay is bewitched by the wicked Snow Queen,” Libby replied. “We’ll read that chapter when you come back to the library on Wednesday.”

The girl’s pigtails swung out from her head as she turned toward David. “Can’t you read it to us in class tomorrow?”

Other kids joined in with pleas of their own.

David knew a good thing when he saw it. No way could he compete with Scheherazade up there, but he could read, and he’d had a heck of a time today filling all those hours he was supposed to be teaching. He’d killed most of the time telling stories about NASA, but he hadn’t told them well. David knew he was an ace pilot, and he hoped to be a passable secret agent, but he was a lousy teacher. Talking to eleven-year-olds unnerved him. The girl’s suggestion was a godsend. “Sure, I’ll read the story,” he told the class. “If the librarian will loan me her book.”

Libby’s fingers tightened around the dog-eared pages. At last she said, “You may check it out, I suppose.”

Right, David thought as she rose to place the book on her desk for processing. You worry about me stealing fairy tales and I’ll worry about you stealing government secrets. Still, he couldn’t help but admire the way Libby formed his class into an orderly line at the door. A line was a novel concept; he’d taken them to the library in a mob. When the dismissal bell sounded, the children scattered to the seven winds.

David watched them go from the open doorway and let out an involuntary sigh of relief. Anybody who thought that NASA’s hyperbaric chamber was the worst place one could spend a day had never been in charge of a sixth-grade classroom. He glanced at his watch and when he looked up he realized that the seven winds hadn’t carried the children off after all. Instead, they’d been blown back toward the library with all their little brothers and sisters.

“He is an astronaut!” a pock-faced boy at the front of the pack declared.

Jared, David thought. Unless he’s Calvin and the one tugging on my sleeve is Jared.

Calvin’s sister regarded David skeptically. “He don’t look like no astronaut to me.”

“He is!” the boy insisted. He peered around David into the library for an unimpeachable witness. “Tell them, Miss James! Captain Rogers is too an astronaut, ain’t he?”

“Isn’t he,” Libby corrected automatically. The look she cast David before turning back to her desk was no less measuring than the little girl’s. “Well, he says he is.”

David almost started in surprise. But no way was Elisabeth Jamison on to him. Even if she’d had him checked out this morning, and there was no intelligence from headquarters to indicate that she had, at least not yet, his cover was flawless. Besides, he was an astronaut for crying out loud; he had the scars to prove it.

“I’ve flown the Atlantis and the Endeavor,” he told the crowd of children. “Orbited the earth. Walked in space. The whole nine yards.”

“He showed us pictures!” the boy exclaimed. “Let’s go show ‘em your pictures, Captain Rogers!”

“I have a teachers’ meeting now. . . Jared,” David said.

“I’m Calvin.”

“Right.” David said. “I knew that.”

If Calvin had pictures to back him up, the children were willing to believe. The little sister tugged on David’s pant leg. “Can I ask you a question about outer space?”

David looked down into the dirty, eager face and smiled. “Sure you can. What do you want to know?”

“Where do you go to the bathroom?”

The group giggled. Behind his back, he heard Libby repeat the question for Omar. “We, er, well, the . . . facilities . . . are like a vacuum cleaner kind of thing and you take the hose and—” The laughter increased in volume and David regretted the graphic nature of his explanation. He was glad to see principal Max Wheeler, a shaggy gray bear of a man, ambling toward the library for the faculty meeting. As one, the children stepped back to let him pass.

“This the organizational meeting of the Buck Rogers fan club, Captain?” David tried to force a smile. He’d been hearing that joke at least once a week since he began training for a pilot’s license at the age of twelve. He was thirty-two now, so he’d heard it—what—eleven hundred times? Twelve hundred? But, hey, something that clever never gets old.

“I’ll show you the pictures tomorrow,” he promised the ragtag group as he turned to follow Max back into the library.

“Your book,” Libby said when he paused at her desk. The way she extended the volume of fairy tales seemed designed to push him away.

David didn’t budge. Instead he flashed his killer grin—the one reserved for NASA Public Affairs photographers and female senators on the Space Committee. He knew most women found him attractive, and he wasn’t above using his good looks to his advantage. In this case, it wasn’t a bad thing that saving the Free World might call for a little seduction, especially when the seducee was as lovely as Libby James. He leaned confidently across her desk. “What I’d really like to check out here is the librarian.”

The look she gave him suggested there was more space between his ears than he’d see in a lifetime at NASA.

Okay, so it wasn’t a great come-on. He turned the charm up another notch. “What I mean is, can I take you to dinner tonight?”

“No.”

The suggestion, he realized at once, had been worse than the come-on. There was only one diner in town—The Garden of Eatin’—and it had taken David less than two minutes to determine that what its cook lacked in olfactory senses she made up for in poor hygiene. Of course Libby wouldn’t want to eat there. Nobody would want to eat there. “Can I take you to a movie this weekend?”

“No.”

“So you’ve seen it.” There was only one theater in town, too, and it was showing something from the previous decade. With his charm already on “high,” and his ego on the line, David wondered what would be appealing to a woman like Elisabeth Jamison. Then he remembered where they were: Amen, Arizona where the brightest light of the big city was the 60-watt street light in front of town hall. No ballet. No symphony. No museum. Heck, there wasn’t even a bowling alley. What did the people there do?

“Can I walk you to church?” he asked finally. There was one of those—a Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints—anchoring Main Street. (When Brigham Young rose in General Conference more than a century before to call pioneers to settle this rugged spot of Zion, only the hardy—or more likely the foolhardy—said “Amen,” but they had settled. Today, many of their descendents eked out a meager living on farms and ranches and in the remnants of the mines. David could only wonder how they’d missed hearing that the century had changed a couple of times, and that civilization had advanced well beyond their quaint Little Houses on the Prairie.

“No,” Libby said to his offer of a Sunday escort.

So much for today’s exercise in seduction. “Okay, then.” He tucked the book under his arm. “I’ll see you around school.” He retreated before she could say “no” to that too.

As the other six teachers filed in for the meeting, David pulled out a chair next to the PE coach, dropped the book of fairy tales on the table and frowned at its cover. “You want to know who the real Snow Queen is?” he asked Omar under his breath. “It’s Libby James over there.”

Words spoken in haste are often lamented in leisure. That was the lesson Captain David

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