Sunday, June 28, 2009

Love's Pursuit - Chapter 1

Love's Pursuit

Bethany House (June 1, 2009)


Chapter 1


"Do you never tire of being good, Susannah? Do you never think any rebellious thoughts?"

I turned my eyes from my sister and back to my work in the blueberry canes. "Aye. I do."

Mary gasped, though I detected laughter in the sound. "'Tis not possible."

"'Tis not only possible. 'Tis probable. Like this one I think right now, about you." I threw a blueberry in her direction.

She dodged it. "I shall report this harassment to the selectmen. At once!"

I looked up at her tone, for Mary was unpredictable and she might have done it just for spite. But her eyes were dancing despite her labors and the unseasonable heat. Warmth rose in my cheeks as well. But it was not the sun that scorched my flesh. It was my own conscience.

My sister's question had found a mark too close to the condition of my soul. To those in Stoneybrooke Towne, Susannah Phillips was indeed a fair and obedient girl. But I knew myself to be vastly different than the person they imagined me to be.

Aye, I did tire of being good. And I did think rebellious thoughts. Often. Especially on days like this one. I wanted nothing more than to abandon my task and plunge into the nearby brook. I longed for the luxury of one hour, one minute, that needed nothing done.

And more than anything, I wished John Prescotte would finally ask for my hand in marriage.

I was truly wretched. And I knew it. But the problem lay in my past. I had been such a meek, dutiful, obedient child that people had grown to expect nothing less from me. The weight of my unblemished past bore down upon my conscience unmercifully. What if today were the day when my secret thoughts became known? What if today were the day when the town found out how wicked I truly was?

Would that I were like Mary, who had been a hellion and constant thorn in my parents' flesh. Anything might be expected from her. And the least bit of goodness was cause for praise. I, however, was freely cited as an example of the godly woman every young girl wished to be. Except that sometimes, I did not want to be that woman at all.

If only I could tell one person what darkness lurked inside ... then at least I might be able to contain it. And who but Mary would better understand?

Grandfather.

My grandfather would have understood. I could tell him anything ... could have told him anything. For a minister he was uncommonly understanding. But we had left him behind when we moved from Boston.

A droplet of sweat slid beneath the collar of my shift, and then continued between my breasts on its journey to dampen the waistband of my skirt. I might have removed my hat, leaving only the linen coif covering my hairs to shelter me from the sun, but it would not have been modest. Yet perhaps I could admit to just one thing. "I would give anything to remove my hat for a moment."

Mary paused in her picking to look at me. "Anything? Even taking on the week's ironing? Twice in succession?"

I shrugged. I should never have admitted such a thing.

Quietly, softly, she began to hum a hymn.

My eyes lifted from the berry canes as I looked at my companions laboring. Like me, they were bent over blueberry canes, their felted hats marking their places. The clothes on all of our backs had been dyed sad colors, shades dark or dull made duller still by the constant toil required to wrest a township from the savageries of this new world.

Please, God, let no one hear! I reached out and grabbed hold of Mary's arm.

Touching the felted brim of her hat, her lips curled into a sly smile. And then she began to hum even louder.

Beside her, our brother, Nathaniel, paused in his task. "Mary? Why do you—"

Our sister hushed him and then poked him in the ribs with a finger. "Sing."

"But—"

"Do it."

He sighed as if it were beneath him, a great lad of ten years, to understand the thoughts of a sun-dazed girl. But then he emptied a fistful of berries into his pail, stood, and, taking off his hat in deference to the holy words of the hymn, he opened his mouth and began to sing.

Immediately, the berry patch sprouted heads, male and female, all of which were swiftly bared as the tune was taken up and the words were sung.

O Lord our God in all the earth
how's thy name wondrous great.
Who has thy glorious majesty
above the heavens set.
And it was wondrous to hear God praised under the canopy of His own sky in the midst of His own creation ... and more wondrous still to feel the breeze ruffle through the linen of my head's covering. Beside me, hat clasped in her hand, Mary had closed her eyes in an imitation of pious worship. For a brief moment, I forgot myself and did it as well. And I stored up the memory of the coolness to last me through the rest of the day.

As the last word of the hymn forsook us and withered away in the sun, the heads of our townspeople, hidden beneath hats once more, bent toward their work.

All but that of the minister.

He looked at Nathaniel for one long moment, then finally scratched his beard, shook his head, and returned his attentions to the berries.

Mary tossed a blueberry into my pail. "Fail not to tend to the ironing. This week and the next."

I could have pretended I had not heard her, but I had sinned enough for one day. Oh, what my rebellious thought had wrought! Had I not thought of picking berries uncovered, I would never have mentioned it to my sister. Had she never heard it, she would never have begun humming the hymn. Had she never begun, she would never have pulled Nathaniel into her schemes. My own foolish thought had enticed two others into sinning. Two weeks of ironing was not punishment enough.

A babe cried farther down the patch, and my eyes lifted toward the sound. I saw my friend Abigail plant her bottom on top of her pail and take her son up to her breast.

Abigail and I had been friends since before our move to Stoneybrooke, since Boston. A year older than I, she had been an example, in our youth, of everything I ever wished to be. First in womanhood, first in church membership, first in marriage. And now, in motherhood as well.

I had not talked with her in ... weeks. I had seen her, of course, on the Sabbath at meeting, but her attention was devoted to her babe, to her husband, and to her home. In fact, there seemed a dearth of maids in town. All of my friends were now married. Several of them were with child. The others with a babe in their arms.

I wanted nothing more than to join their ranks.

That I was not of their station was not a thing of my own choosing. I waited on John Prescotte, and he waited on the blessing of his father. But his father had been ill. And John, as the sole son, had to care for his family before he could turn his thoughts to me.

But perhaps next year at this time it would be me in Abigail's place. I hoped and prayed for it with all that was within me.

For certain the year after.

Soon I would be married. Soon I, too, would be called Goodwife.

Goody Prescotte.

Soon.

* * *

I bent to my task, plucking berries across the tangle of canes from the Phillips sisters. From Susannah and Mary, and their brother Nathaniel. They thought they were so clever, those two sisters, scheming to spend a few moments hatless in the broad of the day. I hope they enjoyed it. They would find out soon enough that stolen pleasures must eventually be paid for. But far be it from me to judge. Rejoice, O young man, in thy youth; and let thy heart cheer thee in the days of thy youth, and walk in the ways of thine heart, and in the sight of thine eyes: but know thou, that for all these things God will bring thee into judgment.

I tore my eyes from the spectacle of them and pulled my hat down tighter around my ears. So tight that I could no longer see them. So tight that I could not see my husband's approach.

"Small-hope."

I jumped as he said my name.

He took a deliberate step back as one might do from a half-tamed beast. "I wanted only to know if you needed water." He held out a dipper toward me.

"Aye." I took it from him and drank of it. And then I bent to take up my work once more. "Thank you."

I do not know if he heard me.

* * *

Mary sniffed. "She will bite his head off one day, and then what will she do?"

I looked over toward my sister. "Of whom do you speak?"

"Goody Smyth. Small-hope." She said the words with something near derision. "I cannot understand the care that Thomas takes of her. Nor why he dragged her here from ... wherever it was from which she came."

"Newham. She came from Newham." I glanced up from my pail at Thomas. He was a familiar sight. As familiar as anyone else in the town and more so, perhaps, since we were nearly the same age. He, the elder, by several months. Not so handsome as some. Certainly not so handsome as John. But the worst that could be said of him was that his eyes looked in danger of popping out from his head and his cheekbones were so sharp Mary once swore she could skin a rabbit on them.

Swore! She had sworn on a thought as foolish and ill-spirited as that. Only, it was true. She probably could. And that was the maddening thing about Mary. Though two years separated us, looking at her face was like looking into a glass. We both were fair, though her eyes tended toward chestnut, while mine had the look of moss-eaten bark. We may have looked like doubles, yet she could say nearly anything she wanted and always she was forgiven it. Woe unto me whenever I tried the same. I had learned, quite well, to keep such thoughts inside my head.

If any could hear my thoughts, they would think them pernicious indeed.

Thomas was the town's only blacksmith. He was needed, he was important, he was valuable. Whatsoever things are true, whatsoever things are of good report; if there be any virtue, any praise, then I must think upon those things. 'Tis what the Holy Scriptures instructed. I must try to fix upon those things. I did try to fix upon those things. But why could I not do it?

One thing was certain. Thomas's ... appearance ... would not have stopped any girl from marrying him, and he could not have felt a need to look for a wife beyond our township. No one knew why he had done so. He had gone into Newham one day for a certain smithing tool and returned with a wife instead.

Mary gave voice to my own thoughts. "It must have been that no one else would have her! Though why poor Thomas should feel so burdened ... 'tis not as if she birthed a babe too soon after their marriage."

She had not. And had yet to, for all that they had been married for three years.

I cast a glance at the woman from beneath my lashes and then at Thomas. Though I did not want to, I could not help but agree with Mary. Our friend had taken to wife poorly. If I had any sympathies for the couple, they lay with him. But one thing was true: We had gossiped enough for the day. Both of us. "'Tis the wounded that seek most to wound."

"It would not hurt her to be pleasant."

"Nor would it hurt you."

Mary glared at me before pushing to her feet. She stood there for a moment, looking round the patch, and then she walked over to Thomas. She spoke to him a moment before taking the bucket from him. And then she picked her way through the canes to where Simeon Wright stood. He was watching his mother, and all the rest of us, pick berries.

What was the girl about? And why did she seem so brazen?

Simeon Wright with his flaxen hair, pleasing manner, and cool blue eyes, was the object of many girls' ardor. Girls of Mary's age. That he had not yet chosen to marry only seemed to increase their devotion.

At Mary's approach, Simeon looked toward her, but then his eyes moved past my sister to fix upon me. Even across the stretch of barren between us, I could feel the weight of his gaze.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Shepherd's Fall - Prologue Excerpt

Shepherd's Fall

WaterBrook Press (April 14, 2009)



Prologue


Good news—I have my fugitive cornered. Bad news—I don’t have any backup.


The chase had encompassed forty-three hours with no sleep, very little food, and too many cups of cold coffee to count. It had crossed one state and three county lines and twice as many jurisdictions, only to circle back to within three miles of where it all started. And it looked like it was going to end at an abandoned house near Lisbon, Maryland.


Now fugitive recovery agent Nick Shepherd just had to decide whether to wait until his team arrived, or go in after Richie Carver on his own.


The old house didn’t look as if it had been occupied for years. The whole structure was leaning on its foundation, the roof had holes in it, all the glass in the windows had been broken out, and weeds tangled across the yard nearly waist-high, hiding anything from old tires to snakes and groundhog holes.


He’d have to go in low and slow.


Glancing over at the front porch, he discounted it immediately. Half the boards were gone; the rest didn’t look like they were too far behind. One wrong step and he’d be risking a broken leg or worse. His best bet was to enter one of the windows along the side of the house—the same way Richie had gone in—and to pray that Richie wasn’t standing there ready to shoot him as he climbed through.


When a fugitive jumps bail and disappears, fugitive recovery agents suit up and go hunting. They are experts at tracking and pursuing and have powers even local police don’t have. Relentless and more than a little fearless, they sometimes have to run a fugitive into the ground. But a cornered animal can be far more dangerous than one on the run.


Richie Carver was as nasty as they came. He and his brother, Jon, were known for drugs, prostitutes, illegal gambling, and who knew what else. If it was illegal and lucrative, they probably had their hands on it. Jon was the brains of the operation, preferring to stay close to the office and the money. Richie, on the other hand, was the brawn. His job was to make sure that no one crossed Jon. The problem was, Richie had gone beyond breaking legs and busting heads to straight-up murder. And after he jumped bail, he became Nick’s problem. Nick and the
rest of the Prodigal Fugitive Recovery Agents.


Nick glanced at his watch again. It had been nearly seven minutes since Richie had disappeared through that window. He knew better than most that the worst thing a bounty hunter could do was run into a situation like this without backup, but sometimes he had to break the rules.


He keyed the radio on his shoulder. “Conner. Come in.”


It took a couple of seconds, but he heard his second-in-command’s voice crackle through in his earpiece. “Here, Boss. What’s going down?”


“Richie’s run into an abandoned house. Where are you?”


“Rafe and I are ten, maybe fifteen out, Boss. Hold them horses.”


“No can do, Conn.”


“Wait for us, Boss. We’re close.”


“He’s been in there almost ten minutes. Can’t take a chance on him getting away.”


“Don’t do it, Boss. I’ve got my foot to the floor. Hang on.”


Nick stared at the house. He figured the best and worst that could happen and then keyed the radio again. “Just make sure you’re here before it turns ugly.”


He had just pulled the slide on his Glock when his cell phone vibrated. Assuming it was one of the members of his team, he flipped it open. “Yeah?”


“Daddy?”


“Krys? Honey, I’m right in the middle of something. Can I call you back?”


“Sure. I was just calling to say I love you and also to find out if maybe you want to go out for pizza tonight. Mom’s working late.”


“Sure, baby. I’ll give you a call in a couple hours.”


“Okay. Love you, bye.”


“Love you, bye.” He used his thigh to close the phone and then shoved it down inside his shirt pocket, protected inside his Kevlar vest.


He checked his Taser to make sure it was fully charged and put it back in his thigh holster, then eased up to a low crouch and began to make his way from the edge of the woods to the house. He nearly tripped twice but managed to avoid twisting his ankle on the pile of lumber hidden in the weeds and the gopher hole on the other side of it.


He thought he might have seen a black snake slithering off near an old wheelbarrow, but he didn’t look too closely. He wasn’t exactly fond of snakes, so he resorted to the childhood philosophy that if he didn’t see it, maybe it didn’t see him.


Easing up along the side of the house, he glanced furtively into the window. Living room. White plaster walls yellowed to beige and cracked with age. Light fixtures pulled from the ceiling. Wires dangling. Wood floors. And dust thick enough to leave footprints heading toward the back of the house.


Tucking his gun down in the holster, he prayed that Richie was somewhere else in the house and would stay there long enough for Nick to get through the window and pull his gun back out. He was halfway through the window when he saw the other footprints. Two pair, small, sneakers or athletic shoes. Kids. Probably teenagers. Were they here now? Or were they remnants from a previous night? Nick moved a little faster, scrambling through the broken window, snagging his shirt.


Then he the heard a scream. Female. Young. And in terror.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

The Firstborn - Chapter 1

The Firstborn

Realms (May 5, 2009)



Chapter 1
(Excerpt)



The door to the gas station opened with a tinny gling, the antiquated bell chiming as Devin entered the store. The sound was a testament to the essence of the small backwoods town. At best it was quaint; at worst it was a sign of dilapidation in the middle of snowy nowhere.

As he entered he picked up one of the newspapers by the door, reading the headline: Holy Man Murdered Outside of Ohio Mosque—Imam Basam Al Nassar Shot to Death in Car.

The person behind the counter was a young man. He was too old to be a boy, but he hardly exuded an aura of maturity. He was blond, with shaggy hair that hung in his eyes. Lips, nose, eyebrows, and ears were all pierced. The Virgin Mary was tattooed on the side of his neck. He didn’t seem to notice Devin’s approach at first, until the clipping sound of expensive shoe heels were within feet of the counter. The checker looked up, face startled.

Devin was used to it. His skin was black, which meant he looked different from the locals. The result was distrust. He didn’t like it, but he didn’t sink to showing it—no sign of weakness. Instead he advanced with purpose, stopping at the counter.

“Can I help you?” the checker asked, eyes darting over the new face.

Devin said nothing, simply sliding a crisp fifty-dollar bill across the glass.

The checker nodded through his unsettled demeanor. “Just the gas?” he asked.

“And the newspaper,” Devin said, voice articulate and commanding. Then something changed. He felt it in his stomach this time. No images, just the sinking feeling of finality and irreversible death:

Soon. Too soon.

Not days or hours.

Now.

His cellular phone came open with a snap.

—no signal—

Devin reached into his wallet, swiftly removing and writing on a business card before sliding it across the glass countertop. He tapped his index finger on the card, indicating the neatly written script across its back. He tightened his vocal cords, voice intense.

“I need you to call the police. Tell them to send a car to this address. A woman’s life is in danger. Do you understand?”

Devin was looked over skeptically. “That all depends on what you have in mind. What’s your business here?”

Small towns, Devin thought cynically. People always talked about the joys of small town living, but he personally found it infuriating—nosy people who didn’t trust you if they hadn’t grown up with you. At least in the city you had a reason not to trust each other.

“Do it,” he said with a commanding edge, “and do it now.” He left the store, pushing through the curtain of early-spring snow.

***


The young man behind the counter looked over the letters, taking a moment to let the information sink in. He brushed his thumb anxiously across his lower lip, shifting a piercing. “Hey . . . ” His voice dragged inarticulately.
“Hey, Gary.” The checker lifted his head, calling to the far end of the gas station near the refrigerators on the back wall.

“Yeah?” a voice called back.

“Come here.”

A gruff-looking man with a craggy face approached the counter. “What is it?”

“That guy just told me to have the cops sent here,” the checker said, handing over the business card.

Gary looked it over, thinking for a second. “I know this place,” he said with a nod. “Outsiders trying to tell us how to run our own town,” he growled, then crumpled the card in his fist.

***


The eggs were burning.

Brett cursed quietly under his breath as he reached for the skillet, trying to keep breakfast from turning to coal.

The kitchen phone rang.

He lifted it from the cradle, positioning it snugly between his shoulder and cheek as he fought with the eggs, waving smoke away with a towel.

“Yeah?” he said through a cough.

“This is Gary.”
“Hi, Gary; how can I help you?”

“Some guy just came by the gas station. Black fella, nice suit, fancy coat—looked like he might work for the IRS or something.”

Brett paused. “Did he say what he wanted?”

“He wanted somebody to send the cops over.”

“Why?” Brett stammered, eyes moving toward the CCTV monitor on the countertop.

“Didn’t say.”

“Do you think he’s headed here now?”

“Don’t know.”

Brett continued to stare into the monitor. “How long ago did he leave?”

“Just a second ago.”

He watched as the black-and-white screen flickered: it showed the image of the girl as she sat tied to her chair in the dark basement room below, hair hanging across her bowed face, morose from her captivity. “I can’t talk right now,” Brett said shortly, then hung up.

This was a problem.

***


Hannah’s head hung, long brown hair in her eyes.

Her face felt pasty with cold, fatigue, and pain. Dark lumps covered her body, swelling bruises on her cheek and forehead from rough treatment. Arms behind her back, she sat in a chair, wrists and ankles tied to the wooden frame, chair legs bolted to the floor.

The room was dark. Mattresses and foam padding lined the walls and windows to soundproof the basement room. Tan foam lined the seams between sound-buffering pads, rippling in imperfect bubbles and waves, frozen solid in time as it had been spewed from an aerosol canister. A tiny security camera was fixed in an upper corner.

Time stood still for her. One long unbroken moment of darkness and fear was all that filled her memory. Hours? Days? Weeks? She had no perception of how long she had been there. They had turned on lights at moments, brilliantly hot and bright, stabbing at her eyes, then extinguished them for what could have been days on end.

Every time she fell asleep they woke her. Feedings were sporadic—two meals she knew could have only been forty-five minutes apart. Judging time had been easier when they were still playing music—something they had done to make sure she couldn’t hear them until they realized how well they had soundproofed her room. The length of the songs had given her a perception of time, but now that measure was gone, and her sanity was going with it.

Hannah had been raised in a conservative Christian home. It was something she had taken at varying degrees of seriousness throughout the phases of her life, but here, now, in the abyss, in her hour of darkness, she clung to it.

At first her prayers had been specific, personal, and directed to God as if He were standing right in front of her. Now she was tired, her mind swimming. Her lips mumbled out a tiny incoherent appeal, begging for rescue, pleading for light, imploring for continued safety, hoping upon terrified hope that the sanctity of her body would not be violated. Through her pleas she felt God draw closer and her sanity slip further away.

She was hallucinating. She had to be, seeing things that had happened long ago or not at all—and she felt it coming on again. It had been different each time, but she always felt it coming. This time it was a taste, like the bright tang of a penny in her mouth.

Then she began to see things that weren’t there—

A cold car.

An Islamic holy man praying for forgiveness that Allah, the merciful and just, would have pity on him. He had recruited young, innocent Palestinian men to bind explosives to themselves—to walk into crowds of Israelis—to kill—and to die.

He had failed for years to free Palestine from Israel.

He was an American now, the imam of a small Ohio mosque. A man of peace.

Sitting in the car, waiting for it to warm up.

Thoughts of his sons—wanting to kiss them before they went to sleep.

A pedestrian in a heavy coat walking in the direction of his car.

Eye contact.

The man reached into his jacket.

—a gun—

Panic.

Clawing at the car door—trying to escape. The first bullet punching through the glass.

Pain. Skin breaking. Muscle splitting. Bone shattering.

Horror. Pain. Grief. Screaming.

The windshield blistering with holes.

Thoughts of his wife—of his children.

Body torn to pieces by the striking of lead.

Darkness.

Minutes later a jogger in the middle of the street, stammering into his cell phone. “The windshield is filled with bullet holes and there’s blood...everywhere!”


It all came over her like a flood, a pouring out of pictures in her mind. But then there was one more thing. Not an image, but a feeling—that half a continent away someone else had felt it all happening too.

***


The sedan thundered down the wet, snowy dirt road. White snow, brown mud, and ashen gravel kicked up and out from the sides of the vehicle. The silver automobile cut through the road’s debris like a blade as the surrounding world blurred into fleeting streaks.

A midsize luxury sedan with a manual transmission—as always, the vehicle of choice the rental company had in his file. Devin had rented it at the airport expecting to have more time, but he didn’t. He hadn’t expected to cut it so close, but there was no reasoning with it now. All he could do was drive, hands gripping the wheel as if he had to wrestle the sedan to the ground like a beast.

The snow had stopped falling for the moment, and that helped—a little. But what a horrid frozen wasteland to be trapped in. Back home in New York, spring had already begun—sunshine all over. But he had to be called here: to the only place in the entire continental United States to have a blizzard, where snow had fallen in buckets and the sun hadn’t been seen in days.

To his right Devin saw the house appear over the horizon as the silver car glided up the hill. Five minutes at the most. He was almost there. He checked his phone again and snarled—too far from any kind of cell tower—a snowy wasteland.

Somewhere in the back of his mind he focused himself, aligning his will and his strength in faith. Some would call it a prayer. Devin resisted that word prayer. To him it was a necessary requisitioning of needed resources—spiritual or otherwise, it didn’t matter.

It was his thoughts narrowing into a finely focused, single-minded bolt of mental force, preparing for imminent havoc.

***

Hannah’s mind swam.

She saw him as her world dissolved to white.

Tall, handsome, dark skin.

Sitting at a dinner party.

Pausing. Something changing.

A thought or epiphany.

The man boarding a plane.

Searching for...

Her.

Strikingly handsome in an olive-colored suit that seemed to radiate class, money, and power. His frame stood strong in the midst of the frozen breeze, his tight muscular body accented by the hang of the trench coat over his strong shoulders.


He had been afraid for her, more than just for her captivity; for something far more treacherous. She paused. How afraid should she be for herself?

***


Brett growled in anger. It was really fear, but he denied it by letting it bubble out in a swell of wrath.

“I should never have let you use my home!” He was frantic, nearly wringing his hands. “This can’t be happening!”

Snider and Jimmy stared at him, unmoved. They didn’t take him seriously. They thought he was prone to panic, that was all.

“Calm down,” Jimmy said sarcastically.

“Calm down? Calm down?” His face burned. “We’ve got a girl in the basement. That’s kidnapping! And this fella’s gonna bring the cops!”

Snider, middle-aged and dressed in black, stepped forward. “And what if he’s not?” He was the leader, the one who had approached Brett, offered him money for the use of his home. Brett knew he had a reputation for being somewhat shady, but Brett liked money. And now things were getting serious.

“If you don’t settle down, you’re going to look suspicious,” Snider continued. “And then what will you do when he really does bring the cops?”

Brett waved his hands nervously. “This has gotten out of hand. We can’t do this anymore.”

“What do you suggest?” Snider asked. “That we dispose of her?”

There was a long silence as they all looked at one another; then Brett turned sharply, heading for his room.

“Where are you going?” Snider asked.

Brett called back, “I’ll deal with this!”

***


The turn was a blind corner, covered by snow. Devin slammed on the brakes, and the car lost control.

The back end of the car swung wide, losing traction in the slick of white. The tires left wide swaths of grime as the side of the car crunched into a pack of snow. Devin worked the sedan into gear and eased into the gas—the engine revved, the vehicle rocked, but he didn’t move forward. He gave the pedal a futile stomp, but he knew all he was doing was chopping ground into snowy pulp.

His eyes lifted, mind calculating the distance—maybe a hundred or so meters. He shoved the door open and climbed out into the snow. Cold ran up his foot, into his throat. It wasn’t the cold of the snow; it was—

Panic. Anger. Desperation.

Blam. Blam. BLAM!

The killer’s face, covered with relief.


His foot slipped, his body nearly going down. It had snowed again the night before, and the snow was as deep as three feet in some places. Devin lifted his burning legs, body heaving forward through the thick mass beneath him.

He’d done forced marches before. Ten years of military life had provided him with everything he needed in this moment, everything he’d ever needed to live this life.

Devin looked up.

Almost there.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

A Bride In The Bargain - Chapter 1

A Bride In The Bargain

Bethany House (June 1, 2009)



Chapter 1


Seattle, Washington Territory
April 1, 1865


ATTENTION BACHELORS! Due to the efforts of Asa Mercer, you can now secure a bride of good moral character and reputation from the Atlantic States for the sum of $300. All eligible and sincerely desirous bachelors assemble in Delim & Shorey's building on Wednesday evening.

Joe Denton scoffed at the ad and scanned the rest of the page. The lopsided ratio of men to women once again filled the columns of the Seattle Intelligencer.

Glancing at the mantel clock, he shifted on the maroon-andgold sofa, then read the next page. The troops at Hatchers Run now had a series of signal towers along their entire line and almost every movement of the rebels could be observed. If Lee were to fall back in an effort to overwhelm Sherman, he would find Grant thundering close upon his rear.

The door to the parlor opened and the head of a small, brown-haired boy poked around its edge. "I thought that was you I saw coming up the walk. You here to see my pa?"

"I am."

Sprout Rountree stepped inside and hitched up his short pants, revealing scuffed knees. His stiff white shirt was untucked, grassstained, and torn at the elbow.

"Looks like you've had a hard morning," Joe said.

Sprout puffed out his chest. "I've been practicing to be a lumberjack, just like you."

"You have?"

A grin split his freckled face. "I have. I chopped down Mama's tree out back all by myself."

Joe hesitated. "That sapling, you mean? The Chinese pistachio your mother ordered from the Sandwich Islands?"

"I dunno. Just a minute and I'll show you."

He darted out of the room and returned in another minute holding what was left of his mother's pride and joy.

Joe swiped a hand across his mouth. "When did you do that, son?"

"This morning. I used my pa's ax. It sure is heavy. But I got big muscles for a boy my age. Ever'body says so."

"They do?"

"Yep. You wanna see 'em?"

Without waiting for an answer he strode right up between Joe's knees and flexed his little arm. It wasn't much thicker than the sapling he held, but Joe assumed a serious air and scrutinized the boy's arm, squeezed his muscle, then whistled. "Very impressive."

The boy beamed. "Lemme see yours."

"I can't roll up my sleeve right now. I'm waiting to see your pa."

His little shoulders wilted. "Aw, please?"

"Not today, Sprout."

"Could you let me squeeze it, then? You wouldn't have to roll up your sleeves for that."

Joe glanced at the slightly cracked door, then flexed, making his arm bulge.

Sprout's hand couldn't begin to encompass the muscle, but he squeezed what he could, his eyes huge. "Mine are gonna be just like that someday."

Ruffling the boy's hair, Joe chuckled. "I imagine they will. Until then, though, you might not want to chop down any more of your mama's trees. They aren't ready for the lumberyard just yet, and I'm not sure how she'd feel about you handling an ax."

"Then how am I gonna learn lumberjacking?"

"Well, maybe your parents will let you come out to my place sometime and help me."

His face lit up. "Can I go home with you today?"

Joe chuckled again. "No, not today but—"

"Sprout Rountree! Come here this instant!"

Burdensome footsteps followed the strident voice until the door to the parlor swung open. A young woman large with child stood at its threshold, her face pinched with anger.

Sprout eased back into Joe. "What's the matter, Mama?"

"What happened to my ..." Her eyes went from the boy to the sapling he held in his hand. "Oh, nooooo!"

Placing his hand on Sprout's shoulder, Joe stood. "Afternoon, Mrs. Rountree."

She glanced at him. "O.B.'s in his office, Mr. Denton. You can go on in." She turned her attention to Sprout. "What have you done to my pistachio tree?"

The boy shrunk at his mother's tone. "I har-visited it, but I'll put it back if you want."

Joe didn't wait for her response. Instead, he picked up his hat and slipped through a connecting door leading to the library and office of Judge Obadiah B. Rountree.

A cloud of tobacco mixed with traces of lemon oil filled the room. Hooking his hat on a hall tree, he clicked the door shut behind him, cutting off the drama unfolding in the parlor.

The judge, with his back to Joe, scribbled on a piece of parchment while sitting at an ornate mahogany secretary that had come clear around the Horn. His white shirt, entirely too big for his small frame, bunched beneath dark suspenders crisscrossing his back. Short black hair surrounded a perfectly circular bald spot.

Joe ran a hand over his thick, wavy hair, letting out a silent sigh. Blond hair like his wasn't as apt to fall out, or so he'd heard. Perhaps he was safe.

A handsome tan volume of Shakespeare lying on the marbletop table caught his eye. Was it there for ornamentation, or did the judge actually read it? Joe shifted his weight to the other foot.

No more voices came from the parlor. He assumed the missus had taken Sprout to a private place for whatever she had in mind.

A robin with a brick-red breast and white throat landed on the windowsill, warbling a greeting. Joe caught a whiff of fresh air coming from the window. Spring had a distinctive smell and one he always welcomed. No other spot on God's green earth held such mild and equitable climate as did Seattle from April to November.

The bird darted off as quickly as he'd come, and the judge placed his pen in its holder, then blotted his writings.

"You in town to purchase a bride?" he asked, still sitting at his desk.

"I hardly think so," Joe said. "A man would have to be pretty desperate to let Asa Mercer choose his bride for him."

Standing, the judge turned and clasped Joe's hand. "I think it's a grand scheme. I hear he's collected money from almost three hundred men and is hoping to find two hundred more."

"Well, I won't be one of them."

"Have a seat, then, and tell me what I can do for you."

Joe eased his large frame into a dainty armchair. "I have news about my wife's death certificate."

Rountree brightened, settling into the chair facing him. "Excellent. Let me have a look at it and we'll wrap up this whole mess."

"That's just the thing. I wrote to my brother back in Maine asking him to send me the certificate. I received his answer today." Joe removed the letter from his pocket and handed it to the judge. "He says the Kennebec County courthouse burned down and all the records with it."

"What about the doctor? Can the doctor issue another one?"

"Lorraine died ten years ago. Back then, the only doctors they had were itinerant. I'm not even sure they remember his name."

Rountree scanned the piece of parchment. "This complicates things, Joe. Tillney isn't going to settle for a letter from your brother."

Joe stiffened. "Are you questioning my brother's word?"

"Of course not. But those Land Donation Grants were very specific. In order to get the full six hundred forty acres, you had to have a wife."

"I did have a wife."

"You've no proof of that."

"I have a marriage certificate."

"That might have been enough to secure the land temporarily, but in order to keep it she needed to have made an appearance."

"She was going to. It's not my fault she died before she ever made it out here."

"No one's saying it's your fault. What we're saying is the intent of those donations was to encourage settlement. We can't settle unless we multiply. We can't multiply without wives."

"I was married when I signed up for the land. She would have come, Judge. I'd sent for her and everything."

Rountree blew out a huff of air. "There's no question in my mind your intentions were genuine. But the fact remains, it's been ten years and she's never shown up. In the eyes of the law, that makes you a single man, and single men only qualified for three hundred twenty acres, not six hundred forty."

Tightening his hands on the arms of the chair, Joe reined in his exasperation. "She died. I can't do anything about that."

"And if you produce a death certificate, then I'm willing to rule in your favor. But even that is pushing things a bit. I certainly can't award you the land based on a letter written by your brother."

"What if someone from the courthouse writes it?"

"No, Joe. I'm sorry. The only thing the clerk would be able to attest to is that the courthouse burned down. That won't solve the problem of you needing a death certificate."

"The only reason I need one is because you say I need one. You can just as easily say my marriage license is enough."

Sighing, the judge removed the wire spectacles from his nose. "I can't."

"Why not?"

"Because so many men in the Territory—when their wives wouldn't come west—just divorced them. That constitutes a breach of contract."

"Well, I don't see any of them giving up their acreage."

"Maybe not around here, but rest assured, many a man has been required to produce a bride or risk losing his land. Still, I'm willing to let you keep the land if you present proof of your wife's death. But if you can't do that, then Tillney wins the suit and your three hundred twenty acres."

Joe jumped to his feet. "I've spent the last ten years developing that land. My entire lumber operation depends on it. I need it. Every acre of it."

"I can appreciate that."

"Tillney knows how valuable it is." Joe raked a hand through his curls. "He knows that if he can win it, he'll not only get three hundred twenty acres of land, but he'll get skid roads, log chutes, water access, and enough lumber to last him for years."

The judge made no response.

"Are you making this difficult because Tillney's your wife's cousin?"

Rountree narrowed his eyes. "I'm going to ignore that remark, but our meeting is over." He stood. "Either you produce a death certificate or a wife, or Tillney wins."

"There is no death certificate!"

"Then I suggest you find yourself a wife."

"And how am I supposed to do that?"

"Mercer's holding a meeting tonight. Buy one from him."

Taking a step back, Joe gaped at the judge. "You cannot be serious."

"I don't care what you do. All I care about is upholding the intent of the grant." He shrugged. "Death certificate or wife. Makes no difference to me."

"Well, it makes a difference to me. Besides, it'll take Mercer months to go back east, convince five hundred Civil War widows and orphans to be brides to a bunch of lumberjacks, and then bring them all the way back here."

Rounding the chair, the judge removed Joe's hat from the rack. "He said it'll take him six months, so that's what I'll allot you."

"Six months might be enough for an average fellow, but you know Mercer. It'll take him twice that amount of time. I'll need a year, at least. Probably more."

Rountree pursed his lips, then gave a nod. "One year from today, then. If you don't have a bride or a death certificate by April 1, 1866, then Tillney gets the land." He opened the door. "Good day, Denton."

* * *


It was standing room only at Delim & Shorey's new building, which was dried-in but not yet finished. Men of all shapes, sizes, and occupations crowded the half-finished wagon shop. Most were lumberjacks, but Joe recognized several prominent businessmen from as far away as Olympia.

And right in the center was Asa Mercer, the president of the town's esteemed university, balanced atop a soapbox, lantern light bouncing off his red hair and pale skin. Raising his hands above his head, he shushed the crowd.

Joe leaned against the wall. Several of the men with their backs to him sported an XXX Flour legend on the seat of their pants, having used the empty sacks to repair their worn-out clothing. What were those eastern women going to think when they got a look at this bunch?

"Over three hundred sixty thousand men have lost their lives so far in the conflict between the North and South," Mercer boomed.

The room quieted.

"And though we mourn our lost brothers, the surplus of widows and orphans is becoming an economic problem for our eastern shores."

Joe shifted his position against the wall.

"Yet here in the West, we are lacking the very commodity that they have in overabundance. As a service to both shores, I am volunteering to go east, collect five hundred ladies, and bring them back to you, the fine, upstanding men of the Washington Territory."

A great cheer rose.

"As with any venture, however, there are costs involved. I intend to solicit most of this support from our government, which feels responsible toward these misplaced women. My plan is to appeal to President Lincoln himself, who bounced me on his knee when I was but a lad. There is no question in my mind he will supply us with a discarded warship to transport the brides."

The men murmured to one another.

"To ascertain which of you will have the privilege of receiving these women as their matrimonial prize, however, a deposit of three hundred dollars will be required to defray the cost of your bride's passage."

"Three hundred dollars is an awful lot of money," one of the men hollered.

"In exchange for your deposit, I will give you a signed contract which will clearly state that upon my return, you will receive one eastern bride."

"Who picks the bride? You or me?"

"I will," Mercer answered. "But your contract will include what particulars you are looking for, and I pledge to thoroughly interview each lady and choose only those of sterling character."

Pursing his lips, Joe considered what qualities he'd need in a wife.

Honesty. Practicality. Nothing flighty or fragile like Lorraine. And she'd need to be able to handle cooking for his lumber crew.

His men could put in a full day's work in the wet, cold, and mud so long as they ended at night with a lighted abode fragrant with food. And if that food was prepared by a woman, well, he'd have the happiest crew this side of the Cascade Mountains.

"That's good enough fer me," another shouted. "I got nothin' else to spend my chicken change on. Might as well be a missus. Sign me up!"

The men converged on Mercer, all speaking at once, all anxious to plunk down their money.

Joe slipped a hand in his pocket and clutched the heavy bag weighing down his jacket.

Three hundred dollars. It was a fraction of what his land was worth, but he still hated to part with the coin. If he had time, he'd go east himself. But he couldn't leave. Not now. The weather was warming and in another couple of weeks, he'd be driving logs down Skid Road as fast as his crew could cut them.

"Why, Joe. I thought you'd be staying away from here on principle." J.J. McGilvra, a pioneer lawyer, offered his hand. "Change your mind, or have you come to stare down your nose at the rest of us?"

With a sigh, he pushed himself off the wall and shook with McGilvra. "To be honest with you, J.J., I don't know what I'm doing here."

The lawyer gave him a curious look; then the two of them took their places in the line that wrapped around the room three times.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Breaking Up Is Hard To Do - Chapter 1

Breaking Up Is Hard To Do

FaithWords (April 16, 2009)


Chapter 1


It looks like a cheerleader’s soul exploded all over the gym.” I scrunch up my nose and catch a glimpse of my nose ring. It still surprises me to see it there.

Ana laughs at my joke, but Zoe rolls her eyes and starts clapping loudly, probably to cover for our silence. The bleachers shake as everyone around us gets pumped up on school spirit. Everywhere you look, there’s garnet and gold bunting, streamers, and posters — one of which is misspelled. At least I don’t think the cheer- nerds meant to say “Starfish Have School Sprit.” It’s bad enough that our mascot is the Starfish, but if people find out we have “sprit” too, we’ll be the laughingstock of the county.

It’s first period of the first day back in school. I rarely feel all that peppy on a very good day, and I’m certainly not chipper on a day like this. At least we were allowed to sit with anyone we wanted. The only requirement was that we had to sit by class. So here are the Miracle Girls, after an incredible summer together, parked under the big “Sophomores” sign. Woo.

The cheerleaders tumble onto the basketball court as the band cues up to play our fight song. Riley trails behind the tumblers, galloping sideways and “sparkling” her fingers at the crowd. The doctors don’t want her tumbling this year. I give her a nod. She waves back.

“Go, Riley!” Zoe shouts. As a sophomore, Zoe doesn’t get to play her piccolo at the pep rallies. That’s a “privilege” reserved for the seniors.

“You guys,” Zoe groans at us, “cheer for Riley at least.”

Ana obliges, but she’s careful to look cool doing it. She claps her hands gently, as if she’s at a golf game, and lets out the occasional scream. I give Zoe a look. I know we all changed some over the summer, but I’m still Christine Lee. I couldn’t care less about school spirit. That’s never going to change.

The cheerleaders separate out by grade level and begin to lead each section in a chant. Riley stands in front of us and kicks off the cheer for our grade. We all know it from last year, and Ana and Zoe scream along with the rest of our class. The object is to be the loudest class and earn the title of having the most sprit. Which is really an honor, let me assure you. A real treat.

S- o- p- h- o!” Riley yells.

M- o- r- e- s!” the crowd screams with her.

“Sophomores. Sophomores. Sophomores are the best!” The juniors and seniors are doing the same thing, yelling as loudly as they can, while the freshmen just look confused. Sheer pandemonium reigns. That part isn’t so bad.

“Scream!” Zoe yells at me over the fuss. “We have to be the loudest!” Zoe is wearing a long lavender skirt and some kind of loose tie-dyed top. Her red hair falls in a long curtain down her back.

“Sophomores!” Ana screams at the top of her lungs, getting into it now that the noise level in the gym is reaching decibels that can be heard two counties over. Ana spent a good part of the summer shopping in San Francisco with her mom, and she looks like a J.Crew ad. Since when did she care about clothes? With her new wardrobe, her sun-kissed hair, her deep tan, and the fact that she’s shot up two inches, she looks nothing like the lonely little freshman I met a year ago.

Ms. Lovchuck comes out on the gym floor, and the cheer dies. I’ve never been so happy to see our principal. She stands at the podium and adjusts the mic for a moment. We all sit down. Well, everyone else sits down. I wasn’t exactly standing.

“Students, welcome to another exciting year at Marina Vista High School!” Ms. Lovchuck pauses, as if expecting a roar of applause. She sighs at the silence, then trudges onward. She begins to drone on, making boring announcements about new school initiatives and rules.

I try to zone out, but out of the corner of my eye I see movement and turn to watch a scrawny guy with mousy brown hair climb over people, coming toward us. Oh no. Marcus Farcus. I lean forward to peek at Zoe, and her face is bright red.

“Hey, Marcus.” I wave at him and fl ash a big debutante smile.

“Christine, always a pleasure,” he says in a hushed tone.

Zoe shoots poison darts out of her eyes.

“Zoe, I’m so glad I found you,” he says, pushing past and forcing himself into a nonexistent space next to Zoe. “This school is crazy.”

Marcus moved into the house next door to Zoe this summer. Well, technically, he moved into a section of the woods next to Zoe and then bulldozed it and built a giant McMansion in the old growth forest. Of course, it was Marcus’s parents who actually did all those things, but that hasn’t kept Zoe from holding it against Marcus. Unfortunately, Marcus latched onto Zoe, who’s too nice to tell him to go away, and has been following her around like a puppy dog. “Maybe you should sit with your class,” Zoe says quietly, shrugging his arm off her shoulder. I stifl e a laugh. She’s so annoyed with him that she could scream, but she’s still trying to be kind.

“Nah,” he says, gesturing toward the freshman section dismissively. “I’ll get to know them eventually. I’d rather be with you.”

“Thanks,” Zoe says, her voice flatter than a pancake.

Poor kid. He never had a chance. His parents gave him a rough start in life. If your last name is Farcus and you have a son, the only name in the world you can’t give him is Marcus. That’s very clear. And if you do, you’re violating the laws of the social universe, condemning him to outsider status forever. Parents willing to do that to their child are obviously not right in the head.

“Hey, Marcus,” Ana says, raising her hand in a wave that makes Zoe cringe. Ana fi nds Marcus as annoying as the rest of us do, but she has this weird sympathy for him since he’s new in town. Far too charitable, if you ask me.

“And without further ado, I give you your quarterback, Zach Abramo!” Ms. Lovchuck screams. She steps away from the podium and gestures at a huge painted piece of paper with a fighting Starfish on it. The gym fills with noise, Zach bursts through the paper, and the crowd goes wild, as if it is an actual feat to tear a piece of paper. My stomach suddenly feels pumped full of lead.

“What’s up, Marina Vista?” Zach screams. All the clueless sophomore twits around us clap and whistle for him. At least this creep is a senior. Unless he fails, this is the last year we’ll have to deal with him. I watch Riley. All the other cheerleaders jump and cheer for him, but she remains completely still. After what he did to her, I have to fi ght the urge to stand up and shout, “Coward! Traitor!”

“This year we’re going all the way to State with our mighty fighting Starfish football team!” Zach pumps his fist in the air. The thunderous applause nearly bursts my eardrums. We really should have reported Zach to the police, or at least told everyone exactly what he did, but Riley asked us not to. She’s trying to forgive him.

“Woo! Go, Marina Vista!” Zach yells, ending his little speech. Everyone but the Miracle Girls cheers for him, and he drinks it in. As he struts to the side of the gym, Ashley Anderson, Riley’s ex-best friend, gives him a hug. They’ve been dating all summer, which makes me twice as ill, so I try to focus my eyes on the floor. The band starts to play our fight song again, and the cheerleaders lead us in a chant that spells out Starfish.

A group of girls next to me lean toward each other and form a huddle. I lean back a little to see if I can hear what they’re saying.

“It was Zach’s,” a scratchy girl’s voice says.

Ooh, dirt on the quarterback. This could be good.

“She doesn’t look like she just had a baby,” a girl says. I recognize the voice as Hailey, a decent sketch artist from my art class last year.

“When a girl disappears for five months, it can only mean one thing.” The first knowing voice sounds smug, and it suddenly hits me what — I mean who — they’re talking about. “That’s why she got her hair chopped off.”

I clench my fist. First of all, everyone knows Riley dropped out of school last year because she fell off a cliff, not because she was pregnant with Zach’s baby. Second, what does that have to do with her hair? And who do these girls think they are, anyway, talking about this stuff in front of anyone, but especially in front of us? Don’t they realize they’re sitting behind, like, Riley’s best friends?

“He said he wouldn’t marry her, and she went crazy and started chopping at her hair, like Britney.”

“What do you think she did with the baby?” Hailey asks, giggling. As the band plays the final notes to our fight song, it hits me. No, these girls probably don’t know that Riley is our friend. We spent all summer together, just the Miracle Girls, and it was an amazing time, goofing around at Zoe’s house with the horses, going down to the beach to watch Riley surf, hanging around with Ana and Dave — unending days of fun, far far away from the pressures of school. The Miracle Girls have become everything to me.

But these girls don’t know that. Riley became our friend at the end of last year, just before her accident. No one at school knows the first thing about our incredible summer together, or the secrets in our past that make our bond special.

“Probably gave it up for adoption. A lot of people do that and then pretend it never happened.”

I can’t listen to this anymore. Anger floods my veins, and the whole world drops away. I don’t know where I am or what is going on around me. I only know that I must defend Riley. I stand up and lunge at Hailey, grabbing her shirt and pulling her out of her seat.

“That . . . is . . . not true.” I hiss at her, my nostrils flaring. Hailey and her stupid friend stare at me, eyes wide.

“What?” She tries to lean away from my face, but I have her shirt balled up in my fists.

“Nothing you said is true.” I feel something tugging at my right arm, and then my left. Ana and Zoe are pulling me back. I grab Hailey’s shirt tighter, but they begin to overpower me, forcing me to let go.

And then it’s like I come to. Somehow, the entire jamboree has screeched to a halt and everyone is staring at me. I swallow and slide down into the bleachers, but it’s too late. Ms. Lovchuck points at me viciously with her thin, crooked finger, then points at the gym door.

I know what she means, and I begin to pick my way over people, tripping on bags and shoes and jackets. I fight the impulse to say, “Pardon me, freak show walking.” Everyone is staring at me as I plunk down the stairs. When I get to the door, I glance back one last time at the Miracle Girls and see Zoe’s worried face. I know what that look means. Like me, she’s worried that being back at school means everything is about to change.

Just great, Christine. It took you less than one hour to completely ruin this year too.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

The Deliverer - Chapter 1

The Deliverer

Realms (May 5, 2009)


Chapter 1



"Save me, Samantha. I didn’t mean to do it.”

The disembodied spirit called out to her, begging her for help. She blinked hard and peered into what seemed like an endless sea of putrid fog.

The eerie voice cried out again.

This time she had to find him. If this was a prank, it had to stop. If it wasn’t, well, she was less sure what she would do if it turned out to be real.

“Stay where you are,” she cried. “Don’t run away again.” Her voice shook with fear.

“You know I’m innocent, Samantha. I don’t deserve to be in hell. Hurry! You must help me while there’s still time.”

Her heart pounded so hard it seemed to catch in her throat and she couldn’t breathe. Fear welled up within her. But fear of what or whom?

It didn’t matter; she must pursue the desperate cries for help.

The ghostly voice cried out in anguish again as she groped her way through the gloomy maze that she al-ready knew led to nowhere. She’d been this far before. It was always the same: a mournful voice pleading for her help, and each time the voice faded before she could reach its source. This time she wouldn’t stop until she found the one calling out to her.

The foul-smelling fog thickened and concealed the path beneath her feet, and like the times before, she knew she was descending lower and lower with each erratic step forward. How far did she dare to go? She opened her mouth to call out, but her own voice failed her. An invisi-ble hand tightened around her throat, holding her words captive.

This isn’t real. I won’t be stopped by something that isn’t real. I must keep going.

“Where are you?” she screamed, surprised with the force of the words as they broke free.

Stumbling on through a darkness that grew denser with every step, a cold, slithering tentacle tried to wrap itself around her feet. She screamed again, kicked it away, and ran faster.

“Who . . . who are you?” Her breathing was becoming more labored. “How can I help you if I can’t see you?” Her voice was raspy, and her throat hurt. The thickening haze was hot, and a nauseating odor assaulted her nasal pas-sages. She paused and gagged.

“Pray for me, Samantha.” The voice drifted farther away.

Gasping for clean air but finding none, she wiped her mouth on her sleeve and pushed onward toward the black hole that swallowed every glimmer of light. How much deeper could she go? What if she couldn’t find her way back? She swallowed her terror and pressed down-ward into the darkness. He must not get away again.

“Wait!” Her throat was tightening, and her cries faded into hoarse whispers. “I’ll pray for you. I’ll find a way.” Desperation percolated through her body as she lunged forward, her arms grabbing for someone who wasn’t there.

“Stop running,” she pleaded, her words barely audible. “How can I pray for you? I don’t know your name.”

The slithering tentacle returned and tripped her. She gasped and fell to her hands and knees on a rippled sur-face that had once been a river of molten lava. It had cooled and hardened but was still active below the thin crust. The steam continued to rise from beneath, and it burned her hands as she struggled to stand.

It was becoming impossible to see. Disoriented from the fall and fearful of careening into an abyss, she spun in circles, unsure of which way to go. A night bird flew near her head, pulling out strands of hair and mocking her as it sped away.

“Run away, Samantha. Run away while you still can.”

“Stop it! Leave me alone!” She tried to cover her hair with her blistered hands.

“Pray for me, Samantha. Pray before it’s too late.” The voice faded even more.

“Wait! I don’t know your name.” Her desperation gave way to panic as if she were about to fail a critical mission. “Why won’t you tell me your name?”

“Pray for yourself, Samantha.”

“Please, don’t go.”

“Good-bye, Samantha.”

She dropped to her knees, wailed in defeat, and sobbed.

A terrified scream.

A ringing telephone.

Samantha wasn’t sure whether her own cry or the ring-ing BlackBerry had startled her awake, but she bolted up-right, escaping the nightmare that had plagued her for weeks.

The cell phone rang again.

Still groggy, she blinked hard, sat up straight, and glanced about the room, trying to remember where she was. She rubbed her eyes and blinked again. Of course she was in her office at the University of Jerusalem. Alone.

The phone was still ringing amid the stacks of paper on her desk.

“Don’t hang up.” Her hands trembled as she groped for it, knocking over a cup of forgotten tea from the day be-fore. “Just don’t hang up.”

Still disoriented, she fumbled with the BlackBerry as she pushed a strand of hair away from her ear with one hand.

“Yes, hello,” she managed.

“Dr. Yale?” The unsteady voice on the phone was un-mistakable.

Samantha Yale slumped down behind her antique desk, ignoring the spilled tea dripping onto the floor. Carefully, she cupped the telephone with both hands, afraid she might drop it and lose the connection she had been anxiously awaiting. She breathed in deeply and measured her words lest she startle her nervous caller.

“Yes, this is Samantha Yale.”

“Dr. Yale, it’s . . . ”

“Yes, Wonk, I know who you are. Where are you?”

Silence.

It had been six months since the mysterious Wonk Eman, the nervous little man with no address, no tele-phone number, and no e-mail, had visited her and deliv-ered the ancient scrolls to her office. His silence told her she was moving too fast. She took a deep breath, slumped back in her chair, and tried again.

“All right. You don’t have to tell me where you are. Are you safe?”

“Why do you ask that?”

Before she could answer, he blurted out, “Am I in dan-ger? I’ll call back.”

“Stop it, Wonk.” She took another deep breath and lowered her voice. “You’re in no danger.”

“Then why did you ask me if I was safe?”

“No reason.” She rose from her desk and walked over to the window where the Dome of the Rock could be seen in the distance against the blue Jerusalem skyline. Maybe a shift in position would make her sound less tense. “It’s just that when we last talked, you were concerned about safety. Remember? You were worried someone else might try to contact me about the scrolls.”

“Has anyone contacted you?”

“No, no one at all.” She heard him slowly exhale.

“Have you told anyone else?”

“No one, just as you directed me.”

She restrained herself from asking questions too soon. Slowly she began a silent count from one to ten. If he didn’t speak again in ten seconds, she would prompt him. She only got to five.

“I have more scrolls.”

“Good. When will you bring them to me?”

Another of his interminable pauses. She ran her fingers through her rumpled hair and tried to control her exas-peration at how long it took him to say anything. Her ring caught the edge of the newly formed scab just above her right ear. A drop of blood smeared on her fingertip. Now what have I done? She turned to the wall mirror to exam-ine the injury but gave up when she couldn’t make her eyes shift far enough to see it. OK, that’s long enough.

“Wonk?” she said, attempting to prod him back into the conversation.

“Yes. How long will it take you to translate them?” Im-patience, anxiety, or both had crept into his voice.

“You know that’s almost impossible to say. It’s a diffi-cult task to translate cuneiform.”

“But you’re an expert.”

“Even for an expert, it requires a thought-for-thought translation, as opposed to a word-for-word technique. Be-sides, you haven’t told me how many more scrolls you have.”

He ignored the bait.

“Tomorrow, then,” he said.

“Will you bring them yourself?”

A thud told her he had dropped the phone. She could hear him scrambling to retrieve it.

“Hello?” His fumbling sent piercing beeps into her ear. “Sorry. No, no, I . . . very risky . . . not wise at all.” His voice had become shriller as he floundered to answer her ques-tion.

“That’s OK.” Take a breath. “Don’t worry.” Pause; let him calm down. “How will they be delivered?”

“By messenger; same as before. Good-bye, Dr. Yale.”

“Wait—” She stopped him before he could hang up. Did she dare go any further? He was so high-strung he might flee at the slightest provocation. Maybe she should wait until she had the scrolls safely in her possession. Too late. She had to say something.

“Can I ask you something else?”

“What is it, Dr. Yale?”

“When we last talked . . . ” She hesitated. Do I really want to go down this road?

“Dr. Yale?”

“Yes, sorry. When you were in my office and we talked about the Torah and other relics of antiquity, you brought up Noah’s ark. Do you remember the conversation?”

“Yes.”

“You were concerned about someone who might have survived Noah’s flood—besides Noah’s family.”

“Og,” he whispered.

“Yes, that’s it. Og, the Nephilim king.” She waited for his reaction.

There was none. She ran her fingers through her hair again. Afraid he might hang up, she preempted her ten-second rule and pressed in.

“What did you mean?”

“Why do you want to know?”

“No reason except it seemed important to you. Sup-pose such a thing had actually happened. Why would the idea distress you so?”

Silence.

I shouldn’t have said “distress.”

“Then he has contacted you.” His voice was distressed. “You said no one . . . ”

“What? No, of course not. Don’t be ridiculous.”

Seeing her reflection in the mirror on the wall, she be-gan a silent exchange with herself.

You’re having a conversation with a deeply dis-turbed man about someone who’s been dead for five thousand years—if he ever existed at all. No wonder you can’t sleep. Wonk doesn’t seem capable of playing mind games, but what else can he be doing?

“I was only curious to know what you meant,” she con-tinued gently. “It’s hard to understand why you would care about something that might have happened so long ago.”

Silence.

One second, two seconds, three . . . 

“He must not get the scrolls, Dr. Yale. You must prom-ise me that will not happen. You have no idea the conse-quences if . . . ”

“No, it’s OK. I’m sure I can keep them safe.” She glanced at her reflection again to see if she looked sin-cere.

“Tomorrow, Dr. Yale. Wait for them. Remember your promise.” The dial tone signaled the end of the conversa-tion.

Samantha clicked the END button on her phone, sighed with relief that the conversation was over, and sat down on the window seat as she lingered at her personal portal of the world.

***


“Sign here, Dr. Yale.” The burly man in the brown delivery uniform handed her the electronic notebook to register her signature as the authorized recipient of a carefully packed crate. She scrawled her name in silence, not wanting to engage him in any conversation that might de-lay his leaving. The man was barely out the door before she found a sturdy letter opener in the desk drawer and began prying open the container. At last the lid slid off, and Styrofoam peanuts went flying as her hands carefully reached inside the box. Just as she had done with the first scrolls, she gently removed each of the twelve and laid them out in what she guessed would be a somewhat chronological order on her conference table. Her only hope was that Wonk, or whoever packed them, had some appreciation for sequence.

Selecting the first scroll, she carried it to her desk and gently unrolled it. To an untrained eye it would have looked exactly like any one of the others she had already examined and locked away. Only an expert would recog-nize the difference in the markings of the ancient written language of the Phoenicians, cuneiform, which predated hieroglyphics by who knew how many centuries.

“I wish I knew what this material is,” Samantha said, talking to herself as she fingered the scroll kept her from rushing through the delicate process.

With magnifying glass in hand, she peered intently at the first line.

“Are you in there?” She spoke aloud as if the scroll was listening. “A fallen angel with no name; what do you want to tell me? How can I help you if I don’t know your name?”

Sunday, June 7, 2009

Ghostwriter - Chapter 1

Ghostwriter

FaithWords (May 28, 2009)


Chapter 1











November 2008

On his knees, Dennis Shore cries out.
But it does no good, and it never will.
“Say something.”
But nothing is said.
The wind beats at him, the fi eld fl at and endless, the ground
lifeless. The dark heart of the sun fades, and with it, so does hope.
A curse tears out of his mouth.
He shakes and tightens his body and glares at the sky. The words bleed in his mouth, fi ery and tingling.
He curses again, louder, as if his words are not heard.
And then he takes the lighter and fl icks it. Once. Twice.
Again and again until it finally ignites.
He watches the photograph burn, wrinkling and glowing until it slowly wisps away to nothingness.
Just like Lucy did.
And just like he will.

The Warning

(Ten Months Later)

1.

Terror should start in the dead of night, with rain trickling off the rooftops and thunder bellowing in the sky. But for Dennis Shore, it began with the simple ringing of his doorbell.

It was midmorning, already warm and looking to be clear and hot all day. Two weeks ago, he had gotten back from driving his daughter cross-country to college in California. Despite having the house all to himself now, the old routine remained the same: getting up, taking a walk along the river, coming home to the aroma of coffee, and heading up to his offi ce on the second fl oor of the hundred-year-old Victorian mansion. Yet even though the routine was the same, nothing about it felt as it had in his former life. His life when Lucy was around, when she could take the walk with him and make the coffee for him and interrupt his writing when she needed to. When she was alive. The anniversary of her passing approached, and Dennis found that nothing was the same without her. Including his writing.

His morning commute consisted of climbing the stairs to the room two doors down from their bedroom, overlooking the lawn and the Fox River below. For many years now, he had spent his mornings in this room, facing the computer screen, clacking away at the keyboard, staring through the blinds at the trees and the river, letting his imagination roam free. That imagination had been very good to him. It had been very good to his family. But ever since learning about Lucy’s cancer, it had virtually disappeared.

Now he found himself going through the motions, like a businessman shuffl ing papers all day long without ever really doing any work. Instead of arriving at his desk a little after eight each morning, Dennis found himself dropping into his expensive leather chair around nine or nine thirty. He might surf the Internet and check out the national news and see what movies were coming up and spend a thousand other minutes wandering in a thousand other spaces. He spent a lot of time on e-mail, something he had neglected when Lucy and Audrey were around. At least there was some pleasure in knowing how surprised his fans were to receive a personal e-mail from their favorite author.

On this particular morning, the Tuesday after Labor Day, he was watching yet another political satire on YouTube when the doorbell rang. The ring always sounded wrong to him, like it was ringing in an old church rather than a suburban home. Certain things about this house would always be old, even if he replaced them. Maybe it was the acoustics or just his imagination (the small bit that remained), but the doorbell seemed to echo a bit too long.

Dennis used to hate interruptions during his writing, especially when he was in midthought or midsentence. But now these interruptions were almost welcomed. Climbing down the creaking wooden stairs, Dennis opened the door.

And for the fi rst few seconds as he stood at the entryway, he was sure his eyes were playing a trick on him. Or he was dreaming. That’s right. He was dreaming, and he would wake up soon.

But he knew that wasn’t right. He felt the sunlight on his bare arms and smelled autumn in the air, and he knew he wasn’t dreaming because he hadn’t dreamt since Lucy passed.

Dennis stood at the door, staring at a tall skinny girl who was white as a ghost. Her black eyes and raven hair were the two things that stood out: eyes that didn’t blink, that didn’t move, that looked dead; and long, stringy hair that fell all the way to her waist.

As he noticed the hair, he noticed something else.

Both of her hands shook. And on each of her arms, just below the sleeves of her short-sleeved shirt, brownish-purple bruises stood out like grotesque tattoos.

Before Dennis could say anything, she made a simple declaration: “The book cannot come out.”

But even though he stood there startled and speechless, Dennis knew exactly what she was talking about.

He had wondered when this day might come.

2.

Dennis wanted to say something—what exactly, he wasn’t sure—as he glanced out toward the lawn, freshly cut from yesterday. Nobody was around—no television crew or joking friends or anybody capable of explaining what was going on. Finally he reached out and touched the girl’s shoulder.

She winced in pain, her pale ghostly face grimacing. He stared once again at the bruises evenly placed along her arms. He wondered how they got there.

“Are you okay?” he asked as his eyes watched her trembling body. “What’re you doing here?”

“You’re Dennis Shore, right?” Her voice sounded hoarse, as though from screaming.

He hesitated to answer the question, thinking back to the incident with the fan a few years ago. “What do you want?”

“Answer the question. Are you Dennis Shore?”

“Yes.”

The eyes remained lifeless, unmoved.

“You’re in a lot of trouble.”

“What are you talking about?”

“I’m talking about someone who wants to hurt you the way he hurt me. And I don’t think he’ll be as gentle with you as he was with me.”

Something in her voice was off. Her angry eyes and almost fearful trembling body contradicted each other.

“Who are you talking about?”

“I was hoping you’d tell me. I was hoping you could tell me who did this to me.”

“Who did what?”

She dropped to her knees and began crying. Crying and cursing. Dennis knelt over and touched her back. She pulled away at his touch.

“Can I get someone—”

“Don’t you call a soul. Don’t call anybody. I swear on my life—don’t call anybody.”

“What’s your name? Are you cold?”

“Of course I’m not cold,” she said.

“You’re shivering.”

“I’ve come to warn you, Dennis.”

“Warn me about what?”

“Are you going to let me in or make me stay on your doorstep so the neighbors can watch?”

Dennis couldn’t help looking around again, knowing nobody else was there. Then he stepped away and let the gaunt girl walk past and into the house.

She didn’t ask whether she could sit on the couch in his living room. She sat at the edge, her arms still trembling. Dennis noticed her bony ankles, so frail they looked like they could snap any second.

“Do you need help?”

“You’re a writer, right?” she asked him.

“Yes.”

“Don’t worry, I’m not a deranged fan. I haven’t read any of your books. But he has.”

“Who?”

“The guy who did this. The guy who did this to me. The guy I can’t get out of me.”

She wrapped her arms around her legs as though trying to make herself into a ball, as though she was trying to hide.

“He just kept saying the same thing over and over.”

“What’s your name?” Dennis asked. “Please—are you okay?”

“If it starts it will be impossible to stop,” she said, her voice throaty, grainy.

“If what starts?”

“That’s what he kept saying to me over and over again. If it starts it will be impossible to stop.”

His eyes found the purple bruises.

“That’s nothing. You should’ve seen what else he did. You should see my back. And my stomach.”

“Who did this to you?”

“I haven’t even read anything by you. I just lied and told him I had. Not even to be cool, you know. Just to say I had. I think I saw a movie or two. I don’t know.”

“I’m sorry but I don’t understand—”

“Yeah well, I don’t understand either, Mr. Shore. I go to a bar the other night and meet this interesting guy who buys me all these drinks, and one thing leads to another and then the guy starts beating me. Not in the face. But in other places. And he does other things. And he’s angry. This guy is the angriest guy I’ve ever met. But he’s also just—I don’t know. Crazy. And he keeps talking about you. About Dennis Shore this and that. All while he’s hurting me.”

“Look, we need to call the police.”

“No.”

“If you’ll just settle down for a moment, I’ll—”

“You settle down. You don’t get it. You have to stop it now. The book can’t be published.”

“What book?”

“Empty Spaces.”

“It’s not out yet.”

“I know that. I’m trying to tell you it can’t be published because if it is you’ll suffer.”

Her words made sense, but the way she was speaking them and this entire scene made none at all.

“Just listen—okay? Just tell me your name, and I’ll make sure—”

Suddenly a scream tore from the girl, startling Dennis so that he stepped back and almost tripped over an armchair.

“I know why I am here, Dennis. Do you?”

A vein lined her forehead, her lips pouty and full.

“I live here. And it’s okay, I’m going to get you some help—”

Once again she howled. “Do not mock me.”

“I’m not mocking you.”

“I know all about you.”

He nodded.

“I know all about you, Dennis, and you need to stop that book from being published.”

“Okay, sure. Why don’t we just settle down and talk about this?”

“There is nothing to talk about. Not anymore. Not now. Not after what you’ve done.”

“What’s your name?” Dennis asked, inches away from her but not touching her.

“It’s Samantha. And I know.”

“Good. You know. That’s good.”

She shook her head, her eyes narrowing. “Don’t patronize me, Dennis. I know things. This guy—this monster. He told me. He told me right before . . .”

“Right before what?”

“Right before he took from me. Right before he took something that didn’t belong to him. Right before he hurt me.”

Dennis looked into her dark, probing eyes.

“The same way you took from him.”

He didn’t breathe. He didn’t move. He just stared at her, the white skin and the dark eyes and the twitching body.

Samantha rubbed her hands as though she were cold even though the room was warm. With a glance that didn’t waver, eyes that didn’t blink, she spoke clearly.

“You’ve done something, and I don’t know if he wanted me to warn you or not. You need to understand—you’ve done something and you need to be careful.”

“Careful about what?”

“This man wants to hurt you. And it’s all because . . . Plain and simple, the book cannot come out. It can’t be released. Ever.”

3.

Dennis wanted to back up and retrace the moments from waking up. Was it something in the coffee? Perhaps a full moon approaching? Was he still in bed having a long, drawnout nightmare that he would from?

Nothing explained the girl sitting across from him.

Yet even though he had a hundred questions, Dennis didn’t want to talk about his next book.

He wanted to change the subject.

Permanently.

“Where are you from?”

“Does it matter?” she asked.

“I just—if you have family—”

“My family’s all from downstate. I’ve been living in Chicago since college. For the last few years.”

Dennis couldn’t help sighing, feeling uncomfortable and unsure what to do.

“I’m not mad.”

“Excuse me?” Dennis asked.

“I’m not crazy. I know—I heard about it just like everybody else. The girl who broke into your house a few years ago. Said she was your biggest fan. Went all Kathy Bates on you? I know. I’m not that person. Like I said, I’ve never read anything by you.”

“Okay.”

“Plus, I even rang the doorbell.”

“And you came here to warn me?”

She licked her dry, cracking lips. “How many times do I need to tell you?”

“But I don’t understand.”

“I hoped you could give me a little more information on the guy who raped me.”

He stared at her as her eyes bored into his soul.

“That’s right. I said it. And as much as I’ve tried, I can’t get the stench of him off me.”

“When did this happen?”

“A couple weeks ago.”

“Did you report it?”

“Of course not. I don’t even know who the guy is. What his name is. Nothing. I was hoping you could tell me.”

“I don’t know who you’re talking about.”

He felt something inside of him ache. He guessed her to be around the same age as his daughter. He wanted to put an arm around her, to call the authorities, to rush her to the hospital, to do something. But he doubted she would let him do a thing.

“You don’t have any crazy relatives? Any crazed fans that have been terrorizing you lately? Nothing?”

Dennis shook his head.

“He acted like—when he was hurting me, he kept saying your name over and over again.”

“Are you—do you need anything?”

“Oh sure. Maybe the last fi ve years of my life back. Then I wouldn’t be at the wrong place with the wrong people, and I wouldn’t happen to meet the wrong guy. I always meet the wrong guy but this—this was different. He was different.”

“Samantha—look . . .”

“No no no,” she said. “I didn’t come here for sympathy. I came here to tell you. Some crazy guy has a thing for you. And he said the next book couldn’t come out. So there, I told you. And that’s it.”

She stood to leave.

“Don’t—hey, let me just call one of my friends. I have a buddy who’s a cop.”

“No thanks. I’ve dealt with them enough in my life.”

“Can I get you anything?”

“Yeah. You can give me the name of the guy who did this to me.”

“So you can report him?”

She laughed, a low, maniacal laugh that made Dennis’s skin crawl.

“I don’t want to report him,” she said. “I want to kill him.”

Dennis watched as she opened the front door and glanced back at him. A wave of prickles washed over his skin as he noticed her smile.

It was the kind people wore when they were dressed in their Sunday best, lying on their backs in a casket as mourners passed by.

4.

“I couldn’t get her to stay.”

“Did you want her to stay?” Ryan Cummings asked as he sipped from the cup of coffee Dennis gave him.

“Not exactly. But I didn’t want her to go either.”

“She drive here?”

“She walked down my driveway toward the road and disappeared. I didn’t hear an engine start.”

Ryan gave a wry smile. “Maybe she was a ghost.”

“That’s funny,” Dennis told the deputy.

Ryan had been a friend since years ago when he professed to be a big fan. Ever since Breathe broke out and became a bestseller, Dennis discovered more and more self-professed fans everywhere, from the grocery store to his dentist’s offi ce. Ryan was a nice guy, the sort of cop who probably wouldn’t write you a ticket if he pulled you over for speeding.

Dennis met the affable young man after the garage incident— the second since Dennis’s launch into fame. The fi rst and more harmless incident, the one the media found out about and reported, involved a high school girl who showed up at his house in the middle of the night to get an autograph. He had laughed it off, but it had shaken Lucy up pretty badly.

The garage incident happened months later, and the only people who knew about it were the local authorities. Dennis hadn’t even told his wife or daughter.

“You don’t think she’s talking about Sonny, do you?” “Sonny Jacobs? No way. That guy’s still in a nuthouse over in Tinley Park. He was harmless. Sonny would never hurt a girl. And a girl would never talk to Sonny.”

Sonny Jacobs was the bipolar, alcoholic fan Dennis found in his garage one afternoon, holding a loaded gun, talking about cowriting a book with Dennis. The gun turned out to be empty, but nevertheless it was a scary experience. Dennis had called the cops and a host of them had swarmed his house.

It had luckily been when Lucy and Audrey were spending a weekend in downtown Chicago.

“What do you think I should do?” Dennis asked.

Ryan wasn’t dressed in his uniform since he was off today. It wasn’t unusual for Dennis to see the deputy when he was off. Dennis used Ryan as a resource for his novels. The young guy with the crew-cut hair and boyish looks enjoyed assisting Dennis in his writing projects.

But there hadn’t been a writing project in some time now.

“You wanna report it?”

“I’m not sure what I’d report.”

Dennis had told Ryan everything. Well, almost everything. Everything except the girl’s accusation that he had stolen something.

Dennis kept that comment to himself.

“She didn’t take anything, did she? Did you threaten you?”

“No.”

“Then there’s nothing to do.”

“What if she really was raped? What if the story is true?”

“Then she needs to report it. You said she lives in Chicago, right?”

“That’s what she said.”

They were in the same room that Dennis and the girl had been sitting in, a separate room right off the entry to the old mansion. The house had been built in 1895 and renovated several times since, the most recent right after Dennis and Lucy moved in seven years ago. The rooms had high ceilings and intricate woodwork, especially around the fi replace in the living room.

“She didn’t look like she was lying,” Dennis said.

“Think she’s on anything?”

“I don’t know. She didn’t act like it. But I’m not a good judge of that.”

“Want to fi le a report?”

Dennis shook his head. “No. The last thing I want is press. I got enough of that last time. I think it only breeds more intruders and craziness.”

Dennis went to the kitchen to get a bottled water. Ryan followed him and took in the view of the backyard. The deputy stared out at the sunlight beaming off the river behind the house.

“You have quite a view.”

“That’s what sold us on the place. Lucy always wanted a house by the river.”

Ryan looked back at him, a sad smile on his face. “Last time I saw you was at the funeral.”

“Yeah. Saw a lot of people that day.”

“Sorry.”

“Me too.”

“Where’s Audrey?”

“Took her to college a few weeks ago. All the way in southern California.”

“Where’s she going?”

“Biola. She got a scholarship there.”

“Never heard of Biola.”

“It’s a Christian college.” Dennis rolled his eyes. “That’s something she takes after her mom.”

“How’s that going?”

“Her being at college or me being here alone?”

“Both.”

“Well, Audrey’s loving it. And as for me, despite the visit from Little Miss Spooky, things are normal.” Dennis shrugged.

“Ask me in a month.”

“Okay.”

Dennis scanned the lawn and its crisscross pattern. He peered through a window that could use cleaning, looking out toward the river that never stopped and never died.

The deputy patted his back. “Don’t look so worried, buddy. Maybe she’ll get some help.”

“Yeah, maybe.”

But for some strange reason, Dennis didn’t think so. And all he could hear were the words she had said in that frightening, unnatural tone: “The book cannot come out. It can’t be released. Ever.”

Dennis did his best to make small talk with Ryan about his books and writing and the fact that Ryan’s aunt so-and-so just read all of his books and eagerly awaited the new one.

The new one that must not be published.

Dennis soon found himself telling the deputy good-bye, wondering if he had imagined the whole thing.

Things like that only happened in the pages of books and on the movie screen. This was real life, which consisted only of living, breathing human beings you could see and touch. That’s all.

Just because he wrote bestselling novels about the supernatural didn’t mean he believed in them.

5.

At four that afternoon, the doorbell rang again.

Dennis was half asleep, watching ESPN. He bolted off the couch toward the door, hesitating as he grasped the handle. He knew it was the girl again. It had to be her.

He wondered if he should call the cops.

Finally he opened the door, surprised to see a tall man in a brown uniform.

“Hello, sir,” the UPS driver said, asking him to sign for a package.

He didn’t need to open the box to know what was inside. For a long time he just stood there, staring at the package.

Eventually he opened it.

The new book had arrived.

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Scream - Chapter 1




Scream

Realms (March 3, 2009)

Chapter 1


Mark Stone could still smell the grease on his hands.

No matter how hard he scrubbed or what fancy soap he used, the residue remained, stained into the creases of his fingers and caked under his fingernails. In a way, though, it was comforting. At least something in his life was still predictable. He gripped the steering wheel of his classic Mustang with both hands and willed his eyes to stay open. The hum of rubber on asphalt was almost hypnotic. It had been a long day at the shop, and he was ready to go home, soak in a hot shower until he puckered like a raisin, and get cozy with his pillow.

Outside, the headlights cut a swath of pale yellow light through the dense autumn darkness. Stars dotted the night like glitter on black felt. A pocked moon dangled low in the sky in front of him, a cratered carrot on the end of an unseen string, leading him home, home to the comfort of his bed.

His cell phone chimed the theme from The Dukes of Hazzard. Mark turned down the radio and flipped open the phone. It was Jeff Beaverson. “Jeffrey.”

“Hey, buddy. How goes it?”

Mark glanced at the dashboard clock—10:10. “Kinda late for you, isn’t it?”

Jeff laughed. “You know me too well. I was at my parents’ house installing a new hot water heater, and it took longer than I thought it would. I’m heading home now. Gonna walk in the door and drop myself right into bed. You in the car?”

“On my way home.”

“Boy, you’re putting in some late hours.”

“Yeah, business is good right now. Keeps my mind off...stuff. You know.”

“I know, buddy. I’ve been thinking about you. Thought I’d check in and make sure we’re still on for tomorrow.”

Tomorrow. Saturday. He and Jeff were scheduled to meet for breakfast at The Victory.
On the radio, John Mellencamp was belting out “Small Town.”

“Yeah. Seven o’clock. You still...kay with...at?

“Sure. Where are you? You’re breakin’ up.”

“Mill Road. Down...oopers Hollow...lasts a...ittle.”

Mark paused and tapped his hand to the beat of the music. Jeff’s voice boomed into his ear. “Am I back? Can you hear me now?”

“Yeah, I can hear you fine now,” Mark said with a laugh.

Jeff snorted into the phone. “I always lose my bars along that stretch. Hey, I’ve been meaning to ask you...”

Jeff’s voice was suddenly drowned by a hideous screaming. Not just one voice, but a multitude of voices mingling and colliding, merging and blending in a cacophony of wails and groans, grunts and cries. A million mouths weeping and howling in bone-crunching pain. Agony. As if their skin was being peeled off inch by inch and their burning anguish was somehow captured on audio. It rose in volume, lasted maybe five, six seconds, then stopped just as abruptly as it had started.

Mark clicked off the radio and pressed the phone tighter against his ear. Goose bumps crawled over his arms. “Jeff? You OK, man?”

There was a pause, then, “Yeah. Yes. I’m fine. What the blazes was that? Did you hear it?”

Mark massaged the steering wheel with his left hand. “Yeah, I heard it. Sounded like something out of some horror movie.” Or hell. Weeping and gnashing of teeth. “Weird.”

“Maybe our signals got tangled with something else. Weird is right. Anyway, I’ve been wanting to ask you—and we can talk more about it tomorrow if you want—how are you and Cheryl doing?”

Mark clenched his jaw, pressing his molars together. Cheryl. Don’t make me go there, Jeff. It’s too soon. “I don’t know. I think it’s over.”

“Over?”

Over. Finished. Kaput. I blew it, and now I have to live with it. “Nothing official yet. But she pretty much made it clear she doesn’t want anything to do with me.”

Jeff paused and sighed into the phone. “Man, I’m sorry. Is there anything I can do?”

Mark slowed the Mustang around a hairpin turn. He didn’t want to talk about this now. He wasn’t ready. And besides, it was late, and he was tired. “No. I don’t even think there’s anything more I can do. Can we talk about it in the morning?”

“Absolutely. I just...wait. Hang on a sec. What’s this guy—”

The sound of screeching tires filled the receiver. Rubber howling against asphalt. Then a low earthy rumble...Jeff grunting...crunching metal and shattering glass.

Mark leaned heavy on the brake, and the Mustang fishtailed to a stop. The engine growled impatiently. “Jeff? You there?”

Nothing. Not even static. His pulse throbbed in his ears.

Mark dialed Jeff’s number. Four rings. “Hello, this is Jeff.” Voice mail. Great. “You know what to do.” A woman’s voice came on. “To leave a voice message, press one or wait for the tone. To—”

Mark’s thumb skidded over the keypad, dialing 911.

Sheriff Wiley Hickock sidestepped down the steep embankment, sweeping the light from his flashlight to and fro in a short arc. Up above, a couple of firefighters were winding a hose; two others were stripping out of their gear. Lights flashed in an even rhythm, illuminating the area in a slow strobe of red and white. Red, red, white; red, red, white. The pungent smell of melted rubber and burnt flesh permeated the air. Three towers holding four floodlights each lit up the area like a baseball stadium during a night game.

When he reached the bottom, Hickock surveyed the ball of twisted, smoldering metal that had once been a Honda Civic before it bulldozed ten feet of oak saplings and wrapped around the scarred trunk of a mature walnut tree. Tongues of smoke curled from the misshapen steel and licked at the leaves of the walnut. A large swath of ground had been dug up, exposing the dark, rich soil.

Deputy Jessica Foreman headed toward him. Her dark russet hair looked like it had been hastily pulled back in a loose ponytail. Her uniform was wrinkled, a road map of creases. Her hands were sheathed in blackened latex gloves.

Wiley frowned as she approached. “Sorry to get you out here on your day off, Jess. Thanks for helping out, though.”

Jess tugged off the latex gloves and swept a rebellious lock of hair away from her face and tucked it behind her ear. “Do what’s gotta be done, right?”

Wiley squinted and ran a finger over his mustache. “That’s what they say. When did fire and EMS get here?” There were still some firefighters milling around the wreckage, poking at it with their axes. Two paramedics were standing off to the right, talking and laughing.

“’Bout twenty minutes ago. Didn’t take long to douse the fire.” She glanced at the paramedics. “No need for those guys. Did you notice the skid marks on the road?”

Wiley nodded, keeping his eyes on what barely resembled a car. The driver was still in there. He could see his rigid, charred body still smoldering. Mouth open in a frozen scream. Lips peeled back. Back arched. Fingers curled around the steering wheel. He’d seen it only once before—a burned body. It was revolting, and yet there was something about it that held his gaze, as if the burnt stiff had reached out with those bony, black fingers and grabbed his eyeballs—Look at me!

He shut his eyes tight, trying to push the memory of the other burnt corpse from his mind. He knew it would never leave, though. It was seared there by some psycho-something branding iron.

Wiley opened his eyes and blinked twice. Concentrate. “Yup. Two sets of ’em. But only one car. I don’t like it. Loose ends. What’s your take?”

Jess shrugged and nodded toward the wreck. “Got run off the road by a drunk or sleeper, lost control, and met Mr. Tree.”

“You sound fairly certain. Got a witness?”

Jess turned and pointed over her shoulder. “Almost. See that guy over there?”

Wiley looked up the embankment and saw a thirty-something average joe in a faded gray T-shirt and grease-stained jeans leaning against a classic Mustang, hair disheveled, arms crossed, shoulders slumped, eyes blank. “Yeah. Who’s he?”

“He was on the phone with—” She jerked her thumb toward the wreck and the stiff. “Said he heard the accident happen and called it in. Got here before anyone else, but the car was already a torch. Name’s Stone. Mark. Said our friend here said something like ‘What’s this guy doin’?’ then he heard the wheels lock up and busting up stuff, then nothing.”

Wiley eyed Stone again. In the light of the cruiser’s strobes, his eyes looked like two lifeless chunks of coal. His mouth was a thin line, jaw firm.

Wiley turned his attention back to the Civic. “Anything else?”

“No. Not yet anyway.”

They both stood quietly, studying the remains of the car, until a man’s high-pitched voice from their right broke the silence. “Sheriff.”

Wiley turned to see Harold Carpenter, volunteer fire chief, high-stepping through the tall grass, his chubby jowls jiggling like Jell-O with each movement. With his sagging cheeks, underbite, and heavy bloodshot eyes, the man looked like a bulldog.

Carpenter stopped in front of Wiley, flushed and out of breath. “Sheriff. What’d ya think?”

Wiley didn’t even look at him. He kept his eyes on the corpse sitting behind the wheel. “Just got here, Harry. Don’t think much yet.”

Carpenter shoved a singed, brown leather wallet at Wiley. “Here’s the driver’s wallet. One of my guys retrieved it from the...uh...back pocket.”

Wiley took the wallet and handed it to Jess. Opening it, she slipped out the driver’s license. It was singed around the top edge. “Jeffrey David Beaverson.”

“Did you run the plates yet?” Wiley asked.

Jess nodded. “Sure did. Same Beaverson.”

It was a perfect day for a funeral. If such a thing existed.

The sky was a thick slab of slate suspended over the small town of Quarry, Maryland, coloring everything in drab hues of gray. A dense mist hung in the air, a blanket of moisture, covering the region in a damp clamminess. The air was cool but not cold, and there was no wind whatsoever.

Mark Stone walked from his car to the grave site, his black loafers sinking into the soft ground. With the exception of their little cluster of about twenty people, the cemetery was empty. Still and quiet. Eerie, Mark thought. For acres, granite headstones protruded from the ground like stained teeth, each memorializing somebody’s loved one, lost forever. In the distance, maybe a hundred yards away, stood a mausoleum, a concrete angel perched on the roof above the doorway. Mark shuddered at the thought of a body lying inside. Dead and cold.

Mark looked to his right then to his left. The other mourners—friends and family of the Beaversons—were climbing out of their cars and making their way across the wet grass, shoulders slumped, heads bowed low. Men held black umbrellas against their shoulders; women held white tissues to their noses. A few trees dotted the landscape, their twisted, half-barren branches reaching into the gray sky as if begging for even a glimmer of life. But there was no life in a place like this. Only death.

Mark swallowed the lump that had become a permanent fixture in his throat and ran a sleeve across his eyes.

The reverend (Mahoney, was it?) stood beside the black, polished casket, faced Wendy Beaverson, and opened a little black book. He cleared his throat and began reading, “Jesus said to her, ‘I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in Me, though he may die, he shall live. And whoever lives and believes...”

Mark looked across the casket at Wendy. Her red, swollen eyes leaked tears that coursed down her cheeks in long rivulets. Her honey-colored hair was pulled back in a tight bun, accentuating the sharp angles of her face. She wore a black knee-length overcoat buttoned to the collar. In her left arm sat little Gracie, clinging to her mommy’s neck.

Poor kid. She’ll never remember her daddy. He was a great guy, sweetheart.

Wendy’s right arm was draped over Sara’s shoulder. The eldest daughter, just five, leaned against Wendy’s hip, her head fitting perfectly in the dip of her mother’s waist.

A sob rose in Mark’s throat, and he struggled to keep it under control. Death was a beastly thing. Showed no mercy at all. A daddy torn from his family; children left confused and empty; wife suddenly bearing the burden of raising two daughters by herself, no one to share joys and heartbreaks with. What a crock.

Reverend Mahoney continued talking, his monotone voice a fitting backdrop to the dismal atmosphere. “And so, as we bury Jeffrey today, it is true to say we bury one of us. We bury him in a cemetery...”

Cheryl had an arm around Wendy’s shoulders, holding her tight. She always was the caring type. A real Mother Teresa. Mark wiped at his eyes again and watched his wife comfort his best friend’s wife. Widow.

“...I have never yet heard anyone say there is a different heaven for each faith...”

A splinter of guilt stabbed at Mark’s heart, and he was suddenly glad he and Cheryl had not yet had kids. He’d hurt her enough. Ripped her heart out and tossed it in the garbage like last week’s leftovers.

—It’s over, Mark. Done.

—Cher—Cheryl, wait...I—

—No! Wait? Wait for what? Wait for what, Mark? Your apology?

—Cheryl, please don’t go—

—Shut up! You think saying you’re sorry can make up for what you...what you did to me? To us?

He would have never been able to bear knowing he’d not only betrayed Cheryl but betrayed a son or daughter, or both, as well. Hurting Cheryl was enough. More than enough. Seeing her now, he could barely stand to be in his own skin. If only. That’s what he’d told himself a million times since she’d found out. If only this. If only that.

“...we are all the same before God...”

Life was full of if onlys, wasn’t it? But the kick in the gut is that those if onlys become a phantom, a haunting, relentless ghost that clings to the soul like a parasite, slowly sucking the life from its host. But there’s not a thing to be done about it. No one can change the past. What’s done is done. Live with it.

Mahoney was still droning, “...we take nothing with us when we die...”

Cheryl looked up, and her gaze met Mark’s. A knot twisted his stomach at the sight of her hollow eyes. They were once so brilliant, so alive, so...blue. The color of a Caribbean surf on a cloudless day. From somewhere deep in his noodle (that’s what Cheryl would say) a memory surfaced. Mark didn’t want it to surface, not now. Save it for some lonely time when he was parked on the sofa in front of the TV with a microwave dinner on a little folding tray.

The memory: sitting on a blanket in the park, Cheryl by his side, her head on his shoulder, a cool breeze playing with her hair, bringing the scent of her shampoo so close he could almost smell it now. Cheryl tilts her face toward his.

—What d’ya know, babycakes?

—I know I love you.

—Really? Forever and ever, cross your heart and hope to die?

—Forever and ever. Cross my heart and hope to die.

But now those eyes were dull, muted by the pain of betrayal and the ache of death. Her face was drawn and pale, thinner than the last time he saw her.

I’m sorry, Cheryl. So sorry.

He wanted to scream the words, run to her and drop to his knees, but she would never forgive him. She held his stare for mere seconds, her eyes piercing his with a loneliness that he’d brought on.

Cheryl. Baby. Babycakes. I’m sorry.

“...So as we bury Jeffrey, we bury one of us...”

Mark shifted his weight, clasped his hands behind his back, and lowered his head, letting the mist cool the back of his neck.

When Mahoney finally finished, the mourners slowly cleared, whispering to each other. “Isn’t it a shame.” “What a horrible tragedy.” “The poor woman. Two little girls with no daddy, but didn’t they look precious.”

Back to life as they know it. Life goes on. For some.

Wendy approached the casket and rested her hand on the glossy surface. She whispered something Mark couldn’t quite make out. Little Gracie turned her head to look at the box that held her daddy, and Sara choked out a sob, her tender mouth twisting into a broken frown.

As Wendy passed Mark, she rested her hand on his forearm and squeezed. She didn’t say anything, but her eyes said it all: Thanks for coming.

Mark forced a smile and nodded.

Cheryl followed Wendy. As she passed in front of Mark, he took her arm in his hand. “Cheryl, I—”

“Don’t, Mark,” she said, her voice strained with grief. She looked at the ground and her chin quivered. “Don’t.”

Mark let his hand fall to his side and let his wife walk out of his life. Again.

Ten minutes later he was sitting behind the wheel of his Mustang, tiny raindrops pattering on the windshield. The mourners were mostly gone now, heading to the Beaversons’ home for the wake. He didn’t want to go but knew he had to at least make an appearance . . . for Wendy. His mind wasn’t on the wake, wasn’t even on the funeral. It was on the screams. They were as fresh in his mind today as when he’d first heard them a week ago.

He’d raced to Cooper’s Hollow after dialing 911. The first thing he saw was the gyrating orange glow of the fire on the horizon, retching a pillar of smoke as black as new charcoal into the night sky. The next thing he saw was Jeff’s Civic engulfed in angry flames and Jeff pinned behind the steering wheel, bloated and stiff. The sound of the fire was like a locomotive. The smell of burning fuel and flesh was hot in his lungs.

The rest of the night was a black blur, a nightmare that would surface piece by piece until the whole ghastly affair played itself out like some cut-’em-up horror movie in his head. And he would be forced to watch, eyelids taped open and head held in place. The last thing he remembered was arriving home, falling into bed, and dreaming of Jeff’s blackened corpse writhing in anguish as flames licked at his flesh and wrapped his body in hell’s chains.

Mark ran his hands over his face, feeling the bristles of his morning stubble, a reminder that he hadn’t shaved. He could still hear the screams, awful sounds, like thousands, no, millions, of voices lifted in agony, a chorus of misery and anguish. Every time the sounds of the outside world died and silence crept in like a demon, the screams were there, echoing through his head, filling his ears with the sound of the tortured. If it was nothing more than tangled signals like Jeff had suggested, where was the signal coming from? Hell, that’s where.

He shut his eyes and pressed both palms to his forehead. Maybe the wake would take his mind off things.


Judge sat in an old brown metal desk chair in the center of a basement room, elbows resting on the armrests, fingertips lightly pressed together, forming a tent in front of his face. A gray metal desk sat against one wall, its surface covered with photo clippings and notebook paper scrawled with notes. To the left of the desk stood a metal bookshelf, empty except for one stack of spiral notebooks and manila file folders. To the right of the bookshelf stood a gray, metal, four-drawer locking file cabinet.

Everything was metal. Firm. Dependable. Solid.

Fire resistant.

In the center of the room, a single 60-watt bulb dangled from the ceiling, casting sharp shadows on the walls.

All four walls were covered with a collage of photos. A closer look would reveal that all the pictures were of four women in particular. One for each wall.

His four victims.

No, not victims. No way. They weren’t victims. She was a victim. Katie was. They were perpetrators. Guilty and getting exactly what they deserved. Justice.

He stood, walked over to the wall behind the desk, and stared at a photo of a brown-haired woman in a miniskirt and halter top. Amber. He knew everything about her. Probably more than she knew about herself.

She got off work every night at ten. Took exactly thirty-seven seconds to walk the forty-five yards to her car. Drove a late model Chevy Cavalier that she bought from Prairie View Pre-Owned Cars eight months ago. License plate: LUV ME. Drove the five miles to her second-floor apartment in just under ten minutes, depending on traffic flow and traffic light patterns. She was thirty-one, five-six, hazel eyes, and drop-dead gorgeous.

Drop dead, gorgeous.

She was lovely, though, wasn’t she?

But it wasn’t about love. No way. Not even about desire or lust or hunger. He wasn’t a pervert like some. Sure, he liked to look as much as the next guy, but when it came down to business, it wasn’t about the needs of the flesh. It was about justice. And he was the judge and the jury.

That’s why he called himself Judge.

She was guilty. They were all guilty.

He smiled and stroked the tuft of hair below his lower lip. He’d heard somewhere that it was called a soul patch. A fitting name. His soul needed to be patched.

He then smoothed his mustache with his left hand and gently stroked the photo with his right.

Justice would be served tonight. His heart beat a little faster at the thought, and his stomach fluttered. This is what he was born to do. Be an agent of justice. An enforcer of right.

An image flashed through his mind. A young girl, thirteen. Katie. She was innocent, and they killed her.

And he did nothing. Cowering like a frightened kitten, fighting the urge to vomit, struggling to find oxygen, he did nothing but watch in paralyzed horror.

Well, no more.

He glanced at his watch—8:27—and tapped a picture of Amber. “Soon.”

The plan was ready, everything down to the last detail. Details were good. He would carefully execute the plan, documenting everything.

Tonight. Justice.

It’s gonna be a hot time in the old town tonight.

Amber Mann slipped off her apron and hung it on a brass hook on the wall. She tucked a lock of hair behind her ear, stood on her toes, and looked at herself in the small mirror that someone had hung a little too high for the averaged-height waitress.

“You outta here, hon?” Marge, her co-waitress for the evening, emerged from one of the bathroom stalls and went to wash her hands.

Amber smoothed her eyeliner, puckered her lips, and applied a thin layer of lip gloss. “Yup.” She glanced at the clock on the wall—the one with Bertha’s Diner in fancy script painted across the face. Someone had given it to Bertha for the diner’s twentieth anniversary. She didn’t particularly care for the style, so she’d banished it to the lady’s room. 9:57. “Three minutes and I’m punching out. I need every minute I can get.”

Marge chuckled and tilted her head to the side. “You goin’ out tonight?”

Amber shot her a sideways look and a devilish grin. “What’s it to ya, mommy dearest?” She quickly unbuttoned her uniform shirt, slipped it off, and replaced it with a black tank top with thin shoulder straps. Yanking her pants off, she pulled on a black miniskirt that barely covered her fanny. She then slid her feet into a pair of black pumps.

“Well, if you ain’t, you sure look good for just sittin’ ’round your ’partment.”

Amber laughed. “Yeah, I’m going out. Over to Bruno’s, see what kind of action is happening tonight.”

Marge put her hands on her hips and gave her a motherly look. “Well, be careful. Bruno’s ain’t the safest place for a girl lookin’ like you to be goin’. Lotsa tough guys tryin’ to impress the girls there.”

Amber stuffed her uniform in a pink duffle bag. She grinned wide. “Don’t worry about me, mommy. I can handle myself around the boys.”

“You doin’ anything special this weekend?” Marge said, drying her hands with a paper towel.

“Tomorrow I’m going over to my sister’s to spend some time with my nephew. You should see him; he’s so adorable. I just can’t get enough of him. How ’bout you? Got any big plans?”

Marge humphed. “Yeah, right. All Jim wants to do is sit around and watch football. The old goat. I’ll keep myself busy ’round the house, though.”

Amber looked at the clock again. “Hey, it’s time. Gotta run, Marge. Love ya, girl.” She pulled on a red coat and gave Marge a loose hug.

“Love ya, hon.”

They left the bathroom, and Amber headed for the back door. As she pushed through the door she heard Marge call out one more time, “You be careful now.”

She let the door close and breathed in a chestful of cool autumn air. Bruno’s should be hoppin’ tonight. And Mitch would be there. She could almost feel his thick arms around her waist as they danced, her head on his chest, breathing in his masculine scent. They would stay like that for hours, bodies intertwined, moving in unison to the steady rhythm of the music, then go back to his place. It was perfect, heaven on earth if there ever was one.

She strode across the parking lot toward her car, heels clicking on the asphalt, echoing in the stillness of the evening. She hadn’t told Marge about Mitch. He was a tattoo artist, had his own shop downtown. Mommy Marge would never approve. She watched over Amber like a mother hen, closer than her own mom did. Amber could just imagine what old Marge would say if she ever found—

She started and took a quick step to her left. A man was suddenly there, walking beside her, step for step. “Oh, hey. You scared me.”

The man stopped and faced her. “Amber Mann?”

She stopped too. One hand rested on her duffle bag, the other hung loosely at her side. Somewhere in the distance, a few blocks away, a car horn honked. “Yes. Is something wrong?”

“Can I ask you a few questions?”

Amber brushed some hair off her face and tucked it behind her ear. She noticed her hand was suddenly shaking. “Uh, sure. Is something wrong?”

“No, ma’am. Nothing’s wrong. Just need to ask you a few questions. It’s about Mitch Young.”

Mitch. Amber felt her stomach twist into a knot, like someone had gut-punched her. She knew what she had with Mitch wouldn’t last. It couldn’t. Her life didn’t work that way. “Um.” She bit on a fingernail, not sure if she wanted to answer questions, not sure she wanted to know Mitch’s secrets. “I guess.”

“Let’s walk to your car,” he said.

“Oh, OK.” She turned and headed toward her Cavalier. She was within feet of the car when something exploded in the back of her head.

It was nearly half an hour later by the time Judge dragged Amber to the barn. He’d had to knock her several times to subdue her enough to get the ether over her mouth and nose. She was quite the feisty one. It was too messy, though, too sloppy. During the time it took, someone could have driven by or come out of the diner. But she was the first. Now he knew; he’d have to be more careful with the others.

He gripped her by the wrists and pulled her into a corner where a bed of straw had been prepared. Outside the barn, the dogs were barking like maniacs, over and over, nonstop. Judge kicked hard against the barn wall. “Quit your bawling! Or I’ll roast you!” The racket ceased for maybe five, six seconds—long enough to notice the sound of crickets in the distance—then resumed in a flurry of yelps and coughs.

Removing a pocketknife, he flipped it open and cut the duct tape from Amber’s wrists and ankles. Just a precaution during the long ride over. He didn’t need her coming to and throwing a hissy fit in the backseat while he was driving. Safety first.

She moaned and tried to roll over, but a grimace twisted her face and she relaxed again, letting out a strained sigh. He could see two goose eggs on her head but knew there were more. He’d walloped her at least three times.

“Sleep tight, beautiful,” he said, squatting beside her. “You’re gonna have one killer headache when you wake up.”

The dogs continued their onslaught, like an old smoker trying to clear fluid from his lungs. Judge stood and kicked the boards again. “Shut up!”

Placing his hands on his hips, he looked around the barn. Enough light from the full moon was seeping through the cracks between the wall planks to dust the spacious interior with soft blue light. Straw, strewn across the floor like a loosely woven carpet, glistened under each moon ray. It was actually a very pleasant evening. What a shame to have to ruin it for little miss LUV ME here.

He stared at her for a moment, taking in her graceful, feminine form. She lay on her side, hand resting on her head, long legs slightly crossed. She was a fine specimen, indeed. But it wasn’t about that, he reminded himself. It was about justice and justice only. Nothing more, nothing less. Don’t personalize it.

But still, he couldn’t deny the fact that she was beautiful. Maybe just a peek under that skirt. She would never know—

No! It’s not like that. I’m not a monster.

He went outside, walked around to the back of the barn, and stopped in front of two metal dog kennels. Stooping to unlock them, he said, “Now boys, you keep good watch over our guest. And don’t stray too far. She’s gonna get lonely, you hear?”

Amber rolled onto her back and lifted both hands to her forehead. Her whole skull throbbed, felt like it would explode any second. She peeled her eyes open and noticed the first rays of light filtering through rough-planked walls, dust swirling in the air. Something crunched beneath her. Where was she? What happened last night? Her mind spun. She winced and ran a hand gently over her head. Where did she get these lumps? So tender. She moaned and tried to push herself to a sitting position, but her body felt like it was filled with lead, and her muscles refused to cooperate. Finally, she settled on scooting herself back and propping up on the mound of straw.

Straw? Wait a minute. She was on a bed of straw. She looked around again. Wooden planks rose vertically on either side of her about fifteen feet into the air, held together by wooden beams. A few slanted bars of sunlight slipped past the gaps in the planks and dotted the floor with golden light. Straw was scattered over the worn flooring.

Amber’s mind was slowly beginning to piece things together. Straw. Wood. Beams. She was in a barn. For the first time since regaining consciousness, she drew in a long breath. Yes, definitely a barn. The musty, earthy odor of straw and rotting hay and who-knows-how-old animal dung was unmistakable.

She looked around. The barn was obviously abandoned. There were no stacks of bales, no tools, no tractors, and as she listened, no rustle of animals. As far as she could tell, she was the only occupant. She leaned to her left and pressed her face against a gap between two wall planks. Outside the barn, the ground sloped away toward what looked like an overgrown pasture. On the other side of the field, maybe a quarter mile away, stood a line of trees that stretched as far as she could see to the left and right. North and south. The sun peeked out just over the treetops, and beyond that, fingers of pink light reached into the pale blue sky.


A jolt of panic, like a thousand-volt shock, buzzed through her nerves.

Where was she? How did she get here? And how did her head get so banged up? The questions stood like giant bullies, refusing to leave until answered. Like her dad. An image of him towering over her, thick arms crossed, forehead wrinkled, asking over and over again “How many bales today?” flashed through her mind. How many bales? She was only nine. She just wanted to do a nine-year-old’s worth of chores and go play. But he made her work and work and work. And if she didn’t make her quota? Well, well, “You’re not goin’ anywhere, missy, until you finish your chores.” He’d corner her and fire questions at her, quizzing her on mundane farm facts—how many square feet in an acre, how many acres in a square mile, how many quarts in a peck and pecks in a bushel—and wouldn’t let her eat or sleep until she answered every one correctly. The bully.

But this time she had an answer, one that made her shiver. She’d been kidnapped. Taken against her will. Abducted. Apparently beaten and . . . she didn’t even want to think about what else. Instinctively, she tugged at her skirt, wishing she’d worn pants.

Slowly, like a TV station slowly picking up the signal from a rotary antenna, her memory faded in. She left work last night and a man approached her in the parking lot. She remembered his face, lean and angular, mustache and patch of hair under his bottom lip. But that was all. Just his face. He’d asked her a question, she knew that. But what the question was, was yet another question. Unanswered.

And what about Liz? She was supposed to visit Liz and Christopher today. Surely they’d miss her and report it, right? They’d have cops looking for her before the day was over. Or maybe not. Maybe Liz would just assume something came up, something more important. But if Liz didn’t report it, surely Mitch would. She was supposed to meet him last night. Mitch. He must have been worried sick when she didn’t show. That settled it in her mind. By the end of the day, there would be a massive search effort underway. There had to be. Somebody would miss her.

She pulled her knees up and looked out between the planks again. Suddenly, a furry, toothy face appeared only inches away, mouth curled into a snarl. A dog! Then another face appeared. Two dogs! Dobermans. Outside the barn. The dogs began clawing at the planks, snarling and growling. Amber tried to push herself away from the wall, but her hand slipped on the straw, and she tumbled to her side. A jolt of pain shot up her neck and pounded in her head, and she let out a scream.

“I see you’re awake,” a voice said from one of the far corners. A man’s voice.

Amber started and sat up straight, her head scolding her for the sudden movement. She searched the far corners of the barn and noticed a man standing in one. He was wearing jeans and tanned leather work boots. The rest of his body was hidden in the shadows.

“Good morning,” he said. His voice was in no way cheerful but not altogether sinister either. The voice from last night. This was the man she’d met in the parking lot. And no doubt the man who gave her the killer headache and brought her here.

Amber tried to push farther back against the wall, but she was already pressed against it. She tugged again at her skirt. “Who are you?”

The man shifted his weight and crossed one leg over the other. “No need to bother with names here. Let’s not make this personal. You can just call me Judge. There’s a gallon of water and bag of apples to your right. That should hold you over for now.”

The dogs to Amber’s left began chewing at the wooden planks, snarling, their tongues flitting in and out of their mouths. Amber shot them a wary look.

“Don’t worry about them,” the man said. “They can’t get in. They’re to keep you from getting out. Don’t even think about making a run for it. We’re miles from nowhere, and the dogs are very hungry. Do you know what it’s like to be eaten alive? Meat pulled from your bones while you’re still kicking and screaming? No, of course you don’t. And trust me, you don’t want to find out.”

Amber covered her mouth with her hand and choked back a sob. Her eyes burned with tears, and a lump the size of one of those apples had lodged in her throat. Fear had wrapped its bony fingers around her neck and tightened its grip. “What—what are you gonna do with me? Why am I here? What do you want?”

The man chuckled and uncrossed his legs. “Soon enough, my dear. You’ll get answers to all your questions soon enough. You’ll be getting some company too. I don’t want you getting lonely all the way out here. The dogs are good for some things, but they’re lousy conversationalists.”

There was a long moment of silence, and though she couldn’t see them, masked by the shadow as they were, she could feel his eyes on her. And it made her skin crawl.

Finally, he walked to a cutout door in the middle of the larger, rolling barn door, opened it, and paused, still obscured by a slanting shadow. “Until later, Amber.” And then he was gone. She heard a lock slide into place and something large and heavy thud against the door at the bottom.

To her left, the Dobermans continued their gnawing and chewing.

It was almost three o’clock in the afternoon when Mark finally took a break to eat lunch. After the funeral yesterday he’d gone to the wake and numbly stood in a corner of the den in Jeff’s home (the same den where he’d spent countless hours playing poker, shooting pool, and rooting for the Washington Redskins) nursing his iced tea and watching Cheryl mingle with their friends. Correction, her friends. After she left him and the news became public, their friends suddenly wanted nothing to do with him. Jeff and Wendy were the only ones who had remained loyal. The rest had proven to be fair-weather friends—the worst kind.

He’d spent less than an hour at the wake, returned home, fell onto the sofa, clicked on the flat screen, and zoned out. How long he sat there or what he watched he had no idea. But it was late, wee-hours-of-the-morning late, by the time exhaustion finally overtook him. When he’d had enough, he trudged into the bedroom, the one he used to share with his wife, and collapsed on the bed, falling quickly asleep still wearing his dress clothes.

This morning he’d debated whether to go into work or not. It was, after all, Saturday. He could stay home and play zombie all day, regretting how his life had turned out, regretting every poor decision he’d ever made, regretting there was nothing he could have done to save Jeff. Or he could go to the garage, lose himself in some engine or transmission, and hopefully keep his mind off the hopelessness of life and retain his sanity for another day.

The prospect of sanity finally won.

Mark sat in a gray swivel chair in his cubicle-sized office and opened his cooler. Ham sandwich, barbecue chips, and an apple. He wasn’t hungry, but he unwrapped the sandwich and took a large bite anyway.

Jeff’s death was a shock, of course, and Mark’s heart ached for Wendy and the girls. Every time he pictured the girls in their pretty dresses standing beside that casket, a lump rose in his throat, and his eyes burned with tears. But one thing that kept hammering in his mind like a hyperactive woodpecker was the phone call he had with Jeff just before the accident. There was that awful scream that had interrupted the conversation. What was it? Where did it come from?

Mark took a long swig of Diet Pepsi, wiped the condensation from his hand, and took another bite of his sandwich. In the main shop area, his boom box belted out some guy singing.

“...you had a bad day...”

Mark grunted. That pretty much summed it up. How ’bout bad life?

His mind went back to the scream. At the time he’d thought nothing of it. Just some interference in the cell phone signal or something. But now, for some reason he couldn’t explain, he wasn’t so sure. But what was it? It was the first time he’d ever heard such a thing, and it just so happened to occur on the same night—only minutes before—Jeff got in a bizarre car accident and died? Not just died, burned to death. Weird. Very weird.

He reached for a chip and flipped it into his mouth just as the phone on his desk rang.

Mark quickly chewed the chip, took a gulp of Diet Pepsi, and answered the phone on the third ring. “Stone Service Center.”

“Mark, it’s Jerry down at Detweiler’s. How’s it going?”

Crappy, Jerry, but thanks for asking. That’s what he wanted to say, but he had no desire to talk about Jeff’s death yet. Play it safe. “’Bout half. What, you working Saturdays now too?”

Jerry chuckled. “When business is good you do what it takes to keep it that way.”

“You got a point there.”

“Hey, I have that fuel injector you ordered. For the ’99 Cavalier. You—”

Screams cut off Jerry’s voice like a guillotine. The screams. The same ones Mark had heard before—before Jeff died. Hideous, tortuous wails and groans. An image of thousands, maybe millions, of twisted faces, distorted with pain, flashed through his mind and his blood ran cold, as if someone had jammed an IV of ice water into his vein. Goose bumps freckled his skin, and his neck and jaw tingled. His throat suddenly tightened, and he found it hard to breathe.

Like last time, it lasted maybe five seconds then ceased abruptly.

“Mark? Mark, you still there?” Jerry was talking to him, but Mark’s mind was not registering it as actual words spoken to him. They were off in the distance somewhere. “Hello?”

“Uh, yeah, Jerry, I’m still here.” He had to force the words out past his restricting trachea.

“Did you hear that?”

Mark closed his eyes, willing his muscles to relax. He took a deep breath. “Yeah, I heard it.”

“What was it? Sounded like screaming.”

Like hell itself. “I know. I don’t know what it was.”

Jerry snorted into the phone. “Crazy. Anyway, I’ll run the injector over to you right now.”

Mark still wasn’t thinking clearly. He was still hearing the screams ringing in his ears. “O-OK. No, wait! Jerry. Wait.”

“I’m waiting. What is it?”

“Are you calling from a landline?”

“You mean a regular phone? Yeah. Why?”

A thought had suddenly occurred to Mark, and it made his heart thump. He was on a landline too. There was no way the screams were some kind of interference, signals crossing with something else. “Um, nothing. Just wondering. You don’t have to bring the injector out here. I’ll come get it.”

There was a pause, and Mark could hear paper rustling in the background. “No, I’ll drop it off. I have a couple other parts to deliver, and you’re on the way.”

Panic seized Mark. He gripped the phone tighter with a sweaty palm, tried to sound calm. This was crazy! “Jerry, really, I insist. I need to get out of the shop for a little. Cabin fever thing, you know? I’ve been putting in some long hours, and I’m getting stir-crazy. I’m leaving right now. I’ll be over in ten minutes. Don’t go anywhere, OK?”

“But—”

“Jerry, please.” He knew his voice was rising, and he knew Jerry probably thought he’d completely lost his grip on reality, but he didn’t care anymore. He pressed his molars together then relaxed them. “Don’t go anywhere. I’m coming right over. OK?”

“OK, OK. I’ll wait for you. Don’t be too long. I got things to do, you know.”

Mark blew out a breath and loosened his grip on the receiver. “Thanks. See ya in a few.”

“OK. A few.”


Mark raced down Broadway in his 1973 Ford Mustang, slowing only for the dips in the road at each intersection. Pineville was a small town, hokey even, and anywhere one wanted to go in any direction was no more than a ten-minute drive—going the posted speed limits. But Mark wasn’t anywhere near the posted limit.

His mind raced too. He’d heard it again, hadn’t he? Were the screams real? Of course they were. He’d heard them with his own ears. Weeping and gnashing of teeth. And Jerry heard them too. So did Jeff. They were real, all right. Too real. Made his skin itch just thinking about it.

Crazy. That’s all Mark could make of it. And his bizarre reaction. Just because Jeff died shortly after the screams didn’t mean Jerry was in immediate danger. Or any danger at all, for that matter.

Crazy. Jerry had to think he was half out of his mind. Maybe he was.

But what if he wasn’t? What if there really was something to the screams? What if Jerry’s life really was in jeopardy? He couldn’t afford to be wrong. Jerry couldn’t afford it. No, he’d done the right thing. Jerry was safer just staying put and waiting for Mark to pick up the injector.

At the intersection of Broadway and Clayton, Mark slowed the ’Stang just enough to keep rubber on asphalt and took the ninety-degree turn at a tire-screaming speed. An elderly man working in his garden jerked his head up and around and yelled an obscenity, flailing his arms wildly.

Up ahead, Detweiler’s sat on the corner of Clayton and Monroe. Mark pressed the accelerator; the engine rumbled, tachometer climbed steadily. Just before the entrance to Detweiler’s parking lot, he stomped on the brake and jerked the steering wheel hard to the right. The car bounced into the parking lot and came to a stop.

Mark jumped out of the car and ran for the front door. His pulse was pounding out a steady rhythm in his ears, and the adrenaline rush had left him nearly out of breath. He was lucky to make it here without getting pulled over.

Swinging open the glass door, he stepped inside and called for Jerry. When no answer came, he looked around and noticed the store was empty. No customers in the aisles. No Jerry behind the counter.

C’mon, Jerry. Don’t tell me you left anyway.

Mark peered out the storefront window and saw Jerry’s tan Chevy S-10 sitting in the parking lot, Detweiler’s Auto Parts emblazoned across the door panel.

“Jerry!” He listened and approached the counter. “Hey, Jerry. It’s Mark. You here?
No answer.

“Hello? Jerry?”

Still no answer.

Mark leaned over the counter and nearly choked on his own saliva. There, behind the counter, lying prone on the cement floor, was Jerry Detweiler.

Mark rushed around the counter and rolled the large man over. Jerry’s empty eyes, like two blank TV screens, bulged toward the ceiling, mouth open, a trickle of blood curling around his nostril. Mark pressed his fingers against Jerry’s carotid but felt nothing. No life-giving blood pumping through the artery. No steady pulse throbbing under his fingertips. A groan escaped from somewhere deep in Mark’s chest, and he clenched his jaw tight, cursing under his breath.

Jerry was dead. But it couldn’t have happened more than five minutes ago. Mark had just talked to him, and the drive here only took seven minutes tops. He reached for the phone on the counter and punched in 911. Then, with phone jammed between his ear and shoulder, he placed both hands on Jerry’s barrel chest, one on top of the other, and started compressing.