Friday, March 27, 2009
Tuesday, March 24, 2009
We also found out with the 20% budget cuts this year, that one of us (my coworker or I) will have to leave our position, but that tomorrow is the BIG meeting downtown that decides if there's a slim chance of tomorrow that we can both stay.
So, now I just want to stuff my face with a HUGE thin crust , extra cheese pizza. Is that so wrong? OK--reading over the pizza comment, I think I would be too embarrassed to order it now. Just know that I'm craving the cheese right now and all I have are lima beans and garbanzo beans. What's up with that??!!
On the bright side, I should find out next week if I'm going to Italy. :) (Hey--I may not have a job next year, but at least there's hope for a "nice Italian boy" in my future.) I hope you're having a better week than I am. Come on Spring Break! :)
Saturday, March 21, 2009
At the end, you can enter to win a library of TEN Christian novels!
Glass Road Public Relations, LLC
Yep--you can bet I'm filling it out! Possibly winning 10 free novels--count me in! (BTW--Rebeca Seitz is the author of the Sisters, Ink series!)
Friday, March 20, 2009
Wild Card Tour: Katt's In The Cradle-A Secrets from Lulu's Cafe Novel by Ginger Kolbaba and Christy Scannell
You never know when I might play a wild card on you!
and the book:
Howard Books (February 3, 2009)
Ginger Kolbaba is editor of the award-winning Marriage Partnership magazine. An experienced columnist and public speaker, she lives in Chicago with her husband.
Visit the author's website.
Christy Scannell is a college instructor, freelance editor and accomplished writer who lives with her husband in San Diego.
Visit the author's website.
List Price: $13.99
Paperback: 320 pages
Publisher: Howard Books (February 3, 2009)
AND NOW...THE FIRST CHAPTER:
Lisa Barton is an at-home mom with two kids: Callie, sixteen, and Ricky, fourteen. Her husband, Joel, has pastored Red River Assembly of God for nearly five years. Lisa’s parents pastor the Assembly of God in nearby Cloverdale.
Felicia Lopez-Morrison’s husband, Dave, pastors the First Baptist Church. They have one child, Nicholas, who is five and in kindergarten. Once a high-powered public relations executive with a top national firm, Felicia now works from home for the company’s Midwestern clients. The Morrisons came to Red River three years ago from Los Angeles.
Mimi Plaisance is a former teacher who now stays home with her four children: Michaela, eleven; Mark, Jr. (MJ), nine; Megan, six; and Milo, fifteen months. Mark, her husband, is senior pastor of Trinity United Methodist Church.
Jennifer Shores is married to Sam, pastor of Red River Community Church, where she is the church secretary part-time. They have been married twelve years and have one adopted daughter, Carys, who is eleven months old.
Tuesday, March 18
“I can’t believe it!” Felicia Lopez-Morrison waved as she ricocheted through the tables, heading toward her three friends seated in their usual booth in the back right-hand corner of Lulu’s.
“Did you hear the news?” she asked breathlessly, sliding into the seat next to Jennifer, who pushed her leather purse against the wall and scooched over to give Felicia room.
Mimi laughed. “You mean about the scandal?”
“Who hasn’t heard?” Jennifer leaned over and gave Felicia a side hug.
“When Dave told me, I thought he was kidding,” Felicia said. “Kitty hasn’t even been in the ground a year.”
Lisa nodded. “Well, Norm was probably just lonely. He needed the companionship.”
“Then buy a dog,” Jennifer suggested. “Of course,” she said, getting tickled, “then people would talk about dogs and a Katt living together!”
The women groaned.
“It would have to be for companionship.” Felicia shouldered Jennifer playfully. “He just met the woman. He couldn’t love her, could he?”
“From what I heard,” Mimi said matter-of-factly, “she’s more like a girl.”
“Ladies!” Lisa smiled but looked a little uncomfortable.
Jennifer knew Lisa was construing this turn as gossipy. Sweet Lisa, Jennifer thought, looking at her friend, seated across the table from her. Always taking the high road. You’d think after four years of us all being friends, we would have picked up some of her good traits.
“Well, well.” A loud, brassy voice interrupted Jennifer’s thoughts. Their plump, gruff-sounding waitress, Gracie, was standing over their table, pulling out the order pad from thewhite apron strapped around her ample thighs. “Glad to see little Miss Señora made it today.”
Felicia pulled back in mock offense. “Hey, I’m only five minutes late!”
“Yeah, yeah.” A slight smile crossed Gracie’s face. She jutted her chin out toward Felicia. “I’m likin’ you without all the high-and-mighty outfits and shoes and whatnot.”
Everyone at the table laughed. Felicia spread her arms in show and bowed her head, as if accepting a standing ovation. Gracie threw back her head and guffawed.
Felicia certainly had changed in the last year she’d been working from home, Jennifer recognized. Her silky black hair, once curled and neatly laying across the top of her shoulders, was now pulled back in a ponytail. And her high-powered business suits and designer shoes had been replaced by a black pair of jeans and a mauve hoodie sweater. Jennifer glanced under the table—Well, her boots are still designer, she thought good-naturedly.
“I like you girls.” Gracie pulled a pencil from behind her ear. “You’re always the highlight of my every-other-Tuesday.”
“Well, thank you, Gracie,” Mimi said. “And you’re ours.”
“All right, enough with the chitchat,” Gracie said. “Are we all having the regulars?”
“Yes, ma’am,” Jennifer and the others chimed in.
Gracie harrumphed. “I don’t know why I keep taking out my order pad and pen for you all. OK, PWs, I’ll be back with your drinks.”
Jennifer watched Gracie plod off to her next table of customers several booths toward the front of the café. Jennifer really liked their waitress—and knew her three friends did too. Underneath all Gracie’s gruffness lay a heart as big as an ocean. And it was Gracie who had given the women their official group nickname—the PWs.
When Jennifer, Mimi, Lisa, and Felicia had started secretly meeting at Lulu’s nearly three years before, Gracie had been their waitress. She’d overheard them talking about God and their churches, figured out that they were all pastors’ wives, and nicknamed them. She’d gotten a big kick out of the fact that the women—all hailing from the southwest Ohio town of Red River—would drive forty miles out of their way every other Tuesday to nosh and chat in this little nothing-special dive. Although the PWs never had explained to Gracie that they met that far from home to avoid nosy townsfolk and church members overhearing their business, their now-seventy-year-old waitress hadn’t taken too long to figure out what was going on.
Now Gracie ambled slowly behind the front counter to the rectangular opening between the restaurant and the kitchen. She pounded a bell sitting on the ledge and yelled, “Order in!”
Felicia unfolded her paper napkin and laid it on her lap. “I just can’t believe it,” she mused, shaking her head. “Norm Katt remarried. To a woman half his age.”
“Whom he just met,” Mimi reminded everyone.
Jennifer pulled her eyes from watching the cook grab their order ticket and start to read it. Gracie had interrupted a very important news-sharing moment, and Jennifer didn’t want to miss any of it.
“And did you hear her name?” Mimi asked.
“Allison.” Lisa shook her head, looking as if she were trying to suppress a laugh. “Ally.”
As if in chorus, the women said, “Ally Katt.”
“Does the man never learn?” Felicia laughed. “First, he marries Kitty. And now Ally.”
“Oh, if they have children!” Jennifer said. “They could name one Fraidy.”
Felicia nodded. “Twins, of course, would be named Siamese and Tiger.”
“Of course.” Jennifer smiled.
“You all are so terrible!” Lisa pushed back her thick, reddish-brown-highlighted hair and fluffed it.
Mimi sighed and patted Lisa on the arm. “Oh, we all know it’s just in fun. We really don’t mean anything by it, do we, ladies? But you do have to admit, it is funny.”
Lisa rolled her eyes and shook her head as if to say, You silly kids. “Has anybody seen her?”
“Not that I know of—I mean, except for their church,” Jennifer said. “I guess Norm and his new bride only came back to town a couple weeks ago.”
“Well,” Mimi said, “that kid’s got a tough act to follow. As much as Kitty drove us all crazy, her church adored her. Wonder how they’ll take to a new pastor’s wife?”
“I don’t know,” Lisa said. “But they’ll definitely talk. I hope she knows what she’s gotten herself into.”
“Did any of us know that when we married pastors?” Mimi asked.
Lisa smiled. “I guess not.”
“I sure didn’t!” Jennifer said, thinking back to when she and Sam married twelve years ago. She had been attending the church as a relatively new Christian when Sam arrived on the scene as pastor. “Being a church member and being a pastor’s wife are two entirely different things.”
“I didn’t marry a pastor,” Felicia said. “If you recall, I married a businessman, who decided several years into his career that he was called to be a pastor. I didn’t get that vote.”
Gracie walked toward them, carrying a tray of drinks. She set it down on the edge of their table. “I’m getting too old for this. Can you believe they still make me carry my own trays? And my shoulder all messed up from that fall back in December?”
Gracie had taken a tumble on some ice outside Lulu’s one evening after work several months back and hurt her shoulder and hip.
“Is that still bothering you, Gracie?” Felicia asked.
“I still go to therapy for it, but you know those doctors. You can’t trust ’em.” She handed Mimi a glass of milk and passed Lisa an iced tea. Felicia grabbed the remaining two glasses, each filled with Diet Coke, and handed one to Jennifer.
“Hey!” Gracie said. “You trying to deprive me of my hard-earned tip?”
“Sorry!” Felicia joked. “But you know I’m working from home now. I need all the money I can get.”
“Well, you’d better find a better table. These girls are tighter than a duck’s behind with their money.” She pulled four straws out of her right apron pocket and plopped them in the center of the table.
“I’ll be back.” She winked, then pulled up the tray against her chest and trudged away.
“Can you believe it’s been a year since Kitty died?” Lisa tore the paper off her straw and crumpled it before dipping the straw into her drink.
“I know,” Jennifer said. “I kind of miss her. All the snarky comments about how insignificant our churches were compared to hers. The patronizing tone. The condescending looks.”
“I’m serious!” Lisa said. “It was tragic.”
“I know.” Jennifer sipped her soda. “Believe me, I wish she hadn’t died. It wasn’t a piece of cake for me—going through that miscarriage and being considered a murder suspect in her death—all in the same weekend.” There I go again, making everything about me, she told herself and inwardly winced.
Felicia rubbed Jennifer’s back. That was sweet, Jennifer thought, realizing her friends remembered how difficult that time in her life had been. She’d wanted that baby so badly. And to suffer a miscarriage, have an all-out argument with Kitty, threaten her, then have her up and fall down a ravine and break her neck…. It had been devastating.
“Let’s be honest.” Mimi dabbed at a trace of milk at the corner of her mouth. “We didn’t like her. She didn’t deserve what happened to her. But life has been calmer and more sane and relaxing since she’s been—”
“It was a year ago yesterday,” Felicia said. “St. Patrick’s Day weekend. At the pastors’ wives’ retreat.”
“That reminds me!” Mimi brightened and reached under the table. She pulled up her large purse/diaper-bag and dug into its depths. In her hands appeared two shamrock-and-cross-covered eggs that were the brightest kelly green Jennifer had ever seen. She laid them on the table and reached back in, producing one more. “From Megan. She wanted me to make sure to give these to you. We combined two holidays in one—St. Patrick’s Day and Easter, since that’s this weekend.”
“Carys will like this.” Jennifer picked one up and set it on top of her purse.
“I wonder what she looks like?” Felicia took another of the eggs and placed it by her drink.
“Who?” Lisa asked.
“Norm’s new wife.”
“I wonder if she’ll come to the next pastors’ wives’ meeting at New Life next month?”
“I already called and invited her. She’s coming.” Lisa tore into a packet of sugar and dumped it into her tea.
The table fell silent as Jennifer, Mimi, and Felicia all stared open-mouthed at their friend.
“What?” Lisa asked.
She really doesn’t know, Jennifer realized.
“You’ve been holding out on us, girlfriend!” Mimi said.
“Spill it,” Felicia said.
“What? There’s nothing to tell, really.” Lisa fidgeted a little in her seat. “I called her last Friday. We didn’t talk that long. I just congratulated her on her wedding, welcomed her to Red River and to being a pastor’s wife, then invited her to next month’s meeting.” She looked around the table. “OK. She did sound young . . . and very perky. And . . . she giggled a lot.”
Jennifer, Felicia, and Mimi eyed each other knowingly. Yep, this is going to be a fun meeting next month. How in the world did Norm go from hard-edged, superior Kitty to an early twenties cheerleader?
“Wonder what Kitty would think?” Felicia asked.
Lisa shrugged. “I’d hope she’d be glad that Norm found someone who loves him and is going to take care of him.”
Before Jennifer could say anything, Gracie arrived with their food.
“All right, PWs, quit your yakking and help me unload this thing.” Gracie pulled the first plate off the tray and handed it to Mimi. Mimi looked at the tuna melt and strip of cantaloupe and passed it on to Lisa. Jennifer’s was next with her chicken strips and fries. Then Felicia took her Caesar salad. Last was Mimi’s hamburger.
They got their food situated, passing the ketchup and salt, then Felicia offered grace.
Mimi shoved a fry in her mouth and savored it. “I love Milo, but I gotta tell you, it’s nice to eat a full meal without messy little fingers showing up, grabbing something on my plate.”
Felicia poured the dressing over her salad. “I know what that’s like. Oh, the peace and quiet—and adult conversation!”
Jennifer smiled as she thought of eleven-month-old Carys doing that same thing. But her thoughts drifted back to Kitty and the week following her death. Jennifer had been considered—although not officially—a murder suspect and had had to endure the detectives following her around, treating her like a criminal, until they determined Kitty’s death had been an accident.
“Remember last year when those detectives were following me around?” Jennifer asked, trying to sound nonchalant.
With their mouths all full, the others could only nod and say, “Mmm-hmmm.”
“Well, it’s happening again. At least I think it is.”
“What?” Mimi half-choked and plopped her burger onto her plate. She pounded on her chest with her fist as if trying to move the meat down her esophagus. “Detectives are following you around?”
“I don’t know who it is. But I keep seeing this black town car everywhere I go. Just glimpses of it, really. But . . .” Jennifer knew the whole thing sounded crazy. And verbalizing it made it sound even more outlandish. Maybe I’m just making this up. “Never mind. It’s . . . probably nothing.” She tried to laugh it off. “Just my overactive imagination. You know, with all the sleep deprivation and everything.”
“Oh, yeah, I can relate,” Mimi said. But she tilted her head toward Jennifer. “You OK? I mean, if somebody is following you . . .”
“Why would somebody follow you?” Felicia asked.
“That’s just it.” Jennifer swirled her chicken strip in a sea of barbecue sauce. “I don’t know. I can’t think of one plausible explanation.”
“Maybe it’s a church member trying to dig up dirt on you.” Felicia smiled and patted Jennifer’s arm.
Jennifer laughed. “No, that would be Lisa with that problem.”
Lisa lifted her napkin to hide her face, then let it droop just below her eyes. Wide-eyed, she looked around the diner frantically. They all laughed, but Jennifer knew Lisa was trying to put up a good front. Lisa had lost fifteen pounds in the last six months, and the sparkle in her hazel eyes had lost its shine. Poor Lisa. God, take care of this situation at her church. They don’t deserve this. They’re good people.
“What’s going on with your church?” Jennifer asked, partly to take the focus from her, and partly because she hadn’t heard the update in a while.
Lisa dropped the napkin back to her lap and shrugged. “Same old, same old. At least Joel is still the pastor—though I don’t know for how much longer. He’s meeting with the head troublemaker next week to confront him.”
That’s not going to be easy. Although Jennifer and Sam had had their share of church member issues, they’d never gone through major conflict, as Lisa and her husband, Joel, were now. She ached for them.
Lisa continued. “I just wish . . . you know, if these people are so upset, why do they cause such trouble? Why not just leave? Why make it into a huge power struggle?”
“Because—” Mimi leaned over until her shoulder was touching Lisa’s—“and you should know this better than any of us, Miss Assemblies of God, this is called spiritual warfare. The enemy doesn’t want the church to be vibrant and powerful in the community. He’d rather take down a church from the inside out than have it succeed.”
“Oh, sure, look at it from a spiritual perspective, why don’t you?” Felicia smiled gently.
“It’s hard to do that, though, isn’t it?” Jennifer asked. “Especially when the hurt is so physical and emotional.”
“Well, sweetie, you know you’re in our prayers.” Mimi wrapped her arm around Lisa and squeezed.
Lisa just nodded and looked down. Jennifer could tell her friend was embarrassed, because she’d quickly wiped at her eyes.
“How are things in your life?” Jennifer asked Felicia, trying to take off some of the pressure from Lisa.
“Actually, can’t complain right now.” Felicia swirled around some more dressing in her salad but didn’t look anyone in the eyes. “My clients are happy. I mean, there are challenges working at home. Mostly because everybody thinks that since I’m home, I’m, you know, sitting around watching Dr. Phil and just waiting for someone to put me to good use.”
“Oh, yes.” Mimi laughed. “Been there. Everybody thinks that we live to serve, huh? OK, well, we do, actually—at least that’s what my kids tell me—but still!” She laughed again.
“So that’s been a bit of a challenge. But other than that, things are . . . good.” Felicia held up crossed fingers. “Enjoy the peace while I can, right?”
Jennifer waited to see if Felicia would say any more. She got the sense something else was going on with Felicia but knew her friend would speak up when the time was right.
Lisa must have thought the same, because she turned to Mimi. “And how about you? How’s Dad doing?”
“Awwk.” Mimi rolled her eyes. “As ornery as ever. One of the conditions for Dad staying with us is that he’s supposed to attend his AA meetings. He’s still attending, but he’s also still drinking. He does it on the sly, like he thinks we don’t notice. I don’t know what to do, honestly. We can’t kick him out; he’s got no place else to go.”
“Where’s your mom?” Felicia asked.
“She’s down in Kentucky, staying with her sister. She’s definitely not interested in taking him back. And I don’t blame her. Life with my father has never been easy. But when he ran off to California with that woman . . . I can’t say I’d take him back either, if he were my husband.”
“So instead,” Jennifer said, feeling a little bitter, “you, the daughter, have to take him in and parent him.”
Mimi half-chuckled. “Yep. My sister made it clear she wasn’t interested. So I’m it.”
“Doesn’t that tick you off?” Jennifer said.
“Sometimes, yes. But you know, I’m the responsible one.” She tucked her short, blond hair behind her ears—something she did whenever she was stressed or frustrated about something. “Plus, Mark and I have been trying to look at it from a spiritual perspective. He’s my dad—and he needs the Lord.”
Just like my mother. Jennifer tried to push the thought aside.
“Is he going to church with you yet?” Felicia asked.
“No, that’s one thing he refuses to do. But we keep working on him. It’s really cute to see Megan reprimanding him about not attending.”
Jennifer could picture Mimi’s precocious six-year-old giving her grandfather a lecture about loving Jesus and getting saved.
Gracie reappeared and dropped the check on the table. “Here’s your parting gift, ladies. Hope you have a good week and those preacher husbands of yours treat you all right.”
“Hey, how’s your sister doing, Gracie?” Lisa asked as Gracie started to turn away.
Gracie grimaced and a shadow crossed her face. Jennifer knew Gracie’s sister had been diagnosed with breast cancer a year ago and had gone through surgery and chemo.
“Not good. She just went to the doc last week. It’s back and vicious.”
“I thought she had it beat,” Jennifer said.
“We thought so too, but when she went in for a checkup, they found it. It’s in her bones and I don’t know where all.”
“Oh, Gracie, we’re so sorry.” Mimi touched Gracie’s hand. Gracie squeezed it and held on.
“Oh, Gracie,” Jennifer murmured.
“That’s terrible,” said Lisa.
Felicia just shook her head, her face heavy.
“I’m flying down there to Florida next week to be with her,” Gracie said. “So I guess I won’t see you next time.”
“We’ll be praying for your sister—and for you,” Lisa said.
Gracie nodded and let go of Mimi’s hand. “I know you will. If God hears anybody, I know it’s you four women. Pray hard, will ya? Maybe he’ll take pity on an old, crotchety woman and her sister.” She winked, then turned and walked slowly away.
Jennifer and the others looked at one another but didn’t say anything for a moment.
“I had no idea.” Felicia’s eyes followed Gracie as she tended to her other customers on the other side of the restaurant.
“She didn’t let on at all that something was up,” Mimi said, looking amazed at how well Gracie had covered up her pain.
“Maybe we should pray for her and her sister right now,” Lisa suggested.
Jennifer and the others agreed. There was no better time and place to pray.
Thursday, March 19, 2009
You never know when I might play a wild card on you!
and the book:
Tyndale House Publishers (February 5, 2009)
Born and raised in Birmingham, Alabama, Laura Hayden began her reading career at the age of four. By the time she was ten, she’d exhausted the children’s section in the local library and switched to adult mysteries. Although she always loved to write, she became sidetracked in college where differential equations outweighed dangling participles. But one engineering degree, one wedding, two kids, and three military assignments later, she ended up in Colorado Springs, Colorado, where she met people who shared her passion for writing. With their support, instruction, and camaraderie, she set and met her goal of selling her first book. She has now published ten novels and several short stories.
Visit the author's website.
List Price: $13.99
Paperback: 352 pages
Publisher: Tyndale House Publishers (February 5, 2009)
AND NOW...THE FIRST CHAPTER:
No more cameras, no strobe lights, no cheering throng.
The exuberant but exhausted audience had finally faded away hours earlier, the journalists following suit shortly afterward. America had finally gone to bed, either celebrating or lamenting the fact that that they’d just elected their first female president.
Kate cherished the silence. She needed someplace where she could collect her thoughts, which had been shattered tonight. She’d discovered things she could hardly believe even still about her best friend. And she’d been disillusioned in a way that nobody, even a politician’s top aide, was prepared to be. Her headache and heartache had been made worse by the oppressive crush of supporters commemorating their candidate’s—her candidate’s—triumph. Once Emily and her entourage, minus Kate, went upstairs, the party had finally broken up and the ballroom's capacity crowd started to stream home for their own private celebrations.
But Kate’s ears still rang with the sound of more than a thousand people cheering, screaming their support of their candidate.
“Benton! Benton! Benton!”
Emily Rousseau Benton, former governor of Virginia, Kate’s best friend, had been elected president of the United States, in no small part due to Kate’s hard work. Emily’s race for the White House had dominated both of their lives for the past four years. Everything Kate did, every action she took as Emily’s campaign manager, had been done solely in support of her friend’s bid for the presidency.
And now that Emily had won, Kate was alone, horrified at the prospect that she might have made a terrible mistake.
She slipped down from the stage riser and kicked idly at the balloons in her path, creating a slight rippling effect across the bubbled mass of them. An occasional balloon still floated down from the ceiling, a day late and a dollar short.
Kate’s most recent revelation had been like that, one day too late. . . .
A lone voice penetrated the silence. She stiffened in surprise and raised her hand to shade her eyes and get a better look at the person standing on the balcony. Her mood lightened and her shoulders relaxed when she realized who had spoken.
“Y'all all right? Need some company?”
It was a classic Southern salutation, and the familiarity of it was oddly comforting. Then again, Wes Kingsbury always knew what to say—he was equal parts her friend and her spiritual mentor. Disappearing into the shadows, Wes emerged a few moments later from the staircase leading to the balcony box.
Kate glanced at her watch and stifled a yawn—3:46. That was a.m. Too early to be called morning, too late to be called night. The true dark hours of the human soul, when body rhythm and spirit were at their lowest point.
“I can’t believe you’re still here,” she said. The man had a wife and a small child, a real world and home to which he could return. He hadn’t closed his life down to a single obsessively sought goal. That had been her mistake.
“And I can’t believe you’re not upstairs. M’s still up in the suite, partying hearty.”
She kicked at a balloon, stirring up a small whirl of color. “I know. I’m not in much of a party mood.”
“So I see.” He fell into step next to her. “What’s going on? I would have thought you’d be thrilled. This was the goal, right?” He pointed to an abandoned placard: Benton/Bochner ’08.
“It was. It is.” She couldn’t help but shiver. “It’s complicated.”
“It’s Emily. It’s always complicated.” He chuckled, then sighed. “Okay, what has she done now?” At Kate’s hesitation, he added, “It’s got something to do with Talbot, doesn’t it?”
Charles Talbot had been Emily’s opponent in her race for the White House. As such, he’d pulled out all the stops to find all the dirt he could on his challenger. Kate, as Emily’s friend and ally for more than twenty years, had been positive there was no dirt to be found.
She’d been so wrong. . . .
Talbot’s investigators discovered that Emily’s family had illegally won important highway construction contracts in Virginia while Emily was the state’s governor.
When Kate learned his camp was prepared to release this information, the only way she could stop him was to explain to him exactly the unsavory facts that her own investigations had uncovered on him—details she’d kept out of Emily’s hands.
The last thing Kate had wanted was her friend to strike an ill-timed and unnecessary first blow—using a nuke when a nudge would have worked just as well. She’d learned the hard way that Emily, though a talented politician, wasn’t exactly good at being subtle when she had a bigger weapon handy. But when Talbot made his big, bold move to not only discredit Emily but take down her family by attempting to dismantle the entire Benton legacy, Kate had intervened by threatening to use her opposition research.
Talbot had killed . . . and Kate felt that she had no choice but to remind him of the lengths to which he’d gone to cover up his own crimes. She had the bloody proof that he’d been criminally negligent, if not morally responsible, in the grisly death of his college girlfriend. Talbot might have maneuvered his way out of the scandal, but Kate had the goods on him—incontrovertible evidence.
If released to the public, her evidence would have been sufficient to end his campaign, destroy his reputation, and possibly land him in jail for a long, long time. Talbot saw the light and backed down from his threats.
So Talbot had been stopped. The situation had served to cement Kate’s resolve that Emily Benton would make a far better president than her opponent. Emily was a policy wonk who knew her stuff, she was talented at getting things done, she worked hard for the people she represented, and she was charismatic enough to persuade even those who opposed her to allow time for her ideas to have a chance to work. In other words, Emily was the best politician of her time.
However, Kate soon learned not only that her actions had made Talbot her enemy for life, but also that no one ever wins in a competition of “who has the best blackmail” because the games like that never end. She’d felt sickened, soiled, and finally betrayed.
Kate drew a deep breath. “Emily found out.”
Wes straightened for a moment. He’d been one of only two confidants who knew the sins of both candidates, other than the candidates themselves.
“About . . .” Wes paused and glanced around as if gauging the likelihood of being overheard. Even though no one was in sight, he kept his voice low. “About the ammunition you had? How?”
“I told her I’d stopped Talbot, but I refused to tell her how. I didn’t think she needed to know. So in the middle of the night, my best friend M sent one of her protégés to ‘borrow’ the report from me.”
“‘Protégés’?” Wes’s gaze narrowed. “Maia,” he said in a flat voice.
Kate nodded. “Our very own ingenue in training.” She stared across the vast ballroom, watching a piece of bunting as it slipped from the balcony railing and wafted gently to the floor. “Though apparently she’s more iron maiden than ingenue. Scruples don’t seem to concern her. I rip my heart out every day, trying to find the right balance between my Christian convictions and loyalty to my country and to my friends—especially Emily. I want to make a difference in the world, make people’s lives better. I don’t always like how I do it. Maia didn’t have a second thought when Emily asked her to steal the reports from me in the middle of the night. She made copies, then replaced the originals so I wouldn’t know. Then Emily had Maia contact Talbot with what you’d call a very thinly veiled threat.”
Wes read between the lines. “Destroying any hope of the campaign staying out of the gutter.”
“Yeah. But then came the weird part. It did—stay out of the gutter, I mean.” A shiver coursed up her spine and she crossed her arms in an effort to combat it. “Buttoned up tighter than Fort Knox. Maybe my way wasn’t effective enough. Maybe Emily’s decision to send him a second threat was the only real way to stop him.” A second tremor joined the first, and Kate knew it wasn’t because she was cold. “Maybe I was wrong. Or maybe I’m in the wrong business. Or maybe I’m simply overreacting.”
“Or maybe not.”
They took several more steps through the remains of the revelry before Kate stopped. She reached down and rescued a placard bearing Emily’s likeness.
“In any case, I don’t know . . .” She hated how her voice broke when she spoke. “I don’t know if I can stay. If I can continue working with her. She lied to me, stole from me. Maia actually expected me to be impressed by their cleverness. Emily knew better. But she set it up anyway.” She studied the picture plastered across the placard. Emily’s resolute smile looked effortless despite the fact it’d taken the photographer over two hours to capture the perfect expression.
“You have very high standards for your behavior.” Wes took a few more steps, then stopped, pivoting to face her, his hands jammed in his pockets. “Emily’s a lot more flexible; she’s a big proponent for ‘the end justifies the means.’ You know that. I know that. The question is, can you tolerate that? Jesus himself said, ‘Render unto Caesar that which was Caesar’s.’ But there have to be consequences when a person crosses the line. Nobody’s above the law, not even Emily—though she’d probably argue that point. The big question you have to answer here is what is the right thing for your faith and the right thing for the world. Think hard about that and then move forward. I’ll pray for you. I know it’s going to be a tough decision.”
Kate looked up from Emily’s compelling expression, the look in her eyes that said, You know you can trust me. “A decision I was hoping you’d help me make.”
To her utter surprise, Wes shook his head. “Nope.”
He raised his palm to stop her. “Hear me out. I’m always willing to offer advice, lend a hand or even a shoulder, but when it comes to something like this, you need to work with a higher authority.” He pointed upward.
Kate managed to conjure up a tight smile. “Somehow, I don’t think you mean President-Elect Benton in the penthouse suite.”
“Nope. A lot higher.”
They rode up the elevator in silence. It wasn’t until they reached the door to the suite, flanked by Secret Service agents, that Wes hesitated.
Kate fought the urge to say, “You’re going in with me, aren’t you?” She realized she needed to speak to Emily in private. If any of the campaign entourage still hung about, Kate would have to bide her time, smile, make nice with the natives, and wait for her chance after all the hoopla finally ended. It had been relatively easy to have the candidate’s ear in private, but getting the attention of the next president would be more complicated.
She practiced her smile on the two agents, whose names she needed to learn. Then she stopped herself.
Or maybe after tonight it wouldn’t matter.
“This is where I say good-bye.” Wes leaned over and kissed her forehead. “And good luck. Let me know what happens.”
“Thanks. I will,” she whispered. Drawing in a deep breath, Kate reached for the doorknob, but the agent on the right beat her to it.
“Allow me, Ms. Rosen.” He opened the door.
It was a testament to the construction of the hotel that she heard little in the way of sound from the suite until the door opened. Then a cacophony of laughter and voices met her, the celebration evidently still in full swing. The crowd had dwindled some, but an impressive number of folks still lingered, including several of Washington’s biggest power players, senior members of the party, a large assortment of Benton family members, and some of the key campaign staffers.
Kate didn’t see Emily at first but finally spotted her in a corner of the room, holding court. They made eye contact and Emily raised her hand as if saying, Over here and motioned Kate over. In response, Kate began to pick her way through the clusters of people. She was stopped every foot or so to be congratulated, hugged, and offered a drink.
She felt odd accepting the accolades, but she had no trouble waving off the libations. The last thing she needed was the muddle of alcohol. She could only hope that Emily had kept a clear head as well.
Before Kate could reach Emily’s position, she bumped into a rather solid male form. Before she could recover her balance, a hand grasped her elbow and she was hit in the face with a cloud of whiskey breath.
“Katie-girl!” Emily’s old family adviser Dozier Marsh pulled her into an awkward embrace. He might have looked like someone’s sainted grandfather, but it was as far from what he really was as the North Pole from Antarctica. He was the ultimate political fixer—a devious, dangerous old power broker with a fondness for hard liquor and Emily, though not always in that order. And right now, he was acting like a lecherous uncle.
“Where you been, darlin’?” he wheezed. “Hard to have a party without Emily’s right-hand gal!” He tried to swing her around. The move would have made them both fall over had the young aide standing next to him not reached up and steadied him.
“Sir, perhaps you’d rather sit,” the aide said.
Dozier gave Kate a grin and leaned heavily against his aide. “I suspect you’re right, Percy. The room is definitely leaning to one side.” He dropped heavily into the nearest chair, managing to spill two drinks that were abandoned on the nearby end table. He stared blearily at the mess. “Would you be a dear, Kate, and get me a couple of cocktail napkins so I can clean up behind my sorry, drunken self? I’d ask Perry here, but he’s playing a key role in supporting me.”
“Now, Dozier . . .” Emily’s voice knifed neatly through the chatter, instantly commanding the attention of the room. “You’re not asking the future White House chief of staff to be your fetch-it girl, are you?”
Dozier’s ruddy complexion deepened. “Of c-course not, Emily. . . . I mean . . .” He pulled awkwardly to his feet, away from his aide, and managed a small stiff bow without falling over. “Madam President.”
The room went silent, no one quite sure what direction Emily’s response might head next.
“I’ve never really liked being called ‘madam.’” After a tense millisecond, Emily allowed a smile to spread across her face. “But I guess I’ll get used to it, if president gets to follow.”
Dozier, freed from the sharp conversational hook on which he’d impaled himself, offered a weaker version of her smile and lifted the drink he’d never lost grip of. “Hear, hear.”
With the momentary tension broken, the room went back to its earlier state—celebrating people clustering in small discussion knots. Dozier’s aide, a young man whose name was neither Percy nor Perry but Zack, distracted Dozier with something shiny, giving Kate a chance to escape. Once again, Emily gestured for Kate to follow her and led to the bedroom portion of the suite.
Once the door was closed behind them, Emily gave her a warm hug. “I was starting to get worried about you.” She gave Kate a close scrutiny. “Honey, you look like the weight of the free world is still on your shoulders. But the campaign’s over. We won. You can afford to relax now.”
“No. I can’t.” Kate said. She bit her lip before her words started pouring out, uncontrolled and bitter. She wanted to be completely in control of her emotions before she confronted Emily.
Emily sighed, obviously ignorant of the battle brewing inside Kate. “I know. I feel the same way. Campaigning is hard work, but nothing compared to running a country.” She dropped to the bed. “If I allowed myself a chance to stop and think about what I’m taking on, I’d probably run out of this hotel screaming like the Madwoman of Chaillot.
“Remember when we went to New York on spring break back when we were in school? How we jumped on our beds at the Waldorf-Astoria hotel and had a pillow fight? Mom was horrified, but Dad told me that he hoped I’d never get too old to bounce on the bed.”
“Yeah,” Kate said. Decades of memories came crashing down upon her. Room service, going to plays, Emily’s genuine pleasure at sharing the treat with her friend. The phrase had become an inside joke, a motto for that trip and later, the watchwords for those times when the responsibilities of law school—and beyond—threatened to drag them down.
When Nick and Emily got married, their gift to each bridesmaid included a sterling silver box engraved with that motto. Kate still had that box sitting in a place of honor on her dresser.
“Well?” The next president of the United States, the Honorable Emily Rousseau Benton, took off her shoes and took a few experimental bounces on the bed as if to test the bed’s recoil potential.
“Not today.” Kate tried to smile, desperately wanting to recapture that same sense of giddy accomplishment that Emily evidently felt. Kate had indeed expected to feel a sense of joyous triumph when thinking ahead to this day. But now her heart was too heavy, her mind too burdened with the difficult decision that lay ahead of her.
Emily stopped jumping, the bed undulating in her wake. “Why not?” she said. The confusion that initially filled her face dissolved into an expression that Kate couldn’t quite understand. Then it passed almost immediately to a tight, guarded smile. “You have a point. I need to be dignified. Somehow, I don’t think the White House curator is going to let anyone jump on the bed in the Lincoln Bedroom. Not you. Not even me.”
“That’s not what I meant.”
Emily locked eyes with her for a moment. Then she turned away, unable to hold the contact for long. A Benton never crumbled under pressure. A real Benton dodged it. The president-elect slid off the bed, pulled on her heels, and straightened her skirt. She didn’t meet Kate’s gaze.
“You’re right. We’re both exhausted. You’ve always dealt with exhaustion in different ways than I do. Why don’t you take off a—”
“I’m exhausted. But that’s not the problem. I’m confused. Angry. And I’m disappointed in you.” Kate’s heart took the extra beat it always did when she made the final decision to confront her best friend. “You didn’t need to send Maia to steal the files from me. You should have talked to me about it.”
“Oh.” Emily spoke in a low, even voice. “You found out about that?”
“I didn’t send her,” Emily said. “She did that on her own, trying to curry my favor.”
Kate didn’t know whom to believe. She knew Emily better than she knew herself in some ways. Emily was brilliant, capable, the best person imaginable to have around in an emergency. She was a born leader. But part of that leadership tool kit was that she would also stop at nothing when she wanted something. Of course, Maia was cut from the same cloth. Emily’s words were plausible. “So did the favor currying work?” She tried to keep any emotion out of her voice. “Did she make a big impression on you?”
“Yes, but it was a mixed bag. I thought Maia showed a remarkable amount of initiative, but I told her that she’d chosen the wrong person to cross.”
“But that didn’t stop you from reading the reports, did it?”
“Of course not. I’d have been a fool to lose that unexpected opportunity. I’m no fool. You know that.”
“Yes, I do. And I guess that’s why you instructed her to send the threatening e-mail to Talbot. Were you just taking advantage of another unexpected opportunity?”
“Sure. It seemed the wise thing to do at the moment. He was a loose cannon. He needed to be locked down.”
“And now? Are you still glad you did it?”
Emily collapsed on the bed, her ice queen facade shattered. A single tear trickled down her face, leaving a glistening trail through her perfect makeup. “No. I regret it more than you’ll ever know.” She bent her head, trying desperately to hide the additional tears, but a sob tore through her, making her shoulders shake.
Kate almost gaped at her friend. She’d seen Emily’s crocodile tears before. But they didn’t look anything like this. This was the real thing.
Real emotion. Real regret. . . .
Emily continued. “Mind you, I didn’t hate what I did to Charles Talbot. He’s a pariah, an abomination. A murderer. He should never have been able to get away with driving that car while drunk, and leaving that poor girl behind, still clinging to life, to take the rap for his actions. Had he gotten her help at the time of the accident, she might have survived the crash as something other than a vegetable. But no, he had to save face, run away, pretend nothing had happened. He left her to die in that car. It took hours for anyone to discover the wreck. Then he had the audacity to bribe and threaten people into giving him an alibi. He had to make everyone think she’d been the one driving while intoxicated, even if it killed her. He’s the lowest of scumbags. I won’t apologize for pricking whatever fragments he has left of his conscience. I’m pretty sure all I did was dent his enormously bloated and unconscionable pride.”
Emily’s flare of anger dissipated quickly, as if she suddenly felt guilty of failing to be remorseful for her own actions. Kate knew that, for Emily, anger was an emotion easier to understand and embrace than remorse. Especially when she felt that anger was righteous. Emily could move mountains when she had on a full load of righteous anger. Kate had seen her shame an entire state legislature into voting for health insurance for disadvantaged children, all because she’d vented her anger into a biting five-minute speech to them.
Kate gave her friend a steady stare. “What he did and what you did are separate issues. And you know it.”
“I’m sorry.” Emily’s voice dropped to a whisper. “You’re right. When Maia gave me those copies, I did exactly what you were afraid I was going to do.” She looked up, naked emotion filling her face, tears rolling down her cheeks. “I allowed my need for revenge to overwhelm my sense of honor. I’m so sorry.” She stood, her arms at her side. Her voice broke in a show of raw emotion that Kate had never seen from her before.
“Kate, can you forgive me?”
Kate felt tears forming in her own eyes.
Could she forgive Emily? Of course she could. Christ was clear on the responsibility to forgive a repentant sinner. Kate could do no less.
But could she trust Emily enough to continue working for her? That was another question entirely.
For now, she reached over and hugged her friend. The two of them cried together for what seemed like hours.
But the big question—whether Kate would stay on after this—hung over them. No matter how often Emily asked it, Kate refused to answer.
Finally Emily said, “Take some time, go home, cool off, and then we’ll talk.”
As was often the case, Emily was right.
Wednesday, March 18, 2009
You never know when I might play a wild card on you!
and the book:
Tate Publishing & Enterprises (May 27, 2008)
Paulette Harper is an emerging Christian Author making her debut with her first inspirational book That Was Then, This Is Now, This Broken Vessel Restored, a compelling story of deception, heart-ache and ultimate victory. In ten chapters, she masterfully uncovers the hidden obstacles she faced as her church's First Lady and how she eventually broke through those barriers.
Visit the author's website.
List Price: $11.99
Paperback: 151 pages
Publisher: Tate Publishing & Enterprises (May 27, 2008)
AND NOW...THE FIRST CHAPTER:
Have you ever wondered how a building that was being erected would be able to withstand the elements of weather—earthquakes, tornados, hurricanes, and the like? A building must also be able to withstand the weight of the occupants.
If you and I are not contractors, we may not have the complete knowledge of what goes into the development and restructuring of a building.
But what I do know is this: first, there are the building plans, which must get proper approval from the building planner and city before any work can be started. Once you get the approval, the next step would be to secure the engineers, general contractors, electricians, plumbers, surveyors, and all those who will be part of this development.
Knowing that each person is unique in his field of expertise, you would never hire someone unskilled to do a job he is not qualified for. Next, the foundation must be laid. Building the foundation of the house is one of the most important tasks. If the foundation is not properly laid, then the entire edifice will be unstable. A well–laid foundation is absolutely essential for a house. Once the proper foundation has been laid, we can now start building our house.
Now let’s examine what the Bible has to say about our foundation. First, it must be settled that our foundation is Jesus Christ, the Son of God and the Word of God.
“Therefore thus says the Lord God, Behold, I am laying in Zion for a foundation a Stone, a tested Stone, a precious Cornerstone of sure foundation; he who believes (trusts in, relies on, and adheres to that Stone) will not be ashamed or give way or hasten away in sudden panic.” Isaiah 28:16 (TAB)
Because Jesus is our foundation and the Word comes to equip and bear us up, we are well able to handle all the elements that life will bring our way. Your flesh and the devil will tell you otherwise. Here is what Jesus says about our spiritual house:
“Therefore whoever hears these sayings of Mine, and does them, I will liken him to a wise man who built his house on the rock: and the rain descended, the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house; and it did not fall, for it was founded on the rock. But everyone who hears these sayings of Mine, and does not do them, will be like a foolish man who built his house on the sand: and the rain descended, the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house; and it fell. And great was its fall.” Matthew 7:24–27 (NKJV)
In the above passage, Jesus is doing a comparison between two types of houses or people. Both will experience the same elements in life: storms, rain, floods, and wind, which represent testing, trials, hard times, and tribulations. We will all face hard times, no matter who we are, no matter how much money we have, no matter what our status in life, what occupations we hold, how many degrees we have, and so forth; we are going to have bad times. The difference between these two builders is their ability to hear the Word and obey.
Jesus said the rain, floods, and wind will come to beat on the house, but if you hear and obey His saying, your house will be able to withstand it all. However, if you hear and don’t obey His sayings, your house will not stand, and Jesus said great would be your fall. Your spiritual ears should only listen to what God is saying; all other opinions, ideas, or suggestions do not matter. Real sheep hear and obey His voice; no other voice, that of a stranger, will we listen to.
The New Living Translation says the rain comes in torrents and the floodwater rises. Torrent, in the dictionary, is described as roaring, rushing, impetuous, violent stream, and heavy. Because your house is built on the solid rock of Jesus Christ, your house will not collapse no matter how fierce or strong the elements. All believers must be rooted and grounded in the Word. The Apostle Paul tells us:
“For though I am away from you in body, yet I am with you in spirit, delighted at the sight of your [standing shoulder to shoulder in such] orderly array and the firmness and the solid front and steadfastness of your faith in Christ [that leaning of the entire human personality on Him in absolute trust and confidence in His power, wisdom, and goodness]. As you have therefore received Christ, [even] Jesus the Lord, [so] walk (regulate your lives and conduct yourselves) in union with and conformity to Him. Have the roots [of your being] firmly and deeply planted [in Him, fixed and founded in Him], being continually built up in Him, becoming increasingly more confirmed and established in the faith, just as you were taught, and abounding and overflowing in it with thanksgiving.” Colossians 2:5–7 (TAB)
In Greek, the word rooted means to strengthen the roots, to render firm, cause a person or a thing to be thoroughly grounded. When we are faced with trials, storms, and the difficulties of life, we must realize why God is allowing these things to come. I don’t know any believer who welcomes trials; on the contrary, most people try to avoid them altogether. But actually, these things come to strengthen and ground us in the faith. God will cause circumstances to come so we can apply the truth of His Word to our situations. The question is how will we respond?
If you know these things are coming (tests, trials), you have time to prepare to fight off any attack that would come to snatch the Word. These things will not have the ability to uproot you because your roots are growing deep in Christ. The Bible says, “Be strong in the Lord and in the power of His might.”
The Word has been given to do things you cannot. It will enable you to be stronger than what you face; it will cause you to endure the pressures of life, and give you the ability to rise and stand firm on God’s power, ability, and might. It is imperative, as believers, that we study the Word and know the Word for ourselves.
A wise builder applies what he learns and hears to his life. He takes the scriptures, meditates on the Word, and does the Word. The Amplified Bible describes the foolish builder as stupid. He is one who hears the Word but does not do the Word.
Why would you go to church Sunday after Sunday, hear the Word, and not practice what you’ve heard? No one in the Kingdom can effectively operate in his or her full capacity without hearing, obeying, and practicing the Word of God. James says,
Anyone who listens to the word but does not do what it says is like a man, who looks at his face in a mirror and, after looking at himself, goes away and immediately forgets what he looks like. But the man who looks intently into the perfect law that gives freedom, and continues to do this, not forgetting what he has heard, but doing it—he will be blessed in what he does. James 1:23–25 (NIV)
The enemy knows where you are in your relationship with Christ and the Word, and he will make sure you are inoperative, ineffective, and unfruitful in all you do. The only way we are able to stand against everything that comes is by taking the Word of God and using the Word when we are faced with hard times. Here is what God has to say about the Kingdom you are part of, “Therefore, since we are receiving a
Kingdom which cannot be shaken, let us have grace, by which we may serve God acceptably with reverence and godly fear” (Hebrews 12:28, NKJV).
Kingdom, in Greek, is translated as royal power, dominion, rule, the right or authority to rule over a kingdom, the royal power and dignity conferred or handed to believers in the Messiah’s Kingdom. Moved or shaken, in Greek, is translated as not liable to overthrow and disorder, firm and stable. The scriptures are saying that because we are part of a Kingdom that cannot be shaken, overthrown, or moved when we are faced with the adversities of life, we have the dominion to take authority over all circumstances, situations, and conditions with the Word of God. Instead of my situations moving me, I can move my situations, change my environment, and be unquenched by what I’m going through. Now that’s good news. Selah.
Do not be ignorant of the devil. He is crafty, but God has put him under our feet. However, if you do not take the Word and practice with authority your rights, the devil will continue holding you captive to do his will. Isaiah brings us the good news of how God has dealt with our enemy:
“So shall they fear the name of the Lord from the west, and His glory from the rising of the sun; when the enemy comes in like a flood, The Spirit of the Lord will lift up a standard against him.” Isaiah 59:19 (NKJV)
Enemy, in Hebrew, is translated as adversary, foe, straits, and distresses, one who opposes. Standard means to drive away, to put to flight, to cause to disappear.
When our enemy comes—and he will come like a flood, strong and great—God will drive and force the enemy away. Like does not mean identical; it means similar. This means that the devil masquerades and is an impersonator or impostor. The devil wants you to believe that he has more power than the church. Jesus reveals the truth to us through the book of Matthew, “And I also say to you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades shall not prevail against it” (16:18, NKJV).
You must realize that the church is not the building, but you are the building in which God’s Spirit is housed. Jesus is the architect who knows exactly what we need to withstand all the forces of hell. The definition of an architect is someone who, by profession, designs, draws up plans, supervises the construction, and is the creator. He [God] has designed a people that will overcome all hindrances and obstacles. Hell will not succeed or advance against you or me. Remember, it takes your cooperation to flow with God, His Spirit, and His Word.
A Fortified House
When the storm came my way and my life began to crumble, I allowed the enemy to rape me of my identity in Christ. Instead of standing on the Word, I wanted to escape the pain by contemplating suicide. I felt my situation was extremely difficult for me to overcome but I had to face my challenges, knowing that God was with me. I didn’t think I had the ability to make it through, but I realized that God was giving me strength every day to endure.
Escaping on God’s Terms Only
“No temptation has overtaken you except such as is common to man; but God is faithful, who will not allow you to be tempted beyond what you are able, but with the temptation will also make the way of escape, that you may be able to bear it.” 1Corinthians 10:13 (NKJV)
Allow or suffer, in Greek, means to give up, to leave, to allow one to do as he wishes, to let alone. Bear means ability to endure, and able means to be capable of handling. We are constantly being built up so we can become a people fully developed and able to stand. He will not put more on you than you can handle. The Word is going to be tested and tried, but if you hear, do, and apply the Word, you will endure. Be a wise, prudent, and practical builder.
Although the storm came to wipe me out, God would not allow that to happen. God was using every situation to cause me to become a fortified house whose structure would stand. God was building me even when it didn’t seem as though my foundation was holding me up. I was a house under construction, whose builder and maker was God. The only way we are able to stand up against all the elements of life is by building on our foundation through the study of God’s Word.
When everything else ceases to exist and vanishes away, the Word of God remains. God will never design something with the intent of that building crumbling, falling, or being demolished. Here is His promise to you, “Who are being guarded (garrisoned) by God’s power through [your] faith [till you fully inherit that final] salvation that is ready to be revealed [for you] in the last time” (I Peter 1:5, TAB).
Tuesday, March 17, 2009
You never know when I might play a wild card on you!
and the book:
WaterBrook Press; Reprint edition (March 17, 2009)
Caroline B. Cooney is the author of A Friend at Midnight; The Face on the Milk Carton (an IRA-CBC Children’s Choice book); its companions, Whatever Happened to Janie and The Voice on the Radio(each of them an ALA Best Book for Young Adults); and many other award-winning novels. Caroline divides her time between Madison, Connecticut, and New York City.
List Price: $8.95
Reading level: Young Adult
Paperback: 240 pages
Publisher: WaterBrook Press; Reprint edition (March 17, 2009)
AND NOW...THE FIRST CHAPTER:
“Drew and Kara Finch have generously volunteered to take the family in,” said Dr. Nickerson. The room applauded. Jared stared at his parents in horror. The refugees were coming here? His little sister, a mindlessly happy puppy of a kid, cried out in delight. If Mopsy had ever had an intelligent thought in her life, she kept it to herself.
“Yay!” cried Mopsy. “It’ll be like sleepovers every night.”
“You see, Jared, we have a lovely guest suite,” said his mother, as if he didn’t live here and wouldn’t know, “where the parents can stay and have their own bathroom.”
This implied that there were kids who would not be staying in the guest suite. So they would be staying where, exactly?
“Your room and Mopsy’s are so spacious, Jared darling,” his mother went on. “And you each have two beds, for when your friends spend the night. And your own bathrooms! It’s just perfect, isn’t it?”
Jared’s mother and father had volunteered his bedroom for a bunch of African refugees? And not even asked him? “I’m supposed to share my bedroom with some stranger?” he demanded. Jared did not share well. It had been a problem since nursery school. Mrs. Lane, a woman Jared especially loathed, because he was fearful that Mopsy would grow up to be just like her—stout and still giggling—said excitedly,
“That’s why your family’s offer is so magnificent, Jared.” Jared figured her last name was actually Lame.
“You will guide and direct young people who would otherwise be confused and frightened by the new world in which they find themselves,” cried Mrs. Lame. She definitely had somebody else in mind. Jared did not plan to guide and direct anybody. Jared’s bedroom was his fortress. It had his music, his video games, his television and his computer. It was where he made his phone calls. As for Africa, Jared knew nothing about the entire continent except what he’d seen on nature shows, where wild animals were always migrating or else eating each other. But about Africans themselves, aside from the occasional Jeep driver, TV had nothing to say. And there was always more important stuff on the news than Africa, like weather or celebrities. Jared would be forced to hang out with some needy non-English-speaking person in clothes that didn’t fit? Escort that person into his own school? Act glad?
“I decline,” said Jared.
“The church signed a contract, Jared,” said Dr. Nickerson.
“We are responsible for this family.” “I didn’t sign anything,” said Jared. “I don’t have a responsibility.” The committee glared at Jared. Jared glared right back. They weren’t volunteering to share their bedrooms. No, they could force two handy kids to do it. “My sister and I are the only ones who actually have to do any sharing? You guys get to contribute your old furniture or worthless televisions that you didn’t want anyway for when these guys get their own place, but meanwhile Mopsy and I have to take them in?” He hoped to make the committee feel guilty. Everybody did look guilty but also really relieved, because of course they didn’t want to share a bedroom either.
“It’ll be so wonderful!” cried Mopsy, hugging herself. “Is there going to be a girl who can be my best friend?” It was getting worse. People would expect Jared to be best friends with this person who would invade his life.
“What went wrong with the rental?” asked Jared, thinking he would just kill whoever was getting the apartment, thus freeing it up again for these refugees.
“The owner’s eighty-year-old grandmother, who’s blind, is moving in with her caregiver.”
Oh, please. That was such a lie. How many eighty-year-old blind grandmothers suddenly had to move in with their caregiver? The owners were probably remodeling so they could sell the place for a million dollars instead.
“What are we supposed to do, Jared?” asked Dr. Nickerson in his most religious voice. “Abandon four people on the sidewalk?” They’d been abandoned anyway; that was what it meant to be a refugee. Jared opened his mouth to say so, but a movement from his father caught his eye. Dad was sagging in his chair, deaf and blind to the meeting. Having a family of refugees in the house probably wasn’t his choice either; Mom had saddled him with it. He wasn’t on this committee, and the last committee on which Dad had served had gone bad. His co-chairman had turned out to be a felon and a bum. But Jared had more important things to worry about right now. “How long are these guys supposed to live here?” he demanded.
“We don’t know,” admitted the minister. “This is an expensive town. We’re going to have trouble finding a low-cost rent for people earning minimum wage. We probably found the only place there is, and now it’s gone. We’ll have to look in the cities nearby—New London, New Haven. And probably in bad neighborhoods. It’s a problem we didn’t anticipate.”
Jared never prayed, because the idea of a loving God seemed out of sync with the facts of the world. Nevertheless, Jared prayed now. Please, God, don’t let there be a boy in this family. Make Mopsy do all the sharing. I can squeeze my extra twin bed into her room. I’ll even move it cheerfully. “What do we know about these guys?” he said.
“Very little.” Dr. Nickerson waved a single sheet of paper. He handed it to the person sitting farthest away from Jared, ensuring that Jared would be the last to know the grim truth. “That’s why we’ve gathered here tonight. Let me introduce our representative from the Refugee Aid Society, Kirk Crick.”
What kind of name was that? It sounded like a doll Mopsy would collect. And what was up with Kirk Crick that he couldn’t even photocopy enough pages for everybody to have one? It didn’t exactly give Jared faith in the guy’s organizational skills.
“He’s going to discuss the work ahead of us and some of the difficulties and joys we can expect,” said the minister. Like there could be joy with four total strangers in your house for an unknown period of time. The guy didn’t smile, which Jared appreciated, since it was easy to overdose on good cheer. Just look at Mopsy.
“I find that my name annoys people,” said Kirk Crick, “but it’s memorable. You can call me either one—or neither.”
This worked for Jared, who hoped to have nothing to do with the man or his refugees. Kirk Crick launched into a long, tedious description. It seemed that the African family to be foisted off on Jared might never have been in a grocery store, never used an indoor stove or a computer, maybe never driven a car or heard of credit cards, never taken a hot shower or encountered cold weather, never seen a shopping mall. In their entire country, there was not a single ATM. There had not been reliable electricity for a decade.
“They probably can’t drive,” said Kirk Crick, “a problem here in suburbia. They’ll be used to buses, and maybe taxis, but mostly if they have to go somewhere, they walk. Or run. Remember, they fled a civil war. They’ve lived in a refugee camp in Nigeria for several years, with little shelter of any kind—six thousand people in an outdoor pen.” This was an obvious exaggeration intended to make Jared feel sorry for people who were going to trespass on his life. “The good news is that they speak English, the official language in Liberia, where native tribal languages are used mostly at home. Their accent will be difficult to understand, but they won’t have difficulty understanding you. “According to this, the parents finished eighth grade. The kids probably attended school at the refugee camp, although those schools usually have no paper, pencils or books. Sometimes no teachers either. The children are fifteen and sixteen, but we can’t tell from their names whether they’re boys or girls. We’ll just run with it when we meet them at the airport. We weren’t expecting this family to arrive for another month, so it’s just great that you people are so flexible.” Nobody here has to be flexible but me, thought Jared. Mrs. Lame suddenly decided that everybody needed coffee. Right in the middle of the guy’s talk, off she went into the kitchen, which meant Jared’s mom had to go with her, and then the two of them circulated, offering regular and decaf, whole milk and skim and sugar or sweetener in yellow, pink or blue packets. Brand preference was one of the million things this African family was going to have to learn. As long as Jared didn’t have to do the teaching—whatever. Kirk Crick droned on. Basically nobody except Jared even knew he was up there; certainly not Jared’s parents. They were such bad listeners that Jared didn’t see how they’d ever gotten through college. They multitasked to the max. When they watched television, they were also cooking, leafing through the newspaper, talking on the phone and balancing their checkbooks. Here was information that would change their lives and they were thinking about ten other things instead. The Finches’ beautiful yellow and cream family room was a huge space, with three soft, welcoming sofas and four large armchairs. As the sun went down beyond the wall of glass, people nestled into cushions and got sleepy. “Refugees,” said Kirk Crick, “have nothing, and that also means no paperwork. People racing out of villages only inches ahead of madmen with machetes or AK-47s don’t pause to collect birth certificates or vaccination papers.” Mom was arranging desserts, something church ladies did well. Jared wondered what Mrs. Wall had brought, because she was a great cook.
Then he remembered. Mrs. Wall wasn’t here. It was her husband, Brady, who had co-chaired the fund-raising committee with Dad. Over two years they had raised seven hundred fifty thousand dollars for the new church building. They’d had fairs, auctions, pledge campaigns, concerts and dinners. And three days earlier, the church had found out that Brady Wall had been siphoning off that money and gambling it away at Foxwoods. It wasn’t just stolen. It was gone. Jared’s mom was friends with Emmy, Brady Wall’s wife. Jared had a bad feeling that one day soon Emmy would be in the kitchen sobbing all over Mom. It was going to be a very crowded kitchen, since it would also be full of Africans sobbing all over Mom. Jared hoped she was up to it, because he had just decided to sign up for every school-sponsored ski trip in order to be out of town Fridays through Sundays. The less sharing, the better. “One problem getting refugees to America is just finding seats on a plane,” said Kirk Crick. “There aren’t many flights. Probably something opened up very suddenly, or four other people couldn’t go after all, so your four moved to the head of the line. Your family is flying to London, where they’ll change planes for Kennedy Airport. Now, you’ll need subcommittees. Who will be handling medical needs and doctors?”
“Wait,” said Jared. “What medical needs? Are these people planning to show up complete with typhoid and malaria?”
“No. They get checked in Africa for that stuff. But the kids can’t start school until they’ve been inoculated for tetanus and all. Just like any other kid starting school. They’ll be spending a bunch of time at the doctor’s. Your family’s background has been screened as well. African civil war consists of people butchering each other. Our task force makes sure you’re not getting some mass murderer responsible for destroying whole villages, or a dealer in blood diamonds, or some vicious boy soldier.”
“I’ve heard about boy soldiers,” said Mr. Lane. (Jared was always surprised that anybody had married Mrs. Lane and even more surprised that such a person ever had a chance to talk.) “Ten-year-olds who chop people’s arms off and walk away,” explained Mr. Lane. No kid would do that. It was the kind of hype spewed on satellite radio—anything to make the world sound even more violent than it was. The whole idea of screening people struck Jared as useless. Being screened would be like taking an essay test where you wrote whatever your teacher wanted to hear. We’re kind and gentle, the refugees would say. We didn’t hurt anybody. Goodness, no. We were the victims.
“What are blood diamonds?” asked Mopsy.
“Diamonds that are mined in West Africa and used to pay for war,” said Kirk Crick. He seemed ready to expound on this, but
Jared didn’t care about mines. He cared about the strangers soon to be under his roof.
“If the family doesn’t have any papers to start with, how does the Refugee Aid Society even know for sure who they are?” Jared asked.
“We’re very, very, very careful,” said Kirk Crick.
Jared was suspicious. Right in their own church they had been careful and they’d still ended up with a major-league thief on the fund-raising committee. “Is there really such a thing as a boy soldier?”
“Yes. Often when a village is attacked, the boys are out in the fields watching the cattle. So parents get caught, killed or maimed, girls get raped and killed, villages get burned to the ground, but young boys get rounded up. They’re forced to use machine guns and machetes on their own neighbors.”
Nice. Jared decided to e-mail everyone he’d ever met and find someone to live with until this was over. “A boy who spends the day out in some field with cows won’t exactly fit in with suburban America in the twenty-first century,” he pointed out.
“You have your work cut out for you,” agreed Kirk Crick.
“Now, your African family may not wish to discuss their past. They want to look ahead, not back. You’re getting an intact family, which is unusual. Four people who struggled and suffered and now hope to put terror behind them. Your church signed on to cover housing and food for three months and to find jobs for the parents. After three months, the family is on its own. If they can’t function—and that’s rare, because refugees are fighters—the Society takes over.”
Three months? thought Jared. Three months? Nobody but Jared seemed to think this was insane.
“You are doing a good deed,” said Crick.
The committee loved hearing how good and generous they were. They sat tall. They took lemon bars as well as double-chocolate brownies. Jared’s dad began talking softly to one of the husbands, undoubtedly about Brady Wall, because that was now Dad’s only topic of conversation. Mom was asking Mrs. Lame for her toasted almond cake recipe. The rest of the crowd was finding car keys. Jared was the only person listening to Kirk Crick.
“In a civil war,” Crick said, “there are no good guys. They’re all guilty of something. You are probably not saving the innocent, because in a civil war, nobody is innocent.”
Jared had never seen a refugee; the Society had seen thousands. Maybe tens of thousands. And that was the summary? There are no good guys? This made the refugee scene quite exciting. Jared’s roommate would have a history of fighting and killing. On the other hand . . . how much fighting and killing did Jared really want in his own bedroom? The piece of paper describing this family finally circulated to Jared. On it were four black-and-white photographs that had probably been grainy and unfocused to start with. After much copying or downloading, they were so blurred that the four faces hardly had features. The photos were from the shoulders up, and everybody’s hair was pulled tightly back, or else cut close, and as far as Jared could tell, these guys could be anybody. These could even be four photographs of the same person. There were dates below each photo, possibly dates of birth, but they were smudged and only partially legible. After close scrutiny, he decided that the two on top looked older. Probably the parents. The names typed under those photos (Typed! Not even done on a computer!) were Celestine Amabo and Andre Amabo. It seemed odd that they had French-sounding names. The photo in the lower left was labeled “Mattu” and the one on the lower right, “Alake.” No clues how to pronounce those names or whether the people were male or female. We are taking people under our roof for months at a stretch, thought Jared Finch. We can’t read their dates of birth. We can’t tell what gender they are. We can’t recognize them from their photographs. We know in advance that they are not good guys.
Monday, March 16, 2009
You never know when I might play a wild card on you!
and the book:
Realms (March 3, 2009)
Born in Baltimore, Maryland, Mike now lives in Hanover, Pennsylvania, with his wife, Jen, and their three daughters. He is a regular columnist for AVirtuousWoman.org, was a newspaper correspondent/columnist for over three years, has published several articles for The Candle of Prayer inspirational booklets, and has edited and contributed to numerous Christian-themed Web sites and e-newsletters. Mike is a member of the American Christian Fiction Writers association, the Christian Fiction Blog Alliance, the Relief Writer’s Network, and FaithWriters, and plans to join International Thriller Writers once published. He received his BA degree in sports exercise and medicine from Messiah College and his MBS degree in theology from Master’s Graduate School of Divinity.
Visit the author's website.
List Price: $13.99
Paperback: 320 pages
Publisher: Realms (March 3, 2009)
AND NOW...THE FIRST CHAPTER:
Mark Stone could still smell the grease on
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. 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.
—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.
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.
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?”
“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?”
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.