Gonna be brief here- it has been a loooooooong time. A hectic, virtual and in-person school year has cut into my writing and publicity time. That means this here website has taken the brunt of my inattention. As summer nears, I plan to rectify all that I have neglected. In the meantime, here is the update on things in the world of Chad Lehrmann, Author.
"The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want."
Virgil sang the song tunelessly as he watched over the sheep. His mother, a shepherd before him, taught him the song in his youth as a reminder of his mission. She told him- "Never forget Virgil- never forget the 23rd Song. When it is bleakest, when all hope seems lost- sing this song." His mother- nor Virgil for that matter- had no idea it was actually the 23rd Psalm, not Song. Nor did they know it was from what people once called the Old Testament of a holy book known as the Bible. And since we are on the topic of things Virgil didn't know, he did not know what a 'book' was either.
No one did. Not the other shepherds. And not the sheep.
Certainly not the wolves.
As if on cue, they began to howl- a sound that would be mournful if the creatures that made the sound were capable of feeling human emotion. But then, was Virgil even capable of that anymore?
Virgil had been born into a world ravaged by (climate change/pandemic/nuclear war?) something long, long ago. Whatever it was, it had affected humankind like nothing before. It truly and irrevocably changed them.
Within one generation removed from the Calamity- that’s what the shepherds called it, anyway- there were not enough capable people to keep a technologically advanced society running. So humankind went back to its roots- hunting and gathering to survive.
But even that return to simplicity came with horrific challenges.
Virgil heard a low growl come from the herd of sheep in front of him. He rose quickly, and his aging and aching joints protested loudly. A few sheep turned to look at him, seeing his reassuring and familiar face, they went back to grazing the apple orchard they had stopped in, taking copious gulps of water from the fresh stream that ran down the middle of it.
“He maketh me to lie down in green pastures: he leadeth me beside the still waters.”
His voice- not a quality one by any standards- was soothing in its own way to the sheep. But it carried a growl of its own that struck fear into the heart of the wolves.
But it did not strike fast enough this time.
Virgil saw a sheep go down about ten feet from him, and he propelled himself forward with all his strength. His gray and dust-covered robe flared out behind him as he raised his staff and swung it in a wide arc. The sheep cleared out from around the attack site, and fortunately, the victim was laid flat on the ground. The crook caught the wolf in the neck with a force that instantly snapped its neck. It fell over, twitching as the last nerves fired off a warning just instants too late.
Yvette, another shepherd overseeing this flock, ran up and surveyed the scene. “Another wolf in sheep’s clothing,” she said, her voice sad.
Virgil leaned down to the injured sheep and asked in his deep baritone voice, “Did he get you good?”
The sheep responded, “No, ShepVirg, save me good.” The sheep, which was, in fact, a human ravaged by the after-effects of the Calamity, stood up and limped off.
Virgil watched him walk off and wondered what the simple-minded and innocent little sheep could have done in the world before this. A world that made the giant buildings in the long-abandoned cities. Could the sheep have made those buildings? Could he have moved those giant metal boxes that rusted on round metal disks? Could he have been a healer that made the other sheep well again?
“Third time this week,” Yvette offered. She was younger than Virgil. Well, they all were these days. In fact, Virgil had trained them all in this herd. When a sheep was born that exhibited higher-level abilities, they were taken in as a shepherd trainee. The tutelage started young, partly because the sheep’s intellect was so low and thus incapable of caring for an enterprising and intelligent child. But partly because those children were fodder for the wolves in a far more horrific way that simply targets of violence.
Virgil kicked over the wolf and looked into a mostly human face. But years of living like a savage and knawing on bones and rocks had damaged his teeth. His hair was long and unkempt because wolves did not find hygiene a necessary skill. No, they found only hunting and killing worthy skills.
This particular wolf wore the simple clothing made from remnant cloths the shepherds found and repurposed as shirts and pants for the sheep. It was covering the wolves’ regular wear- dried and leathered flesh of their victims.
See, the wolves were once sheep. The intelligent ones that were selected to be shepherds. But along the way, they were captured, and their training twisted in this horrific mirror of humanity.
But some chose to flee to the wolves. “This one was one of ours. James, I think he was named,” Virgil intoned. “That means…”
Yvette met his eyes. She knew what it meant.
That he had come for them.
“We need to get to the mountain pass before nightfall,” she said, panic creeping into her voice. “Can we make it?”
Virgil looked to the mountains and saw storms building quickly. The path was long and arduous- that was clear from sight alone. Unless…
“The valley. Its the only way,” he said ominously.
“Virgil, that’s where they will have us cornered. Even if we are vigilant, they will overwhelm us,” Yvette countered, genuine fear seeping into her voice and words.
“Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.” Virgil sang. Yvette gave him a curious look, but she was used to Virgil’s singing of that old song. “It is the only way. He will have planned for either path we take. So speed is of the essence. And the limitations of the valley trail for us are also limitations for them.”
Yvette thought for a moment, then conceded. “Alright. I’ll gather the others. We set out when I return.”
This trail was well known to Virgil and all the shepherds. For generations, the sheep had been lead up into the mountains during the summers, then down out of the mountains in the winters. The Calamity had apparently also wrecked the planet, as the summers became too scaldingly hot to live in the low lands, and the winters too bitter harsh to dwell in the high lands. But summer in the mountains and winter on the plains were near perfect. And so, the shepherds had moved the sheep each season. And there were only two now, but Virgil knew no other way of life.
Virgil looked at the sheep- so blissfully unaware of the danger all around them. They trusted him and his kind with a child-like faith that, on more than one occasion, had led to their near extinction.
The leader of the wolves had once successfully infiltrated the flock. But instead of giving in to his hunger and bloodlust like the now-deceased foot soldier, he planned. He took one of the shepherd trainees named Matthias and slowly corrupted him- but left him in place. That wolf in sheep’s clothing was able to lead more than half the flock astray. A loss of that magnitude would have ended the herd within a generation, but Virgil and the other shepherds had arrived in time to save most of them.
But not all.
The wolves’ leader fell in the battle, but the corrupted one escaped with the pack.
Both the loss of the sheep and the loss of the shepherd were the most significant failures Virgil ever experienced. They weighed on him now, in the moment he was about to plunge into more than they had in many years.
The sheep were rounded up and began to move compliantly toward the valley. Only a few cast fearful glances at the wall of stone rising on either side of them. But the rest simply smiled at their guides and went on.
Others might wonder why men and women would devote their lives to moving these simple-minded people around from green fields to freshwater. But not Virgil. His mother had taught him that all life was to be valued, even the life that seemed to have little to offer. The sheep had not chosen to be born broken, but nonetheless they were. And now, they needed to be cared for. Protected. And yes, loved.
And it was love that set them apart from the wolves. More than their bucolic and quiet nature, more than their preference for fruits and vegetables over flesh of all kinds- including that of humans. The wolves loved only themselves. Not even each other- only themselves. Sure, they hunted in a pack, but that just a question of survival. They could- and had- turned on each other when the moment deemed it right.
That was why Virgil felt the weight of his failure with Matthias so heavily. Not that Matthias ran to the wolves, but that Matthias chose selfishness over love. And Virgil, though vastly more intelligent than the sheep he guarded, was unable to fathom that some people are just broken so severely that they cannot be repaired.
The first attack came as Virgil, bringing up the rear of the procession, crossed under the stone valley walls’ shadow. Two wolves dropped down silently behind him, and he would not have seen them if not for the ripple of panic that began to move through the sheep in front of him. Virgil had been a shepherd long enough to know the sheep’s tics and twitches were often the best sign of danger. And so he looked up and around, and just in time saw the first wolf lunge at him. He fanned his staff and caught it in the jaw. A few jagged teeth were seen flying through the air. The second wolf had used this attack as cover, and the scrawny young boy slashed at Virgil with his long, clawlike fingernails. They tore into the robes Virgil wore, but not Virgil. He brought the staff down on the back of the wolf’s head, and it fell motionless onto the rocky path.
“Thy rod and thy staff they comfort me,” Virgil sang. The toothless wolf ran back up the path it had come down. A commotion broke out further up the procession, and Virgil turned to see four more wolves leaping into the flock. One seemed to stop mid-flight and flip, as Yvette’s staff caught its midsection. An arrow felled another, and Virgil knew that was the work of Samuel, the next oldest shepherd. Samuel loved to show off his skills with the bow whenever he could, and this time, Virgil was thankful.
The skirmish was ended almost as fast as Virgil’s when the two remaining wolves ran screeching back up the valley’s walls. Something began nagging at the back of Virgil’s mind. These attacks, the wolves were giving up too easily. But he could not place the reason for his concern.
That reason became apparent when he heard Yvette yell, “Go left- Go left! The way is blocked!”
Virgil’s heart sank. There were two paths in the valley; one was a relatively broad mountain path- the way that was blocked. The other was across a rickety old footbridge to rose thousands of feet above the cavern floor. It was definitely passable, but the sheep were skittish around it. The small attacks had guaranteed that they would not only be nervous, but outright terrified. They would only cross if they knew it was safe. And they would only know it was safe if their most trusted guide went first.
Virgil knew that was him.
But that meant that a less experienced shepherd would guard the rear. And that is where he would know to hit.
There was no choice. Virgil would have to cross the bridge and watch as the wolves tore into his beloved flock. This was not just about wolves and sheep- this was about him striking Virgil.
Virgil passed the blocked path and saw that the impasse was a large log. Something that could easily be removed if they had time. But they did not.
When Virgil rounded the corner and saw the flock halted and fidgety at the edge of the cavern, he bellowed, “Heed me! I must lead us across the bridge, but the wolves are coming up behind us. ‘Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies: thou anointest my head with oil; my cup runneth over.’” The words calmed the sheep just a little, enough for Virgil to pass through.
He walked out onto the bridge and looked back. Sure enough, the dark and dusty cloud rose up behind the flock as the wolves advanced. Virgil could see the hunger in their eyes, a longing that in the world lost to the Calamity might have been called bloodlust or greed. But now, in this new world, it was just terror. Terror at these humans that were no different from the shepherds, except they chose to give in to their base instinct and selfish desires. Virgil wished he could say that the Calamity had changed them to these wicket things just like it had changed the sheep into the simple beings they were. But he knew that was not true. In many ways, the sheep’s feebleness made them better than men like the wolves; men like the shepherds even.
And that was why Virgil did what he did next.
He reached out to the lead sheep, a docile being but the closest thing to a leader amongst the sheep. “Can you follow me?”
The sheep shook its head violently, his eyes wide and fearful, his mouth too paralyzed to form even simple words.
Virgil placed a hand on his shoulder, “It is okay; I will show you that you have nothing to fear.” Virgil gently put one arm around the sheep’s shoulders and another under his legs. He lifted him and began to walk across the swaying and creaking bridge. He offered words of calm and sang, “He restoreth my soul: he leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his name's sake.” The sheep’s shaking ceased; he looked up to Virgil with eyes of gratitude. “Think you can do it now? Walk to the other side and wait for us?” The sheep nodded timidly at first, then more vehemently. Virgil sat him down, and the sheep cautiously made his way across. Virgil had no doubt there were no wolves on the other side. Because the wolves lacked one thing the shepherds had in abundance- the shepherds believed the sheep were capable of more than they knew.
The sheep began to follow the lead sheep, and Virgil passed between them, joining the other shepherds. “When the sheep have all crossed, follow them. Leave me to deal with the wolves. And Him.”
Virgil pointed his staff at the wolf leader. Older, larger, but still the same intelligent and wicked eyes of the young Matthias stared back.
Samuel fired a few warning volleys into the swarming horde, and three wolves fell out. But still they advanced. “Fall back across the bridge!” Virgil shouted. And the gathering storm clouds finally began to rumble and crack under the force of the lightning it had been holding back. Giant drops of cold rain began to pelt the shepherds as they looked at Virgil, seeing his intent to fight alone. Yvette began to protest, but Virgil cut her off. “Look at them. They are beginning to find their strength again. They don’t need my strong hand to lead them anymore. They need your compassion, Yvette.” And Virgil turned to face Matthias and the pack.
Yvette turned to the shepherds and shouted, “You heard him- fall back!”
Reluctantly, they began to retreat.
A few wolves lunged at Virgil, and he deflected them with ease. Matthias’ face was split with a nasty, wicked sneer as he growled, “Tear the old man apart, boys!” Six more charged forward.
Virgil turned, and seeing his fellow shepherds were across and moving the sheep away, and he ran after them.
“See the coward run! Wolves, HUNT!” And Matthias charged forward.
Virgil reached the bridge center and turned back. Matthias had advanced to the front of the pack, a mad glare in his eyes and spittle flying from his ravenous mouth. Unlike the unarmed wolves, he carried a short blade that he drew back and swiped at Virgil. Virgil parried and blocked every blow but never made an offensive move. Virgil’s focus never left Matthias’ eyes, but in his periphery, he watched the advancing pack. He took a few steps back, and Matthias advanced again- in a maddened frenzy. “Stop backing up and face me, old man!” he snarled.
Virgil stopped, and opened his arms. Matthias hesitated, then stabbed Virgil’s chest. Virgil let a small groan escape his throat. Then his eyes met Matthias’ once again. “Forgive my failure, all those years ago, my son. ‘Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies: thou anointest my head with oil; my cup runneth over.’” Virgil then drew the blade from his own chest, then quickly and deftly cut the ropes that held the bridge up. There was a snap, then another, and the bridge, the wolves, Matthias, and Virgil plummeted to the valley below.
Yvette turned to her flock, speechless. Tears dripped as she finally sang, “Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life: and I will dwell in the house of the Lord for ever.”
We all have a defining moment in our lives.
For most of us, those defining moments are infrequent. They crash into your life, then years go by before another one lands in your lap.
Our daily choices are ones of life and death, so
for it to be a defining moment, it must be one that answers life toughest questions.
Am I a coward?
Am I a liar?
Am I honest?
Can I be trusted?
Who can I trust?
But I won’t be making those decisions today.
My name is Rick Mason, and I'm a rookie police officer for the
Houston Police. And I drew one boring assignment on my patrol today.
Some big-time witness against a local organized crime lord is
getting dropped off for my partner and I to escort- with two detectives- to the Courthouse for a hearing. My partner, Steve Lance, yawns as the plane finishes taxiing to a stop. Steve and I are both old for rookies, having spent the bulk of our twenties in the military. He'd been in the Military Police, and I served in Special Forces. Both of those had more excitement than watching this overweight, balding accountant stumble down the stairs from his FBI jet escort. His current handlers- two feds with obnoxious earpieces and blackout sunglasses- don’t even bother to step off the stairs. They quickly glance around, then duck back into the cool of the jet. “Numbers,” as I will call him, is looking nervously from side to side, and sweating profusely even for the mid-July South Texas heat.
“And where are the detectives?” I ask as Steve and I reluctantly
leave the shade of the terminal awning.
Steve grunts and shrugs, placing his headgear on his shaved, dark-skinned head. “I think I saw one lounging in the terminal. Drinking coffee or something.”
Meanwhile, Numbers is running towards us, looking left and right and babbling. We can’t hear over the roar of the nearby engines, including that of the jet that just dumped him on us.
My periphery catches the glint of a glass door opening, and two
men in suits walk out. I can see their badges, even if I can’t see their faces just yet. “Finally,” I mutter under my breath.
The drone of engines dies just enough for us to hear the frantic
yell of Numbers “-kill me! His men are right there!” And he points
to the hangar two hundred yards away.
My eyes shoot to the twin SUVs that begin to move in our
direction. Slowly, at first. Then I hear a new engine revving.
Two, actually. V8s, supercharged. And sitting in the SUV’s hurtling
at numbers at ever-increasing speed.
The detectives see it, too, and they begin to move towards
Numbers. I get there first. I may be shorter and blockier than
Steve, but I can sprint faster than most other rookies I graduated from the Academy with.
I hear the first bullet buzz past my ear, and feel the air part
around the path of the second. I grab Numbers by the shirt and twist him so that my body is between his and the guns firing at him. Steve and the detectives flank me and start to return fire. One of the detectives, who I recognize as a local legend- Elijah Ransom- is screaming into his phone for backup. We begin to move toward the terminal, where our own SUV is parked.
The attackers must see our destination and turn fire on our
vehicle. It is reinforced, but only so much, and none at all in the
windows. Which is why the back window spiderwebs over my shoulder.
Steve takes a shot, apparently hitting the driver of one of the
advancing SUVs, and it swerves hard to its left. This buys us enough time to get into our car and go.
The detectives pile into the backseat on either side of Numbers,
Steve rides a literal shotgun, and I hop behind the wheel. Time spent in Kabul with Special Forces makes me a well-equipped driver in stressful situations such as this.
We speed toward the exit gate of the secure area of the airport
only to see that the SUV that Steve hit has rejoined the chase. On top of that, I notice the gate is being blocked by a third SUV. And it has its own armed threats. “Hey, guys, we got a problem…”
Steve sighs heavily. Ransom begins to roll down his window
and raise his firearm. Ransom’s partner, another local legend named David Fordham, swears. Ransom asks between trigger pulls, “Any way around it?”
I have milliseconds to decide if I want to try something, but that
is what I am trained for.
Millisecond life-altering decisions.
There is just enough space behind to the blocker-SUV that I can
push into it and spin it around. But it is going to give us a nasty
jolt. “Brace for impact!” I yell.
At the last second, I jerk the wheel to my right, causing the
driver side headlight of our car to connect with the back quarter panel of the other vehicle between the wheel and the bumper. I hear the screech of metal and the peel of my tires as the unstoppable force meets the immovable object. For another millisecond, the battle is waged, but my knowledge of physics and the unstoppable force wins out.
We are clear, and I check my rearview mirror to see that the spin
was enough to slow the advancing SUVs, but not completely stop them. And Car Three is in no way disabled, just pissed off. I see the sign for Hobby Airport shrinking as I turn onto Telephone Road.
We have a clear straightaway, so I hit the lights and sirens at
the same time as I punch the gas to put as much space as I can between them and us. Then I feel Ransom’s hand on my shoulder. “Great driving, kid. But kill the noise and sights. If the guys after Eddie here can get on a secure tarmac, then they will be coordinated enough to have more folks out there.”
“Yes, sir,” I say as I oblige him.
“What’re the names, officers?” Ransom asks cordially, as if we
were at some department mixer, not in a car chase.
I am focused on driving and checking the three black dots growing ever larger in the rearview mirror, so Steve responds. “Officer Lance, and Mario Andretti here is Officer Mason.”
Fordham looks behind him. “Andretti needs to gas it a
bit. They are gaining on us.”
I agree, but apparently, the horses galloping under their hoods
are in better shape than the ones under mine. I decide it is time to get creative. “I can’t outrun them, but I can outmaneuver them. Better buckle up.” Eddie “Numbers” whimpers behind his hands.
I dart left, just as a fourth SUV turns onto Telephone Road ahead
of me. It is followed by two more. That makes six vehicles in
pursuit. “We need back up. Detective, did you get anyone on your
call?” I ask as I dodge and weave between parked cars and general road trash on this much smaller thoroughfare.
Ransom shook his head. “No- they couldn’t hear me over the
“Can you call now, while there aren’t any?” I ask, with mounting
Another head shake. “Dropped it when we got in the car.”
Fordham shrugged. “Left mine in our cruiser.”
Steve smacks his head with his hand. “I’ll call it in on the
radio!” Steve reaches for the radio, and a fresh round of automatic
gunfire explodes the back window of our car. Our witness screams and ducks his head even lower between his legs. Fordham and Ransom turn and fire out the rear window.
Steve begins to go for the radio again when Ransom yells out,
“Dave- what, are you doing!” I spare a glance over my shoulder to see Ransom and Fordham fighting over Fordham’s gun, which appears to be pointed at Eddie “Numbers.” Ransom wrestles the gun muzzle away from the witness’ direction, and it suddenly fires. Right into the Police band radio. Sparks and smoke fill the front seat, as Steve yanks his hand back.
A second gunshot explodes from the backseat, then I hear panting.
I glance in the rearview and see that four SUVs are behind us and gaining since I slowed during the backseat battle. I also see the lifeless body of Fordham, a single gunshot wound in his forehead. Eddie is absolutely blubbering, and Ransom looks at me with utter shock. “He was trying to kill the witness…”
I look over to Steve and see something that makes my blood run
The grill of a Ford Expedition in my passenger window.
We are T-boned, our SUV screeching sideways into the brick of an abandoned warehouse. We rock to a stop, and I open my eyes. Steve is unconscious but alive. The Ford is backing up, and as it does, it rips the passenger door off. Through the smoke from our ruined car, I see that the Ford has only one occupant. The driver. I draw my Sig Sauer P229 and fire once, putting a .40 hole in the windshield and the driver’s head.
Ransom sees my intention and is already shoving Eddie out of the car and moving toward the Ford. I do the same with Steve, who is coming around. This allows me to employ suppression fire at the four advancing SUVs. They slow, partly due to the gunfire, and also due to the strange behavior we are exhibiting. I have just a moment to wonder where the fifth one is.
Steve is awake enough to get in the car himself, which is good,
because I have to remove the body of the previous driver. Ransom and Eddie are in place, and we begin to back up.
Just in time. The fifth SUV comes barreling down the road to
the right, a failed effort to box us in avoided.
But I cannot turn around, so I back as fast as I can, jerking the
wheel awkwardly from side to side as we go. When we come to a side street (or was it an alley?), I spin the wheel and thread the needle, then throw it into drive and peel out.
The vehicular and human carnage slows our attackers down a bit, but they are moving again. I find my voice long enough to shout at Ransom, “Why are they sending so many after this guy? What’s he got?”
Ransom sighs heavily. “Everything on Julio Cancio. Every. Thing.”
I have been through a lot today, but that shocks me. Cancio
is the boss in Houston. He has his fingers in every pot. Including…
“Do you think Fordham was working with him?” I ask Ransom.
Steve grimaces and grips his leg.
Ransom rubs his face, a line of blood trickling down his cheek
from one of our impacts that day. “I...I can’t...he was my partner for
six years. He...he couldn’t…”
“And if Cancio has that connection...can we trust anyone on the
force?” Steve asks, indicating the walkie attached to his chest,
forgotten in the heat of the moment until now.
Ransom is rubbing his face with both hands now. Eddie is
either coming out of shock or going into total denial, frantically looking around. Then he meets my eyes in the rearview. “No. Cancio has people everywhere. And I mean everywhere. I need to get to Assistant DA Gutierrez. She is the only one willing to go after him.”
I look back and forth between the balding, fat man who was risking his life to do the right thing and the road ahead. Then I catch a glimpse of the five remaining SUVs catching up to us. Ahead is the interstate, and a mostly straight shot to the Federal Courthouse. I realize that surviving this day is a long shot. For Eddie. For all of us. Then I ask, “It’s just your word against his, why do you have to risk it?”
Eddie’s eyes narrow as the grill guards of the approaching enemies grow larger. “Because I am tired of doing the wrong thing so that I benefit. I want my kids to be proud of me- not my money and the stuff it gets them. Me. For doing what no one else would.” He pauses and seems to weigh me with his eyes- if I could be trusted. I guess he thought I could, because then he says, “And it is not just my word. I have evidence.”
Ransom shoots him a glance. “What? We need to protect
that, too. I can carry it. Or Officer Mason. Just in case.”
Eddie shakes his head. “No. It’s my burden. My mission.”
Eddie’s words are still ringing in my ears. Benefits.
Who benefits from one man doing good things?
I floor the gas as we spin up onto the interstate and speed toward the Courthouse. Thankfully, traffic is lighter than usual at this mid-morning hour, so fewer innocent drivers were at risk. But not none.
I look at Steve, who is growing pale, and ask, “You okay?”
Steve shakes his head. “When they hit us, shrapnel got stuck
in my leg. Bleeding, but I’ll make it. Have to.”
“Can you shoot?” I ask.
“Not straight. At the moment,” Steve chuckles.
I think for a second. “Switch with me.”
Steve gives me a crazy look. “Going eighty on the interstate
in a car chase with my bum leg, and you want to do stunts?”
I give him a broad, sarcastic smile. He shakes his head and
smiles back. Then we maneuver- awkwardly- as I stand, keeping my foot on the gas, and he slides his undamaged leg over onto the driver seat. With some screaming and effort, he gets his bad leg over, then he takes the wheel, and I throw myself into the passenger seat. We swerve as curses and yells come from the backseat, but then we straighten out and speed on. I turn in my
seat, knees into the back of the chair, and surveyed the oncoming cars.
Ransom looks at me with doubtful eyes, but I just give him a mischievous half-smile.
“Slow down, and you guys duck,” I say. Steve complies, and
the car slows. Four of the five pursuers quickly close the gap as I draw the automatic weapon that the previous driver had left on the floorboard of the passenger side. “Just a little closer...little closer...and…”I open fire on the tire of the lead pursuer. There is a ‘brap, brap,’ as I fire, then an explosion as the driver side tire erupts, forcing the SUV to spin out into the three cars right behind it. Two plow into it, causing it to roll and spark on the asphalt. The third veers a bit too far to avoid it, and ends up launching itself off the raised highway of Interstate 45.
Four down, one to go. Steve jerks the wheel to make an exit
for the Courthouse, and I lose balance for a second. Then I began to think. There is no way this car lets us park and just walk into the Courthouse. But now, we are in a densely populated area, with lots of pedestrians. No more Hollywood car crashes.
I can see the courthouse edifice rising above Little Tranquility
Park, where there would be a sparse population at this time of day. Too early for lunch, too late for breakfast picnics. “Steve, gun it into the park. Then fishtail slide sideways.”
Steve looks at me, incredulously. “What?!?!”
“Trust me.” I give my most confident smile.
Ransom looks at me with something I take to be a mix of awe and frustration. And something else, but I do not have time to process as we jump the curb and plow into irrigated green lawn. Steve spins the wheel, and we slide to a stop. I usher Ransom and Eddie out of the car and toward the Courthouse. Then I stand between the last pursuer and our vehicle. I hear the rev of their engine, then I fire, hitting the driver multiple times. The passenger is still trying to shoot, but with the driver dead, the SUV hits the curb and rolls.
I turn and begin to follow Ransom and Eddie to the Courthouse.
Steve gives me the thumbs up as he uses his walkie to call for a medic.
The people on the steps clear out of Ransom and Eddie’s way, and I use a burst of adrenaline-fueled speed to catch up to them. And that is when I see it.
Ransom has his gun drawn and pointed at the small of Eddie’s back at an angle only I can see. They burst through the doors, and I am right behind them. Ransom flashes his badge and pulls Eddie off the doors on the right, a security room for questioning. I burst through behind him just as Ransom pushes Eddie away and raises a gun at him.
Then I see my gun is the one in Ransom’s hand.
The door closes, and Ransom says, “Good. Glad you made
it.” He pulls his own gun out points it at me. “Make it easier to
prove you killed the witness.”
“It wasn’t Fordham on the take, was it?” I ask.
Ransom smiles. “Nope. Not this time anyway. So, that’s two crooked cops I took out today.”
I smile. Then tap the bodycam on my chest. “Forgot
something?” I ask.
Ransom goes to fire, and I drop backward, pulling my secondary
piece from my boot. I fire twice before Ransom can, and he falls, dead.
Courthouse security rushes in with Liza Gutierrez, the assistant DA. She smiles as she looks over Eddie, and he explains what happened.
There are moments, milliseconds of destiny, when you have to
This was my defining moment.
It has been a busy few weeks around here as I am doing some publicity for Rites of Passage and preparing to launch Red Hand Rising in less than two months!!!
First of all, I have done two interviews recently, one with BookPleasures.com and one with A.F. Stewart. Here are those links- please check them out to support these sites that supported me!
Second, the Book Trailer for Red Hand Rising is out! I'm enjoying playing around with some photo manipulation apps, so I hope you like it!
Third- I am almost ninety pages into book 3! This is going to be a longer book and will explore, well, The Origins of Man and Myth!
Finally, I am experimenting with something new, but I am not ready to fully tell you yet. It will be a retelling of Rites of Passage, and I will do a test run of part of it here to get feedback. Stay tuned!
Note: This story takes place after Rites of Passage, but before Red Hand Rising.
Eddie looked into the eyes. He felt fear, terror, hopelessness and a draining feeling. He could hear the words- "So hungry. Feed me," over and over, as he slowly slipped in and out of consciousness. He knew he was dying, being slowly drained of his soul, or life force- whatever made him a living thing.
His last thought, as the sucking sound of his last breath disappeared into the night was, "Why did I say yes?"
There had been three bodies in three days. Eddie Criswell had been the third.
Sheriff Maklan knew in his gut that they were connected, but other than the fact that each victim showed no signs of physical trauma, and other than appearing to be a bit malnourished, there were no medical reasons. The people had just died.
The local doctor who was also the medical examiner (that's how things worked in small towns) pushed for Maklan to call in the CDC. Memories were fresh of from the big pandemic, and no one wanted to take chances.
When the older African American man showed up and said he was here to help, Maklan assumed he was CDC. Man said his name was Romer, and he brought with him two kids who were his "interns." The old guy even used air quotes. But then the man started asking strange questions, like what the body smelled like, had there been any strange animal sightings, or if there had been anyone around acting strangely.
Maklan had laughed at that. Then he explained, "Well, if you count carnies from that traveling county fair two towns over, then yeah- there has been some strange folk around."
One of the interns, the boy who looked about eighteen and had the look of a boy turning into a handsome young man had perked up. Then he asked the older guy, like a kid with his dad, "Oooh- carnival? We gotta get funnel cakes, right?"
Eli Romer had suspected this carnival- the Sider Brothers Carnival- was up to something for some time. Every year, for the last five years, there were suspicious deaths in the towns surrounding the carnival. Victims had popped up- dead, but with no obvious signs why. Most got labelled as natural deaths, some got the arbitrary coronary episode. That meant the heart just stopped.
Eli had investigated a few times over the last couple years, but could never pinpoint what exactly was going on. Whatever demon or monster was running with the show was too good to leave a trail. Now he had Sawyer Shepherd and Mandy Jane with their fresh eyes to look into it.
"Succubus?" Sawyer asked as they sat around the outdoor table, enjoying a cheeseburger from the local burger spot.
"Not everything is a succubus, Sawyer," Mandy responded. Sawyer had assumed every monster that was not a straightforward demon was a succubus at some point in every investigation.
"Hey, eventually, I will be right. Right, Eli?" Sawyer countered with his trademark charm.
"Even a broke clock is right twice a day, kid," Eli replied, not looking up from the laptop in front of him. He was looking into the attractions listed on the carnival's website. "You know, twenty years ago, carnivals had no presence on the internet. Now- I can get all sorts of information without having to set foot there."
Genuine concern was on Sawyer's face as he asked, "Wait- we are still going to the actual carnival, right? I mean, I was serious about the funnel cakes."
Eli smiled. "Yeah, we're going. And we are going to have a chat with this guy." He turned the computer around and showed them the image of a thin man with a long, thin goatee. He wore a top hat, had dark circles around his eyes. One eyebrow was raised in a quizzical manner, and he dangled a silver pocket watch. Across the top of the image, in an intentionally goofy/spooky font were the words, "Horace the Hypnotist."
At the carnival, Sawyer and Mandy were walking around, trying to blend in while scouting out for signs of anything odd. Eli was interviewing carnival workers under the guise of being a local reporter. They coordinated their movements so that as Eli approached Horace, they would be near enough for backup.
While Eli chatted with the guy who ran the house of mirrors, Sawyer and Mandy played some carnival games.
"Are you going to try to win me a bear, Sawyer?" Mandy asked flirtatiously. They were not dating- having agreed that even though there were feelings, the beginning of a career of monster hunting was not the right time to find love.
"I mean, I will if you want me to," he said with a grin. "There really is no challenge to these things, though."
Mandy nudged him with her elbow. "Sounds like an excuse to me."
"Okay, fine," Sawyer responded. "Just know, I will feel a little guilty taking the prize from these poor carnie folk." He went to the balloon dart game, and as he walked, a couple kids bumped into him, moving slowly. The kids slowly turned and glared at Sawyer, who returned a disgusted look at them. "Umm, excuse me?" he called after them. They simply squinted at him and stuck their tongues out.
"Aw, you're so good with kids," Mandy laughed.
"Whatever. Now, watch the master!" he declared as he cocked his arm back to throw the first dart. It sailed through the air in a perfect arc, hitting a red balloon dead center... then bouncing off.
"That was pretty impressive. You threw it so soft and dainty," Mandy giggled.
Sawyer was about to defend himself when he saw Eli was headed right for Horace's tent. "Nevermind, we gotta go." They started toward the tent and another three kids bumped into them. "Dude, what is it with the kids these days?" Again, the kids turned and glared. Sawyer and Mandy both found their expression a bit unnerving.
They got close enough to Eli to overhear the conversation, wherein Horace was explaining how he could not have had anything to do with deaths. He had been at the carnival all night playing poker with the other workers. "And I cleaned up, too. Won a hundred bucks!" Horace had a very soothing voice, a benefit for a hypnotist.
"Okay," Eli said, smiling. "So, how did you get into hypnotism?"
"I was a psychology major in college and we did a unit on meditation. Went and saw a hypnotist, and I was hooked!" Sawyer listened in, but was not getting the feeling this guy was for real. Who goes to college and decides to be a carnival hypnotist?
The conversation went on for a bit, and Eli eventually gave a nod that he was done. The three regrouped outside of the fair grounds. Sawyer got straight to the point, while enjoying his longed-for funnel cake. "Is Horace the guy?"
"Not sure. He is definitely selling a bit, but is that just his carnie schtick or or is he hiding his real purpose?"
Mandy weighed in with, "He could be putting a suggestion in, some sort of spell or demon kill chain that causes the victim to die later on? That could explain why he has an alibi. Every time."
Sawyer nodded. "Then let's come back after it all shuts down. See what the carnival is like. After hours." Sawyer had a way of playing the goofball right up until time to get serious. And when that time came, both Mandy and Eli would trust no one more than Sawyer Shepherd.
As they were leaving, Sawyer noticed one of the kids that had bumped into him getting into an SUV with a middle-aged woman. She looked frazzled and harried. Sawyer guessed that carnivals and having kids like that would drive you a bit batty.
The carnival was dark, but it was not quiet.
The raucous laughter and merrymaking of the carnies could be heard well outside the fairgrounds. The good news was that meant anything the trio had to investigate could be accomplished with minimal stealth.
They went straight for Horace's tent, and began to search. They were turning up nothing when Sawyer heard a rustling coming from outside. "I'm going to check and see what that was. Heads up."
Sawyer popped out of the tent, and in the darkness, he saw two small shapes moving towards him.
"What are you doing here, mister?" they shapes asked in unison, with child-like voices.
As they stepped closer, Sawyer saw that they were the same kids that had bumped into earlier that night. And then he saw what had unnerved both Mandy and him about the kids.
Their eyes were coal black.
"Aren't you kids out a little late? Carnival is closed," Sawyer answered, a shakiness in his voice as the kids kept advancing.
"Our parents left us. Won't you give us a ride home, mister?" The unison was maintained, but there was an echo. Sawyer broke eye contact and saw that there were at least a dozen more kids emerging from the dark corners of the carnival. Each was locking their eyes on his in an attempt to control him.
"Well, that's just awesome," Sawyer said under his breath. "Um, guys, we have visitors," he called to Eli and Mandy as he tugged on the canvas of the tent.
"What's up, Saw-" Eli started, then froze as he saw the small army of black eyed children now gathered. Without hesitation, Eli shined a large flashlight at the kids, and they all shielded their eyes and ran for cover.
All except one.
The one Sawyer had seen getting into the SUV when they left.
Eli shouted, "Run!"
Now, Mandy followed Eli, which made sense. Sawyer inexplicably ran to find cover. And the closest place was the mirror maze. In his mind, that seemed safe.
He was wrong.
Aside from the disorienting nature of the mirror maze in itself, it turns out that that was the home of some of the black eyed children.
Sawyer would duck and weave, then run into a black eyed kid. Thankfully it was a mirror, but now there were so many that no matter where he turned, there was a small demon kid. Truth be told, Sawyer didn't know much about the Black Eyed Children, but putting "creepy" and "kid" together was never a good thing.
When Mandy and Eli realized that Sawyer was not with them, they turned and saw the children filing into the mirror maze. They spared a glance at each other and started to run back for their teammate. Eli coached as they ran, " They don't like light, so use your flashlight. There is a controlling demon, and there is an exorcism we can use to drive it out. But...the other kids won't make it."
Mandy felt a lump in her throat. "How do you know?"
A somber Eli remarked, "Seen it before."
When they were close enough to the mirror maze, Eli called out to Sawyer- "Use light- they hate it. And don't make eye contact! Or say yes to anything they say!"
"Aren't you coming in after me?" a frantic Sawyer called out.
"Uh, no... but we will shine light in there for you." Eli offered half-heartedly. "On the count of three...one...two...three!" Eli and Mandy, standing at opposite entrances flicked on their halogen flashlights. Sawyer hit his as well. Instantly, the trapped children began to clutch their eyes. Sensing they were trapped, and light bouncing off all the reflective surfaces, they began to cry out in what seemed like pain. "Sawyer, you have to find the leader, it will be the one not affected by the light!" Eli yelled over the screeching.
Sawyer knew exactly who he was looking for, but getting to them was another matter altogether. He could see at least three of the leader child, a red-head with a bowl cut that looked about ten. And even though it too had black eyes, there was a strange green glow about them, all the same. Sawyer began to move through the maze, stepping over and around the children curled into the fetal position trying to avoid the light. And the leader was stalking Sawyer.
"Yeah, okay, when I find it, what do I do?" a now panicky Sawyer called out.
Eli was looking through the notes on his phone. On Sawyer's suggestion, Eli had put key exorcism rites in the notes on his cell. Then Eli shared it with Sawyer and Mandy. His eyes stopped on an image. "Read exorcism thirteen!" he yelled.
Sawyer pulled his own phone out and found the right passage. "Got it!" he yelled.
Mandy looked at Eli with concern in her eyes. "Are you going to tell him about the other kids?" she asked in a whisper.
Eli solemnly shook his head. "No. Because then he won't go through with it."
Inside the maze, Sawyer turned a corner and came face to face with the demon child in charge. To be certain it was the real kid and not a mirror, Sawyer took a wadded up receipt from his pocket, balled it up and threw it in the kid's face. It hit dead center and the black eyes blinked. "Cool. So it is you," Sawyer said, the nervous edge still in his voice.
"Let my children go," the childlike demon demanded.
"Sorry, gotta send you to timeout, instead. " Sawyer began to read the rite, and the demon kid squirmed. It tried to move forward, but its steps were heavy and slow. It began to growl, but Sawyer kept reading. With each step, the demon moved easier and faster. The ritual was evaporating the physical being, but that made it harder for the rite to hold it in place. Sawyer read faster.
Outside, Horace the Hypnotist came running up to Eli and Mandy, screaming, "My kids, my kids!" Eli grabbed him before he could enter the maze, and then he saw the man's eyes. He was not a demon, but he was the demon's familiar- a wizard or witch that had called the demon forth. There was a tell-tale dullness that Eli had seen before. Eli held the man tightly as Mandy worked to tie him up.
When the demon kid was just a few feet away, and Sawyer at the final line of the rite, it lunged at him. Sawyer finished and the essence of the demon evaporated. All of the kids around Sawyer stopped moving. Eli and Mandy rushed in, and Sawyer saw that Mandy was crying. "What is it?" Sawyer asked.
"We couldn't save the kids," she responded, holding back tears.
"Wait a second," Eli said. He was looking around as the kids were getting up. The younger ones were waking up first, and they seemed to be normal. The older ones were taking a bit longer, but they too seemed to be coming around. "I don't understand. Before...last time, they..." Then Eli looked at Sawyer. "It's you. You're the difference."
Sawyer, not caring that he was the difference, just wanted out of the maze. So, he bolted. Right into a mirror.
The police were called and the kids were rounded up. All of the children were checked out and found to be healthy. Eli had of course tested them all for demonic presence before the police were called. Horace had been using the Black Eyed Demon to take over kids and make them an army. They would ask unsuspecting strangers for rides home, then suck their soul from them. Those souls would feed Horace more power to do his magic. Fortunately, Horace was stupid, so he was only using the magic to get rich off the poker games at the carnival. But then, that was also terrible because it meant the victims had died for so little a thing. Horace was going to jail for a long time, and there he would not be able to practice any magic. Or hypnotism.
The kids had all been reported kidnapped- which in both the real and supernatural sense, they were. But now, they were being returned to parents- many of whom had given up all hope.
"This ended well," Eli said as they sat on the hood of Sawyer's Camaro, watching the sun rise. "But it shouldn't have. The other times that rite was done, the kids all died."
Sawyer sat, rubbing his forehead where he had hit the mirror. "I don't know what I could have done differently. I read it as it was written."
Mandy looked at him in the dawning light and smiled. "Maybe you're special. I mean, the gladius that sought you out, the ancient family line. Maybe you are, like, the Chosen One."
"Look how that worked out for Anakin Skywalker," Sawyer quipped back.
"She may be right, kid," Eli said earnestly. "You are a part of something big. And we may not know yet how big. But I could not be more happy to be on the journey with you."
Sawyer smiled. "Just as long as the path does not ever lead to another mirror maze. Seriously, THAT? Was terrifying."
"We the jury find the defendant guilty of six counts of murder in the first degree."
With those words, three long months of sequestration was ended, and the twelve individuals who held the fate of Jonas Slab in their hands could go back to their lives. The trial had been intense- Slab was accused of murdering at least six people over the course of three years. The evidence was vile and nightmarish- more than one of the jurors had begun to have nightmares, and several talked frequently of needed the number of a good therapist.
It was not all bad. The jurors bonded. Tess- mother of three- and Abigail- grandmother of eight- had formed an almost mother/daughter bond. Reggie, Clive, and Zed had all decided it would be fun to go together to see their mutual favorite football team- the Houston Texans- play during the upcoming season. Sam and Liz had been flirting a lot during the time, and several jurors had actually placed bets on whether or not he would ask her out before the trial ended. Alexis and Ted won when after the previous night's deliberation ended, Sam caught Liz in the hall and asked her to coffee after the verdict. Luis, Jeb, and Olga were just glad to be done.
Jonas Slab waived his right to appeal, and declared- "I just want it over with." His execution was set for one year to the day after the trial concluded.
They all received the notice about a week before the execution.
A jury summons.
They all had the same reaction- not surprising considering that they had just given three months of their lives the year before.
But a summons is law, so begrudgingly, they all showed up. Even though the location was at the old courthouse (Which they paid no attention to), and the summons was for eight in the morning (Which they did pay attention to).
When Reggie saw Alexis, he thought it odd that both of them would get called again. Olga, Liz, and Clive arrived next, then soon after all the rest were in the dark courtroom, in a vacant building. Ted was a contractor, and he noticed right away that the building was altered. But he couldn't tell why.
Abigail noticed Liz and Sam were on opposite sides of the room. "Sam, did you not come with Liz?" Liz averted her eyes, and Sam gritted his teeth and mumbled, "We're not together anymore."
"Guys, something isn't right," Ted began. "This room has pipes it shouldn't."
Luis grunted. "It also has people it shouldn't."
As if on cue, a fine mist filled the room. "I don't feel so good," said Tess, just before passing out. The others followed in rapid succession.
When Zed and Clive woke, they made eye contact. They both immediately displayed expressions of shock and terror. What they saw was the rest of their fellow jurors in a circle around the room. Each was strapped to a rudimentary wooden chair and each had a variety of devices behind them. Some looked like surgical instruments- needles and scalpels and knives. Some were more electrical in nature. Some were tools. And a few had large blades- like guillotines laying on their side.
Olga was the first to scream, then Sam, then a chorus of terrified voices cried out- some tearful, some angry, some pleading.
Ted was still looking around the room- the same they had entered into. But the furniture was different before- more like the courtroom. Now, it looked eerily similar to their deliberation room. Where the judges seat was, there was a large television. The lights were fluorescent, stark and flickery. Below the television, on the wood panel was a clock. It read 6:00 in digital red numbers.
The television flickered on.
There was a shape- a dark, hooded shape not unlike a grim reaper. But where the face should be, there was only blackness. When it spoke, it's voice was mechanical. Altered by some device to mask the true voice. There must have been speakers spread around the room, for when the shape spoke, it seemed to be right behind everyone at the same time.
"Welcome jurors. Today, we are holding court to judge crimes so heinous, so cruel that should a guilty verdict be rendered, then death will be swift and equally cruel. You are judge, jury...and defendant."
It took a moment for that to sink in. Sam began to weep, as did Liz and Tess. Abigail, a woman who had been through much in her life, steeled herself. Jeb began to struggle with his restraints.
Ted- who had been foreman- fell back into his leadership role. He was man of medium build, but large forearms that strained against the restraints told a story of a life wielding heavy hammers and tools. "What do you want from us?" he demanded, his stubbled jaw tense.
The shape moved closer to the screen. "Simple. You must determine who is holding you captive- who am I?"
"That's it?" Olga squealed? "You are holding us for a guessing game? Fine. I guess it's a friend of Jonas Slab. Since he's going to be executed in a few hours, I bet it's one of the witnesses who defended him."
The shape made a 'tsk, tsk' sound and shook what seemed to be its head. "I'm sorry. That's a wrong guess. Now, the penalty for a wrong guess is death."
There was a sound like leather being twisted, from behind Olga's head, and the flat guillotine blade flew forward. Olga's head rolled back and off her shoulders. Another chorus of screams went up. A mechanical whir began below Olga's seat, and her body and the chair were lowered into the floor. A hole remained where her seat had been.
"Now that you know I am serious, let us go over the rules." The voice was calculated and calm. "You must guess who I am. Remember, I am someone that at least one of you has wronged. Once you come to a consensus as a jury- make your accusation. But, if you are wrong, you must choose which of you will die for making a false accusation. Accuse correctly, and you are all free to go. Oh, and you must decide by midnight tonight- when Jonas Slab is executed. If you have not successfully guessed yet, then you will all be joining him in the afterlife. Those pipes along the ceiling? They can deliver killing gases just as they can deliver knockout gasses. I will check back in one hour. Happy deliberations!" The screen went black.
The room was silent except for the sniffling of Sam and Tess and Liz. Abigail sat stock still, facing forward. Luis, Zed, and Clive were looking at their feet. Ted and Reggie (who was an electrician) were looking around the room, trying to see what structural things might help them. Alexis and Jeb were looking around the room at the faces of people they had know so well a year ago, but had not spoken to since.
Alexis, who had been the first to speak in deliberations the year before, did so again. "How can we be sure this guy will let us go if we guess correctly?"
Clive replied, "We don't. But we have to at least make an effort, right? I mean, I don't want to die here."
"Me either," added Luis. "But where do we start?"
Ted spoke again, his voice was always strong and reassuring- part of why they named him foreman. "I think we make a list. Who would want to do this to us? I mean, it must have something to do with Slab, right?"
"His attorney," said Abigail coldly. "He always gave me a funny feeling."
"Okay, that's one. Who was the witness that spoke up most for him? The girlfriend?" asked Reggie.
"Grace Vess," said Liz, through sniffles.
Tess composed herself enough to add, "His parents."
Clive's eyes lit up. "The groupies! Those weird chicks that were in the trial everyday. What did they call themselves?"
Jeb chuckled, "Slabbettes. Like some girl band." He laughed out loud, and the sound was strange in the room. But soon Reggie laughed, too, and then others followed. While it felt odd with the blood of Olga still fresh, it also felt normalizing. And they needed their wits about them if they were to survive.
When it died down, Ted spoke. "I don't think they are capable of this." He indicated the room with his eyes. "But wasn't his dad a plumber?"
"Yeah, he was. But he was a wreck during the trial," countered Reggie. "I think he was even committed to some institution about six months ago."
"Whoever did this had to be planning it for a while," Clive commented. "And strong enough to maneuver us once we were unconscious."
"Unless they had help," Zed commented, his eyes looking from Clive to Reggie. Both looked away from him.
The back and forth of raising an accused and then dismissing them kept up for a long time before Liz called out, "The time! We only have five minutes before we need to accuse someone!"
Despite the mental institution issue, it was the father of Jonas Slab that had kept coming up. The television popped on and the mechanized voice asked, "Who is the accused?" Everyone exchanged a look. They all nodded at Ted, and he said, "Jonas Slab's father."
There was a long moment of silence. The screen went black. Then in place of the hooded man was a newspaper clipping. Jonas Slab's father had died a month ago, and they were looking at his obituary.
Ted swore. Tess shrieked. Sam and Liv sobbed. Abigail was stone still. Luis, Zed, Clive and Reggie all struggled against their restraints. Alexis darted her eyes back and forth across the room, looking at the faces of each person in the room. Jeb began to laugh.
The hood was back on screen. "You must choose who dies within five minutes, or you will all be chosen." The screen went off.
"How do we choose who of us dies?" cried Liz hysterically.
Jeb spoke up. "Don't you see- he is dangling in front of us that we killed Jonas Slab. In his mind anyway. So, so since we so callously killed him-" he looked the clock. "-or will in a few hours, we must be devoid of human emotion. This hood is trying to say we are just as cold blooded as Slab."
Abigail looked coldly at Jeb. "But what choice do we have? We are trapped here- and honestly, I see no way we win this, this...game." She sighed heavily. "Choose me. I'm eighty years old. You all have your lives ahead of you- and I've lived mine."
"No!" screamed Tess. "Think of your grandkids!"
"I am," she replied calmly. "And I am thinking of your kids."
"Why should we consider her kids, Abigail?" Jeb said coldly. "Did you know Tess there has been investigated by CPS for child abuse?"
The eyes in the room went to Tess, who went sheet white. "I...I have no idea what you're talking about."
"You beat your kids?" Reggie shouted angrily. "How could you?"
"I don't- my ex accused me to try to get custody!" She defended, but she saw in the eyes of the room it didn't matter.
The screen came on. "Say a name."
Ted muttered, "Tess."
Tess screamed, but it was cut short. Blood ran out of her mouth, and she slumped forward. The point of a knife stuck out of her chest. The whirring noise came back, and her body was lowered into the floor.
"Tess never beat her children. She was telling the truth." Said the hood.
All eyes turned to Jeb. He began to stutter and stammer. "Look, I work with the boyfriend of a CPS worker that knew about that case. It sounded legit!"
Sam had recovered enough from his crying fit to say, "That's cold, man."
Liz wheeled on him. "Cold? Like cheating on me with my sister 'cold?'"
"Oooo!" teased Reggie. "Man, I knew you too wouldn't last."
Sam grew defensive. "Oh yeah Reggie? You and Clive and Zed make that Texans game? Or just you and Clive? Cuz, what was it you said? 'Zed is a total loser?'"
Reggie and Clive exchanged looks. Zed grinned a cruel grin. "Yeah, word got around, 'buds.' You guys ghosted me."
Clive became defensive, "Look, we were on a jury together- we were never going to be best friends forever!"
"Hey!" Ted yelled. "This is what he wants- us accusing each other. But none of us are the guy behind the hood. Right?" Nods of agreement. "So, let's focus on who it could be."
The discussion ranged again across the already named suspects. As the time drew near the end of the hour, the group had agreed on the lawyer.
The screen went live.
"Who is the accused?"
"The attorney. Victor Hodge."
The screen went black, and then an image of another newspaper article appeared. This one showed Hodge in handcuffs, and the headline read "Local Attorney Pleads Guilty to Child Pornography Possession."
Multiple swears filled the room. Abigail simply said, "I knew he gave me the willies." Her eyes were still puffy from the tears she shed over Tess- the thing that finally broke her.
From the screen: "You must choose who dies within five minutes, or you will all be chosen." The screen went off.
Abigail looked up. "Jeb."
Jeb's jaw dropped. "Me? Why?"
Coldly, Abigail explained. "You accused- falsely- Tess. And she died. Need I say more?"
"But I said her name," said Ted, tears streaming down his face.
Abigail looked at Ted with compassion. "Sweety, you only said what we all were thinking because of Jeb." Nods all around the room. Jeb continued to protest until the voice came back.
"Say a name."
Through gritted teeth, Ted said, "Jeb."
Jeb began to yell, "That is total bullsh-" but he began to convulse and jerk in his seat. Reggie noticed for the first time that Jeb's seat had wires running into his restraints. He saw the same wires now protruding from his own restraints.
The smell of burned skin and hair began to fill the room, then the floor opened and Jeb was gone.
"And then there were nine," said Clive.
Deliberations continued. The girlfriend was named next. A video was shown of an interview where she admitted that she had been mistaken about Slab- and she wished him dead.
This round of accusation was quieter. Abigail again tossed her name into the ring, it was again dismissed.
Zed through out Clive and Reggie's name, the hurt over being abandoned by his buddies evident.
Reggie shook his head. "Man, we called you a total loser because of what you bragged about doing to your girlfriend." Zed stiffened.
Liz looked at Reggie. "What did he do?"
Clive answered, "He actually did beat her. Unlike Tess and her kids."
"We saw the bruises, and he bragged about it," Reggie confirmed.
"Say a name."
"Zed." No hesitation from Ted this time.
A plastic bag descended over Zed's head, and he squirmed, seeking air but only sucking in plastic. He thrashed and slowly stopped moving.
As the body was being lowered, Sam asked, "Didn't Zed work at that grocery store on 7th- the 5-Spot?"
"Yeah," answered Clive. "Why?"
"That was a 5-Spot bag," Sam responded.
Eight of them remained. Ted had begun to shake, Abigail kept dropping her head. Clive leaned his head back, Reggie was checking out each of the chairs to see how they were set up. Sam and Liz were looking at each other, a softness appearing where once there had been only resentment and guilt. Luis and Alexis were chatting.
"I think it might be one of us," Alexis whispered to Luis. She trusted the middle aged pharmacist because they had spent a good deal of time talking about their lives during the trial. Both of them had been from broken homes and had thus far chosen the single life to avoid that heartache again.
Luis sighed heavily. "How? I mean- how could they be controlling the...game, I guess, if they were in here?"
"Like Jeb said, maybe they had help?"
"Or maybe they understand electrical work well enough to rig up the system to make it look like there really was a hood." Luis indicated Reggie, who was suspiciously looking around at all the chairs. Alexis nodded.
"Hey guys," she spoke loudly enough for all to hear, but her voice, like the rest of the people in the room, was cracked from lack of water. "Have we considered the possibility that someone in this room is the hood?"
Laughs came from most, but Ted and Reggie were silent. Abigail asked, "How would that even work? And why?"
Luis answered, "The first is easy enough- you can rig up automated systems, even voice recognition for the video to start up and respond to certain phrases. Notice the hood does not directly address anyone?"
Ted spoke next. "But the why? Why would one of us do this?"
Alexis shrugged. "I don't know. But something Sam said about Zed being left out by Clive and Reggie. What if someone got really messed up by the trial, and for some reason connected really well with the rest of the group. When we went our separate ways, back to our real lives- what if they felt abandoned? Left for dead, even?"
"Remind me what you did for a living, sweetheart?" asked Clive. His 'sweetheart' held none of the warmth that Abigail would have passed on.
"I'm a psychiatrist."
"Oofff course you are. Just trying to play mind games, huh?" Clive replied sardonically. "Well, maybe it's you."
Luis, who had been quiet so far in these discussions, defended her. "Or perhaps someone with electrical skills, like Reggie? Or Clive, aren't you a computer tech?"
Clive shut his mouth. But the damage was done. Reggie and Clive became prime suspects. Despite his protests, Reggie's name was called by Ted at the next accusation.
From the screen, the hood laughed. "So, you figured out that I must be one of you, huh? Well, you're right! But not about poor Reggie." And with that, Reggie began to convulse and shake, just like Jeb, as he was electrocuted. Reggie's head lolled to one side and his hand dropped free to the floor. When he descended into the floor, his dead eyes met Ted's and Ted began to weep.
"And since you know that one of you is a killer, we will go ahead with the plan to have one of you named right now."
"Clive," blurted Alexis before any discussion. That must have worked because instantly a robotic arm dropped from the ceiling and fired a gun point blank into Clive's chest. He gasped for air, his eyes wide with shock and no sound coming out. Then he moved no more and the seat began to draw down into the floor.
Alexis, Sam, Luis, Abigail, Liz, and Ted were all that remained. Alexis looked around the room. None of these people could be the killer, could they? Abigail, the sweet grandmother who wouldn't hurt fly. Ted was clearly broken by this- no one could fake the pain on his face. Sam and Liz were just two dumb kids. And Luis. No, Alexis couldn't bring herself to think he was capable of that.
For the longest time, it was silent. Each person was thinking about their actions over the last few hours. Whatever happened, the hood had proven that they could kill. Just like Jonas Slab. They had each made snap decisions, based on the heat of the moment. And people died because of it.
Luis began to think about how each person in the room had died. Electrocution for Reggie and Jeb. Clive was shot by a robot arm, Zed got suffocated by a bag from his grocery store, Olga was decapitated, and Tess was stabbed by a knife.
Then Luis had a thought. "Guys- Olga was a florist, right? And what did Tess do?"
Abigail replied quietly, "She was a chef."
"Guys, the manner of death for everyone has been connected to their career." Luis smiled, in spite of the psychological torture he'd been through.
"Yeah, so?" asked Sam.
"Everyone except Jeb. He worked ...well, not with electricity." Liz answered.
"Yeah, what did Jeb do? I don't think he ever mentioned it..." Alexis was trying to remember.
"He never said," Ted replied matter of factly.
"Is Jeb somehow the key to this? Like, why would his death not be connected to him in some personal way?" asked Liz.
"Because we never knew him. Not really," answered Luis. "So his death not being related to him tells us that whoever is doing this, maybe they feel like Alexis said- like we left them behind." All eyes turned to Sam and Liz.
Alexis spoke next. "Sam cheated on Liz, so she might feel abandoned. Sam could feel that we turned our back on him because of his actions."
Sam's face went white. "Wait- guys. I am not doing this! I swear! And Liz could never hurt any of you!"
The screen returned. "Who next?"
Ted was on the verge of catatonic now, so Alexis answered. "Sam- it's Sam!"
Liz suddenly rose up, not of her own volition, and turned, her shackles guiding her hands to Sam's throat. She began choking him and screaming as her own hands acted without her consent. Sam's eyes bulged and he fought unsuccessfully for air. Then he died. Liz was maneuvered back to her seat, and she was hyperventilating from the act of murdering her ex.
Alexis looked around the room, knowing the voice was going to tell them to choose another victim. Her mind raced- not Ted or Liz. That left her, Luis and Abigail.
"Give me a name."
Alexis cut her eyes to Luis and Abigail, telling them silently to not say anything. She was missing something. The lack of personal connection to Jeb in regards to his execution. He did not work with electricity- or at least they did not know he did. Because they didn't know him. He falsely accused Tess, right off the bat, and got himself killed. But by a method not connected to him.
Alexis yelled out- "JEB! I know it's you!"
Luis looked at her with wild eyes- "What are you doing- Jeb is dead!"
"No, he's not. He faked the electricity. And he didn't break the rules of the game because he was never accused- we just killed him because he falsely accused Tess. Which he knew would trigger Abigail to call for his head. Then he could play us from behind the scenes from then on!"
A slow clapping came from the floor below them. A hooded figure arose from the hole where Jeb had been seated, clapping gloved hands. The hands reached up and pulled the hood back, revealing a very alive Jeb.
"Very good, Alexis. You only had to kill six to figure it out." Jeb said sarcastically.
"No- you killed them. Your game, your devices. Your plan."
Jeb smiled. "That is so true. In fact, it is more true than you realize. See, I positioned myself to be on that jury in the first place. I needed to be on that panel."
"Why?" asked Luis.
Jeb sighed. "I was lonely. And then, we bonded. So very much over those months. But then, the trial ended, and I thought 'Finally, friends I can hang out with!' But you all abandoned me, left me alone. Again."
"Wait- the rules," Alexis pointed out. "You set the rules for this game- we guessed it was you- and you have to die now!"
Jeb laughed. It was the same laugh that had brought levity at the start of this ordeal. Now, it was bone-chilling. "Right you are again, Alexis- you are on fire. But the problem is- for me to die, you have to know something about my personal life. And you. Don't. Know. Me. Not even my job."
Luis looked down. He remembered something Jeb said earlier that day. "What did Grace Vess do for a living? Wasn't she CPS?"
Jeb's smile faltered.
"Slab's girlfriend?" asked Abigail. "Yes, she was a CPS worker. Why?"
"Jeb said he worked with the boyfriend of a CPS worker." Luis looked at Jeb's brown eyes. "Jeb worked with Slab. He said he had to get on this jury. He had to vote guilty to make sure Slab took the fall. But I bet Jeb was the mastermind. So, Jeb- how'd I do?"
Jeb walked swiftly over to Luis and raised a knife to his throat.
"Ah, ah, ah, that's not the rule, Jeb," said Alexis. "And a you are such the narcissist that you cannot break the rules to your own perfect game. So, you should die the same way Slab does tonight- at midnight. By lethal injection. In the chair Luis is in- because my guess is that his death was to be by pharmaceuticals."
Jeb gritted his teeth, and pulled a remote from his pocket under his black robe. He pressed a button and all their shackles released. Luis rushed Jeb, who was taller by at least six inches and shoved him down into the chair. The latches clicked. Jeb was trapped.
But he still laughed. "See- you still want blood! Just like Slab. Just like me! You want to kill me- and you have already killed more than half of our fellow jury duty members!"
"No, Jeb. We are not going to kill you," Abigail walked over to him, her steps halting from being held down so long. "But we are going to leave you alone- just like we found you. Because a man like you, you don't deserve an audience." She turned and left the old courtroom, and walked out the door. Ted and Liz were leaning on each other for support as they too left. Finally, Luis and Alexis left.
Jeb was screaming at them, "This is not over! I'll still find a way to win!"
But he was alone. And that loneliness, that was his weakness. It was why he killed, why he groomed and controlled Slab. Why he planned relentlessly.
And why he made sure that if this game failed, there would be another broken soul to pick it up. As he pressed the button on the remote that triggered the needle to enter his arm, right at midnight, right when Slab was executed hundreds of miles away, he smiled one last time. He just wondered which of the survivors would snap first.
I wanted to share a free chapter of my current book- Sawyer Shepherd Chronicles: Rites of Passage. Here, you will meet many of the main characters of the book, and get a tease of the larger story. If you like it- please click the links below and purchase it on Amazon today!
A black Camaro crested the Continental Divide, sun bouncing of the ebony metal. The engine growled along, the tires spun rapidly maintaining steady speed as the automobile navigated the sharp turns with grace and ease.
A young man sat behind the wheel, attentively looking everywhere he could to soak it all in. Sawyer Shepherd was prepared for a beautiful view. But what he got was so much more.
The fresh rays of the rising sun stretched out before him, first tendrils, then as fingers, then slowly broadening to a blanket over the valley below him. There were only a few small wispy clouds scattered here and there and wrapped around the occasional mountain like a misty halo. A decent bank of clouds rested on the horizon, a hint that winter was knocking on the Rockies door. Perhaps sooner rather than later. Pockets of shadow lingered here and there in the countless trees of the San Juan National Forest giving an unreal depth and contrastingly shiny contrast to the aspen leaves and pine needles clinging to the sides of steep slopes. It was like looking at the 8K resolution displays at the electronics store. The yellow aspens in particular seemed to wave an enthusiastic greeting to the weary traveler. They waved and shimmied, casting a golden glow that seemed almost ethereal. Even from within the confines of his car, he could feel the temperature had dropped through the cool of the window. He suddenly longed for flannel blankets, hot coffee, and a comfy fire in a nice stone fireplace. It seemed most appropriate that the song on the radio by a band named after a Midwestern state was promising him rest soon. Though it was dawn and the late fall valley below him was just waking up, Sawyer had been driving all night.
No particular place to go, but a definite place- and time- to escape from as quickly as possible.
Despite his sleepiness, the dawn had energized him a bit. He saw a sign for a “Scenic Overlook” ahead and decided to pull over and stretch for a bit. He pulled off the road as far as he could and opened the door. He stepped onto the crushed gravel, a telltale crunching sound meeting him as he put weight on his foot and raised his body from the low seated car. He lifted his arms up and stretched as high as he could, a small cracking noise emanating from his lower back.
Sawyer was about average height, and in pretty good shape. But that probably had as much to do with his youth and hyperactive metabolism than anything. He was just eighteen, having graduated from high school just a few months ago. He had been an athlete until a few years ago when the thing he was trying to get away from happened. But even as he sought the distance between himself and that terrible memory, he knew that could never completely break from that day, that tragedy, that ending.
At sixteen, he had been orphaned. It was a tragedy he did not like to talk about, nor did he really even want to think about it. But it had shaped his destiny more than anything else and he knew it always would.
He had gotten the Camaro for his birthday, just a few weeks before the ‘thing.” He called it the “thing” because it made it seem less personal and intense. The night before the “thing,” he and his best friend had stayed out late hog hunting- a Texas past-time that had grown more common since the fanged beasties had overpopulated- and he decided to sleep in instead of attend church that Sunday. His parents had gone, but were late because they had tried to get him up and he resisted stubbornly and with lots of snoring...
Because they were late, they sat at the back of the church. Just after the offering, a man had walked in and began shooting. The first three people he shot- and killed- were his parents and the person sitting next to them. He went on to shoot another dozen- none died- before detonating what police thought was a small homemade bomb. No real trace of the bomb was able to be recovered, nor was the body of the shooter- save for some patches of cloth and a pinkie finger.
The shockwave spread out as is usual with mass shooting- social phenomenon that was all too common, just like the hogs. The media came and went. The politicians blustered. The tears flowed. The indignation rose. And after a bit, the world went back to normal.
Sawyer found a new normal. He was taken in by his best friend’s family so he could finish high school. His parents left him everything, and as an only child it added up to a lot, mostly in property. He felt guilt- a great deal of it. He felt anger. He went through all the stages of grief, but those two held on with a tight grip and would not let go. He saw therapists, and though they advocated he pursue college, Sawyer thought a gap year a better idea. His parents had not been rich, but with the ranch land they owned being in a prime location for development just outside his small but growing hometown, he was able to secure a little more than two million dollars. That could buy him some time, he thought and maybe even a foundation for moving forward at his own pace. But it only added to the guilt he felt- if only he had been there, he could still have them, not just their inheritance.
So, after graduation, he invested some of the money so he could have some income (he was a smart guy, and despite the tragedy had graduated at the top of his class). He packed up his clothes and some things he wanted to keep with him that reminded him of home: a few pictures, some of his favorite clothes, and a handful of personal mementos in a small box. Then he set out on his own.
He had spent some time in Florida- his parents never got to take him to the theme parks there- and then he moved on up the East Coast. He timed it so he caught some of the change of season in Maine and Vermont, before he turned east and headed to Colorado- having always wanted to see the aspens turn gold. He was determined to deny the tragedy’s power to define his life.
Now it was late October, and the chill was
definitely in the air. A little too chill, so he ducked back into the car and brought out his gray military style jacket. It was one of those prized pieces of clothing, the other gift he had gotten from his parents with the Camaro. He slid it on over his henley and breathed in the cool-almost-cold morning air then let it out in a plume of smoke that slowly rose and dissipated into the air. His canvas shoes were letting in too much cold too, so he made a mental note to find some good hiking boots when he got down to Sage City- his next destination.
He ran his hands through his medium length hair, giving it just a tad bit of a look that he had slept on it and did not have time to properly comb it. It gave him a look of youthful rebellion that made him more than just an averagely attractive guy. He stretched and yawned.
Then he really took the valley in.
It was gorgeous, the colors of the fall leaves really shining and shimmering as the sun gained altitude. The shadows grew shorter and lighter, revealing more and more of the variety of colors, even present in the rock. But in that rock, another truth of the valley was revealed. Yes, it was beautiful, but it was also dangerous. Those rocks lay in fields where no tree stood- but they did lay. Avalanches had scarred the land over the years, decades, centuries and millennia even. He noticed boulders bigger than his car, and tree trunks torn from the ground that he could never be able to wrap his arms around. These scars exposed varying strata and decomposition, which enhanced the beauty even more while reminding the humans that this place could kill you.
Then there was the smell. Cedar, aspen (he guessed, having never smelled them), and something he could only define as clean. No smog, no humans, no smell except fresh, clean air. Though he was forced to take shallow breaths as his lungs got used to less oxygen, he felt energized. Alive.
As he surveyed the valley, he noticed that there were several more Scenic Overlooks (thanks to the state of Colorado for pointing out the obvious, he thought) and since he had no particular place to be at any particular time, he decided to hit them all and soak up some nature.
On the third one, he noticed a historical marker that was labeled “Cannibal Pastor.” Always up for a good horror story of the human race, Sawyer read about how Pastor Horace Goodley (he chuckled at that irony) had gone mad in a blizzard and murdered and eaten some portion of over two dozen citizens. He had apparently died in a cave collapse- its general location indicated by an arrow- according to a survivor named Hezekiah Romer. The arrow pointed toward a cliff face with an older cabin nearby. Sawyer figured that anyone who had a desire to live that close to the site was either oblivious or a little crazy.
He climbed back in the car and sat for a second. He noticed his breathing was still heavy- a consequence of being over 9,000 feet higher in altitude than he was used to. And the focus on the breathing suddenly made him realize just how sleepy he was. He looked around to make sure he was pulled far enough off the road to be out of the way of oncoming traffic, then he let his eyes close. He was out quickly.
He found himself in a dream almost immediately. He was on the side of a mountain, looking at an open (cave? mineshaft?) spot in the rock. There was snow- falling rapidly and collecting in large heaps all around. He felt cold and afraid. Smoke or dust and falling rocks were everywhere and he could almost smell the ozone from fire. He was not alone. Some people he did not recognize were there, a few men, and one younger woman who might have been his age or close to it. And they were afraid, too. Except this one guy- older, salt and pepper hair, dark skin. He was looking at Sawyer not with fear, but with realization. Resignation. Something was (hunting? chasing?) after them. And the older guy knew it.
Suddenly one of the people was pulled away forcefully. There were screams. Sawyer turned in the dream toward a snapping sound and looked into a stand of trees. He stepped toward it as the branches moved. He heard a rumble, then a blaring sound as something with green eyes leaped out of the trees-
He snapped awake to the sound of a blaring car horn as a convoy of luxury SUVs flew past him down the switchbacks.
Paulie Reza swore at the stupid driver who was pulled off at the switchback. Yeah, they were off the road, but Paulie had important cargo. VERY important cargo.
That cargo was billionaire developer Lucius Furr on his way to acquire managing interest the town of Sage City. Furr had been negotiating with the town mayor to invest and prop up the struggling little hamlet. They thought he was there to rescue them.
Paulie loved this part- coming into some backwoods town, watching Furr and his chief lawyer Lennox Dupree lay the sell on thick to the hick locals and buy their town right from under them for dirt cheap. Furr was not there to help them, he was there to help himself to whatever he wanted.
Dupree and Furr had been acquiring pieces of Sage City for the last few years- through shell companies and whatnot, but now the time had come to lower the boom. The town’s mayor- some bright-eyed optimist named Torbin something- thought this was the beginning of a partnership. Ha! Furr and Dupree would let them keep on thinking that until it was too late.
Paulie looked back in the back seat. His two passengers were busy pouring over the financials. They- unlike Sawyer Shepherd- did not take notice of the beauty around them. Money was the only thing they saw as beautiful. And they were good at making it. Furr was in his late forties and had made his fortune around the turn of the century, in the years after 9/11. He started in New York as an unassuming stockbroker, and after the tragedy at the Towers, he had gotten into real estate. He bought when no one else would and bought recession proof properties. Plus, a vacation destination here and there. He had met Dupree around that time, and Dupree saw no need to take the limelight, so their partnership was born. And it was a partnership, though everyone else saw Furr as the boss. Furr and Dupree liked it that way. It let their marks think they could negotiate. Furr and Dupree did not negotiate, they dictated.
Furr was decked out in “leisure” business attire. He wore hiking boots to convey that he was going to be on the ground, checking things out and activity slacks that looked professional but allowed for movement. Furr called it his “Man of the People” costume. Over his ridiculously expensive dress shirt, he wore an equally ridiculously expensive fleece jacket. Dangling around his neck was -yep- ridiculously expensive sunglasses. He was fit and tan and had a full head of jet-black hair that made his deep blue eyes stand out along with his flashy, charming grin.
Dupree was all business, all the time. And his suit showed it. Despite the outdoor nature of their visit today, he insisted on wearing a business suit. He always did. He said it made him feel powerful, but he also knew it made people dismiss him as “nerdy” or made weak by time in the boardroom.
That was calculated. The truth was, despite Furr’s leisure attire, Dupree would be able to keep pace, being a stellar athlete himself. He was blonde and had green eyes- but both features were equally as striking as Furr’s. His smile was not as bold or as frequently deployed, it was slyer. To get a smile from Lennox Dupree was to receive high praise.
Paulie felt honored to be able to drive these two men to their meeting. He had been on Lucius Furr’s detail for about three years and it had been the best chauffeur/bodyguard job of his life. He did not always get to drive the “Big Car” as the team called it, but today he did. And he did it with a strong awareness of the importance of image.
Mr. Furr expected people to take notice when he came to town- and he expected people to know he was in charge. Paulie was to drive five miles above the speed limit to the destination- honk at anyone who got too close and be as threatening as possible while silent at the boss’s side.
Today was even more special. They had not two, but three cars on this trip. The second car was the rest of the bodyguard detail- five more men armed with semi-automatic pistols just like Paulie’s- and all wearing their own version of “business leisure” clothing. This car also carried heavier weapons- Furr had enemies and you had to be prepared.
The third car carried a combination of a family and a potential co-investor. The family was there to provide input on the vacation destination potential, and the investor was there to scout locations for new businesses such as hotels and restaurants. The family was the Hansons- Tom and Desiree and their daughter Felicia and son Alvin. The investor was in her mid-thirties and a real rising star in Furr’s circle. Secretly, Paulie thought Elena Cordova was, in his extremely eloquent words “wowza.” He believed that did not hurt her ambitions, at least when it came to catching Mr. Furr’s eye. But Paulie also knew that Cordova had established early on in her career that she was more than capable of going toe to toe with the toughest and taking them down. She was going to be a big-deal, and this trip might be the big shot.
Paulie was beginning a not so nice little daydream about Elena Cordova when a deer bounded in front of the SUV. He overreacted a bit and slammed on the brakes to avoid the deer, causing all three people in the car to be jostled a bit.
“What the -(the blaring horn from behind drowned that word out)- Paulie?!?!” yelled Mr. Furr. “How am I supposed to prepare back here? Do you think I came to the mountains for some four wheeling or to do business?”
Cold sweat broke out on Paulie’s forehead. Not much scared him, but the wrath of Lucius Furr did. “S-sorry boss. There was a deer and-”
“Hit the deer next time. This vehicle is designed to take a hit and keep going. And, there would be a lot less of a disturbance to my concentration. And the less disturbed my concentration, the more secure your job.”
“Yessir.” Paulie could feel his heart in his temple, it was beating so hard. The deer was nothing, but Paulie feared what lay behind the charming facade of Mr. Furr when the smile turned dark. “We are about five minutes from town, sir.”
Without looking up from the papers, Mr. Furr responded, “Good. Remember, five above and no stopping.”
“Yessir,” he replied as he glanced in the rearview. Dupree was looking at him, smiling. But it was not the smile of approval. It was an almost sadistic smile.
That smile scared Paulie more than the near miss with the deer and Furr’s threat combined.
Elena Cordova glared ahead at the road. The uncivilized brood in the back seats were sucking the joy out of what should have been a great day. Instead, she was stuck listening to the preteens lead their slovenly parents in another chorus of a saccharinely sweet pop song. The driver, one of Lucius Furr’s bodyguards, Shane, managed to avoid this torture because he had a wireless in one ear and an earbud in the other. She hated him for it.
Elena was here to make money. A lot of it. This small gem in the Rockies was poised for an investment that would reap massive dividends. She had worked her whole life for today. She would bring her vision of mass market hotels and chain stores to this little vacation destination and put it on the map. And herself on the Forbes list.
Elena was a little older than Paulie had guessed, she was thirty-nine and lived for her career. That meant the little anklebiters in back were a reminder of why she had never had children. Or a significant other. The husband was a bore, and the wife was an automaton merely there to serve the needs of the parasites she was raising and the slob she was married to. Elena felt that reliance on others was a weakness- regardless of their gender. She was not a feminist exactly; she was just independent.
That did not mean that she had not been the object of many men’s affection. Paulie’s opinion of “wowza” was held by almost all men who beheld Elena, but she was not fazed or concerned about it. Her dark hair had perfect natural highlights to accentuate her nearly symmetrical face. She was about five foot five, but she always wore heels that bumped her near six foot, and that moved her into the category of statuesque. Her eyes were a deep blue and when she squinted her eyes to focus, there was not a trace of wrinkles. Like her business acumen and sharp wit, her attractiveness was a tool to get ahead. She was a shark, and she was eager to feast on success.
She knew her appearance is what got Lucius Furr’s attention. And that was fine. He could objectify her and underestimate her, all while she climbed up and took as much money as she could from their deals. She got this chance to invest in Sage City when others had wanted it desperately, but she was shrewd and cunning and ruthless beyond what they could handle. If today went well, Elena Cordova would be able to sit at the biggest tables with the biggest CEOs and be respected.
And really that was what she wanted. More than money, she was greedy for respect. She had worked with lesser Furr wannabes her entire career and watched as they climbed the career ladder on a wink and a smile, while she did all their work for none of the credit. She had gotten lucky here or there and managed a bit of upward mobility, but that had been minimal by her standards.
So she started to play by the men’s rules. Backstabbing and subterfuge. And that had gotten her an audience with Lucius Furr and Lennox Dupree. Three years later, she had risen to a point to be an almost equal partner in this deal today. And while she had Furr under her thumb, Dupree worried her. He was all business and did not fall for the usual tricks. He could not be bought or seduced it seemed, but he was capable of doing both to others. Furr had final say, though and she steered toward him whenever there was a disagreement between the three of them. Elena looked forward to pulling this deal off and pulling one over on Dupree at the same time. She had bested many a man in the business arena, but to best Dupree would be a Title Fight for sure.
But if those stupid hayseeds did not shut up in the back seat, she would never be able to focus in on the task at hand.
She was about to say something when both cars slammed on their brakes ahead. She wondered what could have happened when she saw the deer dart off to the side of the road. No doubt that Neanderthal Paulie was daydreaming about her and nearly killed them all. He thought he was slick, but she saw the looks. She knew the type.
They entered the town a few minutes later, and she began to survey the land. Over there by the river would be an excellent site for the Italian bistro. And she had already looked at the surveys on her tablet about the hillside on the opposite side of the river. That would be the Cabin Bungalows. The road curved and they headed toward the bridge that crossed the river. Just down the river a bit would be a restaurant built over the river with a glass floor to watch the rapids and smell the pristine water running through the aromatic cedars and pines.
But where these things would be stood- ugh- mom and pop local establishments. Restaurants with “local flare” like that bar and grill just ahead at city center- the “Hungry Pastor”- in reference to some religious nut who killed a bunch of people a hundred and fifty years ago.
Elena would remove all that crap from the city and make it a carbon copy of Aspen or Telluride. Because that meant tourists which in turn meant money, power, and that most elusive thing- respect.
And if it meant she had to spend some time with the hayseeds in the back seat, she could put on a smile just like Lucius Furr and schmooze. She could laugh with the ridiculously mundane walking dad joke and hide the pity and disgust for the matronly woman that settled instead of fought. She could even deal with the brats, because those snotty noses and matted heads of hair were dollar signs in her eyes. More of them would come to Sage City than they ever had before, and they would stay in cabins she brought to town, and eat in restaurants she enticed to build a franchise in town, and buy cheesy souvenirs that were way overpriced from shops she collected dividends from..
No, despite what Furr and Dupree thought, this was not going to be their victory, it was going to be Elena Cordova’s victory.
Torbin Glenshaw was nearly bouncing with glee as the three SUVs pulled into the parking lot in front of City Hall. The portly mayor of Sage City demonstrated a remarkable energy for a man so rotund, but this was not out of the ordinary. He was an optimistic one, alright, you betcha. Known around town for his consistent use of confectionery treat names instead of foul language because “Why be dirty when you can sprinkle with sugar” was his motto. The man was a ray of sunshine.
And he kept winning re-election in spite of that.
Torbin knew that this was a big deal. Literally. Bringing one of the largest developers in the world in with his top investor in an effort to turn the quaint Sage City into the next mecca of mountain destinations would be sure to win him mayor for life.
If the people didn’t vote him down for making the town so corporate.
It made him so fudging mad that the people could be so short sighted. The tax revenue was not enough to keep the town afloat, but they did not want to bring any outsiders in. Just wait, when the money started rolling in, they wouldn’t give two sugarplums about corporations over local businesses.
As the doors to the black SUV’s opened, Torbin opened his arms wide and declared in a sing-songy voice, “Welcome to Sage City, the Sweetest Heart of the Mountains.” Torbin was so enjoying the moment he did not notice Elena Cordova’s dismissive eye roll. He rushed to great Furr and Dupree.
“I trust the trip in was enjoyable?” he asked,
expectantly. “Enjoy the views coming in?”
“Absolutely my friend!” replied Furr,
the billion-dollar smile getting its money’s worth. “I cannot think of a better spot for the next Furr Development project. This valley is a vision!”
Torbin squealed with laughter at this, and Dupree winced. By now, the Hansons had climbed out of the car, dropping candy wrappers and half-finished soda bottles to the ground. And that is where they stayed as the family moved on to look in the windows of the nearby shops.
“Well, Ms. Cordova, you look lovely this morning!” chimed Torbin as he turned toward the investor. “I hope you in particular enjoyed the view on the drive in!”
She smiled her own smile- maybe a half-
billion dollar variety. “I especially loved the drive over the river.” In her mind’s eye, she saw dollar signs.
Turning now to the family grazing the shops with their eyes- who were not nearly as uncouth as Elena saw them- Torbin extended his arms again. “And you must be the Hansons- Tom, Desiree, Felicia and Alvin!” He may have appeared a simpleton, but Torbin was great with people. You don’t get elected to mayor five times in a row without knowing how to play the people.
“Yessirree bob. You got a nice town here, Mr. Mayor!” Tom Hanson replied, a small piece of chocolate melted on the corner of his mouth.
Dupree stepped over to Torbin and leaned in to speak in his ear- “I would like to get on with our evaluation of the area if you don’t mind?”
“Of course, of course Mr. Dupree. Where would you like to start?”
Furr stepped over to this conversation and interjected- “Well, if Lennox does not mind going over over the legal documents, I would like to head up with some of my geologists-” he pointed to two men that had stepped out of the middle SUV. They were dressed for hiking, but to Torbin, they only appeared to have a passing resemblance to geologists in the sense that they had rocks for brains. “-so we can evaluate the potential for mining operations. You know, if we find some deposits, we might be able to sweeten the deal…?” He smiled and winked, playing into Torbin’s glee. (Of course, they knew there were minerals, gold and silver, but the “geologists” were going to claim they found nothing or some issue with the land, forcing a drop in price, not a “sweetening of the deal.” Not for Sage City, anyway.)
“Abso-fudgin-lutely! Here comes Ranger Steve and his intern- they can show you the good sights. Heyo, Stevo!”
The approaching ranger shook his head at the greeting and begrudgingly approached. “Howdy, I’m Ranger Steve Zander, this is my intern Mandy Jane- she is on loan from the university over in Gunnison for the semester.” The young lady with curly hair smiled politely but did not extend a hand.
The billion and half-billion-dollar smiles turned full force on the locals. But inside, Furr was not happy, not one bit. He did not need some park ranger interfering. And he definitely did not want some tree-hugging Gen-Z hippie talking about conservation. But he smiled and he charmed, because that is how you do this.
Just down the street, a black Camaro pulled up to the Hungry Pastor and Sawyer Shepherd stepped out of the car, and into a much bigger story than he ever imagined.
It has been a while since I posted, but I have been crazy busy publicizing The Sawyer Shepherd Chronicles: Rites of Passage! I am learning a great deal about marketing a book and reaching an audience. The process is slow and tedious, but I am really enjoying the learning process. I have found things that work (getting newsletter promotions and good reviews), things that kind of work (Facebook ads) and things that, well, don't really have a huge impact (Twitter hashtags to other writers- lots of likes, not a lot of results). I am about to start some promotions that will incorporate all of these plus a few interviews here and there. Check out sites like Indie Book Butler and Self Publishers' Showcase in the next few months for these items.
I have also learned a great deal from Reedsy and will hopefully get some reviews and notifications from Reedsy Discovery It is a great tool for connecting writers with editors, reviewers, promoters, and designers. Plus, they offer great free courses on various aspects of writing.
Now that the book is out, I am anxious to hear from you about your experience with the book. What you thought of characters and events, where you think things are going, what you liked and didn't. I have lived with some of these characters in my head (in one version or another) for twenty years- I cannot wait to see how you feel about them!
I wanted to reach out with some news about how the book is doing, and some upcoming contests to win some stuff.
First, how is the book doing?
I did a free Kindle giveaway and over 500 were claimed! In regards to actual sales, it's not a bestseller by any means. But between Kindle and paperback, I've sold around twenty copies. Reviews are coming in, and so far the feedback has been unanimously positive! It's all five star reviews on Amazon and general comments on social media and in person have been positive as well. So thank you to everyone who has read the book. If you haven't, well....
There is a giveaway coming on Twitter this weekend! If you purchase the Kindle version (no Kindle, that's cool- there is an app on Android and iPhone!) for $2.99 and take a picture to prove the purchase, then reply to my thead(s) on Twitter, you will be entered into a chance to win a signed paperback copy or a signed paperback copy AND a Sawyer Shepherd Chronicles t-shirt (they do exist)! My Twitter is @ChadLehrmann.
I am currently about 130 pages into the second book in the series, called Red Hand Rising. I wanted to share a sneak peak of some of the book, so here it is! (Obviously, there are spoilers in a broad sense, but hopefully nothing too huge).
So, there you have it. Sawyer Shepherd has survived the first book of The Sawyer Shepherd Chronicles.
I do hope to get back to posting some short stories soon. I may also start posting some reviews of Indie author's works eventually.
See you later!
In an effort to publicize the upcoming release of The Sawyer Shepherd Chronicles: Rites of Passage, I took some advice and made a book trailer.
Evan looked out the window and thought, “No backing out now.”
The snow was falling, and falling with a force and thickness that if he did not know better, the young man in the cabin would have thought the world itself had gone white. Gone were the thick aspen groves and clumps of cedar trees that grew tall despite the extreme altitude. Gone was the crushed gravel and granite “road” that led him here in the banged up old Land Cruiser that had seen far too many winters. Gone even was the stack of wood that would provide him warmth in this long, cold winter of soulful examination.
Evan had spent the better part of his twenties in the exact opposite location from where he now found himself. In a sun drenched cubicle in southern California, just a five minute walk from a beach he had made a lot of money.
And lost his soul.
It all hit him one day when he had a flat tire on the side of the road. He had no idea how to change it. So, he called a tow truck. He got home to find that his girlfriend had left him a message- a literal note on the door that she was done with his distance and lack of interest. Not ten minutes later, his boss called him and told him that he needed to ‘fix’ a problem. ‘Fix’ meant forge or fabricate something. He had done it a thousand times, but this time, something hit him.
Right in the heart.
He had always wanted to grow up to be a real man. A man of integrity, character and capability. His grandfather Paul had been that kind of man. A man with strong hands, a soft heart, and kind eyes. A man that knew how to fix a tire, chop a tree, and mend a young boy’s broken heart when his parents had divorced.
He was none of these things.
Grandpa Paul had died the last fall, but before he died, he had said something that Evan had initially dismissed as dementia. But here, now, those words and the image of Paul’s face rushed to the forefront of his consciousness:
“Lose yourself in nature to find your soul.”
And so the next morning he handed his boss a note of his own- it simply said, “I quit.”
He sold it all. All the trappings of his unethical and self-centered life from his lavish apartment to his fancy sports car. He bought the old, worn out but rugged Land Cruiser and headed east to the Rockies.
The old man that sold him the cabin looked at him from grizzled eyes and with less than the average number of teeth he spoke with dismissal. “You’ll be comin’ down the mountain in a week. Two, tops. Ain’t no city folk got the gumption to make it in a Rocky Mountain winter. And this is gunna be a beast of one.”
Looking out at the blanket of snow and the fading light, Evan started to agree. He saw the reflection of a man gone to waste. He saw his pudgy hands rub the smooth and round chin of a man thirty pounds too heavy. He looked at the well-kept two hundred dollar haircut and stared back into the beady eyes made tiny by the excess flesh that crushed in around his eyes. Then he put his hands in the pockets of the two hundred dollar “mountain pants” that he bought because they were “guaranteed to keep you warm and dry in winter.” He saw a ghost of a human, ironically suited up for battle with nature in the very same type of armor he had suited up in for his unethical cubicle life.
He saw a joke.
He saw a man desperate to change, yet still trapped in the materialism he had fled to the mountains to escape. He turned back to the den, a small, sparsely appointed space that would have seemed cozy if it had not suddenly taken on the shades of a prison. No, a death row cell.
Panic gripped Evan. Yes, he had stocks and stores of food for months out in the rudimentary refrigeration barn. Yes he had wood cut, yes he had fuel for the snowmobile he knew nothing of how to operate. Yes he had supplies- but he lacked the most important thing. The thing he had dreamed of having as an adult. As a MAN.
The Land Cruiser keys were gleaming on the kitchen counter. He felt a pull toward the keys and at the same time, a quiet, almost imperceptible whisper:
“Lose yourself in nature to find your soul.”
Evan turned quickly, looking for the source of the whisper- knowing it had been in his head. For a brief instant, in the faint reflection in the snow plastered window, Evan thought he saw his grandpa’s face. Then he realized it was just his own reflection distorted in the dying light of day.
He looked at his right hand, white knuckled as it gripped the keys. He slowly released his grip, and stepped back. No. Evan would stay.
He would stay alone in this cabin, he would test his mettle against nature, he would learn to really live by daring to face death.
And it must start with lighting that pile of wood in the fireplace. It was getting cold.
Evan struck a match and lit the kindling beneath the dry, fragrant pine logs. Before the flames took, he placed his hand on the wood and felt the rough and brittle texture of the pine bark. He began to feel the heat of the fire catching, so he stepped back and settled into the old recliner that sat near the fire. He leaned back, mesmerised by the fire as it danced and twisted, sending sparks up into the piercing darkness of the chimney.
Outside, the wind howled and occasionally there was a scratching noise on the window as the wind whipped the snow onto the old, thin panes of glass.
It was quiet. There was no television, no cell service. Evan just watched the fire dance and crackle. On his first night, that is where he drifted off to sleep.
And so was his routine in the evenings for the next few days. He began to acclimate to the quiet- something very different from the loudness of his apartment that was just blocks from a freeway. The only sounds here came from the things no human had made. Mostly the snow for the first few days. It was near blizzard like, and the old man and former owner had warned him that “nobody finds themselves in the blizzard until the thaw.” Evan assumed that meant he would die in the blizzards, so he waited to “Lose himself in nature to find his soul,” until the snow stopped flying.
In the meantime, he explored the cabin. All eight hundred square feet of it. There was a tiny kitchen with an oven and stove and sink and small fridge. All run by the generator that was just outside the kitchen window, steadily along providing power to the cabin during the day. But at night, just like the first night, Evan preferred to keep the generator off because he felt something soothing in the sounds of the rough and rustic world surrounding him.
The bedroom was small, containing a full sized bed and a single window, but it had been covered from the outside by window flashing to keep the heat in. In fact, Evan had yet to sleep in the bed, choosing instead to stay close to the fireplace.
The bathroom was small as well, but then, Evan wanted simplicity, right?
The cabin had the exposed cedar timbers everywhere, and Evan liked to run his fingers over the rough and stringy bark packed down with whatever they had sealed the logs with eons ago by his reckoning. There was a bookshelf in the den, and it contained dozens of books- some classics from the Victorian age, and some more modern paperbacks from the likes of King and Cussler and L’Amour and Crichton. During the snows, he devoured them.
When the snow let up, he ventured out. First, not much farther than the sightline of the cabin. It’s small outline was made smaller by the massive amount of snow piled on the roof as well as rising up in drifts from the ground. The smoke poured from the chimney constantly, as Evan knew there could be nothing worse for him than to lose that fire. It was heat, it was backup power, it was life.
After about a week of exploring, he finally let the cabin escape his sight. On the first venture, he encountered a deer. His loud movement spooked it, and it darted away with grace through the loosely packed trees of the forest. In that brief moment, Evan learned what freedom looked like. What the ability to move and go wherever one wanted.
Evan made a mental note to learn how to not scare the wildlife.
A few days later, the snow had been packed well down by his trampling, and he felt secure enough to venture much farther than before. Up one ridge and down another. Here, he found a truly majestic bull elk. He watched from a distance as the massive creature lifted his head and shook his antlers. They rattled as they contacted small branches on either side of it. It must have smelled Evan, because it turned and looked right at him. Evan locked eyes with this beast, and there was an understanding, it seemed. The elk tossed his head again, as if to say “Follow me!” then it raced up the mountainside.
For the briefest of moments, Evan considered it. But just then it began to snow. Immediately, it was near blizzard levels, and terror gripped Evan. He turned and ran back, following the tracks he had made. But he had been hiking for over an hour, and after about fifteen minutes, finding the trail became very difficult.
After thirty minutes, the trail was completely gone.
Evan must have wandered, lost in nature, for over an hour. The temperature was dropping fast, and a tingle in Evan’s toes and fingers was causing him greater concern. He knew that he must get over a ridge and then go down into a small valley to find the cabin, but in the sheets of snow- everything was white. By the time he crested a familiar ridge, and begun the literal slide down toward the cabin, he could not feel hands, feet or nose despite his “guaranteed” pants.
As he scrambled to the door of the quaint cabin, he caught a glimpse of himself in the window. If his fingers had feeling, he would have felt a rough stubble growing over a slightly thinner face. He did notice that the gear he wore was hanging on his body in a different way- much more loosely and free. The bulge in his mid-section was almost gone.
But noticing the bluish tint to his nose, Evan burst into the cabin and felt the warmth of the dying but still alive fire hit him full in the face. He rushed to the pile of wood he kept inside to keep it dry and tossed a few decent sized logs on. There was no sound like the grinding of the ash and wood as the two combined to combust and give life and heat. Evan stripped the wet and cold outer clothes off and huddled next to the fire. He need to eat, but the heat was even more of a necessity. He placed a numb and blue hand on the stone hearth of the fireplace and deep in his bones he felt the heat- but it took a few minutes before the extremities began to feel alive again.
It was a few more days of snow, and Evan was okay with that. He had scared himself. Too much too fast. But every now and then, he could have sworn he saw an elk outside his window in the whirling snow.
When the snow stopped this time, Evan took the ax by the door out to find some wood to chop. He still had a decent amount, but he wanted to be prepared. And he wanted to test his mettle, too.
The ax handle was smooth and wooden, rather light to the touch. It was clear the bulk of the tool was kept in the iron double headed blade. He noticed the sheen of a sharp edged blade on each side, then recalled the strange stone that sat near it by the door. The old ax must be kept sharp by that thing, he thought.
He found a decent sized dead tree not too far from the house, and he began to chop. His first swing missed and he tumbled down into the soft snow bank. He stood up, dusted himself off and tried again. The blade hit, but it bounced back and flew out of his hands back down the embankment he stood on. He looked back at the cabin, and marveled once again at how much he had come to depend on the small, rudimentary structure for life.
Learning from his mistake, he gripped the recovered ax and went to work on the tree. It was clearly user error, as once the blade found its mark, it bit deeply into the wood and sent small splinters flying. After fifteen minutes, there was a cracking noise at the site of the cut, and the tree began to move. Evan hopped out of the way as it crashed down into the snow, where it rested silently. Evan drug it down closer to the cabin so he could continue to work it into burnable sections.
The next week was spent chopping the tree up during the day, and sharpening the ax in the recliner by the fire at night. Evan would run the stone over the blade, sending small sparks that seemed to be tiny children of the larger fire just feet away. In these moments, Evan appreciated not just the silence, but the smells he had come to love. The burning wood. The scent of cedar that lingered in the walls of the cabin. The occasional gust of wind that would bring the pine and aspen scents in through the thin windows or in one of the cracks by the door.
One night, a deep squealing sound tore his attention from his sharpening. He rushed to the window looking up the mountain and saw the bull elk. It was standing, hind legs towards the cabin at an angle that allowed the elk’s front half- which was higher up the mountain- to lift the head and antlers up in a way that made it look like the elk was calling to the mountain top. Then it turned as it finished its bugle and looked directly at Evan through the window. “Follow me,” it seemed to say again. Then it ran up the mountain and into the night.
Evan caught a glance of a strange man in the window. He was thin, bearded, and had longish, unkempt and wild hair. His eyes were wide, bright and vivid. And his smile- that was the most foreign thing in the image. The man was bulky, but in a muscular way, not an overweight way. It took Evan a moment to realize that the stranger was him. And he saw his grandfather Paul in the window- only this time, he realized the face of Paul was his own. He was seeing that the man he had sought to be his whole life was there. In his face, in his DNA, Grandpa Paul was the man he strove to be. And those final words echoed in his ears:
“Lose yourself in nature to find your soul.”
Evan rose early the next day and set out up the mountain. For the first time in his adult life, he felt capable of something. He had developed character in his time in the cabin. Now, he had to see if he had the integrity. The fortitude to do something good. Something great.
One of the books he had found in the cabin was about tracks. He found the ones he was looking for quickly, and followed them. By noon, he had passed above the tree line.
He stopped for a quick lunch, then continued his climb. At times he almost ran, at times he literally crawled. But by the time the sun was about to enter the last third of the sky, he reached the summit of the mountain whose name he did not know. He as the highest thing in any direction, and as he looked out over the surrounding mountain tops, he felt, for the first time ever, like a man.
He heard a cracking noise and turned. His breath caught in his lungs.
Fifty feet away stood the bull elk. It looked out at the horizon, then locked eyes with Evan. They stared at each other for a long time, then the elk turned slowly and walked down the mountain. Evan smiled.
“I’ll be chasing you for the rest of my life, friend.”
He had gotten lost in nature, and truly found his soul.
He turned and started back the way he had come. Back home.
Back to the cabin.
Chad Lehrmann lives with his wife and two teenage daughters in College Station, Texas, where he teaches High School Psychology, Sociology, and Debate.