Enjoy the first 3 Chapters
“Does Job fear God for nothing?” Satan said. “Have you not put a hedge around him and his household and everything he has? You have blessed the work of his hands so that his herds and flocks are spread throughout the land. But now stretch forth your hand and strike everything he has and he will surely curse you to your face.”
After being summoned KuMosh, the creature from the lighthouse, approached the Ruler of Darkness and bowed.
“A human in your region is your new assignment. It is the highest priority,” the Dark Ruler said.
The creature nodded.
“Why is this human so special?” he said.
“Some time ago, he defeated us. The repercussions of that defeat could last for years, if not decades. Because of that, our Lord Satan is taking a personal interest in this matter. It is time for our revenge. You will wreak vengeance on the human. It will be easier than we thought because soon he will fall into sin. You are the commander of this region. Put all needed forces at your disposal to accomplish the task.”
The creature smiled. “It will be done.”
The Dark Ruler frowned. He did not like the breezy confidence of his underling. The creature had never faced such a challenge before. He should not take it lightly.
“Don’t underestimate him. He defeated us before. Make sure he doesn’t this time. If you fail, the consequences will be severe. A Messenger will be sent to help you. He is wise in the affairs of men. When he arrives, you will kill or destroy the man named Drake Sanders.”
-Some Time Later
Even his red-hot, passionate thoughts of garroting Stan Needles -- one of the high school's geeks -- didn't stop Andrew Hollinsworth from shivering in the drafty, rundown lighthouse. Outside, snow fell while the wind blew ocean spray onto the beach and swayed the trees surrounding the isolated structure. The swift, icy breeze swirled noisily up the circular, dusty stairs. It reached a crescendo at the top, sounding like an animal shrieking in pain, or in fear. From inside the decrepit, yet historic building, Hollinsworth heard the waves breaking and flowing onto the frozen sand.
There had been state and federal plans to renovate the Magnum Point Lighthouse, but the proposals were never translated into action. Renovation was needed because state officials were close to slapping a yellow condemned sticker on the creaky structure. The pale tower stood like a diseased finger pointing toward the heavens. Time had peeled away paint the way leprosy peeled away healthy skin, leaving it rotten and putrid.
Hollinsworth was not a superstitious man. He had no interest in theological matters nor was he curious about the supernatural, but listening to the eerie banshee cry of the wind, he understood why the North Carolina Outer Bank was replete with ghost stories.
Kill Devil Hills was not too far from the tower. The local legends said when God kicked Satan out of heaven, the fallen angel landed on a section of the North Carolina coast, thus the name of Kill Devil Hills. Although his ouster from paradise and his rough landing were clearly signs of defeat, Satan claimed it as a victory, so at various times during the year, demons held celebrations and cackled with glee, according to legend.
But Hollinsworth wasn't concerned about those silly tales. He just wanted to survive the cold night then take his revenge on a few fellow students.
The only light came from his portable lantern. The only heat came from the portable heater. He cursed himself for his foolishness in agreeing to the bet that was costing him a cold, uncomfortable night. He looked at his MacMillian G30 Dynasty Hunting Rifle resting against the wall. He fired the high-quality weapon with great accuracy.
He wore a thick turtleneck and his heavy, black winter jacket. The bedding was also thick and comfortable, and he had a bottle of his father's Black Velvet, freely given. Hollinsworth knew he and his dad were cut from the same DNA, and liked the same whiskey brands. His father, a tall man with square shoulders and a chin that jutted forward so it looked like a fleshly icicle, told his son the liquor would help him get through the night.
"Next time," Andrew’s father said as he handed him the bottle, "don't be so quick to open your month. Your tongue got you into this problem. Tomorrow you can worry about pay back."
There would be pay back, Hollinsworth thought. Tomorrow and the day after and the day after. His dad taught him how to twist a man’s wrist to cause great pain in the arm and shoulder while leaving few, if any, red marks. Needles would go crying to the principal, but there would be no physical evidence to back up his story.
Hollinsworth shivered as the icy wind's unformed lips yelled woooo as it rushed up the stairs.
It was stupidity that caused the chilly predicament. And it happened so casually. He was in the gym with a few friends as the cheerleaders plopped pink mats on the floor. Snow had forced them to move practice indoors. He and the guys thought they'd watch the girls when a few other students - including Needles - strolled in. A discussion started and somehow the conversation turned to the ghost tales of the region, particularly the horrendous tales about the Magnum Point Lighthouse. It was said that roughly twenty years ago, a man - seeking protection from the cold - had spent a night there.
The next day only blood and bones were discovered. No one knew the man's name.
The pale, skinny Needles ventured an opinion that there might be some credence to the stories, which prompted laughter from Hollinsworth. He poured out a flood of derision to the geek, using words such as "coward" and "yellow" and "butt punk." Hollinsworth planned to enjoy Needles' embarrassment in front of the girls.
"Here's a man who wouldn't stay at Magnum Point overnight," Hollinsworth said.
The reaction from Needles wasn't embarrassment or, for that matter, even annoyance. He just looked at his tormentor with a bland expression.
"No one should spend a night there. I wouldn't do it, Andrew. Neither would you," Needles said.
Needles’s reply showed no emotion. The sentences were said in a matter-of-fact manner and the tone implied no one could possibly disagree. Such nonchalance annoyed Hollinsworth.
"Of course I would. I'd spend a weekend there," he said.
Needles shook his head. "No you wouldn't."
The neutral, declarative words angered Hollinsworth.
"Sure I would. Not everyone is a coward like you," he said.
"Fifty dollars says you won't," a voice said.
Hollinsworth turned around and saw Carl Knudson had walked in. Knudson and he did not get along.
"You don't have the guts for it," Knudson said.
Hollinsworth's next words were practically a growl. "Put your money down."
After a little haggling, the terms of the bet were decided. A group of boys would go to the lighthouse Saturday afternoon. They would leave an object, which Hollinsworth would later recover to confirm his presence. Later they would drive Hollinsworth to the lighthouse and leave him, returning at noon the next day. The lighthouse was in the center of a small clearing, but the clearing was surrounded by five miles of dense Carolina pine.
The other students did not trust Hollinsworth. They figured a friend – or his father - might pick him up five minutes after they left and deposit him back at the lighthouse five minutes before noon the next day. So Knudson and the others would be watching the only, very rough road to the lighthouse until dark. After dark no one, even in an ATV, would venture into the snow-filled forest.
Hollinsworth cursed Knudson, Needles, and several others. He sat in a fold-up chair he had brought with him.
The lantern light lit up the small space. On the floor, near his large insulated Cabela hunting boots, was the item left by his friends. It was just a sheet of paper placed into a plain eleven-by-seventeen manila envelope and had been left at the top of the staircase.
When Hollinsworth opened it there was a picture of a huge red lollipop. Underneath was the word "SUCKER!"
He knew Knudson and the others were laughing at him. But they would not be laughing for long. His father carried influence in the small county. That meant Andrew could elbow the school rules and carry out his revenge without repercussions.
Three months ago his younger sister had been kicked off the cheerleading squad for showing up at a practice drunk. But after his dad talked with the superintendent, his sister was back in the orange and white cheering uniform. There was some political embarrassment for the school system when a reporter for the Coastal Breeze wrote a story about the incident. The superintendent refused to comment, but the story had enough details that it outraged some parents and angered a few school board members.
After he took revenge on Needles, he'd get the reporter, too. Hollinsworth didn't like people embarrassing his dad.
The sound interrupted his thoughts. An odd sound. Hollinsworth couldn't recognize it. Even though he heard it over the wind, the sound wasn't loud. Not sharp either. Not grating. Almost...mushy.
Still, his nerves jumped. He looked toward the top of the lighthouse where the sound had come from but he couldn't see anything. Too dark. The light from the small lantern didn't illuminate much beyond eight feet.
The sound came again. Almost like a plop. Like some web-thing stepping heavily into water. Plop. Plop.
Hollinsworth grabbed his rifle. As he felt the smooth wood he smiled. The Dynasty could stop an elephant in its tracks. And the lighthouse was much too small for an elephant to squeeze in.
It sounded closer now, as if something was walking down the stairway. Patiently. Without any hurry at all.
"Who is it?" he yelled, raising the rifle.
Sounded like a swim fin in water, he thought. Some kid with fins walking through a foot of water.
Did Knudson or one of the others sneak in, trying to scare him? Hollinsworth patted his rifle. If so, they would be in for a real surprise. If it were Needles, a wound in his leg. That should show him. No, Needles couldn't find the courage to show up. It might be Knudson. Hollinsworth smiled. Knudson was worth a shot to the gut. “I was scared,” he could tell police.
“It was cold. I yelled and there was no reply. At the first sign that someone else was in the lighthouse, I panicked and fired. I shouted and there was no reply. I didn't mean to shoot Carl. He was a friend.” Hollinsworth smiled again, a wide, satisfied smile. "Gee, Mr. Knudson. I'm so sorry. I didn't mean to shoot your rotten, no-good son."
Yes, who could question that story?
"Who is it?" he yelled again.
The only sound was another plop. But now the noise was louder and, somehow, more disturbing. The swirling winds howled, as if shrieking a warning.
Hollinsworth almost jumped at the second plop. He put his finger on the trigger of the Dynasty.
"OK, you want to play? Come on down!"
There was a brass railing along the length of the stairs. He tapped the railing with the barrel of the gun. Echoes ran through the lighthouse. "Think you can scare me? Come on. I have a surprise for you. I will shoot your -
The sound was much closer now. It should not upset him - he had the rifle - but it did. The noise sent ripples of fear down his spine.
Nearer now. More intense.
Whatever making it should be turning on the stairway and in a few minutes would be in the light. He raised the gun, making sure whatever emerged out of the darkness would be in his crosshairs.
Andrew Hollinsworth froze. He had seen dozens of horror movies, had killed animals while hunting, he had even viewed mangled bodies once when passing by a three-car accident on a highway. But nothing in his experience prepared him for what the light revealed.
When the mind glimpses something it has no frame of reference for, with no experience to guide it, the neurons can go numb. All the nerves and reflexes overload and shut down.
Finally, Hollinsworth came out of his petrified trance.
He fired. The roar of the gun exploded in the enclosed space of the lighthouse.
Hollinsworth paid no attention to the ringing in his ears. He dropped the gun, turned and ran. His fingers almost touched the door before something grabbed his legs and pulled him back over the dirty floor.
Hollinsworth screamed in terror. He wanted to call for his daddy. Then he realized even his father couldn't help him. Not this time.
If anyone had been walking by the lighthouse on the moonless, snowy night, he would have heard a bloodcurdling, savage howl. It hung like fog for a few seconds then gradually dissipated.
When Drake Sanders woke up he realized the Apocalypse was around the corner. He could almost hear the hoofbeats of the Four Horsemen. This didn't cause him to frown, but it did cause him to wonder what was the most appropriate response to impending doom.
Then it hit him.
Make some coffee.
No one wants to face Armageddon half-awake.
Even if the Four Riders of Imminent Doom were riding toward the house, he was an expert shot and could knock them off their speeding stallions before they got to the porch. He tended to be optimistic and positive in outlook. He had the capacity to roll with the punches. He came up smiling even when he was dodging bullets fired in his direction. Thankfully all the shooters had, so far, missed.
He lifted back the sheet and blanket and gently edged over the sleeping girl. Twenty-one-year-old future psychiatrist April Langston, a brunette pre-med student with a sly smile and an IQ hovering near one-hundred-sixty, dozed next to him. April had twisted under the covers during the night so that most of her bare back lay exposed as she sprawled on the bed. Her face was turned away from Sanders. She slept peacefully, her breath causing small waves to ripple in the orange pillow case. He also negotiated around Trixie, his sixty-pound Golden Retriever, who was not used to sharing what she considered her bed with two humans.
Any other thirty-three-year-old man might have taken a few seconds to congratulate himself for masculine virtues, danced across the cold floor, or at least strutted a few steps flexing fatuous pride. Or, perhaps if a bit more mature, he might have been thankful for his good weekend fortune. Other men might have figured life owed them a favor, a big favor, or at least a five-seven, auburn-haired attractive favor with slender, stylist brown legs and an incredibly sweet smile.
Sanders, though, was a born-again Christian.
That complicated the situation.
Although greatly appreciative of his good fortune, a nagging thorn of guilt pricked his side. He realized that, even with a loose interpretation of scripture, last night qualified as sin with a capital "S". Depending on your religious views, the "I" and "N" might need to be capitalized, too. It was true that sins of the flesh were less serious than spiritual sins but … that didn't let him off the theological hook.
Before heading to the kitchen, he gazed fondly at the sleeping April. He wondered if she had father issues. Then again, he couldn't suggest to a future psychiatrist that the reason for the night of passion was her emotional instability. How exactly could he phrase that, "Excuse me, honey, but since you wanted to sleep with me, you must need therapy?”
Such a statement might ensure an end to passionate nights. Although the thorn of guilt still pricked his conscience, Sanders knew he would succumb to temptation again. He shook his head.
"How did I get myself into this?" he asked under his breath.
Well, we met several weeks ago. She found a chess partner and I found a golf partner. She seemed a bit amazed I could discuss contemporary events with her and knew a few psychiatric terms. Reading that book on Primal Therapy years ago really paid off. We seemed to connect emotionally. Had coffee several times and dinner once. She laughed at my jokes, and was amazed and astonished that I found her intelligence alluring. So…
"Yep, that's how I got myself into it," he said.
"And you better not regret it," April said, opening her eyes.
She yawned and turned over, bringing the sheet up to her chin.
"I don't," he said, smiling again, although the twinge of guilt hit again. So what was he supposed to say, "Well, I'm of two minds about that?"
Instead, he took her small brown hand and kissed it. He had one talent besides writing. A smooth baritone voice that, when he hit just the right pitch, sounded both gentle and masculine in song. Musically, he asked her when was her deadline to return to heaven?
The lyrics brushed away the sleep from her eyes. The joyous smile flashed. Her smile went from regular to high beam.With the orange sheet up to her chin, she looked delightfully demure.
He kissed her cheek.
“I never thought I’d be serenaded the morning after,” she said. “Everything a girl dreams of.”
Either because April woke up, or in response to Sanders singing, Trixie raised her head, shook herself and jumped to the floor.
With the sheet around her slender form April leaned back. “On a more practical note, do you have something I can wear?”
He walked to the closet and grabbed an old blue bathrobe. In a drawer he found two red tube socks. He gave her the bathrobe and dropped the socks on the bed.
“You will need these. It’s still cool and the house is drafty,” he said.
Sanders turned around. “And you told me I’m crazy.”
He heard her slip out of the bed and ease into the housecoat. The bed squeaked as she sat back down to put on the socks.
“To be honest, I have rarely dated girls who said I was crazy.”
“I did not say crazy. I said I consider your faith to be a minor and, in your case, amusing, mental affliction.”
“Oh, yes. That sounds so much better.”
“If there is a good and loving God, I would think the world would be in much better shape. I have seen no evidence of that,” she said.
“I have,” Sanders said.
He walked toward the kitchen, which in the house, meant he walked about two steps to the right.
“Want some coffee?”
"Orange juice too, if you've got it."
He flicked the switch on the percolator, then opened the small fridge and grabbed the orange juice. He poured some into a glass and handed it to her.
Sanders walked cautiously to the door and opened it, peering out.
"Drake, what are you doing?"
"Looking for horses," he replied. "With some really ugly riders."
She sipped the orange juice and ignored him.
“Trixie, want to go out?” Sanders said as he pointed to the snowy ground.
The Golden Retriever raced out the door and bounded into the snow, leaving tracks all around the yard. She raced twenty yards to the empty smaller house – a shack really – on the property, then spun around and raced back to the larger house. After galloping to the edge of the still-snow covered road, she edged back and started walking again toward the shack.
“She won’t run away?” April asked.
“No, she’s well-trained. Retrievers are remarkably intelligent, and loyal for that matter.”
April’s hand dipped into the pocket of the robe and clasped her glasses. The brown frames matched her hair. As she pushed them on her nose, she asked, "Think I should get contacts?"
"Nah, the glasses look cute on you."
She flicked the novel closed. “I will have to read the rest later. You know I’ve written a couple of short stories.”
“You mentioned that. You will be a psychiatrist and a writer.”
As Sanders poured the coffee into two cups, he wasn't as ecstatic as he should have been. He shook his head. That's what being a Christian does to you. You just can't enjoy sin. Well, can’t enjoy sin as much as you should.
He walked cautiously to the door and opened it and took one more peek outside. A weekend snowstorm had covered the area in white. The clumps of snow had only slightly melted.
"Drake, what is this thing you have about the four horsemen?" April said
"Never mind. I'll explain later," he said. He closed the door as Trixie rambled back in, shaking off the snow.
April looked at the bookcase that stood against one wall of the house.
“Do you have every Louis L’Amour book ever written?”
“No, I think I’ve missed one or two.”
“I had a feminist professor that said every book of his should be thrown away or burned.”
“Considering academia nowadays, I am not surprised. What else did she say?”
April walked into the front room. Long curtains covered the sliding glass doors on three sides of the house. She eased one back to look out onto the four miles of the Capricat Sound, now covered with a thin sheet of ice.
“That we need to man – well, woman - the barricades to bring down the sexist male patriarchy that has dominated our culture and left women in a secondary and subordinate position. She said the L’Amour books were typical masculine propaganda from a racist, sexist time and we must defeat those who would turn society back to the control of reactionary Neanderthals.”
“Oh, so she’s the one who leaves all those online comments about the editorials. When she says reactionary Neanderthals, she means…er, me.”
April smiled and patted his chest. “Well, yeah, guess so, pretty much.”
“So are you going to woman the barricades?”
“No, some women want to overthrow the dominant male culture and some women are concerned about…” She turned around and opened her arms toward the windows. “…curtains. These are rather drab, honey.”
“I wouldn’t know. I’m a guy. I don’t know what fuschia is either.”
“It’s pinkish purple, but it wouldn’t fit in here. Doesn’t go with the rest of the room.”
April walked over to the small closet and slid the door back. She stiffened when she spied his shoulder holster and gun hanging on the rack. She looked toward him.
"Honey, I didn't notice this before. You carry a gun?"
"Yes. A Beretta.”
"Because people keep shooting at me and I want to be able to return fire."
He pointed outside. "My last car had a .22-bullet hole in the windshield. Thankfully, the gunman had bad aim."
April stiffened in the blue bathrobe. She slowly sipped the coffee. She stared at Sanders then looked back toward the closet.
"Drake, I do not like guns and I do not like people who carry guns.”
He walked over to her and smiled. "Honey, if people are firing bullets at you, you really need to shoot back. If not, bad things can happen."
She slowly sipped the coffee as she considered his words. "Does this happen to you frequently?"
"No, but even once is one time too many." He opened his hands in a gesture of surrender. "It wasn't my fault."
"Have you ever considered a change of profession?" she said, then gave a quick grin and giggled. "Although knowing you, Drake, even that might not stop people from shooting at you."
"Thank you for sharing with me."
He inserted a pan of cinnamon buns in the microwave, and warmed them for several seconds before scooting the pan onto the counter. April eased on a stool. She grabbed a knife, separated one bun and lifted it on a napkin.
“I love these.” She bit into the bun. “By the way, has your mental affliction contributed to you carrying a gun?”
Sanders dropped several bacon strips in a frying pan and spread out two slices of bread.
“While you’re chewing, I will tell you something about my “mental affliction” and guns. Non-believers think Christianity is about rules and regulations. We have a code, but it’s also a relationship, and in a relationship…” he tapped her nose with a finger, “people talk to one another.
“Three years ago. South Georgia. A fellow reporter and I heard a candidate for county commission had built a small air strip on his very rural home. Rumors suggested that the airstrip was being used to smuggle drugs. So I went out there one afternoon…”
“You were trespassing?” April said, while wiping frosting from her lips.
“Isn’t trespassing illegal?”
“Anyway, not all rumors are true, but this one turned out to be. I was standing in front of a large oak when I heard a voice inside, a velvety voice with a sense of urgency saying ‘Dive left.’ Because it wasn’t the first time I’ve heard the voice of the Spirit, I didn’t hesitate. I dove left. About a half second after I moved, a bullet whizzed through the air where I had been standing and plunked into the tree, leaving an ugly scar on the trunk. I’m glad He said go left. I’m right handed so my natural inclination would have been to go right. However, that would have placed me on open ground. Instead, I landed behind a clump of bushes and rolled away. Which was a wise move because the shooter was good. Two bullets zoomed through the bushes and dinged the sand behind me as I rolled. Leaped behind a tree and returned fire. Saw a man running away. I got in my car and headed out too.
“Couldn’t do much with the information. It’s not illegal to have a basic, stripped down landing strip at your ranch. We couldn’t find other evidence to tie him to any illegal activity. Fortunately he did lose the election.”
April stared at him, silently chewing the cinnamon bun then sipping some coffee. Sanders pointed to her.
“I wish you wouldn’t look at me that way. It makes me think I’m in therapy. I’m not the only Christian who has heard the voice of the Holy Spirit. The scriptures say, ‘My people know my voice and the voice of a stranger they will not follow.”
“Does this voice give you stock tips?”
Sanders lowered his tone. “It might if I had stocks, which I don’t.”
April finished chewing and wiped her mouth with the napkin. She hopped off the stool. “I need to take a shower, then I have to go.”
At the door of the kitchen she turned around and walked back. She slid her hands along the lapels of his robe. For a moment, she appeared shy and awkward.
“Am I going to see you again?”
“You’re seeing me now.”
She slapped her hands on his jaws. “Drake!”
“Yes, of course,” he said. “Tonight?”
“But only if I get to see you naked.”
“OK. We’ll work on that.”
Sanders slowly munched on a bacon and egg sandwich. He was still hungry so made half of a second sandwich then walked back to the bedroom and watched April slip into her shoes. She grabbed her red coat and tied the belt around her, then slid open the closet door. She slid his shirts and pants to one side and then gave a hum of approval.
He looked at her. “And that means…”
“It means I have room to put my stuff here.” She tapped the closet with a fist. “Ample room.”
“If I’m going to stay overnight I need clothes. And shoes. And books. Can I share your desk?”
She fingered the collar of one of his blue office shirts. “Who does your laundry?”
“That explains it.”
Sanders took another bite from his sandwich. “You know, a few minutes ago you were wondering if you’d see me again. Now you’re moving in.”
She smiled and patted his face. “It’s a fast-paced world, sweetie. Can’t waste time. Which means I need to go. But when I get back, we will have the whole weekend to ourselves.”
She looked hungrily at the sandwich so Sanders offered it to her. She took a huge bite.
“That’s good. You can cook too.”
“Only in the most dire circumstances, such as when I’m hungry.”
She wrapped an arm around his neck and kissed him. “See you tonight.”
He walked to the large windows and moved the curtain. He peered out at the Sound. It was almost frozen over, a solid sheet of white ice stretched for miles. Random water spots broke through the ice in a half dozen places. It had frozen two days ago but, since then, the temperature had risen above thirty- two-degrees during the day so the ice was thawing.
He looked down to see Trixie at his feet, her tail thumping on the carpet. She stared at the last remaining bit of the sandwich.
“In the future I will have to make three, won’t I?” he said. He dropped the sandwich. Trixie snapped it up before the bread and bacon hit the floor.
He poured a cup of coffee in a green mug inscribed with golf clubs and the words, “I’ll break par in my next round!” and returned to the window.
He shivered but not from the cold. The needle prick of guilt stabbed his conscious. He had to shake it off, he told himself. He had not violated the Christian code of morality since he became born again. Even though he enjoyed the night the nagging remorse still plagued him.
“Oh, come on,” he said aloud. “It’s not like I’m married and committing adultery. Or a minister. Or Sunday School teacher.”
He shook his head. Somehow he couldn’t shake the feeling that the guilt was more than just about a night spent with April. Something else bothered him. But there was nothing on the horizon. Just the cold blue sky over white ice.
Everything looked solid. He had taken the editor’s job with the Coastal Breeze, the 7,500 circulation six-day-a-week paper on the North Carolina coast on the hunch improvements could be made. After four months at the helm, circulation was now above 8,000 and the consensus in the beach community was that the quality of the paper had improved considerably. He hadn’t done anything dramatic. The previous editor – who liked to snort things through his nose - was the obstacle to quality. When he left, there was a 99 percent chance the Breeze would improve, no matter who took over. One lazy employee had quit, after he read the writing on the wall and his replacement – a young man named Arnold Bierstom – was first class. Aggressive, accurate and a go-getter. Sanders also freed up his copy editors and design editors from the restraints placed on them by the previous idiot-in-chief.
Now, with the paper running smoothly, he could focus on the novel.
If nothing went wrong….
But nothing should go wrong. Well, besides that little sin thing last night. He would take care of that. He planned to propose.
There was also the e-mail. The mysterious e-mail. It hinted of darker things.
He shrugged. Then again, it was probably sent by a random nutcase. You see a lot of those in journalism. He took a gulp of the strong coffee.
What could go wrong? he thought.
“We may need to kill the editor of the Breeze, Drake Sanders.”
Two weeks before, when he had heard the line, Nathan Arnoldson gave what he thought the appropriate reply, “Aaron, are you out of your mind?”
Since he had heard the sentence, he had not been able to get it out of his mind, no matter how much he tried.
Despite his question, he knew Aaron Edlands was not crazy. Edlands had full control of his mental faculties. That was a fact that scared Arnoldson more than if the owner of Top Quality Construction had actually been medically approved for large amounts of Thorazine. He shook his head as he went over the conversation yet again in his mind.
“He is asking questions that could lead him to a matter we don’t want known, much less published in a newspaper,” Edlands had said.
“That doesn’t mean we kill somebody. Even if your suggestion had a modicum of common sense – which it doesn’t – if an editor suddenly turns up dead and a bullet has caused his demise, police naturally ask if he was working on a story and ask what type of story. Which leads…follow me on this, Aaron…which leads to those questions being asked in an official, law enforcement capacity. We got a new district attorney two years ago. This one is not alcohol dependent and has a different character than Sam Sullivan, which you know after your son spent a year in the county jail.”
“John should have received a fine and a judicial reprimand. Ames would not listen to reason.”
“Sullivan would have let him off, but Sullivan isn’t in office anymore. Dusty Ames wasn’t about to give out any free judicial passes, and since you tried to lean on Ames he would love to see your butt in a cell, too. Johnny still got off light. He didn’t have any priors because Sullivan always dropped the cases. You need to tell that boy to control his temper. He better not run anyone else off the road. He could have killed the other driver. But I can see why he goes off half-cocked. He gets it from his father.”
Edlands bristled with indignation. At first he wanted to defend his son, and himself. Then he took a deep breath and decided to ignore the remark.
“If Sanders uncovers what I’m afraid he might, it would destroy us all. If you recall, sixteen years ago, we were involved in a crime and a man died. We got away with that, and we can get away with another incident.”
“That was not a crime. It was an accident. The county sheriff very conveniently did not pursue the investigation as, shall we say, aggressively as he could have. We should not press our luck. Besides, there’s a difference between an accident and cold blooded murder. There is no way our new sheriff would turn a blind eye to murder. Adelnai Fletcher is not a good old boy. I’ve been in her office – on civic business you understand – and seen her degrees. I still remember the shoot-out she had with an assailant seven, maybe eight years ago. He missed. She didn’t. The taxpayers funded a small, but very nice funeral for the boy. The county even provided two mourners. A nice touch because even the boy’s parents didn’t show up.
“A year ago the county built our new jail for the sheriff. Two-story, high-tech, very nice place. Had a nephew who had to spend six months there last year. I visited him a couple of times. The place is spic and span. There wasn’t a speck of dust on the walls or the floors. Mirrors, cameras all over the place. But even though I was impressed by the accommodations, I have no intention of taking up residence there. Things have changed, Aaron. Time has moved on.”
Edlands was silent for a moment then frowned. “No one will suspect you. Even Sanders doesn’t know yet what he could stumble on. If we wait he will know and it will be too late.”
“How do you know what Sanders may or may not stumble on?”
“I have many friends in this county and some of them work for the Breeze.”
“Besides, there were two other people with us those many years ago. Go ask them to kill Sanders.”
“They’re not very good shots, Nate.”
“Then it looks like you’re out of luck, Aaron.”
Edlands leaned back in his black office chair and frowned. “I hoped you would be amenable to reason.”
“Amenable to unreason is more like it. I am not going to commit any criminal acts.”
The chair squeaked under Edlands’ weight. “I supposed I could find someone else.”
Arnoldson stood up and shook his head. “Just don’t ask Johnny to do it. He’s incompetent and he’s careless. Besides, you’re panicking and there’s no reason for it. Just because an editor is asking questions doesn’t mean he will discover anything.”
Arnoldson turned around and left the office, slamming the door as he left. As he walked toward his car, he wondered why he had kept in contact with Edlands over the years. He realized he didn’t like Edlands. In fact, ‘dislike’ was a mild term for what he felt for his longtime acquaintance. He looked back toward the office.
“And the -- wanted me to kill for him,” Arnoldson said.
After the meeting, Edlands had opened a drawer to his desk and pulled out a bottle of Scotch. He unzipped the cap and poured some into a glass. He didn’t think he was panicking. Unlike Arnoldson, he had confidence in the Coastal Breeze editor’s abilities.
So he was worried.
Even though clothes covered almost every inch of her, including hands encased in the sleek brown gloves and feet in shiny black boots, there was no disputing that his colleague was major league hot, Bruce Emerson thought. Not just Triple-A, but Major League.
The boots were a rare concession to the wintry, windy day. Tiffany Summersby, newswoman and second place contestant in the Miss Wild Duck Pageant, liked to go barefoot or at least preferred open-toed shoes. She did not like encasing her feet in shoes or boots. It was close to a phobia with her. Until today, Emerson didn’t know she owned a pair of boots.
Even so, she was hot.
Summersby used her gloved hand to sip black coffee from the white Styrofoam cup. She settled into the passenger seat of the station’s purple van that had the large WRST letters in gold. “It’s distinctive,” the station manager had said of the van. “People will remember it.”
At five-three, she had plenty of leg room. A blonde with blue eyes, Summersby wanted to be a television anchor and her first step was the correspondent’s job. The company that owned WRST wanted to expand coverage into Wild Duck County. She definitely had the looks for the job, but she also had the intelligence. She was second in her senior class at Wild Duck High School with a 5.4 average. The valedictorian, a student who planned to enter medicine, had a 5.5 average. Summersby did not like the fact that she was coming in second in contests, but at least the grades were tabulated honestly, a fact she doubted about the pageant ratings.
“We’re going to the Magnum Point Lighthouse,” she said.
“That’s gonna be some hard driving.”
“The van can make it,” she said.
He started the engine and backed the van out of the Coastal Breeze’s parking lot. WRST had a small office on the south side of the Breeze building. There were no computers as yet. Just two desks, a few chairs, a bathroom and a coffee machine that was usually broken. However, in the spirit of media cooperation, the Breeze had a spare desk and computer that Tiffany often used.
“What’s up at the lighthouse?” he asked.
“A dead body. A possible dead body.”
Summersby set the cup down in a holder and grabbed her cell phone out of her pocketbook. There was one advantage in living in a small county all of your life. You knew almost everyone, and one of the everyones was Mildred Dubanks, the office manager – and unofficial public relations staffer - at the Wild Duck Sheriff Department. Mildred seemed to know everything that was going on long before it was written in an official report.
Emerson turned right onto the four-lane U.S. Highway 87 that ran directly up into Virginia. The wet asphalt sparkled in the morning sun, but all the snow had been pushed to the side of the road. The black-spotted slush stood as dirty mini-guards as he pressed the gas pedal.
“Come on, Mildred, where are you?” Tiffany said.
Emerson turned his attention to the road from his hot colleague. He was a burly, curly-haired man but had a pleasant personality and excelled as a cameraman. His addictions included cigarettes and a compulsion to play the state lottery every week. He had played every option offered and, he guessed, spent hundreds of dollars hoping for the big win. Alas, to date, he had won eight dollars on state-backed gambling. Barely enough to buy him a pack of cigarettes.
He looked toward Tiffany who still held the cell phone to her ear.
For a lady who possessed both beauty and brains, she was not rude or stuck-up. There was a natural sweetness about his colleague. Perhaps that explained something that puzzled him. While any attractive woman gathered his attention, there was no raw sexuality oozing from Tiffany. After meeting some women, his first thought was sleeping with them. They exuded an aroma that went right to the gonads. Tiffany didn’t fit in that category.
Perhaps it was because she was a born-again Christian and a devout one at that. That was another reason Emerson knew he would not make any moves on her. He had been turned down by plenty of woman who were not religious and didn’t believe in celibacy before marriage. One who did believe in it wasn’t about to say yes to him. Besides, he didn’t want anything to disturb the working relationship they had. He both liked and needed the job. He wanted no complications.
An instrumental version of “Amazing Grace,” flowed from Tiffany’s cell phone. She snatched it from her purse. “Hope that’s Mildred calling back,” she said.
Emerson drove carefully. No snow was falling, but the roads remained slick. At least the storm had not deposited any ice on the highways. Once tires begin sliding on ice, it was difficult to bring a vehicle back under control.
Wild Duck County had a mainland section where, until recently, most of the stores and malls were located, and an ocean section. The Capricat Sound cut between the two parcels. Only at the top of the county did the two land masses meet. Then drivers had to turn left and make the mile run to Highway 350 that stretched across the Virginia border. The Magnum Point Lighthouse was about a mile south of the turn, and there was no asphalt leading up to it, just a sandy trail. On snow days the traveling was harder. But, as Tiffany noted, the van should have little trouble in making the trip.
“I’m doing fine and I’m on a story,” Tiffany said into her cell. She broke into a big smile. “I sure do want to know about the dead body. Accident? Or did the guy freeze to death?”
“Neither one,” said Mildred.
“So what happened?”
“We don’t know yet.”
“Who was it?”
“Somebody you might know, or at least know of.”
Tiffany paused for a moment. The excitement in her voice subdued. “Really? Who?”
“You remember a student named Andrew Hollinsworth?”
“Yes. He’s a jackass. Bullies other students and strong-arms his way around school. His father is always there to help him out of a jam. I had to drag my daddy to the father-daughter dance at the First Baptist Church. Hollinsworth’s father was always helping him.”
“He can’t help him anymore. He was the student who was killed.”
Tiffany didn’t reply, She moved the phone in front of her and looked at it as if it were an alien object. She tapped the speaker button as she sat back in the seat.
“Andrew is dead?”
“Yes. Group of boys went up there yesterday. Hey, is this off the record? There’s no official release yet.”
“Ah, let me use it as background. I won’t use your name.”
“Please don’t, honey. Not yet.”
“OK. You have my promise. So what happened?”
“We’re trying to piece that together. There may have been some type of bet and it involved Hollinsworth spending a night at the lighthouse. The kids go up Sunday around noon to pick him up. They go into the lighthouse and don’t find Andrew. What they see is blood and bits and pieces of a human being. We have pictures you wouldn’t believe, and I don’t think you want to see.”
“Yes, I do,” Tiffany said. “Save them for me.”
“Tiffany, you really don’t. You’ve never seen anything like this before in your life. I’ve seen the photos. They will give you nightmares.”
“Save them for me,” Tiffany said, the dedication rising in her voice. “As Tiffany Summersby, I would pass. But as a reporter, I definitely want to see them.”
“There was talk of opening the lighthouse up as a tourist attraction. That’s not going to happen until it’s scrubbed clean. There’s blood on the walls and floors.”
“Who’s up there now? Any deputy?”
“Roy Tibbetts, I think,” Mildred said. “He’s there to keep everyone else out.”
“Roy. I know him. He’s a nice guy,” Tiffany said.
“Knowing how persuasive you are, Roy might let you in. Make sure you protect him. The sheriff will chew his butt if she finds out.”
“Don’t worry about a thing. You work with the press and the press works with you.”
She lightly slapped Emerson on the shoulder. “Drive careful, Bruce. We don’t want to crash on the way up. We have a story. A big story.”
Emerson guided the van gently as it rolled down the way. “What’s up? There’s really a dead guy at the lighthouse?”
“Not any longer. They’ve hauled him away by now but there was a dead guy up here, and the dead guy was a boy I went to high school with. Andrew was a year behind me. I didn’t know him well, we were not friends or anything, but I did know him.” She leaned back in the seat. “They always called him Andrew. He was never an Andy. He didn’t like Andy.”
Emerson looked toward his colleague. “He was a jackass?”
“Grade A jackass.”
Emerson shrugged. “Well, if somebody has to go…”
Tiffany slowly closed her phone. As it clicked shut she slid it into her purse. She looked straight ahead. “But how did he die? That’s the question. What happened to him? That’s what we need to find out.”
“You find out. I’m just the driver and cameraman,” Emerson said.
There was light traffic on the road, a fact Emerson appreciated. Driving in snow was bad enough. If you get an elderly person driving, or a person not paying attention while on slippery asphalt, insurance rates can go up. Emerson knew he had to keep his gaze on the road and on other cars. It was easier when there were not that many other cars to keep track of. He did sneak a brief look again at Tiffany.
“Is that guy from the Breeze really checking into the beauty pageant?” he asked.
She nodded while taking another sip from the cup. A small stream of brown coffee ran down her chin. She quickly wiped it away. The coffee stain matched the gloves.
“He said he was. Drake is man of his word, although he may have more important projects. But we’ll see. I still think I should have won. Nothing against Allison. I told Drake it really didn’t matter anymore. I was upset briefly after the pageant. But I’m a Christian, I’m not supposed to worry about human titles or honors and I’m not going to.”
Emerson moved his foot to the brake pedal as the van neared the turnoff to Magnum Point. Tires sloshed into water as he turned onto the snow-covered trail. The red speedometer line stayed at twenty-five as he drove toward the lighthouse.
Water and snow dripped from the tall trees that guarded the road as the van trudged along. Tiffany hastily grabbed her phone again. Her finger furiously punched a few buttons. The van hit a bump and wiggled slowly but Emerson steadied it as the tires crunched the snow.
“Mildred, sorry to bother you again,” Tiffany said. “I was so stunned when hearing the news about Hollinsworth I forget to ask who were the kids who told you about the body?”
“I don’t know all of them. I did hear the name of Carl Knudson.”
“I know Carl,” Tiffany said.
The van pulled into a clearing. To the right stood the Magnum Point Lighthouse. It didn’t look impressive. The pale, tan paint was peeling off. Yellow police tape surrounded the structure. A Wild Duck Sheriff’s car stood twenty yards off to the side. A tall, young man in a green jacket over his deputy shirt stood at the door. He didn’t smile. At six-two, he stood straight as a Marine at attention. His blond hair barely edged beyond the rim of his deputy’s cap. He had a round face, but nothing was cherubic or clownish about it. Yellow sunglasses encased his eyes. For a few minutes he never acknowledged the visitors.
Tiffany bounced out of the van and waved at him.
“Roy, how are you?”
She ran toward the lighthouse and the deputy. She was halfway there before he gave a nod.
“Tiffany, what are you doing here?”
“I’m a broadcaster and this is a story. Can I see inside?”
He shook his head. “You don’t want to. Besides, there’s nothing to see. We’ve already taken the body away.”
“It was Andrew Hollinsworth?”
“That’s what I’ve been told. A few students said they left him here Saturday evening. We’re assuming the body is Hollinsworth. His father told us he didn’t return home. But we don’t have a definite identification yet. There wasn’t enough left to identify when we came,” Tibbetts said.
Emerson walked up behind Tiffany. The deputy unnerved him a bit. When they drove up, his hands were behind his back. He hadn’t changed his stance. The voice was solid, with no weakness. But there was a trace of affection for Tiffany. No doubt most men had that affectionate trace when talking to her. Emerson shivered. Although the temperature was now above freezing the bristling wind fast-balled bits of snow at him. They smacked into his face, stinging the skin. A few flakes hit the deputy’s yellow sunglasses and melted, sending wet streams down to his cheeks. He still didn’t move. Nor did he remove the sunglasses.
“Roy, I need to look inside.” Tiffany said.
The deputy finally moved. His face turned toward the broadcaster. “There’s nothing to see. Nothing besides blood.”
“I want to take a peek. It will just take a minute.”
He said nothing.
“It can’t hurt anything, Roy. I won’t touch a thing.”
The deputy sighed. “I can’t talk you out of it.”
“Not a chance.”
He finally took off his glasses and glanced from side to side.
“I tell you what. I’m going to walk over into that group of trees. If anybody asked, I had to relieve myself. As luck would have it, you pulled up the very moment I disappeared into those bushes. Then you jumped out and rushed in there before I got back.”
“That’s exactly how it happened, Roy. I will go you one better. We stopped the van, just before you could see us. We pulled it into the forest and waited. We figured you had to take a break sometime.”
“Don’t say we,” Emerson said.
“As soon as you started walking we jumped back in the van, pulled in here and I rushed in.”
Tibbetts fingered the sunglasses then looked up at Tiffany. “I still don’t think you should go in.”
“You can’t keep reporters out, Roy,” Tiffany said, adding a big smile to the words.
Tibbetts sighed and put the sunglasses back on. “Then I will go say hello to a tree.”
Tiffany waited until he had disappeared to walk toward the entrance. She glanced back toward Emerson.
“Want to come with me?”
When she came to the door, she hesitated then pushed it open.
Huge splotches of dark red discolored the floors and the walls. Red blotches also stained the thick bedding and rifle.
Tiffany gulped but took two steps inside. She was not going to be one of those women who collapse at the sight of blood, even though the sight unnerved her. Her stomach churned. Juices flowed and she felt a bitter taste in her mouth. She swallowed and walked on. Her boots found clear spots on the floor to step on. It was irrational, she knew, but she didn’t want to step on Andrew’s blood, even dried blood. The black boots tiptoed around a large spot and found an off-yellow space where the paint had withered. She closed her eyes and sighed again. Her hand found the staircase railing.
She had 20/20 vision and her gaze fell upon a thin, ragged white object. At first she wondered if it was a piece of paper. Maneuvering around the red her black boots stepped down next to the item. She didn’t have to pick it up to know what it was.
A jagged piece of Andrew Hollinsworth’s skin, ripped from the bone.
Tiffany groaned and turned away. She closed her eyes and swayed uneasily on weak legs. She wondered if she was going to faint. Violently shaking her head, she gritted her teeth then took a deep breath.
The eerie recognition slowly dawned on her. It was akin to a revelation when reading scripture. You can read a Biblical passage a hundred times and then reading it the hundred and first time a deeper, truer understanding of the lines sink into your spirit. It’s like a bright light being turned on. But the tower knowledge was not in the realm of light. A dark revelation arose from the shadows in the room.
“There’s something else here,” she said softly, almost to herself.
She took two steps then stared upward. When nothing looked out of order she scanned the lighthouse’s walls.
“Something else…,” she said again. “Even a natural, carnal person might sense it.” Her gloved hands touched a wall. Her fingers ran slowly over the rough concrete. She turned around and looked upward again.
“You’re still here too, aren’t you?”
A rustling came from the top of the tower. The sound of large, hairy spiders scooting over dead leaves. Coming for her. Something even darker, more evil. Yet intelligent. Whatever it was hated her. Waves of yellow malice washed over her. The rushing evil knocked her back against the wall.
Suddenly her courage failed and she rushed for the door. She hit it with her shoulder and plunged out, sprawling into the snow. She stood up and weakly shook the snow off. Tibbetts stood three-feet away.
“I told you that you didn’t want to see it.”
She stumbled toward the van. “No, I think I did. I really think I did.”
She opened the van’s door and eased into the seat. Emerson climbed in the driver’s side.
“Where to now?” he said.
She picked up her cell phone. “Nowhere. We’re staying right here for a while. This is a great place to broadcast from. First, I have to make a few calls.”
Fortunately, she knew Carl Knudson’s number. Then she wanted very much to talk to her pastor…and also ask Drake Sanders a question.