Hearts of Thunder

A stand-alone novel | Chapter One of Hearts of Thunder!!! | Just a sneak preview of something coming soon 🙂

“Have respect to the covenant; for the dark places of the earth are full of the haunts of cruelty.”  | Psalm 74:20 

 Chapter One – Unexpected Encounters

Saturday, September 24, 2016
4:30 pm
Arundel Park
Arundel NJ

         Autumn was Erin’s favorite season. Vividly colored leaves set against the backdrop of a brilliantly blue sky was a scene she loved to capture on the canvas. She gave the paintings to a friend of hers who owned an art gallery, content with the profit they brought her. It was a hobby on the side but cleaning houses was what she liked to call her “real” job. People who inquired about her profession labelled it mundane but she didn’t let their opinions didn’t faze her.

She pulled her long coat tightly around her and snapped her fingers, stopping Midnight in his pursuit of several frightened squirrels. “Hey, big guy, leave ‘em alone.”

The black lab retriever vigorously wagged his tail, found an intriguing scent and bounded down the path. Erin raised her voice and called after the dog. “Don’t get too far ahead.” She shook her head, realizing not for the first time that she’d probably never grow out of the habit of addressing Midnight as if he were a fellow human being.

She spun quickly in response to a light tap on her shoulder. The man was probably in his mid-forties, several years older than herself. A small patch of grey, about the size of a toddler’s fist, seemed out of place on the right side of his head. He was tall, she put him at six two, and slim. He was dressed in black which, combined with the shady smile etched on his hard face, produced a sinister effect.

Erin snapped her fingers and Midnight came bounding back. She felt safer with him at her side. She shifted her eyes to the man’s face and raised one eyebrow slightly. “I’m sorry but I don’t believe we’ve met before.”

The man’s smile broadened, giving Erin the impression of a tiger shark. “Hello, Miss Faye. Don’t you remember me?”

She took a step back and felt the growl rumbling in Midnight’s throat as he leaned against her leg. “No, I don’t. Is there something you want?”

He laughed, a deep laugh that started in his chest, and moved closer. “You better believe there is,” he said, his voice low. He reached out and grabbed her wrist, pulling her close. “I need to know where Blake Holmes is. I was told you two were…well, intimate.”

Midnight lunged. The man grabbed his collar even as the dog snapped and growled. He pulled out a gun. “When I let him go, Miss Faye, call him off or I will shoot him.”

Erin hesitated as she struggled to process the scene. He knew Blake and he had a gun. If she wasn’t so confused and frightened, she would have laughed at the irony. She hated guns and she hated Blake. Well, she told herself she hated him but lately she’d been thinking about him more than ever and whatever her feelings were towards him, hate wasn’t exactly the right way to describe them. It’d been three months since he’d ended the relationship and deep down, way deep down, she knew she wasn’t over him but she’d never tell that to anyone. It was too irritating and confusing.

The man was still holding onto Midnight’s collar and his strength surprised her. His grey eyes stared harshly into hers. “I swear I will shoot him.”

She snapped her fingers. “Midnight! Stand down, now.”

The man released him and the retriever backed up next to Erin, hackles raised and a snarl on his face. Replacing the gun, the man inclined his head. “Watch for me. I’ll be around.” He swiveled smoothly and disappeared around the bend in the path, leaving Erin with a pounding heart.

Midnight nudged her leg. She stooped and buried her face in his fur, thankfully for something solid and safe. “Thanks, big guy.” She straightened and walked into the opposite direction than the one the man had gone. Midnight followed, staying by her side instead of wandering off.

Erin exhaled heavily. Call the cops. You know you should. She hated confrontation though and after all, the man hadn’t actually hurt her or anything, just scared her and left her more confused than she already was. Snap out of it, Erin! He had a gun!  True, but maybe he had a license. He was scared of Midnight and when people were scared they tried to protect themselves. Why was she rationalizing so much and making excuses for this sinister stranger? She sighed. For the same reason she was still holding onto Blake. It was a curse and a blessing, trying to see the best in people.

So Blake had secrets. Why did that fail to surprise her? She was tempted to call him and let him know about the man who wanted to know his whereabouts but she didn’t. Just like she didn’t ever end up calling the police.

~      ~      ~      ~      ~      ~         

6:45 pm
Manasquan Beach
Manasquan NJ

Russell was losing, again. He pumped his arms and put on a final bust of speed but the finish line was swiftly approaching and Zach was several strides ahead of him. He definitely needed to work out more. Russell collapsed over the line in the sand and groaned. “Looks like I’ll be buying you that Rolex, huh.”

Zach punched his buddy’s bare shoulder. “You better believe it, my friend. I beat you fair and square.”

“You all seem to think I’m rolling in cash.” Russell rose, brushing sand off his swimming shorts. “I’ll get you the watch but I ain’t no millionaire.”

Keira wrapped herself in a beach towel. “But Russ, you’re the nephew of Kyle Holt. How could you not be a millionaire?”

Russell caught the undercurrent of teasing in her voice and decided to let the comment pass. “Not even gonna answer that one, honey.” He snagged his towel from the back of Keira’s chair. “I’ll leave you two alone for a minute. I need some time to think.” He draped the towel over his shoulder and shuffled down the beach, kicking up sand as he went.

“What’s eating him?” Keira stood and watched Russell’s back.

He’s in one of his moods, it’ll pass.” Zach wrapped an arm around his wife’s shoulders. “C’mon, forget about him for a minute. Let’s take a walk.”

 

Russell resented the reality that he was wealthy. It made friendships more complicated than they needed to be. Maybe he was just a really paranoid guy, but he couldn’t deny that half the time he felt as if his friends were using him for his money. It didn’t help that they constantly reminded him of the exorbitant chunk of gold that was his. Sometimes a guy just wanted to be loved for who he was, not for the amount of zeros and dollar signs attached to his name.

He glanced over his shoulder and saw Zach and Keira swinging their clasped hands as they walked down the quiet beach. He wasn’t ready to join them just yet. Russell fought to quell the bitterness that threatened to rise inside him. His life was a mess, there was no room for beating around the bush and sugar-coating the ugliness. Zach and Keira only served to highlight his frustration.

He kicked the sand ferociously. Those two had it all going for them. They had each other and nice relationships with their extended families. Meanwhile, Russell was still single and had to navigate the dysfunction that was his extended family.

His aunt and uncle owned Holt Unlimited and thought the end goal of life was to make money and lots of it. Uncle Kyle was always going on about how he’d pulled himself up out of the gutter, opened a law firm, and invested in stock market. Russell’s father had told him that Uncle Kyle had never been in the gutter. In fact, all three Holt sons came from a decent hard-working family but Uncle Kyle had some sort of middle-child syndrome or something. Holt Unlimited was just a stroke of really good luck since the firm had offices in several countries and boasted thousands of employees. Anyone could have done it and honestly, Russell harboured a deep suspicion that his aunt and uncle were corrupt. He didn’t put it past them at all.

Uncle Kyle and Aunt Lana wanted Holt Unlimited to be a family business so Russell had the added pleasure of seeing his cousin KJ every day at work as well. He cursed. The little twit. As if dealing with his father’s snooty brother and sister-in-law wasn’t enough, he had to endure his cousin’s superiority complex. Zach and Keira didn’t have a clue. They thought his life had been handed to him on a silver platter and that he just had to snap his fingers for anything he wanted. Reality was much more jarring. He was thirty-three and he had done absolutely nothing with his life. Nothing. Sitting around and partying it up with the family money had been fun while it lasted but the lights were going out now. Time was slipping away, slowly but surely and Russell Holt was slipping away with it.

The brutal honesty of it all hurt.

He was turning to retrace his steps when a scrap of bright blue cloth caught his eye in the thick brush about ten feet away. It turned out the piece of cloth was a sock. Russell’s heart pounded as he realized that what he was staring at was a man’s body lying face down. He was shoeless, dressed in a dark blue suit.

“Zach! Get over here, now!”

He knelt quickly, poking the man’s arm with a finger. “Sir? Are you all right?”

The man didn’t respond and Russell touched his clenched fist. It was cold and lifeless.

He grimaced, half-wanting to roll the body over and see the man’s face. Oddly enough the body didn’t smell really at all. He gave into the weird urge and pushed the man over with his foot. He wished he hadn’t. A stick protruded from the man’s face underneath his left eye. Disgusting things were coming out of the hole.

Russell’s stomach churned as Zach and Keira headed his way.

“Russ, what’s up? You find buried treasure or something?” Zach was still several feet away and hadn’t seen anything yet.

“Just shut up and get over here.” Russell was still annoyed with his friend and was in no mood to banter. “This guy’s dead, I checked. Call the cops, if you wouldn’t mind. I left my phone by the cooler.”

Zach stared at the corpse in horror and shielded Keira with his body. “You don’t want to see this, love.”

Curious, Keira pushed past his arm and stood next to Russell. “Gross. How’d that stick get under his eye like that?”

Russell stared at her. “You really think I know the answer?”

“Calm down.” Keira pushed him and made a face. “You’re just bitter that you have to buy the Rolex.” She moved back to Zach wishing she hadn’t seen the dead body.

Russell clenched his fists in anger at Keira’s words. She didn’t get it. Neither of them did. He turned his attention to Zach’s conversation as he spoke with the police.

“Hello? Yes…I’m Zachary Spencer. I’m at Manasquan with my wife and a friend and we just found a dead man.” He glanced at the corpse. “Caucasian, there’s a stick protruding from underneath one of his eyes.” He swallowed. “No, we didn’t look for any ID. All right. We’ll be here.” Zach clenched the phone. “Cop said don’t touch him.”

Russell grimaced. “Too late. I rolled him over.”

“Can’t be helped.” Zach shivered. “Nightmares for weeks, that’s what I’m gonna have.”

Russell snorted. “Don’t be a baby. I guess we sit tight until they get here.”

~      ~      ~      ~      ~      ~

Sunday, September 25, 2016
1:00 pm
Hunter’s Crossing, Apt #35A
Arundel NJ

         Erin moved to grab the phone as it rang, but tripped over her dog’s squeaky bear. “Midnight!” She moaned, pushing off the floor with one hand. “The toys stay out of the kitchen, remember?”

Midnight hung his head, gripped the bear with his teeth, and skulked away from the scene of the crime. Erin shook her head as she watched him go, a half-smile on her face, and reached for the phone.

“Hello.” She cradled the receiver between her ear and shoulder, turning back to the sandwich she had been making on the counter.

“Hey Rin, it’s me.” A girl’s voice came through.

“Oh Keira, hi. What’s up?”

“Zach’s going out with some friends tonight so it’s just me at home. You want to come over and maybe bake some cookies, watch a nice sappy movie and just hang out? Oh and I have something big to tell you.”

“I’m intrigued.” Erin smiled and reached over to the fridge for some mayonnaise. “Sure, I’d love to be a teenager again. Okay if I bring Midnight? He’ll be lonely and I feel like I owe him something. I just reprimanded him for leaving his toys in the kitchen and he slunk away, tail between his legs.”

“You trip again?”

Erin sighed. “Fourth time in the past two days.”

“No problem.” Keira paused. “So I’ll see you and Midnight at six, then?”

“At six.” Erin smiled and ended the call.

*

6:00 pm
118 Valley View Street
Arundel NJ

         Erin glanced over at Midnight as she pulled into the Spencer’s driveway. Pressing his nose against the car window, Midnight barked in anticipation. Erin laughed and allowed him to hop over the gearshift and out the driver’s side. Shrugging out of her coat, she followed the dog to the Spencer’s front door. The temperature seemed to have risen since she left her apartment and a warm breeze ruffled her blond hair. She’d have to tell Keira about the incident in the park yesterday. Avoiding any mention of the matter sort of allowed it to fade into oblivion but it was too odd to go unnoticed.

The porch light flicked on and Keira held open the door. “Hey lady. I was thinking The Notebook? Relive college days?”

“Sounds wonderful.” Erin reached out and gave her friend a hug. “And you bought holiday icing?” Decorating Christmas cookies had become a staple of their get-togethers.

Keira winked. “I’m never gonna forget that little tradition of ours.” She closed the door with her foot while wrapping both arms around Jensyn to keep the massive Rottweiler from making an escape. “I got everything set up in the kitchen. Hungry?”

“Starved.” Erin pushed off her shoes and followed Keira down the carpeted hallway. “I thought about eating before I came but I figured you’d be ordering pizza.”

“Thought about cooking but decided it was too much work.” Keira adjusted the volume on her iPhone sitting in a dock on the counter.

James Bay crooned about holding back the river and Erin winced. Blake had introduced her to that song. She cleared her throat and waved a hand at the smart phone. “Uh, Keira. Different song, yeah?”

A horrified look came over the woman’s face and she hurriedly swiped on the screen. “Oh goodness, Rin. Sorry. I didn’t even realize…hey, we’ll do 80s hits instead.”

Erin gave her a small smile. “Thanks.” She slid onto a barstool and fiddled with the icing container in front of her. “You’d think I’d be over it in three months, you know? But it feels like the more I try, the more everything I see or hear reminds me of him.” She didn’t bother to tell Keira that she wanted to be reminded of him.

Fishing through the pile of papers next to the fridge, Keira searched for the number of a pizzeria. “He was such a jerk. I bet he’s going along his merry little way right now without a backward glance.”

“Thanks.” Erin laughed. “You barely knew him.”

“Met him once and that was all I needed. He seemed nice but if he’s broken your heart than you probably misjudged him.”

“I know.” Erin sighed. “My curse coming into play again.”

Keira found the phone number. “It’s the price you pay, I guess but I’m glad I have a friend who tries to see the good in people. That’s why I’ll murder the guy who takes advantage of that.”

Erin had to admit it felt good knowing Keira would rip Blake apart the next time she saw him. He had it coming. Pulling a batch of naked cookies toward her, Erin began decorating the sweets while her friend ordered pizza. It was a good night to relax and forget about the world. Just two old friends hanging out and having fun. If only. The tall man kept pushing himself before her mind’s eye. That oddly shaped grey patch, those cold grey eyes, and his thin sickly-looking frame. She shuddered and bit off the head of a gingerbread man. Not particularly paranoid by nature, she was thinking about buying a gun. They made her squeamish but if the man had decided to point the barrel of his weapon in her direction and pull the trigger…well, she would have liked to have had some way of defending herself.

Blake used to rib her about buying one and every time, she stuck to her mantra: Guns kill people and I don’t want one in my house. Blake would laugh and tell her that people kill people, guns were just instruments and it all depended on who was behind the trigger. Erin savagely ripped off both legs from the gingerbread man and stuffed them in her mouth, ignoring Midnight’s begging whines. Let him go. He’s gone and never coming back. Let him go.

“Pizza’ll be here in twenty.” Keira slid onto a barstool opposite Erin and squeezed icing onto a cookie. She noticed the remains of the gingerbread man in her friend’s hand and chuckled. “Couldn’t wait, huh?”

Erin winked. “I was just imagining Blake was this cookie.”

Keira pumped her fist in the air. “You go girl!” She sucked icing from a finger and glanced at Erin. “So I have something to tell you.”

“That’s right!” Jerking suddenly, Erin nearly toppled from her stool. Her eyes widened and she paused mid-chew. “When? How long have you known? Boy or girl?” The questions came rapid-fire.

“Oh no no no.” Holding out a hand in front of her, Keira shook her head. “We are still ways away from that. Sheesh Erin, we’ve only been married for three years. Still enjoying life before it gets stressful and crammed with sports practices, sticky fingers, and tantrums. Uh-uh, not that at all.”

“You nearly gave me a heart-attack, woman.” Erin tapped her chest. “My poor little heart’s pounding like crazy. Don’t wait too long, though. I’m dying to be a godmother. Auntie Erin’s got a nice ring to it.”

Keira waved a hand. “All in good time, no worries. What I wanted to say was that Zach, Russ, and I found a dead body at Manasquan yesterday.”

“What?!” Erin’s eyebrows shot up. “And none of you called to tell me?”

“It was too much of a shock. The cops came and asked us questions but we don’t know what happened. Kinda creepy, huh?”

Erin cleared her throat. Now was as good a time as any. “Well, actually, speaking of creepy, I had my own freaky encounter in the park yesterday as well. Some weirdo grabbed my wrist and asked about Blake.” She shuddered and lowered her voice to a whisper. “He had a gun and he knew my name, Keira.”

“Oh my goodness, Erin! You should have called the cops or something. He sounds like a stalker.”

“Yeah, I know.” Erin shrugged. “It was just so weird. I think I’m gonna get a license and buy a gun.”

Keira frowned. “Please Rin, it was scary but there’s no need to get that drastic. Guns are moody things.”

Blake would have said that people were moody and guns didn’t have emotions. Forget him! Erin shook her head and turned her attention back to the cookie in front of her. “Maybe but if something like this happens again and it goes really wrong, I want to have some way of defending myself.”

“I guess.”

Erin’s phone buzzed and she glanced over at it. Russell’s name and photo flickered onto the screen. “Russ is calling me.”

Keira shrugged. “Must be important. You know Russ, he never calls if he can text.”

Sliding the bar on the screen, Erin opened the call. “Hey Russ. What’s up?….Yeah…uh-huh….Um, hang on, I don’t think I have anything that day so yeah…sure, I’d love to…thanks….yeah, see you soon…bye.” Hanging up, she met Keira’s expectant gaze. “Apparently his uncle is having a fancy business shindig and he needs a date.” She laughed dryly. “Perks of being single; being available to help your guy friends out of a tight spot.”

“That was nice of you to say yes. Personally, I wouldn’t have. He’s using you as a last resort, you do realize that?”

Erin nodded. “I know but have pity on the poor guy. Anyway, it might take my mind off Blake and all that.” She straightened and firmed her shoulders. “Yes, I’ll just get all dressed up and enjoy myself. Should be fun and anyway he doesn’t even want to go. You know he hates how rich he and his family are.”

Keira snorted. “I think he’ll get used to the idea eventually and then it’ll be like we never existed. Just watch.”

Erin wanted to correct her friend but deep down, she had a sinking feeling that Keira was right. One day Russ was going to snap and he’d either give in to his family or walk away completely.

~      ~      ~      ~      ~      ~

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