It is time for a FIRST Wild Card Tour book review! If you wish to join the FIRST blog alliance, just click the button. We are a group of reviewers who tour Christian books. A Wild Card post includes a brief bio of the author and a full chapter from each book toured. The reason it is called a FIRST Wild Card Tour is that you never know if the book will be fiction, non~fiction, for young, or for old…or for somewhere in between! Enjoy your free peek into the book!
You never know when I might play a wild card on you!
and the book:
Realms; 1 edition (May 4, 2010)
***Special thanks to Anna Coelho Silva | Publicity Coordinator, Book Group |
Strang Communications for sending me a review copy.***
By the end of his sixteenth year Conlan Brown had completed his first novel, his first stage play, and his first year of college. Brown now holds a Master’s degree in Communication and lives on Colorado’s Front Range where he is working on his next book. He enjoys video editing, film scores, and developing high octane, thought provoking fiction that turns pages and excites the senses.
Visit the author’s website.
List Price: $13.99
Paperback: 296 pages
Publisher: Realms; 1 edition (May 4, 2010)
AND NOW…THE FIRST CHAPTER:
Screams rang out from the rain-soaked street.
Feeling the horror rise, Hannah fell to her knees in the pounding deluge, hands touching the ragged edges of the craterlike pothole.
The impact of the car splashing into the pothole.
Thunder. Lightning. Rain.
A trunk opening.
Three teens. Terrified, screaming, kicking.
Eyes begging for help.
Hands slapping, punching bloodied mouths.
Frightened girls torn from the car—thrown to the wet street.
Bodies going limp.
Thrown into another car.
Tires shrieking into the stormy night.
One man remaining in the street.
The tattoo—a dragon.
Thunder cracked as the images disappeared with the flash. Lifting her head, she looked around, the thick spring storm churning around her.
Already gone from the world—but the street remembered— and Hannah could still hear them calling out from the past. She was their only hope now—the one person who realized that these girls had been conned and taken. The only person who could follow a trail snaking backward through the past— a trail that had gone cold to the negligent, rain-drenched world.
Hannah Rice looked to her right and saw the liquor store. That was where he had gone—the man with the dragon tattoo.
Just through those doors. Hannah breathed in with resolve and walked toward the lights of the liquor store—
—toward the dragon.
* * * * *
Hannah pushed the soaked hood of her sweatshirt off her head and looked around.
She had never been in a liquor store before. The floor was white like a supermarket—but none of the same sweet, homey smells were here. No bread or fruit. Simply rows of metal racks, stocked with a forest of bottles. The sounds of clinking glass and cooler doors opening and closing filled her ears. An older man in a plaid shirt and a wiry blond beard approached the door, looking her up and down out of the corner of his eye.
For being in a seedy part of New Jersey, the store was big and fairly clean. Hannah looked around, waiting for someone to realize that she was only twenty and have her sent from the premises in handcuffs and a swirl of red and blue lights. The only looks she received were lecherous at best. She pulled her jean jacket close, pressing the metal buttons into place with little pops that seemed to echo through the cavernous room.
“Can I help you find something?” a jockish-looking guy in his midtwenties asked from behind the counter.
She shook her head, embarrassed. “No, thank you.” She moved to the far end of the store, looking down the aisles as she walked.
No one realized she was too young to be here, or else no one cared. She watched the aisles change as she moved along, shifting from colorful bottles of flavored rum with shirtless cabana boys adorning their labels to the dark glass of the wines.
Hannah wasn’t unfamiliar with alcohol. Half the reason she’d left college was because of her roommate’s drunken binges in which she had brought so many of her friends over to party. It reminded Hannah of all the nights she had spent in the dorm lounge, studying subjects she didn’t understand, sleeping on couches she resented being on. It was the next day’s cleanup, inevitably left to Hannah, that had taught her to recognize various forms of alcohol bottles and the hazards of a hungover roommate.
Her grandfather had left her enough money to get whatever degree she wanted, wherever she wanted it, but she had chosen a medium-sized state college to start out. The idea had been simple: get her core classes out of the way, and buy herself some time to figure out what she wanted to be when she grew up. After she gave up on college, she moved to New Jersey to be near the Firstborn and enrolled in an online program. Distance learning at her own pace better suited the lifestyle she had grown to accept: following dark trails through back alleys. The ongoing searches for—
It was always jarring to see her visions in the flesh. She was a Prima—gifted with hindsight, the ability to see the past. And the past tended to have the good sense to stay in the past and fade away to the naked eye and the observing world. But there he stood inthe middle of the aisle—fifteen feet away—comparing labels on vodka bottles. His arms bare, short black hair wet. A blue short-sleeved T-shirt and green cargo pants. The tattoo curled up his arm, its tail resting against the back of his hand, its scaly body coiling around the man’s arm like an anaconda, the dragon’s head poised to strike like a hooded cobra, a forked tongue lashing out from beneath a spray of flame.
The man looked up from the bottles, turning his head— toward her . . .
Hannah dropped back around the corner. A sting of panic nipped at her heart. She waited a moment—her pulse and breath slowing as she pulled herself together. She looked back.
She moved down the aisle to where the man had been and passed, heading to the end of the aisle. She stopped and turned her head, looking for him.
Hannah moved fast, looking down the aisles once again, coming to the end of the rows. She must have lost him somewhere in the—
She saw him at the front of the store, at the cash register, the boy behind the counter stuffing a bottle of vodka into a perfectly sized brown paper sack. The man with the tattoo reached into his pocket, pulled out a thick roll of bills, and slid one from beneath the tight hold of the rubber band that encircled them. The boy hit a button on the cash register, and the man with the tattoo turned, walking toward the door.
“Hey, Dominik,” the boy called after him, “do you want your change?”
Dominik simply waved a dismissive hand and pushed through the front door, back into the rain.
Pushing the glass door open, Hannah followed, plunging into the downpour. Her eyes scanned the cars in front of her parked diagonally to the storefront. A set of lights flashed on toward the far right end of the row—a black luxury sedan—the engine humming, the wipers swishing away a wide swath of pooling water as the man in the driver’s seat lifted his eyes—
His dragon-clad shoulder moved, putting the car into drive. The vehicle slid backward out of its space, through the veil of rain, past the unnatural glow of the liquor store’s neon lights, and then slipped into darkness.
Her one lead.
The one trail.
The only chance to find the girls.
And he was getting away.
For a split second Hannah did none of her own thinking. Her feet took off, rushing into the night, as the car pulled parallel to the street. The brake lights lit up. The backup lights dimmed. The car began to drive away.
Her first thought was to chase after, screaming, shouting, demanding he stop. Her next thought was to memorize his license plate number. Hannah’s eyes squinted into the darkness, but the lights surrounding the license plate were all burnt out. Nothing to see but darkness.
The red taillights, glowing like the eyes of the dragon on Dominik’s arm, glared at her through the onslaught of falling droplets. Turning the corner, leaving her in the street—alone.
“Lord,” she stammered to herself. She could feel her panic rise at not knowing what to do. But now was not the time to focus on problems or obstacles. Now was not the time to feel or do. Now was the time to clear her mind. To be. To be what she had been called to—
Hannah turned her attention to the end of the block, where she had parked her car. That was where she needed to get. To think past the problem and to move effortlessly with the solution.
Wet and cold, she thrust her hand into her pocket, reaching for her car keys. Suddenly she was at the car door, her hand holding the key, the key in the door. The old door to the station wagon groaned as she pulled it open and climbed in. She turned the key, and the engine sputtered.
“Not now,” she whimpered, pushing down on the pedal, feeding the engine gas. A moment of whirring, then—
The engine went dead. She’d flooded it. The old jalopy did it all the time, but this was the worst possible—
Hannah stopped. Gathered herself. She had to get past the moment. She had to find her strength—a strength that could only come from God.
She took a long, deliberate draw of air, letting it fill her lungs in a cool cloud that expanded inside her chest. Somewhere in the distant reaches of her mind she felt her body act, working with the world around her—neither rushed nor distracted—to bring the car to life.
She turned the key again. The engine growling, she fed it gas.
Hannah’s foot came down in a steady push, feeding the car, and she took off into the night—
—chasing after him.
Her car sped to the end of the block—a stop sign ahead.
Her attention snapped to the right—the direction Dominik had gone.
Hannah rolled into the street, peering through the rain—and then she felt where he had been. She was on the trail again.
* * * * *
The wipers sloshed, thumping beads of water away from the glass.
Dominik yawned. It was getting late, and he was getting tired of work. He’d stayed sober as long as the new girls were at the storage house, but now that they were being moved, he was ready to drink again.
He eyed the jostling bottle of vodka in the passenger seat, ready for the familiar burn of alcohol in his chest. Dominik missed Russian vodka—the stuff that had been cheaper than water during the cold war. He was hardly a connoisseur, but he knew that American vodka tasted different to him. He was told that good vodka had neither taste nor smell. But who cared? Just so long as it kept him warm—a lesson he had learned in prison twenty years ago.
He thought about the girls and how much money they would bring. Altogether, maybe three thousand dollars in Ukraine. Here? More. But it wasn’t enough. Dominik wanted a line of cocaine—the stuff he’d gotten used to as a teenager when the iron curtain fell. But for now, vodka would have to do.
Dominik reached out, steering with his forearm. He held the neck of the bottle in one hand and twisted the cap with the other.
He took a slug. The same amount would have sent most Americans into a hacking fit. Dominik didn’t flinch as the stinging liquid seared his throat, filling him with a glowing sense of well-being. He felt good. Safe. But not overly safe. He looked in the rearview mirror, double-checking for cops.
A single set of lights behind him, moving in quickly. Much too quickly. He screwed the cap back on the bottle, stuffing it in the armrest.
Thoughts of a cop watching him throw back a mouthful of hard liquor as he passed by filled Dominik’s head. Was he being followed?
There was an alley ahead. He signaled left. The car behind him signaled a left-hand turn as well. Dominik cranked the wheel hard right, and a spray of filthy water splashed up against the windows of his car as he hit the accelerator and raced down an alleyway. His eyes shot upward, toward the rearview mirror. The car behind him screeched past the turn, then slammed its brakes, laying rubber and a wake of erupting rainwater. The car pulled into reverse, pulling perpendicular to the alley for a moment, its silhouette fully revealed.
A beige station wagon?
The following car’s front end nosed toward the alley. The headlights, which had been shrinking with distance, stabilized in size, then began to grow.
Dominik didn’t signal; he simply grabbed the wheel and yanked to the left. Water crashed against the passenger window as the car fishtailed, his foot pressing hard into the gas—jetting down a dark street.
He nearly spun in his seat to look back. This was insane. His heart was racing. His face red and sweaty. Who was this person following him? In a station wagon? Not the police. Someone trying to steal their latest shipment? It simply didn’t make sense. But whoever they were, they weren’t trained in following people with subtlety. And in the rain, he’d lost them for sure.
Dominik took another turn, just to be safe. Then another.
He took a deep breath and relaxed, pulling onto a familiar street. Whoever they were, he’d lost them.
His eyes lifted again, just out of paranoia, certain he wouldn’t see anything except . . .
A beige station wagon?
This had to be dealt with.
* * * * *
Hannah watched Dominik’s car through the swishing of wiper blades as his sedan took a slow, ambling turn to the right, pulling into another alleyway. She followed him into the darkness of the alley. The front end of her car slammed down hard then rebounded from the chasm-like pothole her front tire had dropped into.
She couldn’t see a thing in this darkness except the red taillights up ahead and—
Dominik’s car stopped suddenly fifty yards ahead. The driver’s side door flew open, and a burly figure dashed away from the car—the door hanging open. Hannah stopped her car, leaving the distance unfilled.
What was he doing? She sat in her car. Waiting.
It was like the stories of road rage she heard, where one driver would get out to confront another—only to have someone get shot in the middle of the street.
Hannah peered into the darkness, gripping her steering wheel. She closed her eyes, trying to reach out—
There was nothing to feel. Not here anyway.
She bit her lip, considered for a moment, then turned off her car, taking her keys. She wanted her keys—that was certain.
Fear would have been the natural response, but envy filled her mind. Envy for the Domani and the Ora, people like Devin Bathurst and John Temple, who could see the present and the future. Others had told her not to envy the other orders and their gifts, that she had been given exactly what she was meant to have and that she had to make the best of it. But she missed the proactive way that John and Devin could use to approach the uncertainty of the world. The Prima were a stabilizing force—a means of keeping everyone grounded and remembering the truths that proactive working so often forgot. But none of that changed the fact that she was in the moment now, groping in the blind spots of her gift.
Hannah opened the car door and stepped into the rain, looking around. He wasn’t anywhere to be seen. Hannah walked toward the car ahead, the interior lights illuminating the leather interior.
She stopped, listening for any sound she could hear—only the thumping rain. Another set of steps closer. She stared into the vacant interior, looking for a person who simply wasn’t there, and her eyes wandered to the center partition, hanging slightly ajar. It had been where he’d stored his—
A thick, heavy bottle, pulled from its cubby.
Gripped by the neck like a club.
Dominik, slipping into the darkness, waiting for his moment to . . .
Hannah spun as Dominik ejected himself from his hiding place in the dark, bottle in hand, raised over his head.
She thought fast, throwing herself into the car’s open door. The bottle came down on the roof of the car and blasted apart in a shower of shards and cascading liquor. She threw herself at the passenger’s door, scrambling for the handle. She looked back.
He was behind her, hurling his body through the same open door she had come through, grasping the steering wheel with his left hand for support, clutching the razor-sharp remains of a pungent vodka bottle in his right.
The survival instinct kicked in; the self-defense classes triggered her response.
She lashed out with her leg like a battering ram, her heel smashing into Dominik’s clavicle, just below the throat. He made a pinched hacking sound as his body hurled to the side, slamming into the dashboard. A hiking boot would have been ideal, but a kick of any kind could be fatal, even in her tennis shoes, if she meant it, held nothing back, and lashed out with the vicious intention to cause serious trauma.
She kicked again and again—his head snapped back like a melon as her foot connected with his face. Her hands searched frantically for the door handle she’d lost track of in the furious exchange—fingertips catching on the outline, hand grasping. Dominik was recovering. Covering his face with his left hand, he reached out with the razorlike bottle with the other, like a shield.
Hannah flung her body into the door as she pulled the handle. She felt her body tumble to the hard, wet pavement beyond. She looked back in time to see Dominik coming down at her, bottle in hand. She kicked his descending arm away, and the bottle exploded against the ground. Dominik reached for her body, trying to hold her down. She felt the car keys, still in her hand, clutched them like a dagger, and came down hard on Dominik’s arm. He winced, recoiling. She lashed out for his face, searching for his neck.
He threw himself back against the car, evading Hannah’s swinging attack, then stood.
Hannah pushed herself away, trying to keep her distance.
And then he ran.
* * * * *
Dominik rushed toward the end of the alley, water spattering against his face and arms.
Who was this woman? This girl? She’d followed him. Knew where he was going and what he was doing. She had to know about his business. She wasn’t FBI. Police? Maybe.
No. That wasn’t likely. She was too young for either. She was obviously trained in following people—but not with subtlety. Her mistakes were too glaring—too inexperienced.
Surveillance for someone else was his only thought. Someone who wanted to rip off their shipment. It happened all the time with drug trafficking. Why not in this business too?
Dominik made a sharp right, ducking into a trashy, overgrown backyard, shoving past a metal trash can. He had to fix this or it was going to cost him his head.
* * * * *
Hannah tore after Dominik.
Her one lead. Her only chance of finding these girls. She couldn’t let him get away.
She turned the corner fast, running through someone’s backyard, chasing after as fast as she could, Dominik’s form merely a dark blotch against the impossible conditions of night and drizzle.
He was ahead, crossing another yard, leaping a short chain-link fence. Hannah pushed herself, gaining slightly. She approached the fence, hands stinging as the cold, rain-soaked metal ripped at her bare hands. She hurtled the fence and continued her pursuit.
Dominik rushed across the street, dodging between parked cars, knocking over a boxy plastic trash can, sending garbage spilling. Hannah dodged to the left, losing time from the circuitous route, but it was less than she would have lost from fighting the obstacle she’d been presented with.
Her feet splashed through puddles as she forced herself forward, chasing as fast as she could. From yard to yard, across another street, low-hanging branches snapping at her face. A tall wooden fence, knotted and old. Dominik clambered over the fence. Hannah followed, charging toward the obstacle, hands digging in as she made her way to the top—throwing her body over the other side. Her feet connected with something she didn’t expect—a trash can—and she lost her balance, hitting the grassy lawn with a painful lurch.
She looked up. Dominik was already making his way over the far fence at the other end of the yard. Hannah leapt to her feet. The back door to the home opened, and a young boy—maybe ten—watched her rush at the fence.
“Mom! There’s someone in the backyard!”
Hannah ignored the boy, throwing herself at the next fence, pulling herself into place with her arms, tossing a leg over the fence, hitting the ground with a splash on the other side. She pushed herself up from the muddy puddle, covered in dirt, and gave chase once more as Dominik turned a corner. She came to the gate in the fence. Locked. Hannah slammed her shoulder into the gate, sending it flying open, propelling her into the front yard.
Rain covered her face, and she wiped the thick drops from her eyes. Her head turned hurriedly, side to side. He was nowhere to be seen.
What had happened? How had she lost him? He must have taken a different turn.
She walked into the street, looking around in all directions.
This couldn’t be happening. She couldn’t let this happen. The girls were too young— thirteen at most. She couldn’t let this happen to them. She couldn’t let them disappear into the night.
Hannah pushed her hands through her soaked hair, trying to think. She needed to know where he had gone.
A set of headlights rolled toward her, a sharp honk on the horn, and she stepped out of the car’s way, the vehicle rolling lazily past.
The world was going on as usual. She was failing her charge, and the world didn’t even know enough to care.
She needed to pick up the trail again. She needed to see the past. A vision of where he had gone. She needed a magic wand to wave, to bring her the sight she needed.
But it didn’t work like that.
Hannah looked up at the rainy sky. “God?” she beseeched. “I can’t do this. I can’t find them. I need You and Your sovereign power and…”
No. She scolded herself. It’s like people to go to God, thinking they had something to say—yammering to an almighty God who formed the world from the palm of His hand. How like her to think that florid prayers somehow pleased God.
No, it was not her place to talk. It was her place as a creation of God to do something else . . .
“Listen,” she whispered to herself.
She closed her eyes and listened to the rain, her thoughts filled with her calling and mission.
No. She scolded herself again. Listening wasn’t done only with the ears but also with the mind and the heart.
She cleared her mind. Focused on her breathing. Focused on God.
The rain thundered in her ears, every droplet exploding against every surface of metal, asphalt, and grass. Each sound blurred into the other in a cacophony of white noise.
Listen, she said to herself in her mind.
The drops faded toward the background, only a thumping rhythm of a select few drops tapping out an erratic beat. Bit by bit the rhythm thinned, only a few proud beats pounding out a pedantic march.
Listen, she said to herself again, her body relaxing.
A single droplet of rain made a tiny plinking impact.
Then silence. The world without time. Where she wasn’t hurried or forced into action.
Listen, she thought again. And then she heard.
Dominik’s shoes thudding against the path . . .
Leading away . . .
His ragged breath wheezing—
Removing him from the scene.
The cries of the girls reverberating in his mind—
Remembering the thud of blows.
The ringing slaps to tender faces—
The sobs pounding into his brain.
The house that he had been working from.
Creaking from the strain.
The place he was returning to.
Thunder rocked the air as Hannah’s eyes opened, lifting to the house in front of her. A sigh of anguish escaped her lips.
* * * * *
Hannah quietly grasped the doorknob and felt the door swing lazily inward, left ajar by someone before her. Stepping into the house as quietly as possible, she paused. If he was in the house still, she didn’t want him to know. Not yet. There would be a moment soon, when she had something to report, that she would need to call the police to finish this. But visions of the past weren’t evidence enough. She needed to find the girls. To know for certain they were here before she did something that might spook Dominik.
She moved into the living room. Shoddy furniture bulleted with holes. An ashtray on the coffee table filled to the brim with dark ash and cigarette butts. The whole place reeked of stale smoke. Magazines littered the remaining surface of the coffee table—like a doctor’s waiting room.
Men, sitting in the living room—each waiting their turn.
A quick thump reverberated through her chest. These had been different girls, before the ones Hannah was looking for. Older—Russian? It wasn’t any easier to consider.
Her stomach churned, and she stepped into the next room— the kitchen. No signs of cooking or supplies. No one lived here. At least no one ate here.
Hannah looked at the table—a sprawling forest of vials, needles, alcohol, and soda bottles. She picked up a container of medicine, reading the label.
Flunitrazepam. Whatever that was.
There was a smacking sound, and Hannah turned. The back door hung open, the screen door slapping loudly in the rainy wind.
Dominik exiting out the back.
She thought about following him—but this was what she was looking for. This was where they’d brought the girls—she could feel it. If she was going to find the girls, she was going to have to do it here.
There was a set of stairs near the hallway, leading up. It felt right, like this was the way they had taken the girls.
The girls, Hannah thought. She didn’t even know their names. But that wasn’t how this worked. She wasn’t called out of personal obligation. She was called to help them because it was her purpose.
Hannah reached the top of the stairs, looking around. There was a set of three bedrooms lining the hallway. She stepped toward one with the door ajar. The door pushed aside easily, revealing a virtually empty room.
An old mattress lay in the middle of the room, filthy blankets thrown across it in twisting heaps.
And suddenly Hannah saw the horrible truth of what had been happening here.
* * * * *
Dominik kicked open the door to the shed, scowling into the darkness as the spring rain shower assaulted the tin roof in a reverberating frenzy. He shoved the lawn mower to the side, ripping a canvas tarp away from a stack of tools. The cold canvas twisted with a kind of whiplash as its soggy corners tried to double over onto the shell of hard cloth that had molded itself to the stack of tools.
A toolbox scattered with a rough toss, and it hit the floor somewhere to the right with a raucous clatter. He kicked a bag of screws out of the way, and the contents went spilling in a deluge of tinkling barbs.
Dominik grabbed the gas can by the handle and gave it a forceful jiggle. Half a can’s worth of gasoline sloshed inside the container, undulating on a swishing axis that caused the whole can to swing in a wide arc.
It was enough to do the job. To get rid of as much evidence as he could before whoever that girl was could find her way back here. Dominik hated the place anyway, all the time he’d spent there minding the shop while the others stayed in the big house across town. He wouldn’t miss it.
It would be obvious that it was arson. The investigators might even find some of the things they had been hiding, but with luck they’d be out of the state by the time anything was found—and the merchandise would be out of the country by then. And it wouldn’t be traced back to them. They’d made sure the lease wasn’t in any of their names.
Dominik reached into his pocket, found the metal object, removed it from his pocket, and flicked the cap open. His thumb spun on the back of the lighter, checking to see if there was enough fuel.
A tiny flame leapt upward, then was dashed out by the snapping of the cap back over it. He walked back toward the house in the rain.
* * * * *
Hannah backed away from the bedroom door, stumbled into the wall, and slid to the floor. Her body shook as she ran her hands over her head, trying to blot it all out of her head. So many girls had been brought through here. So much pain. And suffering. And hopelessness. So many monsters lurking in the shadows.
The walls remembered what had happened here—and they were closing in.
“O God,” she stammered in agonized prayer, mind freewheeling with the torment of it all.
And she felt something else: another calling—
She looked up at the ceiling and saw the wide hatch leading to the attic. A padlock dangled open at the end of a swinging latch that had been left undone.
She reached upward, and the trapdoor snapped downward as she grabbed at the string, tugging, the ladder sliding downward with a gentle pull. Hannah stepped onto the bottom rung and moved upward, compelled by purpose but delayed by dread.
She lifted her head into the attic. The floor was covered in brown carpet; drenched in dust that made her cough. Hannah lifted herself into the darkness. Tiny fingers of light glowed through the slits between the boards covering the one tiny window at the far end. The hatch below her swung gently upward, pulled back into position by creaking springs.
Her hands groped for a moment as she stood, hunched in the low space. A dangling string brushed her fingertips, and she tugged. The lightbulb snapped on from an overhead fixture, and she looked around.
She thought she might never start breathing again.
Both sides of the attic were lined with bunk beds, chicken wire surrounding them in tightly fastened grids that filled in the gaps between small metal struts. Hinged doors with padlocks locked every set of beds, making each its own tiny prison.
Lurid underwear hung from hooks and littered the floor. Dirty clothes were piled in the corner.
Hannah walked to one of the beds, its door hanging open, and looked in. Sitting on yellowed sheets was a ratty stuffed bear with one eye missing. She picked up the bear and looked it over as a hot tear ran down Hannah’s face as she saw the face of the girl who had clung to this bear—
Maybe fourteen years old.
The bear fell from her hands and hit the floor.
Whoever these people were—she would stop them.
Wherever the girls were that they had taken—she would find them.
Then she heard something.
* * * * *
Petroleum-scented splashes of gasoline washed across the walls and tables as Dominik slung the can in all directions. He set the can down for a moment and rummaged under the sink for a trash bag. Quickly he swept the drugs off the table into the plastic and pulled the tethers shut with a swift yank. He set the bag near the door, stuffed his cell phone between his shoulder and ear, and reached for the gas can again.
“Hello?” a female voice said in Dominik’s native language.
“Do you know who she is?” Dominik replied in the same language as he soaked the curtains in gasoline.
“The girl that followed me. She knew where I was and where I was going.”
“What are you talking about?”
Dominik sloshed more gasoline onto the living room carpet, sending a splash across the back of a ratty recliner. “Some girl—midtwenties maybe. She found me in the liquor store. She followed me. Chased me back to the house.”
“You ran away from a girl?”
“Shut up, Misha.” He grunted. “She came out of nowhere. She knew where I was and where I was going. She must have been watching us for days.” He moved up the stairs, spilling a trail of gas.
“What are you going to do about it?”
Dominik let the last drops trickle from the can, dousing a pile of sheets in the bedroom, then tossed the can into the corner. “I’m closing down the storefront.”
“Use the gas can in the shed. Burn it down.”
“I’ve already started.”
“Good. Get going, and get out of there.” There was a click, and the line went dead.
Dominik felt the lighter in his pocket as he moved toward the stairs, then stopped. A creaking in the ceiling from the attic above. He looked at the trapdoor in the ceiling, slightly ajar. Another creak and the distinct sound of footsteps overhead.
He eyed the padlock dangling from the hatch—an overt violation of fire code if he wasn’t mistaken—but the reasons for that seemed more useful than ever.
* * * * *
Hannah took another step back.
Someone was in the house.
They were down there, but there was no way to know for certain if they’d heard her. She wanted to get away from the hatch—away from the center of the noise she’d heard. There had been the sound of someone talking. It wasn’t English. Russian maybe.
She herself had been kidnapped just over a year before. Nothing as hideous as this—but it had still left its mark on her—a lingering fear, almost a dread, hung over her like a cloud. She’d chosen to face it head-on, to walk straight into the blackness alone. Now she feared it would engulf her.
There was a clattering sound near the far wall and a funny smell.
She took another step back.
Footsteps moved toward the hatch—then stopped just below. What were they doing down there?
Hannah turned, looking at the boarded window. Was it a way out? Maybe she could tear the boards away. The hinges on the hatch squeaked with a minute adjustment.
Were they coming up here? To grab her? To kill her?
Hannah forced herself to stop it. To let go of the questions. To silence her mind. Her life really could be in danger, but this time she could choose to do something. To take control. She was not tied up or caged, and she would not let fear paralyze her. She could act.
Then she heard it.
She thought of the window. A moment of quiet, then footfalls moving down the stairs. They were leaving.
Hannah moved to the hatch, putting a hand on the thick wood. It didn’t budge. She shoved. It wouldn’t move. She stomped.
She was trapped.
* * * * *
Dominik heard a loud thump strike the attic entrance. They’d figured out that it was locked. There was another thump. They’d specifically reinforced the hatch to keep the girls from knocking it open if they ever had the guts to try. The padlock would hold, and the thick bolts would stay in place.
He kicked the back door open and stood in the threshold.
The lighter came open with a snap.
His thumb rolled across the wheel, and a thin blade of flame conjured itself up from the metal casing. He shielded the tiny flame for a moment, then tossed it into a puddle of gasoline.
There was a split second where nothing happened—Dominik froze, worried that the puddle had drowned the fire. Then it spread in a violent blossom, devouring the surrounding air with an audible howl. The house caught ablaze in a matter of seconds, fire consuming up the stairs.
Dominik pulled on a jacket he’d taken from one of the closets and zipped it as he walked away.
* * * * *
Hannah knew something wasn’t right.
She couldn’t have explained how, but something had changed. The smell—the pungent aroma that had been rising from below— suddenly seemed to vanish, replaced by something else.
Then she recognized the smell that had been. And her eyes went wide as she realized what the new smell was that had replaced it.
Greenish smoke slithered up from the cracks around the attic hatch. The smell was foreign—not like campfire smoke with its earthen richness, but the putrid scent of melting plastic and burning synthetics.
Then the floor started to get warm.
Fire travels up, she thought. Heat rises. Smoke rises. There was nowhere further up to go. She was at the tip of the spear.
She turned to the window, tugging at the boards that covered it—the rain smacking down just beyond.
The amount of smoke doubled in seconds, filling the attic with an acrid cloud. No fire yet. Just smoke. Her eyes stung, pinpricks stabbing at her tear ducts. Hot tears slid involuntarily down her warming face. It was all happening so fast. It reminded her of the fire safety videos she’d seen in elementary school, depicting how a cigarette in a trash can could send a house into an unrecoverable blaze in less than two minutes.
Arson could work so much faster.
She hacked and coughed, fingers digging into the boards, pulling at the wood. She lifted her foot, giving a solid kick that split the boards, crushing the glass beyond. Hannah grabbed the loose pieces and pulled them free, revealing the window.
Street light poured in through the rapidly thickening smoke. Rain tapped at the spiderwebbed glass. The whole window was little more than a slit. Less than six inches. She would never fit. It had been boarded up purely to keep light out.
Her lungs seized, fighting to keep out the dark haze. Her body convulsed with a violent cough. Heat permeated her.
Hannah coughed once more, then lifted her leg, jamming her heel into the tiny window, sending beads of glass splashing outward. It wasn’t big enough for her to get out, but it was big enough to let a little air in.
She shoved her face to the opening and pulled in a lungful of the chilled air beyond. Then she pulled the jacket off her back and put it to her mouth. She crouched down, moved back into the prisonlike room, and searched for the trapdoor. Found it. Her hands worked at the latch, pulled. Nothing. There had to be some way to get out.
The blurring of her vision worsened, tears and smoke clawing at her eyes.
She coughed. Her body felt heavy and unwieldy. She tried to adjust her body with her right arm, but all the strength seemed to be slipping out of her. Fighting hurt so much. Moving sapped her energy. The searing floor suddenly seemed welcoming. Her body started to relax, curling into a ball. The unrelenting stinging in her eyes suddenly seemed unbearable.
Her eyelids shut.
The attic suddenly seemed far away. Her mind slipped into silence. The kind of silence she could try so hard to cultivate in times of trouble now seemed so easy. Everything that seemed to worry faded, and rather than doing she was simply . . .
* * * * *
She could feel the past again.
Before it had been such a horrible place. When others had lived here. When family pictures and Christmas ornaments had been stored here in cardboard boxes. And then the old occupants moved out and others moved in—the ones who had perverted this place to be something else. Rolling carpet over the plywood, not bothering to nail it to the rafters.
Hannah’s eyes snapped open, and she stumbled toward the window for a life-saving breath of cool air. Then she dropped to the floor and grasped at the carpet, pulling the shaggy covering loose. She reached for the floor, pulling at the boards, only to realize that she was standing on the edge.
Hannah moved and gave another pull—the heat was overwhelming. The plywood pulled away, clattering to the side as she tossed it.
Rafters—a few feet apart—partitioned themselves between sections of pink insulation. It looked like cotton candy, she thought.
Her hesitation lasted only a second, and then she jumped, feet first toward insulation.
The world seemed to freeze.
Then her body crashed through the billowy pink insulation, smashing through the thin layer of sheet rock, and she felt herself hurtling through the gray smoke toward the carpet one floor below.
She landed with a thud, losing her balance as her body slammed into the wall.
The heat enveloped her, blasting at her like a furnace, smoke stabbing at her eyes. Hannah looked up and saw the window at the far end of the hall. She pulled her jacket tight against her face and rushed forward, trying to stay low. Moments later she was at the window, the glass fogged over with a greasy black smear from the heat and smoke. Then she saw the gas can, tossed at the floor below it, fire clinging to the outside wall where gas dribbled down.
A kick could break the glass—but glass shards would slice her leg to unrecognizable ribbons if she tried. She took a smoky breath and reached for the can with her jacket, grabbing the handle. Her body swung, then released the metal container.
The smoke-fogged glass exploded outward and skittered across the sloping roof that covered the back porch.
She threw herself through the window—arms and legs catching on the fragile teeth of glass that remained, her body landing on glass shards that pricked her skin. She rolled uncontrollably down the roof, then slammed into the soggy grass below.
Hannah looked up at the blazing house—bleeding, burned, and weak.
Her eyes fluttered shut, only to open again after several minutes, and she found herself on the other end of the yard, farther from the flames. She was looking up at a man with long dark hair, in a black coat. Rain rolled off him as he said something to her. His lips moved, but she didn’t hear anything.
And then the world faded to black.
In Book 2 of the Firstborn Series, the three distinct orders of the Firstborn have formed a tenuous agreement to overlook their differences and work together. The Prima, who see the past, the Ora, who see the present, and the Domani, who see the future, have appointed John Temple as the new overseer of their united group. When Hannah Rice and Devin Bathurst begin to receive visions that indicate separate but possibly related calls to intervene in a human trafficking ring and to prevent a political assassination, a mysterious man tries to stop them. Against his warnings, and orders from the Firstborn, Hannah and Devin are joined by John Temple and Trista Brightling in a dangerous race against time.
As mysterious and exciting as The Firstborn, The Overseer delves into subjects we would rather not consider, particularly the growing scourge of human trafficking. For such a young man, Conlan Brown has a maturity and grasp on spiritual and political matters to rival many who are generations older. I look forward to seeing where the future takes him and his writing.