When they came for him it was time to run. When they came for his brother it was time to fight.
Chuck Samson needs to heal. A former Navy chaplain who served with a Marine unit in Afghanistan, he’s come home to take care of his adult, autistic brother, Stan. But the trauma of Chuck’s capture and torture threatens to overtake him. Only the fifth graders he teaches give him reason to hope for the future.
But when an unseen enemy takes aim at Chuck, he finds himself running for his life. And from the cops, who now think he might be a murderer. A secret buried deep in Chuck’s damaged soul may be the one thing that could save him. But can he unearth it?
Now, needing to protect his only brother from becoming collateral damage, Chuck Samson must face down the dark fears embedded in his mind and find a way to save them both . . . or die trying . . .
From the master of “heart-whamming” fiction (Publishers Weekly) comes a stand-alone novel of gripping suspense and ultimate loyalty.
And here, for your reading pleasure, is our free excerpt:
Chuck shot his arm across Stan’s chest one second before impact.
Then came the sound of crushing and the jolt of a hard stop. Adrenaline laced Chuck Samson’s nerves. And anger. Because it was the Escalade’s fault, jamming on its brakes that way. Like the guy wanted to be rear ended.
“Oh God Oh God Oh God!” Stan’s voice, high and scared.
“It’s all right, Stan.” Chuck kept his arm against his younger brother’s wiry body. Feeling it tighten, no body fat, he’d always been this way, as a kid, as an adult. Stringy and ADD.
Stan writhed under Chuck’s arm. “What happened? What!”
“Little accident is all,” Chuck said. “You okay?”
“I’m all tingly!”
“Just take it easy now. Deep breaths. Can you do that for me, Stan? Deep. That’s it. I’ve got to talk to the guy.”
“Don’t leave me!” It was what Stan used to say when he was scared as a kid. Chuck showing up whenever Stan got pushed or teased, putting a beatdown on the bullies. Or getting there afterward to wipe the tears off Stan’s face and tell him he could be stronger, and Stan hugging his big brother and always saying Don’t leave me! Stan hadn’t said it in years. He was thirty now, and just starting to look it. But shouting the phrase made him seem ten again.
He knew he had his work cut out for him, keep his brother calm while he dealt with this crazy driver. “I’ll be right outside the––”
Chuck turned and recognized the face outside the window. Same guy. The one in front of his neighbor’s house just five minutes earlier. The Escalade had seemed out place at Lucy Bowers’ curb. She was single, new to the neighborhood. Driving by, Chuck had looked at the guy. The guy’s face wasn’t exactly friendly. Chuck nodded and drove on. What else could he do? He wasn’t the sheriff of the neighborhood. People could park where they wanted.
But here the guy was again. Longish brown hair, unkempt but with a part down the middle. Beard stubble. Large, flat nose. Looked close to Chuck’s age, thirty-four.
“You all right?” The guy’s muffled voice, through the window, carried a slight accent of some kind. Russian?
Chuck said, “I think so.” Suspicion gnawed him. Rear end insurance scams were common in Southern Cal. He wanted to give people the benefit of the doubt, but he knew too much about human nature.
Perfect setting for that scam, too. It was early morning and they were on a stretch of road on the other side of a new home development. One block north of Sherman Way, just before it turns into Platt.
And it didn’t help that the adrenaline was bubbling up the PTSD soup that was sitting on the back burner of his brain. He’d just started to get more control over it, but something like this could set it off, spill it. Chuck took a deep breath.
“Insurance?” the guy said.
There it was. In a rear ender, boys and girls, the guy in back always loses. In all his years of driving, Chuck had three speeding tickets but never an accident. That this one could have been so easily avoided rankled him.
They guy opened Chuck’s door. It groaned like a bored, metallic lion.
Chuck swiveled, put his feet on the street. His legs shook like he was in a ten-below wind. He felt duly embarrassed. He considered himself in good shape. Kept up his running, even a little of the kick boxing he’d learned in the Marine martial arts program. Not the usual training for a chaplain in Afghanistan, but it did teach a certain discipline. Which Chuck held onto now as he steadied himself.
Just stay calm and talk it through, the way Royce always told him to do it.
“Easy there, my friend,” the guy said with a little scratch in his voice. Chuck decided Mad Russian would be a good name for him, the way he drove. And he thought he caught a whiff of whiskey breath. At this hour? Mad indeed.
He was about Chuck’s height, a couple inches over six feet. Looked strong across the chest. A bar fight kind of guy. In high school Chuck had plenty of fights under the influence, and felt the familiar quiver of aggression shoot down to his fists. He told the quiver to shut it down, stay calm.
You were a man of God once, remember? A MOG . . .
“You okay?” Chuck said.
Mad Russian didn’t say anything. Just stood there. Was that a smirk on his face? What was up with that?
“So what happened?” Chuck said, keeping his voice steady. No need to get aggressive. Give the guy a chance.
“You look at me when you drive by,” Mad Russian said.
“You drive by, back there, looking at me.”
“That? No, I wasn’t looking at you. I was just—”
All right, simple misunderstanding. Chuck had learned to defuse emotional bombs. That had been a part of his work, his calling, after all. He said, “No, what happened is I’m driving to work, okay? So if—”
“Who is that?” Mad Russian nodded toward Stan, still in the passenger seat of Chuck’s Sentra. Stan was sitting with his arms crossed in front of his chest, rocking back and forth. Keep things calm, Chuck told himself, so Stan doesn’t freak.
“Look,” Chuck said, “let’s just––”
“I ask you question,” Mad Russian said.
Okay, the guy did not want to be reasonable. Clean this up later. All business now. “Let’s exchange information and I’m sure we—”
“You look at me and you study me.”
“You look like tough guy. You tough guy?”
“Listen, I told you, I didn’t—”
A hand of iron shot up and clamped Chuck’s throat. Mad Russian thrust his face within a hair of Chuck’s and said, “You tell me why you look at me.”
Chuck couldn’t tell him anything, not with his air choked off. He looked into crazy, blue-ice eyes, rimmed red. Not with the buzzing of his brain now, kicking into survival mode, and the heat of it in his chest, that old and bad feeling when they’d cut his throat. It was back, all of it, in a fireball under his ribs.
Mad Russian tightened the neck vice.
Chuck heard Stan screaming inside the car.
Stay there Stan. Chuck tried to will the thought to his brother.
Chuck shot a fist at the guy’s arm. No movement.
Blood pumping behind Chuck’s eyes.
Stan screamed louder.
Chuck’s mind shot to military mode. Thrusting up with his hands, he caught the guy flush under the chin with the heels of his palms. Mad Russian’s head snapped back and he let go.
Chuck sucked for air, making a sound like a shovel scraping cement. His head was light and he thought for a second he’d pass out.
Stan was out of the car, racing around toward him.
Mad Russian was a couple of steps back. He just looked at the brothers, head cocked to one side.
Then he removed something from his pocket, as smoothly as a pool hustler pulls out a ten spot. With a flick of his wrist a blade flashed in the morning sun.
The half moon scar on Chuck’s throat heated up. He knew what knives that size could do.
Chuck pushed his brother toward the sidewalk. “Run!”
Stan stumbled, kept his feet, but did not run.
Chuck stepped in front of his brother, ready for an attack, as much as you could be for a guy with a knife when you had nothing in your hands. But he did not think, he did not analyze, there was no time, it was a flash of knowing that he would never let Stan get hurt. He would take the cut if he had to, he would kill this guy if he had to, and he felt the blood rush to his face. And he knew then, too, in that blink of time, that he needed Stan as much as Stan needed him. That the brother-blood tie was what was keeping him from sinking further down into the shadows.
And the Mad Russian just stood there. Smiling.
For a long moment no one moved.
Then a blue sedan came around the corner, off Platt, toward them.
Mad Russian watched it, holding the knife low against his thigh.
The blue sedan pulled to a stop.
As the driver’s window came down Mad Russian flicked his wrist again. The knife blade disappeared into the handle. He slid the knife back in his pocket as if he’d just exchanged business cards with somebody.
Still smiling, he pointed his finger at Chuck, and then at Stan. Then he calmly walked to his Escalade, got in and drove off.
No license plate, Chuck noted.
“What was that?” the sedan driver yelled. “Was that a knife?”
Stan gripped Chuck’s arm. “He had a knife, Chuck. Did you see the knife?”
“I’ll call 911,” the driver said. He was maybe fifty, short gray hair and glasses.
“Yeah, yeah,” Chuck said. He looked to his brother. Stan was trembling. Chuck gently gripped Stan’s shoulders. “It’s okay now, bud.”
“Why did he have a knife, Chuck?”
“I don’t know. But he’s gone.”
“I have to go to work. The new specials are out!”
“We’ll get you there. Don’t worry. Don’t––”
Chuck’s phone vibrated. He fished it from his pocket. A private number.
A male voice, whispery, said, “Don’t say a word.”
“You do and you’re dead.”
“She would not like that.”
“She would not like it. She can see past the grave.”
A cold, blue fire tore across his chest. Julia. He was talking about Julia.
The connection went dead.
“Chuck, I can’t be late,” Stan said. “I’m on door!”
“What? Oh yeah, sure.” Chuck blinked a couple of times, like he was coming out of a dream. No, it couldn’t have been Julia the guy meant, but it couldn’t be anybody else––
The guy in the sedan was out of his car now, punching his phone. “Hey, what’s your name?”
“What?” Chuck said.
“Name. Your name. I’ll call.”
“Chuck Samson. I work at the Raymond Hunt Academy, Calabasas.”
She would not like it. She can see past the grave.
Who made that call? Not the guy in the Escalade. He couldn’t have had Chuck’s number.
Or could he?
. . . past the grave.
“Chuck!” Stan’s face was etched with worry. Over-worry, as usual. Chuck’s first reaction, ever since he could remember, was to calm Stan down. Stan shivered when things got tense. It started when they were kids, when their dad refused to accept Stan’s autism and took out his own frustrations on both their skins.
“It’s all right,” Chuck said, touching Stan’s arm. “Let’s go.”
Stan ran around and got in the Sentra. When Chuck got in, his door wouldn’t fully close.
Great way to start the week. Rear ender. Guy with a knife. Guy choking you. Try that with your morning coffee, friends. Now your car needs body work. Your brother is freaking about being late, and you’re not going to get to your class on time.
And how about that cryptic phone call about your dead wife, sports fan?
No, no way. A coincidence, it was just a whacked-out guy with too much drink in him, and then a wrong number and––
Chuck started the car and pulled tentatively into the lane.
The guy in the sedan shouted “Hey!”
Chuck didn’t stop. The guy’d report it. Fine. Chuck had to get Stan to his job now or he’d be hysteria on stilts.
“Chuck, why’d he have a knife?”
“Next time I tell you to run, you run.”
“Just do it,” Chuck said. Then, from the distant reaches of his mind, it started again.
The shadow dance.
No. Not now. Please.
It hadn’t happened in months, this series of visions all tied up with his tour in Afghanistan. Memory muddled by trauma, the VA docs said. You never knew when it would come and if it would ever get straight in his mind. He called it the shadow dance because the dark figures seemed to float in front of him. Distant explosions were the sound track—
Chuck swerved just in time to avoid another rear ender, this time with a Mini Cooper.
“Chuck, you almost hit––”
“Don’t hit anything, Chuck.”
Stan, the voice of simple thought. Yes, little brother, I won’t hit anything if I can help it. Thank you very much! Since Stan had come to live with him and Julia, over a year ago, it had been a difficult period of adjustment for all of them. Chuck was trying to get to know his wife again, after his return, and it was hard. His own psyche needed the most adjusting, but he wanted to get better, he wasn’t one of those guys resisting it. Even though the VA was mucking up recently, denying him treatment. Still, he thought there was some daylight there, through the clouds, and then, then—
And then Julia’s death, like a bad joke from Fate with a morning hangover. Only no joke, and it took him hours to believe it, and then it was like he’d been tied to a log in one of those silent movies, the log heading to the big buzz saw. Only he hadn’t been rescued, he’d been sawed in half and even now, seven months since a drunk in a truck took his wife from him, he was barely stitched together with frayed thread.
Now he was looking after Stan, and he loved his brother, but he was a weight on him, too, and he wished Stan could be on his own somehow, and thinking that made Chuck feel like crud. He was on a merry-go-round of bad vibes and discordant music.
At least Stan was quiet the rest of the way to Ralphs Fresh Fare, the supermarket where he had a job greeting customers. Chuck realized just how much he needed quiet now. In fact, he almost prayed. Which he found odd, given that he hadn’t prayed once since Julia’s death.
He got to the Ralphs lot and parked in front.
“You can’t park here, Chuck,” Stan said.
Chuck said, “Yeah, I’m a notorious criminal. Don’t turn me in.”
Stan smiled. “You’re being funny.”
Chuck fixed the collar on Stan’s shirt, his Ralphs shirt, the black one with the red lettering. Stan didn’t have many clothes in the shared closet, but this was his uniform and he always kept it apart from the other clothes.
“There,” Chuck said. “Go make me proud.”
“I don’t like some people.”
“I know,” Chuck said. “Some people just don’t act nice.”
“Gimme five,” Stan said, raising his right hand. Stan thought it was always the ultimate cool thing to do, give high fives, even now, even though high fives had gone out with the Clinton administration.
No matter, it was what Stan liked to do, a final gesture, a connection until he got picked up after work.
Chuck slapped Stan’s hand. “Go get ‘em, Tiger,” he said.
“Rrrrrr,” Stan said. He tried to make a tiger sound but it was more like a loud purr. Or maybe something else, Chuck thought. Maybe the sound a tiger might make when wounded, lying on the ground.
Chuck pulled in to the Hunt Academy parking lot at seven-fifty eight. He got out and leaned on the trunk, downed a few sips of his Starbucks, noticed that his hands were wrapped around the cup like he was choking a man.
He put the cup on the trunk and took out his phone, looked at his call history again.
Of course he knew the other phone would be untraceable.
What was going on? How could the Mad Russian have called him that quick? If it was him at all. But if not, then somebody else was in on the whole thing. And then the Julia connection. They’d have to know all about Chuck’s personal life.
He came back to the present when he saw one of his fifth graders emerging from a Lexus in the drop off zone. Joshua Faust. Neat kid. Was going to be the lead in the musical Chuck was writing for the class, titled Moby! It was a way for him to use his old high-school rock skills to introduce Moby-Dick to the kids, with song’s like Ahab’s lament, “You’ve Got Me Pegged.”
Joshua was set to play Ahab.
Chuck picked up his coffee as a black Mustang pulled into the slot next to him. Wendy Tower. She was one of the high school teachers at Hunt, the private school carved into the hills of Calabasas. She herself seemed of the hills. She was thirty and always talked about hiking and biking and anything outdoors. She wore her buckskin-colored hair long and straight.
“Morning,” Chuck said.
“Lock me up,” Wendy said. She emerged with her own cup of coffee.
“Put me away in a rubber room. Throw away the key.” She slammed her door. “I’m at the counter, getting my drip, when a couple of guys, maybe twenty, get in this heated conversation, right? And the first guy says, ‘You jerk. Louis Armstrong was the first man on the moon.’ And the other guy says, ‘You are so stupid. Louis Armstrong is that bike racer.’ The first guy says, ‘Okay, then who was the president when they landed on the moon?’ And the second guy says, ‘President of what?’”
She paused, took a slug of her coffee.
“Maybe you’ve had a little too much,” Chuck said, playfully reaching for the cup.
Wendy snatched it away. “I wanted to turn around and slap them. I really did. Crack a book!”
“Are you sure you’re ready to teach?”
“Chuck, we have to fight this thing. You have what, twenty-five kids? I have the whole high school tromping through my classroom at one time or another. This is it. The last stand. The OK Corral.”
“Wasn’t that a musical starring Gene Autry?”
Wendy socked him in the arm. “Just for that, I want you to try my paella. Tonight.”
“Paella?” Oh right. Wendy Tower was an amateur chef. When she first told him that, Chuck said paella was the make or break dish. If you could make that, you could make anything. He was only half joking.
“Another time,” Chuck said. “I’m going into rehearsals.”
“For that Moby-Dick musical?”
“It’s a hit in the making.”
“A rock opera based on Melville.” She shook her head. “You’re either a genius or a . . .”
“I was going to say visionary.”
“You just scored yourself a free ticket to opening night.”
“Can’t wait,” Wendy said. “You know, I also do great cream puffs. What do you say?”
Part of him wanted to say yes, a small part. But it was drowned out by guilt, still fresh. The last words he and Julia had exchanged, before her death, were in anger. Despite what one VA shrink had told him, all that cognitive therapy mumbo jumbo, he couldn’t just talk himself out of the guilt. His mind still sometimes whipped around irrationally.
“Bring your brother, of course,” Wendy added.
“Maybe after the musical,” Chuck said. “We artistic visionaries have to stay focused.”
She smiled, and he wished he could get lost in it. But the memory of his failure with Julia pulled him back, the way a wrangler snaps a colt with a hard rope around the neck.
“Hey, what happened to your wheels?” she said, looking at the front of his car.
“A little thing. On the way over.”
“Not what I asked.”
His instinct was to cover it all in some throwaway line and walk to class. But he said, “I had a little run in with a guy. Just your typical rear ender, except this guy pulled a knife on me.”
Wendy laughed. Then stopped. “You’re not kidding.”
“Stan was with me, too.”
“This guy was parked in front of my neighbor’s house, in a black Escalade. I drove by and made eye contact. No big deal. I drove on and next thing I know, he’s pulling in front of me and slamming on his brakes.”
“So I get out to talk to him, he’s some wild haired guy with stink breath. He grabs my throat and—”
“––and Stan is all upset, and I get the guy off me and then he pulls out this knife.”
“But a car pulls around the corner and the guy put the knife away and gets in his car and drives off.”
“Did you get the license plate?”
“He didn’t have one.”
“Well that should tell the CHP something.”
“This guy who stopped his car, he called 911. I should be getting a call myself.”
“This is nuts. I mean, you never know anymore.” She sighed. “But what I do know is we better get to class. We’re cutting it close.”
“Don’t say cutting,” Chuck said.
“Don’t say point, either.”
She laughed, and this time it was fine and good and gave Chuck a moment of relaxation in an otherwise crazy morning. For that he was grateful. Maybe dinner, yes. Maybe sometime soon.
Chuck took the perimeter walkway to class. He liked the edge of the campus, with its view of an undeveloped Calabasas hillside. There wasn’t much ground left in LA. that didn’t have asphalt or concrete poured over it. When he looked at this spot, it gave him a little slice of peace.
He ate that slice hungrily now.
Turning toward the playfield, he thought he heard a loud sniff behind a utility shed. He went to look and saw one of his fifth graders, Rachel, on her knees, drawing in the dirt with a stick.
She looked up, startled, her eyes red and wet.
“Hey.” Chuck took a knee next to her. He knew what was wrong without even asking. Rachel was the tease magnet of the class. She wasn’t one of the “pretty” ones, wasn’t as well off financially as most kids at Hunt. Her single mom was getting a tuition break while working double duty. A receptionist for a CPA during the day, and as a fill in at the Cheesecake Factory at night, but only when there was a need.
Rachel looked back at the ground, making more lines in the dirt.
“What’re you drawing?” One thing Rachel had going for her was that she could draw. She had that natural artistic gift, especially with pen and ink, and most especially when it came to rendering horses.
“Nothing,” she said.
What a word to choose. Nothing, when there was obviously something. She must feel like that a lot of the time, Chuck thought. And then, with a twang in his stomach, he realized he and Rachel weren’t so different in that regard.
“You want to know something?” he said. “A lot of artists get paid a lot of money for drawing nothing.”
She looked at him quizzically.
“It’s true, I’ve seen some of that art. Some of it in museums. And you do much better than they do.”
Rachel shook her head.
“It’s true,” Chuck said, wanting her to believe it more than anything. “You just don’t ever stop drawing, okay?”
She shrugged her shoulders.
Chuck went into a sitting position, cross-legged. “Hey, can you draw a whale?”
The girl paused, thought about it. “A whale?”
“Yeah. Can you do that?”
“I think so.”
“I mean, a great big white whale, with his tail flapping and all that?”
“I want you to do the front cover of our program for the musical. Would you do that for me?”
“Think you can?”
“Good,” Chuck said. “How about we go to class now.”
Rachel drooped at the shoulders, shook her head violently.
“Hey, none of that,” Chuck said.
She looked at the dirt.
“You know, Rachel, I have a brother. He got teased a lot when he was a kid. I mean, a whole lot. And now he’s the coolest guy, and he has a great job where he sees people every day, and everybody likes him.”
Rachel appeared to be listening.
“When you have a job, as you know, as your mother knows, you work to get paid, right?”
“Well, I’m going to pay you to do this cover. But I’m going to pay you in ice cream.”
Rachel looked at him.
“Cold Stone Creamery ice cream,” Chuck said. “And I want you to tell your mom tonight, when you get home. You tell her about our deal, okay?”
She nodded again.
“But I have to have you in class to do it,” Chuck said. “You come to class with me and we’ll start off with a song. How about that?”
Rachel said, “Okay.”
They walked to class together, and Rachel even skipped a little at the end. That tiniest bit of joy almost made Chuck bust out crying. Man, he was on edge. He needed to grab his guitar.
Which he did, the very second the bell rang.
Arash, in the front row, said, “Can we sing Moby’s song?”
“You want Moby’s song, huh?” Chuck said.
Amy raised her hand. “My dad says Moby-Dick is supposed to be God.”
“Your dad . . .” Now what? He just wanted the kids to enjoy a fish story. Okay, a mammal story. So how could he explain to them he felt just like Ishmael? Wandering. Perplexed about the nature of God. Which was why the book was so woven up in his own bones.
He didn’t want the kids to see that in his face. Ever.
“Why don’t we sing first?” Chuck said.
He sat on the edge of the desk, tuned his guitar.
“Remember now,” he said. “I want you to sing this without laughing, can you do that?”
The class tittered, because they knew they couldn’t. Chuck loved it when they giggled like this.
“Together,” Chuck said. “I got plenty o’ blubber! And blubber’s plenty for me!”
The kids sang and Chuck almost laughed out loud himself. From thoughts of rock stardom to this. From a Tustin garage banging out licks full of euphoric hopes of someday touring, to a little private school classroom where you plunk strings to please little ones, the only fans you’ll ever have.
Chuck worked the strings like he was in Yankee Stadium giving a concert for fifty thousand, even as he sang the silly song he’d written. In America, you never know what turns there’ll be in the road, do you? You give up adolescent dreams when you survive a DUI crash, you start talking to God, and you think maybe you should serve your country for some greater purpose.
And then one day you look up and your wife is dead and you hate everything and God is silent and you’re the only one who can take care of your brother. You start to think the future is nothing but darkness, then find yourself sold out to a bunch of kids, loving them more than you ever thought you could, wanting them—no, willing them—to believe happiness is possible in this world. Every kid deserves that.
So the children sang giddily, as if to believe, and Chuck tried to feel that way, too. He played hard and sang loud, but the guy with the knife kept popping up in his mind, ready to cut him.
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