This new-edge Christian literary thriller explores timeless themes of death and redemption, juxtaposed against the moral wasteland of Tampa's Ybor City. The climax leads to an unexpected resolultion in the untamed heart of the Florida wilderness. The novel is a unique Christian literary thriller that frankly addresses the ancient problem of violence.

Chapter 1

 End and Beginning

© Michael C. Rudasill 2003

Johnny is dead, but she is alive. She has fled like a dove before the cruel wind, but Johnny could not flee.

He didn't even see it coming.

She saw trouble brewing when it was barely a blemish on the horizon, before it unleashed the smoking bolt that hissed and crackled as it snaked to earth and struck them suddenly out of an indigo sky.

She saw trouble coming a mile away, but Johnny didn't have a clue.

His childhood was spent in insular safety, wrapped tightly in the arms of the American dream: two loving parents, a big sister, a cat, and happiness unmarred by life's harsher realities. And yet, as far as she could see, his sheltered upbringing had given him a skewed take on human nature.

Johnny didn't - no, he couldn't - hear the hungry cruelty in the man's voice or feel the pressure building as the deadly static stirred around them, whispering hypnotically in the thick summer air, slowly coiling its lambent strength and spoiling for a chance to strike. He didn't sense danger for one simple reason: Johnny trusted people. If he had experienced an intuition of evil, he would have dismissed it out of hand.

She had tried to warn him. She really tried. And now, despite her efforts, the memory of the past few minutes returns to her as if a film of the events were scrolling, uninvited, through her mind.

They were riding in his car, cruising the lonely byways of their rural Florida county as they talked and laughed and enjoyed their time together. By the early hours of the morning they had driven into the distant reaches of Homeland Estates, an elaborate maze of deserted roads in an unfinished housing development that long ago had been abandoned, unfinished and unwanted, in the wake of a notorious local bankruptcy.

It was hard to pinpoint the moment when they noticed the lights.

The distant cluster of lights was an anomaly in the darkness, a luminous island in an expansive sea of night, an unfolding mystery that danced and swirled in the roadway until their car drew closer and they could see two dark shapes standing on the desolate blacktop, signaling with flashlights for them to pull over.

"I don't like it," she said, tensing and moving away from him. "Johnny, don't stop. Turn around. Let's get out of here." There were bigger, brighter lights in the road behind the two men. A bitter, unfamiliar scent filled the humid air, pressing hotly into their car through Johnny's open window. Something was happening here: something bad: something dangerous. She could taste it.

"Come on, Jamie, relax," he pleaded, reaching out to push her shoulder playfully. She pulled abruptly away. Her muscles were taut, her senses so acute that his touch was almost painful. "You're so paranoid," he observed, shaking his head. "There's nothing to be afraid of." She seized his arm and squeezed it fiercely.

"Turn around, Johnny! Listen to me! Get out of here! Get out, now!" she begged fervently, aching deep in her chest. But he shrugged her off, frowning in annoyance as he pulled over to the side of the road, stopped the car, and rolled down his window. In the ditch to their right, tall cattails slowly nodded in the car's headlights, and a chorus of crickets whirred abrasively in the late night heat.

Stepping up close to the car, two men wielding long chrome flashlights shined their stainless spots into the vehicle. They gazed without expression at the fresh-faced youths revealed by the light: just two local kids, cruising in an outsized, 1968 Plymouth, raising their hands to protect their eyes, blinking in the garish blast of harsh, blinding light.

The boy looked about 20, the girl about the same. They had unsullied, innocent faces: Barbie and Ken out for an evening drive. The boy was sunburned, with short blonde hair; the girl's face was framed by cascading burgundy locks. She had flawless, milky white skin, naturally crimson lips and bright blue eyes open wide with dismay. They were both ripe for the picking, two fair-haired peas in a shiny Plymouth pod.

With a swift glance, no more than a flick of her eyes, Jamie confirmed that her door was unlocked. Nervous and uncertain, squinting into the bright light, she slowly slid her hand to her right and gripped the cool steel handle. Johnny was right; everything's okay. You're being paranoid, she told herself. When will you get over it?

Then one of the men spoke, and his voice sliced through time, connecting her to another city, another life. The voice was not familiar, but the tone was one that she knew too well.

In the man's voice, she heard the probing, greedy rasp of predation.

She recognized the chilling undertone as surely as she knew her own face in a mirror, and the undeniable realization stunned and almost paralyzed her. She stared fervently at the two men, straining to make out their faces.

"What are you kids doing out this late? Don't you know that the woods are full of monsters?" The man spoke conversationally, his voice a pleasant purr as he leaned over towards the driver, his left hand carelessly lingering on the smooth, polished hood. She saw his face now, and it was seared into her memory: darkly tanned and delicately featured, perversely handsome and supremely insolent, with an aquiline nose and long, dimpled chin.

"We're just driving around, sir," Johnny replied. "What's going on?"

"Nothing that you'd want to see."

"What do you mean?" he asked, surprised.

"This is what I mean," the man hissed, spitting the words out as his hand snaked behind his back.

Somehow, Jamie knew what would happen next.

The action slowed to a tantalizing crawl as the man began to pull out the gun, and Jamie's ears rang loudly as time, the arbiter of intensity, ground to a virtual halt. Then her heart leaped into her throat, and the pace of events accelerated exponentially.

"JOHHNYYY!" she heard someone scream, recognizing the sound of her voice as the man's hand flashed up and blew fire through the exploding windshield, promiscuously spraying them with luminous diamonds of glittering glass. Her door banged open of its own accord and she dove, crashing down onto the cracked asphalt, ignoring the jagged stab of pain in her shoulder as her weight slammed hard against the ground, using the car for cover to roll into the watery ditch.

She began to run, foot-sure and fast, making the most of her wonderful speed, slicing through the weed-choked gully as bullets blistered the air about her. She leaped over the embankment, cutting through spiny bushes and mud and cattails and lily pads, plowing deeper and deeper into water that appeared miraculously before her until, without thinking twice, she plunged into the depths of a warm Florida lake.

The recumbent lake murmured contentedly as she slid through its smooth waters. The lake invited her into itself, yielding to her presence without complaint: its glistening arms dripping snakes, its warm bed filled with alligators that huffed in indignation, unsettled by the girl's intrusion. The surprising, comforting warmth of the water engulfed her, soporific in its effect, as she tried to steady her breathing.

Johnny is dead, but I am alive, she thinks as she swims quietly toward the center of the coffee-dark lake.

But for once, for just this once, she is wrong.

Johnny is not dead.

Unfortunately, but quite definitely, he is painfully - and frighteningly - alive.

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