My new book, Below the Wheel, drops on June 22. Here’s a little taste from last year’s novel, Angel with a Broken Wing.
The next morning, Christian stood in his kitchen looking out at the snow as he ground some beans for coffee. He dumped the grounds into the coffee machine and turned it on. He put on his jacket and went outside. The cold sun shone brightly in the winter sky and glistened on the ice that covered the trees in his yard. His boots crunched and squeaked in the snow that covered his property. He unlocked the garage and went inside. Sitting on the floor against the wall were the two suitcases and the briefcase. He picked up the case.
“I can use this.”
He placed it on the workbench and snapped it open. Inside it were papes and personal effects that belonged to his uncle John. He lifted out a stack of memos from Florida Electric. “He leaves me this thing and doesn’t even bother to clean it out.” He sifted through the pile and came across several old photographs. Pictures of his uncle with his mother and some with Christian as a kid. For the first time since his uncle’s death, he felt sad. He could feel the lump forming in his throat as he flipped through them. He wiped the tears from his eyes when he saw one of his uncle making sandcastles with him as a child on the beach. He carefully laid the photos to the side and continued to dig through the briefcase. He pulled out some letters and some old black and white photos. Most of them pictured people he didn’t know.
“Must have been long before my time.”
Christian looked at a faded, dog-eared photo of his uncle standing with another man. They were both wearing military uniforms. He flipped it over and written on the back were the following words:
ARMY BUDDIES. JOHN BARR AND HAROLD ASHEN, APRIL 27, 1969
It appeared to have been written by a woman. He put the photo with the others and reached for a book that lay in the flap inside the lid. Christian flipped through the small diary.
“It’s full of his poetry!”
Christian remembered when he was a kid, his uncle would send him a card on his birthday. It always contained a crisp five-dollar bill, and a little wry poem written by him for the occasion.
He gently placed all of the items back into the briefcase and closed the lid. His interest piqued, he attempted to open one of the leather suitcases.
He tried the other one. It too was securely locked.
“Typical. I get all of the poetry and none of the keys. Story of my life!”
Christian grabbed a screwdriver from his toolbox and popped the lock on the first suitcase. Inside was his uncle’s army uniform, assorted medals, a small travel kit with a razor, and a pair of glasses inside. Beneath all of that was an assortment of clothes.
“Why is all of this stuff still in here? Was he planning a trip before he died? What am I supposed to do with all of this stuff?”
Christian checked each of the three pockets that lined the inside of the suitcase.
The pockets contained the following items, a tie clip with the Yankee Clipper on it, three quarters, a pair of old cufflinks… and a loaded .44 caliber pistol.
He held the heavy weapon in his trembling hand.
He took the gun into the house and gently laid it on the kitchen counter. He poured himself a cup of coffee and lit a cigarette. Taking a sip, he gazed at the powerful firearm. A chill ran up his spine as he looked upon it. He blew a large cloud of smoke towards the ceiling as he stared at the firearm that now lay on his kitchen counter. It seemed so out of place in his neatly appointed house. The cold metal object silently screamed danger.
“I never owned a gun. I hate guns. It must have been my uncle’s service revolver during his tour of duty in Europe during World War II. Where have I seen a gun like this before?”
He focused his memory on the gun. He knew he’d heard of this kind of gun once in his past. But where?
His thoughts were interrupted by the phone ringing. He placed the gun in a drawer and picked up the phone.
“Hello, Sheryl! How’s it going? Yea… I got back yesterday. You’d be surprised. No. No money! Just some stuff of his. Are you coming over? Cool. I got something to show you. Yeah…ok. No, it’s nothing bad. Alright. See you soon.”
Christian hung up the receiver, picked up his coffee mug, and went into the living room. He sat on the couch and stared at the fireplace. The flames lapped upward, dancing before him and warming the room. He took a sip from the cup of french vanilla and thought about Sheryl. He had met her in one of his psychology courses. He remembered how she almost looked like she didn’t belong in that class. While everyone else wore t-shirts and jeans, she was always dressed nicely. She sat dead center in the room, about three desks from the front. She probably came to class straight from her job at the mental health facility.
Sheryl Lee Stanton was twenty-two. She had ice blue eyes and blonde hair, the color of sunshine on a warm afternoon. Her figure was voluptuous, and her skin was really creamy and fresh, like a child’s. She was very outgoing and liked to contribute her views whenever she was in class – which seemed like all of the time to Christian. But the most endearing aspect of Sheryl was that she loved to laugh. She also had a great wisecracking sense of humor.
Christian always sat at the front left corner desk in class. He would turn his desk on an angle so that he was pointed right at the professor, but still able to see the rest of the class. He was really impressed with Sheryl. She seemed to be the only one who genuinely enjoyed being there.
Christian got up and tossed another log on the fire, and got another cup of coffee. He thought about the first time he and Sheryl had ever gone out for drinks after class. They sat and talked for hours. He never imagined they would, but they really hit it off. After weeks of checking her out in class and wondering what she was like, he was a little surprised to find she was as sweet as he had imagined. She laughed a lot that night he thought, as he propped his feet up on the coffee table and leaned back on the sofa. He remembered how he watched her as she told some story, she’d speak very quickly and wiggle her cigarette between her fingers. He really had to pay attention! Half the time he would focus on her full lips. That pout had struck a chord in his heart. All of those times he would sit in class and look at her, he would always zero in on those plump lips.
Christian smiled and was taking another sip of coffee when there was a knock on his front door.
“It’s open, Sher!”
The door opened and the outer screen door banged shut as she quickly entered his home.
“Hoo! It’s cold out there!”
“You look like a snow bunny fresh off the slopes of Telluride, dear.”
“Why can’t I be in Florida right now?” She removed her sunglasses.
“Just came from there. Really warm. It’s nice down there. I just wish it were under better circumstances.”
“Yea… I’m sorry.” She removed her heavy winter coat and hung it in on the rack in the corner.
“Well, he’s at peace now, right?”
“I guess.” She looked out the window at the snow-covered yard that led up to the adjacent golf course.
The room fell silent. The kind of moment that if they hadn’t been such good friends, it would have been awkward.
“Nice fire and music! What are you listening to?”
“Windham Hill. I think they call it, New Age music.”
“Cool. What’s the song playing now?”
“It’s called Bricklayer’s Beautiful Daughter.”
“Nice. Very sweet.”
“Yea… good for a cold winter morning.”
“So… what’s happening?” She flopped on the couch across from him.
“Well, back from the funeral. My uncle left me some stuff.”
“So what’d you get?”
“A briefcase, some old luggage, and a car.”
“A car! Wow! What kind?”
“I’m sorry Chris, I didn’t hear you.”
“I said, a Ford.”
“A Ford? A Taurus? A Thunderbird? What?”
“Go look for yourself.”
Sheryl pushed the back door open and went outside. She yanked the side door to the garage and went inside. Christian let the moment steam, as he envisioned her seeing the auto for the first time. He heard the sudden burst of laughter come from the garage, and then the sound of boots coming across the back porch. The door burst open. He sat motionless, staring at the fireplace. Sheryl stomped the snow from her boots on the mat by the door and joined him on the couch. She said nothing. After a few moments, he looked at her.
“Aren’t you going to say something?”
“About what?” Her pale eyes shone brightly.
“What about when you laughed?”
Sheryl began to smile. Her full lips parting to show Hollywood perfect teeth.
“Chris, that is the sorriest-looking car on the face of the Earth. I’m sorry, but it is. What the hell is that thing?”
“It’s a 1974 Ford Pinto. I don’t even know why my uncle left me that piece of junk. It doesn’t even run well.”
“Oh, I don’t know. I’ve heard of that car. Maybe so you’d be ready for the next gas crisis?”
“No, really, Sher.”
“I don’t know, Chris. It’s an eyesore, though. What’s with the Phoenix?
“I saw the word,’ Phoenix’ etched into the back window.”
“I hadn’t noticed.”
“Come on, I’ll show you.”
Minutes later they were both heading out to the garage to inspect the car.
“It really stinks of kerosene in here, Chris.”
“It’s the heater. Keeps the place warm when I’m out here working or playing my guitar.”
“Look here, Chris. Her dainty finger pointed to the back window of the vehicle.
Etched in the glass was a small picture of a flaming bird and underneath it was the word, Phoenix.
“That’s weird. Come on, I’ll show you the rest of the stuff.” He sifted through the briefcase and the photos.
“Can I check out the car?”
“Be my guest.” He watched as Sheryl climbed into the car and slammed the door.
“This car sucks!” She played with the gearshift and cranked the wheel like a child.
“You’ve made that fact abundantly clear, dear. I’ll tell you what… You can have the damn thing, okay?”
“Really? This old thing might be an antique, mister!”
“Oh boy, I’m rich. Do you want to look through these suitcases or not? I still haven’t checked out the contents of this other one yet.”
“Alright. Can you at least open the garage door so I don’t pass out from that kerosene smell? It’s giving me a headache.”
“I never realized what an incredible pain in the ass you are, Sher.”
“I know. But you love me anyway.” She gave him one over her electric smiles.
“Yes, of course.” He lifted the latch and lifted the big garage door.
Sheryl got out of the car and walked over to the workbench where the suitcases lay. An icy wind blew through the garage.
“Now I’m going to freeze my ass off!”
“No, you’re not. Help me get this stuff inside. Grab that screwdriver for the other case. You know…I don’t even know why you called me, Sher. Had I known it was you I would never have answered the phone.”
“Oh, settle down, Chris. Let’s go.”
They hauled the suitcases inside and dropped them on the floor. They both stood by the fireplace to warm themselves.
“I can’t wait until Spring.” He tossed another log on the crackling hearth. He was about to sit down on the rug in front of the fire when Sheryl quipped.
“Would you be a dear and make me a cup of hot cocoa?”
Christian exhaled loudly and headed for the kitchen to boil some water. Sheryl took the screwdriver and jammed it behind the clasp on the other suitcase. She popped open the lock and looked inside.
“Hey, this one’s empty, Chris.”
“Really?” He pulled the packet of cocoa from the box on the shelf.
“There’s just a bunch of clothes and stuff in the other one.”
“Yea… except for this.”
Christian swaggered into the living room brandishing the .44 pistol.
“Go ahead… make my day.”
“Cool! Is it real?”
“Oh yes, my flaxen-haired friend.”
“Can I hold it?”
“You’re a jerk, Christian. What kind of gun is it?”
“I’m glad you asked that, my dear. I was trying to remember where I had heard of this gun before you came over today, and it just struck me. This is one badass gun. Strictly manufactured for close-range anti-personnel. It was created to kill people, Sher. No wounding your adversary with this weapon. When fired the bullet begins to tumble end over end. So by the time it reaches its target, it blows a hole the size of a grapefruit in it. Very messy. I remember hearing about it for the first time back in August of 1977.
“Okay… I was seven years old, grandpa.”
“I was in Wildwood, New Jersey. I had just turned fifteen years old. I was walking a girl home I had met at the motel where I worked as a pool boy.”
“That’s cute. Did she pull a gun on you?”
“I was bringing her back from seeing the film, Star Wars. Seems like a long time ago now.”
“In a galaxy far, far away, right?”
“Shut up, Sher. I’m trying to tell a story here. Anyway, her name was Ann. Her last name sounded like ‘playback’ but it escapes me. She was from New York City. She had honey blonde hair and brown eyes. She was wearing white shorts, and a blue and white striped tube top. We used to call them boob tubes!”
“You’ve got quite a memory for the details, don’t you, Mr. Blackmore? Did she have a rich, deep tan, one can only achieve in the late August sun?”
“I think you’re jealous, Sher. But we can address that later. I can remember standing with her on the corner of 8th street and Ocean Avenue. I kissed her. She told me she was a little scared to go home to New York the next day. When I asked her why, she said, ‘because they haven’t caught the Son of Sam yet.’ The .44 caliber killer. Ann left the shore with her family the next morning. That evening the NYPD apprehended David Berkowitz. Ann was safe.”
“That’s a beautiful little story, Chris. You as the teenage rogue. Ann as the damsel in distress. Berkowitz as the serial killer. Sounds like some kind of twisted love triangle!”
“Why couldn’t my uncle have left me a Walther PK? That’s James Bond’s gun! No… I have to get the same kind of gun that some wacko used to shoot all of those couples in their cars in 1977! I hate guns!”
“Then put it away before you hurt yourself.”
“You’re right, Sher.” He returned to the kitchen.
“So we’ve got one suitcase full of old clothes and stuff, and the other one’s empty. They both look exactly alike except the empty one has the gold monogrammed letters on the front.”
“These.” Sheryl pointed to the letters. Who’s initials are, H.A.?”
“The only person that comes to mind is my uncle’s friend from his time in the military, Harold Ashen.”
“So, I guess this belonged to him. Then what was your uncle doing with his luggage?”
“I don’t know. Maybe he gave it to him.”
“Or, your uncle ripped him off!”
“I doubt it.” Christian stared at the monogrammed case. “Wait a second. H.A…. H.A. Ha, Ha! That’s it! That’s what my uncle meant! It wasn’t laughter in his Will. It was the initials on the suitcase!”
“What are you talking about, Chris?”
“I’ll explain it to you in a minute.” He returned to the kitchen and poured the contents of the packet of cocoa into the coffee mug.
“This is weird.” Sheryl began to fiddle with the raised monogrammed letters as she felt around inside of the empty suitcase.
“I know, right?” The water began to boil in the kettle and it wailed softly like the wind, and then grew louder and more shrill.
“Maybe these buttons do something.”
“What buttons?” He hollered back from the kitchen as he reached for the screaming kettle.
Just as he switched off the burner, he heard a loud explosion. It was as if a bomb had gone off across the street. The concussion rattled the windows and he could hear car alarms going off out front on the street.
He ran from the kitchen and into the living room. Sheryl was getting to her feet.
“Sheryl… What the…?”
He bolted out the back door and ran out into the driveway. Sheryl was right behind him carrying the suitcase. He looked down the sloping driveway and across the street. His eyes felt as though they were frozen open.
There across the street, smashed into a tree was the little Pinto. Flames gushed from its core and black smoke spiraled upward into the clear winter sky.
“Wow! They really do blow up!”
“Oh my God, Chris… It must have slipped out of gear and rolled down the driveway! I’m so sorry!”
“Jeezus!” He watched as the ruined Ford was devoured by fire.
Christian’s neighbors began to come out of their homes as he went to the garage and grabbed the phone on the wall to call the fire department.
“Damn! I can’t believe this!”
“Man!” He turned his attention back to the raging inferno across the street.
“Even the tires are melting, Sher! Look at that!”
“I don’t… What is it, Sher?” He turned to her, annoyed.
“This.” She thrust the suitcase at him.
“Sher, we can examine this later.”
“Chris, the monogram. The gold letters. They turn. Turn the letters upside down.”
“What are you…?”
“Chris… Do it!” She slammed the suitcase down on the workbench in the garage.
He grasped the gold letters and rotated them. They clicked and squeaked as he inverted the H and the A. What appeared to be some sort of false bottom inside the case, popped up revealing what could only be described as a secret compartment.
“Yea… Go ahead. Lift it up.”
Christian carefully lifted the raised panel.
His mouth fell open like a broken door on the front of a mailbox. There, stacked in neat little plastic-wrapped bundles, were more one hundred dollar bills than Christian had ever seen.
“Jesus, Mary, and Joseph!”
“Yea… and Franklin, too!”
“Oh my God!” His eyes drank in the sight of so much old currency.
“You said it, Chris.”
The foul chemical stench that poured from the burning car filled his nostrils. It brought him back to reality long enough for him to take his eyes off the money, and look down the driveway.
“Somebody’s coming, Chris. Better close it up.”
He looked at Sheryl and slowly closed the lid. She stared back at him, her steel-blue eyes trying to read his thoughts. It seemed like for a single moment they were like two little kids who somehow were in trouble, but held a wonderful secret between them.
In the distance, the sirens began to wail and became louder as they approached.
“Not a word.” He said softly.
“Pinky swear.” She smiled back at him.
A neighbor from across the street approached them and walked up the driveway. “You call the fire department?”
Christian and Sheryl turned suddenly towards the man. “Uh, yes.” He forced a tight smile at his neighbor from next door. “I called them alright.”
“That thing is really burning. I hope you got insurance.”
“Yes… burning.” He no longer cared about the car across the street being consumed by fire. He was still in shock about Sheryl’s little discovery.
“I saw the whole thing, Chris. The damn thing rolled right out of your garage, cruised right across the street, and exploded when it hit the tree! I was out front splitting logs for my fireplace when that thing just blew up like a bomb! Thank God, you or your little girlfriend weren’t in it!”
“She’s not my girlfriend.”
“Man, that thing is burning!”
“Yea… burning,” Christian replied, as if in a trance.
“Alright, man. Glad you’re okay. I’ll talk to you later. Come by for a beer.”
Christian took Sheryl’s hand as he watched the man walk back down the driveway. He placed his other hand on the suitcase. They both stood there silently as the fire department went to work on what was left of the burning automobile.
“Chris… This is too weird.”
“Yes…” He watched the activity across the street.
“Chris. The Phoenix. The Phoenix!”
“What? What about it?”
“Chris, do you know what the Phoenix is?”
“A city in Arizona?”
“No. Chris.” Sheryl shook her head. “In Phoenician legend, the Phoenix is the spirit bird that burns itself to death in a great fire, only to rise from the ashes of its own destruction to live anew more beautiful than before.”
He stared into her unflinching blue eyes. She smiled. He looked back at what remained of the old Pinto. Smoke rose into the sky and through the trees. Like a spirit escaping its old vessel.
Now he understood.
Or, so he thought.
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