The Stranger was the first novella I published on the Amazon Kindle store. It’s currently for sale at a whopping $.99. I’ve decided to post it here, on my blog, in it’s entirety, for free. I am passionate about writing posts that demonstrate the love and grace of Jesus and what He’s doing in my life, but I also love writing fiction.
Here’s the plan. For the next ten weeks, I will post a chapter each Friday. Let’s call it Fiction Friday. Feel free to hashtag the crap out of that. I hope you enjoy the story. If you like this one, I have a couple more on Amazon. You can find them here: Author Page
The cold tears of saddened angels fell from the blackened sky as a slow drizzle of rain enveloped the car. We had driven twenty miles, most of them in silence after Lance’s declaration of his innocence. His actions had not convinced me that he was indeed faultless of the crimes for which he had been accused.
Lingering thoughts of doubt concerning his sanity lurked in the back corner of my mind. I wanted to ask point blank if he was crazy, but the situation remained too delicate. The business end of his gun continued to stare directly into my abdomen. As if it hadn’t already spat out its vile poison earlier, the .357 appeared hungry for more.
“So, after eight years, you figured out that someone framed you?” I asked. “How did you do that? Did you have help from someone on the outside?”
“That’s not important.”
“Man, you’ve got to give me something if you want my help. You’re keeping me in the dark. You haven’t given me any reason to believe your story.”
I glanced over at the passenger seat to find Lance staring at me. His eyes were deep, dark, endless pools, void of any emotion. If he wasn’t guilty of killing those girls, eight years of prison would have seemed like a lifetime in Hell.
I looked back at the road, uncomfortable. “I still want to know how you escaped. Are you at least going to tell me that much? Did you pay off some guards? Maybe you’ve got something on the warden that you’re using for blackmail.”
He shook his head. “I know you don’t believe me, but you will. I’ll prove to you that I’m not crazy, which I know is what you’re thinking. More driving and less talking would be nice.”
“Lance, there’s nothing out here. This is the way I used to go when I was taking computer classes in Harrington. It’s just a fifty mile stretch of nothing but road and woods.”
“How much further is it? We’ve already gone about twenty miles. No one would ever find this place.”
“Another mile or two. No one being able to find it is the whole point. If a person wanted to hide from the police and everyone else, you think they would have a neon sign pointing to their hideout?”
“So, you’re telling me the real killer has been living just thirty or forty minutes North of Seal Bay for the last eight years? And none of us had a clue?”
Lance didn’t answer. I wondered if I had pressed the issue too much and overstepped my boundaries. Somehow, I had to make him understand that feeding me the information I desired would only build a bond of trust between the two of us.
“Who is it?” I asked.
“Who is what?”
“Who are you taking me to see? You said it was the man responsible for the murders. Who is it?”
Lance looked at me and smirked. “You seriously can’t shut up, can you? I told you to be quiet and drive. Why is that so hard?”
“Fine. I’m just trying to figure you out, man. If the story you’re telling is true, you need people in your corner. You don’t gain a person’s trust by trying to kill them, and when that doesn’t work, kidnap them and drive off into the woods. It just doesn’t work that way.”
“We’re getting close to the turn. Just keep driving and I’ll explain everything when we get there.”
“So, there really isn’t a neon sign or anything to let us know?”
Knowing I wouldn’t get a reply, I allowed my thoughts to drift back to events that only appeared in the darkness of my dreams. If you dug deep enough into the fiber of our community, you would find that no one had truly healed from the horror of that night.
It was impossible to accept the fact that something so atrocious could happen in our little town. Even more so was the fact it was one of our own who allegedly committed the crime. The world around Seal Bay was going to Hell in a hand basket, but we still believed in our version of Utopia. Well, we did until that night.
Everything changed. Lives were devastated. Eight years had softened the hurt somewhat, but it lingered still.
The shocking return of Lance Puckett had reopened old wounds, but if we had accused the wrong person all those years, then setting the record straight might be a good thing. On the flip side of that coin, if the jury had indeed sentenced the correct offender to death row, his appearance would do nothing but destroy what little peace we had managed to find.
“Around this curve on the right, there’s a dirt road that heads into the woods. You have to look closely, or you’ll miss it.”
I slowed the vehicle as we rounded the curve. About twenty yards off the main road I saw the entrance. Brush and trees had almost overtaken it, but there was clearly a path of some kind. Calling it a dirt road seemed too generous.
“Wow, I’ve clearly never noticed this before. That curve kind of sneaks up on you, doesn’t it? I don’t see any tire tracks, which tells me no one’s gone this direction in a very long time. How do you know he’s up there?”
“You’ve been gone eight years. What if-”
I swallowed the sharp remark perched on the tip of my tongue and steered us off the highway. What little evidence there used to be of a road was nearly hidden by weeds and out-of-control underbrush. Limbs from the surrounding trees reached out and scraped the car as if trying to pull us deeper into the mysterious woods.
“I know I’ve said this before, but none of this is helping your cause.” I gripped the wheel with both hands and slowed our speed. “You’re not taking me to the middle of nowhere just to kill me, are you?”
Lance didn’t reply.
“You could have at least jacked a four wheel drive instead of this old Ford Taurus. You honestly think this thing was made for an off-road adventure?”
“The car will get us there just fine. It’s not much further.”
“Good, because I think we lost the muffler about a mile back.” The drizzle of rain had increased into a steady downpour that made our journey up the mountain even more difficult. “Instead of holding me hostage, why don’t you work with me so we can clear your name?”
“You’re not going to believe anything I say until I can give you proof. It’s obvious my word alone won’t be enough. Actions speak louder, right?”
“That’s what they say. I’m inclined to think that an equal measure of both would work just fine. Can you tell me anything about who we’re going to see?”
“It’s someone you know, or at least I think you do. He knows you, that’s for sure.”
“Yeah, that certainly clears it up. Gee, thanks. I’m getting tired of your riddles. Why won’t you give me a straight answer?”
Lance clung to the handle above the door as we drove through extremely large pot holes. “There will be a time and place for answers.”
I shook my head. Unanswered questions were leading me to even more questions. It was obvious Lance had no intention of telling me anything until we reached our destination. His quiet calmness bothered me. For someone who had escaped a federal penitentiary and traveled three thousand miles home to clear his name, he seemed collected and reserved.
I didn’t notice panic or fear burning inside his eyes. He didn’t cast a nervous glance over his shoulder every five seconds. It was eerie.
After another mile, the road widened, and we drove into a clearing. I stopped the car and turned it off. The path had come to an end. I wasn’t sure what to say, so I remained quiet. Our breath quickly began to fog up the windows.
After we reached an uncomfortable silence, I couldn’t wait any longer. “Okay, Lance. Now what?”
“We’re going over there.”
Through the windshield, I looked in the direction he pointed, but couldn’t see anything. I turned the key back and flipped the wipers on to clear the view. The blades slid back and forth three times before coming to a stop. It was in that moment I saw what held his attention.
An old cabin sat on the edge of the woods, nearly invisible inside the cloak of darkness cast down by overhanging branches. Nestled into the tree line, it was difficult to spot, which I’m sure had been the original intent when building the structure. Through a window, I could see the faint orange glow of light.
“No one lives here, do they?” I asked. “I don’t see a car or any other vehicles. What’s going on, Lance?”
In my head, I pictured a dark cellar carved out from the ground underneath the cabin. A pile of bones lay in the center, and a set of shackles were attached to one wall. He was indeed a psychopath and had forced me to drive myself to the exact place where he would end my life. It must have been his plan all along.
The lies about his innocence and pleading for me to believe him had all been diversions. His real objective was to get me out of Seal Bay and to a place that could not be found on the map.
I thought of Summer. I would never get the chance to tell her how I genuinely felt. Jimmy would spend months, maybe a year searching for me, but would eventually give up and face the truth that I was gone forever.
“Where are we?” My voice trembled.
“Don’t move.” Lance got out and walked to my side of the car. He opened the door and pointed the gun in my face. “Get out.”
“Lance, please don’t kill me.”
Water pelted my cheeks as I climbed out, and immediately my clothes became drenched. I wasn’t sure which would be worse. Getting shot in the back, or drowning where I stood. I desired neither option, but the situation was going from bad, to extremely worse. Now free from the confined space of the Taurus, there would be more of an opportunity to make a play for the gun.
Lance prodded me forward. “Let’s go.”
The rain intensified as we started walking toward the cabin. Every step carried me closer to my grave. As we approached, the churning in my stomach reached hurricane force. My instincts pressed upon me a feeling of dread, a premonition that horrible things were about to transpire. I was helpless to stop it.
We were almost to the front porch when the door flew open, and a man stepped out. The unmistakable sound of someone chambering a shotgun round interrupted the steady noise of rain. I jumped back in surprise at the sudden appearance and cringed thinking I had smashed into Lance’s trigger finger. I breathed a short sigh of relief when I didn’t feel anything rip into my spine.
“If you don’t want to eat buckshot for dinner, I’d suggest you boys stop right there. This is private property. Unless you’re from Publisher’s Clearing House and have an enormous check for me, you need to leave.”
Lance grabbed my shoulder and we did as instructed. He held the gun close, pressed into the small of my back. He whispered into my ear. “Don’t do anything stupid. Stay calm and everything will be fine.”
“Wait,” I shouted. “Don’t shoot. We’re just here to talk.”
“You have twenty seconds to leave my property and never come back.” The man stepped out into the middle of the porch and I saw his face for the first time.
My mouth dropped open in complete shock.