Chapter 1: BELOVEDS
“Hi, honey, what are you up to?” Michele asked, coming into her daughter’s room.
“I’m going to visit Lord Reskin.”
Michele smiled. Lord Reskin was her daughter’s imaginary friend. “You love him very much, don’t you?”
“Yes.” Crystl sighed. “I only wish he was real.”
“You know, there is a real Friend who can be with you all the time.”
Crystl’s violet eyes grew large. “Really?”
“Really. His name is Jesus.”
“I’ve heard you talk about Him. He’s your Friend, isn’t He?”
“Yes, but He would love to be your Friend, too.”
The little girl’s eyes widened again. “Really?”
“Really. Would you like to invite Him into your heart?”
Crystl’s little brow furrowed. “Into my heart?”
Michele sat down with her daughter and pulled the little girl close. “When we love someone very much, we say they rest in our hearts. I love you very much, Crystl, and you hold a special place in my heart. That means that I will never, ever love anyone the same way I love you, or for all the same reasons.”
“Not even Jay?” the little girl asked.
“I love Jay, too, as my dear son, and I love your sister Theresa as well, but for different reasons. And Jesus loves you enough to take your punishment for doing wrong things.”
Crystl’s eyes grew large indeed. “He does?”
“Yes, honey. Long ago, when Jesus lived, He took your spanking for everything you’ve ever done wrong, and mine, too, and if you invite Him into your heart, learn to talk to Him and listen to Him and love Him with all your might, He will let you live with Him forever, and if you listen carefully, He will even guide you in how to live, if you want to give your life over to Him.”
“Wow,” Crystl’s voice was reverent.
“Would you like to pray for Him to come into your heart now, honey?”
Crystl nodded, and with her hands folded inside her mother’s, seven-year-old Crystlyn Kathryn Johnson prayed, “Jesus? This is Crystl Johnson. I guess you already know all about me from Mommy. But she just told me that You can be my bestest Friend, and I want you to be that, because I figure if you love me enough to take my spankings when I mess up, then it must be okay to love you back. So I’m going to love You, Jesus, and You can have me, because that’s all I can give You, and You can have a special place in my heart, ’cause I’ll never love You like I love other people, or for the same reasons.”
Michele said quietly, “Thank You, Lord, for the willing heart of a child, and thank You for accepting my little girl. Amen.”
Brad rocked Thace absently, staring out her bedroom window. He often slept with the door connecting their rooms open, to hear the baby in case she cried. He was paranoid about her; she was the chief treasure in his life.
“Son? You should have been asleep hours ago.”
Brad looked up as Matt came in the room. “Thace was fretful,” he explained. “I had to growl twice before she stopped crying.” Brad often growled the little girl’s name; it never failed to make her laugh.
“Are you sure you weren’t fretful? Sometimes, babies pick up on an adult’s tension. Especially their big brother’s tension. You were distracted all day, even at church. Why?”
“Because I don’t understand,” Brad returned, handing the sleeping infant carefully to his father as he reached for her.
“What is confusing you?” Matt asked, laying Thace in her bed and covering her with a light blanket.
“How could God just give up His Son like that? To do that? Knowing He would die, be horribly and wrongfully murdered?”
“That’s a hard question, son. It is symbolic of His awesome love for us, I think, that he would give up His greatest, most important, most cherished treasure, just so we may live with Him forever. It’s…it’s unbelievable when you actually stop and think about it, isn’t it? God loved us so much, and Jesus, too, considering the fact that He could have gotten out of it, to take our place, our punishment.”
“He did it…because He loves us that much?” Brad sounded stunned.
Brad said gravely. “Now I understand. I understand why He did it, and I understand why people accept Him. Who wouldn’t?” Brad looked up at his father. “Will you pray with me? I…I don’t know the right words to say.”
Matt knelt by his son’s bed. “There are no right words, Brad. Just talk to Him like you’d talk to me.”
Brad folded his hands and closed his eyes. “Um, God? Hi. My name is Brandon McClan, but you already knew that. You already know me, even though I’m just learning about You. I just figured it out, Your…Your terrible, wonderful sacrifice, and I just wanted to know…to say, I’m your man. I want to be Yours. And, come into my heart, I guess. Come and be me, direct me, guide me, save me. Thank you.” Brad looked up. “How was that?”
“Perfect, son. God heard you. And He saved you. And now, the angels are throwing a party over that fact.”
Brad’s eyes widened. “Really? Angels are partying over me?”
Matt grinned. “The Bible tells us that the angels rejoice when even one person gets saved. I would say you definitely qualify.”
Matt, still grinning at his son’s surprise and his own joy at seeing his son safely into the kingdom of God, rose, then swayed, suddenly dizzy. He faintly heard his son call his name, but couldn’t answer as the world tilted and spun before it went black.
Crystl sat on the couch in the family room, biting her nails as her mother screamed again. She had decided to have this baby at home. Jay was sleeping still, through all the noise, and Crystl was grateful for that. With any luck, by the time he woke up, he would have a new baby sister, and he would never know how much pain it took. She kept waiting for a baby cry, like when Jay was born, jumping every time her mother screamed. Finally, Crystl’s mother’s best friend and a certified nurse walked out, holding a bundle of rags. “How’s the baby?” Crystl asked, jumping up.
The nurse sighed. “We lost her.” She held up the rags.
“Lost her? What do you mean, lost her?”
“She’s dead, honey.”
“Dead? What do you mean, dead? You don’t mean really dead…do you?”
“I’m afraid so, honey. I’m sorry.”
Crystl headed to the bedroom. “Mommy’s got to be sad. I have to see her.”
“Honey, come sit down.”
Crystl turned to the woman. “Mommy needs me right now.”
“Honey, we lost her, too.”
Crystl went completely cold. “What?”
“Your mother tried too hard to deliver the baby. Her body couldn’t handle the prolonged strain. I’m so sorry.”
Crystl felt like she couldn’t breathe, and suddenly, her whole world dimmed as one of the brightest lights left it. She pulled away from the nurse’s arm, not comforted at all by the gentle gesture. “Jay. I need to tell Jay.” She sighed as she walked into her baby brother’s room. Although Theresa was just two years younger, baby Jay was her pride and joy. It had been hard enough for eight-year-old Crystl to accept that her mother and unborn sister were dead; how did one explain that to a three-year-old?
Jay rolled over and opened his unusual golden eyes. Seeing his older sister, he smiled. “Hi, Cwystl,” he said in that adorable baby voice of his. “Where Mommy?”
“She’s…she’s not here, Hawk,” Crystl said, hoping the nickname she’d always used on him because of his golden eyes, eyes like a hawk, would soothe him, and indeed, his smile grew.
“When she come back?” Jay asked. “Baby in Mommy’s tummy,” he informed her, just as he had been doing every day for the last eight months, ever since Michele found out she was pregnant again.
“She’s…she’s not coming back, Hawk.”
The child’s smile abruptly vanished. “Never?”
Crystl shook her head. “Never, ever.”
Jay’s lower lip trembled, and he suddenly exploded in wails. “I want Mommy! I want Mommy!” the child screamed as Crystl held him tightly and said nothing.
Crystl’s father charged into the room. “Keep that monster quiet!” he roared in a fury.
That shocked Jay into silence and Crystl as well; neither child had ever heard their father raise his voice.
Sam Johnson moved toward his son with an uplifted hand poised to strike.
Crystl quickly turned, shielding Jay with her own body.
Theresa appeared in the doorway. “Daddy! I need you to tell me what to do with this.” She held up a thick envelope.
Sam turned to the six-year-old. Theresa had been helping her father in his rather shady business since she was old enough to, Crystl being too attached to her mother and Jay being too small. He sighed. “Okay,” he said, and followed her out of the room. At the door, he paused and looked back. “Try and keep the brat quiet, would you?” he snapped, and disappeared.
Crystl felt her father’s hand digging into her shoulder but ignored it, tugging on her long blond braid as her mother’s body, in its polished mahogany coffin, was lowered into the earth. Crystl and Theresa stood a little before their father, who was stoically eying the casket, each holding one of Jay’s little hands. The boy was staring at the ground, sniffling. He had been crying earlier and his father had backhanded him for it. Crystl gripped Jay’s hand a little tighter as the pastor went on. Why couldn’t he just be quiet? These useless platitudes, this useless ceremony…none of it would change the fact that her mother was dead. Michele Johnson would never laugh or smile at her little girl again, or tickle her young son, nor would she and Theresa giggle at Jay and Crystl’s play. Crystl thought she might never play or giggle again. She had quickly learned that life would be much different. Crystl looked up at her father, who had so far, not cried, not spoken. How on earth did he manage it? The little girl looked up as she felt herself pulled forward, and saw that Theresa was going forward to place the Easter lily she held on her mother’s coffin. Crystl joined Theresa and Jay. She kissed the lily she held and laid it on the coffin, watering it with her tears. Her mother had loved lilies. The three children rejoined their father and stood there as people began drifting away. They stayed until the coffin was lowered into the ground and the gravediggers began to fill in the hole. Crystl wished it was as easy to fill the hole in her heart. Nothing would ever fill that void, and Crystl knew that she would just have to learn to live with it; that’s what her mother would have wanted. Biting her lip to hold back the tears and still failing, she took Jay’s hand and trailed her father to the car.
Matt looked toward the door. “Hey, there’s my precious jewels!” he said, watching as Brad walked in cautiously, followed by Leigh, Thace in her arms. He smiled as he hugged his son tightly, then took his little girl, kissing her and tickling her, grinning as she giggled.
Brad sat down on one side, Leigh on the other. “Do they know what’s wrong yet, Daddy?”
Matt’s eyes darted to Leigh. The doctor had told them his diagnosis just that morning. There was a blood clot in Matt’s brain, a result of the gunshot wound, and there was no way they could do anything about it without killing him. Matt was simply slowly dying. “Nothing to worry about, Brad. You know? Either I get better and go home to y’all, or I get better by going home to heaven.”
“But you can’t die! I still need you!”
“Brad…do you remember when we went to the fair together, you and I?”
“Yeah, we went every year until this past year.”
“Do you remember when I gave you your ticket for the Ferris Wheel?”
Brad thought about this. “Right before we had to hand them to the attendant.”
“That’s right. I knew when you needed it, without you having to tell me. Your Heavenly Father knows when you need things, too. Don’t rush ahead of Him, son. When the time comes that I will have to go home, to die, you will reach down inside of yourself and find the strength you need. Just in time.”
Brad nodded. “Daddy…” he looked up to find his father’s eyes closed. “Daddy? Daddy!”
Leigh’s eyes were bright with unshed tears as she said, “He’s sleeping now, Brad. Let him sleep.” Leigh looked at her son’s pain-filled green eyes and couldn’t bring herself to tell the child that this was probably Matt’s last sleep, a coma from which he would never awaken.
“Do you think that’s a good idea?”
Theresa looked up at her big sister. “I think it’s the only choice we’ve got. One time, Cryssi, that’s all it takes for Jay to be beaten to death or you to be worse than dead. Do you really wanna take that chance? Please, we need to try adoption for you and Jay.”
Crystl looked down at her sleeping brother. Being the oldest child, she had become something of a mommy, and Theresa acknowledged and addressed that facet of her sister.
“What if they take Jay away from me? He needs me. I need him. If they separate us…what will we do then?”
“Isn’t your God in favor of families? Ask Him to keep you together.”
“And what about you, Terry?”
Theresa smiled at her sister. “I’ll be all right. I’m not Daddy’s child so much as his business associate anymore. He hasn’t beaten me, hasn’t yelled at me…I’ll be just fine with him. Crystl, please, even if you won’t do this to save yourself, at least do it for Jay. You can’t always protect him, and this way, he’ll be safe so you won’t have to. Sooner or later, as Jay grows up, when Daddy hits him, he’ll hit back, and I would stake everything I own on the theory that it would end up with one of them dead. If Jay stays here, he’s going to grow up into a very angry, very violent young man, despite your influence and his own sweet, gentle nature. Daddy will destroy all that is good and pure about all of us. I don’t think there’s anything good and pure left in me for him to uproot.”
“Yes, there is, Terry. Your love for Jay and me.”
Theresa smiled. “Daddy can’t do a thing about that. I will always love you, Cryssi, no matter what happens to you. Please, for me, for Jay, try this adoption thing. Please? I don’t want Jay dead, or hurt any more, and it rends my heart to see the fear that leaps into your eyes when you so much as see Daddy. Please, think about it?”
Crystl nodded slowly. “I’ll pray about it.”
Theresa smiled. “Thank you. Now, I’ve got to go; Daddy needs this in the locker by tomorrow sunrise.”
“Terry, please be careful.”
“I’m careful. And I’m good.”
Crystl watched her sister leave and spent the rest of the night in fervent prayer, for Theresa, for Jay, for her father, for herself, and even about the adoption possibility.
“Hi. I’m Leigh McClan. And you are-?”
The seven-year-old looked up at the blond woman, her violet eyes ever so much older than seven. “I’m Crystl,” she said quietly. “And this is my little brother, Jay.”
“Hi, Crystl. Hi, Jay.”
“Hi,” the little boy said despondently.
“Hello,” Crystl returned, taking a deep breath and offering a shaky smile.
“Your father told me over the phone about the loss of your mother. I can’t tell you how sorry I am. It must be so hard for you.” Leigh decided to leave out the fact that Sam Johnson had been drunk when he called.
“It is. May I speak frankly, Mrs. McClan?”
“Please do.” Leigh had encountered so many old children, like Crystl – children that had been forced to grow up fast because of some calamity that had befallen them. That was the only kind of child that came into the adoption agency.
“I am doing this very reluctantly. My father is a good man. A good father. At least, he was, once. I am not doing this for myself. I’m doing this for Jay. He needs a new home somewhere. But he also needs me, and I would advise you to find someone to take both of us. Jay is very vulnerable right now, and losing me could shatter him completely. Okay?”
“You have my word, Crystl, I will do my very best to find a home for both of you, but you need to understand that it simply may not be possible to place you together.”
“If we can’t be placed together, we won’t be placed at all. I’ll take Jay and disappear. So help me, I will.”
Leigh sighed; she so rarely had cases where children were worried enough about another sibling to make needlessly dangerous decisions on their behalf. “Like I said, Crystl, I’ll do my best. But don’t do anything rash; it may cost you Jay’s life.”
“I wouldn’t endanger Jay’s life. Never.”
“I know, Crystl,” Leigh placated. “I know.”
Crystl caught her breath, then clenched her teeth, trying to steady her lower lip. Her father had been drinking again, and judging from his sugary tone, he was going to mistake her for her mother again. Crystl had found out very quickly after her mother’s death that life would be very different. Without Michele around to temper and soothe him, Sam was a rough man, and then, to smother his grief, he started drinking, and life crossed the line to unbearably dangerous. They were supposed to meet a prospective new family today, and Crystl hoped her father remembered that. She also hoped Jay could wake up today without screaming; the boy had been beaten within inches of his life yesterday because he woke up screaming from a nightmare. She bit her lip as her father called again, impatience creeping into his voice. She hoped Jay slept through this. The three-year-old didn’t remember much, but she didn’t want to have one of the memories he held be things her father did to her, things no father should ever do to their daughter. She was feeling more and more like a prostitute every time her father called for her while he was drunk, and no matter how hard she tried to protect Jay, he was becoming more and more their father’s favorite punching bag. Crystl prayed once again to Jesus, a very present Friend that her mother had introduced her to, that her submission would save Jay a beating. Her father had never actually raped her, but there had been some awfully close calls that only Theresa had saved her from, and Crystl lived in constant dread of the day there would be no salvation. She was getting desperate enough that she had almost conceded that any arrangement that moved her and Jay out of the house would do, even if it separated them. Crystl knew Jay needed her, but she could not in good conscience remain so stubborn when it could cost the boy his life. She heard her father finally bellow her name and headed toward her parents’ bedroom.
Theresa heard the call from her room as well, and rushed to beat Crystl to the bedroom. “Daddy,” she said carefully. “It’s time to get dressed. You have an appointment at the agency to keep.”
Sam looked at his middle child through bleary, red-rimmed eyes. “You’re right,” he mumbled, shuffling off to his bedroom.
“George, look at them. They’re depending on each other to get through this. We simply can’t separate them.”
George turned to look at the two small children. According to the social worker, they had lost their mother nearly a year ago in childbirth, along with the baby she was trying to deliver, and their father was a horrible drunk. “I know, Elisabeth. But you only wanted a daughter – and an older one at that. Do you really want to take both of them?”
Elisabeth sighed. Ever since her own childhood, she had recurring dreams of her own children – or rather, child, a little girl with hair of sunshine gold. When Elisabeth found she couldn’t have children because of ovarian cancer, she had been heartbroken – more than that, completely shattered. For years, she and George had been on a waiting list, waiting for a child. When Leigh McClan had called them and said she had a young boy and girl, Elisabeth had not even dreamed how close little Crystl Johnson had been to her long-held childhood dream. Watching her dream come to life had been one thing, but her dream daughter had a little brother, and it was obvious she was his whole world. Separating them would be a heartless and cruel thing to do. If gaining her dream daughter meant she gained a son as well, why not?
Meanwhile, Crystl and Jay were looking up at the couple that the lady behind the desk had said would be their new parents. Three-year-old Jay was clinging to Crystl as if afraid she would disappear if he let go. The wails had stopped, but tears still cascaded down his face, and his deep breaths were still shaking. Crystl was bravely trying to hide her tears for her brother’s sake, but every few seconds, she quietly wiped another one away. She stroked the boy’s brown hair absently as she thought. I won’t let them take Jay away from me, she thought almost defiantly. He needs me. I’ll…well, I don’t know what I’ll do, but whatever I do, it’ll be with Jay. Crystl was distracted by a movement at the window across the hall. A small boy with a shock of red hair waved to her, then made the most grotesque face she had ever seen – and she found it funny. The faces continued for ten minutes or so while the adults deliberated.
Elizabeth and George Bennett turned to the social worker. “We…we only wanted a girl,” George faltered.
Crystl felt her heart go cold as she heard this, and she suddenly burst out, “No! No! She can’t take Jay from me! You can’t! I’ll take him away, I promise! I’ll run if I have to!”
Elisabeth Bennett studied the girl for a moment. Crystl was standing up, Jay in the seat directly behind her, her eyes on fire, her hands balled into fists, her body rigid. Clearly, anybody trying to separate the two children would have a massive war on their hands, and one which Crystl would never give up. Tears of rage trembled in her eyes, and she glared at the woman murderously. “Your brother means a lot to you,” Elisabeth said quietly. “That’s why we’ve decided to take both of you.”
Crystl relaxed imperceptibly. “Both of us?”
Elisabeth smiled. “Yes. We’re going to adopt both of you as our children. Is that satisfactory?”
Crystl sighed, melting, and she picked Jay up. “Yes. That arrangement will work. But I’ll hold Jay, if you don’t mind.”
Jay sniffled and put his arms around Crystl’s neck as if he would never let go.
Elisabeth smiled. “That’s fine.”
As the foursome walked out, they passed Sam Johnson. His eyes were bloodshot and saggy, his mind completely distracted. He was thinking of Theresa. He had never told the agency that he had another daughter; he needed Theresa. She was a child with a look of pure innocence, and could get under people’s defenses quicker than any other business associate he’d ever had. She had been helping him cut down on his drinking, but she was completely devoted to helping his business grow and branch out. Just now, she was probably chattering charmingly to an older woman that she had been sent to, who had a price on her head. Sam never asked why the man who had come to him asking for the woman’s death wanted her dead; all Sam cared about was getting paid for his work. Theresa would come back with the floor plan of the house memorized so Sam could take out the woman with very little trouble. Sam came back to the present to find his eldest daughter standing in front of him, holding little Jay’s hand.
Crystl looked up at her father, the man she had shyly adored her whole life, who had turned her life into a living nightmare for the past year, who had beaten her precious little brother within inches of his life. As Elisabeth Bennett took her hand, she looked up at the woman, and then at her father, and said quietly, “I love you, Daddy.”
The small red-haired boy watched as the girl and boy walked out with their new parents. Then, he went into Leigh’s office. “Mom?”
Leigh looked up with a smile. “Hi, Brad.”
“She accepted it, huh? She’s the only one I’ve ever seen who didn’t try to fight the system.”
“All she cared about was being with her brother, where he’d be safe. But you’re right; most children would resist, days, months, even years sometimes. But she just let the red tape take its course.” Leigh sighed and stood up. “I think I’m definitely through for the day. Let’s go see your father.”
Leigh stood to one side as Thace bent to kiss her daddy. As always, there was no indication he even knew. Brad looked up at his mother and caught the tears in her eyes. “Mom,” he said. “Level with me. Dad’s not going to wake up, is he?”
Unable to trust her voice, Leigh simply shook her head.
Brad’s chin quivered, and he closed his eyes. She was amazed when his eyes opened and he said, “Goodbye, Dad. Save a place for us in heaven. I’ll miss you, and I’ll always love you.” It was his Ferris Wheel ticket, the strength he needed, just in time, despite the tears in his eyes.
“Bye-bye, da-da. Bye-bye,” Thace said.
“Brad, Thace, would you give me and your father a few minutes, please?” Leigh asked. She watched the children go and sit in the waiting room. She sighed, sitting down next to her husband, taking his hand, ignoring the steady beeping of the heart monitor and the various tubes and wires hooked up to her husband. Matthew McClan had been a vibrant, vital man before getting hit in a shootout, sinking him into a coma from which there would be no recovery. Being a “hero cop’s family” and being admired and looked up to for how they were handling this tragedy was small comfort to the family; Leigh and her two small children, twelve-year-old Brandon Michael McClan and four-year-old Thacia Lesley McClan, only wanted back the man that completed their lives. “Hi, Matt. It’s me again. I wish I knew if you could hear me. You should see the kids. Brad’s gonna grow up just like you. He told me yesterday that he wants to be a cop when he grows up. Thace wants to be a secret agent man. They both love to come see you. Brad aced that math test he was so worried about. And Thace drew you a picture, see? I think it’s supposed to be a door.” Leigh took a moment to clear her throat and blink away the tears. “Do you remember our first date? You gave the seat you had saved for your mother at dinner to me. That was so sweet of you, and for years after, I believed you had actually saved that seat for me. Maybe you had, without knowing it. You were so handsome, in that smart black tuxedo, your auburn hair carefully combed, your wide smile making those green eyes of yours sparkle. Thace got your eyes, and they sparkle just like yours when she smiles. Brad got your eyes, too, and hair and your build; you ought to see the girls that go all doe-eyed when he passes by. They’re beautiful.” Leigh couldn’t hold back the tears any longer, and closed her eyes against them. “God,” she prayed softly. “If I could just have five minutes with Matt…”
It was soft, but Leigh looked up and saw Matt’s eyes open and trained on her face. “Matt! Oh, Matt!”
“I haven’t got long, Sunshine. I’m going home today.”
“It’s my time, Leigh, and I’m ready. I want to be home, with my Savior.”
Because she couldn’t do anything else, Leigh nodded.
“Tell my precious children I love them. Tell them they are the brightest jewels in my crown. I love you, my cherished Leigh.”
She could barely force the words around the lump in her throat, but firmly held the tears back. “Matt, when my time is up-” She couldn’t go on.
Matt smiled at her. “Leigh, when your time is up…I’ll save a seat at the table for you. I love you…” his eyes drifted shut again.
Matt’s face blurred as the tears spilled over. As she cried, Leigh found the beeping of the heart machine somehow louder, more distinct. And then it fell deathly quiet. Folding her hands on the now-still chest of her husband, Leigh sobbed.
Brandon McClan sighed heavily, letting his four-year-old sister down, holding her hand as they walked home, his twelve-year-old shoulders slumped in defeat. With his father’s death, after a five-year coma, the family had found themselves with no money and no way to make any. Brad’s mother had found a job in a small nursery, leaving the boy and his sister alone. Brad had found his mother crying just last week. He had asked her why, and he had been horrified to find his mother actually considering selling herself on the streets to care for himself and his sister. Brad was desperately looking for work, but no one would hire a twelve-year-old boy with a little girl. Brad flexed his shoulders. He was a good worker, and down at the docks, he helped load the boats whenever he could, cultivating thick muscles that looked unnatural on the tall boy. He was incredibly strong for his age. He sighed again and then froze with fear when he felt a myriad of hands on him. They threw him down on the pavement. “Thace!” he cried out, looking for his sister. “Thace!” His eyes picked out his sister’s, terror-filled and begging for help. “Give me back my sister!” he demanded of the woman now holding her.
“You can have her back,” the woman mocked. “If you can defeat the Meat Grinder!”
Brad followed the slant of her gnarled finger to a giant of a man who was dancing across a clearing of about ten feet by ten feet, ringed with people. Brad took a deep breath and slowly let it out. The man came toward him, grinning, and Brad patiently waited until he was close enough, then dove, twisting in midair, shooting between the man’s legs, both feet connecting hard with the man’s groin. As the giant sank to his knees, Brad latched his arms around the giant’s neck and squeezed tightly. Finally, the man quit struggling and crashed to the street like a great tree.
“Here, son,” a man said. “Your sister, and the prize money. What’s your name, kid?”
“McClan Man! McClan Man!” the crowd chanted.
“You’re in, kid! There’s a fight every Friday night right here! Come back and we’ll get you in. Don’t come back…”
The man trailed off, but Brad saw his eyes rove over Thace. He got the message. If he didn’t fight, he would lose his sister. He opened the prize pouch he had been handed and his eyes widened. There had to be thousands of dollars in there. Apparently, the stakes were very high. “If I have to fight,” he told his sister once they were safely home, “I might as well use the money to save the family I am fighting to protect.”
Elisabeth Bennett shook her daughter desperately. “Crystl! Crystl, honey, wake up!”
Crystl’s eyes snapped open and she screamed full in her foster mother’s face before realizing where she was and dissolving into sobs, clinging to her mother. The tears finally abated, and the nine-year-old swiped a hand over her face before George Bennett, who had run to the room on his wife’s heels, offered her his handkerchief. Crystl blew her nose and wiped her eyes, then looked from her Mother to her Papa and back again. “Oh, dear. I’m sorry. I’m so awfully sorry. I didn’t mean to wake you. It just…seemed so real…” Crystl shuddered reflexively.
“What was the nightmare about, honey?” Elisabeth asked gently, still holding her daughter.
Crystl sighed. “The same thing it always is. More of my father. I wish…I wish I didn’t have such an accurate memory. So many times, he came so close to destroying my innocence, to taking Jay’s life. It was awful. He kept screaming and…and hitting, and Jay just lay there, and kept laying there and laying there. And then I noticed he wasn’t breathing and…oh…” Crystl blinked back the tears. “I don’t know what made Daddy go so crazy, but I couldn’t stop him beating Jay, and I just knew if we didn’t get away, then sometime…sometime, it wouldn’t be just a bad dream. Why? Why do I have to remember? I don’t want to remember. I just want to forget what he became. Only to remember what he was while Mama was alive…” Crystl sighed, looking up at Elisabeth. “Why would God take my mother? Was I bad? Is it my fault?”
Elisabeth hugged Crystl tightly. “Oh, no, little love. People don’t die because we’re bad. They die because sin has irreversibly corrupted this world. I don’t know why God chose to take your mother. We may never know. I know it may not seem like it, but there was a plan…I know there was a good plan, a perfect plan. Somewhere. Maybe it was so you could come to us, maybe something bigger than that. Oh, Crystl, we love you so much!” Elisabeth hugged her daughter close. “Do you think you can sleep now?”
Crystl took a deep, shaky breath. “I don’t know. I can still see it, still hear it…it haunts me.”
George sat down. “What if I read you a story?”
Crystl smiled. “That might help, Papa. Pick a nice one.”
Her father picked up a book of princess fairy tales and read all of them. “Feel better, sweetheart?” he asked when he was done.
“Yes, Papa. Thank you. I think I can sleep now.”
“Sweet dreams, my fairytale princess.”
When Crystl was once again alone, she folded her hands under her head and thought of a dream she had had once, not so long ago. She was full grown, and having supper with a man with hair of auburn and eyes of clear green, and a dazzling smile that made her slightly weak in the knees. The rest of his features were hidden by a wave of his hair, but still…it had been a lovely dream, and Crystl hoped that she could wander into it again.
Crystl turned from her desk, her unbound hair swinging, reminding her that she had not yet braided her long golden hair for the night. Five-year-old Jay stood in her doorway in his favorite pajamas with the airplanes printed on them, his teddy bear held close. “What are you doing out of bed, Hawk? I tucked you in hours ago!” she chided gently, smiling as she brushed a lock of Jay’s soft brown hair out of his face.
Jay looked up at her with his most pleading look. “No story about Mommy?”
Ten-year-old Crystl smiled, swinging the boy up in her arms and carrying him back to his bedroom. She had told him a bedtime story every night of their mother. Tonight she had forgotten. “Okay. Let’s see…” Crystl thought a moment. “Okay. When I was six years old, Mama was carrying you around everywhere like a sack of potatoes. On Christmas morning I ran downstairs to find a beautiful dollhouse, over twice my size, with a red bow on top. Mama screamed, and I found that she didn’t know where you had gone, and she was afraid that you had hurt yourself. It turned out that you had somehow gotten out of your crib and climbed into the dollhouse and had curled up in the open downstairs and quite calmly went back to sleep. That’s when Mama started calling you her ‘doll-baby’. She was never angry with you, she loved you so.” Crystl smiled, shifting the now sleeping boy from her lap into the bed and pulling the quilt over him. She kissed his brow. “Sleep sweet, Hawk. Mama’s doll-baby.”
“Y’all are both so serious and solemn,” Crystl said in puzzlement. It was the week before her sixteenth birthday, and George and Elisabeth had asked to see the two children in the drawing room. “What’s the matter?”
“Well, we wanted to give you two a choice,” George said.
“That’s right,” Elisabeth confirmed. “You two didn’t have a whole lot of choice when we adopted you; legally you became Bennetts. But we know that you were Johnsons beforehand, and so we want to give you both the choice of whichever surname you prefer to have for the rest of your lives.”
“I think it’s a little more important for Jay,” Crystl said. “After all, with God’s blessing, I still have a big surname change to come in my future. Jay will not only give a woman whichever name he chooses, but all his children as well.”
“What do you think I should do, Crystl?” the boy asked.
“It’s entirely your decision, Jay. Choose whichever name you like. They’re both good, perfectly respectable names. As for me…” Crystl looked at her adoptive parents, “I’ll stay Bennett. It suits me just fine.”
Jay looked at George, Elisabeth, and Crystl before saying, “If it’s alright with you…all of you, I think I’d like to go back to Johnson. It holds a lot of memories for me.”
George and Elisabeth looked at each other. “It’s alright by us,” George said.
“Fine by me, too. Your name could be changed to Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer for all I care; you’ll always be my Hawk.”
Jay grinned. “I don’t want to be named after a social misfit. Think what that would do to my dating prospects!”
“I sure hope the girls you date like Jayson Johnson, the Incredible Hunk.”
“Jay Johnson,” Elisabeth sounded aloud. “Got a nice ring to it. Flows. Just like Crystl Bennett.”
“It’s settled, then,” George announced. “Tomorrow, I will take Jay down to City Hall and we’ll change his surname. And Crystl will stay Bennett, until she meets an Incredible Hunk of her own.” He grinned at his children and said, “So! Who wants to go to the movies?”
“Good evening, ladies and gentlemen, and welcome to the fight we’ve all been waiting for! Tonight’s your lucky night, where the best two fighters from the West Coast go up against the best two fighters of the East Coast! Tonight, from the East Coast, we have…McClan Man, and Morgan the Murderer!”
Brad sized up his partner. He was trim, but built with sleek muscles, and Brad could easily see why he was one of the best. He steamrolled guys, whereas Brad, built like he would steamroll guys, preferred to use his wits.
“And from the West Coast, Benson the Batterer and Jack the Ripper!”
Brad sized up their opponents. He muttered to his partner, “I’ll take the oversized schoolyard bully if you want the Grim Reaper there.”
The man looked over the two men. “Suits me fine.”
The bell was rung and the two leapt in unison, leaving both of their opponents on the pavement, bleeding and unconscious, in a matter of minutes.
“Winners and still undisputed kings of the cage, McClan Man and Morgan the Murderer!”
As they were leaving the fight, Brad said, “Say, friend, haven’t we met before?” Brad recognized him the instant he smiled. He would know that grin anywhere. “Yes! We met at the bar last night!”
“Yeah. I’m Jack, remember? We spent the whole night talking and drinking soda.”
“Yeah! So, you’re one of the best, huh, Angel-boy?”
Jack lifted an eyebrow at the nickname, but smiled. “You don’t earn a tag like ‘murderer’ by planting daisies.”
“I guess that’s true. I say you and I should enroll in the partner fights.”
“Brother, you read my mind! Let’s do it!”
And finally, Brad found a friend he could really trust and really like in the underground world of street fighting he despised.
“Good morning, Hawk.” 16-year-old Crystl pulled back the curtains in her brother’s room.
Eleven-year-old Jay turned over and rubbed his eyes. “Morning. Happy birthday.”
“Thank you. Mother needs you downstairs.”
Crystl turned back from the door and sat down by her brother, ruffling his brown hair lovingly. “Yes, Hawk?”
Jay usually smiled at the nickname, but this time, his forehead remained wrinkled. “Do you think Mom and Dad are offended that I chose to go back to my old last name?”
“Why, no, Hawk. I almost did, but I want to move on with my life. I do understand the attachment to it, though, and I’m sure they do, too.”
Jay’s face cleared. “Okay, Sunny, I’m up. I’m up.” Jay had started calling Crystl “Sunny” when he was six, because she was his sunshine. Even at only eleven, he was nearing Crystl’s six-foot height, and was promising to be as broadly built as his father was. He cocked his head and looked at her. “Sunny, did you have another nightmare?”
Crystl sighed. “I hate having a brother that can read me like a book. Yes. Another about Daddy. But the demons that haunt me are chased away in the daylight. Now hurry up, the day’s wasting.”
Later that day, after cake had been eaten and presents had found their respective spaces in Crystl’s room, Crystl sighed and smiled at her mother.
Elisabeth noticed her daughter’s gaze. “Did you have a good sweet sixteen party, dear?”
Crystl gazed around the room. Paper plates were piled high in the trash can, bits of streamer and confetti littered the once-gleaming hardwood floor, and streamers still suspended paper lanterns around the room. “Yes, Mother. But I haven’t mentioned my favorite gift yet. You and Papa. I thank God every day for giving me you.” She adjusted the straps of her spaghetti-strap dress. She looked stunning in it, having worn it for several weeks out on the beach to avoid tan lines.
“And we do the same, sweetheart,” George said from across the room, where he was taking down streamers.
“Crystl,” Elisabeth began cautiously, “do you think that Jay resents being adopted by us? Not that we’re upset by his decision or anything, but we’re a little concerned about his choice to legally change his last name back to Johnson.” The Bennetts had given their adopted children the option yesterday. Crystl had chosen Bennett, and Jay had chosen his original surname, Johnson.
“Oh, Mother,” Crystl said. “He loves you with all his heart. But remember, he was only three when y’all adopted us. His memories of our real mother are vague shadows and impressions at best, despite all the stories I’ve told him. This is his way of feeling closer to her, of honoring her memory, by sharing her last name. I think it’s a touching gesture, and one very mature for an eleven-year-old.”
“You and Jay have always been mature beyond your years. I regret the circumstances that caused it, but I am grateful that it’s so.” Elisabeth put an arm around her daughter’s slight shoulders as they began walking upstairs. “Then why did you choose to be a Bennett?” she asked.
Crystl smiled at her. Elisabeth, foster mother or not, had always reminded her of Theresa, a protective sister. “I can remember my mother quite clearly, for one thing. I also remember the things that I’m grateful Jay doesn’t. The drinking, the screams, the beating, the torture, just to name a few. I want those buried away from the light of day. I’m tired of bearing them. This is just one more way of moving on, for me.”
Elisabeth returned her daughter’s smile. “Goodnight, dear,” she said, as she turned left at the top of the stairs and Crystl turned right.
Crystl sighed as she entered her bedroom. It had been a wonderful day, a point of moving on. She closed her door and flipped on the light. The sight of a man standing in her bedroom startled her so badly that she didn’t move or make a sound as he gagged and bound her and lifted her out onto her balcony, down the outside stairs, and slung her across the saddle horn of the horse he was riding, urging it into a gallop. Tears streamed unchecked down her face. She had just been kidnapped by her own father.
“Ma’am, when was the last time you saw your daughter?”
A handful of tissues were forgotten in Elisabeth’s fist as she struggled to control the tears and think coherently. “Um, about…eleven last night, I guess. I was walking with her upstairs after her birthday party. She’d had such a good time…” Elisabeth felt frozen to the couch. She knew her husband’s arm was around her, but she couldn’t feel it. She looked at her eleven-year-old son. The hollow eyes that gazed back at her had somehow aged exponentially in the hours since they learned of Crystl’s disappearance. It was as if, instead of being missing, she had been found dead in her room. A part of Jay had died with the absence of his sister, and it wouldn’t be revived unless Crystl was returned alive and unharmed.
“Does your daughter have a history of running away?”
“Has she had any problems lately, trouble at school, quarrelling over small things, that kind of thing?”
“Not to my knowledge.”
“Father took her.”
Elisabeth flinched as her son’s flat, dull voice reached her; in all the bustle, Jay had not said a single word. All morning, she wished he would say something, and now, she wished he hadn’t spoken at all.
The policeman ignored him; it was quite obvious that he didn’t feel an eleven-year-old boy’s guess worth even considering.
Elisabeth and George, however, knew their son. They both now turned toward him. “Why would he do that?” Elisabeth’s eyes begged to know, to understand what a monster Sam Johnson really was.
Jay shrugged, his eyes staring at the carpet, not really seeing it. “Because he could. The way he sees it, she’s his property, and you stole her. So he stole her back, and if he doesn’t get what he wants from her, he will not give her back. This is not for ransom or publicity. He has what he wants, and he will not be inclined to give her back until he is good and ready to.”
Unable to do much else, the policeman turned to the boy. “And when might that be?” he asked, unable to keep the sarcasm from his voice. One of the rookies on the force, who was taking notes, looked sharply at him. Brad McClan was one of the few men on the force that was not only asking questions, but offering blankets and cups of hot tea to whomever looked like they could use it. One of those cups was on the coffee table. He had given one to Elizabeth as the woman talked to him about her daughter, then rescued the cup before Elizabeth spilled it on the carpet.
Jay looked up at the policeman in charge from eyes that were hauntingly hollow and eyes that, young as they were, understood the darkest mind that the police force had ever encountered. “Maybe today. Maybe never. Not until he gets what he wants from her.”
“And what is that?”
Jay turned his gaze back to his mother, and his one word, though quiet and oddly gentle, made her blood run cold. “Terror.”
Crystl peered around the hole her father had thrown her into. No light peeked in, but it was cold and damp and seemingly made of simple dirt, so she surmised she was in an old abandoned well. She shivered. Her party dress had not been very warm anyway, the short spaghetti strap dress having been specially made for the hot weather, but after her father had slit it into strips that showed off her entire body for the pleasure of anyone that happened to see, which was several men throughout the day, it was absolutely no help in warding off the chill of her damp little dungeon. She wondered if her father was selling tickets to see her, like some circus sideshow freak. It was entirely plausible that he would do just that. He wanted her humiliated, and the man Crystl knew was an expert on punishments worse than death. Sooner or later, the men who came to see her would not stop at just looking. Crystl drew up her knees, folded her arms across them, rested her chin on her crossed wrists, and wondered whether the cold or the starvation would kill her first. She had taken down her waist-length hair hours ago, the thick golden tresses shutting out the cold somewhat, but she could still almost feel her lips turn blue. Hearing a creaking sound overhead, she looked up to see her father’s form silhouetted in the late afternoon sunshine. She had been gone almost an entire day. The Bennetts must be frantic, and Jay would be hysterical. She had to get back to them. “Please,” she said quietly, tears starting to her eyes. “Please, let me out of here, Daddy.”
Brandon McClan sighed, hanging his head and rubbing his neck.
“Bear, what’s wrong?” Brad’s little sister said, crawling up in bed beside him like she’d done so often when they were kids. She was still a child in so many ways, but already a beauty at age ten. He figured he would have to beat the guys off with a stick when she turned sixteen.
Eighteen himself, Brad was a rookie on the police force, but this case bothered him far more than anything else ever had. The academy had not prepared him for the human side of abductions, the families torn open at the seams and ripped apart. The parents of this missing girl were distraught, and the brother…had simply shut down. He wouldn’t eat, couldn’t sleep, and his eyes were so hollow and hopeless that Brad was making a career out of avoiding his gaze. If his sister didn’t get back to him soon, the boy was going to kill himself out of sheer apathy for his own life. Now, Brad pulled his little sister close in a hug. She had started calling him “bear” when he told her the story of how he used to growl like a bear to make her laugh when she was a baby. “Not much, Mouse.” He called her “mouse”, for her silent way of moving and the squeak that she made when he tickled her. He rested his head on her auburn curls, so like his own auburn waves, and wondered how he’d feel if he lost his sister, and once again understood the brother’s reaction.
“It’s a case, isn’t it? Tell me, Brad.” She used the tone that she inherited from her mother, the tone that said he would regret it if he didn’t.
Brad scowled. His sister was the most perceptive person he knew, and sometimes, he hated it. “It’s the Bennett girl. They haven’t found her yet, and Captain Thibodaux just called a halt to the search this morning. He thinks she’s dead, but there’s something that’s telling me she’s still alive, but not for long, and I just have to find her before it’s too late.” He ran his hands through his thick auburn hair, frustrated, not only at the case, but with his coworkers’ stiff unwillingness to trust the instincts of a rookie, especially his. Brad had lived in a darker world, which made working with the police hard. He understood how the criminal world worked, but not one of the boys in blue trusted him enough to lead them through it unharmed.
The little girl looked up at her brother, trust and innocence glowing in her eyes. “Bear, if there’s one thing I’ve learned from you, it’s that God is faithful. He’ll take care of this girl. And if He chooses to take her home, He’ll take care of her family. You have to trust Him.”
Brad smiled. “I’m trying to, Mouse. But there’s something different about this one. I can feel it. She’s just not meant to die. And I have to find her before man’s evil screws that up.”
The girl used her brother’s shoulder to push off his bed, then leaned down to kiss his cheek. “Then you will find her, and stressing over that won’t make it happen any faster.” She smiled. “God has a funny way of making sure His plans aren’t screwed up.” She leaned down to hug him tightly again and smiled. “Mmm. I love the way you smell. It reminds me of…it reminds me of Daddy.”
Brad smiled. “I wear his aftershave. It always makes me think of protection and love. Goodnight, Mouse.”
Brad was still looking after his sister when his mother came in his room. “Hello, son. What are you thinking?”
Brad looked up at his mother. At only 38, Leigh McClan was still a beauty, and despite the arrangement of her marriage at age eighteen, she had been happily married to her husband for eleven years before he died quite unexpectedly. After Matt McClan had been lost, Brad had become the pride of the family, a position he never abused or took advantage of. Since the age of twelve, Brad had assumed the role of man of the house and protector of the family. He smiled now. “I was just thinking what a wonderful thing the faith of a child can be. I was stressing over something, and your daughter just pointed out that if I know I’m supposed to do something, stressing isn’t going to make it any quicker. There’s no gray for her; it’s all clear-cut, black-and-white. No wonder children are more receptive to the gospel message. They don’t see the use in making excuses yet.”
“It’s that Bennett case, isn’t it?” his mother said gently, sitting on the side of the bed, brushing his auburn hair off his forehead.
“Yes. I suppose I won’t sleep easy again until she’s safe, and it’s driving me crazy. The dreams, the what-ifs, the terror I know she must be feeling…it tears me apart.”
Leigh smiled at her son. “I’ll pray for your peace of mind. You always were so tenderhearted, never did anything unless you could see a benefit in it for somebody else. Even the street fights.”
Brad winced, but held his peace. His mother didn’t know it was still a sore spot, even two years after he had quit. He had made a fortune through the fights, a fortune that saved his family from death. It was when his mother told him that she would have to start selling herself to save her children that he had begun fighting – and winning – every night. He had saved his mother and his baby sister, but he still had nightmares about the terrible people and the terrible life of the hidden world where the street fights took place. Finally, the one good memory surfaced…
“Hi,” Brad said. “I…I’m sorry, but I couldn’t help but notice you were drinking a soda and not watching the show.”
The man on the barstool turned to face him.
Brad could see that he was just a kid, not much older than Brad’s fourteen years, though very muscled. Even so, a light seemed to shine around him, so clean when everyone else suddenly seemed so filthy.
“Yeah,” the boy finally answered, his smile disarmingly friendly. “I don’t care very much for alcohol or for people who are entertained by the stripping of a person’s clothes and self-dignity.” His tone clearly said that he had no use for anyone who did.
“Me, neither,” Brad agreed. His hand left his own sweating drink can. “I’m Brad McClan. McClan the Man, they call me around here.”
The man met his hand, that wide grin widening still further. “Good to meet you, friend. I’m Jack Morgan. Morgan the Murderer, I’m known as.”…
Leigh didn’t know the ghosts that still haunted her son, and didn’t really want to know. He was taller than her now, and powerfully built, but he still woke up some nights with nightmares so bad that nothing but being cradled in his mother’s arms could lull him back to sleep again. It was as if the terror in the eyes of each victim he saved was his own, every criminal turned into one of the men that forced him to fight. She had heard the story of her children’s walk home one night, when her daughter became the prize for a fight. Brad fought for – and won – his sister’s life, and the money he made from the prize fights bought them food and shelter. Leigh sighed, kissing her son’s forehead before seeking her own bed. She knelt to pray for her beloved children. This case was affecting her son more than the others had. She could feel it; there was something unique and different, special, about this girl. And she prayed desperately that her son would get the chance to find out what.
Brad opened his eyes to see Thace in her long pink nightgown and housecoat, barefoot, tugging on her thick auburn braid. “Mouse? What are you doing up? I thought you went to bed hours ago!” He laid aside his book and opened his arms to the child, who ran to cuddle in his safe embrace. Brad frowned inwardly. She wasn’t just snuggling up; she was cowering. Something had frightened her badly. “What’s the matter, Mouse?”
“I had a bad dream. I don’t remember the street fights, Brad, at least not when I’m awake. But apparently I do when I’m asleep. I think that’s what I dreamed about. I was little, and someone I didn’t recognize was holding me, and you were in a ring of people, sitting on top of this giant. I think he was unconscious, and your hands were all bloody…”
Brad held his sister close, closing his eyes, his gut twisting. One of the things he could be eternally grateful for was that Thace didn’t remember how she was treated during the street fights. Apparently, the memories were locked away in her subconscious, and had started surfacing as she dreamed. “I’m sorry, Mouse. I can’t tell you it’s just a bad dream, because it’s not – it really happened. I can assure you that it’s over. It’ll never happen again.”
“Why, Brad? Why did you fight at all?”
“I didn’t have much of a choice, Thace. It was kind of a ‘fight or die’ situation.” Brad had never told Thace that he had fought for her, that he continued to fight to keep her safe. It was a burden she didn’t need to carry. He gently tucked her into the empty side of his bed. “See if you can get some sleep, Mouse. I’m going to read for a while, but I’ll be right here if you need me.”
“Okay, Bear. Good night.”
Jay was in the kitchen when the doorbell rang. He answered it and felt his heart stop. His sister was standing there, slumped against the doorpost, her long blond hair tangled and matted, her frame emaciated, her lips parched and cracked, her dress slit and torn, her body almost blue with cold, and her lovely, tip-tilted, usually clear violet eyes…haunted.
“Mom! Dad!” Jay screamed, picking his sister up and carrying her inside. She felt so light, as if something about her had gone.
Elizabeth and George found Jay in the informal parlor, covering Crystl with one of the thick blankets there. “What happened?” Elizabeth cried.
“She rang the doorbell,” Jay said. Now that Crystl was back, it was his job to take care of her, and he rubbed her hands, trying to get her warmed up again.
Elizabeth said, “George, go get her hairbrush and one of her warmest outfits. Jay-”
“I’m staying with her,” he said defiantly.
Elizabeth looked at her son.
“I’m the only one who truly understands what our father was like. I’m staying. She may talk to me.”
Elizabeth nodded. “I’ll go get some soup. She may have to warm up from the inside out.”
When she was gone, Jay sat down next to his sister on the couch. “Crystl, what did Daddy do to you?”
“He…” she whispered. “He almost…”
“Did he try to rape you?”
Bursting into tears, she nodded.
Jay pulled his sister close, feeling his fear turn to anger. His sister was the kindest, gentlest, best person he knew and to have their monster of a father barge into her life like this and make three very long weeks of it a living hell was grounds for Jay to kill the man with his bare hands. Watching his sister slowly return to the person she was for the next three weeks, he vowed over and over to kill the man that did this to her. And then, one day, he went to wake her up. And she was gone. Again.
Twenty-year-old Brad sat back in Jana’s living room. “Jana, thank you so much for saving me,” he said once again as she poured him some cocoa.
Jana smiled. “Brad, we’ve already been through this. It’s nice that you and Jack are so grateful to me, but you’re tiptoeing across the line from thankful to smothering.” It had been Jana who had found Jack and Brad working together in the underworld fights and dragged them out. “I wonder what’s keeping Jack?” she said, her eyes moving to the curtained windows that opened onto the street in front of her house.
Brad stared at Jana. No matter how many times he looked at her, he still saw her as she was the night he had met her…
“Hey, heads up, Brad. I think a lady might need saving, one o’clock,” Jack called to his friend.
Brad looked in the direction indicated. The most beautiful woman he had ever seen was walking in, her honey-blond hair floating behind her, soft brown eyes complimenting the love and mercy she channeled toward everyone through a gentle smile. A light shone from her face as if from an angel.
“Whoo, baby, come to papa!” the men hooted and catcalled.
Brad and Jack stood up, shoulder to shoulder, as immovable as the mountains. “Leave the lady alone,” Brad said quietly. As they had just come from a fight as once again undisputed winners, no one contested this command.
“Sorry about them,” Brad said as Jack led the lady to a stool. “No morals and no manners, most of them.” He sighed. “What I wouldn’t give to get out of this place.”
She looked at him, love and kindness mingled. “If you two really mean that,” she began, including Jack in her warm gaze, “I can do it for you…”
Just then, the man in question came in through the front door. “Sorry I’m late.”
“Well, Angel-boy, you called this meeting. What’s up?” Brad questioned. Brad, Jack, and Jana shared a bond that was closer than friendship, even closer than blood. Brad called Jack “Angel-boy” for the light he had always seen emanating from him, just as he called Jana “Angel-girl” for the same reason.
Jack paused to embrace Jana before sinking down on the loveseat beside the man he loved as a brother. “Brad, you mentioned over the phone that you were quitting the police force. What’s up with that?” Since Brad lived in America, Jack was heading a mission with another old friend, Rion, in Wales, and Jana made her home in Belgium, the three often spent hours on the phone or on-line. They had gotten toll-free numbers to their houses so the bills weren’t horribly high.
Brad sighed. “Well, I was doing honest, productive, worthy work – good, for a change – but it didn’t feel right. It was a bad fit from the start. The guys never really trusted me, you know, because of my past.”
“So, I guess you’re looking for a job now?”
“Well, not really. We can live pretty comfortably all our lives because of the prize money.”
“Yeah, I guess we’re all pretty well off now. Even the heiress here and His Highness back in Wales.” Jana and Rion, so different from Brad and Jack, had made their sizable fortunes the old-fashioned way – inheritance. Jack had always teased Jana by calling her an heiress, just as he teased Rion with the royal title.
“Yeah. The thing is, I want to be useful. For Christ and for justice. I just can’t figure out a way. Besides, it’s good to have something to do. Idle hands are the devil’s workshop, and all.”
Jack slanted a teasing look at his friend. “Especially with your mischievous streak.” He cut off his friend’s retort with an uplifted hand. “Well, I think I may have a solution. The Alpha-Omega Sector.”
“I beg your pardon?” Brad said.
“It’s a organization I’ve begun. Basically, what we do is capture and help convict criminals operating above or around the law. No government owns us, no one knows about us.”
“So how is this different from, say, CIA shadow ops?”
“Because we have the freedom to do something a government division can’t. We tell and show the captured criminals the love of Jesus Christ. Our primary objective is spreading the gospel. Jana gave me the idea. It’s kind of what she did, only she didn’t arrest us. Rion has already joined.”
“How many folks do you have?” Brad asked.
“Well,” Jack said slowly, “if you and Jana join…four. I’m telling you Brad, this could be big.”
Brad and Jana looked at each other. “Count me in,” they said in unison.
Brad sighed, actually feeling as if his purpose might actually be fulfilled through this thing. “So…why were you late?”
“That’s the other thing I wanted to talk about,” Jack said. He pulled a small box out of his pocket. Kneeling in front of Jana, he opened the ring box. “Jana, will you marry me?”
Jana looked helplessly from Brad to Jack. “Oh, Jack, I…I don’t know…”
Brad smiled. “Jana, don’t you worry about me. Answer what’s in your heart. You know you and Jack were meant for each other.”
“Brad, are you sure?”
“Would you just answer the man?” Brad returned mildly. “He looks ridiculous on one knee.”
Soon, the friends were planning a wedding.
Brad grinned as the doors at the end of the aisle opened and Jana, radiant in her pure white wedding dress, started down the aisle, her orchid-and-ivy bouquet nearly touching the floor, the gauzy veil folded over a crown of lavender orchids. She was beautiful, and he cast a glance at Jack’s face, pleased to see his friend’s gaze riveted to his bride as if she were the only thing in the world worth looking at. Brad stifled a sigh as Jana reached the altar and handed off her bouquet to the maid of honor, then joined hands with Jack. He wanted to marry. He wanted to be loved, but his dark past scared women away, and those that he had never told about it couldn’t deal with his need to be able to pick up and go at a moments’ notice, the middle of a milestone date or not. When Jack called, Brad went. It was how AOS worked, and Brad would never refuse this man. It was as simple as that. After several girlfriends had dumped him over these two aspects of his life, Brad simply walled off his heart and was determined not to let anyone else in.
Brad yawned widely one morning a couple of years later as he went to get the paper. He unfolded it as he poured himself a glass of orange juice. He had gotten the first night of full sleep since the Bennett case re-opened, and as a result, he was waking up slowly. Crystl Bennett had been kidnapped for the seventh time in the last four years, and twenty-two-year-old Brad was getting frustrated at the sense of overwhelming urgency it gave him every time. Suddenly, he set down his glass with a thud and smoothed the paper out, reading the front page story.
KIDNAPPED GIRL RETURNS HOME
Authorities were baffled early this morning when Crystlyn Bennett, 20, reappeared on her adoptive parents’ front doorstep. The Bennett family has refused to comment except to identify Crystlyn’s kidnapper: her estranged biological father, who put her and Jayson Johnson, 15, up for adoption twelve years ago. Apparently, Samuel Johnson, 40, had gone insane after the loss of his wife, Michele Johnson, when she died in childbirth at the age of 27. All the police have for evidence, however, is the word of the girl, who has refused to press charges. Brother (Jayson) has only commented that he wanted his sister to get back to a normal life.
Brad sat back and sipped his juice. Should he go by the house? Call? No, best not to bring it up again. Let them get back to a normal routine again. At least, he reminded himself, as normal as life could be for a girl whose past wouldn’t let her alone. Brad knew that pain; he’d been there. His past was rearing its hideous head all too frequently in his own life as well. The case involving Miss Crystlyn Kathryn Bennett would always weigh heaviest on his mind; it was, after all, his first case on the force, and he carried a great deal of guilt over it. His captain had told him repeatedly that his rookie mistakes in handling the situation could have gotten the kidnapped girl killed. Brad sighed and read the rest of the paper, trying to push Miss Crystlyn Bennett from his mind. She was safe, and he had no reason to ever see her again, he tried to reason with himself. But the only reason his heart was accepting was a reason to see her again.
Brad sighed, tying his bathrobe, even as the doorbell rang again. “Okay, okay, I’m coming. Pushy,” he grumbled. He opened the door and instantly wished he hadn’t. At the door was a young lady he knew very well and had been trying to forget, without much success, simply because she wouldn’t let him alone. “What do you want, Lora?”
Lorelei Niles smiled up at Brad, twirling a lock of coppery hair around a finger. “You weren’t at my last show, Brad. I missed you.”
Brad grimaced. When he had been street fighting, the one bar that he could go to between fights was one that had a stage and contests for the best stripper. Lora had invariably won. Brad had never watched her strip and had never had a desire to, but Lora had fixated on him, and even after he left that world behind, she still sent him invitations to every strip show she performed, and every time, she would come to his house to pout over the fact that he had not shown up. “Lora, I am an incredibly busy man, and besides, I am not, nor will I ever be, interested in the kind of show you put on.”
Lora nodded. “I know what you mean.”
This stunned Brad, and Lora sidled past him into the house. He stood there dumbly a minute before closing the door and following her to the informal parlor, where she was standing, leaning against the fireplace. “What do you mean, you know what I mean?”
“I don’t like those awful shows either.”
Brad sank onto one of the chairs, astounded beyond words. “What in the world are you talking about?”
She shrugged. “In my opinion, there is a better way to hold those kind of shows.”
Brad relaxed. They were back on ground he knew; ground they had covered before. She wasn’t renouncing the shows altogether, just the way they were performed. “Oh, really?” His tone clearly showed disbelief. He would contradict her on every point if he had to, but he could not give up another chance to convince her that stripping was not the only life she could have. Ever since Brad had gotten out of the underworld, God had given him a true broken heart for those still trapped in fights, drugs, and strip bars, and he never lost an opportunity to regain one of them.
“Yes.” Lora pushed off from the mantelpiece. “I think they should be done…with a smaller audience.” And with no further warning, she started to demonstrate.
Brad stared a minute, then, sickened, he closed his eyes tightly. It was a bad move, because instantly, there was something pinching his nose. Automatically opening his eyes, he realized with horror that Lora was completely naked and had thrust her breasts in his face, straddling his lap. His face darkened, and he suddenly stood up, dumping Lora to the floor. Disregarding her, he strode over to the fireplace, every step quivering with fury, and gathered up her clothes. Flinging them at the startled girl, he growled, “Get up and get out.” Not bothering to wait for her reply, he left the room, going to the upstairs study, closing and locking the door, and not emerging until he had seen Lora leave his house. He sat down in the leather desk chair and buried his head in his hands miserably. “Oh, God.” The prayer came out an anguished whisper. “Why can’t they just leave me alone? Why can’t women just leave me be?”