Tag Archives: Mystery

Soft on the Devil, Chapter 3

Available at Amazon and Barnes&Noble.com

From Soft on the Devil:

Chapter 3

     September turned into October and St. Henry got cold.  If you’ve never lived in the Midwest, our summers are super-hot and our winters are super-cold, and the temperate seasons of Spring and Fall don’t seem to last more than a few weeks.  I try to make the most of Fall by doing outdoor stuff like hiking or walking around one of the parks in town, chilling with a book on the patio of the coffee shop by my work, or going to one of my old high school’s football games.  Soccer’s my favorite sport but I like those games, it feels good to support their team, and I get to see my teachers and occasionally my old friends.
     A week into October, I went to see Meremac South vs. Concordia Academy, a team we usually beat pretty bad.  I sat next to my history teacher, Mr. Samuelson.  “What’s up, sir?  How are classes this year?”
     He squinted at me beneath his bushy caterpillar eyebrows.  “Ian Phillips.  Nice to see you again, young man.  Classes are fine.  The students… don’t change very much.”
     “Is that good or bad?”
     “Neither.  Both,” he laughed.  “I don’t know.  I have just as many slackers as I had when you were enrolled here.  I can’t remember, were you a good student?”
     “You gave me a B-.  I think you were being generous.”
     “What was your term paper on?”
     “The Civil Rights Movement, tied to the necessity for compassionate politics in present day America.”
     “There’s an oxymoron if I’ve ever heard one,” he laughed.  “You might as well extol the benefits of waging peaceful wars.”
     “Speaking of politics, what’s going on with those fraud charges?” I asked.  “I saw something about it on the news back in June, but haven’t heard anything since.”
     “Hey, I just work here,” he said, turning up his palms.  “I’m happy to have this job.  Plenty of teachers like me have gotten the boot to make room for kids like you.”
     “Twenty-four isn’t a kid.  I wish it was, my parents might still give me gas money.”
     “How are they doing?”
     “You’ll have to ask them.  See you later, Mr. Samuelson.”
     Standing in line at the concession stand to get a pretzel before kickoff, I recognized the girl beside me from back in the day.  She’d gone to one of the other Meremac schools, North or East, I couldn’t remember.  I thought her name was Amy.  “Hey, it’s Amy, right?”
     She turned quickly, her reddish-brown hair whipping the front of her face.  “Yes!  Hi, and you are?”
     “Ian.  I used to go here, I graduated in 2011, the same year as you.  We had some friends in common I think.”
     “Sorry, I don’t know you.”
     “Like I said, we had some friends in common.  You went to Meremac North, right?”
     “How’d you know that?” she asked suspiciously.
     “We saw each other at parties and stuff.  We even talked a few times.  Ian Phillips.  You honestly don’t remember me?”
     “No, I honestly don’t, and I’d appreciate it if you wouldn’t bother me again.”
     “Sorry, Amy, I had no idea I was bothering you.  I was just trying to be nice.  I won’t speak to you again.”
     We waited in line for another two minutes or so, side by side, extremely awkward.  She stepped up to the counter and ordered a hotdog and Diet Sprite, which was a relief since I half-expected her to ask the concessions guy to call security.  I stepped up to the counter as she was getting her change, and started to order a Diet Sprite too, because that’s what I always drink, but stopped in the middle of the word “diet” for fear she’d accuse me of being some kind of soda-order-mimicking-stalker or some bizarre thing.  “Di… et Pepsi,” I said, “and a pretzel with light butter, please.”  Amy walked away with her food.  After getting mine I went to sit on the upper bleachers where it wasn’t too crowded.
     The game was closer than I’d expected, with Concor-dia coming back strong in the second half.  A field goal in the final minute put them in tying range with thirty-four points to Meremac’s forty-one.  Our defensive line held like a brick wall, though, and my alma mater brought home the win.  On the way to my car I saw one of my old friends, Claire Hendel, talking to Amy as they walked toward the parking lot.  “Hey, Claire,” I yelled, running up and giving her a big bear hug, picking her up and spinning her around.  “It’s so good to see you!”
     “Ian,” she laughed, “put me down, you lunatic!  How are you?  Why don’t you come to The Haus anymore?”
    “Why, so I can get wasted and crash my car?  I just wanted to say hello,” I looked at Amy behind her, “since we were such good friends back in the day.  It’s great to know we all still love and respect each other, isn’t it?”
     “Let’s get coffee sometime, the three of us.  You know Amy, right?”
     “I do know Amy.  Hi, Amy,” I waved.
     She nodded silently.
     “Take care you guys.”
     “Bye, Ian.”
     About this time last year I started noticing symptoms of Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder creeping into my daily routine.  When I woke up each day I felt obligated to perform my morning activities in the same specific order.  I’d wake up, use the bathroom, wash my hands, brew my cup of coffee, fix breakfast, take a shower, brush my teeth, apply deodorant, and get dressed.  If I started brewing coffee before going to the bathroom, or putting on deodorant before brushing my teeth, I’d be forced by an irresistible compulsion to stop what I was doing and return to the normal order.  One day I forgot to brush my teeth and apply deodorant before heading to work.  I didn’t realize it until after I’d arrived and clocked in, and all of a sudden it was like a door slammed shut, locking me in an airtight room.  I couldn’t breathe or talk or think straight.  Walking out from behind the café counter and back out of the store, I got in my car and started driving home to brush my teeth and put on deodorant, but made a U-turn around the circle and parked again, realizing they might fire me for bailing on them like that.
     Other weird stuff started happening at about this time, not only psychological stuff but also strange occurrences involving people I knew, and events in the world.  I had more bad dreams about Cindy showing up at my apartment and jumping out of shadows.  Some-times I’d think I saw her from a distance while I was awake, catch a glimpse of her rounding a corner, or looking out a window, or leaning against a building far away.  The people in my apartment complex gave me weirder vibes than usual, too.  That guy, Gary, who I chatted with on occasion, started saying scary stuff about the people he called, “the powers.”  He meant the government, the rich, the people on tv and in the news, and he’d talk like they were the enemy, saying things like, “America won’t last much longer,” or, “Someone better stand up to the powers real soon.”  It might not sound scary when I say it, but the way Gary said it felt like something horrible was going to happen.  And he wasn’t the only one, I sensed a dark, lurking anger all over town.
     This was around Thanksgiving of last year, ironically.  I remember thinking, if every city is feeling like St. Henry’s been feeling, maybe America really isn’t going to last much longer.  I kept on waking up, driving to work, and reading the Bible at night, which helped me to not worry so much.  I knew that the only true power is God power.  The devil can lead people astray from time to time and cause a fair amount of trouble, but at the end of the day it’s still the Lord’s world, and Christ alone is sovereign here.  I switched from reading Jeremiah and the Prophets at night to reading the Gospels, to coincide with the holidays coming up.  Having Christmas around the corner helped also, not just me but everyone.
     I saw the dark-haired lady, Mrs. Romero-Newstead, parked outside my work a few more times, just sitting and staring.  I didn’t go up and talk to her again in case she’d tell her husband a man at EarthWay was hassling her, and then I might have two groups of thugs to be paranoid about.  With the amount of money Mr. Newstead had you’d be able to order any kind of malevolent treatment you could imagine—not that he would, necessarily.  He may have been a perfectly nice and gentle person, I’m just saying what he could have done. 
     I saw Amy again around Thanksgiving, the week after in fact.  My old buddy, Scott, showed up at EarthWay to meet Claire for lunch one day.  Almost a year had passed since the last time I’d seen him, and he looked healthier than I remembered him, brighter, like an actor in the final shot of one of those prescription drug commercials.  Vera let me have a five-minute break to catch up with him.  I told him he looked good, like he was doing well and all that, and he said he’d given up booze and smoking and had started doing yoga, which had helped his aura considerably.  He said he’d been working for his uncle’s real estate company and had scored big on a couple good sales over the summer, and he’d leased a condo for the following year out here in the county, in Marine Echoes, a pretty affluent part of town.  He asked if I wanted to stop by that Friday for a dinner party he was hosting, with a few people from school and some other friends of his.  I said sure.
     The wine section of my store was having a sale on Cabernet Sauvignon, so I picked up a bottle to bring to the party.  It was between that and the Pinot Grigio, but the description on the label swayed me.  I have a bottle of the same wine right here.  “This selection offers a quintessential incarnation, complex in character with an inky hue, flavors of cherry, eucalyptus, and black plum.”  The condo Scott was leasing turned out to be right next to the lake, less than a hundred yards from the water.  Most of the leaves had fallen off the trees by then so you could see the reflection of the distant windows and passing headlights on the surface of the water.  The humming of voices and deep rhythm of a jazz record escaped through the windows and walls as I climbed the steps.  No one answered when I knocked so I turned the knob and entered.  Crowded room, twenty or so, a few of them looked to see who I was.  I made my way into the kitchen with the bottle of Cabernet.
     “You made it,” Scott greeted me.  “Thanks for the wine, looks nice.  Make yourself at home, bro.  We’ve got apps on the table, beers in the fridge, mixed drinks at the bar.  You know most of the people here, right?”
     “Yeah,” I nodded without looking around.
     “Sweet, man!  Glad you could come.”
     A second later he was gone.  I grabbed a can of Blue Moon out of the fridge and stood near four people by the front door.  A tall blonde woman without any makeup was talking passionately, saying, “It’s get what you can as fast as you can, legally if possible, or a way you won’t get caught.  We’ve actually gone back in time a hundred and twenty years with regard to regulations, and the majority actually thinks it’s a good thing.”
     “What do you think should be done about it?” asked a guy with a Jaxon hat and Elvis-style sideburns.
     “Honestly, we need people to step up and hold the frenzy feeders accountable for their actions.”
     As she was talking someone to my right called my name.  I turned and it was Amy.  “I was very rude at the game that day.  I’m sorry,” she said, almost shouting over the music.
     “Yeah, you were kind of rude,” I said, walking over.  “No big deal though, it’s not like we were best friends back then.”
     “I’d be highly offended if you had treated me like that.”
     “Really, it’s okay.”  Noticing the absence of a drink in her hand, I asked if she wanted a glass of wine.
     “Sure,” she smiled.
     Using a corkscrew on the counter I opened the bottle and poured a glass right away.  I know you’re supposed to let red wine breathe for a few minutes but that wasn’t really an option given the potential awkwardness of the time we’d spend waiting.  She took the glass and sipped the wine.  Over her shoulder some guys I didn’t recognize were staring at us from the opposite corner of the room.  The music was loud, dark, slow jazz, sax and trumpets moaning in ever-rising platforms of rigid sound.  “Do you want to take a walk?” I asked.
     “Yeah,” she nodded.
     We got our coats, walked down the steps, and down the drive toward the lake, the gravel crunching beneath our feet.  “I like the cold,” I said.  “I used to hate the winter.  Now it seems quieter, more peaceful.  You?”
     “No,” she shook her head.  “I’ll take a sunny day at the beach over a cold peaceful day anytime.”
     “The closest beach is a thousand miles away.”
     “That’s probably why,” she said.
     The shore was mostly sand and gravel, with fallen trees here and there, farther back from the water.  Amy and I sat on one of the fallen tree trunks.  I breathed a giant cloud of steam into the air.  She breathed a smaller cloud.  “Just sad,” she said.  The lighted windows of the houses on the other side of the lake bobbed and swelled faintly on the black surface of the water.  I sidestepped toward her, sat next to her on the tree.  I looked at her cheek, the reddish-brown waves of her hair, pure black in the night, she looked at her hands, then up at me, I leaned over, and kissed her.

 

Soft on the Devil

Available at Amazon and Barnes&Noble.com

When Cindy Myran doesn’t return home one night, within days everyone in her neighborhood assumes she’s dead, but Ian Phillips isn’t so pessimistic.  She shows up at his door a week later, in need of help and running for her life.  What happens next draws him into a labyrinth of murder, corruption, and danger, where nothing is clear and sinister secrets lurk in the shadows.  Only Ian’s courage, faith, and determination can uncover the mystery and deliver him and those he loves out of darkness and into the peaceful light of safety.

SOFT ON THE DEVIL

One day the heavenly beings came to present themselves before the Lord, and Satan also came among them.  The Lord said to Satan, “Where have you come from?”  Satan answered the Lord, “From going to and fro on the earth, and from walking up and down on it.”  The Lord said to Satan, “Have you considered my servant Job?  There is no one like him on the earth, a blameless and upright man who fears God and turns away from evil.”  Then Satan answered the Lord, “Does Job fear God for nothing?  Have you not put a fence around him and his house and all that he has, on every side?  You have blessed the work of his hands, and his possessions have increased in the land.  But stretch out your hand now, and touch all that he has, and he will curse you to your face.”  The Lord said to Satan, “Very well, all that he has is in your power; only do not stretch out your hand against him!”  So Satan went out from the presence of the Lord.       Job 1:6-12

 

Chapter 1

One of my uncles used to say judging other people based on what you can see is dangerous, because what you see isn’t always a reflection of who they are.  He said the world has a way of slanting things to make a person’s life look different than it truly is, and sometimes people look better, and other times they look worse.  He said more often than not when something bad happens to a person, sickness, tragedy, death, he or she had that evil coming because of the bad stuff they’d done and hadn’t repented of, but occasionally, something terrible happens to someone who doesn’t deserve it at all.  Like with Job, God allows it as a test, to prove His faithfulness and eventually show forth His mercy and compassion.  I don’t know whether or not my uncle was right, I just thought that was a good way to start the story I’m telling, about what I’ve seen and heard since last summer.

A woman in my apartment complex went missing last June.  Cindy Myran.  Most of my neighbors assumed she was dead, given her reputation as a drunk and an addict, and the way she came and went at odd hours, the people who picked her up always shouting, laughing, and making a scene out in the street.  My upstairs neighbor, Gary, said he thought she’d been murdered.

“Women like that get killed all the time,” he told me, a real serious look in his eyes.  “They go out partying and strut around town, hop in cars with the loudest, meanest guy that takes an interest, and sooner or later he gets tired of her yapping and loses control.  Or maybe she gets real unlucky and goes off with a really evil man who breaks her neck one night for the fun of it.”  Gary twisted his hands like he was uncapping a pickle jar.

“Don’t you think she might have moved away,” I asked, “or gone to stay with a friend out of town somewhere?”

“She didn’t tell nobody.  Kelly says she always calls and asks her to get her mail if she’s gonna be gone this long.”

“I know, but it’s possible she forgot to call Kelly, or thinks she already did, like a slip of her memory.”

Gary sneered.

“No, wait.  I’ve got a sixth sense about stuff like this.  I think we’ll see Cindy again.”

I remember being at work that week and feeling a dark cloud over everyone, even with the sunlight pouring through the windows and the people walking in from the lake all tired and rosy.  They’d order a slice of gourmet pizza and a microbrew, and I’d ring it up on the register.  I worked at the café counter of an EarthWay grocery store in the county, where those who could afford it shopped for organically grown, locally farmed meat and produce.  The majority of my customers were married women, and I had to be careful because some of them liked to flirt.  A few of my coworkers liked to flirt too, which may have been why my boss, Vera, put me on the register and kept Rob and Casey on the food line.  The Friday after Cindy went missing, one customer started flirting with me, but it turned out to be something else entirely.

It was after the lunch rush, one-thirty or so, and she walked up as I was counting and clipping the small bills, a lady with straight black hair down to her shoulders, white skin, and dark eye makeup and lipstick.  She scared me a little, I looked up and she was there.

“Can I help you, ma’am?”

“I’m checking out the menu,” she said slowly, her eyes scanning the items overhead.

I set the stacks of ones and fives aside and waited.

“The Portabella Melt sounds delicious,” she smiled.

“It’s one of the favorites,” I said.  “Is that what you want?”

“I don’t know,” she replied, a hint of playful agony in her voice.  “What would you get if you were me?”

“I like the salmon avocado pizza,” I said matter-of-factly.

“That sounds nice.”

I waited while she scanned the menu a little longer.

“I’ll have the Portabella Melt,” she said at last.  “You look like that actor, from those old movies.  What’s his name, um…”

“Joseph Cotten.”

“Is that his name?”

“It’s what people say.”

“Maybe.  Anyway, you’re very handsome.  How much do I owe you?”

“Would you like a drink or dessert with that?”

“No, thanks.”

“Your total is twelve forty-three.  For here or to go?”

“To go, please.”

After running her credit card and handing her the receipt, I told her the food would be ready in a few minutes and we’d call her name at the end of the counter.  Later on, at about seven o’clock as I was leaving work, I saw her again, the same woman, sitting in her car in the EarthWay parking lot nearly six hours after she’d left the café.  She was watching me when I saw her so I turned away real quick and kept walking calmly to my car.  No one followed me out of the lot, but I took a detour from my normal route back to the city just in case.

The following week I turned on the tv—I usually watch a half hour of news before switching to a movie or doing some reading—and on the Tuesday night in question there was a story about the school district I lived in, Meremac South, being under investigation for allegations of fraud and abuse of public funds.  They didn’t say anything else about it, the anchor just left it at that, which kind of frustrated me because I’d gone to high school at Meremac South and if someone was stealing money from those schools I wanted to know.

I read the Bible before bed that night, and I remember exactly what I read because of what happened in the middle of it.  Chapter 1 of the Book of Jeremiah.  “Now the word of the Lord came to me saying, ‘Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, and before you were born I consecrated you.  I appointed you a prophet to the nations.’”  I must have read for at least an hour, and as I was struggling over one of the Scriptures, a knock came on the door.  The knock was quiet but had an energy behind it that made it feel loud.  I closed my Bible and set it aside, stood up, and went to the door, careful not to make any noise in case it was someone looking for trouble.  When I put my eye up to the peephole, there was Cindy Myran.

This was surprising for a number of reasons.  One, the general consensus in my neighborhood was that Cindy was dead.  I didn’t personally believe this to be the truth, but part of me had been afraid it was.  Two, prior to her going missing she and I never talked.  I’d lent her some quarters and dryer sheets in the laundry room a few times but we hardly knew each other.  Three, I lived on the opposite side of the courtyard in our apartment complex, so even if she knocked on a random door for help the odds of it being mine were slim to none.

While hesitating for a moment to consider my options, I heard her say, “Open up, Ian, I saw you look through the peephole.”

“Okay,” I said back, unlocking the door.

“Can I come in, please?”

“Of course,” I nodded and let her walk past me.  “Have a seat.  I’ll get you a drink.  Do you like Diet Sprite?”

“Do you have any beer?” she asked, sitting down on the couch.

“I think so.  Yeah, I’ve got a couple harvest wheat ales, and a—”

“It doesn’t matter.”

“Okay.”  I brought her a beer and opened one for myself.  “Cheers, you’re alive,” I smiled, raising my bottle.

“You think anyone’d care if I wasn’t?”

“I’d care.  I mean, we don’t know each other, but—Kelly, she’d care.”

“Kelly only cares cause I get her high.  She’d be sad about that, though, you’re right.”

“Can I get you some aspirin or something?  How about food, are you hungry?”

“If you’ve got some granola bars or something I can take with me, that’d be great.  I can’t stay here for long, they might come looking.”

“Who might come looking?”

She chugged the rest of her beer.  “The kind of guys you don’t name unless you do want to die.  Listen, Ian, everyone knows you’re a good person—”

I spat a mouthful of beer onto the wooden table between us, and some of it splashed up on her left knee and thigh.  “I’m sorry,” I coughed, “I didn’t expect you to say that.”

“What?  It’s true.  You have a good reputation, you’re honest.”

“I guess so.”  I handed her a paper towel from the kitchen and started wiping up the beer.

“I need fifty dollars for a bus ticket to Bradson City.”

“I don’t have fifty dollars.  I have five.”

“You work in Pineville and you don’t have fifty bucks?”

“I just settled some overdue rent with John.  I’m a pizza cashier, by the way—how’d you know where I work?”

“You don’t get out much, do you.”  Cindy shook her head, planted her face in her hands.  “Uhhhhhh,” she groaned.

“If you want, I can drive you to Bradson City.”

She peeked up through her fingers.  “You’d do that?”

“Sure.  I’ve got a full tank, you’re running for your life…  It makes sense.”

“Thank you, thank you, thank you!” she squealed, jumping up and hugging me.

“I’ll have to call in sick tomorrow.  We can wait till morning, can’t we?”

“No.  Yes, we can,” she smiled.  “Thank you.”

“Alright.  I hope the couch is okay for you to sleep on.  I’ll get you a blanket.”

In the morning, I woke up to find an empty couch, no Cindy, no note, only the blanket folded neatly over the armrest and a few empty beer bottles on the kitchen counter.  “Guess I don’t have to take the day off work,” I said.  I walked across the courtyard to Kelly’s place to ask if she’d seen her the night before.

“Honey, Cindy’s dead.  I thought everybody knew that by now.”

“Everyone thought she was dead, but I don’t assume stuff like that.  I had the feeling she might have dropped by here last night at eleven or twelve.”

“If she did then it was her ghost who showed up.  They found Cindy’s body in the woods down by the lake.  Don’t you have a tv?”

I heard Kelly’s voice speak these words and saw her lips moving, but their meaning didn’t sink in right away.  I shuffled back to my apartment like a zombie and sat down at the kitchen table with a cup of coffee and a plate of untoasted poptarts.  Our conversation the night before revolved through my mind, Cindy’s face, her words, the urgency of her request, faded into the hollow ache of nothingness.  I made myself eat, chewing quickly and washing down the synthetic sweetness with strong black coffee.  Then, standing up, I approached the television, took a deep breath, and pressed the power button.  The screen showed trees, police officers, and emergency vehicles, with a caption reading:  “Woman Found Dead at Hoppersand Lake.”