Read an Excerpt
By FRANK PERETTI
Thomas NelsonCopyright © 2007 Frank Peretti
All right reserved.
Chapter OneThe Killing
She ran, tree limbs and brambles scratching, grabbing, tripping, and slapping her as if they were bony hands, reaching for her out of the darkness. The mountainside dropped steeply, and she ran pell-mell, her feet unsure on pine needles and loose stones. She beat at the limbs with flailing arms, looking for the trail, falling over logs, getting up and darting to the left, then the right. A fallen limb caught her ankle, and she fell again. Where was the trail?
Blood. She reeked of it. It was hot and sticky between her fingers. It had soaked through her shirt and splattered on her khaki pants so her clothes clung to her. In her right hand she held a hunting knife in an iron grip, unaware that the tip of the blade was broken off.
She had to make it out of these hills. She knew which way she and Cliff had come and where they'd parked the camper. All she had to do was backtrack.
She was crying, praying, and babbling, "Let him go, let him go. Oh, Jesus save us ... Go away, let him go," as she groped her way along, stooping under limbs, clambering over more logs, and pushing her way through tangled thickets in the dark.
At last she found the trail, a narrow, hoof-trodden route of dirt and stone descending steeply along the hillside, switch-backing through the tall firs and pines. She followed it carefully, not wanting to get lost again.
"Oh, Jesus," she said. "Oh, Jesus, help me ..."
HAROLD BLY had no reputation for mercy and no qualms about dragging his whimpering, pleading wife out of the house, through the front yard, and into the street where he tossed her away with as much respect as he would have given a plastic bag filled with garbage. Maggie Bly tumbled to the street with a yelp, bloodying her palms and elbow on the rough asphalt. Hurt and afraid, she righted herself and sat there, a blubbery, blue-jeaned mess, her tousled blonde hair hanging over her eyes. With the back of her hand, she swept her hair aside and saw her enraged husband walking away from her, a silhouette against the porch light that formed a glaring, dancing streak through her tears.
"Harold!" she cried.
Harold Bly, a tall, barrel-chested man, turned, one foot planted on the top porch step, and deigned to look upon his wife one more time. There was no pity in his eyes. In his midforties and twenty years her senior, he was and had always been a boss man who did not take kindly to betrayals. He'd enjoyed throwing her into the middle of the street. In fact, he wished she would get up so he could do it again. "It's all over, Maggie," he said with a slight shake of his head. "It's a done deal."
Her eyes widened in terror. Gasping and whimpering, she struggled to her feet, then ran to him. "Harold, please ... don't. I'm sorry, Harold. I'm sorry."
"You think you can go two-timing on me and then just say you're sorry?" he shouted, then pushed her down the porch steps with such strength that she fell again, letting out a cry the neighbors could hear.
"Harold, please don't make me go. Please!"
"Too late, Maggie," he said with a wave of his hand as if passing sentence on her. "It's only a matter of time now, and there's nothing I can do to stop it. Now you'd better get out of here, and I mean get way out of here." He turned to go inside, then added, "I don't want you around me when it happens. Nobody does."
"But where can I go?" she cried.
"Well, you should've thought of that a lot sooner."
Across the narrow street a lace curtain was pulled ever so slightly open, and the wife of a mining company foreman watched the drama while her children watched cartoons on a satellite channel. Two doors down and opposite the Blys' large, brick home, a miner and his wife cracked open their front door and listened together.
"Harold," they could hear Maggie almost screaming, "don't leave me out here!"
He was just opening the front door, but he turned once more to stab at her with his finger. "You stay away from me, Maggie! You come near here, and I'll kill you, you hear me?"
The front door slammed, and now Maggie was alone in the dark.
I hope she doesn't come here, the foreman's wife thought and quickly let go of the lace curtain. The miner and his wife looked at each other, then closed their door quietly, hoping Maggie wouldn't hear the sound.
Maggie wiped away the tears that blurred her vision and looked around the neighborhood for any haven, any sign of welcome. Maybe she could go to the Carlsons ... No. She saw the parlor curtains of their turn-of-the-century home being drawn across the windows. The Brannons, perhaps? No. Across the street, she saw the porch light, then the living room light, of their white house blink out.
It was a clear July night, and Maggie realized that most of the neighborhood must have heard the argument. None of the neighbors would open the door to her; they wouldn't risk Harold's wrath.
Despite the warmth of the evening, Maggie felt cold, and she folded her arms close to her body. She looked down the steep hill toward the rest of the little, has-been town and felt no warmth from the tight rows of metal-roofed homes and aging businesses. The rooflines with their chimneys looked like night-blackened saw-teeth against the moonlit mountainside beyond. There was hardly a light on anywhere.
Suddenly Maggie realized she was a stranger now, and to any stranger, Hyde River could be a cold and sharp-edged place.
She wandered fearfully down the hill toward the highway that ran through town, her hand going to her heart as if feeling a deep pain. She looked behind, then ahead, then into the black sky, where stars twinkled benignly between the high mountain ridges. She stared for a long moment at the Hyde Mining Company, an immense concrete citadel just across the river, now black against the sky. In her terror-crazed imagination, the windows of the old building were eyes and the huge doors mouths, and it was sizing her up for a meal. She was sure she even saw it move. She quickened her step, looking over her shoulder, then toward the sky again, as if some unseen monster lurked there.
She came to the Hyde River Road, the narrow, two-lane highway that ran through the core of the town and meandered south through thirty miles of deep valley to the town of West Fork, and beyond that, to the outside world. Just a few blocks up the highway, the town put on its best face. There, young businesses clustered around a four-way stop. Down the highway in the opposite direction was the old part of town. It had been through a lot more winters, had hung tough through a century of booms and busts, and made no apologies for its age. Maggie hurried up the highway, toward the newer section of town, through the four-way stop and past the small businesses, the True Value Hardware and the Chevron station, Charlie's Tavern, still open, and Denning's Mercantile. Beyond these, the town was a steadily decaying parade of ramshackle homes, boarded-up storefronts, dismembered pickup trucks, and rusted mine equipment. Finally she came to the McCoys' mobile home, a windowed, metal shoebox with no wheels, perched and sagging on pier blocks and concrete-filled oil drums, the ruined roof now supplemented by heavy blue tarpaulins. Maggie could see Bertha McCoy peering out at her through her kitchen window. When their eyes met, Bertha's face quickly disappeared.
Maggie approached the toy-strewn front yard. Griz and Tony, the McCoys' two mongrels, barked at her, which set the other dogs in the neighborhood barking. A knock on the door by this time would be only a matter of courtesy; the McCoys had to know someone was there.
Maggie knocked, just a few timid taps, and Bertha called from inside, "What do you want?"
"Bertha? Bertha, it's Maggie."
"What do you want?"
Maggie hesitated, flustered. What she wanted was nothing she felt comfortable shouting through a door. "Can I talk to you a minute?"
Then came a man's voice. "Who is it?" And Bertha's voice replied, "Maggie Bly."
"What's she doing here?" the man's voice asked. Then the two voices muttered in a hushed discussion while the door remained shut.
Finally the man called, "What are you doing here, Maggie?"
"I-" She looked around with fear-widened eyes. "I can't stay out here."
"Then go home."
"I can't. Harold-" She had to say it. "-Harold kicked me out."
Elmer McCoy, once a foreman for Hyde Mining, was well acquainted with Harold Bly, and Maggie could hear it in the strained tone of his voice. "Maggie, we've got no quarrel with either one of you, and we don't want one now."
Maggie pressed closely against the door as if for protection. All around, the town lay in the cold, gray colors of night, and to her, every darkened window, every shadow, seemed to be hiding something sinister.
"Elmer, if you could just let me in for a while ..."
She could hear Bertha begging Elmer in a voice that quavered with fear. "Elmer, don't let her in here!"
"Go away, Maggie!" he yelled through the door.
Elmer's voice sounded frightened as he said, "Go away, you hear me? We don't want your trouble."
She turned away, and the dogs barked at her until she was out of sight.
EVELYN BENSON stayed on the steep trail for miles, taking step after jarring, downhill step until at last the trail emptied onto the logging road she and Cliff had followed. Having made it this far, her desperation gave way to exhaustion, her knees buckled, and she sank to the ground on the side of the road, too numb with shock to weep, too emotionally spent to pray. By now the blood that soaked her clothing had mingled with sweat, and the night wind drew heat from her body until she began to shiver.
"GO AWAY!" Carlotta Nelson hissed from behind the door of the small, one-story house.
"Please, Carlotta! Let me in. I can't stay out here!" Maggie cried, standing on the front porch and clinging to the knob of the closed door.
Carlotta Nelson and Rosie Carson, semicute and not quite young anymore, were still the town's favorite ladies-and determined to stay that way.
"I can't let you in here," Carlotta replied, "not if Harold kicked you out. You ought to know that!"
"Carlotta, I'm scared!"
Carlotta, her long blonde hair pulled back in a loose braid, exchanged a worried look with Rosie, a petite, freckled redhead. Carlotta had her hand on the doorknob, not to open it, but to be sure it wouldn't turn.
Rosie was near the door only because she could hide behind Carlotta. "Well-well, we're scared too, you follow?" she shouted over Carlotta's shoulder.
"Just let me in for the night," Maggie pleaded. "I'm dead if I stay out here!"
Dead? Did she say dead? Carlotta shot a look of terror at Rosie, and Rosie shot it right back: Only a wooden door stood between them and the worst kind of trouble.
"That's your problem," Carlotta said, and now her voice was quavering. "And you can take it somewhere else, you hear? Now get out of here!"
Maggie was weeping again. "Please, let me in. I'll leave in the morning, I promise!"
Her plea was met with silence.
Finally, Maggie turned and, in a stupor of fear, drifted down the porch steps to the main sidewalk, staying close to buildings, cars, and trees, continually looking over her shoulder, toward the sky and down the highway.
HAD HE not been forced to slow down due to the poor condition of the road, the trucker would never have seen Evelyn in time. As it was, he had to brake quickly when his headlights caught her, lying like a bloody corpse on the road.
He brought his logging rig to a grinding, growling halt about ten feet away from the prone body. As he eased himself down from the cab, the trucker could already feel himself starting to shake. It was dark, he was alone, and there could be more to this situation than he could see in his headlights. He approached the motionless body warily, expecting the worst: a hunting accident or a bear attack; maybe a raped, mutilated body dumped by some pervert. He glanced over his shoulder. What if the attacker was still in the area?
"Hello?" he called tentatively.
Evelyn stirred and moaned into the ground. The trucker quickened his step. Reaching her, he stooped down and gently turned her over. She was limp, her eyes closed, her face waxen. He cradled her head and felt her neck. Her pulse was strong, her breathing normal.
"Ma'am, can you hear me?"
She awoke with a start.
Evelyn was not aware of who she was, where she was, or who was holding her. All that registered in her mind were the truck's imposing grill, the rumbling diesel engine, and especially, the glaring headlights-they looked like eyes to her.
With a terrible shriek, she broke free from the trucker and leapt to her feet, staggering with exhaustion, stained with blood, her right hand wielding her knife, the broken blade flashing in the headlights. The trucker, fearful for his own safety, scrambled away from her, away from that blade. Stunned, he stood in the road watching the woman as, with crazed eyes and a cougarlike scream, she assaulted his truck with the knife, shrieking, kicking, lashing at the big machine, the blade clanging over the grill. Then realizing that she was going to hurt herself, the trucker leapt forward and grabbed her, pulling her away from the truck. She kicked and screamed and almost sliced his ear off.
VIC MOORE, tall, bearded, and burly, didn't need any trouble either. Finding work in Hyde Valley wasn't easy these days, especially for a contractor. Well, he'd managed to keep food on the table, which said something for his strength and cleverness. He'd also managed to stay married to the same woman for going on six years, which in itself was quite an accomplishment-and said something for Carlotta Nelson's ability to keep a secret. So things were going fine, thank you, and could only get better from here.
At least, that was what he thought until that night.
He was just getting ready for bed, standing barechested in front of the bathroom sink, when he noticed what looked like a rash or some broken blood vessels directly over his heart. He leaned toward the mirror, trying to get a better angle to study the strange mark. It seemed to have a lacy, veinlike pattern to it and covered an area over his breastbone an inch or so wide and a little longer than the width of his hand. What in the world was this? he wondered.
From somewhere deep in his memory, an answer surfaced, and the heart just beneath that mark began to pound faster. Vic grabbed the edge of the sink to steady himself. His head began to swim as reason and logic fought against fear and denial. This mark, this blemish, couldn't be what he thought it might be. He didn't believe all that stuff he'd heard since he was a kid. No, he'd just pulled a muscle or something; broken a couple of blood vessels swinging a hammer or lifting a radial arm saw. He'd been working hard lately.
A loud knock at the front door made him jump. There was a moment of silence, followed by desperate pounding. Dottie, his wife, was in the shower, and he knew she couldn't hear the knocking. Vic cursed the bad timing. Who in the world-?
He had to cover himself. He couldn't let anyone see-Oh come on, he told himself, just put your shirt on. It's no big deal.
He put on his shirt, which was hanging on a hook on the back of the bathroom door. For good measure, he grabbed his robe, too.
The pounding continued, and as Vic crossed his living room toward the front door, tying his robe as he went, he could hear a voice. "Hello! Hello, please, somebody!"
Uh-oh. It sounded like Maggie Bly.
He swung the door open. Maggie almost knocked him over as she pushed her way inside and held him, practically climbed him in terror.
"Vic, let me in, let me in!"
Vic was startled, then angry. "Maggie, what're you doing? What is this?"
She held on to him, her eyes fixed on the front door as if something had chased her inside. Her words tumbled out like those of a frightened child. "Vic, you gotta let me stay here, I won't be any trouble, let me stay here, please, I can't go out there!"
Excerpted from The Oath by FRANK PERETTI Copyright © 2007 by Frank Peretti. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.