2020 Carol Awards finalist
"An action-packed nail-biter from beginning to end! . . . I couldn’t put it down.”
Lynette Eason, best-selling, award-winning author of the Blue Justice series
John Cross is a small-town pastor, bent on leading his flock to follow God's calling. He's not the sort of man one would expect to have a checkered past.
But the truth is that the man behind the pulpit preaching to his sheep was once a wolfan assassin for the CIA. When John decided to follow Christ, he put that work behind him, determined to do penance for all the lives he took. He vowed never to kill again.
Now someone wants the peaceful pastor to pay for his sins with his own life. And when a terrorist out for revenge walks into the church, John's secrets are laid bare. Confronted with his past, he must face his demons and discover whether a man can truly change. Can he keep his voweven when the people he loves are in mortal danger? Will his congregation and the brave woman he's learning to care for be caught in the cross fire? In the end, John's life may be the only sacrifice he has left to offer. . .
Andrew Huff's thrilling debut is not only a riveting story of suspense, it's also a deep exploration of the moral quandaries that face those who choose to follow the Prince of Peace in a violent world.
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Millions of people would witness the murder of Christine Lewis, and not one of them could do anything to stop it.
Greasy hands forced her into a chair. An orange jumpsuit pulled tight against her body. The fabric hid months of abuse at the hands of her captors. She choked back tears as slick hands tugged her blond hair behind her ears and lifted her chin. Thin fingers slid a trail of grime down her neck.
"Head up. Straight ahead."
She obeyed without argument and stared into the dead black eye of the camera a few feet in front of her. Weary and broken, Christine's former existence as a courageous, perhaps brazen, reporter standing in the middle of Jordanian rioters only a few months ago hung as a mere shadow in her mind. Life before her kidnapping seemed a dream. Now she only submitted to her captors' commands, resistance no longer a choice.
She was going to die.
With her peripheral vision, Christine examined the half dozen or so masked terrorists gathered to witness the event, each nearly identical to the others: nameless soldiers clad in faded military attire and cradling an assault weapon. The shemaghs wound around each head disguised any features, save eye color. At the beginning of her captivity, Christine had studied each passing face for a sympathetic glance, but as the inevitable approached, she'd lost all hope of salvation.
Months had passed — she still wasn't sure of the exact length of time — since they'd grabbed her from the streets of Amman. The riots she'd covered for the North American Broadcasting Channel turned out to be a smoke screen to the more illicit practices of the Alliance of Islamic Military, or AIM. While the public protested the government in the streets, AIM picked off key policymakers in the shadows. She sat in the front row of the real conflict, prison bars gagging her words of warning to the world.
Replaying faint memories, Christine scoffed at her ineptness. She'd been preoccupied with crafting a headline to drive the political conversation back home: "Demonstrators in Jordan Support Current US Policy" or some such nonsense. She could understand, even affirm, her kidnapping if there'd been a real scoop in her hands. Instead, she was just another sideshow attraction in AIM's shell game.
The executioner barked orders in Arabic, and the hooded figure behind the camera pressed a button. A red light pulsed above the lens. More orders were given, and a thumb jutted upward, signaling the start of the show. The favorite new trend of militant radicals across the globe? Beheading journalists on live camera. And the stream of her execution just went active to anyone with an Internet connection.
The executioner pressed the cold blade of his knife against the small of her back and produced a ripple of goose bumps down both arms. He raised his free hand and pointed a finger toward the camera with vigor. The shemagh wrapped around his chin muffled his speech, but in clear English he forced his words through the cloth.
"Mr. President, we are outraged by your insolence toward the Islamic Alliance and your refusal to cooperate with the leaders of our military. We warned you about your unity with our enemies and your support of the continued bombing of our communities. As a result of your actions, we have no choice but to retaliate with the life of another American citizen. If you insist on holding a blade to the neck of our country, we must hold a blade to the neck of your people."
The executioner slipped the knife from behind Christine and waved it near her neck. A soft gasp escaped her lips as the tip brushed against her skin.
"And now, I send my warning out to any country wishing to take the side of the American president and go to war against our people. This is what we will do to any who brings harm against us."
One of the men watching from behind the camera took a step forward and thrust a sheet of paper into Christine's hand. He grunted in Arabic and prodded the paper with his index finger.
Christine gripped the sheet with both hands, her chipped and stained fingernails pressing through the paper and pinching her palms. Emotion beaten from her over the past month bubbled deep in her heart like a spring discovered in the desert. A script would be her last words. Fitting, given her chosen profession.
"My name is Christine Elisabeth Lewis," she said, staring more into the camera than at the print. "I am thirty-one years old and a reporter with NABC. I am guilty of crimes against the Islamic Alliance and of allegiance with the war criminal Jefferson Gray, the president of the United States. Mr. President, it is because of your actions against the people of the Islamic Alliance that I must pay for my crimes. To all those who would support you and your illegal activities against this people, I say this ..."
Christine's voice trailed, her eyes locked on the camera. The men behind the camera tensed at her unplanned pause. She released her grip on the paper, and it fluttered to the ground at her feet. "Mom, Dad," Christine said. "I love you. I'm sorry. I'm so sorry." Tears stung the corners of her mouth as she spoke.
The executioner slapped her cheek. Christine shrieked, life returning to her abused spirit. She raised a hand on instinct to defend her cheek from a second blow. Her murderer knocked the hand away, grabbed a clump of her hair, and pulled her head back to expose her neck.
"President Gray, we demand justice!" the executioner yelled. He placed the knife on Christine's neck. She closed her eyes and considered crying out to God.
It'd been too long. There wouldn't be a reply.
A loud pop startled her, then a swarm of bees buzzed in her ear. She opened her eyes. Her heart pounded against her chest as her adrenaline refused to wane. The knife gone, her executioner stood next to her, shaking his limbs as if trying to fling them from his body. A black disc with glowing tentacles of electricity clawed at his chest. Christine watched in horror, expecting his body to explode any second.
It didn't explode. The black disc released its victim, and he slumped to the ground, unconscious. Christine turned to find the armed soldiers behind the camera just as confused. But then she spotted him: one of the guards in the back of the room held a black alien-looking handgun. A faint wisp of smoke snaked its way out of the barrel.
Along with Christine, the other men realized the presence of the intruder, and it took only seconds for chaos to erupt in the tiny room. Her mouth agape, Christine watched the gunman aim the pistol at the nearest soldier to his right and pull the trigger. A second disc exploded from the gun and latched itself to the man's shoulder. He screamed in agony and fell to the ground, wrapped in the powerful embrace of an electric shock.
Soldiers raised their automatic weapons. With the pistol in his hand, the gunman whipped one of the militants, stunning him. In a blur of movement, the attacker shoved two men together. A rifle discharged, the noise ricocheting off every wall in the room.
Christine cupped her ears and ducked. Her brain screamed run, but her muscles refused to cooperate. She sat frozen in the chair, watching the melee. Fists connected with chins and boots with kneecaps.
She counted three men on the floor. A fourth raised his rifle. The black barrel pointed at the attacker's head. Christine caught her breath. A valiant effort to stay her execution, but now it was over. Her savior would be shot, then her in turn. A sob worked its way up her throat as the terrorist pulled the trigger.
A rapid succession of clicking sounds announced the ammo clip was empty. An Arabic oath preceded a frantic attempt to reload. The attacker leapt over an unconscious body, grabbed the rifle, and shoved it into the man's nose.
Movement caught her attention. The executioner clutched at his chest. He pulled the black disc away as it protested with a blast of sparks. He tossed it aside, then crawled across the floor to the knife. He jumped to his feet. Fire blazed from his dark eyes. He drew the knife back, ready to plunge it into her.
Christine screamed. The knife plummeted toward the bulging arteries in her neck. The distinct pop of a weapon discharge reverberated around the room. She felt the weight of the chair give way beneath her. A burst of debris from one of its legs showered her foot. The chair fell forward, taking Christine with it. She slammed face first into the concrete floor. Blood erupted from her nostrils.
A rush of wind from above ruffled her jumpsuit. The mysterious gunman collided with the executioner, and they crashed into a stack of barrels and wood scraps. Christine twisted her head on the floor to watch, but the dizziness from the impact clouded her eyes. The two distorted figures grappled until one gave the final blow and stood victorious over the other.
Christine's vision returned, and she pushed off the bloodstained floor. Hands grabbed her shoulders from behind and pulled her to a sitting position. The masked gunman knelt and cradled her head in his strong hands. He pulled the shemagh from his face, and Christine gasped at the sympathetic hazel eyes of an American man staring back at her.
He unwrapped the shemagh from around his short-cropped hair and used it to wipe the blood from her mouth. "Sorry about the nose," he said. "My name's John. We've got to go."
Questions beat against her forehead, but she could only think to respond, "Go?"
"Yeah," he said. "Home."
Christine couldn't stop herself from laughing and crying at the same time. She died. No, she was supposed to be dead. Why was this strange man with a firm chin talking about home? And yet she believed him; somehow, she knew he would get her home.
"Christine," he said.
"You know my name," she replied. Why wouldn't her mouth close all the way?
John repeated the command, this time with vigor. "We have to go."
The power in his voice brought Christine's mind back into focus. She stood and took one last look about the room before John grabbed her by the hand and led her to the exit. Bodies were strewn about the place, subtle groans the only clues her captors lay unconscious and not lifeless.
John led her through the door and down a dark hallway. He put his hand to his ear and started talking. "Control, this is Shepherd. I have the asset in hand, and we are en route."
Christine imagined the mechanical voice inside John's ear responding with operational vocabulary in kind.
"Copy," he responded and pulled his finger from his ear. He glanced over his shoulder at Christine. "Don't worry. Our ride will be here any second."
A set of wooden stairs greeted them at the end of the hallway. Warm rays of sunlight peeked through boards nailed against the windows of the staircase, and dust swirled in a violent dance within the light. They made it halfway up when a door near the top of the staircase swung open and the largest creature of a man Christine had ever seen stepped through. She gasped. Muscle wrapped around muscle, and between tattoos were scars and abrasions. One of his eyes appeared hazier than the other, which only added to the terror of his visage. He opened his mouth and roared his disapproval.
John made an immediate reversal in direction, pulling Christine close behind. "Not that way," he said.
They picked up speed as the drum of heavy boots marching downstairs chased behind. Christine looked back long enough to catch a glimpse of the big, hazy-eyed man reaching the bottom of the stairs, a handful of his friends on his heels. He roared again, but to Christine's ears it sounded like a bell being rung.
They ran through door after door. John never broke stride as he used an elbow to bully them open. Her legs felt like soft noodles, but newfound determination encouraged her to try to match his speed. He kept a tight grip on Christine's hand, and energy seemed to flow from his hand to hers, giving her a boost despite months of incarceration.
They descended another flight of stairs and burst through one last door into an abyss of blinding white light. Christine choked at the blast of hot air. A sour smell invaded her nose, and the chaotic noise of street vendors and playful children bombarded her from all directions. They were on the street and still running.
Christine's vision returned, to little avail. Their pace disoriented her. She focused on John and noticed his hand digging into his ear canal. She tuned her own ears to sift through the street noise and find his voice.
"... compromised. Moving north on Al Nasira." He pulled her in tighter behind him as they squeezed through a crowd of tourists. "Copy that. We're on our way."
John's pace slowed, and Christine finally gained her bearings. Vendors surrounded them as they walked through a small roadside market. None of the merchants hawking their wares paid mind to her disheveled appearance as they presented scarf after purse and promised the finest quality in exchange for the lowest charge.
Christine winced as she pulled air through her broken nostrils. She rubbed her sleeve against the caked blood on her upper lip. Still wet. As she inhaled with her mouth, the beat of her heart normalized. She felt a strange sense of security in the bustle of the market. She imagined if they were to be attacked now, the peddlers would come to their rescue, determined to protect the prospect of a good sale. A comforting fantasy.
They passed with relative ease through the crowd packed into the small market. Christine's feeling of safety waned, and she looked over her shoulder, longing to return to the shelter of the chaos.
She shouldn't have looked.
The horrible man with a hazy eye stood a full head above a couple bargaining with a trader near the back of the market. His good eye locked on to her. Christine cried out and collided with John's back. He stood motionless at an intersection as blurred streaks of buses and cars sped by.
"John!" She grabbed his forearm and spun him around.
His eyes widened as he made eye contact with their pursuer. The hectic activity of the market faded away, and Christine believed she could hear nothing but their breathing.
The commotion of the street corner came booming back into her ears. A horn blared as a car zoomed by. The hazy-eyed man made wild gestures in their direction, and a wave of brawny, menacing thugs exploded from behind him, running through the market, shoving tourists into vendors, and turning up carts of merchandise.
John squeezed Christine's hand tighter and pulled her into the street. A moped came close to shaving his chest, but he didn't lose a step. They crossed the intersection, dodging car after truck after motorcycle. The prospect of being taken a second time only heightened Christine's doubt of surviving this real-life game of Frogger.
Just when she thought they would be smeared across the roadway, John's boots landed on the sidewalk. He kept running. She glanced over her shoulder to see the men trying to follow their path through traffic. One of the men misjudged the speed of a car, and it struck him. He rolled across the car's hood and cracked the windshield before sliding to the ground. His compatriots ignored his mishap and maintained pursuit.
John ducked into an alley and led Christine up a flight of narrow stairs. They emerged from between the buildings on a street resembling the one they'd just left. Their hands were still locked, and Christine matched John's speed down the road. She welcomed the adrenaline, thankful for the active lifestyle she'd enjoyed before her imprisonment. If she knew where they were headed, she even felt like she could take the lead and beat him to the tape. Freedom proved to be a better energy boost than three shots of espresso.
They approached another intersection, and John slowed.
"Where are we going?" Christine asked.
"Our extraction point," he replied.
"Where is that?"
John shouted over the backfiring of a passing truck. "About three klicks northwest."
"Really? They couldn't get any closer?"
"Yeah, well, nothing seems to be going my way today." He didn't sound happy.
Their route through the intersection cleared, and they started across. Christine took another look over her shoulder and couldn't spot any of the men in pursuit. She turned back in time to spy an approaching vehicle out of her peripheral vision. A black mass of metal and rubber tore down the road, intent on flattening them to the pavement.
Christine took the only second available to react. She pulled free from John's hand and shoved him in the back. He stumbled forward. She jumped backward and tumbled to the road. The SUV braked and its tires squealed. It came to a stop, separating Christine and her liberator.
As she pushed herself off the ground, Christine searched for any sign the car had missed John, but a pair of dusty khaki pants leaping from the open passenger door of the SUV blocked her view. Someone grabbed her under both armpits and lifted her off her feet.
"Let go of me!" She wriggled against the vice grip and dug her heels into the pavement. Pulling an arm free, she threw her elbow behind her head, hoping to connect with a vital organ.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "A Cross to Kill"
Copyright © 2019 Andrew Huff.
Excerpted by permission of Kregel Publications.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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