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It was June in New Jersey, and a cold wind was blowing in off the ocean, moaning in chimneys and screaming around corners while making the day seem full of ghosts. Pregnant gray clouds were spitting rain, and an already eroded beach was being sledgehammered by angry waves. It was an unpredictable time of year, when winter did not want to go to sleep and summer had yet to wake up.
Victoria Strix sat on the sun porch of her home in the town of Brigantine, looking out on the gloomy day that perfectly matched her mood. She looked at the tickets on the redwood picnic table she used in place of a dining room set. She had to go tonight, conflicted and nervous as she was. How would she feel when the show started? Would she be able to handle it? Or would she be reduced to a crying wreck?
No one knew what she was planning. Had they known, they would have told her to stay home. They would have said she was asking for trouble and that she would get so worked up, she might go into labor. She could hear their arguments. She could even agree with them. But a strong, inner directive kept her on the course she had decided: to go to the show as if this nightmare hadn't happened.
Her hands went to her swollen belly, instinctively caressing her unborn child who was due in less than four weeks. As if the child could read her thoughts, the baby kicked, causing a sharp intake of breath and a spring of fresh tears. Maybe she wouldn't make it through tonight without a meltdown, but she was going to try. The baby shifted position, and Victoria knew that had she been standing in front of her bedroom mirror, she would have seen a ripple travel across the globe of her abdomen.
After wiping her eyes and blowing her nose, she headed in to get dressed.
* * *
Victoria stood on the boardwalk in Atlantic City while looking at the brightly lit Taj Mahal. The rain of the afternoon had stopped but had spawned a chilly night with fog rolling in off the ocean. She was trembling, not so much from the damp air but in anticipation, perhaps even dread, of the show she had come to see.
She looked down at the two tickets in her hand — a gift to her husband, James, to celebrate the night they first met. How romantic it would have been to see Robert Plant on such a special night. James would have been finished with active duty in the United States Air Force and would have been home — finally — for good. How fantastic it would have been to hear "Sea of Love," the song that was playing where they had their first meal together on that magical night when they stared into each other's eyes, all the way to the soul. Later, they danced their first dance as husband and wife to that song. To hear it performed live would have been wonderful. Their eyes would have glistened as they looked at each other, speaking volumes without words, their fingers interlocked as they held hands and tightened in a silent promise never to let go.
But James wasn't here. Nor would he ever be again. Victoria was still numb at the realization that he was gone.
What was she doing here? Maybe searching for some kind of connection, some hint that a vestige of her husband lived on in a tangible way, that he was accessible — if only partly. Perhaps the empty seat next to her would be occupied by a palpable presence, one she could melt into, even if for a little while. She yearned to feel his hand in her own and a gentle caress of fingers across her cheek. A soft whisper of loving words from a lover no more visible than a breath, but there notwithstanding. She would give anything to feel him again, to touch and kiss him, to talk and laugh and fall asleep with him. She wanted to curl into him on the sofa while a movie in the DVD player droned on, her head on his chest, rising and falling in cadence with his breathing. Anything and everything not to have to let go.
The feeling of her child once again kicking inside her brought Victoria out of her contemplation. She smiled as her unborn baby stretched and adjusted himself, pressing and poking against the confines of his uterine crib. A couple of weeks to go and she'd be a mother.
A single mother.
Glancing at her watch, Victoria saw the time was 7:45 p.m. She'd procrastinated long enough. Time to either go inside or call her driver and go home. No. She'd come this far. Taking a deep breath, Victoria joined the throng entering the building.
Several men were looking at her as she stood in line. At eight and a half months pregnant, Victoria was beautiful. At twenty-nine years old, she had long and lustrous brown hair that fell around her shoulders and down her back in loose waves. She also had emerald-green eyes and a modest amount of freckles splashed across the bridge of her nose like droplets of beige paint. Her five-foot, six-inch frame was shapely when unencumbered by the fullness of pregnancy, but even so near her delivery date, she possessed a liveliness, a life force, that made people, especially of the opposite sex, notice her. Victoria diverted her eyes from their admiring stares.
James liked when other men noticed her. It was the same, he said, as noticing a hot car. He would draw her close, put an arm around her waist, maybe put a hand on her ass, and whisper, "Eat your hearts out, gentlemen." She loved his confidence, his possessiveness, and his willingness to share the sight of her. He always made her feel safe and secure, loved, appreciated, and special, like a rare flower that needed protection from the world. Would anyone — could anyone — make her feel that way again? She didn't care to find out. Victoria was still in love and would be for the rest of her life. Her memories were intact, and it was in those memories that she would live and love.
Finding her seat in the second row, Victoria sat down. James would have loved being so close to the stage. She was aware that her heart rate was steadily accelerating and took slow, deep breaths to compose herself. Unsure of how she was going to feel sitting alone on the seventh anniversary of the day they'd met — watching a performance by her husband's favorite singer and hearing a song packed with emotion and meaning — she wondered how it would have been if James were here. Looking at the empty seat beside her was like a physical blow. He should have been sitting there, all eagerness and anticipation while waiting for the show to start.
Victoria had planned on telling James they were going to a chick concert, maybe Martina McBride or Celine Dion. It would not have mattered, not to Jim. He would have gladly come with her, perhaps wondering why she'd gotten him tickets to hear someone who was more her favorite than his, but he wouldn't have complained or even questioned her. That was how he was. Victoria would have let him find out for himself that they were here to see Robert Plant. She could imagine his smile and that look he would give her when she had a great idea or walked into the room in the middle of a Yankees game while wearing a pair of strappy heels and nothing else.
After trying to calm herself again, she placed her husband's ticket on his seat next to her purse and then closed her eyes and waited for the music.CHAPTER 2
From the time James Strix was a child, he'd loved everything military. Both his father and grandfather had served their country and been more than eager to tell of their experiences to a pair of young, interested ears. As a result, James Strix's bedroom was a museum of toy soldiers and model airplanes that were displayed on every available surface, including shelves that spanned the entire length of one wall, which his father had hung for that purpose. B-52 bombers, an F-14 Tomcat, and a plethora of others sat as if awaiting their Lilliputian pilots. Others were hung from invisible fishing line tied to eye hooks in the ceiling. They looked like the snapshots in his books of aircraft on their way to drop their bombs on enemy strongholds in exotic lands and in times long since passed. Many had stories associated with them, tales told by his dad during the long hours of painting and gluing all the small parts into a perfect replica of a deadly weapon of war, his father nursing a beer as they toiled. James had a tall mug of Tang, the very same drink drunk by NASA astronauts in space.
The most prized possession in James's collection, a remote-controlled F-18 Hornet, occupied a place of honor on the middle of his dresser. When it flew and disappeared into the bright glare of the sun, his mind flew with it. And as it orbited around him, he breathed deep, having been told how g-forces pressed pilots back into their seats like a giant invisible hand. James could imagine the bombs dropping and exploding, lighting up the earth with fireballs. He once tried painting a head of cauliflower orange, red, and yellow to look like an explosion, but the smell of rotting vegetables and the small flies it attracted earned him a tongue-in-cheek reprimand from his mother not to raid the fridge for ordinance. His idea was wrapped in tinfoil and tossed in the trash.
Consequently, it came as no surprise to anyone when, at eighteen, he enlisted in the United States Air Force. James Sr. was thrilled that his son was on his way to becoming a chip off the old block, his mother much less so. The day that their son announced his enlistment, she smacked her husband across the back of his head as they were getting ready for bed.
"I hope you're happy."
"What was that for?"
"You know damn well what it's for."
"He'll be fine. I was."
"It's a different time."
"No, it's not."
Amanda Strix cried on her husband's shoulder as he stroked her hair. Understanding a mother's anxiety, a father's pride remained undiminished.
The score that James received on his entrance exam was one of the highest ever recorded, the result of which was his immediate acceptance into the pilot training program at McGuire Air Force Base in Wrightstown, New Jersey. James was an eager student, hungry for the sky and the growl of a jet engine. Within two years, he earned his wings, having trained on the same jet fighter he'd dreamed of as a kid — his beloved F-18 Hornet.CHAPTER 3
JAMES AND VICTORIA THE PAST
It was the summer of 1997, when James was twenty-one, that he and some buddies from the base took a few days of rest and recuperation and headed south on the Garden State Parkway to Cape May. It was a solo visit to Sunset Beach, the southernmost point in the state, that changed his life. He walked onto the beach at about 7:30 in the evening to watch the spectacular sunset that was the place's namesake. As he watched the fiery orb sink toward the horizon, he heard a voice from his left.
"Beautiful, isn't it?"
James turned to answer but momentarily lost his ability to speak, for standing next to him was the most stunning girl he had ever seen. Finally, after what seemed like too long a moment of silence, during which he was probably gawking like a schoolboy, he answered, "Sure is."
"I've seen it a thousand times, and it never gets old."
Okay, Jim. Say something intelligent. Keep your eyes in your head, your tongue in your mouth, and say something intelligent.
"I take it you're from around here?" Okay. Not bad.
"Born and raised."
James nodded, his mind working to find something else to say. She was a beautiful sight, with wavy brown hair tossed by the ocean breeze and eyes as green as sea glass. She wore a pair of cut-off Levi's and a Philadelphia Eagles T-shirt, also cut short to reveal her toned midriff. Her legs were perfect, soft and smooth as butter. She wore no bra, and the cool evening air caused her nipples to contract into little rosebuds, which poked sweetly against the fabric of her top.
"How about you?" she asked. "From around here?"
"From Jersey? Yes. Cape May? No. Right now, I'm stationed at McGuire Air Force Base, but I was born and raised in Brick."
"So you're in the Air Force?"
"You fly planes?"
"Sure do." James could hear the pride creep into his voice and hoped she could not. The last thing he wanted was for her to think he was a conceited ass.
"Must be awesome climbing into the cockpit."
"Nothing like it in the world."
"I guess it's a lot different than looking out the window of the 747."
"A little different," said James, smiling.
"Is it hard?"
"Is it hard? Flying?"
"Oh. It's a lot of intense training, and it's complex. But fun. Lots of fun. It's something I've dreamt about since I was a kid."
"By the way, I'm Tori." She held out her hand to James, who took it loosely as if it were fragile porcelain.
"Jim. Jim Strix."
"It's good to meet you, Jim Strix."
"Pleasure's all mine."
There was a stretch of silence as they watched the dying sun ignite the sky before sinking beneath the waves. A shooting star sparked across the darkening firmament, adding to the celestial drama unfolding on the horizon. James glanced sideways at Tori, the sight of her almost painful. He wanted to stare, to burn her every feature indelibly into his memory, but knew that no mental image would do her justice. Still, his eyes drank her in. What would he do when they said good night? He couldn't walk away and never see her again. No girl had ever had this effect on him before, and James felt both exhilarated and terrified. What was she thinking at this very moment? The same as him? He was almost afraid to move, as if the most minuscule change might shatter this fragile moment, never to be recaptured. He had to make a move. If he let her get away without even trying, he'd never forgive himself and would always wonder what could have been. After waiting until the last streaks of the setting sun were swallowed by the darkening sky, James gathered every bit of courage he could summon and spoke.
"Tori? I don't really know you, and I know you don't know me, but on the off chance that you're not involved with someone, and I don't see how that can be even remotely possible, I was just wondering, hoping, that maybe, if you don't have to be somewhere, maybe we could grab a bite to eat or something." Oh sweet Jesus, thought James. That was smooth. Why not just do a Porky Pig impersonation or a little two-step in the sand. Then she smiled at him.
"All that to ask me out for a bite?"
James smiled and looked down at his feet. Nodding his head, he chuckled and said, "Yeah." He could feel his face flushing and was glad for the darkness.
"I'd like that," she said.
"Really. I'd never joke about something like that."
They ate at the Sunset Bar and Grill. James ordered a bacon cheeseburger and onion rings while Tori decided on a chef 's salad. Both washed down their meals with Coors Lite in frosted mugs. They made small talk as they enjoyed each other's presence. There was music playing in the background, and James perked up when "Sea of Love" began.
"One of my favorite tunes," said James.
"I recognize it. Who sings it?"
"Robert Plant and the Honeydrippers."
"Never heard of them."
"You've never heard of Robert Plant?"
"Of course I've heard of Robert Plant. I've never heard of the Honeydippers."
"Honeydrippers. They weren't around for too long. They were his band after Zeppelin broke up."
"I've always thought he was one of the greatest singers of all time. I loved Zeppelin. They define rock 'n roll for me. You agree?"
"You're just humoring me," he laughed. James found himself staring again. He couldn't imagine a greater beauty on earth. I've got to be out of my league, he thought.
"You okay?" Tori asked, snapping him back to the present.
"Perfect," he answered. He could feel the warm flush of embarrassment again. And this time, the lights were on. "I'm so glad I met you tonight," he said, taking her hand and kissing it. He looked into her eyes, hoping they conveyed the same thing he was feeling. "Can I press my luck and ask you out on a date for tomorrow? Maybe we can go whale watching or something."
"Don't count on seeing too many whales, but I'd love to."
James fought to keep his ecstasy under control. He didn't need to start babbling like Ralph Kramden. After paying the check, they walked back to the beach, hand in hand.
"Tell me something," said Tori. "What does a sunset look like from the cockpit of a jet?"
James thought before answering. "Far more beautiful than me, and far less beautiful than you."
Tori smiled. Then she and James shared a deep, lingering kiss beneath a bright-orange moon seemingly created for that moment.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Strix"
Copyright © 2018 C. Howard Rieling.
Excerpted by permission of AuthorHouse.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
I stumbled across this book and I have to say I was pleasantly surprised. I am shocked by the previous negative reviews. As an avid reader of ALL types of genres, I honestly couldn't put Strix down. Rieling's character development and ability to set the scene is excellent. The story starts with Victoria and James Strix and twists and turns with a series of villains that you can't just help but loathe. There were a few unexpected twists along the way that I didn't see coming. This novel is well-written and exciting from start to finish. I highly recommend this work and will keep an eye out for more from Rieling in the futur
Fascinating story that pulls you in from the first chapter. The book takes place on the Jersey Shore and the surrounding areas in the southern part of the state. Strix is the story of a young couple, expecting their first child, who unexpectedly become the parents of the next superhero, Strix. Through a series of encounters with society’s criminals, Strix takes control to right the wrongs one at a time. These criminals are the worst of the worst and are taken out in ways unimaginable. Rieling is a master of creativity and an excellent story teller. This is one that keeps you guessing and wondering what in the world is going to happen next right up to the very end. Very good read!
This new and upcoming Author has an amazing future ahead of him He has a unique style of writing that holds your attention from start to finish. I couldn’t put the book down. Can’t wait until his next book is published. I will definitely be watching out for it. Good luck C. Howard Rieling.
With so many books to choose from, it’s hard to find a book that has a unique plot that stands out. I can honestly say the plot of Strix is one that I have never read before! The development of all the characters, even the minor ones and bad guys, drew me in immediately and made me invested in their fate. The pacing is very quick, especially as the plot develops. I enjoyed the light and dark moments and thought they were well balanced. I love when a book has humor and violence, quiet moments and loud ones. I definitely recommend this one.