In this action-packed thriller gunshots ring out as Ann Jones enters church. She hides in the bathroom until they stop then stumbles into the sanctuary. The congregation lies dead in pools of blood. To rebuild the church she starts True Light Guardians. At the first meeting she’s attacked by a terrorist but rescued by James Crawford. He melts her heart, cold from her father’s abuse, and they fall for each other. She’s afraid to commit to love that might grow angry later like the type she knew as a child. James yearns to stop other attempts on Ann’s life, but can’t. Tormented by her constant risks, he breaks up with her. When an assault sends her to the hospital, an unlikely ally shares Ann’s plight with James, but he reveals a lead that puts all three of them in even more danger.
Ann Jones smoothed the front of her black skirt as she entered the narthex of the church.
Holy, holy, holy, Lord God almighty...
The powerful song resounded from behind the sanctuary’s oak doors. Late for the service again, Ann hurried past a flower arrangement of brown-eyed Susans on a mahogany table with a picture of Jesus above it.
A loud rat-a-tat-tat-rat-a-tat-tat ripped the air. Was that a gun? She shook her head. The noise commenced again. Screams echoed from the sanctuary, and another round blasted Ann’s ears.
She ran past the receptionist’s desk to the bathroom, ducked into a stall, and crouched on the cold beige tile floor. Tears trickled down her cheeks, and she shivered. More bullets rang out. She buried her head in her arms to hush the noise of hate and terrifying cries for help.
Finally, a siren whirred in the distance, and the shots stopped.
Shaking from head to toe, Ann placed her hands on the wall opposite the sinks and moved them up, one over the other, steadying herself as she stood. She took deep breaths, forced one foot in front of the other, and plodded out. Her knees almost buckled as she headed down the hall, the flowers blurring through her tears. She stepped to a door at the sanctuary and stopped in her tracks, her chest so tight she barely could breathe. She reached out to open it, and her hand trembled. What if she could help someone, and she didn’t? She crept inside.
Shattered stained glass lay at her feet in a pool of blood on the hardwood floor. She yelled, sank down on an oak pew, sobbed, and shook. Dead bodies of close friends and acquaintances littered the room, some still sitting in their seats, their lifeless eyes focused on the altar. Others lay flat on the floor in the aisles or between the pews. The minster was facing down in front of the altar. The choir members slumped in their seats behind him, their heads lowered. A hand touched her shoulder, and she jumped.
“I’m sorry, Miss Jones. I heard the gun as I gathered the trash can in the men’s room. I dropped it and came running. Before the shooter saw me I jumped in the closet and dialed 911.” The misty look in the janitor’s green eyes faded. Then everything went black.
Ann woke with a paramedic holding a damp cloth on the back of her head. He escorted her away from the massacre, but the memory stayed with her, nagging her day and night. A passion to prevent such an atrocity from ever happening again erupted inside her.
* * *
The following Friday, Ann stood at the head of an oval-shaped mahogany table in the boardroom of independently owned Allied Bank and Trust of White Sands, Florida. The plush black leather chairs and expensive window shades spoke of John Howard, the president’s, success. Ann inhaled deeply and steadied herself before she spoke. “First, I’d like to thank John for the use of this room.” She nodded toward a tall, blond-haired man with a muscular build.
He smiled, and she directed her gaze to the audience.
“Next, thank you for taking time from your evening to attend this meeting. I’ll be honest with you. I tried to ignore the voice in my head that shouted at me to arrange it, but I couldn’t. The surviving members of Christ Church must carry on for those who died. Those who went to worship nearly three weeks ago on a bright, sunny September morning surely expected it to be like any other Sunday.”
Ann held up a handful of papers. “These notes threaten us with more attacks if we return to the church or openly display our Bibles and religious symbols. Yes, they frighten me. But we’ve taken the first step tonight toward defeating this faction and reestablishing our church.”
James Crawford gazed at Ann. His blue eyes pulled her into them like an undertow in the ocean, and she lost her train of thought. She blinked. Annabelle Georgie’s brother. She’d seen him briefly when she arrived. Annabelle was a friend and a member of Christ’s Church. Nonetheless, growing up with an abusive father, Ann had no intentions of letting any man’s eyes capture so much of her attention.
She focused on those attending the meeting. “I love the name we’ve chosen for our group—True Light Guardians. We’ll create a security plan before we reopen the church. In the meantime, convening at different locations should allow True Light Guardians to stay underground. Lloyd Blackwood’s reserved the clubhouse in Dunes by the Sea for us on Saturday, October twelfth. Arrive
Lloyd’s lanky body looked like a large puppet springing to life as he stood. He lowered his chin. “Our Heavenly Father, thank you for those in attendance. Please give us the courage and perseverance to reorganize. We ask your blessing on this work. In Jesus’ name we pray. Amen.”
Chairs scraped the floor and papers rustled as men and women vacated the room. Mr. Howard clicked off the light and guided Ann toward the parking lot. Knowing in her heart she’d followed a calling and found others to stand with her, she stepped out with a sense of satisfaction.
Mr. Howard paused at the entrance to the building, his height and broad shoulders dwarfing Ann. “As one of the surviving members of our congregation, I want to thank you for insisting we make plans to breathe new life into our church.”
One good thing Ann’s father gave her was his iron will. That, coupled with the strong faith her mother passed on to her, had surely played a big part in allowing her to move forward.
“And thank you for your help.”
Mr. Howard slipped into the front seat of his sports car, backed out, and left.
Ann ambled away from the spotlight into the shadow around her car. Blows smacked her in the back. She stumbled and nearly fell, confusion filling her mind. Another whack landed on her head. She put her hands over it and trembled. Someone thrust a fist in her shoulder. In pain, she screamed and crumpled to the pavement. Suddenly the beating stopped, and feet pounded the cement. An arm draped softly across her shoulder, ragged breaths falling on her neck. “Are you all right? I ran here as fast as I could as soon as I heard you cry out.”
Ann rubbed her aching head, turned, and gazed into James’s blue eyes. “I’m not sure.”
“Hmm.” He gently touched her noggin. “You have a knot. I’ll take you to the ER. Better safe than sorry. But first we need to call the police.”
Why had someone attacked her? Ann clutched her purse. Had he wanted it? Would law enforcement officers ask where she’d been? “We can’t tell anyone about the meeting. No police.”
Wrinkles creased James’s brow as though he was deep in thought. “We’ll say a group from the church met here, but we won’t tell them why.” James pressed his lips tight. “You have to ensure the assault’s on record.”
James’s words swirled in a thick fog in Ann’s head, but he made sense. “Okay. Go ahead.”
James punched 911 on his smart phone and plopped down beside Ann.
Within five minutes a patrol car pulled into the bank parking lot. A policeman with blond hair and a trim build stepped out and marched to them. “Hello, ma’am. I’m Derick Northcut. What happened?” He stopped and stared. “Ann?”
“Yeah. I’m sorry to say, it’s me.”
Derick and Ann had known each other since their teens when Derick moved to White Sands. They’d never dated but had been good friends in high school. They’d shared milkshakes, class assignments, and a few dances too.
“Someone attacked her,” James said.
Derick peered at Ann with anxious green eyes. “Did you recognize the perpetrator?” He pulled a notepad from his back pocket.
“No. He hit me from behind and ran away when James came out of the building.”
Derick glanced at James. “Did you see him?”
“No, I’m sorry.”
Derick flipped a page on his pad and redirected his gaze to Ann. “What were you doing at the bank after hours?”
“Mr. Howard, the owner, let us hold a church meeting.”
Derick stopped writing and looked up, his eyes wide. “Are you a member of Christ Church?”
Ann and Derick hadn’t chatted in years. She waved at him when he patrolled in front of Beach Lady, the ladies’ boutique she managed. That was about it. “Yes.”
He stiffened. “That’s nasty business. I’m sorry for your loss. From what we hear, other churches are receiving threats, not only here but in surrounding states as well. We need to stop these hate-mongers before their violence spreads nationwide. Do you think there’s a connection between your incident and the gunmen at your church? Has anyone threatened you personally?”
Ann turned to ice in the warm breeze. No one had addressed the warnings to her. The notes had come to the church through the mail, and one of the other members had picked them up.
What would Derick do as a policeman if he knew about True Light Guardians? Would he report it as an illegal organization to the government? Ann’s heart flip-flopped. His role in life was very different than it had been in high school. “No.”
“Can you think of anyone who’d want to hurt you?”
“No. As far as I know, I don’t have any enemies.”
“Well, describe what occurred as best you can.”
“Mr. Howard and I walked out together. He left as I headed to my vehicle. I didn’t hear anyone approach me, but suddenly blows pounded my back so hard they knocked me down. The beating stopped. Footsteps commenced and disappeared into the distance. Next thing I knew James was at my side. He must have frightened my attacker when he strolled out of the building.”
Derick nodded. “Yes, I think he did. For now, you need to visit the ER and get checked out.”
“Yes sir, I’ll take her.” James touched Ann’s shoulder.
Derick leaned down and handed Ann a card. “If you think of anything later, please call.”
James pulled Ann close to him as Derick marched off. “Okay. Let’s stand up. There. Lean on me. We’re almost to my car. Here we are.” He helped her into a black sedan then slid into the driver’s seat. “Apparently, it’s dangerous to be a Christian. I’m on the session of a Presbyterian Church, and we recently received a threat. That’s why Annabelle suggested I visit the group tonight to see how you’re handling your situation.” He shook his head. “I’m sorry for what happened.”
“Thank you.” Tears threatened to push themselves from Ann’s soul to her eyes, but she blinked. Crying would only make her head worse.
“If you don’t mind, I might bring some other Presbyterians to the meeting on October twelfth. We won’t share the information with anyone, but we need to band together now as Christians. I think you could help us do that.” James pulled up in front of the door to the ER and parked.
“We must remain underground to successfully put our plan into action, but as long as your members keep True Light Guardians secret, the more the better. Additional members and
ideas will make us stronger. I was shocked to hear the gunmen are terrorizing churches in other places.”
“Clearly the attack wasn’t a single incident, but part of someone’s hit list, probably an organized group.”
James hopped out of the car and trekked around to help Ann out. They strode together through the entryway, and Ann checked in at the desk.
* * *
The Worm hurried past the big window of Calvert’s, the finest steak house in White Sands. He barely glanced at the people sitting at linen-draped tables as he rushed to the back door. He pounded on it with both fists.
Finally, a voice inside yelled, “Boss, there’s someone banging outside.”
More than likely, Randolph Calvert floated from table to table in the restaurant putting on his fake smile and charming the customers with the right words, the ones he’d learned in a special class he attended on how to influence people. As far as The Worm knew, nothing but cold hate flowed from Randolph’s heart.
Finally, he opened the door. “I told you never to come here during working hours.”
“Yeah, well, I got something ta tell ya.”
The cook, Lemmy’s, blue eyes bugged out, but he quickly shifted his gaze to his gloved hands in a bowl of something that looked like marinade. Then he glanced up and flashed a sheepish smile. “Hi.”
The Worm peered at the dish, trying not to stare at Lemmy’s rotund belly. “Looks good.”
Randolph motioned toward a large pantry filled with canned goods and shut the door to the kitchen. He pushed a button and the back wall opened.
“Oh man, not the dungeon again. Can’t we talk in the restaurant? You could buy me a steak or something.”
Randolph pressed his hand against The Worm’s back, pushing him forward.
“Cut it out.” The Worm stumbled.
“You idiot. I don’t want anyone to know I’ve ever seen you. What do you want to tell me?”
“I need to try again. I thought the whole place was deserted when that guy, Howard, you know the one who owns the bank, came out and slid in his car. He should be the last to leave, right?” The Worm gestured toward Randolph, seeking agreement.
“Yeah, I guess so.”
“I pounced on her and was about to hit her a good one with the club when some man strolled out of the building.”
“What do you mean, then what? I ran. It don’t do either of us any good if I’m caught.”
“Why you, I oughta knock you up the side of the head.”
“And dirty your hands? I don’t think so.”
Randolph glared at The Worm with dark, evil eyes. “That’s right. You’re disgusting with that black, scraggly stubble and greasy, stringy hair. No wonder someone gave you the name The Worm. You look like slime.”
Fire burned in The Worm’s stomach. He started to inform Mr. High and Mighty a couple guys he served with in the military named him The Worm because he slinked around on patrol without the enemy detecting him. Why bother? The Worm only wanted the $500,000 Randolph offered for killing Ann Jones. “Not everybody wants to look all shined-up and have a dainty little nose like yours. Some people want to look like a man. Anyway, it don’t matter what you think of me as long as you pay me.”
Randolph shoved The Worm’s shoulder. “Sit down. We need another plan. We must stop the little clique she started locally. I knew her at Florida College. She’s brilliant and dynamic. It won’t be long before whatever she concocts with her tiny band of Christians...” His mouth puckered as though he tasted something bad when he said the word Christians. “...will spread to other churches we attack.”
The Worm plopped down in the wooden straight-back chair at the small, rickety table. He hated this hideaway. There were no windows and the bare sheetrock walls, which had never been painted, had turned gray. It reminded him of his room in the house where he grew up. Hopelessness wafted through the air, and the musty smell was the same odor that nearly suffocated him each time his mother locked him in there to keep him out of her way. It was all he could do to breathe in here.
Randolph hit the table with his fist and it wobbled. “I don’t know the source of her strength and brains, but she’s one successful broad when she wants to be. This time it’s imperative that the anti-Christian movement abolish every trace of Christianity. When I was a U.S. senator, I learned as long as people are strong in their faith, some even willing to die for it, those with the movement can’t take over this country. And then, I can’t line my pockets and fork over satchels of cash for you to do our dirty work, so what’s the new plan?”
The Worm could feel the cash in his hands. “I hope you idiots don’t go public as Out to Exploit Others. Nobody will go for it.”
“Of course not. This time we’re thinking of making the mantra Enlightened Fairness for All.” Randolph shrugged his shoulders. “Or, whatever works, whatever people want to hear right now, possibly something about finances and fairness. Yeah, I like that. We’ll see.”
The Worm knitted his eyebrows. It was hard to think around Randolph with grand ideas and schemes flowing from his mouth like a rushing river. “Next time I’ll follow her for a while and find a better place to attack. I’ll pull it off. You’ll see.”
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Award-winning author Gail Pallotta is a wife, mom, swimmer and bargain shopper who loves God, beach sunsets and getting together with friends and family. A former regional writer of the year for American Christian Writers Association, she won Clash of the Titles in 2010. Her teen book, Stopped Cold, was a best-seller on All Romance eBooks, finished fourth in the Preditors and Editors readers’ poll, and was a finalist for the 2013 Grace Awards. She’s published five books, poems, short stories and two-hundred articles. Some of her articles appear in anthologies while two are in museums. Visit Gail’s website at http://www.gailpallotta.com.
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