Hensley’s previous novels are Resolve (set during the Pittsburgh Marathon, recognized by the International Thriller Writers organization and Suspense Magazine as one of the best novels of 2013) and Measure Twice (“A finely crafted story of redemption, Measure Twice will keep your adrenaline pumping.” – Tim Green, bestselling author of The Fourth Perimeter and Exact Revenge).
Chalk’s Outline publishes this February, with a Mystery Lovers Bookshop launch party on Saturday, Feburary 20th.
“Nature has placed mankind under the government of two sovereign masters, pain and pleasure – they govern us in all we do, in all we say, in all we think; every effort we can make to throw off our subjection, will serve but to demonstrate and confirm.”
Augusta County, Virginia
The bullet shattered the frame and tore through the family photo that had been sitting on the mantle. The metal frame fell beside me, scattering glass around the area behind the couch where I was attempting to find cover. I glanced down at the picture. It had been taken in the hills of West Virginia, near Harper’s Ferry. My wife, Kaitlyn, was smiling broadly. The camera had captured the two of us and our dogs in a state of perpetual happiness. The picture was now much different. My head was missing, having been replaced by a bullet hole. How rude.
From somewhere on the other side of the room, my new friend was asking me if I’d been hit. As of late, my track record with friends wasn’t so good. I’d had a couple who had tried to kill me. At least this one simply wanted to arrest me for murder. In fact, he was rather adamant about the whole thing. “How do you live with a thing like that?” he’d asked. “Let’s talk to the District Attorney and work something out – I can help you,” he’d pleaded. “I know exactly what you did. You killed a man,” he’d proclaimed confidently. He was so wrong. Actually, I’d killed three men. But, in all fairness, they were really, really mean people. And mean people suck.
Another round flew through the room and punched a hole through the back of the couch, barely missing my skull. Bits of yellow stuffing flew into my face and I wiped at my eyes. For the second time in as many minutes, the other man in the room asked if I’d been shot. Again, I told him I hadn’t, but promised to tell him immediately if I happened to die.
I suppose in comparison to whoever was sitting outside my cabin with a high-powered rifle, my visitor was a pretty decent guy since he didn’t seem to want me dead. I set the bar pretty low when it comes to what constitutes tolerable behavior from my acquaintances.
The intensity of the gunfire increased, as did the sound of the wreckage all around us. A vase here, a chair there. It seemed the bullets were ravenous termites, eating away at the new life we’d created. Before long, nothing would be left but blood, bones, and jagged shards of memories.
“My cell phone isn’t working!” shouted my visitor as another round punched through the couch.
“We don’t get cell service up here,” I yelled. “We like the peace and quiet.”
Another projectile flew through the wide front window and lodged itself somewhere above my head.
“Landline?” he asked.
“Sure – right over here! It’s on the table next to the couch. Be my guest!”
Three more quick shots sounded. I have no idea where the first two ended up, but the third took a large chunk of skin out of my shoulder. I groaned in pain.
“Dr. Keller, are you – “
“Yes, goddamn it! Now I’m hit!” I put pressure on the wound. “And call me Cyprus!”
I pulled at the sleeve of my t-shirt and looked at the wound. I would need to get some stitches, but I’d live.
“If you have any bright ideas, now would be the time!” I shouted.
My visitor didn’t answer and several more shots rang out.
“Hey! Are you still with me?” I asked. “I’m completely pinned down over here. Are you able to get eyes on the shooter?”
Several seconds passed before I heard more glass breaking. The sound was different than the noise that had come from the front window shattering or the picture frame being decimated. It sounded like someone was breaking… bottles. Damn. I knew what my visitor was doing, but I didn’t know why.
One after another, I heard the sounds of bottles of scotch, whiskey, and vodka, being smashed on my living room floor. It was just my luck that my new friend had apparently taken cover behind my liquor cabinet. I could only assume he had a reason for initiating an impromptu temperance meeting in my home.
As another hole appeared in the back of the couch, I said, “Now is not a really good time to enforce prohibition! Would you mind telling me…”
I heard a sound that was different from the rest of the mayhem that was ensuing around me. It was…
Oh, no. Not that.
Even through all the shattering, crashing, thudding, and yelling, I still heard it. It was a distinct sound that nobody ever thinks about, but anybody can recognize. It was the sound of a sulfur-tipped piece of wood being dragged across a rough surface of sand and red phosphorous. In other words – it was the striking of a match. Now, I fully understood what my visitor was doing and I didn’t like it one bit.
I heard the flames flash across the floor as my partner-in-survival threw random household items into the fire. The second I saw smoke drift above my horribly inadequate hiding place, I raised my head and surveyed the situation. A wall of smoke had was bending over and pouring through the broken window, allowing us to move from our makeshift foxholes. I stood and watched as the cabin – mine and Kaitlyn’s cabin – become an inferno. A few shots cut through the thick smoke, but I stood motionless, stupidly wondering how I would tell my wife about this. She loved this place. It was our escape from everything. It was our escape from the past.
A hand grabbed me and violently pulled my wounded arm toward the back door. The path through the kitchen was a blur. The visitor and I raced to get to the cars parked in back of the cabin before the shooter could relocate and put us in his sights. I reflexively drifted toward my truck, but the next thing I knew I was being tossed across the front seat of a Ford SUV. It was a nice car – new, I thought. A personal car, not a cop car. Had this guy said he was with the police or was working with the police? I admired the interior while my shoulder smeared blood over the passenger seat.
“Get your head down,” said the visitor as wheels spun on dirt and gravel. He floored it and our bodies bounced around in the speeding vehicle. The driver managed to keep the car on the road as I watched the burning cabin became smaller in the side view mirror.
Everything had been fine. Life was good. I had been teaching part-time at a community college in Charlottesville and doing a little writing while Kaitlyn continued building her practice. Psychologists can always find people who need them. Both of us had tried to keep fairly low profiles and we had even talked about having a baby and adding a two-legged child to go with the four-legged ones. Sigmund and Stockholm wouldn’t mind and we were sure they would be good with kids. For three years, we’d been happily living in rural Virginia and everything that had happened up north was becoming a distant memory. Some days, it seemed like none of it had been real. We were fine with that.
And then this… jerk sitting beside me showed up. Then, he… damn it, why have I always been so bad with names? He starts harassing me, asking questions, telling me I need to confess to a murder and the next thing I know I’m shot. Then, to help me out, he burns down my cabin. And, not to mention, I had a $170 bottle of Johnnie Walker Blue in that liquor cabinet. It had been a gift. A gift to myself… but, still a gift. Bastard!
“Any idea who was shooting at us?” said the bastard.
I shook my head and applied more pressure to my shoulder. “No. But, I’m pretty sure he was shooting at me, not you. If I wouldn’t have happened to have moved at the exact right time, that first shot would have taken my head off.”
The car started to skid off the road, but the driver regained control. I turned and looked over the back of my seat. All I could see was smoke drifting above the trees.
“Do you still have your cell phone?” I asked.
He said he did.
“We should be able to get a signal in a couple of miles. I need to call my wife. She took the dogs to the vet.”
He handed me the phone and kept glancing from the road to the rearview mirror.
“Have you had trouble with anyone around here?”
“This is important. Don’t hold out on me. Do you know of any reason why anyone would suddenly want you dead?”
“Oh… it’s important,” I said sarcastically. “I didn’t pick up on that when the bullet went through my arm or when you burned down my home!”
He glanced at the outside of my shoulder. “Flesh wound.”
I knew he was right, but I couldn’t resist battering him with more sarcasm. “Oh, thank you Dr. – “ Damn it! Why was I always so bad with names? It made being a smartass more difficult.
“Channing. My name is Jackson Channing.”
“Well, thank you Dr. Channing, but I think I’ll let a real physician take a look at this. Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to call my wife and have her meet us at the Sherriff’s Department.” I started to dial.
“Good thinking. Then, after we give our statements, we can all get out of the area for a while.”
“We? All?” I asked. “I don’t think so…”
“Jackson. Jackson Channing.”
“Damn it, I know that!”
Seriously, it’s like I’m a stroke victim sometimes.
“I don’t think so, Jackson,” I said sharply. “Everything was fine until you showed up, so as far as I’m concerned you are a part of the problem.”
“Which is exactly why you and your wife need to come with me.”
I waited expectantly.
“Do you think it’s a coincidence that a police consultant knocks on your door, questions you about a cold case, then someone opens up with what sounded like a rifle?”
I didn’t have an answer for that. Well, I had an answer, but it wasn’t the answer I wanted to have.
“Somebody wants you dead. Possibly it’s because of what you did three years ago. I think that when I started talking to people and asking uncomfortable questions, somebody else figured out you got away with murder – and that certain somebody isn’t happy about that.”
I couldn’t argue with his logic.
He continued by saying, “I don’t know every detail about what happened when you were at Three Rivers University, but I do think I know something about you. You aren’t going to be comfortable running away and looking over your shoulder for the rest of your days. You can take this head-on, or you can pretend this didn’t happen and wonder if somebody has you – or your wife – lined up in a set of crosshairs. You were a cop once, so you know I don’t have enough to arrest you – yet. But, you also know running isn’t a real solution. I seemed to have stirred things up, so I may be your best bet to find out who is taking shots at you.”
“So what do you propose?” I asked.
“Call your wife, and then call the Sheriff’s Department and have some deputies and the fire department head to the cabin. I’m sure the shooter and the cabin are gone, but they need to check it out. Then we do like you said and go into the Sherriff’s Office and answer all their questions. They will probably take you to the hospital to get you stitched up, question you and your wife for a while and… well, you know how it works. We won’t be able to leave until tomorrow. I’m sure they’ll offer you protection for the night. Take it. Then, first thing in the morning, the three of us –“
“The dogs. The dogs go with us. It’s non-negotiable.”
Channing sighed. “Fine. The five of us hit the road.”
A knot formed in my stomach as I asked a question for which I already knew the answer. “Where are we going?”
Channing shot me a sideways glance and said, “Pittsburgh, of course. That’s where it all started, isn’t it Dr. Keller? You don’t have a problem returning to the scene of the crime, do you?”
I watched the road scroll by and my mind flashed back to rivers and bridges and blood. My shoulders sagged as I realized that not only had the past caught up to me, but it was really pissed off and heavily armed.
Channing asked, “Dr. Keller? Did you hear me?”
I resumed dialing my wife’s number and said, “It’s Cyprus. And screw you.”
This excerpt is published here courtesy of the author.
For more information, visit: https://hensleybooks.wordpress.com/books/