Maggot stood in the doorway, his masked form looming over a paralyzed Gabby. Her mind involuntarily flashed between present and past, between shadow and fire.
She wanted to scream. Wanted to run. Her fear enveloped her, and she could do neither.
“You’re a feisty one, aren’t you?” Maggot said. “I like feisty, to a point. Then I like my girls to shut up and let a man do what he needs to do. So, why don’t you just sit there nice and quiet while we take care of business?”
He eased his backpack onto the floor, the wood creaking by its weight.
Gabby’s eyes scoured the room, looking for something to focus on, and found a bird sitting on the roof outside of the bedroom window, its head tilting side to side in quick jerks, as if it were trying to comprehend her struggle.
With intense desperation, she stared at his small, round body covered with brown and white feathers, its harmless form forcing her mind to stay in the present. Let me stay, she pleaded. Please! Stay… here…
She could hear the floor bending as Maggot moved closer, his musty smell of cheap body wash and sweat causing her to stir. She risked taking her eyes off her curious spectator and looked up at Maggot’s masked face, his dark brown eyes reflecting the gray light from the window.
“It’s magic time,” he said.
Her hands clenched, and her muscles began to respond to her commands.
“Now, let’s get to know each other a little better,” he said.
Gabby jumped forward and tackled him to the floor, his body crashing into the doorway. She landed on top of him, their angry limbs momentarily intertwined and his hot breath pulsing against her face. As she readied her knee to crush his testicles, he lurched up and shoved her back toward the room, rising to prevent her flight.
Trapped, she pushed off the bed frame and rose to her feet, her eyes never leaving the seething form standing just a few feet in front of her. The quiet house filled with their heavy breathing, their hands tightened, and their bodies ready to attack.
The fluttering of the escaping bird brought Gabby’s eyes to the window, and she spied a short roof jutting out over the first floor. Bending down, she snatched the backpack and tossed it through the fragile barrier. The glass burst into pieces and the pack skipped across the roof, disappearing over the edge and smashing onto the ground below.
“That was my haul, you bitch!” Maggot said.
He lunged at her, shoving her into the child’s dresser, but she deflected his reaching hands long enough to run over and follow the bag through the window.
With reckless resolve, she dove onto the angled roof and scurried toward the edge. Peering over, she spotted the backpack below, its fabric ripped open and a collection of broken electronics sticking out. This would not be an easy jump.
Behind her, she could hear flecks of glass falling onto the wood. She spotted Maggot trying to crawl through the opening, avoiding the clear daggers remaining in the window frame.
A loud pop froze their movement, and Gabby felt her stomach drop. She momentarily hung in the air as the roof below her fell a few feet, the foundation crumbling beneath them.
The house landed with a loud thump and Gabby slammed back into the roof, now tilted at a dangerous angle, and rolled off the house. Her nails scraped across the shingles and she snagged the gutter on the way to the ground, ripping it from the side of the building, slowing her descent, until she slammed into the wet dirt next to the backpack.
She fought to find her breath, her bones feeling as if they were dipped in lava.
Her eyes opened, facing the gray sky and the dark clouds floating above the house, giving her a moment to imagine she wasn’t trying to outrun another teen goon. The brief respite was interrupted by the tumbling silhouette of Maggot falling directly toward her. Gabby rolled away as he smashed into the ground, avoiding their impending collision, their bodies bruised and aching, uncontrollable moans escaping their mouths.
Gabby fought to regain her bearings, trying to examine her surroundings through blurry eyes. The side yard was shrunken by a long fence running the length of the property, leaning awkwardly over the grass. Toward the front of the house, over Maggot’s writhing body, she spotted a couch that had crashed through a window and wedged itself against a tree, blocking the way. There was only one place she could go. She pushed herself off the soggy grass and gathered her balance under her feet, spinning around toward the backyard where she noticed the faded paint on the small barn.
Of course. This was the home of the McMullen family, one of the founders of Safety Harbor and the owner of the city’s first orange groves. She knew she recognized the house before. The historical gem was the focus of a class assignment in elementary school. Over the decades, the once grand property had been sold off and converted into numerous subdivisions. This sad home and lone barn were the only two places left from the original homestead. Now, the local landmark lay twisted into an unrecognizable mess destined for the wrecking ball. But the old barn looked stable enough and perhaps could offer her an escape.
As she started toward the backyard, Maggot’s hand swiped across her heels, tripping her back onto the wet ground.
“I ain’t done with you,” he grunted.
She kicked mud in his masked face, blinding him. “Well, I am,” she said.
Hopping up, she ran past the cracking exterior wall bent out like a bow and into the backyard. Her options didn’t improve. The small, grassy lot was filled with the collapsed remains of a wooden pergola that had fallen into a heap of broken wood and overturned wicker. Shattered beams and broken glass left her only one option.
Pulses of sunlight playing hide and seek with the overhead clouds pierced through cracks in the roof, giving her sporadic glances at the interior structure. It was smaller than it looked on the outside, and cubbyholes originally designed to hold livestock or horses had been gutted and prepped for a redesign. There were old oilcan signs and a rusting antique gas pump in the corner. A vintage tool chest and well-used tools, cleaned and polished, sat atop a workbench, indicating the barn was soon to be the home of a classic car surrounded by paraphernalia from its time period. What she wouldn’t give to have access to a car right about now. Or even her crappy bike and a tire-wide path to ride it down.
She gave the room the once over and hid in the far corner behind a stack of cut lumber. Her senses were heightened, listening for approaching footsteps and scanning for any subtle movements. As she cowered in fear, Emma’s words crept back into her mind. Here she was, facing another bomb waiting to be detonated or, in this case, a masked assailant pissed off at Gabby’s tenacity. It took only a few moments for the throbbing pain in her leg to return. As she wiped the sweat from her face, she looked around and thought of Emma’s warning. Driven by impulse and anger, she had charged after Maggot without any thought to consequence. She realized this wasn’t an answer to a divine call or even an attempt to collar a criminal. This was Gabby being Gabby. Attack first, think second, pick up the pieces third.
She knew her tendencies usually worked to her advantage. In middle school, bullies rarely expected a girl to attack first. They were looking for pleading and crying, not a quick right hook. As she grew older, few of her fellow teenagers were motivated to do much of anything, so being proactive gave her an edge, especially when it came to helping them with a problem.
Recently, however, the weight of her actions had taken an ugly, painful turn. The older she got, the greater affect her drive had taken on her. For a long time, she thought she was special, that God made her different for a reason. Not only did it dull the pain of being an outcast to all but her closest friends, but it also excused the physical and emotional mess she often left behind.
After the deaths on the Fourth of July, she had come to question her skills, her faith, and God’s plan for her.
All of it.
A month earlier, while hiding in an ancient tree, avoiding the police, she felt God had called her to action. She really believed she was chosen by the creator of the universe to stop a madman from doing evil things. She tried, and she did all that she could. In the end, she stopped nothing. She saved a few, but it wasn’t nearly enough. She failed in all the ways that mattered, and it planted hearty seeds of doubt in the parts of her soul reserved solely for God.
All those years she listened to Father Peters spout lessons about trust and belief—about free will and God’s will—about people’s fallen nature and their quest for heaven. Was it all for nothing? Was it just a diversion to keep her from focusing on the holes in her life? Why would God prepare her to take action just so she could fail miserably at the cost of many innocent lives?
Her faith had both sustained her and confused her. Now, it scared her. All she wanted was to matter to God, but now she wanted to hide from his call. She couldn’t bear to say yes to him again.
Maggot’s wet sneakers squeaked as he entered the humid confines. “You’re starting to piss me off,” he said.
Looking from behind the stack of wood, she still couldn’t get a good look at him. She couldn’t tell if he was thick or lean, muscular or boney. When she tackled him in the bedroom, he seemed solid enough, and his relentless pursuit made him dangerously persistent.
He stopped in the middle of the barn, his eyes looking past the shafts of subdued light cascading through the damaged roof, his body illuminated for the first time. “Playing hide and seek?” he asked. “I’m game.”
Gabby stared at him, examining him with clear vision, and came to a single conclusion. “Are you kidding me?” she asked. She stood up and stepped into the center of the room.
“This ain’t no joke, sweetheart,” he said.
“I know, because, if it is, it’s a bad one. I was running from you?”
“You’re a smart girl.”
“No, I’m an idiot. You’re scrawny.”
“Don’t be judging no book by its cover. I’m scrappy.” His masked face looked like a dark bobble head on top of a wanna-be thug.
He grabbed his crotch. “I got all the horsepower I need.”
“A Shetland pony, maybe. I can’t believe I was afraid of you.”
“Look, chickie, I ain’t no lightweight. I got history and skills, and I ain’t afraid to use them. Now, we’re either going to do what I say…” he grabbed a broken two-by-four and pointed at her, “…or I’m gonna have to make you.”
Gabby stepped toward him until the sharp wood pressed against her stomach. “You’re gonna make me?” she asked. “Is that what you see happening?”
“I’m clairvoyant that way.”
“I’m not feeling it, Maggot.”
“What’d you call me?”
“Maggot. It was the nicest thing that came to mind.”
“I don’t think you understand what’s gonna happen here, chickie. We’re gonna get busy, and you’re gonna like it. All my girls do. Now, why don’t you shut your yap and get to disrobing.”
“Right here, in the barn? Gosh, you are such a romantic.”
“I ain’t picky. Start with your hat and work your way down.
“You want me to take off my hat?” she asked.
“Yeah! Your hat! Take it off!”
“Ask nicely,” Gabby said.
“Nicely? How’s this… give me your hat before I wallop your head.”
“Are you going to give it back to me?”
“I ain’t decided. I may hold on to it as a keepsake. Wear it as a trophy to show my boys.”
“Then they’ll know I come to play. Now give me your hat before I’m forced to make you.”
“You’re going to wear my hat?
“Maybe! Why do you care?”
“Well, first, it’s my hat. Second, that’d make you a moron.”
“What’d you call me?”
“A m-o-r-o-n! See, Safety Harbor’s a small town, and one day soon, I’ll be walking down Main Street. That’s where I’ll see you wearing my hat because, you know, it’s my hat. So, I’ll come up to you, compliment you on the hat, smile, and then punch you in the face. Then I’ll take my hat back.”
“I think you got an overactive imagination,” he said, rearing the wood back. “Look, I ain’t here to argue, chickie. Start getting naked before I give your face a makeover!”
“Fine. My hat won’t fit you anyway.” Gabby took off her cap and threw it in his face. Momentarily blinded, she punched him between the eyes with so much force that the two-by-four fell from his hands and her hat flew into a muddy puddle.
“Damn, wench!” he yelled. “Why’d you go and do that for?”
She responded by kicking him in the groin. “You figure it out,” she said.
Emma yanked open a door hidden in the back corner of the barn. “There you are!” she said.
With blood flowing generously from his nose, Maggot held onto his wounded crotch and scurried passed her, disappearing into the damaged alleyway.
“You’d better run!” Gabby yelled.
She bent down to recover her prized possession, now saturated in dirty muck. “He ruined my hat.” As she shook the water from her cap, Gabby heard a heavy sigh. She turned to find Emma standing with her arms crossed.
“Do you even hear me when I talk to you?” Emma asked.
“You mean about running toward trouble? You’ll be happy to know as I fell off the roof and barely avoided getting impaled by a game console, I realized you may just be right.”
“Not funny. I know you’re good at what you do and all, figuring things out and helping people. But can you please avoid racing toward heroic deaths? I have great plans for us, Gabs. Great plans that include fun and parties, maybe even dating. Don’t blow it by getting yourself killed. Or worse—grounded.”
“You make a convincing argument,” Gabby said.
“Don’t joke. I love you, Gabs. I want us to graduate together, you know? Be each other’s maid of honor. I want our kids to grow up together. And, when our husbands die off, I want us to move into a retirement community and play bingo.”
“Wow, you really have thought this through!”
“I have! So, be good. Play detective all you want, just stay away from dangerous people, places, or things. Okay?”
“I’ll do my best. But I think you’re being overdramatic, Em. I wasn’t in that much danger.”
As Gabby offered a comforting smile, the McMullen house behind her collapsed into a pile of wood and dust.
Emma took Gabby’s arm and escorted her toward the high school, talking non-stop about all of her detailed plans of their future together. What dress they would wear to prom. Who they should take to homecoming. What college to attend. What sorority they’d join. What type of guys they’d date. Which ones they’d marry. Where they’d honeymoon. How many kids they’d have and their potential names. What kinds of jobs their husbands would have. What kind of hobbies they’d do together. Where there kids would go to school. On and on and on.
Was this what girls like Emma did with their free time? Gabby guessed it could be fun, if she stopped hunting killers and thieves. Until then, she’d use her minutes and hours quite differently than her.
Still, all Emma’s thoughts on the life that awaited them were calming in a way. Alone, Gabby could never conceive of a normal life, one with a house, two point three kids, and a pet. She never thought that far ahead. When she tried, her version was vastly different and usually included being all alone, as if the world had forgotten her.
However, Emma’s version was cool, too. Normal, yes. Predictable? Absolutely. But comforting. Familiar. And when she spoke with such certainty, even possible for someone as different as Gabby was.
The strain of the morning had nearly evaporated when they arrived at the entrance to the high school gymnasium. As they reached for the metal handles, the doors burst open and Karl, a security guard, greeted them with a smile.
“Gabby!” Karl said with his gravelly voice. “Thank God you’re here! We have a problem.”
Thank you for reading these sample chapters from Lost & Found, the second Gabby Wells Thriller.
This novel follows up almost immediately after the events which unfolded in Kneel & Prey. If you haven’t read the first novel, download it for free. I hope you’ve enjoyed this free sample and let me know what you think in the comments.