A Treacherous Mix Excerpt

Ozark Mountain Trilogy #3


This is the message we have heard from him and declare to you: God is light; in him there is no darkness at all. If we claim to have fellowship with him and yet walk in the darkness, we lie and do not live out the truth.
1 John 1:5–6 (NIV)

Brody Armison leaned against a rock formation and held the binoculars to his eyes, pretending to watch the sailboats on Beaver Lake, but never losing sight of the young woman who sat on a patchwork quilt, her sleek dark hair tossed about by the playful breeze.

She looked both innocent and seductive, barefoot and dressed in a pink sundress, her smooth ivory skin caressed by the sun. Her dark eyes were almond shaped, her cheeks the color of the roses that grew around his grandmother’s front porch. Posed against a distant backdrop of white sails and rippled water the color of blue topaz, she might have made the perfect subject for an Impressionist’s canvas.

What could a classy lady like her possibly see in the rugged, unlikely companion who sat beside her, trying to look cool in his Walmart sunglasses, his hairy arm casually draped over her shoulder like a cheap handbag? The man was definitely not in her league—denim versus fine linen—and yet the joy she wore needed no interpretation. She was smitten, wholly absorbed in the moment. And judging from denim boy’s tender touches, it was mutual. Lucky dog!

He turned his gaze away from the couple, and onto the reason for his being there—the sailboat races on Beaver Lake. He’d never watched them from up this high on Sure Foot Mountain, but every year the crowds that gathered close to the water made him more and more claustrophobic. He had driven up the mountain and some distance beyond Angel View Lodge and spotted this rock formation at the top of a grassy slope. He got out and really liked the view of the lake from there, never thinking that he would be invading anyone’s space.

He looked again at the couple. She looked like an angel, smiling peacefully, her face kissed by the sun. She just might be the most beautiful woman he had ever seen. Hopefully Denim Boy realized what he had.

Brody heard a funny sound and looked up just as a drone, similar to one his cousin Dennis owned, flew over his head. He watched it through his binoculars . . . a really cool-looking hexacopter drone, its six propellers making it look like a flying spider. It descended the hillside in the direction of the couple, and then hovered about ten feet above them.

Brody chuckled. “Smile. You’re on Candid Camera.” He wondered if the couple was even aware that they’d been caught on film by some local Bubba wanting to play with the latest technology.

In the next instant, something resembling a reddish vapor fell on them, and then the drone disappeared behind the trees. Both the man and the woman were coughing, their hands to their throats. They seemed to be struggling to breathe, and then they just fell back motionless on the quilt.

Horrified, Brody started to climb down from the rocks, thinking once his feet hit the grassy slope, he wouldn’t have to run more than fifty yards or so before he reached them. He heard deep voices and put the binoculars to his eyes. Two men wearing gas masks and black coveralls ran out of the trees, one picking up the woman and putting her over his shoulder, and the other rolling her lover over on his side and picking up the quilt the couple had been sitting on. Then they ran back toward the trees.

Brody kept his gaze on them, his binoculars held tightly to his eyes. They ran toward a huge house visible through the trees. He hadn’t noticed it before. A plain white truck the size of a large U-Haul was parked out front. A black Suburban was parked in the driveway, but he couldn’t see the license plate. The men quickly slid the woman into the back of the Suburban and closed the door. Other men dressed in black coveralls and black caps—six in all—came out of the house and got into the white truck, and both vehicles drove away.

Brody’s knees almost buckled, and he fell back against a rock. What had just happened? Who were those people, and where were they taking the woman? Was she alive? Was her lover? It seemed like something out of a movie. Obviously, this was planned. Carefully calculated. Whatever “this” was, it certainly wasn’t harmless.

He turned and looked down the grassy slope at the body that lay motionless. He resisted the urge to go check to see if the man was breathing. What if someone else was coming to pick up the man’s body? And what if the drone had gotten a picture of him? Brody shuddered to think what would happen to him if the men who did this caught him there. Or found out he’d gone to the authorities. He couldn’t tell anyone about this, not even Sheriff Granger.

If he could just muster enough leg strength to climb down from these rocks and make his way back to his truck, he would drive straight home and bolt-lock his doors. But after what he’d just seen, he doubted he would feel safe anywhere. If they wanted to find him, they would.

Chapter 1

Hawk Cummings felt an excruciating pounding in his head, like a sledgehammer was breaking his skull. He seemed to be spinning round and round at a dizzying speed and swatted the air for something to grab on to before finally clutching the grassy ground with his left hand, perspiration running off his face. What was happening? Where was he?

Kennedy’s! He wasn’t sure whether he’d blurted it out or merely thought it. He remembered telling his family he was going to the sailboat races by himself, since Laura Lynn had to work. They had no idea he was having an affair with Kennedy Taylor, and he intended to keep it that way.

He remembered coming to Kennedy’s home just after sunup. Climbing the stairs to her room. Crawling under the softest, most luxurious comforter he’d ever felt, and sharing an entire morning of lustful bliss. Afterward, Kennedy fixed them bacon and waffles and they ate out on the deck. Then they decided to watch the sailboat races. They grabbed a quilt to sit on, and walked over to the grassy hillside, high above Beaver Lake, where they had an unobstructed view. From that point on, nothing was clear in his mind. He remembered dreaming that he and Kennedy were caught in a web and a giant black spider spewed venom on them. He remembered struggling to breathe and thinking he was going to die. He remembered hearing voices. And feeling someone push him on his side, then pulling the quilt out from under him. Was all that a dream?

Hawk rolled over on his back, and groped the grassy ground on either side of where he lay and didn’t feel Kennedy or the quilt they had spread on the ground beneath them. This was too weird.

He opened his eyes and peeled off his sunglasses. A kaleidoscope of blazing pink and purple pieces slowly came into focus. Sunset? He pushed the button on his watch and squinted: 8:32 p.m., Saturday, June 3. The last time he remembered checking the time was just before three. Had he been lying here all that time?

He sat up, the pounding in his head subsiding slightly, and stuffed his sunglasses in the pocket of his cargo pants. He stumbled onto his feet and stood a moment until he wasn’t so dizzy, then walked slowly toward Kennedy’s house. The lights were on! He hurried his pace until he reached the kitchen door. He knocked, then turned the handle and cracked the door.

“Kennedy? Are you in here . . .? Kennedy . . .?”

Hawk pushed open the door and sucked in a breath. Every piece of furniture, every accessory, and every wall hanging was missing from the kitchen and adjacent dining room. He walked down the hall to the living room—stripped bare. He hurried upstairs to Kennedy’s bedroom—completely empty. He opened her walk-in closets—even the hangers were gone.

Hawk, his heart racing with questions, for the first time went from room to room on both levels of Kennedy’s house. The place was huge. And completely empty. If she intended to dump him, why would she have invited him over? One thing he knew for sure: it took organized planning to strip a house in a matter of hours. She couldn’t have done it, so who did?

Hawk fell back against a door and noticed pale red spatter on the front of his shirt. Was it possible he hadn’t been dreaming? He couldn’t explain the giant spider he saw, but the spatter was proof that someone or something must have sprayed some kind of chemical on them. What else would have made him feel so disoriented?

Maybe Kennedy didn’t leave of her own free will. Maybe she was a victim. But of what? What did he even know about her? She told him she was an only child who inherited a fortune after her parents died. He thought it was odd that she talked very little about herself but thought maybe the pain was too fresh. But what she lacked in verbal communication she made up for in physical expression. And despite Biblical admonitions regarding premarital sex, he could hardly think of anything else. Except making sure each sensuous rendezvous remained their private business.

What now? There was no way he could report what had happened today and sound credible unless he admitted to Sheriff Granger, to Laura Lynn, and to his family that he’d been having an affair. An affair so intense and shallow that he hadn’t taken time to get to know the woman he’d been involved with. How would they react?

Hawk suddenly felt hot all over. It was one thing to have immersed himself in the pursuit of pleasure, but another to confess it openly. How could he admit to them that he’d let lust control his actions? That he’d betrayed Laura Lynn? That he’d broken the vow he’d made to the Lord not to have sex until he married?

Hawk glanced out the window at the last vestiges of the sunset. Why tell them anything? He couldn’t undo his actions. Or give the sheriff even one reliable fact about Kennedy Taylor, which probably wasn’t even her real name. All he wanted to do was go home and take a shower and wash this nightmare down the drain. He felt as if he were living in the Twilight Zone—only it was real.

* * *

Kate Stafford sat arm-in-arm with her husband, Elliot, on the porch swing of their log home, savoring the sights and sounds of nightfall on Sure Foot Mountain.

“It’s glorious out here tonight,” Kate said. “June is my favorite month. I hope the guests are enjoying the cool breeze after being out in the sun for the sailboat races.”

Elliot smiled. “I saw a whole crowd of them out on the back deck of the lodge when I walked up here from the marina. Someone had a guitar and they were all singing. The kids were down by the gazebo, chasing lightning bugs. Compared to this, Riley might find Camp Evergreen downright disappointing.”

“It’s just for a week. But Angel View does feel different without her chatty little self charming the guests. They get such a kick out of her. And Jesse’s hummingbirds. I want our guests to have a great time, but I’ve never been comfortable mingling with them. Micah was the one who loved being out front. I was better in the business office.”

Elliot kissed her cheek. “I’m sure he’s smiling down from heaven at the way you’ve kept this place going. And, after all these years, you should know that everyone has a wonderful time at Angel View.”

“Well, it doesn’t happen without someone keeping an eye on details.” Kate gave Elliot a gentle jab in the ribs with her elbow. “I’m glad you talked me into promoting Savannah to general manager. You were right. It was much easier to replace my head waitress than it would’ve been to hire and train someone to manage this place.”

“Especially when you already had someone who understands the operation,” Elliot smiled wryly. “Doesn’t hurt that her husband is probably the best chef the lodge has ever had.”

Kate laughed. “I must say you’ve taken more of an interest in Angel View Lodge than I ever expected.”

“Well, I’ve gotten to know the owner intimately.”

“Is that so?” she said playfully, combing her hand through his salt-and-pepper hair.

“Indeed. Now I find myself completely enmeshed in the entire operation. I’m even crazy about her family, as if they were my own.”

“Sounds serious.”

“Very.” Elliot picked up her hand and slid his thumb across her wedding ring. “To tell you the truth, when I’m with her, I’m more at home than I ever was in that sprawling old house of mine. I love living at Angel View, in this log house that Micah built, on this property that God provided, with my ready-made family that I loved from afar. It’s what I was made for.”

Kate laid her chin on Elliot’s shoulder and looked up at him. “Do you ever wonder if you need your head examined?”

“Every day.” He laughed. “But there’s nowhere else on earth I’d rather be.”

Kate heard a car door slam and sat up. “That had better be Hawk.”

“It is. May I suggest you remember he’s twenty-four years old and not give him the third degree as if he were still in high school? Just sayin’.”

Kate took a deep breath. Elliot was so good for her.

Hawk Cummings walked up on the porch. “Hey, you two. Any of that spaghetti left?”

“I saved you two helpings,” Kate said proudly, “which is no easy task with Jesse rummaging through the fridge around the clock. So how was your day?”

“So-so. No great shakes. Sailboat races were cool.”

“Did you catch up with your friends?” Elliot said.

“Everyone was there. Except Laura Lynn, of course. She got off at seven, so I drove by her place on my way home. Think I’ll go take a shower and put some aloe on this sunburn. Then enjoy some of Mama’s spaghetti.”

“Savannah brought over quite a list of customers signed up for tomorrow’s jeep tours,” Kate said. “I put it on your dresser.”

“Thanks.” Hawk bent down and kissed the top of Kate’ s head. “I love you, Mama. You’re the best.”

Kate looked up at her firstborn, aware that she was being charmed, but unable to resist. “I love you too.”

Hawk took Elliot’s hand and they did the fancy handshake known only to the two of them, and no words were necessary.

Hawk opened the front door and went inside.

Kate nestled closer to Elliot. “How’d I do?”

“Perfect. I’m proud of you. You didn’t even mention that he’d spilled something on his shirt.”

“It’s hard to accept that Hawk’s an adult,” she said. “That’s so strange, too, considering he tried to be the man of the house all those years Micah was missing, and I let him. Now that he’s actually grown up, I find it hard to think of him as an adult.”

“I wonder if it’s because he’s still under your roof.”

“Maybe,” Kate said. “But since he’s running the jeep operation, it has worked out well for him to live here. You know what an invaluable help he’s been to me and Dad, not to mention a great big brother to Abby, Jesse, and Riley.”

“I know, darling. It makes perfect sense. I’m just saying it might be why you find it hard to see him as a grown man.”

“I just know that it’ll be difficult when he finally does move out. The younger kids think he hung he moon.” She smiled sheepishly. “I suppose a part of me does too.”

* * *

Hawk pulled off his yellow polo shirt and looked in the bathroom mirror at his uneven sunburn, made weirder looking by his short stubble beard. The left side of his face and neck, his left arm, and the outer side of left leg were badly burned. He must have lain on his side for a long time.

He took a close look at the spatter on his shirt, and then took his sunglasses out of the pocket of his cargo shorts and held them up to the light. They were sprinkled with the same red substance. Upon closer inspection, so were the denim shorts. He rummaged under the vanity and found a box of thirteen-gallon trash bags he’d used on a camping trip. He plucked a bag, opened it up, and stuffed his shirt, shorts, and sunglasses inside and tied it. Until he could figure out what had happened, he would find a safe place to hide these for evidence.

He turned on the water in the shower and waited until it was just right, then stepped in and let the water pour over his head and down his back. The hot water didn’t feel good on his sunburned skin, but he took the bar of soap, worked up a lather, and washed away the sweat, grit, and whatever chemical had been used to render him helpless. If only it were that easy to wash away the confusion, fear, and guilt.

He couldn’t stop thinking about Kennedy just vanishing like that. If she wanted to break off the relationship, all she had to do was stop inviting him back. He could only wonder if she was a victim—but he certainly was. He was left with many questions and no answers. And a huge secret he was afraid to report. Not that he could really tell the sheriff anything for certain—other than he had sold his soul to revel in carnal pleasure with a beautiful woman who either disappeared on purpose, or might be in grave danger. Or was dead. Or not.

Hawk turned off the water, stepped out of the shower, and wrapped the bath towel around his waist. He wiped his feet on the mat and stepped over to the sink and looked at his reflection in the mirror. His eyes looked dark and empty. He knew his heart was.

How could he have put on blinders and let himself be lured into a web of deceit? Something Pastor Windsor had said at the men’s retreat came rushing back to him.

Just remember you can’t have it both ways. If you walk in the pure light of God’s Word, you know the truth. But if you start compromising what you know is right, your truth becomes an ugly, watered-down shade of gray. It’s a treacherous mix.

Hawk gripped the sink and hung his head. He knew he should have run the minute he laid eyes on Kennedy. She was so beautiful. So desirable. So available. He walked into that trap with his eyes wide open and his conscience on mute. He used her. Looking back, she gave herself to him as if he were all that mattered. Unselfishly. Unashamedly. As if she were letting go of all her pent up feelings. What was she hiding?

Hawk’s heart sank. He would probably never know what had happened to her, and that would haunt him the rest of his life. But he was different after that intensely intimate experience. He had partaken of the ecstasy God intended for marriage, pleasure he had no right to, and it had changed him. He wasn’t sure exactly how, but he wasn’t the same man.

Tomorrow he had to muster the courage to tell Laura Lynn that he was breaking up with her, that he’d been sexually involved with someone—but without revealing Kennedy’s name or that the affair ended only because she disappeared. He did not look forward to hurting Laura Lynn, and was deeply sorry for the betrayal he knew she would feel. Maybe one day she would be able to forgive him. But he doubted it would be tomorrow.