November Book of the Month

Sample of "Blood Orchard" by S.D. Hintz




Six-month-old triplets kidnapped, bloodied

Coren Raines shook his head and folded the Tribune into a coffee cup coaster. He had moved in two days ago. Everything seemed perfect. He was forty-five miles from his ex-wife and his rambler was camouflaged by wetlands. He was in the middle of BFE, an ideal foundation for a fresh start. Yet those facts alone failed to smear the bold print. Onward, Illinois had made the headlines.

The crime had rocked the small town. While violence was commonplace in Chicago, Onward was alien to such misdeeds. The mayor posted advisories for everyone to secure their homes and keep an eye out for suspicious activity. The kidnapper was at large and the authorities lacked a solid lead. The tight-knit community had unraveled like an old scarf.

Coren switched on his laptop. The headline haunted him. Images scrolled through his mind like a Halloween screensaver: a crib beneath a shattered window, the mother bawling beside a bloody sheet.

“Jesus.”

Coren reclined in the chair and clasped his hands behind his head. The workday was destined to be unproductive. He stared at the oceanic desktop background, straining to clear his head.

He stood and stepped away from the laptop. The spare bedroom was filled with unpacked boxes. He knew that was the remedy. Manual labor always lifted the weight on his shoulders. Maybe after a few hours of housework he could return to his full-time job.

A rasping rumble and clanking swelled through the open living room window. A vehicle was pulling up the driveway. Coren wondered for a moment if it was his lawyer, and then squashed the thought. The divorce had been finalized weeks ago. Maybe it was the mailman, or one of those cookie-carrying Girl Scouts.

Coren crossed the living room and peered between the curtains. His heart somersaulted. A navy blue Crown Victoria with tinted windows parked sideways, blocking in his Suburban. Maybe it was a reporter. They had swooped into town like buzzards starving for a morsel of news. Although the car looked as if it was better suited to a private detective or FBI agent.

Coren sighed and let the curtains fall into place. He nibbled his thumbnail. It had to be the FBI. A triple kidnapping had stained the streets two blocks down. The authorities were bound to interrogate their small population. Luckily, he had been a resident for a mere two days. There was no way in hell he was a suspect. Though in the back of his mind that was what worried him. He was the freshman on campus, number one on the dean’s list.

Three raps rattled the front door. Coren gulped and unlocked the deadbolt.

A man in a khaki uniform opened the screen door. He towered over Coren by six inches. He was barrel-chested with broad shoulders and a clean-shaven face. His gold badge, bullet tie clip, and belt buckle engraved with a “P” glinted in the searing sun. He pocketed his Gargoyles, and then removed his Stetson. He was bald as Lex Luther. He regarded Coren with bloodshot eyes.

“Mornin’, Mr. Raines. Sheriff Pritchard. Mind if I have a word?”

“Not at all. Come in.”

Pritchard stooped inside and crossed the living room. He slipped out a red handkerchief from his shirt pocket, like an amateur magician trick, and dabbed a bead of sweat on his brow.

“I’m sure yer well aware why I’m here.” Coren nodded. “Then I’ll save ya the small talk. Where were ya last night, Raines?”

“Here.”

“Of course ya were.” Pritchard scanned the living room. His glare fixed on the coffee table. Strewn across the glass were two unopened bills, a letter opener, and an issue of Consumer Reports. “Where else would ya be? It’s not like ya’ve been downtown. Ya haven’t stepped outside of this dump. It’s damn suspicious, if ya ask me.”

Coren raised his brows. He bit his tongue as a retort tickled his vocal cords. He reminded himself that he was in the presence of Onward’s sheriff, the last person he wanted to piss off.

Pritchard picked up the letter opener and eyed it. “So, what do ya do all day, Raines? Ya don’t work in town.”

“I telecommute.” Coren fidgeted, glancing around for a household task. He needed to busy himself. He shuffled his feet. “Stock trading.”

Pritchard dropped the letter opener and snatched the envelopes. He squinted at the plastic windows. “An e-nerd, huh? You guys are always six eggs short of a dozen.”

“Excuse me?”

Coren’s forehead began to sweat. Pritchard seemed like the kind of cop that never left empty-handed, regardless of his suspect’s innocence. He surely had a backhoe for the dirt he dug up.

Pritchard crumpled and tossed the envelopes. “Stocks my ass. The only thing yer tradin’ is yer soul.”

“I think you need to come back later with a warrant.”

Pritchard advanced. He made a pistol out of his thumb and forefinger and shoved it in Coren’s face. “I am the warrant! I’ll stay as long as I want, ya hear me? I’ll turn this dump upside down if I’m so inclined!”

Coren backed against the wall. Pritchard loomed over him like a grizzly bear. He reeked of baby powder and cigarette smoke. Coren clenched his teeth, wide-eyed, certain Pritchard was going to clock him. Instead, the sheriff slapped on his Stetson, retracted his flesh pistol, and then blew the barrel’s invisible smoke.

He barged past Coren. “I’m startin’ to think yer stewed, Raines. Ya been drinkin’?”

“Coffee.” Coren lingered in the living room while Pritchard stormed the kitchen.

“Irish?”

“Cream.”

“Ya kiddin’ me?”

Pritchard picked up Coren’s coffee cup and sniffed it. As he set it down, his eyes locked on the makeshift coaster. One word circled with a brown stain jumped out on the folded newspaper: kidnapped.

Pritchard grimaced, and then scowled. “Where’d ya get this?”

“The paperboy. Why? Is that evidence, too?”

Pritchard snatched the coffee cup and hurled it. Coren ducked as it flew over his head, thudding on the living room carpet. Pritchard yanked the newspaper off the table and tore it in half.

“Ya think I need a reminder of this? They’re everywhere! I can’t go two steps without ‘em askin’ me ‘bout the Trammell triplets!”

“I’m sorry. I’ll throw it away.”

“Shut up! Just shut the hell up! Yer lookin’ guiltier by the second!”

“Because I have a newspaper subscription?”

Pritchard marched over to the desk, plopped down before the laptop, and opened the Internet browser. Coren’s jaw dropped. He had to get this psychopath out of his house. The maniac was hell-bent on scoring him a criminal record.

Coren rushed the desk as Pritchard accessed a search engine and typed “adolescent boys.” “Hey! What the hell are you doing?”

Pritchard whirled and aimed his flesh pistol. An earthworm-like vein pulsed in his forehead. “Freeze, Raines! Don’t make another move!”

Coren ignored the ridiculous order. There was no way in hell Pritchard was downloading a virus into his computer, let alone pornographic pictures of children. The psycho cop had crossed the line, and his imaginary gun couldn’t freeze water.

Before Pritchard could punch the “Enter” key, Coren lunged for the power strip and yanked the plug. The laptop blinked out. Pritchard leapt up and kicked Coren in the ribs.

“I told ya to freeze!” Pritchard grabbed the laptop and shoved it off the desk. It crashed on the linoleum. “Now I’ve got ya! Concealin’ evidence! What else ya hidin’ from me?”

Coren groaned and rolled onto his back. He winced as a sharp pain shot through his chest. His right rib cage was either bruised or broken. He watched Pritchard walk into the kitchen, pause at the sink.

“Looks like I found what I came for.”

Pritchard grinned, baring his yellow teeth. He grabbed the balled up dishtowel on the counter and reached into the sink. Dishes clattered as he removed a bloody steak knife. Coren instantly regretted breakfasting on sirloin and eggs. Pritchard withdrew a Ziploc freezer bag from his pant pocket and sealed the evidence. He chuckled as the blood smeared the plastic.

A crackle followed by a shrill squelch twisted his grin into a glower. He grabbed the walkie-talkie from his gunbelt.

“Pritchard.”

“Sheriff? -eputy Marten here. -e’ve got a vulture on the swoo-… reporter…-ack and blue motorcycle…-outhbound on Main Street.”

“Copy that, Marten. I’ll head ‘em off.”

Pritchard reattached the walkie-talkie. He then reached into his pant pocket and withdrew a handful of shiny badges. He replaced the one on his shirt, stuffed the rest in his pocket, and stared down at Coren.

“Yer under my microscope, Raines. I’ll have yer head if ya did this.” He overturned the kitchen table and left the living room.

The front door slammed. Coren groaned as he sat up. He grabbed the desk, gritting his teeth, and pulled himself to a standing position. He stumbled forward and plopped down on the chair. It spun right ninety degrees.

Coren stared out the smudged window. He was surprised Pritchard neglected to excavate the backyard, seeing how he was a stickler for evidence. The guy was a time bomb.

“Christ.”

The more Coren reflected on his peaceful morning smoldering to hell, the more his ribs ached. He suddenly wished he had cleared the breakfast dishes. Who knew steak and eggs yielded accusations? Even if he had eaten shredded wheat that morning, Pritchard would have found a shred of evidence for his Ziploc.

Coren slouched and sighed. The last time he had a thorn in his side he walked away. If he did that now, Pritchard would call an APB. He had to stand his ground. Pritchard would return soon enough, probably without knocking.

Coren needed to fight off the bully, as if it were fifth grade all over again.

*****

After icing his ribs for an hour, Coren mustered the nerve to lift his T-shirt. The right side of his torso was purplish-blue. He decided to forego the hospital and rely on home remedies. Nurses and doctors would only interrogate him. He had his fill of police involvement for the day. Pritchard was surely on the triage speed dial.

Steadying a tumbler of gin and juice, he stepped out on the ground level deck. He set his drink on the splintered floorboards, then sat on the Adirondack chair. He closed his eyes, popped two Advil in his mouth, and brought the glass to his lips.

What a day.

He wondered if getting his ass kicked would qualify for workers’ comp. He smiled as he considered emailing the details to his boss. What did it matter anyway? E-Conomi ran itself. As long as customers bought and traded currencies, stocks, and bonds, he would get paid regardless.

Coren opened his eyes. He gazed through the railing. Man, he had a lot of work to do. The backyard was a gardener’s nightmare. The grass was shin-high, half-dead, and riddled with dandelions. The sole elm needed a pruning ten years ago; its branches drooped to the ground like a willow’s. A large chunk of rusty, corrugated metal glinted along the tumbledown worm fence. A crumbled, cobblestone well with a caved-in rustic roof stood in the middle of the yard. A large crow was perched on the lip. It flapped its wings, cawed, and then knocked a cobblestone loose into the well as it took flight.

Coren sighed. The yard made the rambler worth every cent of the ninety thousand dollars he had paid. Like most new homeowners, he had visions of grandeur. The entire backyard would be transformed into a Japanese garden by fall. In his mind’s eye, he saw a seven-foot tall waterfall flanked by bonsai trees. Wood bridges spanned a guppy pond. A latticed pavilion stood at the end of a pebbled path. Maybe he would even keep the well, spruce it up with a pantile roof. Once he had his Garden of Eden, he had a feeling that he would be spending more time outdoors.

He regarded his tumbler, through gin and glass. He felt better already. His head had cleared and the side ache subsided.

His thoughts dawdled on his ex-wife Deborah. She was a pharmacist and marathon runner. She would have scolded him for chasing two Advils with a screwdriver. Her face would have been as red as her lipstick the moment he told her he was taking a sick day to sit around and get plastered. She would have handed him a typed list of chores for each room in the house, all the while ranting on how she expected them to be done by the time she came home. Then she would have dropped by at lunchtime to check on his progress. What had he seen in that woman, besides her athletic physique? He felt sorry for the guy she had cheated on him with. He was shackled to a ball and chain that held the key to a padded cell.

Coren drained his glass, leaned his head back. It was funny how gin whisked away his worries. The Pritchard incident seemed surreal, almost as if it was a dream. Still, he made a mental note to fortify his property. He needed a security system. Or an eighty-pound pit bull.

Coren closed his eyes and smiled as images of Pritchard being chased by a rabid dog down the drive lured him into sleep.

*****

A high-pitched scream had Coren sitting up wide-awake. His heart hammered, triggering a pang in his ribs. He snapped his head in every direction.

He was alone.

The breeze carried the sound of rustling leaves and the lingering scent of the screwdriver. But he had heard the scream clearly. It had seemed deafening and then faded out like a 1980s pop song.

Coren stood, kicking over his glass. He walked to the deck railing. His gaze roved the backyard. A robin chirped on the fence accompanied by a staccato of crickets within the wetlands. All else was quiet and still.

Coren shook his head. Maybe that pesky crow had cawed overhead. Or the wind had rocked the hunk of scrap metal. He had dreamt the scream, plain and simple. He struggled to recall his morning nap, but drew a blank. Now he knew why Deborah had forewarned him about combining ibuprofen and alcohol. There were probably side effects, such as nausea, dizziness, and imagined screams.

Coren’s mind wandered back to Pritchard. He was a bundle of nerves because of that nutjob. His shoulders were tense and anxiety rushed like adrenaline through his veins. He had a feeling that was the first of many bad dreams to come. He needed a stress reliever besides gin before he shriveled his liver.

He turned his back on the yard, looked at his watch. It was 9:30AM. There were dirty dishes to wash and towers of boxes to unpack. Accustomed to Deborah’s weekly chore lists and eager to ease his tension, Coren picked up his tumbler and headed inside.


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This page contains the first chapter of Blood Orchard by S.D. Hintz as a sample. This sample has been published with permission from the author and/or publisher of Blood Orchard, whoever originally submitted the book for review.