Below is the Prologue and first chapter of my exciting new thriller, How Great Is the Darkness. If you’re interested in purchasing a copy, click here to go to my Amazon author page.
How Great Is The Darkness
A Pastor Butch Gregory Novel
Jamie D. Greening
Copyright Jamie Greening, 2016. All Rights Reserved
The cover art for this novel is a 1599 painting titled Judith Beheading Holofernes. It was painted by the Italian artist Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio and is currently located at Galleria Nazionale d’Arte Antica at Palazzo Barberini in Rome. This is the painting Monica Bennett studied in college that would inspire her later in life.
People receive inspiration for their behavior, whether good or bad, from all kinds of places. Take, for example, the story out of the Apocrypha about the brave woman named Judith.
The Assyrians had come to conquer Israel, just as they had conquered every other nation in the region. The Assyrian general Holofernes brought his troops against the Israelite town of Bethulia. The Israelites were feckless in their defense, and all seemed lost. A beautiful young Jewish widow named Judith understood what was wrong. The Israelites inability to stop the Assyrians was a result of their unfaithfulness in following God’s laws as given to Moses. In her frustration, the heroine takes matters into her own hands with subterfuge that would make a Cold War spy envious.
She and her unnamed servant girl pretended to be willing to betray the Israelites, feigning the Assyrians and Holofernes with promises of secrets and strategic information. She ingratiated herself to the general, and so he lowered his suspicions of her. Holofernes got drunk and passed out under her seductive wiles. In this defenseless state, Judith and her servant beheaded him, sneaked out of the camp, and then carried the bloody trophy back home to the Israelites. The Jews received inspiration from Judith’s bravery, thus they defeated the Assyrians.
The story is a morally ambiguous Hebrew novel designed to teach the importance of purity, law, faithfulness, and bravery in the midst of a polluted culture that stands in opposition to faith.
Monica Bennett first heard the story of Judith in an art history class lecture during her first year of college. It soon became her favorite story, as well as the inspiration for her terrible deeds.
A Phone Call
Frosty air shot out of Michael Westgrave’s mouth. He glanced behind him to see if someone followed. He didn’t see anyone, but he couldn’t tell because of the darkness.
His breath quickened. The nighttime fog was heavy. November raindrops formed and fell to the earth. Michael ran off the trail. He sprinted across the shadowy baseball field in the middle of the park, then toward the lot lights. There was a tiny break in the hedgerow in front of him, and he slid through it, emerging into the parking lot where his Lexus sat. He pushed through the gap in the hedge and transitioned from mud puddles and wet grass to slippery pavement. When he did, his footing gave way. He fell to the ground.
Michael popped back up, wiped off his pants. There was a slight tingle in the right foot, like it might be sprained. He realized his left hand was throbbing. The humming overhead lights revealed blood gathering in the palm of the hand. Loose gravel had dug into him like burrowing worms. It burned. The crystal on his Omega Seamaster wristwatch was smashed, a victim of gravity and other forces of physics like momentum, velocity, and the crushing power of mass.
There was no time to worry about a little blood or broken glass now. Michael limped as fast as he could to the opposite side of the lot where his car waited for him.
Inside his car, he felt safe—safe from the darkness, safe from the people chasing him, safe from his own bad decisions. Michael Westgrave was smart enough to know the feeling of safety was an illusion. The interior of his luxury sedan was only a temporary sanctuary, a momentary elixir for the panic ripping his insides apart. Eventually he would be found, or found out, and then nowhere would be safe. Not even his car.
He needed to do something to fix this problem, and fast.
But what? They had trapped him like a wild beast, like a circus animal whipped into submission, forced to perform tricks at the sting of a lash. He had lost his freedom. Michael Westgrave was no longer the master of his own fate. He was a slave, and the realization made him sick.
Michael didn’t drive home. Instead, he drove from the park to his office on the other side of town, the money side, of Sydney, Washington. He found a large dishrag in the office kitchen. The gravel clanked against the porcelain sink when he pushed it out of his flesh. He wrapped the rag around his oozing hand. He hobbled back to his desk. Once inside, he took off his shoe to check his ankle. It had swollen but didn’t appear to be broken or too badly damaged. It felt so good to take the wet shoe off that he took off the other one, along with his socks. Michael Westgrave let his feet relax in the luxurious carpet so richly provided for his study.
His watch, however, didn’t make out as well. He took it off his wrist. He stared at it, snarled, and laid it on his mahogany desk. The destroyed timepiece looked out of place on the immaculate desktop, where everything was tidy and perfect—an opened organizer that only had his secretary’s handwriting in it, a fancy desktop pendulum he bought years ago at Sharper Image, leather-bound books he’d never read, and an oversized lambskin Bible, positioned perfectly in the middle of the desk, opened, as it had been for almost five years, to the same page of Scripture.
The picture perfect desk told an idealized story about Michael’s life. It was the life he wanted others to believe he lived, a life of order and stability, grounded in wisdom with an appreciation for the sophisticated blessings of life. Michael worked hard to cultivate the image of success.
The smashed watch told an altogether different story of Michael’s existence. This was the life he worked so hard to keep hidden, a life of broken beauty, destroyed by carelessness and arrogance, clutched to a past that, if known, would ruin him.
Neither story was authentic. He’d lived both lives, but neither one was who he really was. He was somewhere in the middle; he lived between two worlds, at home in neither.
Michael opened the bottom drawer of his large desk. He pulled out a glass tumbler along with a half empty bottle of Macallan twenty-one-year-old scotch. He poured out two fingers, then savored its complex flavor and texture. He took another sip, then read the Scripture that was literally opened to him almost every day, but which he’d not read in years. It was the Twenty-Third Psalm, written in Petersen’s popular modern translation.
God, my shepherd! I don’t need a thing. You have bedded me down in lush meadows, you find me quiet pools to drink from. True to your word, you let me catch my breath and send me in the right direction.
Even when the way goes through Death Valley, I’m not afraid when you walk at my side. Your trusty shepherd’s crook makes me feel secure.
You serve me a six-course dinner right in front of my enemies. You revive my drooping head; my cup brims with blessing. Your beauty and love chase after me every day of my life. I’m back home in the house of God for the rest of my life.
The irony of the passage cut his soul, dividing it as a sharp knife divides a slaughtered animal. He felt anything but security. He had caught his breath, though, and he did have a good drink. However, Death Valley felt close and he didn’t think it was God’s beauty or love that were chasing him. It was demons that chased him, vile demons that used his past to threaten his present and future. The Bible talked about heaven. The succubus promised him hell.
There was no escape. He was trapped.
Reaching down again to the same drawer that held the booze, he pulled out a SIG Sauer 9mm pistol. Maybe he could just go ahead and live in the House of God now. He’d really rather not give his enemies a chance to ruin him or hurt his family. His career and life would never be revived in this lifetime. He had managed to turn the cup of blessing into a bottomless brew of curses. It would be quick to end it all right here, right now.
Michael Westgrave grasped the custom rosewood grip, squeezed the cold steel, racked the slide to chamber a round, then put the barrel of the pistol in his mouth. His finger was on the trigger.
The thought that he should at least finish his drink before he pulled the trigger sparkled inside his mind. It felt like a good thought to him, so he put the pistol down beside the broken watch. Swirling the drink around in his mouth, he looked at the photographs on the wall. A sad smile swept across his face as he beheld the various photographs of him, his fashion-model-looks wife, and their three blonde children. There were other pictures as well. One of him with the governor at an awards ceremony for community service. There was a picture of him on K2, water skiing in Hawaii, and the obligatory photo from his African safari.
Taking his drink with him, he walked to the gallery wall. One particular picture captured his imagination. It was taken two years earlier at the dedication of the new children’s hospital on the south side of town. Some of his colleagues were there: Stuart, John, Allison, Terence, Fred, Calvin, R. T., and several others he’d never gotten to know. There at the end, though, was Butch.
Michael took a drink.
Could Butch help him? Of all the people in the world, Butch Gregory was one of the few he trusted. Butch had been refined by fire. Maybe he could help Michael get out of the fire?
Sitting back down behind his desk, he set his drink down, pulled out his phone from his leather jacket.
“Michael, how are you old friend?” said the voice on the other end.
“Hi Butch. I’m okay—I guess?” Michael took the last drink from his glass tumbler.
“Then what’s up?”
“Well, I guess maybe I’m not okay. Do you think we could talk tomorrow, I mean, do you have time in your schedule? I know that tomorrow is Wednesday and all, but if you’re able, I’d like to talk to you about some things.”
“Yeah, Michael, absolutely. I’ve got an 8:00 AM breakfast appointment, but other than that my day is open. When do you want to get together?”
“Is the morning too soon, say around 10:00 AM?”
“Sure,” Butch said. “You want to meet at Starbucks for coffee? You can buy me a cinnamon dolce latte and a blueberry scone.”
“Butch, I’ll bring you a latte and a scone, but I’d like,” he paused as he put down his empty glass, “no, I need to talk somewhere more private than a coffee shop. Is it asking too much for you to meet me here at my office? I don’t want to be around a lot of people right now. It’s inconvenient, I know, but is that okay, to meet me here?”
“Yeah Michael, that’s fine, but are you sure you don’t need to talk tonight?” Butch paused and then exhaled, “It seems to me like there is a bit of edge to your voice, not that I’m trying to overanalyze you. It’s just that it seems like something is wrong. It wouldn’t take but a few minutes for me to come meet you now.”
“Butch, something is wrong, but now is no good. I’ll tell you everything tomorrow. For now, I’m going to go home and go to bed. I want to be with Celeste and my kids. I suddenly miss my family very much.”
“If that’s what you want, okay, but . . .”
Before Butch could finish the sentence Michael ended the call. It was enough for Michael that he would see Butch tomorrow. He could feel the strange and encouraging feeling of hope on the horizon, or at least on his calendar. He had hope, a hope that his friend might somehow show him the way out of this mess. Butch Gregory would rescue him. Everything was going to be okay.
Michael put his shoes back on, but he threw the wet socks into the garbage can. He hid the bottle of scotch and shot glass safely in its usual bottom drawer, away from any janitorial or administrative prying eyes. He left the broken wristwatch on the desk, but put the pistol in the inside pocket of his jacket.
No sense taking any chances.
He turned the light out in his office. His wet shoes squeaked all the way across the hall tile to the front door of the building. It could have simply been the alcohol, or it might have been the decreasing levels of adrenaline dissipating from his bloodstream, but Michael felt optimistic as he opened the door to the administrative complex and stepped outside. It was probably because he trusted Butch, and even though Michael didn’t have any idea of what he could do to escape the situation, he believed Butch Gregory would. God was with Pastor Butch Gregory, recent history showed that, and everyone in Sydney knew it.
He punched the code to lock the door, then he walked down the sidewalk to the small parking lot behind the building. Just as he turned the corner, he heard the rush of footsteps. His movements were a bit slowed, so he didn’t completely get turned around before the metal rod smashed down on his head.