In coming days, I’ll be sharing some scenes from the upcoming book, Soul Survivor. If you liked The Champion Trilogy, or if you liked The Key of Solomon, you’ll be pleased to know that Soul Survivor features characters from both series. Strange, I know. I’m not sure exactly how well it’s all going to work out, but it’s fun to put together. My editor, Tiffany Wellborn, assures me that the manuscript will be edited very soon. Then I just need to get the cash together for a decent cover. In the meantime, here’s a sample:
Chapter 9: Nowhere, Texas
After that, Connie got used to the sound of sirens. It was either that or get no sleep. The relatively quiet city of Austin turned into New York City with cop cars whining throughout the night. At first, Connie wondered if they were pursuing another fire, rescuing someone in trouble or arresting more people at a bar fight. But after an hour of hearing the constant warbling, she tuned it out and focused on her classwork.
Dora was learning more and more English, and to Connie’s dismay, was gaining new friends as well. It wasn’t that Connie didn’t want Dora to have friends; it was just that Connie didn’t have many friends of her own, and she enjoyed being with her roommate. Now that Dora was beginning to speak like everyone else—mostly—she was becoming a social butterfly and spending less and less time in the dorm room. Connie was too busy to really worry about it, however, especially since her presentation for Professor Valencia’s class was looming over her in a few days.
The issue of having to prove God’s existence was becoming a catch-22 in Connie’s eyes and Connie wondered if Professor Valencia intended it that way. Connie was beginning to believe that God didn’t intend for us to have unmistakable evidence of his existence but wanted us to believe in him based on faith. But if all we had was faith, how was that different than people who believed conspiracy theories such as we never landed on the moon or a grand conspiracy to shoot JFK? Connie saw the trap and suspected that Valencia saw it too. You either had faith, which could be shot down, or you didn’t, which could be destroyed as well. It stumped her.
As she thought about it, she switched over to the Austin Times website and started adding stories as part of her internship. Suddenly the sirens she had heard all night made a chilling sense. A major story was breaking with police mobilizing to begin mass arrests of homeless across Austin. Innsmuir had sent several dozen photos of police in riot gear smashing through homeless villages, breaking down cardboard and wooden structures, and rounding up people. Connie saw the same bright blue bus lined up to collect those who were being rounded up.
“They can’t be doing this,” Connie said. “These people haven’t done anything!”
A video clip was included that interviewed Police Chief Everett Wilford, a tough-looking black man in his 50s. Wilford stood outside the blue bus supervising the exodus of homeless people. He was wearing a suit but was also wearing a riot gear helmet, as if he were prepared for violence at any moment.
“Chief Wilford, can you explain why this is happening?” a reporter asked him, the microphone thrust into Wilford’s face.
“What we are doing is a logical extension of Housing Ordinance 8561, the law that was passed by the City Council last week, and the actions of Judge Evangeline Sinclair. If you will refer to her comments, she stated that what is happening is being done for the health and well-being of all of Austin, and we support that philosophy.”
“But Chief Wilford,” Connie recognized Harold Innsmuir’s voice. “Why are these people being arrested? Have they committed any crimes?”
“They are not being arrested. They are simply being removed from the premises. It is within our purview to protect the citizens of Austin, and we are doing so. These undesirables will be removed.”
“To where?” Innsmuir asked. “To where?” But Wilford didn’t answer the question. Instead, he moved off to direct police as they continued to smash down the cardboard village.
As Connie watched the video, she completely forgot about the presentation for Professor Valencia’s class. Instead, a new question came into her mind:
What would Harris Borden do?
And the answer became suddenly clear to her.
Just then, her phone chirped. It was Innsmuir.
“I understand that a student group is planning on protesting the forced export of the homeless from Austin,” Innsmuir said. “See what you can find out about it.”
“I’m on it,” Connie said and closed her laptop and phone.
She ran over to the student union and immediately ran into students carrying signs. One read, “Give Me Your Tired, Your Poor” while another said, “Inasmuch as You Have Done It unto the Least of These.” A few used profanity that Connie thought defeated the purpose, but she didn’t say anything. There were already about a hundred students involved, and they looked like they were ready to leave.
“Where are we headed?” she asked.
“The cops cleaned out the camp over by I-35 and Martin Luther King,” an older student with a beard that others called Sleepy was saying. “The last two camps are about a mile north, up off of Manor and 183. That’s the bigger one. The smaller one is beneath the intersection of Highway 1 and 183.” The plan was to split up, get up and protest, disrupting the police strategy as much as possible while trying to get media attention.
Connie texted Innsmuir, who told her he would cover the village at 1 and 183, while she went to take pictures at the other location. When she arrived, the police were just arriving as well.
“Stay back,” the patrolman told them immediately. “If you don’t, you’ll be arrested for interfering with the police.” That resulted in a flood of profanity from the students, and the signs they carried became weapons directed at the officer.
“Officer needs assistance!” Connie heard the radio squawk, and she knew that she needed to get out of the way, so she ran. When she got about twenty feet away, she started shooting pictures with her smartphone. The students were wading into the police, who were slowly being reinforced. The students had wooden signs to swing over their heads, but the police easily took them out of their hands and disabled the students, throwing them to the ground and handcuffing them. The problem was that the police were still outnumbered four to one.
Connie kept taking photos, but as the melee increased, she decided to back up and get out of there. She had already been in jail once and didn’t want to spend another night in jail. Instead, she waded deeper into the cardboard jungle that made up the homeless village. She found a large cardboard box that seemed quieter than the others and crawled into it, only to realize she wasn’t alone. Two children were in there already, holding onto each other.
“Hola,” Connie said quietly to them. “No te hare daño. ¿Dónde están tus padres?”
Where are your parents? With all the craziness happening outside, they might not be willing to share that information, Connie thought. But surprisingly, the little girl holding onto her brother gestured over to the next cardboard box.
“Well, you stay right here,” Connie said in English. “I’ll take care of you.”
There were sounds of rumbling and crashing outside, police whistled and then a dog sniffing. Finally, a dog broke through the doorway, followed by a police officer in riot gear.
“Here’s three more of them,” the officer said. He reached in and started to grab the little girl.
“Please, she’s frightened,” Connie said, moving to intervene. Immediately the dog began snarling at her.
“This one speaks English,” the officer said over his shoulder. He dragged the two children, screaming, out of the cardboard shelter.
“Who speaks English?” another officer said, showing up. “You?” He looked at Connie, who with her dark features and the shadows of the evening fit in well.
“No, no,” Connie said. “Yo no hablo Ingles.”
The man grabbed her by the wrist, and to fit in, Connie began shouting in Spanish, just as others around her were shouting. She noticed, however, that not everyone was speaking Spanish. A few spoke English, some spoke some Italian, Arabic, and Eastern European languages.
“All right, people,” Connie heard the sergeant with the bullhorn say in front of them say. “This is what is going to happen. We’re not ICE. We’re not a court of law. We’re not charging you with breaking any laws. You’re not going to jail and you’re not going to Mexico. Where you are going is out of this city. That’s my instructions; to simply load you on that bus and get you out of Austin tonight.”
“Please, please,” an older Hispanic man said from the front row. “Where you take us?”
“West,” the man said simply. He then turned and gestured to the other police.
“Get ‘em loaded up and out of here!”
An hour later, Connie was riding on a bus in the darkness of a Texas winter’s night. The windows had been spray painted over, so there was no light coming in, and no sense of direction. A cacophony of sounds surrounded her. Children cried out in Spanish, and their parents tried to soothe them. She heard someone singing quietly in what sounded like Yiddish. Several sounded like they were sick, with the sound of retching and coughing around them all.
Finally, she could stand it no longer and stood up to walk to the front of the bus. The front seat featured the driver and one rider who held a shotgun. Between them and the passengers was a wire mesh that included a locked door with a deadbolt. She stepped up to it and tried to get the attention of the man riding with the shotgun.
“Please, there are sick people onboard,” Connie said. “Do you have any water? Do you have any medical training?”
“No, and no,” the guard said. “Look, we’ll be getting to our destination soon enough. Just be patient.”
“Where are we going?” Connie asked.
He chuckled and looked over at the driver, who grinned.
“Ever hear of Nowhere, Texas?”
Connie shook her head. “No. Should I have?”
He shrugged. “Well, if you’ve never heard of it, then it doesn’t really matter when we get there, does it?”
“Look, we have sick people here. We have children, old people. We have at least one pregnant woman. We need to stop and give them a chance to use a restroom.”
The guard shook his head and grew serious. “We’ll stop when we get there. Now sit down and shut up.” To emphasize his point, he slowly shifted the shotgun from one hand to the other, leaning it more in her direction.
“I think you should listen to him,” said an old man sitting in the row behind her. He was dressed in old, torn jeans, a worn Army jacket and a T-shirt that said: “Jesús Saves.” He wore sandals on his feet and had tattoos of some scripture on the backs of his hands. His face was scarred, with a long scar running from his left ear down across his throat almost to his Adam’s apple. He had about two weeks’ worth of beard, straggly white hair, and a strange foreign accent that Connie was trying to identify.
“Here, come sit by me,” he said, his voice strong but quiet. “We cannot do much until we stop.”
“What can we do even then?” Connie said. “The way I see it, we’re pretty much at their mercy.”
The man smiled and looked down as if he knew something that Connie and the guards didn’t. “Well, no one is really in control, are we? Only God. Only God.”
Connie had been trying to place the accent for a long while, then she finally realized it for what it was.
“Ty russkiy?” she said quietly.
“Da. A ty govorish’ po russki?”
She chuckled. “I know just enough Russian to get me in trouble. But it’s definitely on my to-do list.” She hesitated. “If you speak Latin, I can help you out there.”
“Well, that is good,” the man replied in English. He held out his hand. “You may call me Sergei.”
“Connie Simescu.” She took his hand and shook it. “It seems like a strange place to find someone from the Rodina. Caught by the police and being transported who knows where. Are you worried?”
Sergei shrugged. “Oh, no. At my age, I have seen many things. I know that God is in charge, no matter my path. I only need to learn to trust him. He puts me where he needs me. It is my honor to serve him wherever that is, for as long as he wishes.”
“And what do you get in return?” Connie asked. “Do you do this for eternal life?”
Sergei looked at her and laughed. “Oh no. He has already given me that. That is free. I can do nothing to repay that. But it is my joy to be able to do something, a minuscule token, with my life to show him how much I appreciate his sacrifice and his love. He has done so much for me. What could I ever do to repay him? Absolutely nothing.”
Connie looked at him. “Can I ask how you got the scars?”
Sergei smiled slightly, touching his jaw and neck. “A slight disagreement in prison. It was settled later in a more amicable way.”
Connie talked to him for several hours, but the droning road and the endless hours caught up with her. She eventually fell asleep on the shoulder of the old Russian, who didn’t seem to mind and stoically sat and held her all night. The next morning, just about dawn, the bus rumbled into a town and slowed to a stop. The lights came on inside and people began stirring. The bus driver pulled the lever and the guard stepped out the door.
“It will be just a few minutes and then we will be letting you all out,” the driver said. His words were quickly translated from English to Spanish and other languages, and the excitement grew. The excitement held as the few minutes became ten, then fifteen. Finally, the guard came back onto the bus and began unlocking the gate between the driver and the passengers.
“You’ll see restroom facilities on the other side of the square,” the guard said loudly. “Drinks and a sandwich are available in the ice chests set up on the picnic tables. One to each person.” He finished opening the gate, then stepped out the door.
Connie jumped up and ran out the door. After a full night on the bus, her bladder was about to explode, and she was thirsty. But she also knew that children and a pregnant woman should have priority, so she helped them get to the restroom first. As they walked across the square, she looked around at where they were.
It was a very old, very rustic west Texas town. The square where they were parked offered no facilities beyond a flat concrete slab where the bus was parked, two picnic tables, and a very basic restroom with a rusty faucet and a hole in the floor. They took turns using it, rushing as quickly as they could in deference to those who were waiting behind them. Many of the men disappeared beyond the buildings and Connie guessed that they were making use of the wide-open spaces for restroom facilities.
It wasn’t until everyone was out of the bus and either in line for the restroom or helping others that they heard the roar of the bus’s diesel engine. Connie turned to see the doors of the bright blue bus shut and the driver kick it into gear. A second later, it was rolling back onto the highway that served as the main street of the old town.
“Wait,” Connie said. “They can’t leave us here!”
“Good riddance,” an old woman said. “We will do better on our own.”
“No, you don’t understand,” Connie said, an edge coming into her voice. “Look around you. There’s no one in this town. There hasn’t been anyone in this town for years.”
The others stopped and looked then. Sure enough, all the stores were boarded up. All the windows were broken and empty. There was only one car to be seen, and it stood on flat tires across from a gas station with an “Out of Business” sign posted in its window.
“We’re in a ghost town,” Connie muttered, mostly to herself.
One of the women began to whimper and another began to wail.
“Stop it, stop it, all of you,” Sergei said aloud, stepping forward. “Do you not see us for who we are? We are the children of Israel in the wilderness. God has led us out of Egypt, and he will take care of us now. Come, let us eat, and then we will worship.”
“What will happen after that?” a little child asked Sergei.
He laughed. “Then we will see the hand of God.”
He’s right, Connie said. I’m just like them. I’m so used to being taken care of. I’m so used to needing evidence. Where is my trust? Where is my faith? I’ve been wanting to find God and all this time I couldn’t because I depended on myself instead of depending on Him.
Sergei led them over to the picnic tables where he counted the number of people from the bus and the number of sandwiches.
“We have thirty-one men, women and children,” he said. “And we have twenty-five sandwiches.”
Several men raised their hands and said they would let someone else have their sandwich and go hungry. Connie raised her hand as well.
“That’s very generous of you,” Sergei said. “But we will see what God has in store for us. Let us pray for His blessing.” He bowed his head and began to pray in Russian. Connie bowed her head and listened as he prayed intently. When he finished, she helped him pass out the sandwiches.
“Everyone gets fed,” Sergei said quietly. “Everyone gets fed.” He would reach into the ice chest and pull out another sandwich and hand it to Connie, and she would hand it out. Finally, she had a sandwich in her hand that no one would take. She frowned.
“Whose sandwich is this?” she asked. “Someone didn’t get one.” But everyone raised their sandwich to show they were taken care of. She turned to Sergei.
“Did you count wrong?”
Sergei shook his head. “No, twenty-five sandwiches. But God’s mathematics is not the same as mine.” He grinned and pulled out another sandwich. “Does anyone want another one?”
Connie ate her fill that morning, as did everyone else. Afterward, everyone agreed that Sergei should lead them in praise for God’s protection and a prayer for His guidance. Sergei reminded them that God was always there, even when they couldn’t see Him. He promised to send His angels to protect His children in their times of trouble. Then he began to sing in Russian, a song that everyone knew. Each began to sing it in their own tongue:
The love of God is greater far than tongue or pen can ever tell.
It goes beyond the highest star and reaches to the lowest hell.
The guilty pair, bowed down with care, God gave His son to win;
His erring child He reconciled and pardoned from His sin.
O love of God, how rich and pure!
How measureless and strong!
It shall forevermore endure—
The saints’ and angels’ song.
Connie looked around her at the small congregation. Not everyone spoke the same language. Almost no one had money. They were dirty, tired, sore and a few were sick. She imagined that it had been years since many of them had been inside of a church. But they were having church together, right here, outside, beneath the open sky in view of God. And she felt more like she was worshipping than she had ever felt in her life.
And then she suddenly realized what worship was really about. It was thanking God for not only what you had, but what you could give others. It was helping others as much as you could. It was praying and praising, crying and helping. It was being a family with those who loved God as much as you did. And for the first time, she realized that she really did love God.
“God,” she prayed aloud. “Thank you for showing me this.” She smiled up into the open sky.
A moment later, a familiar car drove up to where the bus had been parked not long before. It was Harold Innsmuir.
“Harold!” she said, jumping down from the picnic table and running up to the window of his car. “How did you know where I was? I don’t even know where I am.”
“For the record, you’re on the backside of west Texas here. Now get in. I’m taking you home.”
“I can’t leave,” Connie said, looking back at the others. “These people need me. They’re stranded out here.”
“They don’t need you,” Innsmuir said. “They need the American Red Cross. I called them in San Antonio and they should be here in half an hour. They’ll take care of them.”
Connie stood up and looked back at Sergei, who smiled and waved for her to go. She grinned and nodded, then got in the car.
“Seriously,” Connie said. “How did you find me?”
“I told you a long time ago that I’m responsible for taking care of you,” he said. “You think I’d let you go anywhere without being able to ping the GPS on your phone?”
She reached into her pocket for her phone. It had no service, but a few minutes later, a bar appeared. Then a text message appeared, and another. And a third. They were all from Innsmuir.
Hold tight. OMW.
Connie smiled to herself and sat back in her seat. It felt great to be part of a family.