It had been three weeks since Mark Longly had gone to John Provo’s house to convince him to visit Pyramid Church and try to enroll him as a member. Now Mark wasn’t sure he even wanted to be a member himself. Annabeth had begun to realize something was wrong. She could see that Mark’s enthusiasm for the job was gone. But he hadn’t opened up to her about it, no matter how much she begged him. Mark couldn’t tell her what he was about to do.
He had just walked out the door of a poor, single mother who’d been deserted by her common-law husband, left to pay all the bills out of her truck stop waitressing money. Yet she was giving twenty percent of her income to the church—money that should have been used to buy food and clothing for herself and her little boy.
Mark refused to be a part of it for even one more day. What he was about to do might shatter the faith of millions. But the deceit, the corruption, the greed—it had to be stopped, and this was the only way.
He stepped out to the edge of the creaky wooden porch and gazed up at the black clouds, flipping up the collar of his jacket to shield his neck from the cool wind. It wasn’t supposed to be this chilly in October—not in Houston. Maybe it was a sign from God, telling him not to go through with it. Was there something he didn’t understand? Could there be some divine plan to use this evil for good? No, he couldn’t believe that.
Hal, the anonymous mega-church blogger, promised to protect his sources, but Mark had little confidence in his pledge. Karl Strickman, Pyramid Church’s attorney, would threaten him, and if that didn’t work, he’d pay him off. Then the retribution would come—surely and swiftly. Whatever good reputation Mark had built over his twenty-three years on this earth would be destroyed within days. He might never find another job. Would Annabeth understand? Her parents wouldn’t. They would disown him.
These thoughts should have stopped him cold. Maybe he was not thinking clearly—because he just didn’t care. But he simply could not live with it any longer.
“I’m sorry, Annabeth, but I have to do it,” he whispered to her, as though she were there, standing beside him.
He wondered if he’d be putting his life at risk. Would they go that far? The last thing he wanted was to turn Annabeth into a widow. No, he was being ridiculous. His boss, Billy Morgan, was a clown, and despicable in some ways, but he wasn’t a murderer, and neither were the others.
The thunder rumbled, vibrating the porch under his feet and awaking him from his trance. The rain began to pour. He carefully walked down the rickety wooden stairs and ran across the grass to his car, jumped in and slammed the door, and then took out his cell phone and placed a call.
“Hello?” The voice sounded lower than humanly possible—obviously disguised electronically, just as before. Mark had gotten the blogger’s phone number by email and had run a reverse lookup, only to find that the number was unlisted. Probably a throwaway phone—a burner, as they called them on the cop shows.
“Is this Hal?”
“This is Mark Longly.”
Mark doubted that Hal was the man’s real name. “I’m ready to give you the story.”
“Are you sure?”
Mark could almost hear Hal licking his chops. The electronic gadget couldn’t disguise that. “Yes.”
“The others promised the same thing, but then they backed out. They just couldn’t go through with it. They were cowards.”
Mark pounded the dashboard with his fist. “I am not going to back out!” Suddenly he felt exposed, sitting in his car in the young woman’s driveway. Some neighbor looking out a window watching Mark rant and rave might freak out and call the police. Maybe Mark should have called the police himself and spilled his guts to a detective instead of telling everything to this guy. But what good would that do? No laws had been broken, as far as he knew—except the laws of decency and morality. He started the engine, backed out, and drove away from the house.
“Good. Meet me at Hilly’s Bar on Westheimer in thirty minutes. I’ll be sitting in a booth at the back, near the restrooms.”
“No, that’s no good,” Mark said. “I don’t go to bars. I don’t drink.”
“Look, you don’t want any of your friends to see you hanging out with me, do you?”
“You think any of them will be at the bar?”
“Okay, fine. How will I recognize you? What do you look like?”
The line was dead. No wonder the others backed out. Wait—what others?
Mark pulled over at the first opportunity—a strip mall parking lot. He entered the name of the bar into the car’s custom GPS unit, a thing called a K-Star, and it calculated the driving time to be twenty-one minutes, giving an ETA of 5:32 p.m. But the K-Star had no awareness of weather-related road conditions. The wet streets would slow traffic considerably. Still, he figured he’d make it to the bar within the thirty-minute timeframe.
As he drove back onto the road, he thought about how thankful he had been for this job with a great salary and benefits, including the Buick LaCrosse he was driving. It had been purchased especially for him and still had that new car smell.
Mark hated to let everybody down. There were so many wonderful people working for the church.
The K-Star unit beeped.
Mark pressed the phone button to answer the call. “Hello?”
“Hey, Mark, this is Billy.”
Billy Morgan was a level-two team leader for the church—one of the gorillas, as they were affectionately called by the church staff. Each gorilla was responsible for a group of level-one leaders called cubs.
“You sound funny,” Mark said.
“Yeah, I’ve got a cold. What’s going on out there, buddy? You okay?”
“I’m fine. The weather’s not so good, though. It’s raining hard.”
“Where are you headed?”
Billy said, “That’s funny—your K-Star is set to take you to some bar named Hilly’s.”
“Wait—how do you know what I’m doing with my K-Star?”
“It’s not really yours—it’s the church’s. So, why are you going to a bar?”
“I’m not,” Mark said. “That’s crazy.”
“Yeah, I couldn’t imagine you going to a bar, but that’s what the system is telling me.”
Mark laughed nervously. “Then there’s obviously something wrong with the system.”
“Okay, look, Mark, to be honest…I heard you talking to that guy.”
“The one with the deep, deep voice that sounded like somebody out of a horror flick.”
“I thought you couldn’t hear me unless I pushed the talk button.”
“I can’t—unless I use the override,” Billy said. “You’re about to make a big mistake, man.”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about, Billy.”
“Yeah, you do. You’re planning to break your commitment to the church.”
“That doesn’t matter anymore.”
“Mark, I can’t believe you said that. You know better than that. The contract you signed is like a blood oath. It’s a promise to God.”
Mark thought for a moment. “God understands why I’m doing this.”
“No, you’re wrong. You can’t rescind your commitment—you can’t back out. The oath you took—the commitment you made is irrevocable—remember that word? It’s in the contract you signed.”
“Even if I made the commitment based on false information?”
“No matter what.”
“Even if church members are being hurt because of the work we’re doing?”
“No matter what. You cannot betray your commitment.”
There was silence for a full five seconds, and Mark thought Billy had disconnected the call.
Then Billy said, “You are my responsibility, and I cannot allow you to do this.”
“I’m sorry. I appreciate everything you’ve done for me, but I never would have taken this job if I had known what I know now.”
“But you did take it, and you agreed to all the terms of your contract.”
“Look, Billy, I’m gonna meet with this guy and I’m gonna tell him everything I know, and he’s gonna blast it out to the world through his blog and Twitter and Facebook and whatever else he’s got.”
“You’re wrong. He’s not gonna do any of those things, because you’re never gonna make it to that bar.”
A chill shot through Mark’s body. “You’re threatening me?”
“No. I’m just telling you the sad truth. I would offer you one last chance to do the right thing, but you’re not like the others. You’ve made up your mind, and I know I can’t talk you out of it. So, goodbye, Mark. I love you, man. May God have mercy on your soul.”
“Billy, come on.”
Mark was driving forty miles per hour when he saw the traffic light turn yellow. He pressed the brake pedal gently to avoid sliding on the wet pavement.
The car continued forward at the same speed. He pressed harder.
Still no change.
The light turned red. He was nearly at the intersection. Panicking, he jammed the brake pedal to the floor—to no effect.
His car shot into the intersection.
A furniture truck was barreling toward his left side, honking. He goosed the accelerator and narrowly avoided the truck. A van was coming from the right side. The driver appeared to be braking, and Mark thought he just might be home free, when the front bumper of the van caught the rear of his car and sent it into a spin.
After a full rotation, the car straightened up and continued in the same direction he had been traveling. He was shocked to realize he had survived the incident without a scratch. He tried the brakes again. They were not working, so he decided to let the car slow down on its own accord and then pull over into the next parking lot. He was still determined to meet with the blogger, although he might be late since he’d have to call a taxi.
The Buick began to accelerate. Mark’s foot was not even near the gas pedal. He impulsively tapped the brakes, which accomplished nothing. So, he shifted the car into neutral, but the engine kept running and the car continued to pick up speed.
He looked up at the K-Star. “Billy, are you doing this? Are you messing with my car somehow? Stop it, man!”
He remembered the parking brake. He’d never gotten into the habit of using one, but he knew how they worked. The parking brake pedal or handle was connected to the rear brakes via steel cables—a physical mechanism that Billy couldn’t possibly override remotely. He tried to find the pedal with his foot, but couldn’t. His heart sunk when he spotted the parking brake button on the console, and realized that his car had an electric parking brake. Mark depressed the button, hoping to get lucky. But a red light on the dash began to blink, indicating a problem.
“Come on, Billy, I know you don’t really want to kill me. How would you live with yourself? Just stop the car and let me get out. I promise I won’t meet with the blogger. I won’t tell anybody anything. Billy?”
The car continued to accelerate. He tried to lift the gas pedal with the toe of his shoe, but it was already in its highest position.
His current speed was sixty miles per hour.
He swerved to the right to avoid the slower car in front of him and took the on-ramp to the freeway.
His speed was seventy miles per hour.
He was at the speed limit, so he figured he had a few seconds to come up with a plan. The SUV in front of him was traveling below the speed limit, probably because of the rain, so Mark went around him.
The Buick continued to accelerate.
“Come on, Billy—you’re not a murderer.”
He saw a pickup in front of him, and wondered if he could climb out of his window and jump into the truck bed as his car went by. It was a crazy idea, and he couldn’t believe he was considering it, but it seemed like the only way for him to escape. Mark unbuckled his seat belt, climbed up into the seat with his feet underneath him and got ready to make his move. He would have to drive up very close to the side of the pickup to have any hope of making the jump. What if the driver got spooked and suddenly swerved away just as Mark jumped out of his window? He couldn’t think that way. Had to stay positive.
His car continued to accelerate. He glanced at the speedometer. Seventy-five miles per hour.
Quickly approaching the truck, Mark rolled down his window and leaned out. Hundreds of raindrops peppered his face like tiny darts. The driver in the pickup was talking on his cell phone and seemed oblivious to the Buick coming up fast in the adjacent right-hand lane. A woman driving a minivan full of kids in the lane to the left of the pickup spotted Mark hanging out of his window, looking like a crazy man, and began to frantically wave at the guy driving the pickup, trying to warn him. Soon all the kids in the minivan were yelling and waving too. But none of them could get the man’s attention.
That’s right, just ignore them. I’m not gonna hurt you, buddy. Just need to hitch a ride…
Then he saw it: the pickup bed had a cover on it—a smooth, hard cover—coated with rainwater. He would slide right off.
Mark sat back down in his seat and rolled up the window.
His speed was now eighty. Was there any chance he could avoid crashing until the car ran out of gas? He checked the fuel gauge. Half a tank.
He saw red lights up ahead. The car in the inside lane was braking. Then the pickup next to him began to brake. Soon all four lanes of traffic were slowing down. Probably an accident blocking the highway. But he couldn’t stop. He couldn’t go around—unless he moved over to the shoulder.
Mark worked his way over to the right, lane by lane toward the shoulder. Drivers were honking at him for recklessly changing lanes.
He finally made it to the shoulder. Then he spotted the eighteen-wheeler that was parked directly in front of him. To his left were bumper-to-bumper cars, slowing to a stop. To his right was a four-foot concrete wall. Straight ahead was the back of the tractor-trailer.
His speed was nearly ninety miles per hour.
There was no reason to put his seat belt back on.
This was it. No way out.
“I’m so sorry, Annabeth. I love you.”