Cracked Altar (Paperback)

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When darkness falls, evil rises…

John’s life is a living nightmare. Any chance of digging himself out of the abyss disintegrated long ago.

Fired, discredited, buried under crippling debt, and isolated in a west-Texas ghost-town, he’s both a pariah and a wanted man.

Under an investigation for a crime he didn’t commit, he’s quickly running out of allies, and even more rapidly, losing his grip on reality.

Late at night, long after the lights have gone out, it’s there. He doesn’t know where it is and what it wants with him. It lurks in the shadows, biding its time before it strikes. It beckons him. If he heeds its demands, he has no way of knowing what awaits him.

If he ignores it, the outcome may be worse – far worse…

Paperback 276 pages
Dimensions 5 x 0.7 x 8 inches
ISBN 979-8545687190
Publication date June 22, 2021
Publisher The Nightmare Engine

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Chapter One

“Yes, I can still go to therapy,” John Nova said to his wife, Catherine Nova, his eyes darting left to right on an official-looking form. John put the paper down and took up his stale cup of coffee, sipping on it despite the acidity. Because if he didn’t do something with his hands, he’d probably flip the kitchen table.
He set the cold drink aside, forcing his hand, shaking with anger, to be still. Catching his wife’s passionate blue eyes, he admired her beauty, though her hair was in a messy bun from work. He wasn’t mad at her. No, he was mad at the news on the piece of paper stating that he had been officially fired from Josephine County Sheriff’s Office. That’s what caused his blood pressure to skyrocket. He was already on administrative leave; he just didn’t expect to be fired this quick. It had only been a few days.
He reached for the coffee again, then stopped.
“Good. I think it’s helping you sleep,” she said, taking up the notice as if he had missed some detail. John’s eyes wandered over her body. She hadn’t even changed out of prim work attire. Instead, she had joined John at the kitchen table, sliding up a chair across the plastic tile of their double-wide trailer. He hadn’t said a word when she got home after work, only stared off down the hallway. Sensing something wrong, she had sat down.
“So, are you still going to go? You’ve participated enough to where Dr. Bennett said you’d be able to get a referral for sleeping pills,” she blurted out.
John sucked in air sharply through his nose. “I’m a little more concerned about the fact that I now have no job. We’re coming up on a mortgage payment.” He leaned back in his chair, mirroring his wife. He, like Catherine, hadn’t changed from what he had worn out of the house. She had gone to work, while he had tried to schmooze another loan out of the bank by donning a slick blue suit, black cowboy boots, and a white dress shirt, currently soaked through with sweat near his lower back. Texas was hot. West Texas was oppressively hot. Josephine County, Texas, was hotter than the underside of Satan’s ball sack. Despite his attire, the geriatric behind the counter had denied his loan request, leaving him twice as pissed off as he walked home in a pool of sweat.
They had one car, bought on yet another loan, and Catherine had to drive it to work and back so she could grab their seven-year-old son Colton from school. And he’d be damned if he let his wife walk around in this heat three months pregnant.
“Look, you’ll find something. Surely one of the neighboring counties are hiring.” Catherine reached across the table and took up his hands. Her skin was soft, while his were scarred and calloused.
He pulled away. “Even if I could, which I doubt is remotely possible, we can’t afford to not let you have the car, and we sure as hell can’t afford another one. I don’t want little Bethany to get here early because you’re overworking yourself walking in and out of town.” He stared down at her slightly protruding baby bump and couldn’t help but smile. She didn’t object to the idea. Her ankles had yet to swell, but if this pregnancy was anything like her first, it was coming, and she wouldn’t be able to wear her favorite heels anymore.
She looked at him out of the corner of her eye. “Who said she’s a girl?”
“I decided,” he joked. “Kidding. Boy, girl, I don’t care, I’m just counting fingers and toes.” He looked up over her dirty blonde head and saw a picture mounted on the wall behind the couch. It was of their wedding. She wore an elegant white gown with a ten-foot tail, and he wore his dress uniform from Houston Police Department. He had hair back then, thick and black. He kept it cut high and tight, just as he had years before in the Navy. Now, he had a shiny bald head, a look he had adopted when it started to thin up top. Catherine laughed at him at first, saying his pointed nose, hairless head, and pronounced chin made him look like a penguin. Now it all seemed so trivial. The document on the table and what it meant had her attention.
John slid back, the wooden legs of the chair scraping the floor and shaking the cheap walls of their manufactured home. It wasn’t ideal, and he had furiously rejected the idea of buying a trailer, but it was the nicest and most affordable one the dealer had, and their only option without a huge down payment. The purchase was furthermore solidified when the Sheriff himself offered up a plot of land for him to drop it on. That was before the incident, before being placed on administrative leave, and before being fired.
Conveniently, the bit of land was technically the Sheriff’s backyard leading to many a night where Catherine was forced to play what John called “the quiet game.” Lest the Sheriff himself come knocking at 2:00am.
He poured out the cold coffee and gave the table a good wipe down with a damp rag. Catherine hadn’t moved. She stared down at something in the corner of the room. Overhead, the harsh LED tube lights flickered, and she looked up. “I thought you had gotten them fixed?”
John placed a cup in the cabinet. “I did. He said it was a short at the box. He said he replaced it.”
“Well, you may need to call him back if it’s going to keep flickering like this. I’m getting a headache. What about the guy who sold us the trailer? Isn’t there some kind of warranty?”
“No; declined it, remember? To save money. Now it’s just a manufacturer’s warranty, and this won’t qualify. If the roof falls in, maybe we can call them then.” John started down the hall, aiming for their bedroom at the far end. He stopped at the door to Colton’s room and motioned for Catherine to join him. She got up and hovered by his right arm, peering over his shoulder as he cracked it open.
The room was lit with an action figure nightlight and Colton laid peacefully on a dark red pillow under matching sheets. John could make out his head of black hair, cut into the shape of a bowl, much to his dismay. John didn’t think eight-year-olds should have a bowl-cut, but Catherine thought he looked cute. John frowned at it behind closed doors but smiled so Colton didn’t feel bad. The room still smelled of fresh paint and glue after some move-in repairs, and many of his toys and decorations were still in boxes in the corner. John saw the closet door was slightly ajar and crossed the room on his tiptoes, slid it shut with a muffled click, and returned to the hallway.
“Weird. I closed that before I put him to bed,” John whispered to Catherine, shutting the door after walking into their own room. There, he took off his suit jacket and pants and set them on the dresser. Catherine brushed up behind him and hugged him close, her head resting on his middle back.
“We’ll be fine, just like we always are.” They stayed like that for a moment before John lifted her hand to kiss it, then peeled himself away and climbed into the shower. He emerged a few minutes later feeling clean and refreshed. The shock of the termination letter had rinsed off a bit along with his initial bout of anger.
John stepped into the bedroom, a wave of steam rushing behind him, to find that the room was dimly lit. A single lamp in the corner cast a soft red glow. Catherine’s blood-red silk robe was draped over the top. He could see the soft outline of her body under the bedcovers, and he smiled. Creeping alongside the bed, he let his fingers drag along the top of the sheets. She was lying on her back.
“Are you ready to try again at the quiet game?” He whispered softly.
“Did you say something?” Catherine’s voice came from the spare bedroom. What the fuck? John thought. He looked down at the sheet. There wasn’t an outline of her body anymore; it was flat and wrinkled. John’s heart pounded in his chest, and now his shower felt pointless as sweat formed on the nape of his neck. He wiped it away nervously as Catherine emerged from the doorway to the bedroom, a book in her hand. She bore a look of pity as she spotted the robe.
“Aww, you’re sweet, honey. But it’s late and I’m going in early tomorrow,” she said, crawling onto her side of the bed. John stood, bewildered. He swiped his hand across the spot where he swore he saw the outline of Catherine’s body. He then peered at the robe draped over the lamp, then down at her back. Thinking back to the silhouette under the blanket, he couldn’t believe what he had just seen. She wouldn’t believe him. She hadn’t believed anything else he’d seen. For the most part, even he didn’t believe what he had seen. Something therapy was supposed to help with. Instead, he wrote it off as stress.
Sleep and shadows. That’s what that was. A lack of sleep and shadows from the lampshade. She’d just dismiss it if you told her. But how did the robe get there?
Anxiously, he ripped it off the lamp and tossed it in the dirty clothes basket, despite it being clean, and clicked off the light, succumbing to another fitful night of nightmare plagued restlessness.