Chris McIntyre has found a home at last. And life is good, with Chris savoring her status as a new aunt while she and Jason continue to explore their evolving relationship. But it’s going to take a hero’s heart to defend the community she treasures. It’s the sweltering summer of 1996, and the quiet life of Kimberley Square is shattered by the sound of screeching tires as rival gangs battle to claim the neighborhood that has become home to Chris. This new kind of turf war between gangs is far more frightening than anything she and her buddies encountered on the battlefields of Desert Storm. Even as she guards her home, Chris also wonders if she dares to let down her guard emotionally. Will she have to choose between her love for Christ and her growing love for Jason? Standing Strong is the fourth novel in the Homeland Heroes series by Donna Fleisher
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By Donna Fleisher
ZondervanCopyright © 2007 Donna Fleisher
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Chapter OneScreeching tires. Thumping rap music. Moving closer, growing louder.
With one foot on top of the shovel blade ready to push it again into the soft dirt, Chris McIntyre froze, her eyes narrowing against the breeze blowing through the trees. Tires screeched once more, slamming a car to a brutal stop. A horn blared but was quickly beaten back by angry shouts and booming hip-hop.
A shudder ripped through her. She stared past the back corner of the gym out over the side street. The car's engine roared, once again pushed to its max. Heading straight for Chris's neighborhood, the fools were using Kimberley Street as their own private drag strip.
She tightened her grip on the shovel's handle.
For the past several weeks, rival gangs from Portland's Outer Northeast explored the easternmost fringes of Kimberley Square, determined to add turf to their territory. Police patrols had been stepped up to counter the increased violence, leaving everyone, including Chris, a bit wary. Even after all she had endured as a veteran of Operations Desert Shield and Storm, this new type of warfare was unlike anything she had ever seen.
She forced herself to breathe as the racing car, its booming hip-hop music, and its screeching tires seemed to be aimedstraight for her. Just the thought of what that car carried stirred up tendrils of pure terror, electrifying her blood.
Slapping footsteps echoed off the houses across the street. Peering over the thin azalea bushes lining the sidewalk, Chris waited. She didn't have to move. By the sounds of it, whoever was running would pass the very spot where she stood.
A boy appeared. Sweating, desperately out of breath, a young boy no more than ten years old ran down the middle of the street, feet clomping in his oversized sneakers.
Enrique? Was that his name?
He hopped the curb and ran down the sidewalk just a few feet from Chris. His head turned her direction. Her presence must have startled him. He skidded to a stop, quickly looked over his shoulder, then burst through the line of azaleas and ran at Chris. "Señorita! Chris! Por favor!"
She dropped the shovel and faced him, hands up, palms out. "Easy now-"
"Help me! Ayúda!" He pointed back down the street.
Those same screeching tires brought the car onto the side street. Frozen in place, Chris watched it as the boy ran behind her and grabbed her arms, using her as a shield.
The tricked-out late-model sedan slid through a quick right turn and skidded to a stop in the gravel of the gym's back lot, no more than twenty feet away. The hip-hop spewing out of it shook the fillings in Chris's back teeth. Dust filtered up from the tires and floated on the breeze.
Enrique's fingers dug into her upper arms, and he bent with her as she reached down for the shovel. "Le suplico," he whimpered. "Le suplico! No ... no let ... no deje que me agarren!" His terror zipped through his crushing grip and settled in the pit of Chris's stomach.
She couldn't move. As she stared at the car, her breath hung suspended in her throat.
A sudden, complete silence fell.
Four grinning young men, teenagers, all wearing tight black nylon skullcaps and chains of silver around their necks, peered at Chris through the open passenger-side windows of the sedan. "Do it," the driver shouted. "Let 'em have it!"
One of the teens in the backseat pointed an assault rifle at Chris. It looked brand-new. Shiny. More like a pistol, the short length and small diameter of the barrel defied its ability to spray a world of hurt at anything standing in its way.
Enrique pulled at her arms. "No, no! Señorita, por favor ... no let them!"
Cruel laughter rumbled from the car. The boy in the front seat wore bright gold caps over his two front teeth.
Their laughter turned to taunting curses. The barrel of the miniature machine gun swung side to side as the teen holding it stared Chris down, his dark eyes glinting with unchecked delight.
Chris slowly raised the shovel, centering the tip of the handle in the dirt between her feet, the blade over her heart. With the weight of Enrique's grip pulling her arms down, she struggled to hold it steady.
The cursing taunts increased. Each vulgar name they called her struck deeply. The driver's shouts carried through the chaos of profanity and insults. "Wanna die? Yo, stand there and die." Wicked grins. Violent, horrible promises of pure evil, of what they would do to her after they settled their score with the boy behind her.
Lord God ...
"Nah, spray 'er now, Bones," the one with the gold teeth said. "Cut 'em both in half. Do it."
The swinging barrel slowed and steadied on her. She glanced down at the shovel blade. The way she held it against her chest, any bullets from that pistol striking it would deflect directly into her stomach. Or her face. Feeling a bit sheepish, she spun the handle to turn the blade so it curved out. Teeth clenched, she tried to stem the tremble that had overtaken her jaw.
Hideous laughter spewed from the car.
Chris stared into the gunman's eyes. Waited.
He glanced away first. Then he laughed and pulled the barrel of the gun to his lips and kissed it.
Enrique's fingers dug so deeply into Chris's arms, her pulse throbbed under her biceps. She struggled to keep the shovel centered over her heart. To keep her balance. To keep the boy from pulling her down. Come on, kid. Keep cool ... Wait 'em out ...
The car's engine thundered. The back tires spun, shooting rocks and dirt across the street, then dust into the air. Before tracking in to propel the car forward, the tires stopped, but the engine continued to roar. Confined to its spot, the sedan seemed to scream for mercy, begging to be released.
Silence fell. Except for loud laughter. Purely evil taunts.
Ahh, man, Enrique. What did you do?
Chris blinked as Mr. Gold Cap pushed his door open. His right foot, encased in a huge Nike high-top, plopped into the dirt.
She took a step backward, but her knees almost buckled when Enrique suddenly pushed away and sprinted across the lot toward the trees, screaming in his panic, arms raised to protect his face as he slashed through some rhododendron bushes.
A slow growl rumbled up from Chris's throat. If the boy continued in his current direction, he would end up in Ben and Sonya's backyard. Or at the church. He'd find open arms to protect him, even as he drew the gangsters deep into the heart of Kimberley Square.
The sedan's engine revved, drowning out laughing shouts of cruel and profane delight. Mr. Gold Cap quickly jumped back inside and slammed his door shut. Hip-hop once again boomed as the driver spun the car in a tight circle in the gravel, kicking rocks and dirt at Chris. She cowered beneath the spray, eyes pinched shut, hearing pinging sounds as rocks hit the shovel blade. Back on the street, the car's tires again screeched. Chris slowly straightened and blinked open her eyes. Leaving black smoke in its wake, the car raced to the intersection of the first cross street and then turned right once more to follow its prey. She rested her head against the back of the shovel blade.
Enrique ... is that even your name? Her arms trembled so hard the blade bounced off her forehead. Okay ... okay ... breathe ...
Maybe he wouldn't stop at the church. Maybe he'd keep running all the way home. Though he needed someone to take him in, Chris whispered a bit of a selfish prayer. She didn't want him stopping to hide anywhere near the homes of her best friends.
She needed to find her cell phone and call Ben to warn him. But she knew it was too late.
She needed to move. Her feet felt skewered to the ground.
Trembling overtook her. The shovel fell away. She dropped to her knees, then let herself fall the rest of the way down. She rolled onto her back and stared up at a patch of brilliant blue sky peeking out from behind thick puffy clouds.
Okay. It's okay. Her heart thumped against her chest as she tried to relax. Yeah. It's okay. He'll be okay. She blinked. Um ... Lord? I mean ... like ... what was that all about?
* * *
Ben Connelly loved Kimberley Square. But he could certainly do without living in a city. Sometimes it seemed to weigh on him. All the cars, the houses, the people. Oh, he loved people. Most people. But sometimes it seemed as if all the people surrounding him were sucking up more than their fair share of space and time and breath. He wasn't of the mantra: Live and let live. Yet if he had to draw a line somewhere, it would be there. Just let me live as I let you live. I don't want to hurt you. Please don't want to hurt me. Or those I hold dear.
He wished he could speak the words aloud to the kids in the brown sedan who obviously dug their obnoxious music and somehow found their way into the back parking lot of the Kimberley Street Community Church. From the kitchen window of his house, Ben watched the sedan turn sharp circles, its smoking tires leaving ugly black circles on the pavement. The boys inside whooped and hollered over the thump of their rap music as black smoke slowly curtained them from the world. A tiny bit of justice. Ben hoped the thick smoke would hurt their lungs and make them cough as they breathed it.
A small sigh. No, Lord, I don't hope that. I just hope they leave.
The car stopped. Laughter and loud thumps of bass continued to reach the spot where Ben stood. The glasses in one of his kitchen cupboards rattled.
The longer the car remained on church property, the more it necessitated Ben leaving his kitchen to go out and try to persuade them to leave. Or at least to try to persuade them to cease their current activities. As the clock above the sink continued to tick and the glasses continued to rattle, he prayed he wouldn't have to go out there. He already knew what he would say and how he would say it. A soft answer always turned away wrath. But these days, with these kids, even a soft answer could potentially be answered with gunfire.
"Benjamin?" His wife, Sonya, slowly padded down the stairs. "Should we call the police?"
He strained to see into the car. Each new tick of the clock gave witness to the truth. He needed to go out there.
"Sweetheart?" Sonya moved in beside him.
"No. I'm giving them ten more seconds."
"Oh, honey, don't go out there."
"You better call Andy. See where he's at."
Sonya reached for the phone.
As the church's senior pastor, Andrew, Ben's oldest son, was probably somewhere inside the huge building. The back door, the one just a few feet from the gang of troublemakers sitting in their smoking car, was probably unlocked. It was rarely locked. One of the ministries of the church was to be open and available to all who needed its safe retreat. But these kids didn't need a safe retreat. These were the type of kids who would abuse a safe retreat and twist it to suit their own evil intentions.
Not good. Where was his son? "Try his cell."
The kids sat in the car, gazing at the church's back door. As the smoke dissipated around them, Ben took notice of the car's make, model, and license plate number.
"No answer on his cell either. Are they gone? Did they leave?" Sonya again stood beside him. "Oh, sweetheart. I think we should call the police."
"So far they haven't done anything wrong. Except for cutting a few cookies."
"What do you think they want?"
"Ahh, they're just blowing off steam. I'm sure that's all it is." He pushed away from the sink. "I'll just go out and make my presence known. Keep trying Andy." He gave his wife's cheek a quick caress. "And don't worry. It's just another fun day in Kimberley Square."
"Yeah, right." Her pale green eyes darkened. "Please be careful."
He hated to hear such concern in her usually pleasant Southern drawl. "Always, my love." He kissed her soft lips. "Be back in a minute." He turned and walked out onto his back porch, focusing his gaze once again on the sedan.
The front passenger side door opened and a tall, thin boy stepped out. Ben took immediate notice of the black nylon cap wrapped around the boy's head. His steps quickened toward the church.
The boy's face bore a huge grin as he lifted his hands over his head and stretched. Thick chains of silver jewelry, one sporting a huge cross, hung down so low they reached beyond the bottom of his black T-shirt. His blue-striped boxer shorts puffed out from under his jeans-jeans that looked ready to fall down any second. Shorts. Though they reached below the boy's knees. He let out a deep yawn, all the while staring up at the church. Until his eyes caught sight of Ben. The music dropped to a volume considerably more conducive for conversation.
"Can I help you guys?" Ben spoke over the rap, yet kept his voice soft and devoid of concern as he moved closer. The boy's two front teeth were capped with gold. Ben tried not to stare. "That's some interesting music you've got playing. And quite a nice piece of artwork you left there on the pavement. You must have some serious horses under the hood."
He tried not to take offense as the boy slowly reached down to give Ben a sign of ultimate disrespect.
Snickers of laughter came from inside the car.
Ben took three more steps and stopped. Close enough, he figured, yet far enough away to be safe. He stood firm, back straight, then crossed his arms over his chest. Raised his chin just a bit. Pulled his expression into one of authority. Narrowed his eyes.
"Jus' lookin' for our friend, yo. He might've gone in there." The boy tilted his head toward the church.
Ben waited. He kept his eyes from glaring.
"We was waitin' to see if he'd come back out."
"Just passing the time, is that it?" Ben stood completely still, yet lowered his weight until his knees bent slightly, and rocked forward just a little to stand more on the balls of his feet.
The boy grinned. Sunshine sparkled off his gold teeth. "Yeah. Guess you could say that." He glanced back into the car where his buddies laughed and flicked gang signs at him.
Even with all his experience as a brigade commander in the army, this was not a bunch Ben wanted to mess with.
He lightened his tone. "Well, there's a Bible study starting soon." It wasn't exactly a lie. If the definition of "soon" could be stretched to mean about five hours. "You are all certainly welcome to stay and take part if you'd like."
Relief flooded through him at the boy's reaction. He didn't let it show.
With disgust pouring from his scrunched face and rolling eyes, the young gangster flicked a sign at Ben, communicating his thoughts on the matter quite clearly. "Forget dat, old man. Yo, we're outta here." He folded his long frame back into the sedan and slammed the door. Two seconds later, engine screaming, tires squealing, rap music once again blasting, the car sped out of the lot and turned toward downtown, but quickly turned onto the side street and burned a path past the side of the church. As it moved out of sight behind it, Ben let out his breath, yet kept his ears focused on the car's whereabouts. It turned once more, then roared down Kimberley Street, past the front of the church and Ben's house, heading east, hopefully heading home.
Portland's Outer Northeast. Away from downtown. Away from Kimberley. That was their turf. That was usually where they stayed.
* * *
He spun quickly at the sound of the familiar soft voice.
"Are you all right?"
The fear on Chris McIntyre's face unnerved him. It was one thing he usually didn't see in her eyes. "Are you? What happened?"
"I'm good, sir. They just paid me a visit before heading this way."
His jaw dropped.
"I wanted to warn you somehow." Sweat lined her forehead. She sounded slightly out of breath.
"Are you sure you're all right?"
A small smile. "Yeah. Good as gold."
"What did they do? What happened?"
"Ahh, they just ran their mouths off a bit. And pointed an automatic pistol at me. Did you get to see it?"
Ben tried to close up his mouth. "Um, no. Didn't have the pleasure." He wished he had his cell phone with him so he could call the police.
Chris laughed. "Thank goodness they left. Back to the hole they crawled out of, huh?" She looked around. "Did you see the boy they were chasing?"
"Chasing? They said he was a friend."
"Yeah, well, if they always chase their friends like that ..."
Excerpted from Standing Strong by Donna Fleisher Copyright © 2007 by Donna Fleisher. Excerpted by permission.
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