Tuesday, August 21, 2012

House of Mercy

By Erin Healy
House of Mercy is a supernatural suspense novel about an aspiring large-animal vet, Beth Borzoi, who has a healing gift. But when she is sued for a terrible mistake, the judgment devastates her family's ranch and leads to a loved one's death. It seems God ignores her prayers for mercy. Guided by a mysterious wolf, the heartbroken Beth embarks on a journey to find the only person who can help her save the ranch, not knowing that he too has recently lost everything. Set in the stunning and rugged terrain of Southern Colorado, House of Mercy follows Beth through the valley of the shadow of death and into the unfathomable miracles of God's grace.
"Supernatural and spiritual elements about in Healy's novels, and this one is no exception. Unusual storytelling helps to make the message stronger and more thought-provoking." RT Book Reviews, 4 Stars
Phil was grinning at Beth, standing in the barn's alley next to the tallest, glossiest, most beautiful Thoroughbred horse she'd ever seen. She felt her lips form an O as admiration filled her next breath.
"Beth, meet Java Java Go Joe. Joe, meet Beth."
The horse's name was appropriate, considering the sheen of his coat, an oily dark-roasted coffee bean. The stud's track record at the races and in siring winners had lived up to the moniker too.
"Your reputation precedes you, sire," Beth said. The stallion before her, the Kandinskys' guest, was more than seventeen hands high and glistening, majestic. It took Beth a long time to notice that Joe was saddled and ready to ride.
"No," her mouth said, while her heart cried yes.
Phil gestured to the blocks at Joe's side. "A small gesture of our appreciation," he said.
Beth stroked the animal's neck, and his muscles flickered under the skin.
"I shouldn't. I can't."
"Sure you can," Phil said.
Beth shook her head. "It's wrong."
"What's wrong with giving a champion like him any excuse to relive the glory days? He resents that they only love him for his stud fees anymore. He told me so."
Beth laughed and found herself standing on the blocks.
"I guessed at your stirrup length," he said.
"Then we should see how good at guesswork you are," she said, and she was astride Joe's strong back before she could decide not to be. Beth felt him shift, evaluating her size and weight. She inserted her feet in the stirrups. Phil's estimate was perfect.
"Ten minutes," Phil urged. "No harm, no foul. In the three days he's been here he's blazed a trail all his own around the center pasture. Let him show you around."
Taking the horse out to the pasture at this midnight hour was a risky and maybe even stupid idea. And yet she had often dreamed of riding a horse like this.
"Here." Phil handed her a helmet.
"I don't need one of those for a little canter."
"Yeah yeah. I know how these things start."
She snatched up the helmet and strapped it under her chin.
"I hope you don't lose your job over this," she said.
"I won't. This is you: Her Majesty the animal whisperer. I'm not worried about a thing."
Her understanding of an animal's spirit was what would make her a great veterinarian some day, Beth's father often said. She could sense, in the light dance of Joe's feet as she leaned forward in the saddle, that the creature was happy to go for a ride this evening.
With a gentle heel, she nudged Joe toward the fresh air. He needed no other prompt. They passed through the wide doors and then navigated a few gates, and Joe told her with his confident stride that his heart would be a reliable compass on this sky-lit night.
In the Thoroughbreds, God had married strength and grace and created a magnificent breed that few people could appreciate firsthand. Beth closed her eyes. There was little for her to see, and her efforts to guide the horse might lead him into dangers worse than mere shadows cast by the moon.
In seconds his walk shifted to a trot and then to a canter, and then to a gallop as pleasant as a swiftly flowing creek. Joe was an eagle born to glide above water. The surface of the pastures fell away. She leaned into the horse's neck and tucked her head and couldn't remember any sensation as wild and reckless as this.
His neck stretched out and so did his stride. Together they picked up speed.
She wondered how much faster than this Joe had gone in his youth, on a refined racetrack, with the jockey he trusted most.
The horse soon reached a pace that Beth understood was beyond her ability to contain. A flicker of fear passed over her but then flew away from her mind like a rooftop in a high wind. She surrendered to Joe's confidence, and to the thrill of being out of control.
But Joe's mood shifted.
Beth noticed it first in a sudden deviation from his course, a quick and not-so-graceful dig into the earth that thrust his weight off center. The angle of his ears changed as he moved off the perimeter of the fence; they stood erect now and resisted the rushing air. And though Beth hadn't thought it possible on this unrefined terrain, the Thoroughbred accelerated, fueled by an energy that came off his back like fear.
The muscles on the inside of her thighs began to burn as she held her weight off the saddle. She took back the reins, but Joe did not respond to them. Her fingers, entwined in the leather, found the saddle horn. Her eyes, squinting and dry and unexpectedly disoriented, looked for the light of the stables. She thought they might be behind her.
Joe changed course again, zigging to the previous zag. Beth slipped an inch before she recovered her center.
"Whoa," she instructed. She didn't share his fear yet. He might respond to her steady calm. "Settle down, boy."
She attuned her own ears to the surroundings, trying to get a clue for what had upset Joe. Excitement no longer energized the horse. It was replaced by panic, frantic and panting. Beth couldn't imagine what, on this secure and sheltered land, would be so terrifying. The sounds of her soothing tongue clicks were trampled by the pummeling of hooves tearing up the ground, thumping like helicopter blades.
A ghost-gray form floated into the periphery of Beth's vision. She glanced twice, and then a third time. The hulking spirit hovered just above the ground, gliding with a swift and otherworldly intention toward Joe's flank.
That rooftop of fear crashed back down on Beth's mind, knocking the breath out of her. She felt Joe's terror as if it were her own. His foaming sweat flew off his neck and spattered her arms, and into the vacancy of her imagination rushed Wally's wolf.
It can't be a wolf, she told herself.
Whatever it was dashed behind Joe, there and gone like the memory of a dream.
She tried to twist in the saddle, wanting to see what it really was and where it was going, but the power of the horse's speed forced her to stay forward, low above the Thoroughbred's back. All she could do was hold on, with weakening thighs and floppy ankles and fingers soft as cooked spaghetti.
Joe's desperate footwork jerked Beth awry again. Clods of dirt were flying up from behind his hooves, smacking her in the back.
Then the ghost she had lost sight of snarled, and the noise pierced all the other sounds bouncing around her ears. This sound, this primal shriek, declared that this wild dog was no phantom. It was physical, and it was robust, and it had performed the astonishing feat of predicting how the horse would move to evade the hunt.
The wolf had overtaken them and now came from the front, head-on. It was lunging for Joe's neck, taking an impossible leap.
The wolf's weight struck her in the face. One second Joe was solid under Beth and the next she was plunging, gasping, choking on a mouthful of fur. The leather rein caught hold of her wrist and snapped taut, shocked by the weight of her falling body as she left Joe's back. She felt the joints in her arm and wrist popping as her insignificant mass yanked against Joe's, which was a bullet train moving in the opposite direction.
She stayed connected to him by that stubborn strap. And the wild animal stayed connected to her, its claws curled into her collarbone.
Beth and beast hit the ground and bounced. She heard rocks connecting with the helmet Phil had insisted she wear. Her body flipped over onto the dog as they rolled, her distended arm still tangled in the reins, and then the animal emerged on top, teeth snapping so close to her face.
Joe might have dragged her to her death if the sudden impact hadn't jerked his neck sideways and led his hooves into a terrible misstep.
His mountainous body toppled inches from hers, but by now she was deafened by firecrackers in her skull, and she didn't hear Joe's collapse. Instead she felt the vibrations of his fall, and his heaving body pulsed atop her forearm, the one roped and pinned under Joe's shoulder like a calf tossed by a cowboy.
Beth's mind piled up sandbags against the rising flood of pain. She couldn't move.
She expected the wolf to tear into her, to finish her off. And it was a wolf. The weight, the coat, the claws—it could be nothing else. It stood on her chest, its padded feet the size of her own hands, but the animal didn't rip into her jugular or try to dig out her heart, if that was normal wolf behavior. Beth had no point of reference. If she'd been asked before this moment, she would have said no wolf could unseat a rider from a fully extended horse.
His concentrated weight bore down on her ribs so that she couldn't take a full breath. Beth prayed. God have mercy.
The beasty breath, full of heat and moisture and the scent of blood, caressed her chin and floated over her lips and rose through her nose into the panic centers of her mind.
She heard a voice within her ringing head say I will show you mercy.
She decided the voice belonged to God.
She thought it would be a mercy to die.
© 2012 by Erin Healy. All rights reserved. No portion of this excerpt may be reproduced or transmitted by any means without the prior written permission of the publisher. For more information about the book, including reader comments and information on where to buy it, please visit http://www.erinhealy.com/2012/06/06/house-of-mercy/

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