All I’ve ever wanted out of my writer’s journey is an audience, so thank you to everyone who’s taken the time to read HERO and an even bigger thank you to those readers who have left a review or just plain told me what you thought. For those of you who haven’t yet read HERO, you’re in luck. Keep scrolling. The first chapter is available below for free. Try it. I bet you’ll like it.
While fifteen-year-old Hero Jean Taylor struggles to adjust to a new home and a new school, she fixates on a solitary hunt for a brazen killer. Intent on cracking the case by visiting the scene of each murder, Hero crisscrosses town on her bicycle until a chance encounter with a mysterious stranger brings her tantalizingly close to the answers she seeks. But as the death toll mounts, Hero’s very survival hinges on the one truth she finds hardest to accept: She can’t do it alone.
Christopher D. Seifert
For the men and women in blue.
“Cowards die many times before their deaths;
the valiant never taste of death but once.”
—Julius Caesar, Act II, Scene II
Two weeks after her father left, Hero Jean Taylor closed the door on the only home she had ever known. She was out back – up in the treehouse, of course – when her mother gave the word.
“Hero,” Lynette Taylor called, “it’s time to go.”
Hero shivered. A cold breeze rustled branches and made the entire treehouse sway. She stood and let her green eyes sweep over the entirety of the backyard one last time. Her whole world, or rather what was left of it, lay before her. The shed. The garden spot. The trampoline. The chain-link fence that stood as the dividing line between their yard and the Sullivans’. Bailey, the Sullivans’ shaggy dog, roamed the fence line with his black nose snuffling in the dirt.
“Hero! Let’s get a move on here!”
Hero sighed before clambering down the ladder her father nailed to the old ash tree when she was just six years old. The final rung of the ladder had broken away long ago, and Hero dropped the last five feet, landing in the grass with an audible “oof.”
“Coming,” Hero said, but not loudly enough for her mother to hear her. She crossed the yard, pulling her sweater more tightly around her as she went, and approached the red-brick house. At the back patio, a series of wooden steps led to a second-story deck. Hero took each step with painstaking deliberation. She was in no hurry.
Her mother waited at the top with her arms folded across her chest. “Your aunt and uncle are expecting us,” her mother said. She turned and walked into the house.
Hero bit her lip and shivered once more. Then she followed her mother inside. As soon as Hero closed the sliding glass door behind her, her mother was there to flip the lock and wedge the door with a wooden pole.
The house was quiet, lifeless. The walls were bare. The furniture was gone. Hero marveled at how cavernous it all looked. Just a barren shell.
Her mother marched to the other side of the room, pulled open the front door, and held it there as if waiting for Hero to pass through.
“Give me a minute,” Hero said. Her voice echoed when she spoke.
Her mother shrugged and went outside. “OK,” she said, “but make it quick, and be sure to lock the door behind you.”
Hero could never have explained how it was happening, but she felt the lump in her throat tighten more than ever. Her breath was short, and her heart fluttered. She closed her eyes and let herself consider what she was only beginning to understand: Nothing would ever be the same. Nothing would ever be right.
Hero crossed the room, stopped to fiddle with the lock on the doorknob, and then walked out onto the front porch. She looked toward the driveway.
Her mother sat behind the steering wheel of their car, a blue hatchback, and honked the horn.
Hero turned back toward the house. She gave the doorknob a tug. The door squeaked on its hinges, just like it always did. With one final tug that took all of her remaining strength, she brought the door closed. Hero jiggled the handle and found it would not turn. There was no going back.
Her mother honked the horn again.
Hero stepped off the porch. She pushed a strand of dark hair behind her left ear, moved past the “for sale” sign in the yard, and climbed into the front passenger seat next to her mother, who put the car in reverse and started it rolling backwards down the driveway without giving Hero time to close her door or latch her seatbelt.
Uncle Ryker and Aunt Terry lived on the south side of town. The drive to their house took about fifteen minutes, Hero knew. Fifteen minutes. Trapped in the car with her mother. Hero sank lower in her seat.
She looked around the car’s interior. She looked everywhere but at her mother. The backseat was packed so high with boxes, bags, and suitcases it was impossible to see through the rear window. Piles of greasy fast-food wrappers littered the front-seat floorboard.
Hero reached for the radio dial. She was hoping for some loud music to dull her senses, but it was the AM band that came to life: “Local police are still investigating,” a baritone voice announced while Hero’s mother grimaced, “two shootings over the last month that some say are connected. Police spokeswoman Donna Pearl on why the public—”
Lynette Taylor swatted Hero’s hand away from the dial and switched off the radio. Then she hit the brakes hard enough for Hero’s shoulder strap to lock and took an abrupt right.
Hero gave her mother a sideways glare, leaned back in her seat, and watched the familiar streets slide past them. There was the fire station, the library, the elementary school she once attended. Later, they passed the park and the food mart. The entire neighborhood – every tree, shrub, and sidewalk – felt like a part of her. Even the signposts and rain gutters were old friends.
“It’s not like we’re moving to Mars,” her mother had said the night before. “We’re moving eight miles across town. You can still see your friends.”
Hero felt her mother was dreadfully wrong about that – just as she was dreadfully wrong about a great many things. As far as Hero was concerned, the south side of town might as well be a whole new solar system. She was fifteen, and she was not ready for this. Any of it. But then, the realist in her thought, when does life ever ask if you’re ready?
“Hero,” her mother began as they waited at a red light, “your aunt and uncle are really doing us a wonderful favor by taking us in like this. Please try to be grateful.” Her mother made a half-hearted attempt at a smile. “Please.”
Hero wriggled her nose but was quiet. No question Uncle Ryker and Aunt Terry were wonderful people, and Hero loved them dearly, but how could her mother expect her to be grateful?
Neither mother nor daughter said anything for the rest of the ride. Instead, Hero tried to distract herself by keeping a lookout for yellow cars. It was a game she and her father used to play when she was little. She wondered what made her think of it now.
Uncle Ryker and Aunt Terry lived in a small, one-story ranch-style house with brown siding. Large oak trees towered up and down the block. Dogs barked and children frolicked. Funny, Hero thought, how her own universe had come to an end, but here the world kept marching on just as it always had.
“Let me help you with those bags,” Uncle Ryker said after he gave Hero and her mother each the most enormous bear hug imaginable.
Hero and her mother had only brought what they could fit in their car. The rest of their belongings were in storage. Earlier in the week while Hero was at school, her mother called the movers and had them take it all away. Hero came home that day to a desolate house.
“What’ve you got in here?” Uncle Ryker said to Hero with a wink as he heaved the heaviest suitcase up to the front porch. “An anchor?”
“Yeah,” Hero said. “Something like that.”
“Here,” Aunt Terry said to her husband, “let me get the door for you.”
“Thank you, dear.” And with another heave, Uncle Ryker brought the giant suitcase inside and let it drop. He tugged on his beard as he stopped to catch his breath. Then to Hero he said, “Let me show you your room.”
Your room. Hero hated the sound of that, but she knew Uncle Ryker was only trying to be a good host.
“Sure,” she said.
The room was much smaller than what Hero was used to. There was barely space for the single twin bed that was shoved in one corner. A frayed quilt lay draped over the top of the bed, and a tiny window loomed above it.
“It isn’t much,” Uncle Ryker said.
“It’s perfect,” Hero’s mother replied from behind her daughter. “Isn’t that right, Hero?”
“Great,” Hero said without much enthusiasm.
But Uncle Ryker seemed not to notice. He turned to Hero’s mother. “Your room is this way, Lynette.”
Hero took a step up onto the bed, pushed back the curtains, and peered out at the street. The dogs were still there and so were the children, but now the sound was muted.
“Hero darling,” Aunt Terry said from the hallway.
Hero was surprised by her aunt’s presence. She thought all the adults had left.
“I’m so sorry about this,” Aunt Terry said. “I really am.”
Hero said nothing at first. Her eyes stayed laser-focused on a boy riding a tricycle. She did not want pity. Not from Uncle Ryker. Not from Aunt Terry. Not from anybody. She wanted to go on with her life. Mostly, she wanted to be left alone. Hero clenched her fists as she felt the anger welling up inside her, but she breathed evenly and gave a quiet response.
“I know,” was all she said.
Aunt Terry lingered there, seemingly uncertain what to say, but she soon withdrew.
Hero spent the next few minutes getting settled. She opened her suitcase and began piling some of her clothes onto the bed. There was no dresser, she realized, and not much of a closet. She would have to make do.
Near the bottom of her suitcase, Hero found her most prized possession – a bulky black police scanner. She was shocked her mother had kept it. A simple oversight, Hero was certain. She located an outlet near the foot of the bed and plugged the police scanner into the wall. Voices crackled, but she slapped the power button to quiet them.
She turned her attention to other treasures in her suitcase. Her football. Her stamp collection. Her crime-fighting kit. They all went under the bed. Her bed.
Hero stood up and left in search of the bathroom. She could hear the adults talking in the kitchen. From their hushed, private tones, she could tell they were talking about her.
“She’s struggling, Lynette,” Hero heard Uncle Ryker say.
The voices were muffled.
“She’s resilient,” she heard her mother say.
Aunt Terry spoke next: “Yes, but …”
Hero closed the door to the only bathroom in the house. She examined herself in the mirror. She had straight black hair, a freckled nose, and striking green eyes. Those eyes looked tired. Their natural glow had grown dull.
Hero splashed water on her face. Then she dabbed her forehead with a nearby towel. Her eyes stung, and her head hurt. She wanted to stay locked in the bathroom forever. If only that was an option.
When Hero did emerge from the bathroom, she decided to avoid the adults by slipping out into the backyard. Not that it was much of a backyard, really. She had been to Uncle Ryker and Aunt Terry’s house many times before, but that was always for a visit. This time she was expected to stay. A concrete patio bordered a slim strip of lawn. No trees. A few flowers were just beginning to bloom along the privacy fence. A black power cable swung low over the yard so that throwing the football would be nearly impossible.
Everything, Hero realized, was small and narrow and enclosed. Already she was beginning to feel like a caged animal. She took a step out onto the lawn. She ground the heel of her slipper into the turf long enough to tear away a patch of grass. She kicked at the loose clippings and turned back into the house.
The television blared from the living room. The television, Hero knew, was often blaring at Uncle Ryker and Aunt Terry’s house. They were watching the national news.
“Hero?” Uncle Ryker poked his nose in from the other room. “Is that you?”
“Yeah,” she said. “Who else would it be?”
“Good point,” Uncle Ryker said with a smile. “Where’ve you been?”
“Just stepped outside for a bit,” Hero said. “Needed some fresh air.”
“Of course. Hey, care to help me with dinner?”
“Sure,” Hero agreed.
She watched in amazement as Uncle Ryker went to work. He rolled up his sleeves. He threw on a red apron and began rifling through cupboards.
“Sorry to say things are a little sparse around here,” he said. “High time I made a trip to the grocery store. Beats me why I didn’t think of that before you got here. Some host I am, huh?”
Hero happened to know the cupboards at Uncle Ryker and Aunt Terry’s house were often bare. What food they did have on hand tended to be things like nuts, whole grains, and skim milk. Aunt Terry was something of a health food enthusiast. Too bad. A glazed donut sounded really good, Hero thought, but she realized she was unlikely to be seeing many of those any time soon.
Uncle Ryker put a skillet on the stove. “Looks like our only option tonight is breakfast for dinner.” He nodded toward a carton of eggs. “Mind cracking a few?”
Hero stepped up to the counter. She pushed the sleeves of her sweater back from her wrists and reached into the carton. She cracked all the eggs, with only a handful of tiny shell flecks ending up in the bowl. Uncle Ryker waited for Hero to fish out each bit of shell with a spoon. Then he whisked the bowl away from her. His concentration deepened. The kitchen sizzled.
“Fantastic,” he said when at last he was finished, and Hero decided there were probably worse things than Uncle Ryker omelets for dinner.
Hero went about setting four places at the circular table in the crowded space adjoining the kitchen. When she set down the final plate, Uncle Ryker announced, “Dinner is served!”
The television continued to jabber when Hero’s mother and Aunt Terry joined them. The news had ended, replaced by the rumblings of a game show.
Once everyone had found a seat, Uncle Ryker turned to Hero and asked, “Would you mind saying grace?”
Hero shook her head. “No thanks,” she said.
Uncle Ryker looked somewhat alarmed by this, but he quickly composed himself. He cleared his throat. “Dear,” he said to his wife, “would you please do us the honor?”
Aunt Terry bowed her head and uttered some quiet words of gratitude.
The studio audience from the other room applauded as the prayer came to an end, and Uncle Ryker left his chair and rounded the table to serve everyone.
“This looks wonderful,” Hero’s mother said as Hero placed a bite in her mouth and let it sear her tongue.
“Isn’t Ryker fabulous in the kitchen?” Aunt Terry said. “It’s no wonder I can’t seem to keep the pounds off, what with this man cooking around here.”
That made no sense, Hero thought. The woman was rail thin.
Uncle Ryker smiled at his wife. “You could afford to pack on a few more, my dear,” he said with a chuckle.
Aunt Terry blushed. “Oh, well, he has to say that.”
Hero picked up her fork. Then she dropped it a bit too loudly.
The adults stopped talking.
“Salsa,” Hero said.
“Excuse me?” Uncle Ryker said.
“Do you have any salsa?” Hero already knew the answer before she asked the question.
“Why, no, I don’t believe we do,” Uncle Ryker said. “Whatever do you need it for?”
Hero’s mother flinched as if she was expecting a physical blow.
“My dad,” Hero said, and she let the words linger, “he likes to put salsa on his eggs. So do I.”
“Really?” Uncle Ryker said. “You know, I’ve never heard of such a thing. Salsa on eggs. What do you think of that, Terry? Ha!” He was talking too much, in a rapid, nervous sort of way.
Aunt Terry looked perplexed. “That’s a new one, for sure,” she said.
Hero’s mother finished chewing. She set down her fork, pushed away from the table, and retreated to her bedroom. The door closed behind her.
Uncle Ryker gave a wary glance in that direction.
“Huh,” he said. “Salsa on eggs. Who ever heard of such a thing? What’s next? Peanut butter on pancakes?” And he stuffed a bite of omelet into his mouth.
Hero finished her dinner without salsa. She helped clear the table while a movie droned in the other room. The fluorescent light in the kitchen gave an annoying, incessant buzz, and Hero noticed the floorboards right in front of the sink creaked every time she stepped just so. Streetlights outside flickered to life.
No one said much as Hero helped Uncle Ryker and Aunt Terry wash the dishes by hand, but once the final plate was tucked away in the cupboard, Uncle Ryker smiled.
“You up for a game of Scrabble?”
Hero shrugged. “Sure,” she said.
“Hope you’re ready to lose,” Uncle Ryker said.
“Are you kidding?” Hero shot back.
Uncle Ryker pulled Scrabble from the top shelf of a closet and dumped it onto the table.
Hero noticed Aunt Terry stop at her mother’s room, knock on the door, and whisper a few words. As best Hero could tell, there was no response from her mother. Aunt Terry returned and joined them at the table.
Hero was frustrated with her initial combination of letters. She mostly had vowels that were difficult to place, but her luck quickly changed. She picked up a triple word score with “quaint,” and she was off and running.
Even though Uncle Ryker tried to talk tough, he usually came up empty, and his turns took longer and longer as he became more and more desperate to find a word of consequence.
“Hurry up, dear,” Aunt Terry said more than once, “at this rate, we’ll be up all night.”
“Oh, shush,” Uncle Ryker said. “You mustn’t rush genius.”
But as ten o’clock neared, Aunt Terry had had enough. “I’m out,” she said. “Believe you me it takes an awful lot of beauty sleep to maintain these stunning good looks. Let me know in the morning who won, but please, please, Hero darling, don’t let it be this man.”
“Hey!” Uncle Ryker said.
Aunt Terry kissed his forehead and wandered off to bed.
Hero watched Uncle Ryker studying the board so intently she was afraid it might spontaneously combust.
After what felt like an hour, Uncle Ryker sighed. “I’m not gonna win this one, am I?”
“Nope,” Hero said.
Uncle Ryker stuck out a hand.
Hero offered hers, and Uncle Ryker shook it vigorously.
“You’re a worthy opponent,” he said, “which will make it so much the sweeter when I beat you in the rematch.”
“Hope springs eternal,” Hero said.
Uncle Ryker gave her an intense look. “You know something? You’re right about that.” He swung his beefy arm across the table and swept most of the Scrabble tiles into the box.
Hero helped him gather up the rest of the tiles and the board.
“You hungry for a snack?” Uncle Ryker asked as he popped the lid over the top of the game box and brought it snugly into place. “How ‘bout a bowl of granola?”
“No, thanks,” said Hero. She was still holding out for a glazed donut.
“Suit yourself,” Uncle Ryker said. He retrieved a carton of skim milk. He shook some granola into a bowl. He started to pour the milk, seemed to think better of it, and set the carton back down.
“Hero,” he said in a gentle voice, “I know you’re hurting and you’re angry, and I hope you realize that’s OK. You have every right to be. I wish I could—”
“But you can’t,” Hero said.
The room was quiet, and for the first time Hero realized the television was no longer shouting.
“Hero,” Uncle Ryker continued. He reached for her hand, but she pulled away. “Your mother. She’s hurting too. Please try to understand that.”
The quiet was now suffocating. Hero was afraid to talk for fear her voice would betray emotion. She was afraid to stand for fear of finding herself unsteady on her feet. She was afraid to feel for fear of where that might lead. The room, she thought, was contracting all around her. She could hear her pulse pounding in her ears.
Uncle Ryker swiveled in his seat to eye the door to the back patio.
“What was that?” he said. “Did you hear that?”
Hero heard nothing at first, and then there came a tinkling, tumbling crash from somewhere behind the house. Hero and her uncle both jumped to their feet.
“Someone’s in the backyard,” Uncle Ryker said.
Hero tried to look outside, but she could only see their own reflections gaping back at them.
Uncle Ryker disappeared for half an instant, and when he returned, he was wielding a baseball bat. He moved toward the back door. “You stay here,” he said.
Hero shook her head. “I don’t think so.” She had already located a pot in a cupboard near the kitchen sink, and she clutched it by the black handle. Her heart thudded. There was a killer out there somewhere. Surely, Uncle Ryker and Aunt Terry’s backyard was the last place he would hide. Surely.
From the look on his face, Uncle Ryker appeared to be considering the same possibility. He flipped the switch to the porch light, but no luck. The bulb was burned out. He turned back toward Hero.
“I said stay here,” he whispered.
“Not a chance,” Hero said, and Uncle Ryker and Hero snuck out the back door one after the other. Hero’s eyes struggled to adjust. Shapes and shadows lurked all around, but slowly, slowly Hero realized they were alone.
Uncle Ryker pressed his index finger to his lips and pointed to the side of the house. He held the baseball bat at the ready and crept in that direction with Hero mere inches behind him.
Another bang and a rattle. Hero remembered to breathe. They were almost to the corner of the house.
Uncle Ryker slowed. He stopped, and Hero collided with him. Uncle Ryker teetered forward. He tripped over the downspout and took a wild swing with the baseball bat. He landed hard, scrambled to his feet, and charged around the corner.
Hero lost sight of him. She waited. Another crash.
Uncle Ryker yelped.
Hero heard the baseball bat whipping through the air. She thought she heard the bat connect with something solid. Silence.
Then Uncle Ryker began to laugh.
Hero stepped forward to see him, the glow of the streetlights illuminating his face.
His hair was a wild mess, the baseball bat was at his feet, and he was laughing so heartily he was bound to wake up half the neighborhood. Nearby, the trash bin lay toppled over. Plastic bags and refuse were strewn everywhere.
“Racoon,” was all Uncle Ryker could say. “Stupid raccoon … Should’ve seen the look in his eyes. I think he was as jumpy as we were.” Uncle Ryker gaze met Hero’s unsmiling face. His eyes fell. He tugged on his beard. He put a stout arm around her shoulders and said, “It’s gonna be OK. We’ll get through this together. I promise.”
Hero nodded and wished she could believe him. A little before midnight, Hero changed for bed. After she brushed her teeth and threw on her nightgown, she crouched next to the police scanner on the floor and brought the little black box to life. She closed her eyes and listened to the familiar murmur of voices patrolling the night. They were out there, she knew, working to keep her safe. Hero crawled into bed, drew the tattered quilt up around her, and listened to the music of their chatter while she drifted off into an uneasy sleep.
To read more, click the icon below to go to Amazon where HERO is available in paperback and for Kindle.
Chris works as a prosecutor in Lincoln, Nebraska, where he lives with his wife, Sara, and their seven children. He has a B.A. in communications (print journalism emphasis) from Brigham Young University and a J.D. from the University of Nebraska College of Law. Chris enjoys music by The Piano Guys, flying kites, and pumpkin pie. Chris is also the author of Red: A Football Novel.