About the Book
A fun, quirky romp – Welcome to Paradise, Arizona 1951. Off the beaten path, sleepy, backwater—call it what you will, police chief Luke Hollis likes his town just the way is. Clear skies and fair winds make for smooth sailing. Luke’s perfectly content to concentrate on nothing but a good cup of coffee and working up the nerve to approach his dispatcher, Ruby Brooks, with his feelings for her. When an unexpected miracle occurs at the Mount Moriah Pentecostal Church of God events are set in motion that will challenge him, test everything he believes, and ultimately change his life forever. Throw in a struggling minister, a world-class grifter, a stranger with an unbelievable story of love and redemption and the stage is set for The Miracle Man. By the time it’s all over everyone involved will come face to face with a power that’s greater and more wonderful than any of them could have ever imagined.
Paradise, Arizona 1951
The miracle happened on a Wednesday and, as is the case with any miracle worth its salt, not a soul saw it coming.
Luke Hollis sat by a half-open window, but the night outside refused to offer a cooling breeze. The sanctuary clung to the heat of the long, Arizona day, and fans served only to blow hot air from one place to another. Luke sighed and shifted in his seat in an unsuccessful attempt to peel his back off the wooden pew.
He didn’t have anything against church in general. He believed in God; he’d seen too much on the battlefields of Germany and France to deny Him. He had no doubt about a devil either, not after Hitler’s death camps. But the war ended, and Luke wanted nothing but smooth water and gentle winds. If the great Spiritual-Power-That-Be had any inclination to delve into the day-to-day goings- on in Paradise, Arizona, which was doubtful, then Luke preferred to be left out of the proposition altogether.
For the hundredth time that night, he asked himself why on God’s green earth he was there. A glance at Ruby Brooks as she fanned herself with a piece of sheet music gave him the same answer as the last ninety-nine times he’d asked. Who was he kidding? He tore his gaze from her perch behind the organ with effort. Ruby seemed to be the answer to every question he asked himself lately.
Oh man, he needed to get it together.
The Holy Mount Moriah United Pentecostal Church of God suffered a lack of attendance, probably due to the heat, but that fact seemed to be lost on the Reverend Whitey Hicks. The little man strutted around the stage like a bantam rooster.
Deep into his diatribe, the Reverend laid it on thick, working an imaginary multitude. Tie loosened and top button undone, sweat poured down his face and dripped off his chin onto his already soaked shirt. Leaning back a little, with one leg extended in front of him, he shuffled and hopped across the platform. When he’d gone as far as the stage would allow, he did a robotic hip swivel into a one- eighty degree turn and brought it home to the other side. Somehow, through it all, he kept one hand pointed toward the ceiling holding up a Bible he never seemed to open.
Luke leaned forward and rubbed his eyes, trying to stave off a Wednesday evening Whitey inspired headache.
Hicks and Hollis. Same age, same grade in school. Alphabetically attached at the hip on the seating chart. Truth be told, Whitey wasn’t a bad guy. In fact, as much as Luke hated to admit it, most people liked him. But that didn’t alter the fact that every time the little man took the stage, he bounced up and down on Luke’s last nerve.
Luke occupied his mind for a minute by counting empty pews. There were plenty.
Empty count complete, he started on the occupied ones. Most of the people sat in the back half of the room. Some sort of unspoken church rule. Hot breath filled the place. Bulletins fanned red faces like Parisian fans. He rubbed his temples again, daydreaming of his front porch and a cold drink.
Whitey went on, apparently oblivious to the tedium he inspired in Luke. One part prison warden and two parts carnival barker, he squawked and strutted. He showed no signs of winding down. Hop shuffle hop. “Hallelujah!” Shuffle shuffle. “Glory to God!”
Luke fidgeted on the hard pew, trying to find a comfortable position. Had anyone ever succeeded in settling comfortably on one of these things?
Whitey was a shouter, and tonight was no exception. Who knew if it was a love affair with his own voice or if he just wanted the world to know he occupied the stage? Most likely both. The man had always been his own little kingdom.
Whitey the golden boy.
Luke the troublemaker.
No matter the reason, the shouting continued. “Glory to God” had to be
a favorite. It popped up every third sentence or so. He rolled it out slow, one staccato syllable at a time, and lifted his voice a little with the word “God” so the whole thing landed somewhere between a statement and a question.
“Glory to God!”
In response, a parishioner rewarded him with a dutiful, “Um-hmm.”
The affirmation, lackadaisical as it was, appeared to encourage the preacher, and he shouted again with a little burst of extra passion and a quickened hop- shuffle.
It had been a long day. Luke’s patience and energy dropped to empty as his tolerance threshold threatened to breach the dam. He’d had it. He gave up any sort of pretense and watched Ruby, doubting he fooled anyone anyway, Ruby especially. She knew him too well. Sometimes he thought she’d like him to just come clean. The opportunity had presented itself more than once, and he’d come close. What was it his war buddies said? Close only counts in horseshoes and hand grenades. There was a lot of truth in good old foxhole philosophy.
Ruby, her chin resting in one hand, traced the black and white keys with the other. Luke couldn’t blame her for being bored. Ruby’s job was to sit behind the big, shiny Hammond B-3 organ and add little musical exclamation points to the end of the Reverend’s sentences. Whitey had been going on so long she’d given up on her musical duty. This fact didn’t seem to matter to Whitey. The man was so enraptured by his Pentecostal two-step, he’d obviously forgotten she was even there.
Green eyes shifted in Luke’s direction, and his face flushed. Chin still in hand, Ruby held his gaze for a moment, one eyebrow raised in mock consternation, then shifted back toward the preacher.
Catch and release.
Luke always made it a practice to occupy a side aisle seat. Access to the window offered mental escape when needed. He turned toward it now. What did she see when she looked at him? He wasn’t a particularly handsome man. Not like her husband had been. David had possessed that Aryan, Ivy League flair. Luke’s ghosted reflection in the windowpane eyed him like a judge. Tonight, the image showed more of his mother’s Apache than his father’s Irish. The dark hair needed a cut, and he could use a shave. The nose was crooked from a bad break that had never quite healed right. Once, a few years ago, he’d considered growing a mustache to try to offset it. The look was all the rage for the movie actors, but he’d bailed out after a couple of weeks, feeling more like he was wearing a Halloween costume than helping himself. In the end, he figured he was probably more of the Hollywood heavy than the leading man type anyway.
Another quick glance at Ruby and again she met his eyes. Did the woman have some sort of radar?
Back to the window.
￼Grow a spine, he thought, mentally kicking himself.
Out past the reflection, an orange cat sat licking his front paw under a streetlight. As if sensing he was being watched, the cat met Luke’s eyes. The game of stare-down lasted awhile then, startled by some unseen nocturnal threat, the big tom scampered away into the shadows.
Lucky you, Buddy.
Luke’s attention shifted upward where insects swarmed the streetlight in meaningless patterns. The stars pulled him higher. Squinting, he tried to pick out familiar patterns and was able to put a few names to them. Pinholes in the floor of Heaven. That’s what his Pop had liked to say. How many years now since he’d heard that comfortable rasp? Dropping his eyes back down to the dim island of light on the street, he stared, unfocused, and allowed his mind to wander.
A shadow moved, or at least he thought it did. More of an undefined movement than anything else. Something seemed to linger beyond the light’s edge. He tried to focus on the spot but could see nothing in the black stillness. He dismissed the sensation as the product of a long day and tired eyes. Still, it left him a little uneasy, and for a brief second, he felt a chill in the sweltering room. He turned his attention back to the stage.
“Gonna tell you a little story tonight, saints!” Whitey shouted. “A little story ’bout a fella name of Samson. Glory to God!”
A muted murmur of amens and hallelujahs rippled through the sanctuary.
Luke realized with dismay that the minister was only now working himself into his actual sermon. The rest had all been the warm-up act. Rubbing the throb in his forehead, he glanced at the long stretch of pew beside him. Sitting as far away from Luke as they could, two teenagers held hands, faces flushed with something more than the heat in the room. They’d never notice him leave. Small consolation. Bored as the rest of the congregation appeared to be, every eye would be riveted on him if he tried to make a break for it. Oh well. Ruby or no Ruby, he couldn’t take another minute of this. He slipped out of the pew feeling, real or imagined, a hundred eyes on him. Ducking a little, as if it would help, he began to make his way toward the double door exit in the back of the room and probably straight to fiery judgment.
Story of his life.
Chancing a glance, Luke scanned the sanctuary. Children slept sprawled across their parents’ laps. Mothers, too hot and spent to make them sit up, fanned them with bulletins. Fathers stifled yawns, most likely thinking of the work the
￼morning would bring. Behind him, Whitey went on shuffling, hopping, and preaching.
Halfway to freedom, a pair of eyes met his. They were wide-set in a handsome, good-natured face belonging to a man in the back row, a stranger to Luke. The man raised his eyebrows, clearly enjoying Luke’s unsuccessful attempt at clandestine retreat. Luke shrugged with a grin and kept moving.
It happened then, as Luke reached the crowded back row where the stranger sat between Eudora Phelps and Beauty Graham. There wasn’t any mighty rushing wind. Luke didn’t see any tongues of fire. There was a slight crackling sound in the air. He felt a tingle, then a small jolt. The hair on his arms stood up. His feet stopped of their own volition.
Beauty Graham gave a startled, muted yelp. Beauty, as had been her custom for as long as Luke had known her, sat at the end of the pew next to the side aisle, down which she would inevitably make her quick break out of the hot sanctuary and hurry home to a cold martini and swamp cooler as soon as the service ended.
Luke had heard Beauty’s complaints more times than he cared to remember.
Plump and pretty at just past 40, Beauty retained the peaches-and-cream complexion of a blushing 20-year-old bride. Pride in the gift nature had bestowed on her was apparent to all through her ever-vocal thoughts on the matter. She loved her skin and made sure everyone noticed. But the gift came with an Achilles heel: sensitivity to the heat. When the dreaded first warm days of summer rolled around, Beauty would start to scratch. When she appeared outdoors decked out in an array of huge hats, scarves, sunglasses, and long sleeves it was a sure harbinger the dog-days had begun. With the heat came the bumps and, brother, the bumps weren’t pretty. No amount of the lotion or ointment supply she carried with her everywhere could stave them off. The way Beauty told it, the heat was a spiteful thief, and it stole from her everything good and right in the world.
It seemed to be the jolt following the crackle that brought the startled yelp from Beauty. It happened to pop out at the exact moment Whitey was pausing for breath. Beauty stared at her hands and arms in wide-eyed wonder. Then she lifted a hand to her face; her fingertips traced her skin as though trying to read Braille, but there were no bumps there to read.
“It’s gone … they’re … they’re gone! They’re GONE!” She rose to her feet. Luke felt glued to the floor. What was happening?
At first, silence greeted Beauty’s outburst. Then a cautious few began to gather
around. Esperanza Morales was the first one to reach her. Esperanza’s bulletin ￼slipped from her hand and floated to the floor like a dry leaf. The look of shock on her face as she stared down at Beauty’s skin drew Luke’s full attention there as well. Covered with angry red blotches moments before, it was now smooth and flawless.
The silence gave way to murmuring. More people slipped from the pews and inched closer to Beauty, craning to catch a glimpse.
Luke watched as Whitey, looking confused and irritated by the interruption, pushed his way through the excited crowd until he was standing in front of his stunned parishioner. But as the preacher gazed at Beauty’s clear, blemish-free face, a look of wonder came over his.
For Luke, thoughts of escape receded like a waning tide. He crossed his arms and leaned back against the wall, watching with interest and not a little unease. The air hung thick not only with heat and breath but with some intangible thing.
Excited faces registered awe. Something tremendous had happened here, something unbelievable.
Whitey’s voice rose above the chatter. He crowed a Hallelujah, followed by some Praise the Lords and a whole string of Glory to Gods. Then, apparently feeling his groove, he offered a rousing round of shouting in tongues. One by one, the people around him took up the litany until the walls shook with their excitement. Bible raised, Whitey began another hop-shuffle around the room. Behind him, a few followed his lead and tried out their own versions of the dance. In the middle of the fray sat Beauty, looking bewildered but beaming.
Something tugged at the edge of Luke’s brain. He looked around for the stranger, but the man was nowhere to be seen. Where had he gone?
The vice already clamped around his temples cranked a notch tighter. He decided to leave the congregants to their impromptu party and inched his way back up the aisle through the press of bodies. The rear of the sanctuary was too crowded to navigate, so he made his exit by ducking out the side door. The service, true to form, had gone long, and the grassy side yard was dark. Someone had forgotten to change the porch light bulb and the yard lay in shadow. He stood, breathing in the night air, disconcerted by what had transpired.
Hearing a step, he turned.
“Leaving early?” It was Ruby’s voice. He could hear the smile in it, but it was too dark to see anything but her vague outline.
“You must double as a Sunday school teacher along with being the organ lady. You gonna report me?”
“What do you make of all that in there? And every Sunday school teacher I ever had was nice, by the way.”
Luke loved the sound of her laugh. “Well, I’m not making anything of it except maybe Whitey’s a few nuts short of a pecan pie. And you never met Mrs. Judge. She was six feet tall with a mustache. Mean as a bull.”
“Judge as in Judgment?”
“God’s honest truth.”
“So you don’t believe in miracles? C’mon, Chief, quit being a cynic. Even you
have to admit something incredible just happened.”
“I don’t think the Maker of the Universe is all that concerned with Beauty’s
heat rash, if that’s what you mean.”
“Pretty sure there’s a church full of people in there that would disagree.” Luke wanted to see her face in the worst way. “Probably right. They’ll dance
around and shout for a while, then settle down. I’m sure there’s a reasonable explanation, but nobody will care because a miracle is more interesting. That’s the way it goes. Human nature.”
“Wow, I’d better leave before I get struck by lightning standing next to you.”
He smiled at her, and he wished she could see it. “Can I give you a ride home?”
She hesitated and for a hopeful instant he thought she’d accept. “No thanks. I came with Esperanza. Told her I’d meet her at her car.” She started for the front of the building. “Adios, Boss. See you in the morning, huh?”
“Yup. Bright and early,” he said to her. “Coward,” he mumbled to himself. The night cooled with a soft breeze.
He hadn’t been completely honest with Ruby. The evening rattled him more
than he wanted to admit. And the sound of celebrants spilling out through the open windows of the church into the still night didn’t ease his discomfort.
Luke started toward his car, but a movement across the street drew his gaze. Under the same streetlight he’d watched earlier, the orange cat was back. But that’s not what caught his attention. The animal circled, back arched, rubbing his sides against the legs of a man.
He stood at the edge of the pool of light. If he saw Luke, he gave no indication. After a long moment, he squatted and scratched the big tom behind the ears, his face intent and thoughtful as he stared in the direction of the church.
About the Author
Buck Storm grew up in Yuma, Arizona—a true son of the American Southwest. He’s marked time as a commercial diver, fisherman, sailor, and musician. As a singer/songwriter and purveyor of tales, he’s traveled the planet with a guitar and a pocketful of stories and has made friends in venues across the country. Along with a busy solo concert schedule, Buck spends much of his time writing, recording and touring as one half of Stonehill and Storm with Grammy nominated, Gospel Music Hall of Fame member Randy Stonehill. Buck and his wife, Michelle, have a happy love story, a hideout in North Idaho, and two wonderful children. The Miracle Man is his first novel.