Ashley Crandall finally convinced her husband, Allan, to attend the Christian men’s retreat…but he ends up dead there. What happened to him on the campgrounds? Who would want to kill Allan? And why are the detectives pointing fingers at Ashley? In her quest to solve the mystery and clear her name, Ashley will learn something about her husband that she didn’t want to know and something about her Christian faith that shifts her life.
This short work by national bestselling, multi-published author Michelle Stimpson is packed with emotion, suspense, and a her signature way of weaving hope into a story – always a hit with readers who enjoy faith-based reads.
About the Author
Michelle Stimpson’s works include the highly acclaimed Boaz Brown, Divas of Damascus Road (National Bestseller), and Falling Into Grace, which has been optioned for a movie. She has published several short stories for high school students through her educational publishing company at WeGottaRead.com.
Michelle serves in women’s ministry at Oak Cliff Bible Fellowship in Dallas, TX. She regularly speaks at special events and writing workshops sponsored by churches, schools, book clubs, and educational organizations.
The Stimpsons are proud parents of two young adults, grandparents of one super-sweet granddaughter, and the owners of one Cocker Spaniel, Mimi, who loves to watch televangelists.
Twitter handle https://twitter.com/StimpsonTweets
“Thank you for doing this, Allan.” I kept my eyes steady on the unfamiliar, winding road sprawling before me. Already, I had braked three times for sharp turns and a pothole.
Allan, ears covered by headphones, bobbed as though he didn’t hear my compliment. His baby smooth skin, dimples, and semi-mohawk haircut made him look much younger than thirty-two. So young, in fact, that a few times, twenty-something chicks at his DJing events had mistaken me as his older sister or his manager, even though I was only thirty. Allan thought that was funny. “It’s good for business,” he’d say, flashing his boyish grin.
I was tired of him acting like a boy. A guy. A dude. A bro. I needed him to grow up and be a man. Start thinking about things that mattered, namely his eternity. Since Allan had agreed to attend this non-church-affiliated men’s retreat, I thought my prayers were finally being answered. I had gone all out to take off work early so I could take him to Peaceful Days. Even dusted on some makeup and flat-ironed my wavy mane so he’d have this awesome picture of me in the back of his mind all weekend.
I tapped him on the shoulder and mouthed again, “Thank you for doing this.”
I knew better than to expect a “Sure thing, Ashley,” or “It’s my pleasure to go,” from him. He was either ignoring me or caught up in his music. No matter, I was used to being blocked out of his life by music, working at KRBF FM radio Dallas. His side gigs. His friends. His lifestyle.
Still, my eyes watered for a moment. The rejection stung worse than a bee. At least when a bee stung, it was defending its own territory. Allan and I were supposed to be one in God’s sight. Why he chose to turn on me—his wife of six years—and treat me like the enemy was unreasonable. We were on the same team.
At least we were until Corey died.
Blinking tears away, my vision cleared just in time to spot a pretty good-sized animal dart into the road. I slammed on the brakes. My stomach squirmed. I winced, hoping the thing had escaped being crushed.
A second later, my body relaxed. Whatever it was hadn’t become a bump under my wheels.
“Geez Louise!” Allan yelled. “Can you not see?”
“It came out of nowhere!” I pointed toward the open field on the passenger’s side.
“I saw it a mile away!” he claimed, motioning toward his window. “You’re not paying attention.”
“Neither are you!”
Allan pulled the headphones down so they dangled around his neck. “I’m paying plenty of attention to the road. Can’t say the same about you since you nearly got us killed.”
Cautiously, I continued our path to the campgrounds.
“Do you need me to drive?” he asked with a hint of sympathy in his voice.
This was my husband’s way of apologizing. He wouldn’t just come out and say, “Babe, I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have yelled at you.” He’d offer to do something.
“No,” I said. That was my way of not accepting his roundabout apology.
I had grounds for a full-blown argument. How dare he accuse me of trying to kill us? And why am I driving anyway—I’m the woman! Real men know how to step up and take the wheel in more ways than one. Top that off with the fact that my heart was still racing from the animal-in-the-road scare, and I was primed.
But I didn’t want to go there. Not now. Especially not today. Allan had finally agreed to attend a Christian men’s conference for the weekend, and I’d been praying that God would use this weekend to touch my husband’s heart. Having a big blowout of an argument just before dropping him off wouldn’t exactly be productive.
Thanks to a few books I’d been reading and the personal advice of the Holy Spirit, I had come to the point of understanding that, apparently, Allan was in the “may be won without a word” category. I just needed to keep my mouth zipped and let God do His thing. Problem number one: Allan had a knack for provoking me. Problem number two: I wasn’t always obedient. Problem number three: God was taking His sweet time.
My husband pressed a dial on his headphones. “Hello?”
The caller spoke loud enough for me to hear that it was a man. A hollering man.
“Wait up, man! I gotchu! My first payment isn’t even due until next month, bro,” Allan said.
I put two and two together and realized he was talking to Jerry Albright, the man who had helped finance my husband’s acquisition of the radio station where he worked.
“I’mma have yo money like I said, at the time we agreed to,” Allan said forcefully, slipping into a strong southern accent. “Why you tryna collect early?”
The rest of the conversation was much more calm. Allan wasn’t playing with Jerry. But neither was Jerry playing with Allan, apparently.
Great. Now we have loan sharks after us. This whole DJ Pistol Whip persona was getting out of control.
“Aight. I’ll talk to you next week. I’m gonna be at a…some kind of thing my old lady set me up to…Naw…you know I ain’t goin’ out like that! I got a reputation to protect!” Allan laughed.
Thank God they’re laughing and not threatening each other.
Whatever the man had suggested was probably too civil for DJ Pistol Whip to admit to.
“I’ll catch you later.” He took the headphones off, mumbling to himself that Jerry was crazy. His thumbs whittled away at a message to somebody.
“In one-half mile, turn left on Prayer Lane,” the navigation system instructed.
Allan chuckled. “Prayer Lane.” He pushed his headphones back in place.
I could hardly wait for that half a mile to come and go so I could drop him off at that camp and burn rubber on my way out. I figured, if nothing else, at least I’d get a weekend away from him
As we neared the grounds, we were welcomed by the United States flag, the Texas flag, and the Christian flag. Flowers bloomed in pristine arrangements lining the entryway’s white picket fence. Green grass rolled for acres between small buildings with country flair. A large pond sparkled in the midst of the camp. The scenery alone should have been enough to let Allan know that God is real and loves to bring beauty into this world.
Peaceful Days Camp was painted in bright red letters on a wooden sign. Underneath the facility name was the phrase Come all who labor.
“That’s what I’m talking about,” Allan yelled. His music’s volume must have been so loud he didn’t realize how his voice carried. “Laboring is what I need to be doing this Friday night instead of hanging out with some chumps at a camp.”
“Really?” I yelled loud enough for him to hear me. “You think judging a twerking contest is labor?”
“It’s a hard job, but somebody’s gotta do it,” he shouted back. “DJing and vibin’ with the hip hop culture is the way I make my money. You knew who you were marrying when you married DJ Pistol Whip, right?”
“I didn’t marry DJ Pistol Whip. I married Allan Crandall.”
“One and the same, baby. One and the same.” He bobbed his head even harder and started throwing punches in the air as though fighting an imaginary foe.
All I could do was poke out my lips. He had a point. Allan had turned into this persona he’d created to earn a living. He was very good at what he did. A part of me was glad that he loved his work. But when that work involved MCing wet T-shirt contests, I had a problem. A serious problem.
I followed the signs to the H. P. Lewis men’s dormitory, which had been mentioned in the series of emails leading up to the retreat. Of course, all of the email messages came to me, since Allan wasn’t about to keep track of anything regarding this event.
I parked and, almost immediately, Allan hopped out. I pushed the button to open the back window so he could retrieve his bags. As he walked around to the back of our vehicle, I got the paperwork from my purse. Suddenly, I felt like a mother must feel when she’s dropping her child off at kindergarten. The joy. The pain. The pride.
A sadness swept over me as I wondered: Will I ever experience that for myself?
Thoughts of little Corey filled my mind, nearly overtaking me with their intensity. He would have been three years old the following week. “Horrible Threes” I’d heard people called them.
People wouldn’t say such negative things about babies and children—about them waking up in the middle of the night, the crying, the teething, the getting into everything—if they realized what a blessing it was to have a living, breathing, normal, healthy child.
The tears had come too quickly for me to blink them away. I swiped them from my eyes.
Allan closed the back window.
I got out of the car to see him off. I had planned to give him a big kiss and a hug in Jesus’s name, but I wasn’t feeling my husband or Jesus at the moment.
Allan hoisted his backpack on his shoulder as he walked toward me.
All around us were couples saying goodbye. Hugging, slight pecks, praying with one another.
I looked up at him. Forced a smile. “Have a good weekend.”
The heavy weight of concern crossed his face. “Why are you crying, Ashley? I’m at the retreat, okay? This is what you wanted, right?”
As mean as Allan could be sometimes, he always fell apart at the slightest hint of wetness on my face.
Peering into his eyes, I wondered why on earth God had allowed these crazy twists and turns in my life. My son’s death. My failing marriage. Even my mother’s dementia, which had been a long time coming, seemed an odd ending to such a good life.
If only my husband and I were on the same page, spiritually, I could lean on him. We could pray for each other. He could actually love me like Christ loved the church, and I could be submissive because I respected him, and life would be…well…easier and holier and basically better.
But I knew not to share my thoughts to Allan. No sense in talking to a brick wall.
Allan hugged me. “Get some rest this weekend. I know.…” He sighed. “I know what today is.”
Allan still couldn’t say Corey’s name.
A tinny beat came from the headphones, interrupting our silent moment.
“Are you going to wear those all weekend?” I asked.
He shrugged. “I guess, when we’re not doing anything.”
I thrust the itinerary into his hand. “You’ve got a full weekend. There’s no way you’ll have time for music.”
“There’s always time for music, baby.” He gave a charming smile.
I sighed. Twisted my lips to the side. This was a joke to him. If all he planned to do was go to the classes between vulgar songs, my efforts to get him here had been nothing but a waste of time, effort, money, hope, and prayers.
I blew a cool breeze from my mouth. “You’re right. It’s totally up to you, Allan. Enjoy yourself.” I turned and opened the driver’s side door, not wanting him to see my fresh batch of tears. I didn’t want him to think I was trying to manipulate him by crying. Guilt-induced expressions of love were always disingenuous and short-lived.
Allan grasped my arm. “Ashley. Wait.” He squared up my shoulders before I had a chance to wipe my cheeks dry.
“I’m here because I want to be here.” He swallowed. “I’m tired of fighting with you. I can’t change what happened. I can’t fix everything like I want to. And I don’t know God like you want me to. But I’m here this weekend because I do care.”
“If you care, then listen? Take off your headphones and listen to what’s in here.” I placed my hand on his heart.
Slowly, my husband removed the black headset. He put it around my neck. Smiled. “You could use some music this weekend, I bet.”
I giggled slightly. “You’re probably right.”
He rested his forehead on mine. “I love you, pretty brown-eyed girl.”
His nickname for me, based on the Mint Condition 90s song, still made me melt. I twisted my lips to one side, then gave way to a smile of my own. “Love you, too. See you Sunday.”
The truth was: I loved Allan and I knew he loved me. But if God didn’t fix him that weekend, I didn’t know what I was going to do. We’d already tried counseling. Well, I tried counseling. Allan went twice and said it was a waste of time. I bought his-and-hers versions of do-it-yourself couples therapy-type books. Allan never got past the first few chapters. I was getting to the end of my strategies for improvement.
Friday night found me in bed crying as I flipped through pictures of our wedding. We were so happy back then. We had the rest of our lives in front of us.
Or so I thought.
Taking off the afternoon and enduring the tension with Allan almost all the way to the camp had taken a lot out of me. I didn’t want to argue with my husband. I didn’t want to be so judgmental. I just didn’t know any other way to make him see how much he needed Jesus.
Rather than cry my eyes swollen, I decided to get up and do some work. I logged into my employer’s system and began to edit and comment on documents the team had uploaded. If nothing else, I could at least find some success at work.