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Authors: Melody Carlson

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BOOK: Payback
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“Investments?”

“Yes. He let me in on this fantastic opportunity, Sam. Within a year or possibly two, I will actually double my investment. Can you believe that?”

“How much did you invest?”

“Oh, not a lot, at least by his standards since he’s used to dealing with some fairly wealthy investors. But it was my first time doing anything like this, so I was a little cautious. Now I think I should’ve invested more.”

“Why?”

“Because at least my money would be safer there. I can’t say as much for my bank. I’m tempted to switch banks altogether after this is over.”

Okay, I am getting some pretty scary vibes right now. My mom’s money problems and that vision about Steven seem to add up to nothing but trouble. And yet how can I possibly bring this up? “Where’s Steven from?” I ask as I fork a chunk of tomato.

“Southern California,” she says absent-mindedly

“But where exactly?”

She looks at me. “You’re sure getting curious about Steven all of a sudden.”

“Well, you’re pretty involved with him, Mom. Why wouldn’t I be curious?”

“I think he lived in several places down there. I know he has a brother in San Diego, and his mom is in Pasadena.”

“Oh…”

“You don’t like Steven, do you, Samantha?” I shrug. “I don’t
dislike
him…I don’t actually know him that well.”

“But you suddenly seem suspicious of him.”

I actually want to ask Mom why she’s
not
suspicious of him. I mean, she’s already questioned whether Zach or I had anything to do with her messed-up finances. But does she even stop to consider her mysterious boyfriend? She’s entrusted him with her investments, but she doesn’t wonder if he might have something to do with this? Is she that oblivious? Of course, even as I think this, I know my suspicions are pretty preposterous—not to mention slightly paranoid. And I’m not ready to make any accusations just yet. Still, I plan to let Ebony know.

“Thanks for dinner,” says Mom as she returns to her bookkeeping task.

I begin cleaning up the kitchen but find myself eavesdropping as she talks on the phone. It sounds like she’s leaving a message for Steven, telling him that she’s trying to untangle her bank mess and asking if he would be interested in helping her. Then I hear her quietly say, “I love you,” before she hangs up. This actually gives me the heebie-jeebies.
She loves him?

I finish loading the dishwasher and then go upstairs to my room, telling myself that I should probably butt out of my mom’s business. I mean, Steven might be a perfectly nice guy, and I could really stick my foot in it if I falsely accused him…but what about that vision? What was up with that?

So without hesitation I hit my knees, and I ask God to lead me through this maze of a life. And I acknowledge that just because I’m not overly fond of Steven, that doesn’t make him a criminal. But if God is trying to show me something, I do want to know. I want to be wise as a serpent…innocent as a dove. Finally I pray for Steven, that he would come to know God personally, that he would live the best
possible life, both for his sake and for my mom’s. And then I let it go.

I am running as fast as I can, so hard that my lungs are burning and I can’t catch my breath. But when I turn to look, they are still behind me. Three guys, all bigger than me, and all look enraged. I don’t know why they’re so angry, but I have a feeling that if they catch me, I’ll be dead. Or in a lot of pain. So I continue to run, turning down some sort of alley, but the next thing I know it turns into a dead end, a cement wall with a green Dumpster pushed up against it. If I can climb onto the Dumpster, I might be able to pull myself over that wall, but as I’m scrambling up, someone grabs me by the back of my jacket, pulls me down, and throws me to the pavement. A tall guy with dark hair, narrowed eyes, and clenched fists bends over me. “Thought you could get away with it, Allen. Thought you could outsmart us, didn’t you?”

I just look at him speechlessly, holding up an arm to protect my face. But now they are punching me, kicking me, swearing at me, and yelling, “You’re gonna pay, Allen!”

I wake up in a cold sweat. My heart is pounding with fear, and it takes me a moment to calm myself, to catch my breath, and to realize it was only a dream. I try to remember the details, besides the fear and the running and the useless attempt to escape. Why were those guys so angry at me? What had I done? And why were they calling me Allen?

I turn on the light and reach for my notebook. With my hand still shaking, I write these things down. As I write, I realize that I wasn’t the actual victim in this dream. Oh sure, it felt like it.
But I realize that this Allen person is the same guy I had the vision about a few days ago, the same guy I saw at the shoe store. And he seems to be in real danger.

It’s not even five in the morning…too soon to get up. And so I pray for Allen. I ask God to protect him and to send me more information to help him. I beg God not to allow Allen to be hurt like in my dream. I ask God to shield Allen from any possible thoughts of suicide, to keep him from giving up. And I ask myself, why are these guys picking on him? What has Allen done to make them so angry? Or are they simply bullies, picking on him because they can get away with it? My heart aches for Allen. Once again I plead with God to watch over him and to show me how I can help him. As I finally drift off to sleep, I wonder if Allen goes to my school. Tomorrow I will try to find out.

Six

W
hen I see Conrad on Tuesday morning, I can tell something is really wrong. At first I assume it might be because of me. It seems unlikely, not to mention slightly paranoid, but I wonder if he has somehow discovered that I went to a prom during the weekend.

“You look like you lost your best friend,” I say as I meet him by his locker.

“I’m pretty bummed.”

“What’s up?”

“My parents got some new lab reports yesterday afternoon,” he says, “regarding Katie.”

“Oh no…” I put my hand on his arm. We’ve all been worried about his little sister this spring, and we’ve been praying for her to get well, but the last I heard, her health had improved. “I thought she was doing better,” I say.

“We all did. But now the doctor thinks it might be lupus.”

“What’s that?”

He explains that it’s a serious disease that causes low white-blood-cell count and can affect vital organs like the liver and kidneys. “My mom’s taking her to see some specialist in Seattle tomorrow.”

“I’m so sorry, Conrad.”

“Yeah, it hit us pretty hard. Some kinds of lupus aren’t that serious, but it sounds like it could be life threatening in her case.”

“I’ll really be praying for her.”

“Thanks. My mom already put her back on the church’s prayer chain.”

Then the warning bell rings, and we head our separate directions to class. As I walk to the math department, I pray for little Katie. First I ask God to get her the best medical treatment available, and then I beg Him to do a miracle and actually heal her. I know God is able to do that. I pray that He does.

By the end of the day, all of Conrad’s friends have promised to be diligently praying for his little sister, but I can tell he’s still depressed. “I just don’t understand why God lets stuff like this happen,” he says as we stand in the parking lot to say good-bye.

I don’t know how to respond to that. So I don’t.

“Katie is just a little kid,” he continues vehemently. “She doesn’t deserve this crud!”

I nod. “I know…”

“Sorry,” he says to me now. “I didn’t mean to dump on you like that.”

“It’s okay…Sorry I don’t have anything encouraging to say. But I do believe that God has a bigger plan, beyond what we can see. And I know He allows hard things to happen…but I also know He can bring good out of them too.”

“Well, I can’t see any good coming out of this.”

“That’s because you’re in the middle of it, Conrad.” I reach out and hug him now. “Hopefully, you’ll see the good when you get to the other side of it.”

“I hope so too. Thanks, Sam.” Then he waves to Alex and Olivia, who are standing on the sidewalk. “I gotta get home, Alex. If you’re coming with me, we better get moving, man.” He turns to me. “You need a ride or anything?”

I point to my Bug. “No, I have my car today.”

So we say good-bye, and Olivia and I get into my car.

“That’s so sad about Katie,” she says as I pull out onto the street.

“I know…It sounds like lupus is pretty serious.”

“Alex said it’s kind of like leukemia.”

“We need to really be praying for her.”

Olivia nods. “For sure.”

Then we ride across town without speaking.

Olivia breaks the silence as I pull up to her house. “In light of Conrad’s sad news, I wasn’t going to tell you this…”

“Tell me what?”

“Alex asked me to the prom.”

I smile at her. “Cool.”

“He feels bad though, like maybe Conrad won’t want to go now…you know, because of this thing with Katie.”

“Oh, that’s okay,” I say quickly. “I’ll probably be all prommed out by then anyway.”

“I figured you’d understand.”

“Of course.”

And I do understand, but I also feel sad as I drive over to the precinct. I wonder why Conrad and I both have these grownup sorts of things to deal with. Why can’t we just enjoy being regular teens, doing regular things, having fun and not worrying about such heavy stuff? But then I realize I wouldn’t trade my life with anyone. Not really. However, I’m sure Conrad
would do anything to trade his circumstances—that is, if he could do it in a way that would make his little sister well again.

“Hey, Sam,” says Eric when I go inside. “How’s it going?”

“So-so,” I admit.

He nods with an empathetic look. “Still on for our date Saturday?”

“Oh yeah…”

“Ebony’s looking for you.”

“Thanks.” Then I head down the hallway to her office.

“Have a seat,” she says as soon as I enter.

“What’s up?”

Her expression is hard to read. “I’ve been hitting some roadblocks in my investigation of Steven Lowery.” She holds up a notepad with his name printed on it. “Is that the correct spelling?”

“Yeah.”

“And you say he works for an investment brokerage in Portland.”

“Something like that.”

“Well, I’m not finding anyone by that name.”

“And?”

“And I’m wondering if that’s really his name.”

“Why wouldn’t it be?”

So she explains how things don’t seem to be adding up, that he should be licensed as a broker either in California or Oregon. “And based on that, it should be easy to find information on him. But when I plug in his name, according to the description you gave me, I get nothing. And that worries me.”

That’s when I tell her about my mom’s banking troubles.

“When was the last time your mom saw him?”

“I don’t know. I mean, they went out on Saturday. And she called him last night.”

“So he’s still in town.”

“Yeah. I guess so.”

“And you don’t know where he lives?”

“No…”

“Does your mom?”

“I assume she does…but I don’t know.”

“How about his phone number? Do you have that?”

“No, but I could probably get it from my mom.”

“Do that, Samantha.”

So I call my mom at work, and as I dial, I try to come up with some way I can ask for his number without sounding too suspicious. But she’s out, and I ask the receptionist if I can leave her a voice-mail message. By then I have what seems like a good story—and not completely untrue either.

“Hey, Mom, I was visiting with Ebony just now,” I begin in a careful but casual tone, “and I told her about Steven’s great investment opportunity, and she wondered how she could get hold of him to find out more, but I don’t know his number. Would you mind giving Ebony a call?” I leave Ebony’s number and hang up. “How’s that?”

She smiles. “You’re good.”

Then I tell her about last night’s dream and how I looked for Allen at our school but came up empty.

She encourages me to use their database to see how many Aliens fitting his age and description might be living in the greater Portland metro area. Naturally, there turn out to be a couple hundred teenage boys named Allen, and I feel more lost than ever by the time I quit. Detective work can be
interesting, but it can also be just plain hard work. Finally I realize it’s time to go home. I stop by Ebony’s office to see if my mom called with Steven’s number yet, but she’s not around. I don’t see Eric either, and I wonder if they’re out working on a case or have simply called it a day.

As I drive home, I think about my mom and Steven. Should I try to broach the subject with her or simply wait until Ebony finds out something? Then I wonder what I’ll do if Steven is there like, he often is after work. What will I say? How will I act? Finally I decide I should be careful not to let him know I’m suspicious. Still, it would be nice to get a little more information out of him. Like where does he live? Where does he work?

When Mom gets home, I ask her how the banking fiasco is coming, and she admits that she has shoved it to the back burner. “There was a lot going on at work,” she says. “I had my mind on other things.”

“Have you heard back from Steven?”

She frowns. “No, he hasn’t returned my call. He’s probably having a busy day too. Hopefully, he’ll stop by.”

I nod. “Yeah…hopefully.”

Then as I get a soda from the fridge, I overhear her calling him again, leaving another message. When she hangs up, I ask if she got my message at work.

“Yes, just before I came home. I called Ebony and gave her his number. I’m sure Steven will appreciate me finding him more investors.” She sort of laughs then. “Hey, maybe I’ll get a commission.”

I try to look like this is a possibility, but at the same time I’m wondering how my mother can possibly be so naive. Still, it
seems better not to question her. I take my soda up to my room, telling her that I have homework, which is true.

“I think I’ll get a pizza delivered,” she says.

“Sounds good.”

“I’ll call you when it gets here.”

BOOK: Payback
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