Authors: Linda K. Rodante
She drew her eyes from Rich’s. “No. I mean, of course, they’re both homeless, and both lived at the same place. Why? You think they’re connected in some way? But that’s absurd. You said someone was trying to kidnap Lily.”
“Do you know any other reason why Maria Sanchez would be attacked?”
“No?” Rich inserted the question. “You had information about Lawson that you didn’t share until later.”
“What is that supposed to mean?” She looked back and forth between them. The irritation inside slid to uneasiness. “What are you saying?”
“We’re wondering if you know anything that would connect Sanchez and Lawson.”
“I said no already.” She stepped back behind her desk.
Lord, what is going on?
“I would like to call Sharee, though, and the church; and I’d like to see Maria and Lily.
“Pedro Gonzalez said he would call the church.” Rich’s tone was level. “Tell us more about your connection with Lawson.”
“You know everything already.” Her chest tightened. Why was he acting like this?
“As far as you know, she became homeless to hide from an abusive husband. Is that right?”
“That’s what she told you?”
“No. Is there something else?”
“What did she want from you?”
“Did she ask for anything—information about other people in the homeless camp? Anything?”
“No. I mean, sure, we talked about the others at the camp, about my job, things like that. Nothing that seemed important.”
“Maybe she was not what she seemed.” He studied her face as he said the words.
“What are you trying to say?”
“Is there anything else you haven’t told us?”
“I don’t know how many times I must say it.
.” Her heart jerked, but she narrowed her eyes. Anger was better than the tears that threatened. “Victoria’s dead. Murdered. You think I would have kept something from you? Give me credit for an ounce of sense. But maybe that’s the problem—you don’t think I have any, or perhaps you think I’m the world’s greatest liar?”
In fact, Rich didn’t know what to think. The woman seemed much too fragile on one hand. She’d almost fainted the other day and before that had run from the crime scene because “she wanted to get away.” Yet now, her defiant stance and the look she gave him pierced him with her anger. No fragileness there.
Keith rose. “Ms. Stapleton, we need your prints and DNA. Do you have any problem with that?”
Her gaze flashed past Keith to him. He saw the question. He hadn’t alienated her completely, that is, until now. He nodded.
“But why do you need my prints and DNA?” Before either of them could comment, her eyebrows rose. “Oh. I’m a suspect? Why didn’t I figure that out? That’s what this is about, isn’t it?” The sarcasm in the words failed to cover her surprise. Her hand rose halfway to her chest and froze mid-air.
“It’s standard procedure,” Keith said. “It helps us eliminate certain prints.”
“Sure.” Her chin came up, and she straightened to her full height.
Rich watched her. The suit she wore shouted “successful business woman,” but failed to conceal the emotional upheaval she was undergoing. He’d observed her dress, the thin build, and the long, blonde hair the first time he saw her, over a year ago. When he’d met her at the homeless camp the day of the murder, the memory jumped full-force to his mind. He’d used his abruptness that evening and at Sharee’s to cover his attraction to her, even as he did now.
“If you’ll give me a minute, I’ll get the equipment.” Keith headed out the office door.
Lynn’s eyes met Rich’s as the door closed. She swallowed and swiveled to stare out the window behind her desk.
His gut rolled. He quenched the urge to comfort her. Did she know more than she was saying? One of the things he’d been impressed with during the other investigation was her staunch support of Sharee and John. She exuded loyalty, but did it extend to others that might not deserve it?
Silence stretched between them until Keith returned. His partner shot him a curious look before glancing at the back of Lynn’s head. “Ms. Stapleton?”
She swiveled on a toe. “Yes, Detective Carpenter?”
“Would you step over here, please?”
Rich almost smiled at the sarcasm but said nothing. A few minutes later, they were ready to go.
“Okay, Ms. Stapleton, thank you for your cooperation.”
Lynn nodded to him but didn’t look Rich’s way. He followed Keith to the door.
The receptionist, Larry, stood. Representative McCloud stepped from his office. Rich pulled his head back. When had he arrived? Originally, Rich had assumed Lynn would be alone today. Now, two others knew of their visit. Representative McCloud’s look went past him. Rich turned.
Lynn’s hand circled the doorknob, closing the door. He understood that. She’d want privacy for a few minutes. But he didn’t like the view of the top of her head. She’d dropped her gaze to the floor, hiding her face from the others. The quick change from defiance to embarrassment surprised him. And to him, it meant one thing—he’d hurt her more than he realized.
Sharee tossed in bed. John’s plane must be over the Pacific now, maybe somewhere over Hawaii.
Too fast, Lord.
He was gone, and it still felt unreal. The bed’s emptiness highlighted his absence. She pulled his pillow against her and inhaled his scent.
Lord, it’s not fair. You let him go and not me, and I couldn’t tell him about the baby.
She took a deep breath. All right, quit whining, Sharee. You’ll survive three weeks. She threw a glance upward.
I trust you, Lord, even when I don’t understand.
Her thoughts jumped from one thing to another. She hadn’t felt this bereft since her parents dropped her at the dorm that first year of college. Then after college, she’d lived by herself for eight years. How had nine months of marriage reduced her independence to this? Then again, maybe it had nothing to do with independence and everything to do with being loved.
She flipped onto her back and began to pray for John and Bob and the people in Indonesia. The tension eased from her neck and shoulders. She yawned, scrunched the pillow and closed her eyes.
Cooper’s growl woke her. She lay still a moment, reminding herself where she was and that John was gone. The low rumbling in the dog’s throat sent a chill throughout her body.
Her bedroom door stood open, but the dog was in the living area where his bed was. She slipped from the bed and padded in silence to the door. Just as she reached it, Cooper surged forward in a scrambling rush and threw himself against the living room’s sliding glass doors. The vertical blinds flew apart under his assault, and his vicious yapping jolted her.
Someone was out there.
The dog leapt against the doors again, his barking drowning all other noises.
Sharee ran for the kitchen. Get a weapon, something, anything. She jerked open a drawer and snatched up the rolling pin and flew back to the bedroom. Grabbing her phone, she punched 911.
She thought she heard a voice. “Hello? Hello? I can’t hear over the barking.” A voice she couldn’t understand responded. “Someone’s trying to break in.” She gave her address and put the phone down. She stepped to the doorway and stared at the living room blinds, then hefted the wooden rolling pin. The blinds had stopped swaying.
The dog sat back, growling now, ears cocked forward.
“What is it, boy? What do you hear?”
Cooper ignored her. She stared at the blinds. They hung straight down now, giving privacy again.
What had happened to the outside, motion lights? They hadn’t come on. She frowned, then ran to the hall and flipped the switch. She’d forgotten to turn them on when she went to bed.
The dog didn’t move. His attention never left the sliding doors. She flipped on the other outside lights, then went to change clothes and wait for the police.
The Sheriff’s deputy checked outside but found nothing. He praised the dog, reiterated her need for the motion lights, and said he’d have a cruiser patrol the area during the night.
Sharee locked the door after him, walked back into the bedroom and stared at the bed. It looked big and lonely. She grabbed her pillows and a blanket and took them to the couch. Cooper’s bed was at the far end. Ridiculous, she knew, but she’d sleep better out here next to the dog. Except for the night the homeless group stayed in the house, the dog stayed out of their bedroom. As she tucked the blanket around her, Cooper got up from his bed and circled in front of the couch before dropping down on the wooden floor beside her. She put a hand to his head.
“You’re a good dog, Cooper. Thank you.” The dog nosed her hand. She patted his head, lay back, and stared at the ceiling.
Sunrise was a long time coming, but at last, the verticals began to glow with morning light. She changed, grabbed a leash, and took the dog out for his morning walk. He stopped on the deck sniffing, growling again.
“Come on, Cooper. Whoever it was is gone.” She pulled on the leash, but he stiffened and snarled. “It’s all right—”
The dog jumped forward, barking, and Sharee stumbled after him. A two-foot-long black snake slid off the deck. The dog tugged against the leash.
“It’s just a black snake, Coop. Leave him alone.” Sharee shook her head but grinned. Wait until she told John how Cooper had saved her twice. They went down the steps, and the dog lunged under the deck where the snake had disappeared.
She yanked on the leash. “Come on. Leave him alone.” The dog pulled and snarled, and she leaned over to look under the deck. Nothing but darkness. She hauled on the leash and stood. Something silver caught her eye. Light reflected. She leaned over once more and grabbed a roll of duct tape. Her brow furrowed as she straightened.
John had a place for everything. He would have missed a roll of duct tape.
The dog sniffed and growled. She stood staring down at it, and a cold chill ran up her spine.
John stared as the man hustled the girl out of sight around the end of the warehouse. The buildings here on Sumatra hadn’t received the damage that those on the outer islands had. He thanked God for that because it gave them a place to land the Cessna, a place where they could bring the injured from the islands off the coast. On some days, they’d also flown the dead. Mass graves on some of the smaller islands were impossible—too much debris, too much water. The sea had infiltrated before they dug three feet down.
He pushed aside the pictures that had accumulated in his mind the last four days and winced as he stepped onto the concrete. He’d injured his right ankle a couple years back, and the pain had returned this trip to haunt him.
His mind still turning, he moved out of the medics’ way. They climbed into the plane to check the injured. He bit the inside of his cheek. Just a year and a half ago, he and Bob had come to this same area on a mission trip to spread the Word of God. Now they’d come for a different type of mission.
The aerial view of the islands had shaken him. Some parts looked like a giant had stood on the islands, reached out into the ocean and dragged its huge fingers back onto the land, a mountain of water with it, toppling trees, huts, and any other structure in its way, gauging deep trenches in the land. It had not prepared him for the devastation and human loss he encountered once they landed.
His prayers since had consisted of requests and pleas for miracles—and he saw many—from a mother and child rescued from a fallen, mud-caked building to a young boy pulled alive from the top of a tree, his parents having strapped him to it before the tsunami hit.
The Islanders they talked to conveyed their fear and horror at the nine-foot tsunami triggered by a 7.2 magnitude earthquake. They described the deafening roar as the wall of water entered the bay and how it slammed ashore.
“We tried to outrun it, but we couldn’t,” one man said while they unloaded food and water from the plane. “I couldn’t hold on to my children. I couldn’t see my wife.” He broke down and cried while recounting his story. Of the two hundred people that lived in his village, only forty remained.
John reached forward to help take the makeshift stretcher from the Cessna to the waiting ambulance. The injured man on the stretcher had a broken leg and was covered with cuts and bruises. Two other people on stretchers waited for transport to the ambulance. The initial surprise to see three, four or more patients in an ambulance—or any vehicle that could be substituted for one—had disappeared. Any way they could get them to the hospital was welcome.
He glanced around as the medics edged him aside and slid the carrier into the waiting vehicle. At least this small, private airfield allowed them a place to land. On the smaller islands, the choice of airfields was limited at best.
Hunger and exhaustion gnawed at him—and discouragement. He stretched his neck to loosen the muscles. Combine the physical realities with the devastation and death he’d seen since they’d arrived, and no wonder he was having an emotional and spiritual battle. He wondered again where God was in all this.
He headed back to the plane and helped lift the next stretcher. At least something would be done for these and the others they brought to the mainland. And soon, a truck would arrive with food and water and medical supplies that were needed on the islands. They’d fly back with a heavier load than they’d brought. Hundreds of volunteers had come to work without much food or sleep to help people they did not know and would never see again.
All right, Lord, I see you working—in the midst of this tragedy.
As the wind circled them, the stench of his own body rose, and he handed his side of the litter to the paramedic. The injured man groaned, grabbed John’s hand and said something. John shifted his gaze to Bob and lifted a brow.
“He says thank you for bringing your plane. Thank you for what you’re doing.”
John swallowed, his heart squeezing, and he nodded at the man. The others pushed the stretcher into the ambulance, and John turned away.
Across the tarmac, he saw a figure break from the far building’s shadow and run forward. The girl he’d seen a minute ago, probably eight or ten years old, screamed something—he had no idea what. A burly man appeared and dashed after her. His red shirt flew wide open as he ran, showing a bare chest. The girl screamed again, the sound tearing across the pavement. The man moved fast, and the girl had no chance at freedom.
Why had he thought that? Freedom?
As the man grabbed her, she twisted and tumbled to the ground, bringing him with her. The girl fought and kicked and screamed. The man raised his arm and hit her across the face.
No other thought came. John sprinted the distance between him and the pair, yelling. The man yanked his head up, then jerked the girl to her feet. He shouted at John. John didn’t understand the language, but the meaning reached him.
That didn’t slow him down. He skidded to a stop in front of the man. “Let her go.” John’s breath came in gasps, yet, his meaning, too, was clear.
The man shook the girl and said something to John. He spat on the pavement and turned as if to leave. John caught his arm. The man whirled, throwing the girl to the ground. He yanked something from his waist and lunged at John. Light on the knife’s blade sent John leaping backward. The tug on his shirt and the ripping sound came at once.
“Hey! Hey! What’s going on?” A shout came from behind him.
The man had the knife raised again but faltered when another shout reached them. He glanced past John, then spun and ran.
John stared after him, and footsteps sounded behind him, then someone gripped his arm.
“Are you trying to get killed?” Bob rasped.
John leaned down and drew the girl to her feet. She pulled against his hold, but John’s grip tightened. Was she okay?
The husband-and-wife team who had flown with them to care for the injured skidded to a stop beside them. The other American’s broad shoulders and height set him apart from the Indonesians just as John’s height did.
“Don’t you realize you can’t interfere like that?” he demanded.
“No,” the woman said. “Thank God you interfered. You saved her, although she won’t thank you.” She looked at the girl who still struggled against John’s hold.
Bob’s hand still rested on his arm. “You have nine lives. No, sorry, you must have nine angels watching over your one life.”
John’s gaze went to the girl. She drew back and kicked him hard in the shins. He grunted and dropped her arm. Whirling, she spat something over her shoulder and sped away.
“Hey! Come back! Wait!”
“She won’t come back,” the woman said.
Bob nodded. “Leave her, John. Julie’s right. She won’t come back.”
“And she won’t thank you,” Julie said. “Although you probably kept her out of a brothel for another day.”
“A brothel? Are you kidding? She’s a child.”
“You know about the brothels, don’t you?”
He heard the question but stared after the girl until she disappeared behind another building. “Of course, I…” He frowned. Of course, he’d heard, but did he know?
Julie jerked her head in a yes motion. “Brothels. After an earthquake, a tsunami like they’ve had here, many families are separated, or parents are dead, and the girls—boys, too, these days—wind up in brothels.” Julie’s face tightened. “Slavery is alive and well in the twenty-first century.”
John settled his gaze on her. “She’s still a child.” He digested Julie’s look and what she’d said and wanted to spit the taste of it out of his mouth.
Her husband stepped forward. “Let’s go back. There’s nothing we can do here.”
John shot a look Bob’s way. He indicated the plane with a tilt of his head, and they followed the other two.
“He’s right.” Julie slowed and fell in step beside him. “Nothing we can do today, and she wouldn’t come with you anyway. By now, she either hates men or just learned not to trust them. She doesn’t know you or know that you’re different from the others.”
A brothel? He still felt the distaste. Is that what her life would consist of? Being beaten, molested and sold? “Is anything being done about it?”
“Yes, but not enough. People are stepping forward to help, but the solution’s not easy. Human trafficking. It’s alive and well in America, too.” Julie stopped at the ambulance.