Authors: Linda K. Rodante
The next morning’s light painted the floor in leaf mosaics. John hoped his voice carried to the man on the other end of the phone.
Sharee sent him a look with warring expressions. She had the phone curled to her chest with her left hand, but with her right, she put a quick finger to her mouth—which served to irritate him further.
He gritted his teeth. Like a number of the men he knew, he found himself walking a tightrope these days. He tried to balance his God-given leadership role against his wife’s need for independence. Right now, he was watching her “right” to do whatever she wanted battle with whatever teaching she might have received on being submissive. And he knew just how much the word
grated on women’s nerves.
“Sharee.” He dropped the volume and changed the tone, but changing his facial expression felt impossible.
She put the phone to her mouth. “Dr. Richmond?” The warmth in her voice caused another spasm of jaw clenching on his part. “Zeke, I mean. Yes. I don’t think this is a good time.”
You don’t think
, John mouthed. She glared at him and turned away.
“No, I’m sorry. It was a long night for both John and me. It’s the weekend. Perhaps another time?” She said nothing for a minute. “Thank you. It’s rewarding to hear you say that. I’m glad you liked the banquet and feel that Downtown Ministries is worthy of your support.” Quiet again.
His instincts had been right last night, only the man was bolder than he’d thought. Calling the day after the banquet and wanting to meet her for lunch. He listened to Sharee’s continued expression of appreciation. Of course, the man would use the idea of his financial support to get close to her. Was she that ignorant of men and their lines to guess that?
John made himself stand still, but the urge to grab the phone and let…Zeke…have a few words of
from her husband forced his fists to tighten.
Sharee clicked off her phone and set it on the end table, moving in slow motion. A moment later, she turned his way. “He could hear you, you know.”
“All I said was no.”
“You were entertaining the idea.”
“How do you know?”
“Your voice dripped syrup.” He tried to keep his tone under control but saw the fire jump into her eyes. He inhaled. Last night and this morning had been too good. He didn’t want to ruin it.
“Sharee, I didn’t like the way the man looked at you last night, and I don’t think he cared that you were married. Calling here now…”
“How can you get that from a one-minute introduction?”
“Look,” he shortened the distance between them, “women are not the only ones with instincts. I don’t feel good about him.” When she didn’t reply, he said, “You warned me about China.”
“Yes, but…” She stopped. Her brow creased. “But that was…”
“What you thought it was, and I listened.” He waited. Her face changed, and she mumbled something. He put his hand into her hair, slid it back to cup her head, and pulled her forward for a kiss. “Trust me on this, will you?”
She growled at him, and he smiled. She’d picked up a lot of his nonverbal communication since they’d married. He dropped his arm to her waist and hauled her against him.
“Do as your husband says, wife.”
She growled again. “He’s going to call me at the office next week.”
“I don’t trust the man.”
“I don’t understand why. I love you. No one’s going to take away what we have together.”
“The devil hates what we have.”
“Well?” He lifted a brow at her.
“All right. Okay.”
“Don’t see him alone—and no lunches.”
“What? I…” Their eyes locked.
“No lunches. That’s what he wanted, wasn’t it?”
“You have good hearing.”
He grunted. “And you thought about it.”
“I wouldn’t have gone without you.”
“Today, you mean. What if he’d called at work Monday and asked?”
“It would be a business lunch.”
“That’s how you’d think of it, but I’m not sure that’s his main idea.”
He frowned. “Not jealous…” He didn’t like the feeling inside him. How could he explain it? “If you feel you have to go, take a co-worker.”
.” The tone of her voice mocked. “Whatever you say,
“Good. Just remember it.” He laughed when her eyes narrowed, but something leaden dropped into his gut. Zeke Richmond might prove to be more trouble than either of them wanted.
Lynn sat staring across the room, out the door to the gray waters of the Gulf of Mexico. Hurricane Bella had left it churning and dark, but at least the police had let them back into their condos. The building itself needed minor repairs, but her own place needed no work, except for her to set out the things she’d taken inside. They had been spared the worst.
Her mind wandered again as it had the last two days—the dinner with Rich Richards had occupied her thoughts more than she would admit to anyone. In fact, the warmth of his presence and the sound of his voice had echoed inside her since the drive home that evening. He’d taken her back to the office, but neither seemed in a hurry to leave. After he had walked her to her car, they stood talking for a long time. She’d even wondered if he might call later to say goodnight, but then she shook herself. They hadn’t been on a date, hadn’t been “out” together. But her emotions weren’t listening to her head.
Her eyes dropped to Marta’s file, and the feelings evaporated. She gave a long sigh, picked it up, and bile rose in her throat. The written testimony included more detail than the oral testimony she’d heard at least three times.
The police had rescued Marta from a home situation that included beatings and sexual abuse. She went into the foster care system at fourteen. The group home, though, left a lot to be desired. One particular boy gave Marta prescription drugs, another taught her how she could slip out at night. At fifteen, she’d slipped out with the first boy. He’d taken her to an abandoned home and raped her, then threatened her if she said anything. And if she wanted drugs in the future, the payment would come the same way. Had she thought he’d keep supplying her forever? When the boy brought others to rape her, she ran away.
An older woman alerted her to a place in the woods where the homeless congregated. Marta had never been hungry before, never slept without a roof over her head, but she felt safe there. Her body still craved the drugs she’d had, and she walked restlessly around the camp. Before long, a man approached her. It would be her last night of freedom for almost two years.
Kidnapped, hustled into a waiting car, later raped, beaten, and drugged, she became his slave, his prostitute to be sold to whomever he wanted. She now belonged to a group of girls he called his “herd.”
Lynn stood, dropped the papers and walked to the sliding glass doors.
How does one person do this to another, Lord? How does this happen in America? Or anywhere?
Marta hadn’t mentioned her time in foster care at the meetings they’d attended. She’d only talked about running away from home. The girl had suffered abuse no matter where she went.
Lord, we have to help women caught in situations like this. I have to help. How?
Lynn swallowed, eyed the file, and felt nausea in her stomach; but she picked up the papers again. She couldn’t help if she didn’t know.
On a rare night “off,” Marta had watched the television news and heard Representative McCloud talk about human trafficking. He said that people created in God’s image should never be enslaved like that. She made sure she remembered his name, and she began to pray.
Months later, when a john threatened to beat her to death, she’d managed to get free, run outside and into the street. A sheriff’s deputy had slammed on his brakes to keep from hitting her. Her pimp rushed out but stopped when the officer stepped from his cruiser.
Marta was arrested, but the deputy’s training in human trafficking allowed him to see her as more than a prostitute. He listened to her story and took her to a safe house. She gave the Sheriff’s Department as much information as she could about the trafficker and the other girls, but they failed to find them. They’d vacated the housing right after Marta was arrested. She’d asked the deputy to contact Representative McCloud, and he had.
Lynn rose again, walked to the sliding glass doors and slid them open. Staring again at the Gulf of Mexico, she inhaled the salt air, let her eyes roam the beach for a minute, and then she cried.
John shoved Zeke Richmond’s phone call to the back of his mind and smiled to himself as he finished making the omelet. He slipped half onto each of their plates. Last night had forged a new intimacy between them. Sharee’s handling of the banquet, of its many complexities, of the numerous personalities there, gave him a deeper appreciation of who she was. God had imparted numerous gifts to her that he was only now discovering. Later, the warmth of their lovemaking had added a final touch to the evening. He wouldn’t let a phone call ruin that.
His phone rang now. He decided to ignore it, but Sharee brought it from the other room.
“Bob?” The person who’d arranged his last trip to Indonesia. He clicked the phone. “Bob? Hello! Give me a moment, will you?” He handed Sharee her plate. “Eat while it’s hot. I’ll get mine in a few minutes.” He kissed the top of her head and headed out the door onto the deck. “What’s up?”
“You hear the news this morning?”
“There’s been an earthquake in Indonesia. A tsunami’s hit. Thousands will be homeless or stranded or dead.”
John felt the shock go through him. “I haven’t had the TV on or been on the internet. Where did it hit?”
“The islands off Sumatra.”
John groaned. Exactly where their last missions trip had taken them. “Did they say how bad it was?”
“Some villages wiped out completely.”
Neither man said anything for a moment. Pictures flashed across John’s mind. Children in bright clothing running alongside the grass runways, grinning women, men dancing and singing. People he had come to know…
A few minutes later, he ended the call but didn’t move from the deck. He faced the field. A hawk circled above the pond and soared past the stand of cypress. He followed its flight with his eyes, and then his glance dropped to the phone on the railing. His hands tightened on either side of it.
Why, Lord? Why now? Why this way?
And yet, God had prepared him for this. He knew it. He was needed, and he would go. The sense of challenge churned through him but mixed uncomfortably with the knowledge that it would hurt her.
Sharee’s arms came around him from behind, and he straightened. The deck had masked her steps. He should have heard the back door open and close at least. He sighed.
“I love you,” she said, the soft, guttural sound of her voice squeezing his heart.
He turned and slid his arms around her, the silky robe she wore cool against his skin. He moved his chin to the top of her head and rubbed the stubble of his beard over it. “I love you, too.”
She sighed in reply. “What did Bob want?”
“I’ll tell you in a minute. Let’s go inside.” He picked her up in his arms, as he’d done last night when he caught her, after running through the moonlight following her laughter. He’d made his way inside then, her arms clinging to his neck, her face snuggled against his throat. Just as it was now.
He sat in the recliner, holding her, letting the quiet encircle them. At last, he drew a long breath. “I’ve got something to tell you.”
“I have something to share, too.” Her eyes rose to meet his, holding a joy he hated to break.
But he couldn’t put this off. Time was not on their side. “You’re not going to like this. But I want you to remember how much I love you, how I wouldn’t do anything to hurt you—purposely.”
She straightened, twisted, and looked up at him. Her face changed. A careful, awake look followed his words. “What?”
“Bob said they’ve had another earthquake in Indonesia, near Sumatra, off the coast. A tsunami, too.”
“Bad enough. That’s why he called.”
Her eyes searched his. Even before he spoke, he could see the understanding forming. Her face stilled. “They need you?”
“Yes. They need a pilot. One of the regular pilots took a boat to the outer islands to get some R and R. Before the quake. He hasn’t come back or called, and the communications from the islands are down, but the plane is on the mainland. They need someone to fly it. They’re getting as many people together as they can. The villagers need help and supplies.”
She said nothing for a minute. “He asked for you but not me.”
Sharee didn’t say anything for a minute, couldn’t say anything. The thought of what she wanted to tell him dropped like hard dough into her stomach. No, he couldn’t be going somewhere without her. Not now.
She pulled from his arms, sitting up as much as she could. “Did you let him know you promised to take me next time? I want to help. You know that. I’ve prayed about this. We’ve prayed about it. Call him back. I…” She stopped.
. If he knew about the baby, he wouldn’t want her to go, anyway. He’d want her home, safe.
Her eyes dropped. She wanted to go, wanted to help. They’d talked about it often, what the next trip would be like. Together. She climbed from the chair, hugging her middle—not sure if she held the rising rebellion in her stomach or the growing infant in her womb.
Disappointment surged through her, along with thoughts about the baby, about ministry, about serving God. “What happened to going into ministry together?”
“We are. We will.”
“When? You’ve got a talent they can use, but I’m just extra baggage.”
He stood now, too, but she backed away, annoyed, hurt, and hating how she felt.
“You know that’s not true. You have a lot to give. You—”
“Not true? Then why won’t you take me?”
“Because…” He stopped.
“Why? What’s the reason Bob gave not to bring me?”
“You’ve never been before. It’s enough of a culture shock when things are going right.”
“You don’t think God’s big enough to overcome my culture shock?”
“Of course, he is, but—”
. There’s always a but. What else? What else did he say about me?”
“Sharee, Bob knows you. He wants you to come, just not now.”
He took a deep breath. “That would be three of us on the plane, and we might not be able to transport everything or everyone we needed if there were three of us. They’re small planes, you know that.”
“Like I said, extra baggage.”
When he reached for her, she evaded him. If he knew she was pregnant, would he go? She’d anticipated telling him with such joy, but how could she do that now? It might put doubts in him about whether he should go or not.
The jolt of rebellion in her stomach swelled, reached her throat. She struggled to keep her face straight, to grab hold of something mature and unselfish; but all she could do was whirl and head for the bedroom.
“Sharee.” The closeness of his voice told her he’d followed her. He caught her and turned her toward him, but she struggled against his arms.
“Leave me alone. Just leave me.”
He held her tight. “Don’t do this. Listen to me. Please.”
She stilled but stared at his chest, not lifting her head.
“Bob said one other thing, one that I couldn’t argue with. He said there might come a time when we needed all the room in the plane, and that I might have to leave him behind on some island until later. He said that if it came to that, he could probably talk me into doing what had to be done—if it was
, but if it was
… You can’t ask me to do that.” He kissed the top of her head. “Come on, babe, I should never have made that promise. I want you with me. It’s not that, but this isn’t the time.” Silence and stillness stretched between them. “You know I wouldn’t do this if it weren't important.”
She swallowed hard. People needed him. There would be so much devastation. What was she doing? “I know.”
“So you release me from that promise?”
Her throat closed.
Oh, God, what are you doing?
“Go. There will be so many needs over there. You have to.”
“I love you.” His voice came rough and deep. He lifted her face. “God has called us. We’ll have our time together.”
“He’s in control, babe. It will work out.”
A new thought hit. “It’s going to be dangerous, isn’t it?”
He said nothing.
Her fingers tensed on his arms. “You better come back to me. If you’re not going to come back, you’re not going at all, you hear?”
One side of his mouth lifted. “I’ll be back.”
Rich’s car fishtailed, slid in the mud, and came to a stop within three feet of the two Sheriff’s cruisers. Keith had his door open before Rich turned off the engine. They’d been nearby when the call came, having daybreak coffee before starting out. In the background, he heard other sirens. Both men made their way to higher ground and then to the group of homeless people circling the tent. Early morning light filtered its way through the pines. One uniformed officer was stringing yellow crime tape around the scene. The crowd parted as they approached.
“Johnson, what you got?” Rich asked.
“Attempted kidnapping, attempted murder.
the ambulance gets here in time.”
Carpenter pushed past the other deputy. “Attempted murder? Where’s the victim?”
The officer nodded toward the tent. “Inside. Her daughter here ran for help.” He indicated a girl standing nearby. A Hispanic-looking man stood next to the girl, an arm circling her shoulders. Blood was smeared across the front of his shirt and arms. “She says a man woke her and tried to get her to leave with him. When she resisted, he put a knife to her throat. Then the mother woke, and the kidnapper and the mom fought. The mom was stabbed. The girl ran to this man’s tent for help.” A third nod indicated the man next to her. “Pedro Gonzalez.”
Keith pulled a pair of rubber gloves from his pocket. “Who’s with her now?”
The deputy handed him a book. “Benson’s in there. Gonzalez here worked to stop the bleeding before we got here. We did what we could.”
After signing the book, Keith tugged on the gloves, studying Pedro as he did. “What’s the victim’s name?”
“Maria Sanchez,” the deputy said. “Gonzalez here rushed in. He says the attacker threw Sanchez at him and ran.”
Rich took in Pedro’s short, muscular build. “We’ve met before.”
. At Sharee’s church, a year ago when the baby was kidnapped.” Pedro hurried through the acknowledgment, agitation plain in his voice. “But Maria needs help. Why the ambulance take so long?”
“There’s a multi-vehicle wreck on US 19, multiple injuries, too. They probably had to pull one from there.” Rich looked at the girl. “What’s your name?”
“Are you all right?”
“Y…yes, but my mother…”
Sirens swelled, and Rich nodded in that direction. “Here they are. They’ll take her to the hospital. I’ll need to ask you both some questions. Don’t leave.” He looked down at the girl. “Wait here for me. I’ll make sure you get to the hospital.”
He stepped to the tent’s doorway, ducked into the tent and stopped. Heat slapped full-force across his body. Must be a hundred degrees inside already. He glanced up. No air flow there and only one window in the back. He hooked the booties on his shoes and scrutinized the small interior.
Keith and a uniformed officer bent over a dark-haired woman. Blood saturated a shoulder and arm and covered the front of her shirt. More blood splattered the dirt floor and the bedding. He lifted an eyebrow at his partner.
“They stopped what bleeding they could see,” Keith said. “No telling what’s inside. She needs the medics.”
A minute later, the EMS crew burst into the tent. Rich let his eyes wander over the items in the tent as the paramedic worked on the woman. Not much to see—two sleeping bags, two light blankets, some bags in the corner with what looked like food and clothing.
Maria Sanchez’s name rang a bell. Lynn had introduced them a few days ago. He chewed on the inside of his cheek.
Sweat rolled down both sides of his face. The crime scene techs would be here soon, and he and Keith would be free to interview those outside. He prayed that the woman survived—for the girl’s sake as well as her own. Homeless or not, children needed their parents. He’d assign a uniform to take the daughter to the hospital after he asked her some questions. He turned and ducked out of the tent.
Two hours, and over thirty homeless people later, they had received no usable information. No one at the homeless site had seen or heard anything. Rich climbed into the Porsche and turned on the air. You got an attempted murder and an attempted kidnapping with a violent struggle, and no one sees or hears anything.
. As if tents had block walls just like houses. He’d given out a number of his cards. Hopefully, he’d get a call or two later today.
The girl, Lily, might have attracted some pervert. She had an awkward prettiness that would develop into real beauty later. But Lawson’s murder happened within the same homeless group. Lynn’s involvement formed another connection.
His thoughts swung to his initial interview with Lynn. She certainly hadn’t been forthcoming. It wouldn’t be the first time a pretty girl had tried to spin something on him. Had she known, all this time, who and what Victoria Lawson was?
Keith opened the passenger door and slipped into the car. Rich turned the car around. They rode in silence.
After they hit US 19, Rich cast a glance at his partner. “We’re going to McCloud’s office.”
“You going to enlighten me on why?”
“Lynn knows Sanchez and her daughter. She introduced me the other day. I want to know what she knows about them.” He glanced sideways but said nothing. “I want Lynn’s prints and DNA, too.”
“You think she’s involved?”
“No, but we need to make sure.”
“It’s Saturday. The office is closed.”
“She mentioned working today.”
“Good. I think you’re right. We have too many coincidences in this mess. If we can eliminate her, great.”