Authors: Jamie Freveletti
Tags: #Fiction, #Thriller, #Suspense, #Thrillers, #Adventure
An Emma Caldridge Novella: Part Two of Three
into the desert town of Sunrise City on the border between Arizona and Utah and wondered what caliber bullet would test her armored vest first. She passed a row of houses on her left and watched the curtains twitch aside as the residents followed her progress down the empty, silent streets that shimmered in the early morning heat. The town’s sheriff had already picked up her arrival, and she watched him track her, keeping one car length behind and holding a steady pace.
The Jeep Wrangler with the camo paint job that she drove was a loaner from Edward Banner, CEO of Darkview, a contract security firm that operated dangerous missions the world over by way of a nearby military installation. The Dragunov sniper rifle nestled in a scabbard, and tucked between the seat and the transmission housing was another loaner from her friend Cameron Sumner, a member of the Southern Hemisphere Drug Defense Department. The armored vest that she wore looked like a denim vest, but it was woven of a reinforced silk fabric by a Colombian tailor who specialized in armored business suits. It was a gift from Carol Stromeyer, Darkview’s vice president.
The Sig Sauer 9mm pistol in her shoulder holster was hers, as was the coffee nestled in the cup holder.
Sunrise City was the enclave of the Children of the Supreme Son, a religious cult run by Emmet Shaw, a former insurance agent turned prophet, who claimed that he was the son of God and that to defy him was to court hell. Emma wasn’t afraid of hell, she’d stared into that abyss already while on Earth, and she’d do it again if required, but she was concerned about time. She needed to locate Sebastian Ryan and extract him before the Supreme Sons went to work on him.
Emma had learned that Ryan was kidnapped a day after she’d returned from the Caribbean. His colleague at Axor Insurance, Janet Candar, had pounded on her door on Sunday morning wearing a look of exhaustion. Ryan’s clothes were found at the ocean’s edge, and he had been absent from work for two days without explanation. He’d told Candar about his wild night with Emma Caldridge, when the Children of the Supreme Son had chased both of them, and impressed upon Candar that if anything should happen to him she was to contact Emma immediately, because he’d likely been kidnapped. Unfortunately, the police didn’t see it that way.
“They went to his house,” Candar had said. “It was undisturbed. An elderly neighbor said he often walked along the ocean in the morning. She said that he’d lost his wife to breast cancer and seemed despondent. When the police found his clothes by the pier, they concluded that he’d committed suicide.”
Emma’d felt the beauty of the day turn dark. She liked Ryan and held even more sympathy for him now that she’d learned he had lost his wife. She had seen him standing at the water’s edge during her early morning runs, and in those solitary moments he had projected an air of barely contained despair. She recognized his grief, because she’d been the same way when her fiancé died in a car accident. Still, after having faced down danger with Ryan, she didn’t think he would kill himself.
“They’re not looking for him,” Candar had continued. “Especially since we haven’t received a ransom demand.” She inhaled and straightened. “Ryan said that you knew people who were some sort of security force. He insisted that if anything happened to him, you be contacted and this force be hired to find him. Was he right?”
Emma had nodded. “I know a group called Darkview, but I only work for them part-time and they don’t take domestic kidnapping cases. Those are a matter for the local police or the Department of Homeland Security. Darkview works with the Department of Defense on international matters. There’s no overlap.”
“But if they transported him out of the country, would there be overlap?”
Emma had shaken her head. “It still wouldn’t be a matter for Darkview, I’m sorry.”
“Could you take it on a freelance basis? Does Darkview hire…” Candar had searched for the proper word.
“Mercenaries?” Emma suggested.
“Doesn’t the insurance company have their own resources for these cases?” Emma asked. “After all, it writes kidnap insurance.”
Candar shook her head. “The company won’t write a policy for an employee. Too much risk that we’d get kidnapped because of it. They won’t fund a search.”
“Isn’t that a little harsh?”
“Not at all. It’s a safety mechanism. Besides,” she handed Emma an envelope, “Ryan left this.”
The envelope contained a check made out to Emma Caldridge in the sum of ten thousand dollars. It was payment for Emma’s agreement to run a search. Mostly, she’d agreed because she liked Ryan, but also because she’d read about the group suspected in his disappearance, and the list of their wrongs chilled her. The Church of the Supreme Son was a polygamous cult, living on the fringes of society, that forced their girls as young as twelve into marriages with older men and denied their members any freedom of thought or action. Emma believed in live and let live, but slavery, tyrannical mind control, child abuse, and kidnapping crossed so many lines that she felt compelled to act.
Now she drove through the Supreme Sons’ town and ran through ideas to persuade the members to cough up information. She had a hunch that after they’d taken Ryan, they would bring him here. Supreme Son devotees were notoriously frightened of life outside their enclave. Emma figured that whoever had grabbed Ryan would drag him back to Sunrise.
She drove down the main street slowly, giving everyone time to see her and get the phones ringing, before heading past the town proper. After another three miles the sheriff’s car swung a three point turn and reversed back. Emma kept going, and a mile later turned onto a rutted dirt road and bounced toward a compact ranch, kicking up dust.
She headed to a battered wooden ranch house surrounded by equally battered corral fencing. Several sleek, well fed horses raised their heads to watch her drive past. Seems like all the residents of Sunrise are watching me, human and animal, she thought.
After pulling up to the ramshackle porch, she cut the engine, got out and stood next to the Jeep. A shadow of a figure appeared in the screen door. It squeaked open and a man stepped out.
He was young, close to Emma’s age, no more than twenty-five, with a rugged face, a nose that must have been broken at least once, and the eyes of a man who had seen too much trouble and not enough joy. He wore Wrangler jeans, cowboy boots, and a short-sleeve gray tee shirt. He stood about five-foot-ten, his lean arms muscled and deeply tan and his brown eyes unsmiling.
A cynic, Emma thought. “John Brink?” she said.
“I’m Emma Caldridge. I’ve come to rent a horse. I’d heard that you have some of the finest out here, and I need a good one.”
Brink shifted. “For what reason?” His voice was low and pleasing and didn’t quite match the severity of his demeanor. It was as if it escaped whatever sadness the rest of him had absorbed.
“Endurance,” she said. “I’ll be heading out on the mountain trails.”
Emma shook her head. “Hunting.”
He raised his eyebrows. “It’s not season.”
“I’m not hunting animals; I’m hunting men. Well, one man in particular. Sebastian Ryan. He’s from Miami Beach and went missing a couple of days ago. I’m here to bring him home.”
Brink ran his eyes up and down her, taking in her jeans, black combat boots, white cotton tee shirt under the armored vest, the black shoulder holster and gun, and then slanting to look at the camo Jeep.
“No. Freelance. Do you have a horse I can rent?”
He strolled off the porch, each board creaking as he did, and headed toward her. She saw two more shadowy bodies jockey for position behind the screen door and couldn’t tell if they were male or female. Brink stopped two feet in front of her, and from that distance she could see the intelligence in his wary eyes.
“Can you ride?”
“I used to own a horse. I’ll be okay.”
“Back East? What kind of horse?”
“Dancing horses,” he said, and this time Emma heard a touch of humor in his voice. One of the shadows in the screen door snickered.
“A horse is a horse, and you’d be surprised how much time it takes to teach one to dance.” She let a bit of humor lace her own voice, and this time his mouth crooked at the corner.
“Actually, that wouldn’t surprise me at all. They’re not meant to dance.”
“They’re also not meant to cut around barrels or buck until they drop, but people use them that way too.” She shrugged. “If you don’t want to rent one, I’ll understand. I can hike it. It’s just that the whole thing will go easier on me if I ride.”
He looked incredulous. “Hike it? It’s easily thirty miles round-trip to the plateau alone.”
“I’m an ultrarunner. When you’ve done a hundred, thirty is not a problem, but like I said, I’d rather ride.”
A bit of respect entered his gaze. “I raise Quarter Horses. They’re good for endurance, but the best for endurance is an Arabian.” He ran his eyes down her body again. “You look light enough for one, and I have a mix called Lily that would do. She can be a handful at times, but she’s brave and can go forever.” He turned a bit toward the house. “Calvin, come on out here.”
The door squeaked again and a skinny teenage boy emerged and hustled down the stairs. Another shadow took his place behind the screen.
“What do you need?” Calvin said.
“Can you get Lily tacked up? She’s going out on the mountain.”
Emma shook her head. “No rush. First I’m heading back into town to have some breakfast and ask around. See if anyone’s spotted Ryan.”
“They won’t talk to you,” Brink said.
“What makes you think so?”
“You’re what they call an ‘Outsider.’ They don’t mix with Outsiders.”
“You’re talking to me,” Emma pointed out.
Calvin shot Brink a worried glance. As if he was afraid Brink would be upset with Emma’s comment. Brink’s mouth tightened, so perhaps Calvin was right.
“I’m cast off. They shun me, so I can talk to anyone I like.”
“Me too,” said Calvin. He had sandy hair, freckles, and a friendly air about him.
Emma frowned. “What do you mean, ‘cast off’?”
“Been ordered to leave town. When a boy turns thirteen he’s viewed as a competitor for the girls. There aren’t enough girls to be wives for the older men, so the younger ones are thrown out. I was cast off at fourteen. Calvin here is fifteen. Everyone here will talk to you. It’s just the ones in town that won’t.”
Emma was appalled. “How many have been thrown out?”
“Over two hundred. More each day.”
“What happens to them?”
Brink frowned. “Nothing good. The ones that have family on the outside are better off than the others. I made my way here, and Cowboy Leon, who owns the place, took me in. He showed me how to breed horses. I was lucky. Since then he’s taken in six other boys.”
“What about the parents? Surely they don’t agree to this.”
Calvin snorted. “They’s the ones that threw us out.”
“They are,” Brink corrected him.
Emma’s parents would never have allowed such a thing. It would have been unthinkable.
“So Shaw’s brainwashed them all?” she said.
“They don’t want to burn in eternal hell,” Calvin said.
“Sounds like they don’t want to think for themselves.” Emma let her disgust show. Brink kept a steady gaze on her but said nothing. She couldn’t tell if he agreed with her or not. “I’m still going to town. I haven’t had breakfast and I saw the diner. It looked good.”
Brink nodded. “It is.”
“See you in an hour or so.”
“I’ll be here,” Brink said.
diner was in a small, bay-windowed storefront nestled between a five and dime and a fabric shop. Emma parked the Jeep in front and stepped out. Three elementary-school-age girls in long prairie dresses and lace-up black shoes walked by, clutching backpacks. Blond hair hung in plaits to their waists and their faces were scrubbed clean. The old fashioned clothing and hairstyles, Emma thought, would have fit perfectly in a classic western movie. Only the backpacks were modern. The girls glanced at Emma and their eyes widened. All three lowered their heads, as if afraid to meet her gaze, and they increased their pace to hustle past her. One, clearly the youngest, peeped to the side, and Emma flashed a smile. The girl smiled down at the sidewalk, which Emma took as a positive response.
Emma could only imagine that she looked something like a female terminator to these girls, with her combat boots, camo Jeep, and weapons. Only her long, light brown hair and easy smile went against military type and projected a friendly air. The rest appeared grim, exactly as she wanted to look. If the Supreme Sons held Ryan against his will, they’d better recognize that trouble was on their heels.
But when the sheriff’s patrol car turned onto the main street, Emma knew that trouble was distributing its effects and was coming for her. She reached into the Jeep and pulled the rifle out of the holder, removed her holster and locked both in a strongbox bolted in the Jeep’s short bed before slinging a tan leather satchel over her shoulder and heading inside the diner.
The sound of a bell attached to the door announced her presence, and the patrons all turned to look. The square room held round tables covered with white vinyl tablecloths with a delicate vine decoration, chrome chairs, and tulip vases with a single flower and condiment setups in wire caddies on each. A long counter with bar stools ran along one wall, and behind it a narrow opening revealed a kitchen where fry cooks were working. The counter patrons, all men, swiveled to glance at her.
A sign on a post read,
and she did, keeping her expression calm and friendly as she strolled to the far wall, taking the first round table against it. She lowered the satchel onto the chair next to her. A pretty young woman in her late teens wearing a flowing prairie dress stepped up to her. She held a coffeepot in her hand and a hopeful look on her face. Emma thought she was thrilled to have some fresh gossip to spread soon. Her name badge read: