(a novel by Selina Elliot)
~Chapter Two ~
Sage drove into the gated community around midday with an uneasy feeling. His instincts never led him wrong, but his discomfort had nothing to do with instincts. He hated gated communities. He’d dealt with enough of them over the years to know he had no place in one. They had a societal structure and strict laws. Two things Sage did better working outside of. His career and his life didn’t fit the mold these people protected themselves with. To them that made him dangerous. And they weren’t wrong.
As he drove down the streets, he got fearful looks from the residents. He got that a lot wherever he went, but in the gated communities it was always worse. Outside these walls, people feared for their lives. Inside, they feared change. They did not accept different and they discriminated, sometimes violently, against nonconformists. Nothing about him fit into their world. And everything about his appearance said that, down to the truck he drove. But he’d received an invitation to come here. And since a job was a job, he had come.
There was no map of the community and no one was going to help if he stopped for directions, not that he would. The community was large by their standards, but it was still small enough that he’d eventually find the street he was looking for. For the better part of fifteen minutes he got the scenic tour of quaint houses with poor security.
In all fairness there wasn’t much need for personal security since there were walls, a watch, and internal law. Outsiders like him had no use inside these towns, petty thieves had better marks, and fear of the outside world kept residents in line. That was what passed for security.
People inside these walls were idiots. He missed his home. That was security. He had eighty acres of land further north that were well hidden within the mountains because he enjoyed his solitude. He’d been heading back there from a previous job when he’d heard the message that brought him here. That number was passed from client to client. So, he had to wonder who the Lynnwood’s had been talking to.
In due time, he found their street and their house. They had a corner lot with a large home. That meant a large family. Sage had done his research before coming here. Mr. Lynnwood was a pastor for the only church in town. That was how he and his family earned their living and could afford one of the larger homes. Those with jobs within the community lived there at a reduced cost until they were no longer working. Children leaving the home had to find their own jobs to contribute to the community, or they were told to leave.
Sage parked his truck in front of the home. From the comfort of his vehicle he observed the family home. The door was open allowing a group of six to exit the dwelling. The group was all women of similar ages; none over the age of forty. They were a well-dressed, conservative group of friends. Of the six there was one young woman who stayed at the threshold to bid the others farewell. There was shared chatter as the group carried on the conversation that had begun inside. Moments later the door shut, and five women turned down the sidewalk with smiles amid amiable conversation.
Getting out, Sage tucked his gun into the holster at his back. The women were turning down the street, and out of his sight. His shirt covered the gun as he walked across to the house. The rules clearly stated that guns were forbidden here. He wasn’t particularly bothered by that rule.
He didn’t even have to knock as he approached. The door opened, revealing a lean man with a wounded look that grated on Sages nerves. The man’s nerves were certainly getting the better of him as he questioned, “Mr. Whitacre?”
“You invite someone else?” he looked hard at the man. He wasn’t here to bid for a job.
“No, no,” the man was very quick to answer. “Thank you for waiting till my daughter’s Bible study group left. I’m so grateful that you could make it. You came highly recommended by Ronald Boisclair. His second cousin is one of my flock.”
Pastor Lynnwood was holding out his hand. Self-control kept Sage’s fingers from forming a fist. He took the pastor’s hand since he was a believer in the handshake being an indication of character. Pastor Lynnwood had a nervous grip that he was quick to release, which was odd in a man who likely shook a lot of hands every Sunday.
“Roger never said what his cousin needed you for.”
Sage stared at the man, offering no explanation. What he had done for the Boisclair’s was between them and him alone. The pastor nodded quickly realizing that the information wasn’t coming. He seemed torn between respect and disappointment, but he waved Sage inside the home.
“Can I offer you something to drink?” the pastor offered as he took the lead.
They walked into the living room; small, immaculate, light walls, dark handmade furniture. Someone was the handy type.
“Why am I here?” he ignored the offer.
“Yes, right,” the pastor was thrown by his abrupt manner.
Pastor Lynnwood took a seat in the arm chair. The material looked new but the dings and chips out of the wood told a different story. The stitching was quality work, but he could see two hands involved. He looked around the room at the collection of knickknacks and the family photos.
There was an image being portrayed within this room. A disguise meant to fool those who looked upon it. Only the right objects had made it out here to be displayed. They were handmade, thrifty, thoughtful, possibly intended to be thought of as sentimental. But there were very few flaws in the items because the image mattered more.
He looked at the pastor for the answer to his question.
“Roger said that, uh, you could find things that are, well, hard to find.”
“Why do you think you need my skill set?” Sage asked, looking over at the man. He didn’t need a recap of his skills. He just wanted to find out why he was here.
“Well, you see, it’s my daughter,” though he spoke with a smooth voice it was clear he was struggling to find the words to explain.
“Which one,” he interrupted with a nod towards the photos.
“Yes indeed,” he did not look at the photos. “We are a big family.”
Big families cost money, and each child needed to be approved before they were conceived. Communities like this aimed to ensure there was a role for each child to grow into. Extra mouths to feed who would not grow into contributing and compliant citizens were considered a waste of resources. What happened to those children was subject to the area they grew up in. Around here the cartels were not that far away. Selling children could afford the community tentative peace with those groups, and maybe even some extra cash.
Sage pressed, “her name.”
“Oh, uhh Arryn. She…”
“Which one is she?” he interrupted, looking at the photos once more.
More hesitation, but a second person entered the room saving the pastor from having to explain.
“She’s not in those photos, Mr. Whitacre,” said a poised woman with cold, brown eyes framed by thin brows. Her red highlighted, brown hair was kept in a neat bun at the nape of her neck.
“Mr. Whitacre this is my wife, Gloria,” the pastor introduced from the chair. She was a typical minister’s wife; maintained outward appearance with careful attention to ensuring she couldn’t be accused of being vain, and a loud devotion to her faith. The delicate cross necklace was pulled out from her high buttoned shirt to ensure that others saw it. A clashing, loud wooden bracelet was upon her right wrist. Emblazoned on it was a bold cross and the beginnings of an acronym, WW…, showed until the fabric of her long-sleeved blouse covered it.
The woman moved over to a locked cabinet. She pulled out the key to retrieve a collection of photos. Thumbing through them quickly she found the one she wanted. This she handed over to him.
In the photo he saw a smiling redhead with hazel eyes clutching onto a bible. Her smile shone so brilliantly it damned near coaxed the like out of him. The smile was genuine, reaching to her bright eyes and speaking to an innocence Sage had long since lost.
“Pretty girl,” he remarked while he memorized the round face and expressive hazel eyes.
“She’s always been a beautiful child,” the pastor said tearfully. His hands had a slight tremble to them. “We gave her that Bible for her sixteenth birthday. We saved up for months, but every child receives their own Bible on their sixteenth birthday. She was so happy.”
Gloria’s tone was cool, “will you be able to find our daughter?”
He could, though he wasn’t sure he was going to. And he wasn’t sure just yet that they really wanted him to. He’d come because he wasn’t that far away, and the message the pastor had left was desperate for help. The pastor’s wife seemed far less inclined for that help.
“Why did she leave?” he wouldn’t address Gloria’s question.
“It wasn’t possible for Arryn to stay,” Gloria began the story she’d rehearsed.
Flatly, he cut her off, “communities like yours don’t like large families and they don’t like acts of defiance. So, was it something she did, or something you did that got her kicked out?”
“I don’t expect someone like you to understand how a community works,” Gloria was tight-lipped. “It was for the community that Arryn left,”
“Please Mr. Whitacre,” the pastor beseeched, “we didn’t have a choice, but we never wanted Arryn to leave. She’s our daughter and we’re so worried!”
“How long has she been gone?”
“She left us six years ago when she was eighteen,” Gloria told him, still tight-lipped with anger.
“That’s a long time to wait,” he pointed out. He was going to drop the case. Neither had accountability and both were pissing him off.
“She’s not dead!” the pastor inserted with excitement that gave Sage reason to pause.
Gloria levelled a cool look that moved slowly from her husband over to Sage. “My husband prefers to think optimistically. But we will accept whatever truth you find.”
“No,” he shook his head. He stood up, dropping the photo onto the coffee table.
“What do you mean, no?” Gloria was confused, and that confusion came out as anger.
“You waited six years. What you want is the PG13 version of the truth that absolves you.” He had a code that he followed, and that code meant never wasting his time.
“She’s mad, we understand that!” the pastor remained desperate for his help.
Once again, he was cut off by his wife, “you procured Roger Boisclair a kidney.”
“Gloria, he never said,” the pastor turned fearful.
“It does not take much intelligence to figure it out, Derek,” Gloria was snide. “He plays the façade up, but he cannot hide the flush in his cheeks. He is healthy now.”
He had, in fact, found Roger a kidney and a doctor to perform the surgery. It had been a business transaction with money up front. The success or failure of the surgery was not his problem. He only needed to ensure the donor was a match.
Gloria kept talking, now addressing Sage, “if you can find a kidney, I should think one girl wouldn’t be all that hard. Six years or not. What is your price?”
“No,” he stated once again.
“Please Mr. Whitacre,” the pastor stood up. He picked up the photo of his daughter and pressed it into Sage’s hand. “Please, it’s about her! She lost everything! She deserves…”
But the pastor choked on his tears. Sage looked at the photo. He didn’t want to care. Finding her was beneath his skillset. The pastor’s wife was a bitch. All good reasons for him to walk away. So, why was he still here?
“Where’s the bible?” he inquired.
“Excuse me?” Gloria was upset.
He stared hard at the woman with his arms lightly crossed and Arryn’s picture in his hand. He would not explain.
Her eyes fell to the side, “it was given away after she left.”
Pastor Lynnwood moved to the fireplace mantle where he finally looked at the picture on display. He was nervously tapping one of the photo frames.
“The bible,” Sage pushed with a gruff tone.
“I just told you,” she snapped.
“I wasn’t talking to you,” he replied flatly, his tone almost threatening.
The pastor knew he was under fire and he turned red, attempting to stammer out a response, “well I…I…uhh…it’s…”
“Derek, you did not,” Gloria pushed, her tone indicating that he’d better be careful about what response he gave.
But the pastor moved to the cabinet and from behind it he pulled out an old bible. The pastor’s wife looked ready to lecture the man. Before she could, Sage interrupted by taking the bible. He flipped through quickly to see how much the bible had actually caught the eye of a sixteen-year-old. There was a remarkable amount of highlighted passages. Interested he tucked the bible under his arm.
“My rates are $300 a day plus expenses. And I leave here today with two grand,” he accepted the job.
“You cannot be serious,” Gloria looked stunned.
“The good Father has heard our prayers.” The pastor implored his wife, “if this is the price He asks.”
“It’s the price I have,” he cut the pastor off with irritation.
“We don’t have that kind of money!” she pointed out to the both of them.
“Seven days,” he told them.
“Excuse me?” the pastor looked his way.
“I will find her in one week,” he repeated.
“What happens if you don’t?” Gloria cast her shrewd glance at him.
“That won’t happen,” he was confident he wouldn’t even need the week. “But if you need to hear it, I guarantee my work. One week is all you pay no matter how long it takes.”
“That does seem reasonable,” the pastor looked to his wife for her decision.
But Sage wasn’t through, “I need to know what happened the day you kicked her out.”
“Excuse me?” Gloria’s posture moved to defensive and closed with those words.
“I have six years to trace back within a week. What happened the day she left?” he would get his answers.
“Why does it matter?” The woman was in no mood to divulge this family secret. “She left here.”
“How?” he asked again, his patience running low.
“Angry, Mr. Whitacre. She left angry.” Lips had never been pursed tighter.
“She left with her school bag; an old, worn, red plaid bag. I’d packed a lunch in there. To help,” the pastor explained in a softer voice. “She was wearing jeans and a t-shirt.”
“Did she go with anyone?” he wanted to know.
“No, just herself,” the pastor’s gaze fell to the floor.
“What was the date?” he continued to press.
“It was,” but again the pastor seemed reluctant to speak, “June 26th. Eight days before…”
His wife cut him off short, “you said you could find her, so will you?”
“It’s what I do,” he replied simply.
She was angry, but Gloria had the answer that she wanted. With a nod to her husband she consented. Pastor Lynwood moved over to the curio and pulled out an envelope. From that he pulled out two thousand dollars that he passed over to Sage.
As Sage moved to leave, the pastor called out, “how do I get in contact with you?”
“You don’t,” he said back over his shoulder, and then he left the house.
He didn’t like the couple, and he didn’t like this gated community. But somehow the community had come up with enough money to get his attention. How the pastor had swayed the community to use their precious money for his costly services was a mystery, but it wasn’t a mystery he cared about right now. One girl was going to be easy to find, making this his easiest job in years.