A novel by Selina Elliot
~Chapter Three ~
It had taken four days to track Arryn to a town called Ely, and he still didn’t have her. He kind of liked that! Nevada, his smile was as easy as his steps. For someone who wasn’t trying to be a ghost, Arryn Lynnwood was doing everything right to stay off the radar. She used cash, worked odd jobs that paid under the table, had no bank account, and no cell phone. In his line of business all of that was an asset. In Arryn’s world, it unfortunately made her a good target for bad people.
When she’d been forced to leave her home, Arryn had nothing but her pack which held a meager lunch packed by her father to ease his conscience. It wouldn’t have taken her far. The gated community ensured that travelers were infrequent around the cloistered town, for gated communities weren’t known for their warm welcomes. An invitation was generally the only way to set foot in or near one. And unless people like him had business inside one, his kind wouldn’t waste the effort. So, Arryn had only her feet. Considering the looks people within the community had been giving him, there was no chance that the community had prepared Arryn for what would meet her outside. Fear would have kept her company. He knew what that was like. At the gates she could have gone straight ahead, or she could have turned to her right. He had sat outside those gates considering the options presented to a frightened girl and reading the highlighted passages in the bible.
Passionate, intuitive, trusting…until the world turned upside down with no warning. He had gone to the right. From there he’d reached out to a contact. With only a week he had to narrow his options quickly. Arryn, like many US citizens now-a-days, hadn’t bothered using her SSN issued by the government. And she didn’t hold a driver’s license or have a bank account. But everyone could be found.
He’d began his search in Nevada. A teen who’d been betrayed by her overly religious father and a cold, calculating bitch of a mother would be drawn to Nevada, even if it were only a subconscious slight. After four days of searching, and one call, his instincts were proven right. Arryn was a creature of habit, following old routes that were familiar to her. It likely had to do with work as much as comfort. It was easier to make use of old acquaintances than it was to create new alliances. He didn’t have all her haunts yet, but he knew enough to know that she’d be making her way through Nevada at this time of year. She was heading south, likely to avoid the winter that was coming in.
His truck looked old and beat up, past its years. Yet he spent a great deal of time both in maintenance and in upgrades. There was little he couldn’t research while on the road; which for him was a necessity since most of his time was spent on the road. He pulled up all the information he could on Arryn’s usual spots. Previously he hadn’t spent time in much of Nevada other than to pass through it.
Ely was a town of almost six thousand; an influx from the surrounding towns that were unable to support or protect their small communities. Larger cities attracted the attention of mobs, cartels, and gangs. But Ely wasn’t a large city and therefore it had remained relatively untouched, other than a few smaller gangs trying to etch something out of nothing. Local authorities seemed to be keeping them in line for the most part. For the past four years Arryn had come through this way in fall. So long as nothing changed this year, she’d be coming through again.
So, Sage had to find out whether Arryn had come through yet, or if she was still on her way. Arryn wasn’t making a lot of money travelling about offering her skills to those willing to trade for a little food or a place to sleep. Arryn’s trade was in hair; styles for food or lodging.
He walked down the street considering the options open to Arryn. There was one standing salon in town, but the chairs in that studio were highly guarded and greatly coveted. Arryn had little hope of snagging one of those chairs without significant startup capital. And so far, Arryn never stuck around any one place all that long.
“Pfft, what homeless person looks that good?” a woman said in conversation to her friend. The bitter conversation moved on with the two women, but Sage had stopped listening.
His eyes moved across the street to a homeless man showcasing a cardboard sign asking for spare change or food. His clothes were dirty, torn, and well worn. His meager possessions were close at hand to keep them from being stolen. He looked tired and weary from a life that offered very few breaks. Though not clean, his hair was well groomed. Sage shook his head, wondering how someone who had nothing found the strength to offer help to another who was unable to give anything in return. Remarkable!
He moved across the street. Kneeling before the homeless man he produced the picture of Arryn and asked, “you seen her?”
“Spare change,” the man asked, his gaze critically looking Sage over.
“Someone gave you that haircut,” he kept the photo up. “Was it this girl?”
“E’ryone in’ressed in ‘er,” the mumbled statement had his full attention.
Eyes narrowed he slowly reached into his jacket. The exhausted eyes watched his movements around the mildly shaking head the homeless man could do nothing about. Pulling his hand out, something silver caught the sun, reflecting it into the man’s eyes which had come alive.
“Who else was interested? Describe them to me,” he insisted.
The man kept his unwavering gaze on Sage’s hand. “Skiny fella, light hair, dead eyes.”
“When was this?”
The man shrugged, “couple days.”
“Anything else?” he pressed.
“Yah, rude like you. Didn’a give nothin’ fer info.” the man glanced at Sage with accusatory eyes. “An’ he hol’in picture like that.”
“Like this one?” Sage lifted it, so the man could see it again.
But the man’s gaze was once again locked on Sage’s right hand. He didn’t need to look at the photo again. He responded with a touch of annoyance, “yah, ‘cep’ on phone.”
“Cell phone,” Sage murmured with dark eyes.
“Wha’ other type phone?” the man had mistakenly thought Sage was asking a question. After swallowing with difficulty, the man gestured at Sage’s hand with his chin, “info fer what ya got. That deal, right?”
“Yah,” Sage confirmed their unspoken agreement. He flipped the granola bar in his right hand so that he could pass it over.
The homeless man snatched it up before Sage could change his mind. He was already tearing into the silver packaging to greedily gobble up the goods.
“Good luck man,” Sage spoke softly as he stood up.
“She sweet girl,” the homeless man stopped him in his tracks. He continued without provocation, tapping his head to make a point, “he ain’t right up here. Tol’ him she walk by but…she sweet girl.”
There was almost a pleading in the man’s voice, asking Sage to fix this. He nodded to the man. He would do his best to do just that. He moved off with no further interaction. Looking about he spotted what he was hoping to see, a camera. Reaching into his other pocket he pulled out a badge as he walked into the building owning the camera.
Flashing the fake badge, he spoke to the man behind the counter at the weapons shop, “that camera hooked up to anything?”
“Marshal?” the man’s eyes narrowed. “I ain’t doin’ nothin’ illegal here.”
“I don’t care,” Sage stated flatly. “I want to see what was out there.”
“Sure,” the man seemed skeptical but was willing to let it slide for now. “Don’t got much storage space. So don’t expect lots.”
“How much?” he leaned his elbow on the counter, his larger frame and fierce gaze pressing down on the smaller man.
“I got two days tops,” he offered, expecting this to be rejected. But that was all Sage needed, so he nodded at the man.
With an irritated sigh the man waved him behind the counter. He brought up the camera feed. Sage pushed the man to the side. He knew how to operate a simple camera feed.
“Sorry to be in your way, Marshal,” he spoke with sarcasm.
Sage sped up the feed to make his way through the day quickly. He had an idea of what he was looking for. Hours were moving by quickly on the screen. People were hurrying across the camera’s view, oblivious or uncaring to its presence. One constant was the homeless man across the street, seeking help from anyone willing to pause. Few did.
Sage stopped the feed and moved it back several frames. Someone had stopped; someone tall and thin with pale hair. The man was kneeling before the homeless man, asking questions. It was several moments with no sign of aggression from the blonde. But what was happening between them was out of view of the camera, and what they said couldn’t be found on this camera. The blonde stood up satisfied. He turned to look up the street giving the camera a profile shot. Sage stopped the feed, his eyes hard and blood boiling.
The front door slammed behind him to mark his departure. Back in his truck, he sped down the street on his way out of town. He clenched the steering wheel with fury burning through him. He’d stake his reputation on knowing who that man in the grainy video was. And two days ago, he had come through here looking for Arryn. There was no doubt that he’d found her. And that meant that bad things were happening right now. Very bad things! At the very best there were only twelve hours left in which Sage had to act. At worst, he may already be too late. This was a thought which locked his square jaw tightly and narrowed his vision.
In his mind he could see maps showing him routes and towns most people hadn’t heard of. He knew Arryn’s abductor wouldn’t head to a populated area. That bastard would seek seclusion now that he had what he’d come for.
“Eureka,” the usual enthusiasm people exhibited for this word was replaced with fury in Sage’s rough voice.
He made a hard left down a forgotten road. Everything on this highway till Salt Wells had been abandoned. Weeds overran the broken road, taking root in the deep crevices of the once maintained U.S. Route 50. There was subtle evidence that someone had been down this road recently. Crushed clumps of weeds and broken stalks of sundried wild grass said that a car had been down this way. By the width of the tires it was a small car; a four-door economy vehicle, dark in color with the body neglected but under the hood would be another matter. The grass hadn’t told him that last part.
He glanced at the gage on his vehicle to calculate his arrival. There was 77 miles between him and Eureka. It was a little more than an hour if he obeyed the long since forgotten speed limit. Sage pushed his truck knowing Arryn didn’t have that kind of time.
Fields of weeds and crops running wild stretched out endlessly on either side of him. Copses of tangled trees stood as small patches of relief from the wind and sun. Life existed here, but it did not flourish. And the fields were only an echo of the barren and desolate towns ahead.
When had she been taken? How much was she enduring? Or had it already been too much? Sage knew the reality…
Seven years ago, he’d been too late to stop Wraith. The aftermath of what that sociopath had done was an image that Sage would never be able to forget. The human body wasn’t meant to take that kind of punishment. And yet victim after victim, Wraith pushed the limits. No one knew why, and there was no reason that would ever justify his actions!
Eureka came into view. The forgotten town’s only encouragement was in leaving it. The weeds and wild grass that filled the fields behind him had made their way here to overtake the town. Homes sported yellowed lawns as tall as his waist. Trees had rooted firmly through any crack in the pavement to be found, of which there were plenty. Broken windows gave a view into homes left as empty as the streets.
When the economy had plummeted yet again, Eureka hadn’t been able to keep standing. At its peak, Eureka had only boasted a population of just over six hundred. Those few hundred had fled when times turned bad. Even while offering a new set of problems, large numbers meant more protection so most of the population had fled to Ely. There had never been serious talk of a gated community. Most likely that had been due to the lack of resources available.
The highway ran straight through town with businesses on either side. There was a post office, an opera house, some small restaurants, a gas station, and what remained of a market. These were not promising stops. Even though there wasn’t a soul about, Sage knew they would have been rejected for lack of privacy. On the next street up there was an old garage next to a hardware store. He pulled off to the side and pulled the keys out of the ignition.
The air outside his car was calm and hot, sucking up any bit of moisture to be found. The weather was unseasonably warm today, but by the evening things would cool off. And there was no promise that tomorrow would hold the same. The pavement underfoot blasted the heat back upwards. His hard gaze moved up and down the buildings, searching for evidence that someone was here. The windows of every building had been smashed; looters looking to stock their reserves before leaving town. The garage was partially burnt. Though at a glance he’d say that the damage was old, indicating that it had happened before everyone left. No attempt at a repair had been made. Around the side of the building revealed that the burn damage had been extensive.
Behind the buildings he saw homes, with the same level of neglect as every other building in this town. A lean-to rested up against the side of the house backing the hardware store. Underneath, protected from the relentless sun, was a pair of song birds and a charcoal grey, four-door economy car.
Wraith would seek familiar surroundings, something to make him comfortable. A home would not do that. Not for a guy who lived out of his car. A guy who enjoyed improvising and getting his hands dirty. He turned back to the hardware store. The two-story building’s white façade had fallen off or had faded. The back door was hanging on by a single hinge. He moved around the door carefully. Inside broken shelving and dust met him. Up here there was too much light. Light offered hope, and so Sage knew he would not find them here. He moved to the staircase leading to a darkened basement. He hugged the inside wall as he moved slowly down the decrepit and narrow stairwell.
As he neared the foot of the steps there was a flash of light. It was bright with no shadows. Wraith was facing the direction of the stairwell. So, he waited. There was a soft whimper just before another flash. A pause. Then Sage heard a subtle, but distinct noise. The camera had been set down on a wooden surface. After another pause, he heard something crackle. The sound of electricity was distinct. He knew the feel of voltage running through the body. The scream was muffled. A body convulsed causing a metal chair to scrape over the concrete floor. Unintelligible words pleaded. There was another pause.
Sage moved; smooth and confident he came around the corner. His large shoulders bunched, his chest up, his head down, and fists raised. Anger radiated from every pore. The man known only as Wraith turned around in time to see Sage’s bulky form closing in. Sage swung tight and hard, hitting Wraith on the jaw. Wraith dropped the battery charged, bare-wired electrical cords. They hit the ground, sparking uselessly. Stepping over them he delivered a second hit to Wraith’s exposed side.
Wraith retaliated with a tight elbow. He used his wiry body to extract the maximum amount of force into the backswing. Sage deflected the momentum with a hard strike of his left palm, forcing Wraith’s body to keep spinning him backwards. He hit Wraith with his left elbow, showing him how that hit should be dealt. He followed quickly with a right uppercut to break the ribs. The crack was loud. The air was expelled from Wraith’s lungs. Wraith made to grab for the knife sitting next to the camera. Sage wrenched the left arm around and down, forcing Wraith into a forward tumble to land on his back. The table fell over spilling all the items onto the ground. Wraith searched for something to even his odds. He made a pathetic attempt to reach for the electrical cords. Sage slammed his left boot onto the forearm causing it to break. Wraith’s cursing held a mixture of pain and anger. Left foot holding Wraith to the floor, he kicked with his right boot forcing Wraith’s head violently to the far side. A second, forced the jaw up and the head back breaking Wraith’s neck.
This was their first face to face encounter. He glared hard at the lifeless body. Wraith had more than this coming. Wraith’s MO had always been sloppy and disgustingly cruel. Someone should have done this a long time ago. He looked over at Arryn. Her hazel eyes were transfixed upon Wraith’s now motionless form. She was slipping into shock.
He took in the sight of the injuries she’d sustained. Her jeans had been cut around her toned legs to make ragged shorts. Blood stained the edges where the knife blade had intentionally slipped. Bruises of varying shades marred her arms and legs, allowing very little of her tanned skin to show. Burn marks made from the electrical cords and heated iron rods mingled with the heavy bruising.
Arryn was tethered at the wrists and legs to the chair. A gag kept her from speaking beyond a muffle. A braided, nylon rope was taught around her neck. It ran up into the wooden rafters. Purple bruising around the rope showed that Wraith had strung her up several times, only to release and revive her. Her red hair was tangled, making it the same length as his. Water dripped from the ends touching her shoulders. The older bruise on her left cheek revealed how Wraith had subdued her initially.
He looked to the table once holding the camera and saw a bottle of water at the feet. Wraith had been keeping her alive. At least until he’d had the full forty-eight hours with her. Not everyone made it that long.
Seven years ago, Wraith’s victim did not survive that long. The outpouring of rage that dictated Wraith’s actions after the death was shocking! Still, seeing the trauma Arryn had sustained made him question who’d had it worse. Shaking, her gaze shifted just the slightest.
At his feet there was an album next to the battery which Wraith had used to electrocute Arryn. Pictures littered the floor. The knife had slid just out of reach and the small table had come to a stop off to the side. He picked up the album searching for the cell he’d seen. It was lying on its face on the ground. The unforgiving cement floor had taken its victim. The face of the cell was cracked beyond repair or use. Sage pressed the power button, but nothing happened.
“Shit,” he muttered. So much for the easy answer!
He knelt down before Arryn, pushing his shoulder length, brown hair out of his face with both hands.
“You with me?” he softly asked, needing her to look at him rather than at Wraith. She was going into shock, and if he couldn’t pull her out now there was a chance that he’d never be able to.
He didn’t touch her, knowing that would only push her further over the edge right now. He watched her expression. It was slow in coming but Arryn’s haunted hazel eyes eventually moved to meet his gaze. She didn’t answer him, but the eye contact was enough for now.
“Let’s get you out of here,” he said softly. There was the slightest, nearly imperceptible nod of her head to give consent. As he freed her mouth of the gag he offered, “name’s Sage Whitacre.”
He pulled out his pocket knife. Her eyes flinched. There was nothing he could say to ease her fear. So, he moved quickly to cut her free, to show her what his words wouldn’t be able to convey. He began with the rope around her neck. Blood, sweat, water, and friction made loosening it impossible, so he carefully cut her free. She sighed uneasily as the rope fell to the floor. He cut the ties at her legs first and then the ones at her hands. When she was free, she fell awkwardly forward, desperately needing to be out of the chair. With one hand he held her steady.
“Catch your breath first,” he told her. “He can’t get up anymore. He’s dead.”
Her fingers curled only the slightest bit into the beginning of small fists. He took that, and her trembling, as a positive sign. Both showed that she was processing events. Feeling that she was able to sit on her own, he stepped away. Her eyes followed him as he moved to pick up the album and fallen pictures. It must seem odd, but she said not a word.
“You ready?” he cautioned as he knelt before her once again.
Eye contact was her answer. Spending the last six years on her own should have taught her that she could only rely on herself. That’s what solitude had taught him, and it had been a damned good lesson to learn early on. Yet, Arryn didn’t try to stand on her own. It seemed that she knew her limitations in this moment and she merely accepted them. Her right hand reached out to him. Cradling her in his arms, Sage carefully lifted her off the chair. Her stomach and legs were wet with a mixture of water, bile, and urine. He held her close, feeling compelled to shield her from what she’d been through.
Arryn was a small girl; only five-three and a hundred and twenty pounds. She seemed fragile, but he reminded himself that she wasn’t as meek as this moment suggested. Though feeling her trembling as she tried not to lean into his chest yet too weak even to stand on her own, made it hard to remember that.
He pulled out a pack of matches from his jeans pocket. This he handed to her. “Light it up,” he nodded his head at the room. She hesitated a moment but then, with shaking hands, pulled a match free. It lit up on the second attempt. In a miniature show of fireworks, the entire book lit up as she held the lit match to it. The discarded dusty fabric was quickly lost. The building was old; a minimum of eighty years but likely more, and the basement was filled with forgotten items packed away in dry cardboard boxes. The fabric lit up without any effort and carried the flame towards the boxes. Sage waited around only long enough to ensure that the flame wouldn’t die out. Arryn’s eyes looked past his shoulder to Wraith’s lifeless body until the wall hid it.
The orange glow behind them grew stronger as he took them up. The basement had been illuminated by a single, dim flashlight Wraith had brought along. Accustomed to the pale lighting, Arryn was forced to close her eyes to shield them from the evening sun as they emerged from the hardware store.
He looked up and down the street, ensuring they were alone. Evening was upon them and night wasn’t far off. Arryn’s breathing had shifted. Concerned that the electrical volts had taken their toll on her heart, he glanced sharply down at her. But it wasn’t a health issue that was causing this breathing arrhythmia. Arryn had spotted Wraith’s car and the reaction to it was understandable. It was also a problem.
Sage had thought to take her out of this town tonight, as soon as possible. He’d hoped that distance would help. His truck was up the street. As he moved towards it, he gave her the option.
“This town will go up in flames. We can try to stay until it does, or we can drive away.”
They were next to his truck, and she was eyeing it up. Her right hand was at his collarbone, trembling slightly. She nodded. Since her eyes were on the truck, he assumed it meant she was okay with running. Good thing because the building behind them was starting to leak smoke. They may not get the chance to stay here, even if she didn’t want to get in his truck.
He moved to the passenger side and opened the door. It was a beast of a truck; pieced together over the years from other vehicles and spare parts. It was functional and deceptive. It didn’t look like much, but it worked damned well and came fully equipped.
With care, he set Arryn on the seat. She had not taken her eyes off of Wraith’s car. His hand on her dirty knee slowly drew her gaze to him, “I’m gonna have a look, and then we’ll leave. Okay?”
She nodded. It was silent, but it was a response. And he would take that. Wraith’s car was locked; which was rather surprising. The man that was a danger to everyone locked his car doors. Windows broke easily when you knew the right spot to hit.
The man had lived in this car for some time. The entire back of the car was filled with articles of everyday living. From toiletries in a plastic bag to clothing scattered about, what Wraith needed was here. Unorganized but here. He got into the driver’s seat, looking at the world from Wraith’s chosen vantage point. As someone who lived most of his adult life from the driver’s seat of his truck, Sage understood what it took to live like this. It wasn’t glamorous, it was exhausting! But he wouldn’t trade his life for anyone else’s. He’d made an art form of living from his vehicle.
His truck had minimal space and zero clutter. That was because he had resources all over the continent. With his eyes roaming the car, he searched it, wondering how Wraith made it work. His range of victims had been diverse, and his target area was large, making him a hard killer to understand or to track. There had never been a visible pattern. He hadn’t bragged about his killings. He hadn’t been in competition with anyone. He had been reclusive, surfacing only long enough to find another job.
With a sigh he flipped the glove compartment closed. Other than what could be classified as necessary for the job, there was nothing of Wraith in this car. The items strewn about the car were to give it a look of someone out on the road. Likely it gave him the image he wanted for the purpose of abducting people. But there wasn’t a single piece of identification here. Wraith wasn’t really here in this car. It was just another tool for what he did.
He glanced once more behind him. A worn, plaid bag rested among Wraith’s belongings. It was the one item that subtly was the odd item out. He reached behind the seat to retrieve it. Inside the bag he found a few articles of clothing, some tools for styling hair, and a few personal items. That was it. No food, no money, and no I.D. There wasn’t even a trinket or some item of sentimental value.
He shouldered the bag as he got out of the car. It would probably help Arryn to have her things returned. But what he didn’t find among the disaster within this car, was a pair of shoes that belonged to Arryn. To help prevent her from getting away, Wraith must have thrown the shoes out after abducting her.
Arryn was watching his every move. Her gaze was haunted and pinched in pain. A mixture of strong emotions followed that bag to the floor at her feet.
“Ready to go?” Being kind and considerate along with gentle was not something he was comfortable with. He was sure it came out far gruffer than he intended.
The tears that slipped from her eyes made him think he had failed miserably. But then, she pulled her right hand from her side. Blood coated the fingers. Something much more serious was going on.
“Can I look?” he would not push forward until she was ready.
It took a moment, but she did nod. He lifted the shirt up carefully. A large, deep wound ran over her torso. The top started just behind her right armpit, light at first but quickly moving deeply through the flesh and muscle as it cut across her side, above her hip. There was a rough and dirty job of stitching the gash together.
This cut had not been intentional. Either it had happened while Wraith carried Arryn, or her body had convulsed while he began his torture. Regardless, it had happened early into the abduction and it should have cost Arryn her life. Wraith had hastily stitched the wound together in the hopes of keeping her alive for the time being.
It was trying to heal but the dirty thread and the severity of the cut prevented that from happening. If it wasn’t properly cleaned and treated, the infection would kill her. And he was short on supplies. From behind her, he pulled out a clean cloth. This he had her hold against her side.
“We’ll take care of it. You’ll be okay.” His fingers pushed a lock of matted hair away from her eye. It fell back into place.
As the door shut, she pulled the seatbelt across her body. Normal actions of a girl who obeyed the law. It was a good sign, he hoped. He moved around to claim the driver’s seat. Arryn needed a hell of a lot more than he alone could provide. Where did he take her? Both of them had eyes on Wraith’s car as they drove past it. In that moment, it came to him where they needed to go. But, it was a long drive that she may not make. That cut was bad.
They drove out of town. Speed limits and signs were completely ignored, but he kept to roads. Off roading was bumpy, and that was pain Arryn couldn’t handle. He looked over at her; he wouldn’t make her suffer anything that wasn’t necessary to make her better.
She was still staring out at the side mirror, taking in the town that was now behind them. She’d probably be staring out the back window, if she could have handled the strain.
“Hey,” he softly.
She gave a mild start as she was pulled from the thoughts and memories that caused her to cry. She blinked those tears away, then looked at him.
Expressing concern did not came naturally to him. But he understood most people. He held out his hand. A heartbeat later, Arryn placed her hand in his. She leaned back in the seat. Her eyes were on him now. Slowly, she brought up the saddest half smile that broke his heart. She pulled out that smile for his benefit. It was a far cry from the photo though where life had been filled with promise and hope. Today, she waited for the pain she knew filled the world.
The fear of that pain would keep her awake. But the body and the mind had limits. Arryn succumbed to them before the next hour came. They still held hands and her face was turned towards him. She had tried to keep him in sight as she drifted off against her will. It would not help. The nightmares would still find their mark. They always did.
With worry, his gaze shifted back to her. The dreams had come quickly. He would let her sleep for as long as the dreams would allow, for she needed it. But, when the dreams turned to nightmares, he would wake her. They were along an old road with little to offer. If she could sleep long enough, they could make it someplace where Arryn could recover. His eyes took in the sight of the cloth he’d given her earlier. He tapped his fingers on the wheel as he glared out at the night. She was still losing blood. The stitches Wraith had given her were sloppy and filthy. The blood was washing away the dirt, but the infection would only grow.
She cried out softly in her sleep. Her arm twitched. Tears fell. They weren’t far enough.
“Dammit,” he muttered, angry at the situation.
Arryn was supposed to be an easy mark. Simply find and report. Easy money. The moment Wraith had muddied the waters, he knew that was no longer the case. And now…
Her head was moving; shaking negation was the impression he got. The tears were back, and she cried mournfully. Her hands tried to push something away.
“Hey,” he called out, not wanting to touch her. But she did not wake.
“Please,” her voice cracked. Her head rolled.
“Come on,” he broke down and touched her shoulder. “Wake up.”
Her eyes flew open! Fear had them dancing around as she looked for the nightmare. Her breath was short, and her heart was pounding. She pushed at him, for he was the only one close. She wanted to scream, but the fear fought against her.
“Arryn,” he kept calm, “it’s just me. You’re safe.”
Then she saw him and not Wraith. She was confused. Common sense argued against this for she didn’t know him. But then, her shoulders fell, speaking of several emotions. He reached over to undo her seatbelt.
“Come here,” he invited. He was walking a dangerous line and knew it. Yet, he didn’t stop.
There was very little hesitation. Arryn scooted across the seat. He put his arm across her shoulders.
“You’re safe,” he repeated. His words hit a note in her for she folded into him, the trembling worsening. Tears fell onto his shirt. He couldn’t tell her that it was alright, for it wasn’t. She was safe now, but she had been through something horrific. So, he only held her.
For several miles they drove in silence with Arryn nestled into his side, and his arm remaining around her shoulders. The trembling had subsided some yet hadn’t completely gone away. And sleep was not possible for her right now. She would shift, every now and then to relieve the pressure on her side. Other than that, she was silent.
Which would have been Sage’s preference, if not for the fact that it was concerning in her. Had Arryn’s nomad life taught her to be comfortable with silence? Contradictory to her chosen profession. He knew stylists to be chatty because it was a part of their profession. Was Arryn the exception or the norm? Was it what Wraith had done that kept her silent now?
The voice was soft and distant. She may not have been asking him.
“There’s no good answer to that,” he held her a little closer.
He saw her fingers running lightly over her bare knee. Her voice was stronger than her appearance suggested, “why did you help me?”
He gave the answer some thought for the right answer was the job. The needed answer was emotional. Neither sat well with him. “I needed to.”
“Why?” she pressed softly.
It should have annoyed him. He didn’t like people knowing about his personal life. People had no business in it! And yet, Arryn’s was a special case. How could he blame her for wanting to know why Sage had shown up now? He sure as hell would have be asking that question. So, he could not be mad.
“Because if I’d stopped him seven years ago, this wouldn’t have happened,” he told her. It lacked, as far as explanations went. It was an even worse apology.
“Was it family?”
“What?” he was guarded.
She dared to ask, “was it someone you loved? Is that why you tried to stop him before?”
“No.” The answer was short and meant to be final. End of the discussion.
“What happened?” she softly pried.
An annoyed grin surfaced. Against better judgement, he let her in, “I’d been hired to bring someone’s loved one home. Just didn’t think I’d be bringing back a body bag.”
She was nicer than he deserved, “I’m sorry.”
“Nothing for you to feel bad about,” he held her close.
She leaned her head on him with her arm over his stomach. Was she offering understanding or support? Had she heard the unspoken anger he had at himself for failing seven years ago? A failure was simply that, and everyone had them. No career was spotless. And yet, those excuses did not wash away his guilt. He continued to hold her.
“Who is he?” she needed to know. But what she sought was to understand why she’d been taken, and why he’d done the things that he’d done.
There simply was no good reasoning. And nothing would ever take away the horror of it.
“His name was Wraith,” Sage told her, putting a soft emphasis on the past tense term. “He was someone who killed for the fun of it. He didn’t necessarily need a reason.”
“Fun,” she tensely breathed the word. Then she thought to ask, “why do you know him? Are you like him?”
Oddly she was not pulling away. Her hand and arm laying on his stomach kept them physically connected.
“Not anything like,” he assured with distaste. “I’m a retrievalist; I find things.”
“Or people,” she thought that through slowly. “So, he was hired to kill me?”
There was the briefest pause before Sage responded, “did you notice the tattoos on his arms?”
Uncertain where his comment would lead, she nodded, “the thorns with the rose petals falling through them.”
“Right,” he nodded. “The thorns were people he’s killed because he was hired to. The rose petals were kills for fun.”
She seemed to blanch at the thought, “but there were so many!”
“Far too many,” he replied.
She questioned, “there were blank spots.”
“My guess, places for future kills,” Sage gave his opinion.
She shook her head, “what would happen if he filled them all in?”
“We won’t ever know,” it was the honest reply. “He might have stopped. But he might have just moved to other parts of his body.”
It was probably the latter. He doubted someone like Wraith, who derived some sort of sick pleasure when torturing others, would have stopped after a certain number. But really, not much was actually known about Wraith. It’s part of what made the son-of-a-bitch so damned hard to find.
Her voice was barely a whisper, “he kept calling me thin piggy. It made him mad.”
Sometimes, there was no sense to be made. And sometimes, words just needed to be said for the sake of saying them. She shifted to ease the tension on her side. A gasp slipped out.
“Is it still bleeding?” he asked.
She nodded, “yah, the pain’s getting worse.”
And it would continue to do that until they stopped to take care of it. He slowed the truck and moved across the field. “Let’s get you cleaned up and have some food.”
Across the field on an adjacent, previously more travelled road, there was a gas station, a restaurant, and a small motel all connected. Clearly been abandoned some time ago. Arryn’s gaze slowly moved over the face of each section. Windows were cracked, broken, or altogether gone. The paint had long since faded away leaving only the depressing grayish-brown wood exposed.
They pulled up and she struggled to sit upright to allow him out. When he was outside the truck, he softly reiterated, “you’re safe.”
Nodding tremulously for his benefit, she reached out for his hand and his help. Maybe her mind believed that she was safe, but her legs needed a little more convincing. They were trembling so much he wondered if she’d be able to stand. He lifted her out of the truck to place her lightly on the rocky ground. He maintained his hold until he was certain that she wouldn’t fall.
They walked up to the motel portion; a single story, decaying structure that Arryn was concerned about, though there wasn’t a need to be. It was sound and would hold up for many more years; barring any major disaster. Each room was its own separate unit with the main office right next to the gas station. Outside the office there was a weathered, wooden bench on the porch. The decorative railing had long since fallen, so the two stepped onto the single step porch without help. He guided her to have a seat.
“I’ll see if there’s running water. Stay here,” he ordered as she gingerly adjusted her position.
He pulled the gun from his back and flipped off the safety. He tried not to notice how pale she had become since stopping here. He knew she was comparing her imprisonment to this run-down dump, but it wasn’t the same. He wasn’t the same as Wraith. It bothered him that she would compare the two of them, even though it made sense why she would.
He moved around the motel, silently moving from room to room. After sweeping the last, he moved outside once more. In the back, he found an old truck stripped bare of any parts. The bottom half of the rusted frame was lost within the tall grass and weeds. He slipped under a window of the motel to avoid being seen, and then moved over to the gas station.
Confident that they were alone he moved back to the motel. Doing a search of the rooms had given him the opportunity to pick the right room. Gun was holstered as he walked in. The room was far from clean, but some dust and spider webs were hardly the worst he’d slept in. Still, after what she’d been through, he wasn’t about to make Arryn deal with it. He flipped the mattress, sending up a cloud of dust. The other side of the mattress wasn’t in great shape, but it was cleaner. He moved into the bathroom and prayed he’d find water. There was dust and dirt everywhere, but the fixtures were still in good shape and the bathtub was solid. He turned the tap on the sink and heard a gurgle followed by several bangs. But then water sputtered out, dark at first yet soon clearing up. Satisfied, he turned to get back to Arryn.
He claimed a seat next to her. But it was Arryn that spoke first, “did the water give you any trouble?”
“Excuse me?” he questioned, for there was the faintest beginnings of a smile that intoned a joke. She glanced through him towards his lower back where his gun rested. His grin grew, “it’s cooperating for now. You ready for this?”
Slowly, she shook her head. It was an honest reply. She was struggling to find words. Her eyes and voice pleaded for help, “I don’t remember him doing this.” The truth was there would be plenty Arryn wouldn’t remember about what Wraith had done to her. He hoped she’d never remember.
“Let’s clean it up,” he offered his hand.
They moved inside one of the rooms. She watched as he prepped the bathroom and ran the water clear a second time. He placed his tools on the counter, and she took a seat on the edge of the tub. He’d done this for himself before. Sadly, that meant that he knew how much pain there was going to be. And doing it to himself had been a hell of a lot easier than it was going to be now.
He knelt before her, “this is going to hurt a lot.”
He could not lie to her because it was important that she stick it out. She nodded, and he knew that she’d experienced worse. Problem was, she’d experienced worse just today. She was not ready to endure this.
To help, he walked her through the steps, “I have to cut out these stitches. Then wash out the infection.”
With tears in her eyes she nodded once again, “then more stitches.”
“I’m sorry,” he grimaced, placing his hand on her knee.
She nodded acceptance of his words and maybe of his remorse, “thank you.” She was thanking him for explaining as much as she likely was thanking him for his help. He got to work.
Cutting away the stitches was really the easiest part. It was thick thread, pulled taught with the anger Wraith had over this near early death. The skin pulled apart with every stitch that was severed. And that was where the pain began in force. The skin was raw and sensitive. The infection was angry! Tears fell from her eyes as she leaned away. It was too much to ask of her to endure this.
But she nodded at him to keep going. He pulled the thick stitches out, letting them fall into the garbage can. The easy part was over. And after several breaths from her, he moved onto the next. He pulled down the old shower head and turned the water on, letting the air sputter out.
Before a single drop was close to her, he explained, “it’s cold and it’ll hurt. But not as bad as what’s coming up.”
Fear and uncertainty were in her eyes. She closed them, which pushed out more tears. She had her hands over her mouth and nose. When she was ready, she leaned across the tub, exposing her wound so that he could properly wash it out. With one hand on her shoulder, he steadied her for the cold shock. Water ran over her skin close to her hip, just below the wound. She flinched at the temperature. Slowly he moved the showerhead up. She gasped as the water hit the open wound.
Visibly she trembled, and he saw her hands clenched in pain. But the cold water, he hoped, would help numb the pain both present now and what was soon to come. The dirt began to wash away revealing the truth, which wasn’t as bad as he’d first feared. The cut, along the edges, was shallower than it appeared. There was a three-inch section that would require stitches, and yet the majority would be fine with simple bandages. That was certainly the good news.
However, the bad news remained. The infection was bad, and the wound was angry with it. Piercing the skin with a thread and needle would be an amplified pain. She needed a medical numbing agent. But he’d run out some time ago after his last bullet hole. Supplies like that were expensive and a pain in the ass to come by. Never again would he make the mistake of not taking the time to get them.
He lowered the showerhead, having her hold it while it still ran. The blood was flowing heavier now that he’d washed away the dirt and scabs. She sat up, hoping to take a look. And likely hoping that it was over now. He shook his head to let her know that they still had more to do. She bit her bottom lip. When she was ready, she nodded at him.
He warned her just before applying the antiseptic spray. It wasn’t enough, but it was better than nothing. Unfortunately, it burned like hell! The showerhead shook in her tight grasp as she gritted her teeth, hoping to bear through the pain. He took the showerhead back to help rinse away the blood that flowed down her side. With his right hand, he held hers.
She sniffled before saying, “I’m sorry.”
“You’re doing good,” he assured her.
“Is there much more?” she was trying to keep it together.
He was aware he was asking a lot of her, “you need some stitches.”
She mouthed a ‘wow’ as she tried to find her voice and the strength to keep on enduring this pain. She nodded, and yet it was another moment before her voice returned shaky and tense, “okay, let’s do this.”
She was tougher than most people! And he’d have given her any opportunity to avoid this if he could. Sadly, the wound was still bleeding. It was going to need the stitches in order for it to heal. Cauterizing it would also be of help. But she had a dozen burn marks on her. He wouldn’t force another one on her. The stitches were going to have to do.
He got the thread and needle, and he walked her through each step before he did it. Arryn was remarkable! She bore the pain, stopping only for short moments to catch an elusive breath. He used the last of the spray as he worked, doing what he could to keep the infection at bay. He finished up, satisfied that at least the worst of the wound was closed to the air. He would complete the rest later with bandaging.
“Okay, the worst is over,” he assured her.
She breathed a shaky sigh of relief. She was leaning over the tub with rigid arms holding her up. She pushed her trembling right hand over her matted hair. Sidelong she glanced at him, grimacing through the pain, “any chance you can make coffee?”
“It’ll take me a bit,” he softly told her. But he was worried about her mental state, which made him hesitant to leave. “I don’t have to go.”
She tried to pull up a smile to ease his concern. She failed miserably, “I’m gonna wash up and get changed.”
“Okay,” he nodded, still feeling a touch reluctant to leave. But he did because she needed to have some time alone.
“Sage,” she touched his hand as he got up to leave. He looked at her and she said, “thank you.”
There was sincerity and meaning within that thanks that gave him the assurance he needed. She was going to be alright for at least a little bit. And he wouldn’t be gone long enough for her to have to deal with more than bathing. He nodded, their hands holding. Then slowly he left the room.