DARK POWERS – EXCERPT
A Decorah Security Novel
by Rebecca York
Death or disaster were only seconds away.
Ben Walker leaped from his car, shouting a warning at the slender blond woman crossing the Decorah Security parking lot, oblivious to the battered pickup truck bearing down on her, sun glinting off its windshield.
Dashing into the traffic lane, he snatched her out of the way while the truck rattled past.
The woman he’d pulled to safety clutched his broad shoulders and buried her head against his chest.
While he held her close, he fixed his gaze on the rapidly departing vehicle. It was blue, with no particular distinguishing features except a dent in the left rear bumper. The license plate was smeared with mud. All he could make out was the letter “J” at the beginning.
He kept his arms around the woman, the first female he had reached for in almost a year. The denial of intimacy a punishment for his sins.
She stirred in his embrace.
“You okay?” he asked, hearing the rough quality of his own voice.
“Yes. Sorry. I guess I wasn’t paying attention.”
“Neither was that bozo. You have any idea who it was?”
She stared in the direction where the truck had disappeared. “No. I didn’t even see him.”
“The driver was wearing a baseball cap. That’s all I could tell.”
She made no move to disengage from him, and he liked the feel of her feminine body against his, liked the closeness and the way she put her trust in him.
That thought was followed by the inevitable counterpoint. If she only knew the things he’d done, she would probably leap away—disgusted.
But no more disgusted than he was with himself.
The woman in his arms stirred, snapping his attention back to the present. “Thank you.”
“No problem.” He cleared his throat. “From where I was standing, it looked like that guy was deliberately trying to run you down.”
“I hope not.”
When she finally took a step back, he dropped his arms to his sides.
She looked from him to the building in front of them. “You’re headed for Decorah Security?”
Yeah.” He wondered why she’d questioned him about that. Before he could ask, he realized he’d left the door of his two-year-old Honda wide open. “But I’d better lock my car before I come back and find it missing.”
She nodded and headed inside. He returned to his vehicle, locked the door and followed, hurrying to keep from being late for his morning meeting.
When he walked into the plush conference room, the woman he’d snatched from the path of the speeding truck was sitting at the table with his boss, Frank Decorah, a crusty old ex-Navy SEAL who’d gone into the security business after losing a leg in the service. With him was Teddy Granada, one of their IT guys. He was a large man who often forgot to shave and change his clothes but who did fantastic computer work. If the information was on the Web, he’d find it.
“Ben, I’d like you to meet Sage Arnold. She’s hired us to find her missing sister,” Frank said, then added, “Ben is one of our top agents and the best one for this job.”
He let the praise roll off of him. Of course Frank would claim that.
She gave him an anxious look, probably embarrassed by the incident in the parking lot.
Ben managed to say, “Good to meet you.”
He had studied the case before coming in, but he hadn’t known the woman he’d rescued was their client. She was a hard-working accountant whose sister had gone missing. Frank had taken her case at a reduced rate, as he often did when dealing with distraught relatives of innocent victims. Initially Ben had wanted to turn down the assignment. Then he’d figured that rescuing a woman in pain would be part of his atonement.
“We’ve contacted the authorities in Doncaster,” Frank said as Ben took a seat opposite Sage. “The police chief is certain your sister ran away. Tell us why you think she’s been kidnapped.”
Ben studied the client. In the parking lot he’d only gotten a quick impression of her. Now he took in her shoulder-length ash-blond hair, her wide blue eyes and her delicate features.
She glanced at Frank, then at Ben and Teddy, before fixing her gaze somewhere in the distance.
“My sister, Laurel Baker, and I are from a family you’d call dysfunctional. We don’t have the same name because Mom was married three times. Laurel and I have different fathers, and there was another guy when I was in my teens. Laurel’s eighteen, ten years younger than I am, and I’ve been her role model. One thing I drummed into her was that she’d be stuck in a dead-end life like our mom unless she got a good education. She was working at a restaurant called the Crab Shack in Doncaster part time and going to school at the community college. She didn’t come home from the restaurant after her shift a couple of evenings ago.”
Ben watched her body language. More than concerned or upset, she seemed ill at ease. Was she lying or simply uncomfortable about speaking so frankly about her family?
Frank said gently, “Chief Judd says there was conflict between her and your mom. Could that have made her leave home? What if she’s staying with a friend?”
Sage raised her head and gave Frank a direct look. “If she’s staying with a friend, why would that keep her from going to work?”
“I don’t know.”
The woman dragged in a breath and let it out. “I know something’s happened to Laurel. Nothing had changed in her life. There was always some kind of conflict with Mom, but Laurel knew she had to hang in and get her degree. She likes working with people, and she decided to become an X-ray tech because there are lots of good jobs in that field.”
Frank reached into his pocket and took out the gold eagle coin he always carried. As he began to turn it over in his hand, he said, “But something could have happened. She could have gotten into drugs. Or even gotten pregnant and been afraid to tell your mother.”
“Not Laurel. She’s too smart for that.”
Ben didn’t say he’d thought his own sister, Erin, was too smart to get into the trouble that had killed her, but her story proved that you didn’t always know your siblings as well as you thought. Still, for the moment, he’d have to rely on Sage’s judgment.
“In our initial phone conversation, you mentioned Laurel’s father, Gary Baker. You think he could be involved?” Frank asked.
“Well, after he and my mom broke up, he abducted Laurel.”
“Why?” Ben asked. “And when was that?”
Sage sighed. “Eight years ago. My mom was angry when he didn’t make child support payments on time. She paid him back by not letting him see Laurel. He’s no sweetheart, and he took Laurel away for a long weekend without permission. The authorities gave Laurel back to Mom, of course. But that’s part of what I meant about our family problems.”
“Did he go to jail?”
“He got probation.”
“Your mother was with your dad before she was with Laurel’s father?” Frank asked.
“Yes. Married to him. Like I said, I’m ten years older. They eloped when she was seventeen. That marriage didn’t last very long. I mean, he left her right after I was born.”
“He said I cried too much.”
Frank made a snorting sound. “Nice. When’s the last time you saw him?”
“Never, really. He disappeared a few years ago, and I haven’t made any attempt to get in touch. For all I know, he’s in jail or dead. But it doesn’t matter what he’s doing. He doesn’t have anything to do with my life now.”
Ben listened to the dispassionate way she spoke, thinking that she had compartmentalized her life. But he knew all too well how that worked.
“You’re saying your mother has a rocky reputation with men,” Frank said, trying to dig up more insights into the sister’s character. “Would Laurel have picked up her mother’s habits? Would she go off with some guy she was seeing?”
“No,” Sage said emphatically.
They talked for a half hour longer about Laurel and incidents from the past. When Frank was finally out of questions, Ben jumped in.
“I can pay Laurel’s father a visit in Baltimore and see if she’s there,” he said. “If not, I’ll go down to Doncaster and see what I can turn up.”
The town was on Maryland’s Eastern Shore, separated from the main part of the state by the Chesapeake Bay.
Before he finished speaking, Sage shook her head. “I’m going with you.”
Ben’s gaze shot to her. “It’s better if I handle this on my own.”
“It could be dangerous. That attempted hit and run in the parking lot could be connected.”
“What hit and run?” Frank asked.
“A pickup almost ran her over.”
“I understand someone may not want me poking around this case, but I also know you’ll have a better chance of finding Laurel with me along,” Sage answered.
“Starting with Gary Baker. I know how he’ll react. And if my sister’s not at his house, I can help you in Doncaster. I grew up there. In fact when I was a teenager, my circumstances were a lot like Laurel’s are now. I worked at some of the local restaurants while I was going to school. I know the community. Doncaster’s a tourist town.” She glanced at Frank. “You already said the police chief thinks Laurel ran away. That’s because it’s the best interpretation he can put on it.”
“Meaning what?” Ben asked.
“Meaning that the power structure in Doncaster wants to make sure nothing interferes with the town’s income.”
“You mean the police chief would hush up a crime to keep the tourists coming?”
“If the town fathers wanted him to do it—and he thought he could get away with it.”
“Hard to believe,” Ben muttered.
“You’ll see what I mean when we get there. It’s not like living in the Baltimore-Washington corridor. It’s isolated. Insular. And dependent for its prosperity on people who see it as a charming place to visit and spend money.”
Ben kept his voice hard, trying to sound discouraging. “I’ll have a better chance of finding your sister if I don’t have to babysit you.” It wasn’t what he was really thinking, but he chose that way to express his negativity.
As he’d assumed, her reaction was equally negative. “You won’t have to babysit me,” she snapped.
The next comment she made was addressed to Frank and a surprise to Ben. He’d been trying to get her to back off. Instead she asked, “Are you sure this is the best man for the job?”
Frank kept his voice even in the face of the obvious animosity between client and agent. “Absolutely. He has special skills that will be invaluable.”
Frank began flipping the gold eagle coin again. “That’s information that we only give out on a need-to-know basis.”
“I need to know,” she said.
“I’m sorry,” Frank answered, still playing with the coin. “You’ll have to take my word for it.”
She scraped back her chair and stood. “I guess I came to the wrong security company.”
Ben debated for a moment. It was tempting to let her walk out, and it was also tempting to see her reaction if he shared his secret.
He glanced at Frank who nodded almost imperceptibly. Keeping his voice even, Ben said, “I pick up information from dead bodies.”
“You mean like on CSI? You’re a forensics expert?”
“No. I can . . .” He spread his hands. “Listen in on dead people’s last memories.”
Sage laughed. “You’re kidding, right?”
“It’s not a joke.”
Sage studied him.“What does that mean exactly? Are you claiming to be a medium or something?”
“I’m not claiming anything. As it happens, I died a few years ago, and the emergency room staff brought me back—with a new ability.”
She kept staring at him, probably wondering if they were shitting her.
Ben fought not to say anything he’d regret. He wasn’t going to defend himself. He had a special talent that he’d acquired the hard way, and Frank had thought it would be a useful tool for a Decorah Security agent. Today he thought it would help in finding Laurel Baker.
Her sister didn’t believe he could do it, and right now there was no way to prove it to her.
He let out the breath he’d been holding when she sat back down.
As he wondered why he cared what she thought, she said, “I’ll reserve judgment.”
He shrugged. In the parking lot, when he’d held her in his arms, he’d been attracted to her. That was before he’d experienced a taste of their working relationship.
Or maybe they’d find Laurel at the father’s house, and this would all be over before it started.
Frank pushed back his chair and stood. “Are we set, then?”
“Yes,” Sage and Ben answered at the same time, both of them grudgingly.
Ben turned to Teddy. “See if you can dig up any similar cases in Doncaster.”
“If they left footprints, I’ll find them,” he said.
When they were alone, Sage cleared her throat, and Ben tensed, expecting some caustic remark about his detective skills.
Instead, she surprised him by saying, “I’m sorry. We’ve gotten off on the wrong foot, and it’s my fault.”
“No problem,” he mumbled, thinking of the adage the customer is always right. “You’re under a lot of stress.”
“I’m not usually this uptight. But Laurel is my baby sister, and I’m worried sick about her. It’s all I can think about. That’s how I almost got run over out there.”
She paused for a second and said, “I guess I feel guilty about what’s happened to her.”
“What do you have to be guilty about?”
“I left Doncaster and moved to Baltimore because I wanted to make a break with small-town life. I tried to keep up the connection with Laurel, but that’s hard when you’re a couple of hours away. I mean, we did Skype and e-mailed, but it’s not the same as living in the same house.” She cleared her throat. “It wasn’t just leaving Doncaster. I had to get away from Mom, too. So I understand Mr. Decorah’s questions about her wanting to leave, but I know she wouldn’t just run away.”
“Did you ever lose anyone you loved?” she asked suddenly.
He reared back. “Did Frank mention something to you?”
“No.” Her voice turned anxious. “Did I say the wrong thing again?”
“My sister.” He glanced away. “She took a dangerous job, and I couldn’t save her life.” He knew she was waiting for him to say more, but he wasn’t going to get into anything personal.
He looked back at her. “Let’s start with Gary Baker and hope we find her there.”
Sage followed Ben Walker into the parking lot, wishing they’d gotten off to a better start together. She’d been wound up with her own fears and insecurities, and she’d jumped down his throat. Now she’d have to tread carefully around him, which was too bad because they were going to be stuck with each other for a while if Laurel wasn’t at Gary’s.
On the other hand, he’d shocked her with that claim about his paranormal abilities. She’d never put much stock in mumbo jumbo. But maybe he thought he had something special. He’d said he’d died. She’d like to ask him about that, or did she really want to know? Maybe it was better to keep their relationship as professional as possible—and reserve judgment on his psychic talents until he proved the claim or not.
Pausing in the early summer warmth, she turned her mind to logistics. “I guess I can leave my car here. Let me get my travel bag.”
“You were prepared to go down there?”
His tight nod told her he wasn’t looking forward to riding in the same vehicle with her after the way she’d tried to get him kicked off the case.
This time she came to a dead stop and looked both ways before crossing the parking lot. There was no traffic coming and no pickup truck in sight. Quickly she carried her bag to his Honda and put it in the trunk beside his.
While she adjusted her seat belt, he consulted the material he’d scooped up from the passenger seat, and she studied him covertly.
He was a good-looking guy. Tall and dark with a strong jaw and large hands. Under other circumstances she might have let herself speculate about him, but she was too focused on finding Laurel to think about anything else.
“You know where Gary lives?” she asked.
“I’ve got the address and a GPS.” He punched in the address before pulling out of the parking space.
As they headed down Route 1, Sage cleared her throat. “Can I make a suggestion?”
“Sure,” he answered, not bothering to sound enthusiastic.
“He might not let us in, but if we get inside, I want to look around for signs of Laurel. You can ask him a bunch of questions. I’ll pretend I have to go to the bathroom and do some snooping.”
“Okay,” he answered, and she took his agreement to be a good sign.
“Are there any places he could hide her?” he asked. “Like a secret room in the basement or something?”
“He loves her. He had a bedroom all fixed for her when she was allowed to visit. He wouldn’t put her somewhere uncomfortable.”
“How does she feel about him?”
“She hasn’t seen him in years. My mom kind of turned her against him.”
“So if she acted hostile, he might restrain her?”
Sage thought about that. “I hope not. But he can be violent and impulsive.”
“Great. Would he kidnap Laurel to get back at her mother?”
“After all these years? Not unless something had happened that I don’t know about.” She waited a beat before saying, “Just try not to provoke him.”
From DARK POWERS
by Ruth Glick, writing as Rebecca York,
Publication Date: September 2012
Copyright © 2012 by Ruth Glick.