Find Chapter Thirteen here.
The following morning, Slate was up with the sunrise. He hadn’t slept much, and he could feel adrenaline surging, preparing him for another trip to the Crowder place and a thorough search of the area for any clues. But even though he wanted to take off immediately, common sense told him that, at this hour, anyone at the house would still be asleep, and he wouldn’t be able to get a reading on what they were doing there. So he sat on the deck drinking coffee and trying not to think about Vanessa and Link.
But he couldn’t focus. The one thought that kept coming back to his mind was that Vanessa would be leaving soon, and he’d never see her again. That truth caused a raw kind of pain in his gut, but he knew there was something about that sense of loss that was deeper than just losing a woman he wanted. He’d known a lot of women – both good and bad – but he’d never known anyone else like her. He was sexually attracted to – that was a given – but there was a part of him she had touched that had never been touched before. He couldn’t have explained it if his life had depended on it, but, somehow, he knew it was connected with her spirituality. The woman had something – something so strong and powerful and good – that it ruled everything about her, gave her courage, and brought her right about even when she was sorely tempted to take a wrong path.
The truth was that a part of him wanted what she had. He gazed off into the horizon now, trying to recall the trip they’d made to the island and the conversation about God. Her words came back to him clearly, and that surprised him, because he thought he’d taken them with just a grain of salt at the time. He remembered her reading scripture that talked about a man’s sin being forgiven and his being surrounded by mercy. And he remembered her explanation:
“Ultimately, that’s what it’s all about, Slate. That’s all that stands between us and a beautiful relationship with the God who created us and loves us. We need to recognize that we’re sinners worthy of death and separation from God … and that we can’t make ourselves clean enough to live with a holy God. Then we just need to accept that Jesus Christ came to pay for our sin and provide the forgiveness by shedding His blood and dying in our place. When we do that, God can cleanse away our sin with Jesus’ blood and take us back into His own family for eternity.”
“I wonder …” he spoke out loud now, his thoughts absorbed in Vanessa’s words from that day. He closed his eyes and let out a deep sigh. Then he looked up into the endless blue of the morning sky and took a chance – probably the biggest chance he remembered taking in his whole life. He cleared his throat. “Uh … God … Jesus … I don’t know anything about religion. Sure, I had those few Sunday school classes back in the day … but … well … You know … I didn’t really pay a lot of attention. I remember some of the stories, but they never seemed like anything more than that. But … now … for the first time in my life I’ve met a real flesh and blood person who says she knows You personally. And I can see that there’s something – something – real about what she has.”
He cleared his throat again. “And she said – and those Bible passages she read said – that if I would just admit that I’m a sinner and can’t make myself good enough to hang out with the likes of You that You could – and would – forgive me and make me different.” He paused for a long moment and then let out another sigh.
“The truth is … I don’t know if I really believe that or not. But … if there’s a chance … just a chance … that I could have what Vanessa has.” He stopped. “Hell … that’s a ridiculous idea. I could never be as good as she is, no matter how hard I tried.” But at those words, he suddenly became aware that something deep inside was pulling on him not to give up, but to go on and try what the verses of scripture had described. So he started again. “Well, God … I mean Jesus … if there’s any chance at all that You’re really who Vanessa says You are and that You’d like to make me one of Your followers … then I guess what I’m saying is … take me. I’m no good as I am, so that must mean I meet the definition of a sinner. So if You can change me and make me something that pleases You … and make something better out of my life … then go ahead and have at it.”
Immediately, Slate felt such a sense of comfort and serenity that it was almost tangible. And within seconds he became aware of a presence right there with him on the deck of his home. He didn’t see anyone or anything out of the ordinary, but he knew with every fiber of his being that someone else – someone beneficent and kind and supportive – was with him. “Wow,” was all he could say. In fact, he didn’t want to say anything at all. He just sat there.
The experience lasted for close to half an hour, and then, gradually, he felt that he was alone again – only not in the since he had been before he’d prayed. There was a strength and a definite serenity that had been missing before. He didn’t know what to think for sure, but he was convinced that something definite was changed in him. Time would tell probably. He hoped it wasn’t his imagination, but he felt confident that the experience had been real. After he got back from Crowder’s place – if he didn’t find anything pressing him into other action – he’d dig out an old Bible he knew was packed away in a closet and read those passages Vanessa had read to him on the picnic.
At 8:00 – just about the same time Slate was making his first effort at prayer – Vanessa tapped on Lincoln’s door. “Link, are you up? Can I come in?” Link opened the door and stepped back for her to enter.
“Morning, Nessa,” he said. “Sure; come on in.” His hair was still wet from the shower, and he hadn’t put on a shirt yet. Vanessa sucked in her breath at the sight of him, realizing again how easily she responded to him physically, and wondering even more how she could have reacted to Slate the way she had two nights ago. But with Link, what she felt wasn’t merely sexual. As she looked into his eyes this morning, she knew she loved him with every fiber of her being. He was truly her soul mate, and she’d be the biggest fool in the world to ever risk losing him. Before he could turn away from her she moved forward and threw her arms around him.
“I’m so sorry about last night, Link. I can’t explain how much the pressure of this whole experience has taken a toll on my normal thinking and reacting, but there’s one thing I know for sure, and its that I love you with all my heart and soul. And I’m so thankful you’re finally here that I can’t even find words to tell you.”
Lincoln had naturally put his arms around her she spoke, and he searched her eyes earnestly to find what he needed to know. He believed Vanessa meant the words she spoke to him, but he needed to see that love reflected in her eyes the way he had the months before she’d made this trip and gotten connected with Slate.
He breathed a quiet sigh of relief as he realized the love was still shining in her eyes. He closed his own eyes momentarily and then looked into hers again, whispering, “I’m sorry too, Darling. I acted like a jealous fool, but I guess I might as well admit that I am a jealous fool where you’re concerned.”
“Oh, Sweetheart, there’s no need,” she said, wrapping her arms tighter around his neck and reaching up to kiss his lips, her own lips urgent and eager. Link responded immediately, pulling her closer and groaning softly as he deepened the kiss. For several minutes, they were so caught up in the need to express their love for one another that they didn’t even try to talk. Finally, gradually, they pulled apart and Link realized he hadn’t completely finished dressing. He chuckled. “I was just about to pick out a shirt when you knocked, and … well … as you know … I got sidetracked.”
Vanessa grinned and ran her hand over his chest and shoulders, slowly and thoughtfully. “I didn’t mind at all,” she said, and the spark in her eyes told him she felt everything he was feeling physically. He cleared his throat.
“Well, let me find a shirt, and we’ll go eat some breakfast, and you can fill me in on everything you know about Ken.”
“Fine. I’ll step next door and get my purse and be right back.”
Once in Lincoln’s car, Vanessa directed him to the Koffee Korner. As they walked in, Hally gave them a thoughtful look, but didn’t say anything. In a few minutes she came to take their orders. Vanessa could see that she was curious about the new man and what he was doing with the woman who’d been coming in with Slate for over a week. Hally addressed Link first. “Well, you’re new around here. I’d definitely have remembered seeing you before,” she said with a wink. Link was surprised, but being the gentlemen he was, he answered quietly. “Yes, I’ve just arrived. We’d like some coffee please while we’re looking at the menu.”
“Sure thing. Comin’ right up,” she said and gave Vanessa another curious look as she left to get the drinks.
While they ate, Vanessa wanted a report on Margie and the baby before they talked about Ken. Lincoln had been thoughtful enough to snap a few pictures before leaving the hospital, and they did more to help Vanessa to feel normal and on solid ground once again that anything else could have. “She’s such a beautiful baby, and looks perfect even though she is two weeks early,” she said.
“Yes,” Link answered, grinning. “The doctor says she is perfect. It’s an answer to prayer for sure.” He slipped his phone back into his pocket and reached out to put one hand over Vanessa’s where it lay on the table. “Now, tell me every detail of what you know about Ken.
She filled him in on the few facts she’d learned since their last phone conversation, and finished with her decision to bring her trip to a halt and go back home.
“Oh, Honey, that’s what I hoped you say,” Lincoln answered, gripping her hand even tighter. “You know I’m not against your wanting to do all you can to find your brother, but this whole thing sounds serious enough that I think the authorities need to be the ones calling the shots and making all the moves. But I would like to talk to the sheriff and see if he’s considered that fact that maybe he needs to call in some state or even federal help. From what you’ve told me, there could be evidence of a possible kidnapping here, and that should open the door to some federal help with the investigation.”
“Oh, Link, I hope you’re wrong about that, but Slate – ” She stopped and caught her breath, looking at him questioningly.
He sighed. “Go ahead. I know he’s been trying to help, and I know … well … let’s just say that I know you’ve grown close to him.” Vanessa started to shake her head, but he held up his hand to stop her. “Vanessa, I’m not blind. I’m a man in love, and I could tell even on the phone that the two of you were getting close and that you were different somehow.” She started to speak, but he held his hand up again. “I’m not accusing you of anything, Honey. I’m just saying that I do understand how things can develop when two people are working closely on something that has this much emotions involved, and it’s true I’ve been worried that maybe something more was starting to develop beyond trying to find Ken.”
Vanessa looked at him, frustration showing in her lovely, tear-filled eyes. “I don’t know what to say, Link. I guess I have gotten close to Slate, partly because he has tried to help me when no one else would, and partly because I was so alone and scared, and I needed someone I could sort of … well … lean on.”
Lincoln let out another sigh. “And that part is my own fault. I should have been the someone you could lean on. I should have been here for you.”
This time Vanessa reached out and took his free hand. “No, Link. You had obligations to the school – to the students and the faculty. You couldn’t just pick up and leave for an indefinite period of time. I understood that.”
“I know you did, but the fact still remains that, whatever has happened between you and Slate, I’m partly to blame for it.”
“Link, I haven’t been unfaithful to you.”
“I have no doubts about that, Sweetheart. I’m not even talking about acts of unfaithfulness. I’m talking about what’s happened in your heart. I just needed to know that your heart still belonged to me, I guess.”
She squeezed his hands tighter. “My heart belongs to God and you in that order, and nothing or no one will change that, Link.” As she said the words, Vanessa knew that there was a part of her that would always feel an attachment to Slate, but she believed with all her heart that her strongest and truest love would always belong to Lincoln DeWitt. Link knew Vanessa would never deliberately lie to him, but the question he wrestled with was whether she might be saying what she hoped was the truth, rather than what was actual fact.
By 9:30, Slate was in his boat, headed back to the inlet that led to the Crowder property. He was hoping he’d find Mitchell’s truck gone, as well as any other vehicles. But, on the other hand, he hoped he could find someone around who could give him clues as to Ken Hayes’ whereabouts. He knew what he was doing was a long shot, but he felt constrained to try everything he could think of to help Vanessa and her brother. And following his experience on the deck earlier, he felt empowered to expect good results from these efforts.
He pulled into the same marshy area to hide the boat and took off again on foot through the ground cover. As he got close enough to see the drive, his heart skipped a beat. Mitchell’s truck was nowhere in sight. Nor were any other vehicles. He’d have to work around the house a little father to check out the pole barn in the back, but from what he remembered of it, the building was leaning so badly that it wouldn’t have held anything but junk anyway.
The layout of the house was similar to scores of others in the area that had all been built in the same decade, and he knew many of those had the living room at the front of the house, with the kitchen and bathroom behind it. As he’d look over the roof line earlier, he’d spotted what had to be the bathroom vent on the east side, so he felt confident that the two rooms on the west had to be bedrooms.
Skirting the actual yard and staying in the tallest grasses and bushes, he made his way far enough along the west side to see the pole barn, and sure enough, it was falling in, so it wasn’t hiding any vehicles either. He got on his hands and knees and made a diagonal approach to the southwest corner of the house, coming up the side where he surmised the bedrooms to be. He didn’t stop because he wanted to check out the living room and kitchen first for inhabitants.
Hugging the ground, he eased his way around the front corner to check out the front porch from close up. No one in sight. He moved closer, staying low, until he was right beside the three steps leading up to the porch. The wooden door was open, and through the closed screen door, Slate heard a sound. He ducked lower and tried to slide partly under the porch where it was raised about a foot off the ground. But as he listened for a couple minutes, he realized that the sound was rhythmic and familiar. Someone was snoring. Good. One room taken care of. Now for the kitchen and bedrooms.
He worked his way around to the east side and finally raised up to press himself flat against the house by the screened window that he thought was the kitchen. He was grateful the windows were all open, so that he could hear what was happening inside. No sounds of any kind coming from there, so he chanced taking a glance inside. Empty. Next he moved on around the corner to the little window that had to be the bathroom, but still no detectable movement or sound. So using his binoculars to take another look at all the surrounding land area within his scope, he then moved quickly across the back of the house, noting that the back door was shut. He moved on up the west side again and listened through the screen at the window of the back bedroom. Nothing there, so he did the same at the front bedroom window, still hearing nothing.
Finally, satisfied that there was no conversation going on anywhere, he slowly raised himself toward the window of the front bedroom and looked in. An old, torn curtain fluttered there, but he could see a good bit of the room, except for the wall where the window was set. No one in that room. So he moved back again to the bedroom window closer to the back of the house.
Again, he could see a good part of the room, and started to assume it was as empty as the other when he spotted two suitcases sitting in a dark corner. His heartbeat quickened. Suitcases might mean nothing, of course, except that whoever Snake had seen here had carried in a suitcase or two as well. But he was almost sure one of them was pink. It was really hard to tell since very little sunlight was getting into the room at this time of day, but any color suitcase at all seemed out of character for the kind of vermin who were likely to inhabit these premises – or who wanted to keep themselves in a low profile status for any reason. He had a flashlight in his belt, so he pulled it out and shined it right on the cases.
Yep, one of them was pink alright. Just then he heard movement and ducked back to the ground, waiting. After a couple moments, he lifted himself closer to the window again and listened. A shuffling sound was all he heard, but then a man’s voice. “Sarah.” The voice came in a loud whisper. “Sarah, did you see that light?”
A female voice answered, also in a loud whisper. “You mean shining on our suitcases?”
“Yes. It had to come from outside.”
“I thought I saw it, but I figured it was my imagination. This whole thing has done strange things to my mind.”
Slate’s heart almost stopped. He held his breath, waiting to see what else the inhabitants of the room would say. He heard the girl’s voice again. “What do you think it means?”
Then he heard the whispered answer: “I think it may mean the Lord is answering our prayers.”
That clinched it. Surely no one except Vanessa’s brother would be talking about God out in this God-forsaken place and in the dangerous situation they were all facing right now. Slate’s heart was beating so hard he found it difficult to hear. He tried to clear his thoughts and figure out what to do next. He heard Sarah’s voice again. “You mean you think someone’s out there trying to signal us?”
Before Ken could answer, Slate decided that Sarah’s words were part of his answer. He lifted himself high enough to flash his light against the suitcases again, only this time he flashed in three longer, rhythmic flashes. Then shut off the light for a few seconds and flashed the same way again. Ken’s voice came again through the open window.
“Whoever you are … we need help.” Slate waited a moment before responding. Surely there was no one in the room except the two hostages, or they wouldn’t have been talking so freely even in whispers. So he took a chance and answered back in as loud a whisper as he dared.
“I’m here to help. How many others are in the house?”
Ken’s voice answered. “Just one. Asleep in front room. But three others will be back soon. And we’re tied with ropes.”
“Understood,” Slate replied. “Hold on. I’m thinking.”
Silence reigned inside the room and out. Slate thought to himself that if he were ever going to pray for help, this would be the perfect time. But he wasn’t sure he knew how. This morning’s venture was his first experiment with prayer of any kind. Finally, he decided that if Ken had been praying, that was enough for now. He stood up and examined the screen. It was nailed against the house, and there was no way he could get it off without making enough noise to wake the person in the living room.
He needed wire cutters. He might have something back in the boat that would work, but it was quite a trek back. He risked more whispering. “I’ll have to cut the screen, and I don’t have tools with me. I can get them. Is Gary Mitchell one of the group that has you prisoner?”
“Yes,” Ken said. “And the group of them are dealing drugs. Getting ready to make their final delivery in a day or two by boat.”
That was what Slate needed to know. “Okay. I have reason to think it will be day after tomorrow. I’ll notify the sheriff and I’ll be back.” At that moment, Slate heard a truck door slam shut. “I’ll have to scat,” he whispered. “I’ll be back. Don’t give up.” With those words, he dropped as low to the ground as possible and scurried diagonally back the way he’d come, making it to the heavy ground cover before anyone spotted him. He ran as fast as his legs would carry him through the swampy area to his boat, his heart pounding both from elation and from fear.
As soon as he’d gotten the boat far enough away from the area to be sure of not being detected, he stopped and called Vanessa. When she answered, his heart was in his throat as he tried to talk. “Vanessa …” He stopped to take a deep breath.
“Slate! What is it? Are you alright?”
“Yes … yes, I’m fine. I have some news, and I want you to stay calm because I can’t tell you everything right now. I have to get to the sheriff as soon as possible, but I’ve found your brother. He’s alive … and the girl too.”
He heard a sob on the other end of the line, and then Vanessa’s voice thanking the Lord. But her next words were to Slate. “Where is he? Can you take me to him?”
“That’s a problem right now, Vanessa. They’re both being held prisoner by a group of drug dealers, and sure enough, Gary Mitchell’s one of them. But I promised them I’d get back to them and try to get them out. I’m heading for Sheriff Andrews’ office now to let him know so his men can get started on it as well.”
“But where, Slate?”
“Vanessa, I’m not about to try to give you directions to the place because if they caught you trying to get to your brother, they’d kill you and him and the girl all three without batting an eye. Now just sit tight and trust me. Where’s the fiance?”
“Link? He’s gone to the drugstore, but he’ll be right back.”
“All right. Keep him with you, and I’ll get there as soon as I can.”
“But where is Ken?
“I’ve said all I’m going to for now, Vanessa. You’ll have to trust me and do what I say.”
“No, I can’t ̶ ”
“Yes you can! And you’d better! If you want to help save your brother’s life, you’ve got to trust me, no matter how hard that is for you right now. As soon as I’m done with the sheriff, I’ll come by there and talk to you personally. And be sure the fiance’s there with you. It’s past time he did his job riding herd on you and keeping you safe!” He ended the call right then because he knew she wouldn’t be able to stop arguing with him.
His next call was to Sheriff Andrews’ office to make sure he’d be in when Slate got there. Slate sketched in the main facts and left the details for when he was face-to-face with Sheriff Andrews. He didn’t know for sure how the sheriff would handle anything this big. He needed to call in the state police for help, but whether he would or not was still a question. However, Slate didn’t intend to wait to get Vanessa’s brother to safety. He’d have to watch his step and his words with the sheriff.
(To be continued …)