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Someone was trying to run her off the road!
Liz Tate gripped the rental car's steering wheel tightly, her heart pounding in her ears as she struggled to keep the car straight.
And not careening off the edge of the newly built causeway and into the deep water to her right.
Please, Lord, help me!
The SUV beside her, some dark blue thing she didn't dare get a good look at, scraped up against her driver's side once more. A painful sound grated through her senses. The sickening shove bumped her closer to the loose gravel and rocky edge.
She swerved back, slamming on the brakes to help control her car. The tires bit into the gravel then spun and slipped farther. The other vehicle backed off.
She was losing control of the car! With a wild glance over her shoulder, she yanked the vehicle back onto the road again.
Filled with dust and gravel, her brakes squealed in protest. She fishtailed uncontrollably.
Close to the end of the causeway, the SUV beside her rammed her side again. The force knocked her against the driver's door.
Liz felt her rental spin and lurch over the gravel, catch and bump on the jagged rocks that lined the water's edge and saw nothing but slushy, dark water ahead.
She'd come down here to Florida to find her nephew Charlie, following a set of circumstances almost too fearful and incredible to believe. And now, as the hood of her rental splashed into the murky water, as that water surged over her windshield, she knew that she'd never see Charlie again.
Keep him safe, Father God. Because I've failed him again.
"Are you thirsty, son? Do you need a cold drink? Something to eat?"
But Charlie Troop sat mutely across the cluttered office from Ian MacNeal, his young eyes downcast, just as he'd been for the entire flight down here from Bangor. The child hadn't said a word to him. Not a single word. This was the boy's second full day here and still nothing. He refused to speak.
Even when the boy's hair had been shorn off yesterday, that matted, dirty mess of dark curls and knots that perpetually fell into the boy's eyes, he'd said nothing. It was too hot to bear here, Ian figured, but that wasn't the whole reason for the cut. After Charlie's hair had been trimmed down to a longish crew cut, Ian had bleached the remaining length a dark blond. He had then given the boy a pair of glasses to wear.
Charlie had studied his new look in the mirror. But after that, his gaze fell to his feet again.
It cut Ian to the core to change the boy's appearance, but his safety was too important. He needed his look altered.
Ian had tried several times to initiate a conversation with the ten-year-old, but Charlie would drop his gaze and bite his lip. And remain completely silent.
Even Ian's new assistant, Monica, a young woman whose own parents died suddenly a few years ago, tried to reach him, but Charlie stalwartly refused to speak to anyone.
Patience, Ian told himself. The psychologist who'd assessed the boy said he'd been traumatized by what he'd seen. With patience, trust and time, the child would talk. Just don't push him or he'd slip further into his mute shell, the specialist had advised.
Looking across from him this hot July day, Ian sighed. Even when he'd been a U.S. Marshal full time, long before he'd given up that life for the no-less-busy one of a pastor, he'd never had to deal with someone who so completely refused to communicate with him.
Only recalling his own turbulent youth, the gypsy lifestyle forced on him by a long line of uncaring relatives who were too busy to bother with an orphan, was he able to anticipate Charlie's basic needs. That and the wealth of experience that his neighbors, Elsie and George Wilson, could offer.
The older couple was an invaluable help. George, himself, had been a U.S. Marshal back in the day. In fact, he'd met Elsie there when she'd been hired on as part of the administrative staff. It was Elsie who had first told Ian about the need for a pastor on Spring Island, and he was happy to be working near his old friends. Especially now. Even though the Wilsons weren't officially on Charlie's protective detail, the marshals had agreed to let the boy stay in their home. Their trailer was right next to Ian's house, and they were all hoping Elsie's grandmotherly ways would have a positive effect on the frightened child.
Ian removed his cell phone pouch on his belt and dropped it on the desk, realizing only then that the phone inside was missing. For how long? He'd used it shortly after he'd brought Charlie here, but he was sure he'd put it back into the pouch when he was done.
Searching his desk caused several files to flutter to the tile floor. "It's nice and cool in here, isn't it?" he asked Charlie conversationally as he stooped to pick them up. He turned to set them on top of the filing cabinet. "Remember, I told you that this building has the only decent air conditioner in the whole village. So we'll stay in here as long as you like, okay, son? It's hotter than Bangor, isn't it?"
Again, silence. Ian looked over his shoulder at the small ten-year-old. He wanted to engage the child in conversation. Talk about the island here, about Florida and Moss Point and how the village came to be. But he knew he shouldn't name specific places. The less the child knew of his whereabouts, the safer he was. "But Elsie has a good fan. It really blows around the gulf air, and that's cool. Well, it's supposed to be cooler, I think."
Charlie made no comment.
After learning he was to be reinstated with the U.S. Marshal Service, thanks to a clause in his retirement agreement, Ian had read Charlie's case file and knew right then he had to take the child into protective custody.
Funny how he'd never expected to be reinstated after he'd retired to become a pastor. He'd seen all the legal mumbo jumbo added after 9/11, the revised nondisclosure agreements, the reinstatement clauses. But it didn't hit home until he met Charlie and was asked to return. And knew he was truly a marshal again for this very reason.
His services were needed. Charlie Troop needed a place safe enough to give his statement. The man he had seen murder his father was so dangerous that not convicting him could destroy any chances of a normal, safe life for the boy. Without a statement, the police wouldn't be able to prosecute Jerry's killer and hopefully bring down others high in the drug cartel for which Jerry had begun to work.
Ian stood and moved to his filing cabinet. He had a ton of other work to file away, things he'd ignored for the last month as he'd been preparing for Vacation Bible School and finishing off new programs, work he had been planning on doing before the reinstatement. The rec center here had become multifunctional, with a fully stocked clinic in back, his office up front and church in the main hall. Ian picked up a file, intent on starting some of the filing. Monica had the week off now that Vacation Bible School was over with.
But he stopped when he caught sight of Charlie. The hollow expression he cast Ian's way cut through him.
The boy was hurting—missing his father as only a boy could. Despite the fact that Jerry Troop was a known drug dealer, the man had been Charlie's father. And Charlie missed him.
"I know how you feel, son. I still miss my dad, and he died a long time ago."
Charlie blinked rapidly then bit his lips and frowned, as if fighting the urge to speak.
"Do you need to say something, son?" he gently asked the boy.
As expected, the boy didn't answer. But this time, he'd met Ian's eyes in silent but crystal clear communication. I want to go home.
Ian tightened his jaw against the compassion lancing through him. Being a pastor sometimes meant giving bad news but to tell the boy he had no home to go to, well, that really hurt.
Instead, all Ian could do was watch him. Just tell me what you saw when your father died. Tell me, son, so I can stop that bad man.
Ian had already tried that line several times on the plane coming down here but to no avail. The child was too traumatized to discuss it. He was still in shock, still trying to push aside the painful emotions until he could cope with them.
Again, Ian hated his inability to get the boy to talk. He'd been trained to deal with frightened children, and his failure here irritated him. His supervisor was expecting results, and Ian hated that he had none to offer him.
Ian searched his messy desk for his cell phone. He'd shown Charlie a picture of William Smith, the one he had on his cell. Their only suspect. But the boy had remained mute. Maybe this afternoon would be different.
Ian needed him to talk, because their only suspect wasn't the kind to allow any witnesses to live.
Abruptly, the front door banged open, the sound vibrating through the quiet building. Monica threw open his office door.
"Pastor Ian! You have to come quickly! There's been an accident. A car drove right over the causeway and into the water. Whoever's in it will drown!"
"Call 911!" Ian took flight. In one swift motion, he grabbed his hat and his handgun, as was his first reaction, then he grabbed Charlie. He wasn't about to leave the boy alone.
It was exactly as Monica had said, Ian noted as he hurried down the road, Charlie in tow. She'd said she was out for a walk and had heard the crash. A quarter mile stretch through the forest broke free at Spring Island's side of the sun-bleached, half-built causeway. It wasn't ready for public traffic, yet. But Ian could see that someone had moved the large barriers. The ferry sign still stood, though the ferry was gone. The causeway was still gravel atop larger boulders that made up the foundation.
Now in the bright sun, Ian tugged down the brim of his hat. He scanned the edges of the causeway, finding what he expected on the north side. A small car bobbed in the water. Bubbles danced all around it, and it was slowly sinking.
A woman was slumped over the steering wheel.
"Stay here, Charlie. In the shade." Ian pointed to the edge of the forest nearest the sign. Then he raced along the center of the causeway and down over the other side.
At that moment, the front end of the car dipped into the murky water, and its driver lifted her head. Ian could see water filling the interior. The woman turned to the door window, panic exploding on her face in one swift swell of fear as she slapped her palms against the glass.
"Roll down the window!" he called to her.
Ian leaped into the water, reaching the car door after one hard stroke of his arms and a push off the rocks. He caught the woman's attention. She was panicking, unable to free herself with her fevered movements.
Ian tried the door. It was locked.
"Unlock the door! Pull up on the knob!" he yelled at her.
She obeyed quickly. Working against gravity and time, Ian tugged open the door and jammed his body against it to block it from slamming shut again. The door hit his back hard as he braced himself against the frame.
Water had already lapped the woman's shoulders as the whole car sank sluggardly into the murky water between island and mainland.
"Can you undo your seat belt?"
"I don't know…it's…" Her head was barely above the water as she trailed off.
Ignoring the fear in her voice, Ian leaned over her, dipped his face into the water as he felt around for the release button. The woman gripped him in order to stay above the water line. His hat, now free, floated above him.
He found the latch and clicked it. It smacked back into his face as he lifted his head, and the car door pressed its weight against him. But the woman was free.
He pushed it open farther to allow the woman to swim out. By the time she stood on the door frame, the water had already filled the interior and was now close to their necks. The car sank deeper into the muck.
"I'm okay," she whispered breathily. "You can let go of the door now."
He did, and it splashed into the water. Finally, the whole car plunged deep down. The accident had stirred up muck and mire, obscuring any evidence of a vehicle, except for the lines of bubbles. Grabbing his hat before it floated away, Ian swam behind the woman as she dog-paddled to the rocks nearby.
She collapsed, half in and half out of the warm water, her arms splayed out and her eyes closed. Ian swam up beside her. Soaking wet curls, dark and shiny, covered her face. Ian could see her lips moving but heard nothing.
Finally, she lifted her head, with a weak lift of her hand, threw back her sopping hair. "Thank you," she sputtered out.
Ian's head snapped up. Charlie was standing on the partially finished road above them, peering down at the woman with great excitement.
He'd said something!
The boy turned his attention to Ian. "That's my auntie Liz. She's come for me, just like she promised!"
With strength she didn't think she had, Liz scrambled over the rocks and up to the road. Though soaked through and still panting, she grabbed Charlie into a tight embrace.
Then, after a long moment of holding Charlie, one full of prayer and the pain of thinking how close she'd come to never seeing him again, Liz set him slightly away from her.
His front wet, he blinked up at her. "Auntie Liz! I didn't think you were ever coming! I thought you didn't love me anymore! When I called, you promised me you'd come!"
She tried in vain to contain the choke of emotion. It had been only two days since he called, but even to her, it felt like a lifetime. "Oh, Charlie! I'm here! I'm here, and I do love you very much!" Crying, she swung him up into her arms again. "I'm so sorry about your dad. It took me forever to get a flight down here. And I wasn't even sure where to go. But I found you, sweetie! I'm here to take you home now."
As she spoke, she fingered his short hair. Jerry never bothered with barbers, and the last time she'd visited, Charlie's curls had been tightening into horrible dreadlocks.