The Wrong Girl
Taylor jerked awake, not fully remembering the dream that had plagued him, but the sweat that dripped off his face in the otherwise cold room told him it had been bad. He opened his eyes and found himself looking into the small eyes of a young child.
“Hi,” Taylor said hoarsely through a dry throat.
Her eyes got big, and she disappeared around the back of the couch, the sound of small feet telling of her continued dash for her parents’ room. Taylor smiled to himself at the thought as he swung himself up and leaned forward, rubbing his face.
“Do you always scream like that?” a voice said behind him.
He sat and half-turned, seeing Marta in a tattered robe standing in the doorway, a small blond head peeking around her leg.
“Not as much as I used to, but sometimes when things go wrong . . .”
“What went wrong?” she asked, alarm creeping into her voice.
“Nothing with you or your family, I promise. One of the people I’m going to Reuya to retrieve, I had and lost back to the men there. Even if I get her back, a few days in these men’s hands isn’t something I’d wish on anyone.”
“But you’ve had these dreams before?”
“Well, you woke the children.”
“I’m sorry. I should be gone today, and I promise not to bother you or your family again. I’m sorry I’ve upset you.”
She glared for a minute, “The sun is coming up soon. I will make breakfast. The smell usually wakes Sebastian up. You two will need to clear the driveway so you can go. The earlier he drops you off, the less likely it is that someone will see him.”
“Is there a shovel? I can go clear the driveway now.”
“Inside the door of the barn.”
Taylor got himself up, put his shoes back on, and headed outside. Light had just started to creep into the valley, washing everything in a deep blue instead of the black of night. Snow was no longer falling, but it was packed deep, and Taylor had to push himself hard to wade through the mass that had formed between the house and the barn, his legs getting wet and cold in the process. Thanks to his trip to the barn the day before, however, he found the shovel with ease.
It was a lot more backbreaking than he had expected, pushing shovelful and shovelful of snow off the wide gravel driveway, making a path for Sebastian’s truck. Dawn had given way to the bright sun of early morning when Taylor looked up. A wide swath was cleared around the truck and a few feet back, but a lot of driveway was left to clear, and Taylor started to worry that the time this was going to take was going to push their departure much later than he’d been wanting.
He finished the slow turn from looking at his handiwork when he caught sight of Sebastian, leaning on the wall by the front door, smiling at him.
“I don’t know what you’re smiling at,” Taylor said, “we have a lot more to clear before we can leave. Go grab a shovel and help me.”
“Did Marta put you up to this?” the man asked, not moving.
“Yeah, she said the driveway needed to be cleared before we could leave.”
Taylor was surprised when Sebastian laughed, bending at the waist, and hitting his knee.
“I’m not sure what’s funny about that,” Taylor said, annoyance creeping into his voice.
“I think Marta put one over on you,” he said, stepping off the porch and coming over to Taylor, taking the shovel. “We only really need to clear a small area around the truck. We get a lot of snow here, so I have a plow attachment for the front of the truck. It will do most of the work.”
“Why . . .”
“Don’t be mad at her. I think you still make her nervous, and with me asleep she wanted to find somewhere for you to go outside of the house, so she asked you to do this. Not that it’s all a waste. We would have had to do some of it to get the blade attached.”
Taylor thought about it, including how he’d woken her with his screaming, and let out a laugh of his own, “I guess she did get me.”
Sebastian clapped him on the back, directing Taylor back toward the house, “Let’s get some breakfast in you, get the plow attached, and get on the road.”
“Sounds like a plan.”
To her credit, Marta was properly embarrassed by the trick she’d played on Taylor, although she made it clear she was in no way apologetic. Sebastian took the opportunity to tease her about her sneakiness, which she took in good stride. Sebastian ate quickly and excused himself, leaving his wife and Taylor to sit in uncomfortable silence for twenty minutes.
When Sebastian returned, Taylor thanked Marta and again apologized for imposing on her family, over Sebastian’s continued denial it was at all a problem.
Taylor noticed that the back of the truck had been partially unloaded and something new was up on the bed of the truck, covered in a canvas sheet, but let it pass as Sebastian asked for help carrying the plow over.
They got the plow attached to the front of the truck, which was easier than Taylor suspected it would be since it was just attaching the wedge-shaped metal piece to brackets on the front of the vehicle. Once on the road, Taylor was very glad they hadn’t pushed through the day before. Sebastian’s description of the switchbacks going around the various hills didn’t do them justice. The roads were small, seemingly too small for two cars side by side, ending in a cliff face on one side and a sharp drop off on the other. While the drop offs weren’t what you’d see on a larger mountain, they were steep enough to be deadly, and the lack of any kind of guard rail made them seem somehow worse.
With the ice and snow on the road, they had to crawl along the road most of the time, going only a few miles an hour as they wended their way around. A drive that should have, at most, taken thirty minutes was stretched into over two hours; some of it white-knuckled as they wound their way around. Taylor was watching the turns Sebastian made closely, trying to commit each in his memory, in case a hasty retreat was needed, and to help from focusing on the treacherous roads too much.
To Taylor’s surprise, as they neared the town, close enough to see it in the distance, Sebastian turned off onto a logging road.
“We’re not going into town?”
“No. I’ve heard enough things to know if they are holding the girls you are looking for anywhere, it’s going to be in the compound about a mile away from town on the other side. But a lot of the people in Reuya get money either directly or indirectly from those scum. I rarely come over to this side of the mountain, and never with a stranger. I thought you might want to avoid someone calling back and reporting an unusual sighting.”
“Good thinking,” Taylor said as they wound their way along the logging trail, its narrow one lane causing his teeth to hurt as they bounced through ruts and holes.
Finally, they pulled to a stop, the road still extending into the distance, trees thick on either side.
“This is as close as I can get you. The compound is about a half a mile through the trees, that way,” Sebastian said, pointing out the passenger’s side window.
“OK. I’ll take it from here,” Taylor said, “I really appreciate all the help. Now get back to your family, and try to stay safe.”
“I have one thing that should help you,” Sebastian said, shutting off the vehicle and climbing out, circling around to the truck bed.
Pulling off the canvas sheet, he revealed a beat-up motorcycle that looked like it might date all the way back to World War II.
“What’s this?” Taylor asked, following him out of the truck, confused.
“You’re out here by yourself, and I don’t know if you’ll need a way to get around,” Sebastian said. “I’ve been fixing this up for a few years. It’s not fancy, but it runs.”
“Sebastian, I can’t take this. There’s a good chance I won’t get it back to you.”
“I realize that,” the man said as he manhandled the machine off the truck, Taylor finally snapping to and helping him unload it. “But, I still want you to take it. I won’t take no for an answer.”
Taylor knew Sebastian was right, there was a chance he would need a way to get around, and this was much better than the alternatives he had for getting transportation.
“OK, but I promise I’ll try to make us even.”
“Stop these people, and I’ll still be in your debt. Good luck my friend,” Sebastian said, shaking Taylor’s hand, and getting back into his truck.
With a wave, Sebastian began backing down the logging trail, back the direction they’d come. Taylor watched him until the farmer had disappeared, before pushing the bike just into the trees so it wasn’t obvious, in case someone else came along the road. Covering it with fallen pine branches to complete the effect, Taylor turned and headed into the dense pack of trees. One benefit of the compound being in such a heavily wooded area was how much lighter the snow was on the ground; the trees having caught a lot of the snowfall before it made its way down. Boots were not the best footwear for walking through densely packed snow.
After ten minutes of walking, Taylor could see an abrupt end to the forested area ahead of him. He’d seen this before when a clear area was cut out of the forest, it ended suddenly instead of thinning out more naturally. Taylor stopped ten feet back from the tree line, confident if someone in the open were watching this direction, it would be impossible to pick out one figure through the trees, at least. Being inside the trees he could, however, see out pretty well. The compound was obvious even to the naked eye, a large walled area with multiple buildings, including what almost looked like a small mansion, inside its perimeter. There was a fifty-yard gap between the forest edge and the perimeter wall, which was a whole lot of open ground to cross to get from the tree line to the compound. If he had to guess, Taylor would bet that the same open cut land existed all the way around, or at least, it would have if Taylor had built it.
Although he’d left his duffle bag back in the car he’d rented, and hopefully that Andre had picked up for him, he’d held onto his binoculars, which he now pulled out of the pocket of his coat. It was a struggle since, even though the coat had large pockets, these were military grade binoculars and had been difficult to wedge into the garment. Once freed, he brought the compound into startling focus, and what he saw, he didn’t like.
Based on the buildings on the inside, and the one roving perimeter guard he saw near the outside of the wall facing him, Taylor would guess this wall was ten feet tall. Spread out around its circumference was a handful of enclosed guard towers, and he could clearly see the men armed with assault rifles inside the ones closest to him.
Both inside and outside he could see roving guard patrols of two to three men and, based on the men coming and going from one of the smaller buildings set off to one side of the compound, there was a significant force of guards living on the premises. A large metal gate looked to be the only way into the compound, and a small guard house next to it.
Taylor spent a full hour in the biting cold, looking at each inch visible from his position, trying to find any weakness, and finding none. No, both sneaking into the compound and a direct assault on it were off the table. Which left the question, how the hell was he going to get in there?
Motion caught his attention, and Taylor moved his binoculars toward the gate, which was opening. A black Lincoln town car and a jeep pulled through the gate, heading away from the compound. The car windows were down as the person in the back seat spoke to one of the men in the guard booth, and Taylor recognized him from the night of the auction. Timor, the second-in-command of this operation, was in the car, heading somewhere. That, however, was not what Taylor was focusing on. Through the window, Taylor could see another person in the back of the town car. Kara sat next to Timor, the same non-expression she had plastered on her face when he’d first met her in that place, showing no emotion to anyone.
Taylor could see into the back seat pretty well from his vantage point, even as the windows started to roll up. He was certain that Mary Jane wasn’t in the car, and the jeep’s untinted windows confirmed she wasn’t there either. Unless the senator’s daughter was shoved in the trunk, which seemed unlikely, she was still in the compound, which presented a problem.
Taylor could go after Kara, or leave her to her fate and continue working on a way to get to Mary Jane. That, however, wasn’t a real choice, and not one he would ever pick. Kara had put herself in danger by calling him. Without that call, he might not be here looking at the compound, now. He knew what he needed to do.
As the small two car convoy started to pull out, Taylor began to run full out back toward the logging road. In half the time he’d taken to walk to his viewing point he was back, pulling the bike onto the road, and turning it over. True to his word, Sebastian had the bike running, and it turned over on the first try. Taylor hurtled along the road, the cold air biting at his face as he dodged ruts and obstacles that might send him crashing into the forest, piling on as much speed as possible. If Sebastian had described it accurately, the road from the compound ran to the town with no chance of detour before then. He didn’t know if the lumber road he was on or the road Timor was taking was more direct, not having seen a map. He also didn’t know if there was a turn off in the town itself so he might have to go into the town and hope to run into the two vehicles before they turned off, preferably without being recognized by Timor.
Taylor could see the opening at the end of lumber road coming up, the paved driveway crossing perpendicular with the lumber road like a crooked capital T. To his surprise, the black town car and jeep flashed by the lumber road while he was still a good seventy yards back, which answered which road was the straighter shot.
Taylor slowed to widen the space between him and the people he was chasing, then continued onto the paved road, turning in the direction they had passed. He couldn’t get too near them since no other vehicles were on the road; it would be obvious the guy on the motorcycle was following them.
When Taylor turned, he could barely see the red tail lights ahead of him, even though it was still morning and the weather was good. Regularly, the lights would disappear as they turned a bend, and Taylor would have to hope that, in the time it took him to reach the same bend, they wouldn’t turn and lose him.
At one point, they almost did. He turned a bend and didn’t see them ahead of him, but did see another bend they could have potentially already rounded. He almost ignored one of the smaller turn off roads, only catching the briefest glimpses of a tail light in his peripheral vision. When he stopped the bike and turned around, whoever had been along that side road was already out of sight, but he went with his gut and headed down the turn-off. Eventually, he did pick up the two cars again, proving him right, but it had been a close thing. Had his head been turned a fraction further, he would have missed those tail lights and lost them completely.