In one of the most beautiful places on earth, the ugliest of crimes holds young, innocent lives in its evil grip. An intercepted cell-phone call from a remote area on the Olympic Peninsula tells beautiful, brilliant NSA researcher, Jennifer Akihara, that a group of girls will soon be sold into slavery by human traffickers. She enlists her fiancé, Lee Brandt, to help find the holding location and convince the FBI to intervene.
With the clock ticking off the last few hours before both the sale of the girls and the arrival of a deadly storm, and with international criminals pursuing them, can Jennifer and Lee save the girls, or will their wedding plans be cancelled ...permanently?
Olympic Peninsula, Saturday, November 2, 11:00 AM
Jennifer Akihara’s SUV slid sideways on Highway 101 when she turned in at the Lake Quinault store. She jerked the wheel left, tapped the brakes, and coaxed the vehicle into a parking spot. Huge raindrops assaulted the windshield like bullets trying to blow holes in the safety glass. The wipers slapped out their liveliest rhythm, but her heart thumped even faster as she hit Special Agent Peterson’s speed dial number on her cell.
Lee Brandt, her fiancé, sat silently in the passenger seat, but his foot tapped out a tempo somewhere between andante and presto.
She pushed the speakerphone.
Lee needed to take his fair share of the coming abuse.
“Peterson, this is Jennifer Akihara.”
“How is my favorite NSA sleuth on this miserable day?”
“I stumbled across something near my research site on the peninsula…something you should know about.”
“Is there a little smuggling going on along the coast?”
“You could say that. Drugs smuggled in, young girls smuggled out.”
Peterson’s end went silent.
“This morning I analyzed the data downloaded from my wireless scanner near Forks. Nearly thirteen days ago, it recorded an encrypted cell-phone conversation.”
“Cell-phone conversation? You chose that location for your testing because there’s no cell service. But you need to—”
“You mean no legal cell service. When I had a colleague from Fort Meade decrypt the call, I heard traffickers selling girls.”
“Can you get the unencrypted conversation to me today?” His usual booming voice of authority had softened.
“I’ll e-mail it from my cell when we’re finished talking. But, Petersen, the next exchange of girls is set for tomorrow night. Can you move quickly enough to stop it?”
“You intercepted a private call. That raises some legal issues we—”
“Legal issues? There’s nothing legal about that call, and what they’re doing is worse than illegal.”
“You’re not thinking like a defense attorney. First, I need to analyze the conversation. If we have enough to go on, I can form a team by late tonight or tomorrow. But without specific information, no, I can’t guarantee we can stop the exchange. If we botch things, we might never get a conviction.”
“Lee is forecasting the Pineapple Express rainstorm to transition to a strong windstorm by tomorrow. The message indicated they don’t do exchanges if there’s even a small craft advisory. So the storm may delay the exchange and buy us a little more time, but we can’t count on that. We do know they’re holding the girls at an abandoned mill site on the peninsula.”
“Where’s the mill?”
“We haven’t located it yet.” She had lit the fuse on her bomb.
Lee plugged his ears.
She waited for the FBI agent to explode.
“We? Yet? Where are you, Jennifer?”
“At Lake Quinault. Lee’s with me, and we have five possible sites to check out.”
“Far enough so I can’t stop you.” Peterson mumbled. “So…you don’t know where the girls are, but you’re driving around to abandoned mill sites?”
“Something like that.”
“Jennifer, you need to back off. If you’re right, these people will kill anyone who is a perceived threat. You could get the girls killed by charging in.”
“Look, Petersen, Lee and I have collected some information. We’ve planned well, and we won’t do anything stupid. But there’s no way I’m going to stand by and let a group of girls be sold into a living hell. So you get your team out here as fast as you can. We’ll call you when we find the girls. But for now, Lee and I are proceeding.”
“You can’t do that! It’s too dangerous. At least wait until we can get out there.”
“There’s not enough time. I’m going to terminate the call now so I can send you the intercepted message. And, Peterson, ten days ago one of the girls hanged herself with her own shoelaces rather than let these guys sell her. Lee and I are going forward. I suggest you do the same. Good-bye.”
Before she terminated the call, one loud, rare expletive blasted through the speakerphone, “…that girl is stubborn!”
Jennifer held her thumb back for another second.
A barely audible mumble came across before he hung up, “…but I hope my daughter’s just like her.”
She smiled and pushed the red icon on her phone.
“Well, you stirred up a hornet’s nest at the field office,” Lee said.
“Then maybe they’ll get out here by tomorrow. But if we find the mill, drive to the nearest cell reception, and call them, they’ll come.”
“If the storm doesn’t prevent them from coming. On Sunday, they won’t be able to fly here in either planes or choppers. Too much wind. Trees will be falling like bowling pins, and who knows about the roads—probably all blocked by a million board feet of timber.”
Her meteorologist fiancé had raised some legitimate issues.
“Are you saying I made a miscalculation?”
“No. I’m as proud of you as Peterson.” Lee chuckled. “He thinks of you as a daughter. Has since the terrorist incident last March.” Lee paused. “Unless we get FBI support, we could be on our own.”
“Been there before. We’re not stupid, Lee. God and right are on our side. And He says nearly four hundred times, don’t be afraid. So we go for it, right?”
“No other options. We can’t let…what was the trafficker’s name?”
“We can’t let Trader sell any more kids. But promise me this…if we find the mill site, at the next opportunity you’ll call Peterson and give him all the details. If something should go wrong—if something happens to us—help can still come for those girls.”
“Nothing is going to happen to us. Well, only what God allows.”
“So where did all the newfound confidence come from? You were pretty gloomy when you called this morning to tell me what was going on.”
Gloomy hardly described what she felt. The voice of a young girl crying for help ripped at her heart. Only the scriptures she remembered had pulled her out of the pit. “I started thinking about my Bible study yesterday and a song on the CD you gave me—especially the part that says everything’s for His glory and we shouldn’t be afraid. We forget things—important things—so quickly, it’s a wonder God doesn’t lose patience with us all.”
“If there’s a wonder, it’s you.” He could always find a way to make her smile.
She squeezed his hand. Feeling its warmth and strength calmed her, gave her confidence. She pressed the accelerator and the SUV skidded. She steered out of the slide, clenched her jaw, and slowed. “This incessant rain! I can’t go over forty-five without hydroplaning. How far to the first mill site?”
“Less than nine miles.”
“That’s about fifteen minutes. How should we approach this one?”
“According to the satellite pictures you printed out, three or four hundred yards before the road to the mill there’s a BIA road.”
“Bureau of Indian Affairs road?”
“Yeah. We can park on it and walk to the mill through the trees.” He looked up at her. “I hope your raincoat has a hood.”
“Well, it doesn’t. So what?”
“So at the end of the day you’ll look like a drowned…”
“Finish it, Lee.”
“No. It isn’t the truth. I’ve seen you with wet hair, and you’re still beautiful.”
“What are you buttering me up for?”
“I brought a waterproof cap. It’s in my pack in the back seat. You need to wear it.”
“You know I don’t like that baseball-cap look.”
“But you love baseball, Jenn.”
“Baseball’s a wonderful game. It’s like an athletic chess match. But no way am I going to let my hair hang out through the back of a baseball cap like a horse’s tail.”
“This isn’t about fashion. We need to stay warm and dry, because there’s no telling—”
“Just hand me the cap, Lee. I might as well put it on now. What color is the stupid thing?”
He reached for the pack in the backseat. “Women. No matter how bright they are, they’re still…women.” His remark didn’t deserve a reply.
She gave him a pair of rolling eyes instead. Lee was a man, a good man. But no matter how bright he was, he was still a man.
In a few minutes, she spotted the BIA road, drove down a short distance, and then veered off among some trees to park. “Show me on the map how we’re going to approach this site.”
He traced a path with his finger. “See…it’s pretty much straight ahead through the trees. In about two hundred yards, we should come to the mill near the only building suitable for—” He stopped. His expression told her his thoughts.
“It’s hard to say it, isn’t it?” She pursed her lips, quelling her own horror at the unspeakable future the girls faced if she and Lee didn’t find them.
“Can we pray first?”
“Yes, but would you please do it?”
“Having second thoughts?”
“No. Only a lot of first-time thoughts. You do have your .38 with you, don’t you?”
“Of course. But I’ll pray. God’s better than bullets.” She kept it simple, asking God to protect them and help them find the girls.
After five minutes of slogging through the rain and being soaked by dripping branches, they approached an opening in the trees.
“Wait here for a second. I’m going to move closer. That big bush will provide enough cover,” Lee whispered.
“But I’m the one with the gun.”
“We don’t need any guns yet. Let me take a look.”
After reaching the bush, Lee pushed his head through the dripping boughs. Their target lay less than fifty yards ahead. His pulse quickened as he studied the building. Something drew his gaze upward. He exhaled slowly, backed out, and walked back to Jennifer.
“Well, what did you see?”
“The satellite picture was outdated. This isn’t the place, Jenn. The roof’s falling in.”
It took several more drenching minutes to get back to the car.
He picked up the map and ran his finger along Highway 101. “Only five miles to the next stop.” He looked up. The back of her neck was wet. “Jenn…”
She turned her head, and her large, almond-shaped, brown eyes peered warmly into his.
“You’re getting wet. Are you cold?”
“Not really. It’s amazingly warm out there.” She turned on the ignition. “Sixty-five degrees according to the thermometer in my car.”
“That’s the Pineapple Express—straight from Hawaii. Warm and wet.”
“We still have four sites to check and the interview with that retired logger near Forks. We need to hurry, Lee. The rain is slowing us down more than we thought, so show me how we approach the next mill.”
“First there’s something we need to nail down. When we interview this logger-turned-chainsaw-sculptor, or talk to anyone else out here, what’re we going to tell them? We can’t divulge our real reasons for being here or we might reveal something to Trader or that other guy…Boatman. Something that would get us killed, maybe get the girls killed, too. For all we know, the traffickers live and work out here.”
“How about this for a cover story? I look pretty young, so—”
“Pretty, young. That’s an understatement on both counts.” He scanned her face and his heart shifted to a higher gear. Jennifer’s Japanese-Hawaiian heritage gave her a permanently perfect tan. Like many Asian women, she looked young. She was also a stunning beauty, like none he had ever seen. “It’s hard to think about a cover story when I’m looking at a cover girl.”
“Without a good cover story, we could get ourselves into trouble.” As usual, she ignored his comment about her looks. “Let’s see…we can say we’re researching the history of the timber industry on the Olympic Peninsula, and that I’m currently focusing on Grays Harbor, Jefferson, and Clallam counties.” Hearing Jennifer say anything that hinted of deception was out of character.
It deserved his smirk.
“Don’t look at me that way. It’s the truth, Lee. It’s just not the whole truth…which could get us killed.” She shot him a frown. “Look, we may not be policemen, but we’re working undercover and to keep us safe we need a cover story.”
“OK. We’re doing timber history research. We just won’t tell people why. Back to your question about the next site. If we drive a quarter mile beyond the road to the mill, an old timber access road goes a short way into the trees. But this is all privately managed forest land, so we might find a locked gate across the road.”
“Then you’d better watch for alternate parking spots as we go by.”
Jennifer braked and turned the vehicle onto the BIA road, heading back towards Highway 101.
“You know something? The cap looks kind of cute on you. But you need to make a ponytail, so you can let it stick out of the opening above the hatband and—”
“I already told you. No ponytails. In this rain it would hang like an old mare’s tail.”
“Old mare…I wonder what we’ll look like when we’re both old. I’ll bet—”
“Keep studying that map, or someone might not get the chance to know.”
Maybe she didn’t always ignore his comments about her appearance.
They found a place to park the car, got wet, struck out at the second mill, and got even wetter on the walk back.
When they climbed back into Jennifer’s SUV, he wondered how they were doing for time. Nearly 1:00 PM. He shook his head. Approaching the mills in a cautious manner took more time than he’d planned.
When Jennifer pulled out onto Highway 101, his stomach grumbled. A foot-long BLT smothered in jalapenos. The image, the spicy smell, and the delightful tingle on his tongue had leased a chunk of his gray matter. “You know, I don’t remember actually planning to fast today.”
“When we left I wasn’t thinking about lunch.” She glanced his way. “If you’re hungry, we could go to Kalaloch before mill number three. We’d only have to backtrack three or four miles.”
“Sounds good to me. Let’s hit the deli in the convenience store. We can probably find a sandwich. If not, there’s always the junk food.”
Question 1: When Jennifer found evidence of child trafficking, given the impending sale of the girls, was it wise for her and Lee to hunt for the traffickers’ location on their own? Was it the right thing to do given the severity of the crime? What different approach could she have taken to solve the problem? What would you have done in her situation?
Question 2: Obviously preserving their moral purity until they were married was important to Lee and Jennifer. When it seemed to be logical to rent a two-bedroom suite, and spend the night in order to continue their search, was that a wise choice? What other options did they have? What would you have done in their place?
Question 3: Lee and Jennifer only had a short time with Katie before deciding to take her in. Granted, these were dangerous, character-revealing times, but would it be wise to commit to taking in Katie in this situation? Was taking her in the good and right thing to do?
Question 4: Katie chose to shoot an evil man who was going to take the life of an innocent person. Was that the right thing for her to do? On what basis do you give your answer? Be specific. Did she have other viable alternatives to shooting the man? What would you have done in her place?
Question 5: Early in the book, Lee and Jennifer both come to realize that it is time, perhaps past time, for them to conclude their courtship and to marry. In the book, they offer some reasons for their conclusions. What are some valid reasons for concluding that it is time to marry? Do you believe any of their conduct or discussion was inappropriate for a couple who is nearing the time of their wedding? (If you are answering this question based upon beliefs you hold, but without having actually experienced a premarital time period, you should be prepared for many surprises.)
Question 6: The author of this book realizes that sexual crimes against children are vile, hideous and perverted. But rather than paint these crimes in gruesome detail, the author chose rather to show the horror that moral people have when they realize such crimes are occurring. Did this treatment of the subject impact your life? If so, how do you plan to respond?
Question 7: Do you agree that the proliferation of pornography is at least one driving influence behind the epidemic of sexual crimes against children? If not, why? If so, are you going to take any specific action to halt its spread?