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  1. #1
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    Second Chance:

    The other story that has been taking up my time lately. I'm working on it and "Lucky" at the same time.

    Enjoy

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    PROLOGUE – SECOND CHANCE


    Funny thing about a spark. Typically it just burns for a split second and goes away quietly. Millions, perhaps billions of sparks happen daily and nothing ever happens. They just illuminate quickly and go away, just as quickly. Nobody ever gives them a second thought. But sometimes that spark comes in contact with a volatile material and ignites it. We sometimes do our best to avoid them, like explosive workers. But sometimes that spark just happens to come in contact with said volatile material and an explosion happens. Call it destiny or happenstance; it happens no matter what precautions we take. We can do everything on the planet to prevent that spark, but sometimes it just happens whether we want it to or not. And in other times, people feel the need to pour gasoline on the pile of sweating dynamite while lighting a cigar and talking on their cell phone…


    In the not so distant future


    “Hey Mister, got a light?” asked the girl to the man walking out of the grocery store as she held the cigarette by the tips in both hands. She looked far too young to be hanging out in front of grocery stores looking for a cigarette lighter.

    “Aren’t you kind of young to be smoking?” asked the man as he looked her over.

    “I’m eighteen and it’s a free country,” she said with a slight bit of attitude.

    He studied her with a knowing look and peered into her eyes. The eyes were always told of how old a person was, how much they had seen and furthermore, what they happened to be thinking. “How old did you say you were?”

    “Eighteen,” she answered. “You have a light or not?”

    “Look more like fifteen darlin’. And I just might have a light,” he said in a thick southern drawl.

    “Well, I’m eighteen. I can look younger ya know,” she said with the same sass.

    “Lucky for you, or unlucky depending on how you look at it, I wasn’t born last night. There ain’t no way on this planet you are above sixteen at the most,” he said with a smile.

    “Okay, I lied, I’m not eighteen,” she said lightening up a bit. “Can I have a light please?”

    “Again, kind of young to be smoking, but it’s your lungs,” he said as he dug in his pocket and grabbed at the lighter he carried there. He cupped his hand and lit the cigarette as she puffed at it. He took the time to notice she didn’t inhale and rather puffed at it without drawing in the smoke.

    “Appreciate it mister,” she said and puffed once again.

    “Ain’t from around here are you?” he asked.

    “Just passin’ through,” she said and looked around as if she was waiting on someone. Or possibly scared of something.

    “The cops see you out here like this they’ll run you in. You got a place to be?” he asked.

    “No place in particular,” she said and puffed once again.

    “Just letting you know,” he said and turned to walk back to his truck. He put the groceries in the lockbox in the bed and unlocked the door. After getting inside, he took a second look at the girl waiting near the doorway, continually looking around the parking lot and at the people going in and out of the store like she was waiting on something or someone. He started the vehicle and put it into gear before taking another look at her. When he looked into her eyes a few moments ago, he also noticed she had a look of fear, of anxiousness and of a need for help. She was scared, but he had no idea of who or what. He could have dialed up the Erwin Police and sent out a unit to check on her and debated that for a moment. But in the end, sighed and decided to figure out what she needed before making any judgment calls. He drove back to the entrance, her eyes following him the whole way.

    “You need some kinda help? You have the look of someone that’s in some sorta trouble,” he said.

    “I’m pretty much good to go,” she said, still looking scared.

    “Got anyplace I can give you a ride to?” he asked.

    “No, I’ll be okay out here,” she said.

    “Listen, while this town is pretty tame for the most part, a pretty young thing like you could get thrown into a van and end up out in the woods with your throat cut after being raped. You sure you’ll be okay?” he prodded.

    “I thought the people in the South were friendly,” she said.

    “We are for the most part, but just like everywhere else, we’ve got our share of folks that ain’t so neighborly,” he said. “Now can I give you a ride somewhere?”

    “How do I know you aren’t one of those less than friendly folks?” she asked.

    “I offered the ride as opposed to nabbing you off the street here,” he said reasonably.

    “Where you heading?” she asked.

    “Back to my place,” he said.

    “Which is?” she asked.

    “I live on a farm away from here,” he said.

    “Mind if I tag along and you can drop me off in the next town?” she asked.

    “Hadn’t planned on stopping, but I can drop you off in Unicoi if you like. Ain’t the biggest place in the State, but you might find something there,” said the man.

    “Sounds great!” she said and grabbed at a well worn backpack sitting next to her on the ground. Opening the door, she hopped into the cab and put the pack at her feet.

    “You want to buckle up?” he asked as he pulled away from the door. She grabbed at the seatbelt and pulled it over, locking it in place. “So, where you from?”

    “Originally or where now?” she asked.

    “Both,” he said.

    “I’m originally from Ohio. Now I’m just kind of going where my heart takes me,” she said.

    “And that direction might be?” he asked.

    “I was thinking Myrtle Beach,” she said.

    “Okay, I have to ask…your folks know where you are at?” he asked, knowing for certain she was a runaway.

    “Of course,” she lied.

    “Didn’t have enough money for a bus ticket I suppose?” he asked.

    “Something like that,” she said.

    “They could be worried about you,” he said.

    “Mister, thanks for the ride, but I’d rather not talk about my family,” she said.

    “Suit yourself. Just being a friendly Southern guy,” he said.

    She laughed at the comment and looked out the window at the trees passing by on the two lane highway. The look of fear had disappeared from her face, but the anxiousness still was in her eyes. The remainder of the drive was spent in silence from Erwin to Unicoi Tennessee. He eventually reached his turn off spot by Jones Hardware and came to a stop.

    “I’m turning towards home from here,” he said.

    “Well, thanks for the ride Mister,” she said. She grabbed the pack at her feet and popped open the door, walking over in the parking lot next to the roadway. When she got there, she looked north and south along the road, wondering what to do next.

    “You don’t have any place to go, do you?” he asked after rolling down the window.

    “Just where my heart takes me,” she said.

    “Listen, it’s going to be dark in a couple of hours and there isn’t any place in town to take you in. You don’t have any place to go and the sheriff will bust you for vagrancy if he finds you sleeping out on a store front somewhere. I’ve got a guesthouse at my place and I can put you up for the night if you want,” he offered.

    “I wouldn’t want to impose Mister,” she said, thinking over his offer.

    “So you have a place to go?” he asked.

    “No, not really,” she said.

    “Offer’s only good for now,” he said.

    She contemplated his offer for about two seconds before deciding the chance to sleep in an actual bed and take an actual shower appealed to her more than trying to find a place to sleep out again. For all I know, he could be a serial killer, weird axe murderer or some pervert, but I just don’t get that vibe from him she thought and made her choice. She hopped back off the sidewalk and got back into the vehicle. “Just for the night.”

    “I wouldn’t have made the offer otherwise,” he said and pulled the truck back out.

    “I’m Cindy,” she said.

    “I’m Charlie,” he said. “We’ll at least get you cleaned up and fed before we have the chance to talk.”

    “Talk about what?” she asked.

    “About what you’re running away from and what we can do about it,” he said as they departed the town.

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    CHAPTER 1



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    CHAPTER 2


    Cindy had spent a restless night sleeping off and on, worrying about her newfound “friend” from the previous night. Not that she didn’t trust him, but she just didn’t…trust him fully. But she had a plan for that as well. She carried a claw hammer in her bag just in case and had slept with it under her pillow that night, waking up at the strangest sound and slightest creak of the cabin and grabbing it every time in case she needed to use it. But the night had passed without incident and she wondered what kind of situation she was getting into. Plus, she wondered if she should tell him what brought her to this small farm in East Tennessee.

    It was going to be daybreak soon and she could see the early morning gray associated with just before the sun began to rise. She rose out of the bed, feeling somewhat uncomfortable wearing the clothing of the man’s dead wife, but until she could get inside and grab her own clothing, she was kind of stuck with it. She looked in the mirror and saw the dark rings under her eyes from the restless night she spent and decided she didn’t need to worry that much about it next time. Her life was in her own hands now and she needed to start thinking on that level. She had a shudder at the thought of what she had been in before and decided it wasn’t so bad being in this strange bedroom in a strange place and with a stranger watching over her. She contemplated taking another shower and decided it would be better if she get it out of the way quickly before getting underway that day.

    At the house, Charlie went to the front door after hearing the doorbell and saw his friend Mitch standing on the porch. He opened it up and waved him inside.

    “Morning Charlie, how’s Unicoi County’s most famous author doing this morning?” asked the Sheriff as he pulled off his hat.

    “About as good as our famous Sheriff. Coffee?” he asked as they wandered through the house.

    “Absolutely,” said Mitch as they entered the kitchen. He grabbed a cup since this was not the first visit to the farm he had done before. Lifelong friends since kindergarten, the two got along great and often bounced ideas off each other. Mitch fought against the corruption so evident in a small county sheriff and had very few people in the area he could call a true friend. Charlie was one of the few that he could rely on, thick or thin. But by and large, the county appreciated what he did and had reelected him into his position again by a large majority.

    “Kind of early for you to be getting up,” said Charlie.

    “One of the deputies called in sick. His wife and kid are down with a stomach bug so I’m filling in on his shift today. Plus your call has me curious,” said Mitch as he poured a cup of coffee. “Eight O’clock brand?”

    “Yeah, decided to give it a try after I had that cup at the courthouse. Smells rich,” said Charlie.

    After taking a sip, the sheriff decided it was done just fine although a little strong like Charlie typically fixed his. “Okay, you drug me out here at the crack of dawn.”

    “Found something in Erwin that has me kind of curious. Young girl, runaway I think. No story to speak of and not from around here either. Says she is from Cleveland Ohio, but her accent is kind of New England. Won’t talk, but looks scared to death at what she came from,” said Charlie.

    “You take her to a shelter?” asked Mitch, not that Unicoi County had a shelter for runaway girls.

    “No, brought her here,” said Charlie.

    “Are you out of your mind? She could be a prostitute, a drug addict, a drug dealer, a thief, a murderer…any number of things,” said Mitch as he ran out of bad things to list.

    “No, I don’t think she’s any of those. She doesn’t fit the profile or at least for now. Maybe down the road, but not at the moment. You know me, I like to help people,” said Charlie.

    “Yeah, you do. So you called me why?” asked Mitch.

    “Well, Sheriff, you always have the answers to this sorta thing. I just bring the problems to you and let you deal with them,” laughed Charlie.

    “I can send out a ping with her name and address, but thousands of young girls go missing each year. Like searching for a needle in a haystack, but we could get lucky. However, without a decent address, we aren’t going to get that lucky,” said Mitch. “Name?”

    “Cindy Grant or so she says,” said Charlie.

    “Physical description?” asked Mitch.

    “Five six, maybe five seven, bout one twenty, one twenty five max, dirty blond hair, green eyes, no tattoos I could see, but I didn’t look her over,” said Charlie.

    “As I wouldn’t expect you to,” said Mitch. “Is that her?”

    Charlie turned and looked where Mitch was motioning his head and sure enough, Cindy was coming through the yard towards the back door. “Yeah, that’s her. She was probably going to sneak out quietly.”

    “Pretty thang,” said Mitch. “You know, most older guys picking up a pretty young girl like that have a few things other than helping her on their mind.”

    “You should know me better than that,” said Charlie.

    “I do and if it was anyone else, I wouldn’t believe them. But yes Charlie, you’re a good guy and wouldn’t take advantage of the situation. Annie, God rest her soul, would come back and haunt you for the rest of your life and you wouldn’t forgive yourself in the first place,” said Mitch.

    “Just checking Mitch, some folks might not believe,” said Charlie.

    “Let ‘em talk, that’s about all they got these days anyway is the gossip,” said Mitch.

    Cindy knocked softly on the back door, but couldn’t see into the house because of the screen door. Charlie met her and opened it up, letting her in.

    “I didn’t know if you would be awake yet and I wanted to-” she started and saw the Sheriff sitting at the kitchen table. Suddenly her look turned to fear, shock then anger as she looked at Charlie.

    “He can help Cindy, why don’t you sit down and talk to him,” said Charlie patiently.

    “I thought you said you were here to help me!” she objected at seeing the law enforcement officer sitting at the kitchen table observing what was going on.

    “I am helping you. But you won’t talk to me so I had no other choice. I think you need help, but for the life of me I don’t know what kind. He can help with whatever problems you have. Trust me, I’ve known Mitch Brewer my whole life and if there is anyone who can help you, it’s him,” said Charlie patiently.

    “Thanks, but no thanks. I’m leaving,” she said and went into the laundry room to grab her items. She was intercepted by Mitch.

    “Listen young lady. Charlie Gray is a downright great guy and I trust him without question. If he says you are in trouble and in need of help, I’m going to give it to him. Now we can do this the easy way or the hard way,” said the Sheriff.

    “What’s the hard way?” she asked with a hint of sass.

    “The hard way is we throw you into a juvenile hall until we figure out who you are and what you are doing here. Then ship you back to wherever you come from,” said Mitch forcefully.

    “And the easy way?” she asked more timidly after thinking about the other option.

    “You tell me why you are so far from home and what we can do to help,” said Mitch.

    “I don’t know if you can help,” she said with her lip quivering.

    “Try us,” said Mitch as he swept his hand at Charlie.

    “I’m scared…I don’t know what to do,” she said, shedding a tear.

    “We just might if you give us the chance,” said Charlie, joining the conversation. She didn’t do anything except look at them with tear filled eyes and a quivering lower lip.

    “Last chance,” said Mitch, taking the tough route.

    She continued to look at them with a tear streaming down her face. She had no idea if these two could help her and she immediately distrusted any law enforcement since they had been no help before. She had no idea what to do except escape once again when the cir***stances would let her. She had no idea neither one of the men would let her.

    “Okay, we’ll do it the hard way,” said Mitch as he got on his radio. “Dispatch, Unit 1.”

    “Go ahead Unit 1,” said the voice from the radio.

    “Need a female out at the Gray Farm to process a juvenile, female type. Going to process for theft, vagrancy and trespassing,” said Mitch.

    “Wait!” yelled Cindy through tears.

    “You ready to talk now?” asked Mitch.

    “I’m scared…” she said and broke down in tears.

    “Darlin, we ain’t going to hurt you. Trust me, this guy will get you whatever help you need,” said Charlie in a soft voice as he handed over a handkerchief.

    “I don’t know what to do,” said Cindy, blowing her nose and wiping her face.

    “Let us know why you are here, then we will go from there,” said Charlie.

    “I…I’ll let you help me. But promise me you will listen to everything I have to say before you do anything,” said Cindy through sniffs.

    “Dispatch, Unit 1, cancel last request,” said Mitch into the radio.

    “10-4, cancel last request. You need backup?” asked the dispatcher.

    “Negative, I’ve got Charlie with me,” said Mitch into the radio. He turned back to Cindy and softened his look. “Want to start at the top?”

    “I…” she started and sniffed. “I want to request political asylum.”

    “You want to do what?” asked Mitch.

    “Be granted political asylum in the State of Tennessee,” she said, clearing up somewhat.

    “Umm, I don’t even know if that’s possible,” said Mitch after being hit with the revelation. “But why?”

    Cindy sat down at the table and started talking. Who she was, where she came from, how long it took her to get here and what drove her away to start with. She was fifteen years old and from a small community near Rochester New York. And she had another name as well for him to put out on the computer systems, Haseena Hassan. Her father had converted over to Islam three years prior and drug his family along with him including his children. But that’s where the problems just started.

    Her father had fallen in with a radical Imam preaching in a small community in upstate New York and his leanings were now closer to being on the dangerous fringe rather than in moderation which many practiced. Upon moving his family closer to the congregation, he also forced the new name change to Hassan and gave the remainder of his children new Islamic names. She had a younger brother and sister and he started enforcing a strict Islamic dress code. The school where they lived was a private one and closed to females of all types. There weren’t that many girl children around, but all were forced to wear the traditional hijab and the full length abaya, and some were even forced to wear the niqāb if their father enforced the strict dress code. And her father was one of those strict fundamentalists who decided his daughter would be hidden from public view at all times. And he started treating his daughters and wife differently. Physical abuse was not uncommon along with punishments for minor transgressions.

    “But that’s not why I left. My father told me I was to be married to a man in the congregation, the Imam. He is forty-seven years old and my father told me I was to marry him and keep him happy as it was what Allah wanted,” she cried, thinking over what had happened the previous week.

    “Well, that’s illegal. He can’t do that,” said Mitch.

    “I KNOW!” she exclaimed through tears.

    “Why come all the way to Tennessee though? Why not go to the police up there?” asked Charlie.

    “Because the local police are part of the congregation and know it goes on. We are a fairly secluded community and they support what the Imam tells them to do,” she cried.

    “No State Police?” asked Mitch.

    “I didn’t think of going to them. I managed to steal some money out of my father’s wallet and some old clothing from my mother and run away two nights before I was to be wed to him. I caught a ride to the nearest bus stop and headed south from there. I managed to make it to near Roanoke before the money ran out and I managed to hitch rides from there. I had made it to this town when Charlie found me,” said Cindy crying.

    “Heading to where?” asked Mitch.

    “I had no idea,” she cried. “Just away from there.”

    “And the bruises? Did they come from there?” asked Charlie.

    Cindy just nodded her head through tears as she looked at the two.

    “I’ve got to ask, but any proof of the claims you just made?” asked Mitch.

    “No, they will all protect the Imam there. I saw it once before,” said Cindy as she sniffed repeatedly.

    “Give us a minute,” said Mitch as he motioned to Charlie to back away and into another room. “Well, you certainly drop some serious ones in my lap.”

    “You think she’s telling the truth?” asked Charlie.

    “I’ve got no reason to doubt her,” said Mitch, thinking of what had been said. “I mean, the story could be made up, but it’s not. I can’t tell you why except that little hunch I’ve got.”

    “Ever seen anything like this before?” asked Charlie.

    “Shoot brother, I ain’t even heard of nothin this crazy before,” said Mitch with a laugh. “But it’s a crazy world, so nothing’s impossible.”

    “So what now?” asked Charlie.

    “I guess I can run her name through NCIC and TBI to see what pops up. But I’d rather not do it from the terminal in the office,” said Mitch.

    “Why not?” asked Charlie.

    “I don’t know. Just the funny feeling I get. I’d rather do it from one of the State terminals at the Troopers’ office or in Johnson City myself. Preferably a place they can’t easily track,” said Mitch.

    “Again, why?” asked Charlie.

    “I’m thinking I might not like what kind of answers I get if we get a hit,” said Mitch. “And let’s just play this out. Let’s say for a moment what she told us was true. Her parents are going to want to come get her or we bring her to them. Now I ain’t about to take some young girl who should be worried about a prom date back to be married to some dirty old man. I put her name out across the TBI terminal and it comes back with a hit, especially if she was reported missing. The hit is traced back to my office. It gives them a place to start looking. And I’d rather keep her under wraps until we can figure out what she said is true.”

    “You thinking they might come get her if they know where she is?” asked Charlie.

    “Probably would,” said Mitch.

    “Crazy,” observed Charlie, not being able to think of another word to use.

    “I’m rarely shocked in my life. Can’t say I’ve seen everything, but not too many things in this life surprise me. But I will admit this is in my top three if it pans out,” said Mitch.

    “So what do I need to do?” asked Charlie.

    “You want to keep her for the time being while I think this over? Plus I’ve got to tell someone about it, just a few trusted folks,” said Mitch.

    “Is it legal? The whole political asylum thing?” asked Charlie.

    “No…well, I don’t know. Depends on how you look at it. I mean, political asylum means you are escaping a place because of your political beliefs and whatnot. Religion is in there as well I think. I mean, she doesn’t want to be in her current environment. But anyway, it’s about whether or not the State is allowing it to happen,” said Mitch.

    “So is that a yes or a no?” asked Charlie with a laugh as his friend often spoke out loud when he was thinking.

    “That’s an I honestly have no idea,” said Mitch. “I mean, it doesn’t sound right, but I’m not a legal expert.”

    “Funny predicament for a law enforcement officer,” laughed Charlie. “Let me make a call and ask.”

    “Your lawyer bud in Gray?” asked Mitch.

    “Yeah, give me a few,” said Charlie as he went back into the kitchen where Cindy was still sitting. “We’re working on it.”

    “What do I need to do?” she asked, still red eyed from crying.

    “Finish the dishes like you promised,” he chuckled and grabbed a planner with numbers in the contacts list. He found the number he wanted after looking through several pages. Grabbing the cordless phone, he walked outside and dialed the number.

    “Hello Jimmy, Charlie Gray here…yeah, I know it’s early, but I’ve got a question for you…hypothetical situation kind…say a person from New York wanted to claim political asylum in Tennessee, is that possible…listen, you called me drunk as a skunk in the middle of the night once, so you can forgive me this time…no, I’m not drunk…yeah, hypothetically…well, I don’t know, that’s why I’m calling you…come on Jimmy, you’re the lawyer, didn’t something like this ever come up at law school…no…well, it’s not like I can Google the answer you know, it’s kind of complicated…any kind of legal precedent you can think of…well, call it a favor, but I’ll hire you for time if it becomes too much…okay, maybe not so hypothetical…no, I’d rather just keep this between you and me for the moment…I haven’t set foot in New York in seven years if it’s been a day…no, I’m not in any kind of trouble…let’s call it a friend…well, now that’s the problem…yeah…maybe…okay, they’re a minor…no parents in the picture for the moment…we might say that’s part of the problem…okay, how about Tuesday at your office…alright, consider yourself hired…yeah, I’ll take this morning’s fee from the money you still owe me for the deer last fall...okay, see you in a few days.”

    “Jimmy Kellogg says he might be able to research it and help,” said Charlie as he walked back inside and found Mitch in the middle of his own calls.

    “Mayor says this place is as good as any, but I didn’t give him specifics. His quote: ‘that Charlie Gray guy is as good as anyone even if he’s not on the list.’ It’ll take me at least two days to find a decent foster home in any case, so I think you are qualified. I’ll have the county sign off on your paperwork today declaring you as a foster home and make this legal,” said Mitch.

    “And the rest?” asked Charlie.

    “I’ll have to make a trip into Johnson City to do what I need,” said Mitch.

    “I ain’t so comfortable with having a potential fugitive in my house,” said Charlie. “Might not look so good with me being a single guy and her a fifteen year old girl.”

    “It’ll be fine. Trust me, the entire county would come out and give character references for you,” said Mitch.

    “I know, I just worry about the situation in case it came up,” said Charlie.

    “Trust me, you’ve got far more important things to worry about in the long run,” said Mitch.

    “Such as?” asked Charlie.

    “Like how much teenagers eat,” laughed Mitch. “Now let her know we’re working on it and to stay put for the moment.”

    “Game this out for me, what happens if her family wants her back?” asked Charlie.

    “Then we present her testimony and ask for an investigation by New York Child Protective Services,” said Mitch.

    “And if they come up with nothing?” asked Charlie.

    “We’ll cross that bridge when we come to it,” said Mitch.

    Charlie returned to the kitchen where Cindy was actually finishing up the dishes. He saw she was in a little better sorts than she had been earlier, but that kind of emotional trauma wasn’t easy to cope with and she might need someone to talk to eventually.

    “Come on over and have a seat. I’ve got a few questions for you,” said Charlie.

    “Okay,” she said and wiped her hands on the dishrag and put a pan in to soak. She sat down cattycorner to him at the table and put her hands on the table.

    “First off, we’re working on it. Gonna take some time, but patience is a virtue. In the meantime, do you have a place to stay?” he asked, knowing the answer in advance.

    “I can’t stay with you?” she asked.

    “Well, that’s an option, but not one I’m particularly comfortable with. I mean, you’re a pretty young girl and I happen to be single. Lots of rumors get started that way,” he said.

    “Well, I can stay in the cabin can’t I?” she asked.

    “Suppose you can, but I’m offering the chance to stay with a foster family until we figure out what to do with you,” said Charlie.

    “If it’s all the same to you, I’d rather stay here. I mean, I don’t know anyone else,” she said.

    “Well, you don’t really know me,” said Charlie.

    “I know you better than anyone else around here. Are you a bad person or something?” asked Cindy.

    “No, I’m not a bad guy. At least I don’t think I’m a bad guy,” he chuckled.

    “Anything I should know about?” asked Cindy with a hint of a smile.

    “I don’t like to do the dishes,” he said with a grin. It seemed to set her at ease.

    “I think I can live with that flaw. Yes, I would like to stay here,” she said.

    “Okay, as long as you’re comfortable with it,” said Charlie. “But I have a few ground rules if you plan on staying. Sure, you’re my guest, but you have to earn your keep around here.”

    “Okay, what are they?” she asked.

    “You have to work hard, if you don’t know how to do it, I’ll show you. You keep up with your school lessons if and when you happen to still be around when school starts. And you mind your manners. You may think you’re sassy and stubborn, but you’ll find me the most stubborn mule this side of the Mississippi. I ain’t gonna yell at you, beat you or nothing like that, but I do expect you to mind your manners ‘round me. Can you accept this?” asked Charlie.

    “I don’t have another choice do I?” she asked.

    “Foster home in the county somewhere,” he said.

    “No, I can accept it,” she said. “Besides the dishes, anything else?”

    “We’ll figure that out as we go along,” said Charlie.

    “May I ask something? A favor?” she asked.

    “Which is?” he returned.

    “I’m kind of sassy, I know. My father calls it impudent, but anyway. Can you bear it a little? I’ll try to watch myself, but please let me know if I step out of bounds,” she asked.

    “I think I can agree to that,” said Charlie.

    “And what now?” asked Cindy.

    “We wait for Mitch to make a few calls and figure out what’s going on,” said Charlie.

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    CHAPTER 3



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    CHAPTER 3 CONTINUED


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    CHAPTER 4


    As Charlie and Cindy were walking out of the Wal-Mart, a voice from the side stopped them.

    “Charlie Gray! You just gonna walk on by without saying hello?” a female voice demanded from the side.

    “Hi Mary,” said Charlie as he immediately recognized the voice. “How are you?”

    “Doing good, haven’t seen you around in a while,” said Mary with a smile.

    “Farm’s kept me busy this year. Rain’s been good for the crops,” said Charlie with a smile.

    “Who’s this pretty little girl?” asked Mary.

    “This is my niece from Ohio,” said Charlie.

    “Hi, I’m Cindy,” said Cindy as she stuck out her hand.

    “Hi, I’m Mary Worthington. I didn’t even know Charlie had a niece,” she exclaimed.

    “Family is spread out,” she said.

    “Charlie, I’ve been missing you lately. You haven’t come into town like you used to,” said Mary, turning back to Charlie and pretty much ignoring Cindy. It was fairly obvious who the object of Mary’s attention was by the eyes she flashed at Charlie.

    “I come through from time to time,” said Charlie patiently.

    “Not what Barb or Julie says. They said they haven’t seen you in a month of Sundays,” said Mary. “You need to stop by a little more often.”

    “Well, with harvest coming up, it’s going to be hard to get into Erwin like I usually do,” said Charlie.

    “I’ll tell you what, you come on down and I’ll make you another one of those blackberry cobblers like I did that one time,” said Mary.

    “I’ll see to it I stop by next time I’m in,” said Charlie.

    “You know where to find me. I’m always at the drug store,” said Mary. “Funny I ran into you here in Johnson City though. I was on a trip to Kingsport to pick up some stuff for the store and I remembered I was out of sugar. And wouldn’t you believe it, but the IGA Store was out of the ten pound bags of sugar. I never buy those five pound bags, just don’t seem to last. So I saw the Wal-Mart on my way off the highway and figured I’d give them a try. It’s cheaper at the old Whites, but the manager said he didn’t know when they were getting more in and I don’t want to wait. I mean, it would end up being like that time we all had to wait on the big cans of JFG Coffee and they didn’t get it in for six months. But anyway, I remembered I needed more sugar and I was out this way and-”

    “Uncle Charlie? We’ve got that roast in the oven,” said Cindy, politely interrupting and seeing the expression on Charlie’s face. She barely knew him, but the expression of “help me” was the same the world over.

    “Yeah, we do. Hate to cut it short Mary, but we’ve got to get running. Cindy here is cooking up a roast and we just came out for a quick trip,” he said.

    “Well, don’t you be a stranger. You swing on by and sit down for a glass of tea,” said Mary. “Nice to meet you.”

    “And you too ma’am,” said Cindy.

    “You take care Mary,” said Charlie.

    “Always do,” she said with a smile. “Bye now.”

    After Mary entered the store and was out of earshot, Cindy had to ask. “Who is that woman?”

    “If you ever want to know anything about anybody in the town of Erwin or Unicoi County, all you need to do is ask Mary. She’s the town gossip,” said Charlie.

    “Her voice is like nails running down a chalkboard. But she seems to like you,” said Cindy with a giggle.

    “Yeah, Mary has been after me a few years now. Tried to console me after Annie died, but just wouldn’t take the hint I’m not ready to move on yet,” said Charlie.

    “When a woman gives you the eye like that, it’s kind of obvious,” laughed Cindy.

    “Figure the whole town will know I’ve got a niece within about two days,” chuckled Charlie. “Thanks for saving me.”

    “You looked like you needed help. I’m not the only one that needs saving from time to time,” said Cindy.

    “Might just keep you around,” laughed Charlie.

    “I’m glad she noticed I’m still a little girl,” said Cindy with a tone.

    “That’s just Mary being Mary. Anyone under the age of twenty five is a little girl to her,” said Charlie with a chuckle.

    “And the rest of the day today? Besides the roast I’m cooking?” asked Cindy.

    “Back to chores and you get to try out your new duds,” said Charlie.

    “Can’t I cook a roast or something instead?” she chuckled.

    “Moving hay is good for you,” said Charlie.

    “How’s that?” asked Cindy.

    “You’ll see,” said Charlie.

    “And I can’t just cook dinner and call it good?” she repeated.

    “No, unlucky for you I put a ham in before we left,” said Charlie.

    “Ham…” said Cindy and her voice trailed off.

    “You don’t like ham?” asked Charlie.

    “Haven’t had it in several years remember?” said Cindy.

    “Yeah, I forgot. We can do something else if you prefer,” said Charlie.

    “No! I’d eat a whole pig about right now,” said Cindy.

    “Okay, ham it is,” laughed Charlie.

    The drive back to the farm was spent talking once again and once they returned, Cindy changed clothes to do the chores he had requested she do. Had she refused, he would have ended up doing it himself, but she had “volunteered” and came into the barn in her new work clothing.

    “Take from the back, the part closest to the wall and move it on over to the door. The neighbors are coming by to pick them up tomorrow. You can help load then too if you want,” said Charlie.

    “Just stack them up somehow?” asked Cindy.

    “Yeah, ‘bout four high should be okay,” he said and went back to organizing and moving items around.

    She went over and saw the bales were stacked up five high, almost out of reach for her, but she grabbed at the wire and pulled the first one off the top.

    “Best be careful doing that. That pile comes down on you and it’ll be hard to get to you quickly,” warned Charlie.

    “These are heavy!” she exclaimed.

    “Bout fifty, sixty pounds. They can get heavier,” said Charlie.

    “And you expect me to move them all over there?” she asked.

    “I can help if you want it,” he offered. “I mean, you might not be strong enough to do it.”

    “No, I think I’ve got it,” she said and looked at the bale on the ground. One way or another, she would prove to him she wasn’t some wimp who couldn’t move the simple weight around.

    He went back to sharpening the blades taken from a riding lawnmower and watched her out of the corner of his eye. She initially tried carrying it up and down, but failed as it continued to slip out of her hands. She tried lengthwise as well and found she couldn’t grip her hands around the bale. Eventually she remembered having the gloves stuffed into the cargo pocket of the BDU pants she had on and grabbed it by the wire and managed to get it over to the doorway. Finding the best way of carrying it took several tries, but she seemed to have a good system going after the first five. But it wasn’t easy work as she grunted at attempting to lift the bales and carry them over. She noticed he was watching her carefully, although not being obvious about it.

    He thinks I won’t be able to do this by myself, but I’m going to prove him wrong. I can do this no problem she thought as she figured out the best way of moving the bales around the large stack and to the door.

    He continued to perform his own details in silence as she continued to move the bales. She was learning a valuable lesson right then and he was teaching her silently.


    ********************


    “Hi, this is John Williams from the California State Patrol. I have this number listed on a hit we got on a juvenile contact,” said Mitch Brewer into the clean cell phone.

    “What was the name of the contact?” asked the voice at the other end.

    “Cindy Grant. Does that name sound familiar?” asked Mitch.

    “Yes,” said the voice evenly.

    “Are you her father or legal guardian?” asked Mitch.

    “Yes, I am her father,” said the voice calmly.

    “Name please,” said Mitch.

    “Mohammed Hassan. And technically my daughter is Haseena Hassan,” said the voice.

    “I have her listed by only Cindy Grant. What was the other name?” asked Mitch.

    “Do you have my daughter in custody?” asked Hassan.

    “I am unsure of that. One of our patrols asked us to run it by name and date of birth. We came back with a hit,” said Mitch.

    “The date of birth was?” asked Hassan.

    “I was hoping you could verify the date of birth for me to confirm the validity of who you are,” said Mitch.

    “Her birthday is 10 October 1995. Do you have her in custody?” he repeated.

    “Again, I’m not sure where the patrol got the information from,” Mitch lied.

    “What arrangements can I make to get my daughter back?” asked Hassan.

    “We typically bring them to you,” said Mitch. “But we have some other concerns as well.”

    “Such as?” asked Hassan.

    “Well, typically runaways feel they have a reason for leaving. We will request the New York State Police conduct an inquiry into your home environment before we turn her over,” said Mitch.

    “For what reason?” asked Hassan.

    “Just for precaution. It is not meant to doubt your story, but we have to be certain her well being is cared for,” said Mitch.

    “Her home life is of no concern to you. I want my daughter back,” said Hassan.

    “You are awfully calm for someone whose daughter is missing,” said Mitch.

    “My daughter is fairly impudent and a liar. She will say anything to whomever cares to listen,” said Hassan.

    “Your daughter made some claims we have to have investigated before any transfer of custody will take place,” said Mitch.

    “So you do have my daughter,” said Hassan.

    “What is your current address so I might have the proper New York officials make the inquiry?” asked Mitch.

    “My current address is of no concern. I want my child back right now,” said Hassan calmly again.

    “But you have to understand, she has made claims that must be investigated,” said Mitch.

    “Children often make outlandish claims. Why is this going to be any different in the case of my daughter?” asked Hassan.

    “The cir***stances surrounding the claims are unusual to say the least. We as a law enforcement agency are not comfortable turning over that child to your custody until the questions have been answered,” said Mitch.

    “I want my child back,” said Hassan.

    “After we contact the proper authorities in New York, this will be done,” said Mitch.

    “I will come get her instead. You will waste my time and she is already behind on her duties,” said Hassan.

    “I’m sorry, but until an investigation is complete, there is nothing more to discuss,” said Mitch.

    “Where are you located?” asked Hassan.

    “You will be notified by the proper New York officials of when and where she will be available,” said Mitch.

    “Time is of the essence. I want her back now!” growled Hassan.

    “Why is time of the essence? She is safe under out custody here,” said Mitch.

    “It is of no concern to you, but she has certain duties to perform,” said Hassan.

    “What duties might those be?” asked Mitch.

    “She has a certain meeting she must attend for her future. That is all you need to know,” said Hassan.

    “I’ll be in touch with the New York authorities,” said Mitch as he ended the call. He felt a chill run down her spine as her father had all but verified the claims she had made. He would have to check further, but there was a good chance the claim of the arranged marriage was real. A fifteen year old could make up a lot of stories, but this was one that typically wouldn’t enter their mind unless there was some truth to the matter. Such an outlandish tale could easily be refuted until an official investigation was made. And until such time, Mitch would ensure she was protected as was his job as Sheriff.

    Mohammed Hassan looked at the phone and the fast dial tone it was beeping at him since he had yet to hang up. He wasn’t sure if the person who called was who they claimed to be and had been prying a little too much for his tastes. He put the phone on the receiver and thought about the conversation he had just had.

    Mohammed Hassan, formerly known as Stephen Grant was living in a small planned community of Muslims in upstate New York. He had practiced many forms of religion before deciding Islam was his preferred choice in his life, but had one thing in common with each of them. Each religion he practiced he took his zeal to new levels. While many were content to live their lives in full devotion to God’s work, Stephen Grant went above and beyond practicing the religion in complete control of his life, and in turn his family’s life and any other life he could preach it to. His devotion to whatever religion he happened to be practicing bordered on fanatical and relentless in his pursuit of demanding others believe what he believed. But all his life he had searched for more than just what Judaism, Christianity, Catholicism, Buddhism and others were teaching. He finally found what he was looking for three years prior in the form of Islam and immediately converted and changed his life to the calling of Allah and Mohammed his prophet.

    But he still wasn’t content until he fell in with the group in New York. The extreme teaching of the Imam there made him realize even the more moderate groups of Muslims in the United States had fallen away from the true faith. And so he had packed up his family and moved to the small community near Rochester. Being secluded from the main city, they had the freedom to practice the highly volatile version of Islam without interference from the outside and to train new warriors for the coming fight he predicted. His wife, two daughters and son had been given new names in accordance with his religion and he had forced the conversion of them all. And the conduct of the women would have been considered harsh even by the Taliban standards. His wife and two daughters were always fully clothed from head to toe and nobody was able to see their faces. His son was being taught the proper role of a Muslim male in the private school and he had hopes to send him off to the more advanced school in Pakistan later in his life.

    But the phone call had him worried. His eldest daughter had disappeared one night not to be seen again. The local law enforcement had been contacted and a report filed, but they had not seen her since she slipped away quietly one night. But for her to turn up in California was unusual. She had been resistant to the teachings of the community since their arrival and had been punished on several occasions for impudence. She was being stubborn, much like he was, but it was her role to be obedient in the community and a roll she needed to learn. His wife had admitted to missing some clothing after a savage beating by him and the members of the community, but had no other knowledge of her leaving. But then again, it wasn't completely unexpected as she had already gone to the police attempting to stop the planned marriage to the Imam. But being good members of the faith, they had reported her behavior to him and the Imam and she had been dealt with.

    But one thing was for certain, his daughter needed to be brought back to the fold before she dishonored his family. He needed her pure for the Imam’s wishes and the longer she was away, there was more of a chance of her being compromised. Plus the added attention given by law enforcement peeking in on what was going on and the State social workers stood a good chance of wrecking the harmony of the community.

    After thinking for several minutes, he departed to find the Imam and solicit his advice. Surely he would know what to do.

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    CHAPTER 4 CONTINUED

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