Skeletons

Chapter 2

 

Melody and Ravenswood lived in an apartment one floor down from the Bruce penthouse. Michael had walked them to their door, grumbling the whole time about how he hated being treated like a child. His friends did their best to sound sympathetic, but he could tell they thought he was over-reacting. Perhaps he was. Despite how smoothly things had run since he’d begun working as the Black Torrent, he was always aware that his father’s past could rear its head and destroy everything.

Making his way back to the penthouse, Michael went in search of Sara. Her room was dark, as was the small music room where she would sometimes escape to. A sweep of the rest of the house turned up empty, and he began to worry that perhaps she had headed back to the Home.

Returning to her room, the sound of sniffling greeted him. He squinted and could see someone sitting on the floor.

He switched on the side-table light. “Sara?”

Michael had seen his sister cry many times, but this time seemed different. She looked so frail and scared. So alone.

“I’m sorry,” he said as he sat down next to her. “I’ve been a real jerk.”

“No, you have every right to be upset.” She buried her face in her hands. “I wanted to tell you, I swear. But what was I going to say? ‘Oh, by the way, my foster father is a third-world dictator who slaughtered tens of thousands of people’?”

Michael already felt guilty, but now he felt worse. “I’m sorry,” he whispered again.

“I should’ve known he’d do something like this.”

“Like what?”

“Embarrass me. Set up that whole art show just to humiliate me.”

The thought had never occurred to him, but it made sense—the whole situation had been contrived.

“That’s how he is,” she continued. “He doesn’t just let you live, he controls you. He controls a situation. He knew I hadn’t told you yet, so he set this up to humiliate me. Because that’s what he does—that’s what he did when I was growing up.”

So much of Sara’s life had been shrouded in mystery. He had hesitated asking her about it in the past, but now the doors were open—he realized he needed to know. “How did you end up with him?”

Fear in her eyes, she voice lowered to a whisper. “Williamson.”

 

<<< “Wake up, Sara. Wake up!”

A hand grabbed her arm, shaking her, and Sara’s eyes snapped open. The room was still dark and a took a few moments for her vision to adjust.

“Wha...?” she asked, scrubbing her fist across her eyes.

A man in sunglasses stood above her. “Get up. We need to leave right now.”

The small night light in the corner cast just enough of a glow to see that the man held a bag and coat in his hand. “Where are we going?”

He didn’t answer. Instead, he pushed the blankets aside and yanked her arm. “Quiet. Don’t wake the others.”

Her roommates were still asleep and none of the staff were around. Sara tried to make sense of it all. “Am I getting a mom and dad?”

The question caught the man off-guard, and he stared at her blankly for a second. “Not exactly. Now, c’mon, we have to go. It’s too dangerous to stay here long.”

Dangerous? Sara felt her heart start to race. She flashed to visions of her father coming home years earlier, right before...

Shoving the coat at her, the man grabbed her hand. Though he didn’t say it, she knew this was the last time she would be at the orphanage.

“My stuff—”

“We don’t have time,” he growled.

“Oh, please. Just my bear and my book.”

Her voice had pitched up and the man looked around, worry in his eyes. “All right, a few things, but hurry.”

Sara opened the bureau and pulled out a photo album, a sketchbook, and a stack of cards and letters she had saved over the years.

Grumbling incoherently, the man shoved them into the bag.

Pulling a stuffed animal from under the blankets, she held it to her chest and nodded. “I’m ready.”

“Put it on,” he said, handing her the pink pea coat.

Slipping on her shoes, she glanced around once more before he yanked her out the door.

When they made it to the front entrance, Mrs. Blake was there, dressed in a nightgown. “I don’t like this. Not one bit,” she spoke harshly to the man.

“Would you like it if they came here, knowing you assisted in harboring her? They would simply kill her. You might not be so lucky.”

The woman’s lips pursed as her eyes narrowed. “I helped you.”

“And you were paid well for your efforts.”

The adults’ words were scaring her, and Sara felt tears well in her eyes. “I don’t want to go.”

Flashing her an irritated look, the man sneered at the woman. “Make sure the records are destroyed. She was never here.”

Without another word, the man pulled her through the door and towards the gray car parked by the curb.

 

*          *          *          *          *

 

The ride took a long time, and Sara struggled to stay awake. She didn’t want to sleep, though. She was afraid if she took her eyes off the man, something bad would happen.

As the sun rose, they made several stops: first at a payphone so he could make some calls, then at a couple of stores. He said very little to her. She didn’t know what to say to him, either, so she simply clutched her stuffed bear and waited.

The clock in the car said 10:50 when they finally made it to the hotel. It was a nice building, with flowers and trees in front. Inside room 121 there was another man. He was taller, with brownish skin, dark brown eyes, and black hair slicked back on his head. His clothes were a dingy green color, and Sara remembered enough of her childhood to know he must be in the Army or something.

“I have a few things to take care of,” the man in the sunglasses muttered. Without another word, he left, leaving her alone with the military man.

Sara stood in the middle of the floor. She was short for her age, but she felt even smaller as the man stood over her, nostrils flaring.

“¿Cómo te llamas?” he asked.

The girl remained still for a moment before swallowing hard. “I don’t know what you’re saying.”

“I asked what is your name?”

“Sara Veronica Wolff.”

He seated himself in the small chair. “Do you know who I am?”

“No, sir.”

“I am General Lira. I am going to take you somewhere far from here. I expect you to behave. I will have no yelling or crying or temper-tantrums.”

Sara felt her eyes water again, but held back the tears. The General was scary, and she didn’t want to anger him. “Yes, sir.”

Lira looked her up and down. “You are dressed very nice.”

“The man with the sunglasses bought this for me. He said he didn’t want me to look like a street rat.”

“Williamson does have such a compassionate way about him.”

For a long while, the man just stared, as if he didn’t quite know what to make of her. When he spoke again, his tone was cold. “So, you are an orphan. How did your parents die?”

It was a question Sara never liked, but one she had the answer memorized for. “My father was an alcoholic who beat my mother. One day he came home drunk and stabbed her to death. Then he turned a gun on himself.”

The man’s face was stern, but his forehead creased. He remained silent.

Sara fidgeted. “Isn’t that what you wanted to know?”

“Yes, it is.”

The silence came again, and Sara felt herself starting to get sick. She has just been yanked from her home and taken somewhere strange, and now she was there with a scary man. On top of it all, she hadn’t eaten anything since dinner the night before. A large growling noise came from her stomach and she flushed red, pressing her fingers to her lips.

“Excuse me.”

It was unexpected, but the man let out a roaring laugh. He had seemed so terrifying just a moment earlier, but as he smiled, Sara didn’t feel so afraid anymore. Grabbing her shoulder, he pushed her towards the door. “I will call my men and tell them to make sure there is food on the flight back to Paraíso.”

“Paraíso?” she asked, forgetting her hunger for a moment.

“My home.”

Sara looked down, still confused. “Where is my home?”

“That is what we’re trying to figure out.” >>>

 

Michael stared at his sister, his heart heavy. “I didn’t know that, about your adoptive parents—about your father killing your mother. I always wondered what happened to them.”

Sara pulled her knees to her chest. “I was just a little girl, I didn’t know any better. He was always drunk and my mother was always zoned out on anti-depressants. He’d beat her and she’d cry. But that night was different. He was so angry, crazed. My sister and I went and hid upstairs in a closet. We didn’t see anything, but we could hear her screaming.”

That’s why she doesn’t like knives, he realized.

“When everything got quiet, we went down. I don’t remember much, only that there was so much blood.” Sara sucked in a long, deep breath, then exhaled slowly. “A neighbor had heard the gunshot and called the police. Tammy was taken in by her grandparents, her mother’s family. Since I wasn’t a biological grandchild, they didn’t want me, so I ended up in the system. Until that night.”

Michael felt like there was something he should say, something he could do to make his sister feel better. It was eerie that despite their age difference, despite being a world apart, their lives were similar in so many ways. As he imagined his sister seeing the dead body of her mother, something triggered. He felt his heart start to race as his body went numb. Memories flashed forward, and for a brief moment he saw...

...the chateau.

Sara grabbed his arm. “Michael, are you okay?”

“I don’t know.”

There was fear in his sister’s eyes. “Maybe we should stop talking about this.”

“No, no. I want to hear about it. I want to know everything.” Forcing himself to relax, he took his sister’s hand. “So, you met the General. What happened next?”

 

<<< “It’s 4:30,” General Lira said as the agent entered the room. The man had promised to be there at 3:00.

“Sorry, I got tied-up. We moved just in time. I got a message from Nancy Miller. She’s hot on this now and wants to question me.”

Though Lira was familiar with the pedantic nature of the U.S. government, something continued to sound fishy about the whole situation. “I still don’t understand why this girl would be such a problem. She’s a child and doesn’t know anything.”

“No survivors,” Williamson answered simply, then motioned to the empty room. “Where is she?”

“Asleep in the limousine. My driver is watching her.”

“How soon before you leave?”

He understood Williamson was anxious, but the General did not like to be rushed. “In a few hours. I highly doubt someone is going to storm the fort before then.”

Pulling a cigarette from his jacket, Gavin lit it and took a drag. “Where will you take her?”

“There are places. I know quite a few individuals who would pay premium for such a child.” Lira laughed. “Would be better if she was blonde, but red hair works.”

“Sex trade, I presume.”

“There are others, those who would buy her for domestic labor. But given her looks, pale white and pretty, I assume she’d be desirable for some form of prostitution.”

Williamson shifted and sighed. “At least she’ll be alive.”

Lira’s eyes narrowed. He found it both amusing and reprehensible how people could satiate their guilt so easily. With a forced smile, he extended his hand.

“Oh, yes.” Williamson reached into his pocket and pulled out an envelope. “Ten thousand dollars.”

As much as the General owed the man a favor, there would still be individuals to bribe, paperwork to fabricate, and lips to seal. Not something Lira was inclined to advance the funds for. “I’ll assure that she’s untraceable.”

For the first time since they had met again, the agent seemed to relax. “I am indebted to you, General.”

“We’re even, Gavin.”

With a grip of their hands, the men parted in silence.

 

*          *          *          *          *

 

The child looked out the window. It had been twenty minutes since the plane had taken off and she was still enraptured by the scene outside.

“Have you ever been on a plane before?” Tauro asked. He had moved from his stationary seat and was situated at the small table at the back of the private jet.

“No,” Sara said, turning to face him. “The sky is so beautiful.”

There was an innocence to the child that made him smile. “Come sit and talk with me.”

The girl unstrapped her safety harness and moved to the seat opposite him. The table had indentations where a glass could be set. She ran her finger around the edge of one of the impressions.

“I’m bored,” Lira announced. “So, how do you propose to entertain me? Do you sing, do you dance?”

“No.”

“Do you know any games?”

It took a few moments, but she finally smiled. “We could look at the clouds and see what shapes we can make out.”

“I don’t think I would find that much fun,” he grumbled.

The General expected the girl to be disappointed. Instead, she looked more determined. “How about cards? I know how to play poker.”

That surprised the military man. “Who taught you to play that?”

“Jimmy Middleton. We used to play for shillings.”

Rubbing his chin, Lira twisted his face so it was obvious he was thinking. “I don’t know about that. What else can you come up with?”

Another moment of thought and the girl ran to get her bag. She pulled out a pencil box and paper. “I could draw something for you.”

“Really? Like what?”

“I’m good at animals. Like a cat or a dog.”

“I don’t much like that. How about you draw me?”

The girl seemed intimidated, but nodded. “All right. But you have to sit still so I can copy you.”

That caused the General to laugh. “I’d like to have a copy of myself. Would save me sitting through all those boring meetings.”

The two sat in silence for a half an hour as Sara sketched on the paper. Tauro had to hold back a smile. He was trying to remain stern and intimidating, but the girl didn’t seem scared anymore. That impressed him, as did the picture she finally held up.

“Does it look like you?”

He grabbed the sketch. “This isn’t bad. Not something I would frame, though.”

“You could put it on your refrigerator,” she suggested.

The General smiled despite himself. “It’s actually very good. Where did you learn to draw?”

“I just did. There’s not a lot to do sometimes, so I just sit and sketch.”

Tauro studied the girl, marvelling at how bright and determined she was. “How about you show me how to play poker.”

 

“General, we’re approaching Paraíso,” the voice called over the intercom. “You’ll need to return to your seats.”

The man barely heard the message. He looked down as Sara laid an ace and a queen of hearts down on the table.

“Blackjack?” he asked, indignantly.

The red-headed girl giggled. “Is that okay?”

“Yes, of course. I just didn’t expect to lose like that.” Throwing down his cards, he grimaced. “Actually, I’m more used to people letting me win.”

Gathering her drawing supplies and stuffed bear, Sara placed them back in her bag and returned to her seat. “I guess you’re going to your house now, right?”

Lira snapped on his belt. “Si.”

“And I’m going somewhere else?”

The girl’s tone had been so bright and cheerful, it troubled Tauro to hear the uncertainty and pain return. “We don’t need to worry about that right now. You’ll stay with me for a few days, then we’ll decide what will happen.”

 

*          *          *          *          *

 

Paraíso was a South American country with a President duly-elected by the people. However, the citizens of the country, and most of the world, realized that the real ruler was Tauro Lira. He was a fearless and ruthless leader, stifling any opposition, and killing those who were a threat to him. It was rumored that he had no heart and was scared of no one. Lira would have readily agreed, were it not for one person...

His wife.

Having met while at university, Gabriella was the love of his life. She was beautiful, charming, and smart. She was also determined, stubborn, and nearly as ruthless as he was. Many called them the most powerful couple in South America, and some argued, the world.

Despite her fierce nature, his wife was practical. Gabby understood that she was only as good as the next, much younger woman. With that in mind, she allowed her husband freedom to wander, and submitted to him on most household matters. However, on the few occasions when something was important to her, she expected him to honor her wishes. Tauro feared this would be one of those times, and he was right.

“You want what?” she asked, crossing her arms.

“Sara. I want to keep her. She’s a sweet girl and I’ve taken a fancy to her.”

“Fancy? Like she’s a doll or something?”

Lira ignored the comment. “I believe she will brighten things around here.”

Tauro expected resistence. He expected yelling and screaming. What he didn’t expect was tears. “You want her because I cannot give you a daughter.”

“No,” Lira argued. “She has nowhere to go—she’s an orphan. We certainly have the means to take care of her.”

“Why should you care? She’s nothing but a gringo.” The woman sat on the couch, wrapping her arms around herself. “I have failed as a woman and a wife.”

“Gabby, you know that’s not true. Our boys are wonderful, and I thank heaven for them often. Now, I won’t lie and say that the idea of having a girl around here isn’t pleasing. But it doesn’t reflect against you.”

Tears rolled down the woman’s cheeks, but her gaze was hard and cold. “Do what you want. You will anyway.” In a fluid movement, she rose and stormed from the room.

Tauro thought to go after her, but decided against it. She was right, he had made up his mind and nothing would disuade him. Now he only had one thing left to do.

Making his way down the long corridor to the kitchen, the General stopped at the last door on the left. He tapped twice and turned the knob. On the bed, Sara sat Indian-style. She had a pad and a pencil in her hand, and set them down as he entered.

“Hola, General,” she greeted, then blushed. “I learned a little Spanish today.”

“So I see.” He clasped his hands. “So, do you like this room?”

It was really no more than a closet, with just enough space for a bed and dresser. But Sara didn’t seem to mind.

“It’s very nice. I’ve never had my own room before. I always had to share with other kids.”

“Would you like to stay here?” he asked.

“I don’t understand.” Her tone made it clear she understood all too well.

Lira turned and shrugged. “You are in need of a place to live and this room is available.” He kept his tone matter-of-fact. “You have met my boys. They are rough hooligans. I think it would do them well to have a girl around, to teach them some manners.” His mouth cornered into a smile. “And I would very much like to play poker with you again... and win.”

Sara cast her eyes on the floor. “Your wife.” Gabby had not been kind to the girl since she arrived.

“I am the master of this household, and she will abide by my decision.” He hardened his jaw, wanting to make it clear he was serious. “But it is not my choice—it is yours.”

Lira wasn’t sure what he would do if the girl desired to leave, but he never had a chance to worry. Sara sprang from the bed and hugged his waist. “I want to stay.”

Pulling her up into his arms, the General stroked her hair. “Then you shall.” >>>

 

Yule had listened to the story, hanging on every word. As the South American leader paused to refill his drink, the Bruce patriarch felt himself bristle.

“You were going to sell her into slavery,” was all he could manage.

Turning from the carafe, Lira’s eyes dropped to the floor. Yule could see an expression cross the man’s features, and realized that it was as close to guilt as the dictator allowed himself.

“Yes,” he admitted. “I actually have an associate who specializes in providing young girls to prominent businessmen. She would have fetched a high price.”

Yule wasn’t sure why the man felt the need to give such details, but it disturbed him enough that he found the need to distance himself. He rose and walked to the fireplace.

“But, I didn’t,” Tauro continued. “Sara was enchanting. I knew her history, all that she had gone through, yet she was still strong and gentle. I couldn’t bear to do that to her.”

Turning to face the man, Yule stared at him. “But her time with you was not all roses.”

“Are any of our lives roses?” Returning to his seat, the General took another drink of his scotch. “But she was safe, and that was all that mattered to me.”

And as much as Yule hated to admit it, that was the only thing that mattered to him. “What about Williamson?” he asked, returning to the sofa.

Tauro’s face darkened. “Perhaps you should get yourself a drink.”

 

*          *          *          *          *

 

Sara pulled her plate out of the microwave and set it down on the table. Her brother brought over two cups of coffee and set one in front her.

“Are you sure you don’t want any of this?” she asked as she dug into the rice pilaf.

Michael shook his head. “I’m still stuffed from dinner. But you eat. I still feel bad you were too nervous to eat earlier.” Taking a drink of his coffee, he motioned to his sister. “So, you were living with the Liras. You said your foster mother didn’t like you?”

“Uh-huh. She had five boys and desperately wanted a girl. Seeing me was like rubbing salt in a wound every day. It didn’t help that she had several miscarriages while I was there.”

“She never had another baby?”

“No,” she said, biting off the top of an asparagus. “I wish she would have. I think she would have felt better, especially if it was a girl. But she didn’t, and she took all her pain out on me.”

Grabbing a croquette from her plate, Michael popped it into his mouth. “You got along with the boys, though.”

“Yes. Manuel was the best. You remind me a lot of him. He was the oldest and always took care of me. Oscar and Jorge were Gabby’s boys, they picked on me all the time. Ernesto and Juan were just wild kids, always getting into trouble. Despite everything, though, most of the time we all got along.” Taking a bite of the meat, Sara closed her eyes and smiled. “Wow, this is so good.”

“Yeah, Dad spent a fortune on it.” He grabbed a piece from her plate. “How long were you there?”

“Five years. I left at 17 to head to college.” Sara moved her fork to stab a carrot, right as her brother snatched it. “Michael, I thought you said you weren’t hungry.”

“Sorry.” He popped the vegetable into his mouth, then leaned back in his chair. “Was Gabby ever nice to you?”

“Sometimes. Usually when other people were around, or when Papi made her behave.” Sara stared at the plate, her face pained again. “There was one time that shocked me, though. The day he came back.”

“Who came back?”

 

<<< Slinging her backpack over her shoulder, Sara gave a quick wave goodbye to Sister Theresa before heading up the road.

The small church was located at the bottom of the hill on which the Lira Estate was situated. It had been run by missionaries in the late 1800s, but abandoned at the turn of the century. Though not religious himself, the General still considered himself Catholic, and had the dilapitated building fully restored. An order of nuns from North America had been looking for a place to run their ministry, so the General allowed them to use it as their base of operations. It turned out to be a win-win situation, as the sisters tended to the children and the poor of the area, and Lira used his financing of the mission as a bragging point for his humanitarian efforts. It also provided him with a way to care for his foster daughter which was tolerable to his wife.

For security reasons, the Lira boys were schooled by private tutors, but Gabriella would not allow Sara to be instructed with them. The General had enlisted the nuns to handle her education, as well as help her become fluent in Spanish. All of Sara’s studies were handled in the small classroom at the rear of the convent, and she spent a good deal of each day in the women’s care.

It was a fifteen minute walk to the main house, but Sara usually stretched it out longer—she loved the time alone, and the scenery was so beautiful. Heading down the small paved road, she kicked a stone as she went along. The rock skittered out in front of her, stopping as it hit a shoe.

Glancing up, she sucked in a breath. “Mr. Williamson.”

The man was dressed in a dark gray suit, his brown hair slicked back, and black sunglasses on. His eyes moved up and down her body, lingering on her bare legs. “Sara, my, how you’ve grown.”

Pulling her uniform skirt down lower, she tried not to stammer. “Papi isn’t home, he’s still at the office.”

“Papi,” he said as his nostrils flared. “I didn’t come here to see the General. I came here to see you, to check on how you’re doing.”

Four years later? was the first thing that came to her mind, but she didn’t say it aloud. Instead, she forced a smile. “That’s nice of you.”

The agent took a step forward. “Why don’t you take a ride with me? I’d like to hear what you’ve been up to... find out how you like your new family.”

There was absolutely nothing in the man’s tone that was threatening, and that was exactly what scared her. He was making an effort to sound perfectly normal. “I’d like to, but I really need to get home. They’ll be expecting me.”

“It won’t be long. Just a short ride.” The agent’s hand shot out and he yanked her towards him. “C’mon, Sara. Let’s go.”

Clutching her bag strap tightly, she whipped it off her arm, catching him on the side of the head. It was full of books and papers, and Williamson staggered back with a loud groan.

Sara began to run. She thought to dart into the forest, but she knew the trees and bushes would slow her down. If she stayed on the main road, she could get to the house in a few minutes.

Her heart was pounding as she made it to the dirt road that led uphill to the mansion. The incline was tough, but she pushed herself, adrenaline fueling her. Behind her, she could hear the sound of car wheels, the squeak of breaks, the opening of a door, and footsteps approaching behind. She didn’t pause to look back. Veering to the side, she decided the woods would be safer after all.

But it was too late.

“Oh no, you don’t,” Williamson growled as he grabbed her arm.

Her fist shot out and clipped him in the nose.

“Bitch!” he yelled as he lunged again. This time his moves were methodical. He seized her arms, pinning them to her sides. Using his legs, he pulled her feet off the ground.

Panic gripped her. Sara knew the man had military training—she would be no match for him. Letting out a scream, she tried to pitch her voice as high as she could. But she was still a good mile from the house. No one would hear her.

Dragging her back to the car, he sneered, “Stop fighting me.”

“Help!” she cried. “Please let me go.”

“That was my biggest mistake. I should have never let you go.”

Then the car appeared.

It was a green four-door sedan, and it was driving down the main road from the house. Gabby’s car. The agent saw it too and started to move faster. Sara realized she had to fight. If he got her into his car, there would be no escape. Mustering all of her strength, she struggled, kicking and squirming. She managed to get an arm free and clawed at the man’s face.

“Help me,” she screamed again.

The car slammed to a stop. Gabby leapt out, rushing towards them. Seeing the woman, the man loosened his grip, but didn’t release her.

“Agent Williamson,” the woman spoke, her voice eerily steady.

“Mrs. Lira.” he greeted in an equal tone.

Sara was terrified. Gabby hated her. She was sure she’d be happy to have the man take her away.

“Let my daughter go,” she ordered the agent.

That was enough to cause her heart to skip a beat. Gabby had never referred to her as her daughter. Tears started to stream down her cheeks.

“I have official business to attend to,” the man countered.

The woman raised her hand and the back door to the car opened. Her bodyguard stepped out and pulled a revolver from his pocket.

The action was enough that Williamson released his hold. Sara darted into Gabby’s arms.

“Go into the car,” she said. “Lock the door.”

Sara didn’t hesitate. As she hurried away, she heard Gabby’s voice from behind. “Julio, take Mr. Williamson back to the house. I’m sure my husband would like to speak with him.”

“Yes, ma’am.”

Slipping into the back seat, Sara watched through the glass as Julio raised his gun and motioned for Williamson to get into the backseat of his own car. The bodyguard then slipped behind the wheel and drove it towards the mansion. Gabby waited until the vehicle was out of sight before she headed back to the sedan.

“Are you all right?” she asked, turning to the girl.

Sara pulled her legs to her chest and nodded.

“Did he... touch you?”

“No, no, nothing like that. He was going to kill me.”

“Did he tell you that?”

“He didn’t have to.” Sara burst into tears.

The woman stroked her hair. “Let’s get you back to the house.”

 

*          *          *          *          *

 

Tauro Lira made his way through the front entrance, and his entourage held back as he headed to his office. Gabby was waiting for him outside the door. It took a lot to phase the woman; the fact she looked distressed and disheveled concerned him.

“Where’s Sara?” he asked.

“In her room. I had Manuel go and sit with her.”

Through the doorway, he could see the government agent. The man looked much like he had when they had met last, and Lira shuddered to think that his intentions were still the same.

“Gavin” he greeted as he entered and seated himself.

Williamson didn’t bother with pleasantries and cut to the chase. “They’ve started the Black Torrent project again.”

Lira linked his hands in front of himself. “And why should that matter to me?”

“They know about her, about Sara. Nancy Miller found evidence of the baby. They’re going to come and find her.”

“Find her, or find you?”

The man swallowed. “They have a new operative. Young buck. Perfect candidate. Give him a year or two for training and he’s going into action. They want all loose ends tied up before then.”

The General stared at the man. He could see the beads of sweat forming on the agent’s brow, and the way the spittle cornered his mouth.

“I need her, please. I need to take care of this once and for all.”

“Sara is a part of my family now. She is my daughter.”

“She’s David Bruce’s daughter. She should have died 16 years ago.”

Lira leaned forward, his muscles tense. “Sara is my daughter,” he reiterated. “I love her as much as I love my own sons.”

“Does she know you were going to sell her as a sex slave? Do you sit around the kitchen table and tell her how you discussed helping me kill her?”

The General’s jaw hardened, his nostrils flaring.

Williamson’s voice dropped, the desperation returning. “Tauro, you have to give her to me. I need to take care of this. I should have never let Kevin Wolff take her. I should have never let you take her. I should have let her die, like her mother.”

Tauro rose, his eyes boring into the agent. “Sara is my daughter and will remain here. If you try to take her, if you do anything to hurt her, what happened in that chateau will be nothing compared to what happens to you.”

Gavin swallowed hard, his eyes dropping to the desk.

Lira motioned to his guard. “Felipe, take Mr. Williamson to the airport, and do not leave until he is on a plane out of Paraíso.”

“Yes, sir.”

As the guard yanked the agent from his chair, Williamson’s eyes locked on the dictator’s. “This isn’t over, Tauro.”

Lira smiled. “If the U.S. Government has a problem with it, tell them to come talk to me.”

The General’s eyes followed the man as he was led out of the room. He relaxed, sinking into his chair. He glanced at the picture on his desk: the five boys dressed in their army fatigues and Sara dressed as a superhero. A moment of panic came over him as he considered what could have happened had Gabby not made it down the road when she did—how close he had come to losing his precious Lily. He let out a long sigh.

Rising, he headed to his daughter’s room. >>>

 

“I planned for Sara to stay in Paraíso. There was a dignitary, the son of one of my best friends, who fancied her. I had every intention of arranging their marriage. But, the tension between her and my wife worsened. When Sara told me of her desire to return to Gale, I realized it would be for the best. Being back in the public would make it difficult for her to disappear without someone questioning. I realized it was the safest thing next to being with me.” He met Yule’s gaze. “I honestly never believed she’d find her family. I guess I was wrong.”

Yule took a deep breath and held it for a moment. “Thank you.”

“For what?”

“For protecting her. I should have been the one.”

“From what I gather you weren’t quite in the position to. Though I must say, everything make sense now. For all of those years, I wondered why Gavin was so obsessed with Sara, why he would be so afraid of a little girl. Now I realize he wasn’t afraid of her, he was afraid that if the project heads ever found out about her, they would somehow discover that you were still alive. But the question remains, why would he be worried about that?” Setting his glass down on the small end table, the General clasped his hands. “So, I have told you my story. Now it’s your turn.”

 

*          *          *          *          *

 

It was just past eight o’clock when the men left the study and entered the front room. Sara and Michael had moved their conversation to the sitting area, and Sara was in the middle of a story about she had helped the Paraíso nuns fix a leak in the roof.

For all of the rancor Michael had felt towards the dictator, as he had listened to Sara’s tales during the evening, he could tell she truly loved the General. Whether he liked it or not, Lira had cared for her and given her a place to grow up, away from the orphanages. Even though it wasn’t a perfect situation, it was a link in the chain of events which had led her to him. For that, he had to be grateful.

“All done?” Sara asked, rising.

Lira nodded. “I think it’s safe to say I’ve had a fair introduction to your family.”

Michael squared his shoulders and approached the man. “General, I want to apologize for how I acted.”

“Family matters are the most important, so they are the most emotional. It’s all right, Michael. No hard feelings.” Glancing at his watch, Lira turned to his foster daughter. “You know, I could use some coffee about now. Your friends own a shop, right? Is it too late to drop in?”

Sara shook her head. “They close at nine. I’m sure we could make it in for a quick cup.”

Turning to the Bruce men, the General nodded his head. “If you gentlemen would excuse us, I’d like to spend some time alone with Sara before I head back tomorrow. It was a pleasure meeting both of you, and I do hope we’ll be able to get together again sometime in the future.”

“I’d like that,” Michael said.

Yule had been quiet from the moment he had exited the study. He managed a weak goodbye as the dictator left, but once they were alone, he stared blankly into space.

“Dad, are you all right?”

The man lowered himself into a chair. “For 26 years, I had no clue that Sara was alive. Now to learn how close I came to never knowing her.”

“I don’t understand. What did Lira tell you in there?”

The elder man buried his head in his hands.

Michael was not used to seeing his father so shaken. Kneeling down, he grabbed his arm. “Tell me what’s wrong?”

Yule looked up, tears in his eyes. “Maggie survived the blast. They let her die.”

The revelation stunned Michael. Sara had told him the tale of her youth from her point of view, with limited knowledge of how she had gotten to where she was. Apparently, Lira had told their father much more.

“What else did he say?”

Looking at his son, Yule’s expression hardened. “I’ll tell you, but only if you promise never to tell Sara. She cares for the General too much; I don’t want to taint that.”

It was the kind of promise Michael didn’t like to make. Particularly after chiding Sara for keeping them in the dark about Lira. Though something in his father’s voice told him this was different.

“All right. You have my word.”

 

*          *          *          *          *

 

From his vantage point on the rooftop, the Black Torrent was able to scan the neighborhood for signs of dubious activity. There wasn’t any, which was just as well—Michael wasn’t in the mood for crimefighting anyway. He had gone out to clear his head and try to make sense of everything that had happened.

The crimefighter heard a metallic clank behind him. It was a grappling. A moment later, Overcast appeared and leapt over the ledge.

“Fancy running into you here,” Torrent greeted.

“Fancy...?” said Overcast. “We’re right next door to the coffee shop.”

Torrent looked down to the street below. “I guess we are.” Michael realized that as much as he thought he wanted to be alone, he really needed somebody to talk to.

Ravenswood took a step forward. “So, what’s up?”

Michael let out a long sigh. He wanted to tell his friend everything, but worried about what was confidential or not. Most families had secrets which involved a child out of wedlock or gramma hitting the whiskey bottle a little too much. His involved third-world dictators and government conspiracies. He decided to dodge the issue. “Did Sara and the General come by?”

“Yeah. Melody was all excited. To her, the General isn’t a killer, he’s a celebrity. He’s a world leader.”

“Like if Queen Elizabeth visited.”

“Yeah. He started chatting with her at one point and she just about peed herself.” The wind gusted and Overcast pulled his jacket tighter around himself. “If you forget who he is for a moment, he’s actually a nice guy.”

“What did they talk about?”

“Nothing important. He asked her about the shop, and then they talked about South American coffee. Afterwards, he and Sara chatted about family stuff. He was telling her about her brothers back home.”

“Oh,” Torrent said, his gaze moving out to the horizon.

The two of them were quiet for a long time, and Michael could tell his friend was getting uncomfortable.

“I’m sorry for being like this,” he apologized. “There was a lot of stuff said tonight. All the skeletons coming out of the closet.”

“You knew they eventually would.” Overcast seated himself on an exhaust outlet. “Didn’t you want to know about it all?”

“I did. Problem is, I was expecting to hear something along the lines of Little Orphan Annie, not a tale of human trafficking and attempted murder.”

Even though Ravenswood was wearing a mask, Michael could see the man’s eyebrow arch upwards. Though he remained silent.

Torrent rubbed the bridge of his nose. “The General is a despicable human being, yet without him my sister wouldn’t be here. How do you reconcile that?”

“You don’t. The world isn’t black or white, it’s shades of gray. Sometimes you have to turn a blind eye to the bad and focus on the good.” Ravenswood smiled. “Aaron Brooks told me that one.”

Michael glanced down to the street again. “Is the shop closed?”

“Yeah. Everyone went home.”

Torrent was silent. Thankfully, Ravenswood knew him well enough that he didn’t have to say anything more.

“C’mon. Let’s go in and get out of the cold. I’ll make us a couple cups of coffee and you can tell me all about it.”

“That would be great,” Michael said with a smile.

Pulling out their grapplings, the friends headed down.