The rain was turning to snow and Sawyer was very frightened. She had no coat, and the men pursuing her could be no more than a couple of hours behind. She was very tired and hungry and Flagstaff was a town she had never been to before. She looked wistfully across the street toward the diner. She had no money and her experience with begging had not been fortunate.
She was shivering and rapidly becoming desperate. According to the sign on the door, the supermarket would close in an hour and it was already dark. If she didn’t do something soon she would freeze to death. She was reluctant to use her abilities to coerce someone to help her, but she was running out of options.
A high school was located just down the street and the thirty or so cars that had been parked there were beginning to pull away. Football practice was over, and the boys were leaving. One pulled into the grocery store parking lot and a young man got out and walked to the pop machine near the bench where she was sitting.
He was tall and very solid. She could see huge muscles swelling the tight cold gear he had on his upper body. His mop of curly hair was tied up in a topknot on top of his head with a rubber band. He looked like a samurai, Sawyer thought. She thought he was very good looking. His clothes were soaked with sweat and steam rose off him in the chill of the night. He noticed her sitting on the bench under the overhang.
He nodded at her. “Hi, how are you?”
“Good,” she replied. She hoped he wouldn’t try to talk to her, but at the same time, she desperately needed to talk to someone. He hesitated and then made up his mind. She was very cute and he was very interested in cute girls. He took a chance.
“You from around here? I don’t think I’ve seen you at school before. I thought I knew everyone.”
“No,” she sighed, “I’m new here.”
“Hey, you want a soda?”
She did. She was very thirsty, but she was embarrassed to tell him.
“It’s on me. Consider it a welcome to town. What kind you want?”
“I’ll take a Mountain Dew,” she told him. She had never had a soda but the cool green liquid on the sign beside her looked delicious.
“No cans of that,” he said. “We’ll have to get a bottle. Hold on a minute.”
He walked back to his car, opened the door and retrieved his wallet.
“The bottle machine only takes bills,” he told her. He pulled out two dollars and fed the machine. After a second, the bottle fell with a clunk.
He collected his change, walked over and sat beside her on the bench. He twisted the top loose and handed her the bottle.
“My name’s Lawson Sloan,” he told her. “What’s yours?”
“Sawyer Raleigh,” she said. “Thank you for the soda, Lawson.”
“My pleasure. I’m glad to meet you, Sawyer. I’ve never met a girl named Sawyer before, at least not her first name. You’ll probably see me around school. I’m a captain on the football team and everybody knows me. I’m a senior, how about you?”
She took a drink of her Mountain Dew and it was the coldest and most delicious drink she had ever had.
“I’m a junior,” she said.
“Well, that makes you what, sixteen, seventeen?”
“I’m seventeen,” she said. “I’ll be eighteen next month.”
“My birthday’s next month too. I’ll be nineteen. Hey, you’re shivering,” he noticed. “It is starting to get kind of cold. A fat guy like me doesn’t feel it much, but wet as I am I’m getting kind of cold too. You want to sit in my car while we finish our sodas? We could listen to the radio.”
Sawyer reached out. She didn’t know how she did it but she could tell things about people. That had been the beginning of her problems. Dr. Watts knew she could reach out, but she couldn’t tell him how. He believed she was hiding her secret from him and that’s when the violence began. She felt she could trust this boy.
“I don’t think you’re fat,” she told him. “You look very muscular to me and I would like to get out of the cold for a minute.”
“Come on then. I’ll get the heater running.”
They climbed in his Blazer and he turned the heater on high. “I guess I’m not really fat, but I am pretty heavy. I weighed 296 at the beginning of football last year. I played nose guard and I got used to being a fat guy. I’m actually kind of proud of being a big guy, but I joke about it. I’m down to 262 this year. Coach wanted me lighter and faster. But look at you. You don’t look like you weigh a hundred pounds.”
“I’m heavier than I look, then,” she laughed.
“So why were you sitting out there in the cold?” he asked.
“I don’t want to talk about it,” she told him.
“Why not? Are you okay? Why didn’t you just go home?”
“I don’t have any place to go.” She choked back a sob.
“I don’t understand.” Lawson looked over at her. “Where do you live? I’ll drive you home if you want. You don’t have to walk in the snow.”
Sawyer’s control broke and she burst into tears.
Lawson didn’t know what to do. A girl he had just met was sitting in his car, crying her eyes out.
“Hey, I’m sorry, Sawyer. I didn’t mean to make you cry. Usually girls have to know me a while before I make them cry.”
“It’s not you,” she sobbed.
“I can’t stand this. Scoot over here.” He lifted his center console and pulled on her arm. She slid across the seat and he put his arm around her. She felt very small and she was obviously very frightened. “Sorry I’m all sweaty. Sawyer, are you in trouble?”
She nodded and sobbed into his chest as he patted her shoulder. “You’re still shivering,” he said. “How long have you been sitting out there?”
“About two hours,” she choked out.
“Good God, you must be freezing. Let’s go across the street and I’ll buy you a cup of hot chocolate. Are you hungry? How long has it been since you’ve eaten?
“Two days,” she sobbed harder.
“Two days! Jesus, Sawyer! You must be starving. Let me call my dad and tell him I’m going to be a little late. We’ll go over to Iggy’s over there and I’ll get you something to eat and some hot chocolate. That’ll warm you up.”
“Why would you do that?” she asked.
“Because I can and because that’s the way I was raised,” he said.
Sawyer reached out again and was amazed to discover that he was telling the truth. She had never encountered anyone like him. He genuinely cared about her. She probed for an ulterior motive. There was nothing. She saw only concern and a bit of curiosity.
He took his arm from around her for a moment to shift gears and drove her across the street to the diner. He reached in the back seat and got a box of tissues. “Here, use these,” he said. “We can’t have you going in there looking like I just broke your heart. It’s embarrassing. I can’t have people thinking I’ve been mean to you.”
Sawyer dried her eyes and looked at herself in the mirror. Huge brown eyes, a little button nose and a full mouth, framed by her medium length blonde hair, looked back at her. Her eyes were a little red and she had obviously been crying.
Lawson opened his glove box and came up with a bottle of Visine. “You look like maybe you could use this.
Sawyer had no idea what to do with the small bottle he handed her. She reached out to him just to see what she was supposed to do with it. In his mind, she saw that it was for red and tired eyes and how she should use it. She put a couple of drops in each eye and used another tissue to pat them dry.
She took several deep breaths. “I’m ready,” she said.
He tilted the wheel up and slid out. He reached into the back seat and got out his letter jacket. He waited and held out his hand for her. She took it, slid out and he hung the jacket over her shoulders. It swallowed her slight form but it was warm. He took her hand again and she held on to it as they entered the diner.
“All my girlfriends are going to be jelly,” he said.
A waitress greeted them at the door. “Hi Lawson, booth or table?”
“Booth, Kristen,” he said.
She took them to a booth and Lawson stood while Sawyer slid in. He pushed her over and sat beside her. Kristen smiled and gave them menus. “New girlfriend Lawson? She’s really cute.” Sawyer blushed.
“She hasn’t made up her mind yet,” he laughed.
“Well, he’s a great guy, sugar. I used to babysit him and I’ve known him all his life. All the girls at school would give their right arm to go out with him. Now, what can I get you kids to drink?”
“Dr. Pepper for me, and hot chocolate for her,” he said. “Keep the chocolate coming.”
“Sure, Lawson, did you win Friday?”
“No, I caught two touchdowns, but they caught four.”
“I’m sorry. Maybe this week.”
She went away to get their drinks and Sawyer opened her menu.
“Get anything you want,” Lawson said. “It’s on me. My way of apologizing for making you cry.”
“I told you, it wasn’t you.”
“You need to learn how to let someone be nice to you, you know that, Sawyer? Just smile and say, ‘Thank you, Lawson.’”
“Thank you, Lawson.”
My pleasure,” he said. “Still no smile, but I’ve never brought a girl in here as cute as you.”
She blushed again and looked at her menu. “I think I’ll have breakfast,” she told him.
“Good choice,” he said. “They do a really great western skillet here. It’s huge. I’m going to have a bacon cheeseburger, Tater tots and a butterscotch malt.”
He smacked his forehead. “I forgot to call Pop. Hold on a minute Sawyer.” He got out his phone and stepped away from the booth over by the door. She heard him talking but couldn’t make out the words. She didn’t feel any danger, so she relaxed and sipped her chocolate. She stopped shivering.
Lawson’s father, Rawlins, answered the phone and Lawson explained the situation. “I think this girl is in trouble at home, Pop. She may be a runaway. Is it okay if I bring her over after we eat? I’ll try to find out what’s going on.”
“You’re a good boy, Lawson,” Rawlins said. “Help her if you can. If she needs a ride to the moon, call me before you take the spaceship. I’ll see you when you get home.”
“Okay, bye, Pop,” Lawson ended the call as he slid back into the booth beside Sawyer.
The waitress returned while Lawson was on the phone and looked expectantly at Sawyer. She grew uncomfortable, having no idea what she was supposed to do. She reached out and discovered that she was waiting for Sawyer to order food. Sawyer realized that this was going to be her life, reading people for instructions until she learned to function in the real world.
“I ordered for both of us while you were gone,” she said when he returned. “I hope you like your burgers medium rare.” She reached out and found out he did. She was a little alarmed to discover that he intended to take her home with him, but she sensed nothing but concern and so she didn’t worry.
Their food came and the skillet was a huge mound of eggs, potatoes, ham, cheese and veggies. It came with two silver dollar pancakes and she was on her second cup of chocolate.
Lawson watched in awe as she devoured the food. He ate his own burger, and by the time she finished, the third cup of chocolate had arrived. She leaned back with a sigh of contentment and sipped her chocolate. She felt Lawson’s eyes on her and she peeked up at him.
“I know you’re dying to ask me, so I’ll just tell you,” she said.
“I would like to help,” he said, “but you don’t have to tell me if you don’t want to. Where did you put all that food Sawyer? You’re no bigger than a minute.”
“I was starving, and I don’t want to tell you,” she said, “but you deserve to know. Are you going to eat those potatoes?”
He pushed the plate over to her.
“I ran away from a very bad place in Nevada and two men are looking for me. I bought a bus ticket here but I didn’t have enough money to go any further. If they find me it’s going to be very bad for me.”
“Are you related to them? Is one of them your father?”
“No,” she said. “I never knew my parents. I was raised at that place in Nevada and I don’t ever want to go back. Those men are going to force me to go back and I’d rather die.”
“My God,” he exclaimed! “Why were you there? Do you think you can get away?”
“It’s a long story. I won’t be able to get away unless someone helps me,” she said.
“Well, I’ll help you, Sawyer. What kind of help do you need?”
“I just need a place to hide for a while,” she said. “Once they lose the trail I’ll figure out what I’m going to do.”
“Is it okay if I tell my Dad about this? He’s a very smart guy. He could help you a lot if you think you can trust him.”
Sawyer sensed that Lawson believed his father could help. She caught images of a man that was a nearly a god to Lawson. “Do you trust him, Lawson?”
“Yes I do,” he said. “He’s never let me down. Ever since Mom died, we’ve been very close. I don’t always tell him everything, but I’ve always felt like I could. He’s a good guy, Sawyer. He isn’t very healthy. He has a heart condition, but most of the time you’d never know it. I think he’d be glad to help. I think he could hide you from the FBI if he wanted to.”
She studied him for a moment. She could sense that he was telling the truth. “Let’s go talk to the man,” she said. She smiled and the flash of white lit her face up.
“There’s that smile I was looking for.”
Lawson paid the check and they walked to his car. He opened her door and drove the six blocks home. The Sloan’s lived in a large, two story stucco home surrounded by a wrought-iron fence. It was obviously very old, but it was well maintained and a small guesthouse stood in a garden on the property.
Lawson pulled into a carport and killed the engine. He opened Sawyer’s door and held her hand as he unlocked the back door. He led her through the kitchen, through a living room and knocked on a set of double doors on the other end of the house.
She heard a voice man’s voice tell them to come in, Lawson opened one of the doors and they stepped into an office with a blazing fire burning in a fireplace. The room was dark except for the fire and the illumination of a computer screen where a tall dark haired man was writing something.
He took his letter jacket and put it on the arm of a chair. “Pop, we have a guest. This is Sawyer Raleigh. Sawyer, this is my father, Rawlins. Sawyer needs our help, Pops. She was in a bad situation and she got away. There are two men chasing her and they aren’t her parents. She needs a place to hide for a few days. You think we can help her?”
Rawlins turned away from his computer. He stood up and walked to Lawson. He embraced his son and shook Sawyer’s hand.
“Let me look at you.” He turned on a lamp and looked in her face for a moment.
He nodded. “Sawyer, are you a criminal?” he asked. “I don’t mean to be rude, but if you’re running because you’ve committed a crime, that’s a whole new ball game. We might still help you, but I need you to be honest with me.”
“My only crime is wanting to be free, Mr. Sloan,” she said. “Those men will take me away and lock me up, not because of what I’ve done, but because of who I am. I’m an asset to them, a lab rat. They want to do tests on me. I’m a weapon to them and they are completely without mercy. You may get in trouble for sheltering me. It may be dangerous.”
“Are they going to be able to trace you here?”
“Yes, they’ll find out that I left the diner with Lawson and they’ll come here. They are very good at finding people and they’re very dangerous.”
“How long do you think we have?”
“Maybe an hour?”
“Then we’d better get busy. Lawson, go get the Navigator out and we’ll join you around front.
Lawson went around and got the Lincoln out of the garage.
“Sawyer, I know you’re not telling me everything,” he said. “That’s okay for now. You’re right to be cautious. There are a lot of bad people out there. I hope you can learn to trust me, but I want you to know that if you deliberately try to hurt my son, life is going to be very difficult for you.”
Sawyer began to sob. “Now don’t cry, honey.” He put an arm around her. “I don’t mean to scare you. I’m just telling you how much Lawson means to me. He’s all I’ve got and it’s my job to look out for him. I told you we’d help you.”
She nodded. She could feel Rawlins’s compassion. This was a man who would never betray a friend and he would die for his son.
“Do you need anything before we go?” he asked.
“I need a restroom and a coat,” she said.
“First door to the right, and I’ll find you a coat.”
She went into the bathroom and Rawlins looked in the hall closet for something for her to wear. When she came out, he was holding a duffle bag and a black Denver Broncos hoody.
“Go back in the bathroom and get some stuff,” he said. “I noticed you didn’t have a bag. There are new toothbrushes and toothpaste in the top drawer on the left. There are combs, make-up and face cream and stuff in the second one. That was Lawson’s mother’s drawer, and I just never cleaned it out. Get anything you think you might need.” He handed her the bag.
She quickly grabbed a few things, put on the hoody and they walked out the front door where Lawson was waiting in the Navigator. The hoody was much too big, but it was warm.
“Go to Target,” Rawlins instructed. “They’re still open.”
Target was only a couple of miles away and they soon pulled in and parked. “Sawyer, go in and buy some clothes,” Rawlins told her. “Lawson, go with her. He pulled out a money clip and peeled off three hundreds. “Get enough changes to last one week. Get practical stuff, jeans, tennis shoes, sweatshirts, underwear; stuff like that. This isn’t a fashion statement; it’s just stuff to keep you warm. Hurry, please; we’re running out of time.”
He was dialing his phone as they got out. It took Sawyer 15 minutes to select the things she needed and they checked out and rejoined Rawlins in the car.
“Now drive to the bus station,” Rawlins told Lanston. The station was across town and a bus was idling in the lot when they pulled up.
“Here’s what we’re going to do,” he outlined his plan. “Sawyer, Lawson is going to take you in and you’re going to buy a ticket to Albuquerque. When you get there, a car will be waiting for you. It will be a white limousine. The driver’s name is Mike. He is going to take you to the airport and there will be a plane waiting. Mike is a pilot and he is going to fly you back here. When you land, he is going to take you to a complex of offices. Lawson and I will be waiting for you there. Is that okay, Honey?”
Sawyer reached out and she felt nothing but honesty and concern. There was some doubt in Rawlins’s mind, but it was about the fact that he knew next to nothing about her. He believed her story with some reservations and she saw that he intended to do some checking, but there was no danger for her in the man. He really did intend to help her and she saw that he had made all the arrangements he had mentioned.
He noticed her hesitation. “I’m going to give you some money,” he said. “You might be tempted to take it and try to disappear. If that’s what you decide, that’s okay with me. We want to help you, and I hope you can learn to trust us, but I understand if you don’t feel like you can.”
“No, I trust you, Mr. Sloan. I’ll do what you said.”
“Hey Pops, I understand we’re leaving a trail for them to follow, but why doesn’t she just buy the ticket and get on the bus? I could distract the driver while she gets back off and we could just keep her here.”
“No, she has to be seen getting off the bus in Albuquerque. We have to be able to make her disappear there, not here. If she disappears here, they’ll never stop looking. The limousine is going to be parked around the block behind the bus station, Sawyer. Make sure no one follows you and sees you get in. I hope to see you in the morning.”
Rawlins pulled out his money clip again and peeled off five more hundreds. He tucked the money into her hand and the two young people got out and went in to the station.
Sawyer bought the ticket and Lawson walked her to the bus. “Bye, Sawyer, see you soon.” She picked up her bag and turned to get on the bus.
“Hey, Sawyer,” she turned back. “I forgot something,” he said. He took an iPod from his pocket. “You can borrow this,” he told her. “It will help pass the time. And there’s one more thing I’ve wanted to do ever since I saw you on that bench.”
“What is it?” she asked.
He put his arms around her and tilted up her chin with one finger. He bent over and kissed her full lips. They tasted like chocolate and cinnamon. She stiffened for a moment and then relaxed into his arms and pressed her lips fiercely into his. It was her first kiss, and she never wanted it to end.
“Time to go, kids,” The driver mounted the steps and Lawson reluctantly let Sawyer slip away. She looked back on the top step and gave him a little wave. He lifted his hand and walked back to the car.
Sawyer found a seat and collapsed into it. She felt very alone, but then, she had been alone her whole life. The bus was nearly empty. There seemed to be only about five other passengers. She figured out the controls, made a playlist on Lawson’s iPod and leaned back in her seat. Her heart was pounding from that kiss but weariness soon overwhelmed her and she slept; Joe Satriani’s Flying in a Blue Dream filling her ears.
Lawson and Rawlins drove home. “I don’t know what just happened there, Son, but I don’t think it’s over,” Rawlins said. “I hope we don’t regret this.”
“What was I supposed to do, Pop? She was freezing on a park bench down at the store. She didn’t have anywhere else to go. I couldn’t just leave her there.”
“I know, Lawson. I wasn’t suggesting that. I’m proud of you. You could never pass up a lost puppy. How many of them have you brought home in your life? This isn’t a puppy. I’m afraid this girl is going to be risky. She’s hiding something, Son. I don’t know what it is but it might be something really bad.”
Lawson got in the shower and Rawlins finished the report he was working on. Three hours passed. It was 11 PM when the buzzer on the front gate sounded.
“Yes?” Rawlins responded.
“This is agent Calston with the National Security Agency,” a voice said. “I’m sorry to bother you at this hour, but could we speak with you, Mr. Sloan?”
“Of course,” he said, “I’ll buzz you through.”
He opened the gate and walked to the front door as a black SUV pulled up. Two men in dark suits got out and he invited them in.
He escorted them to the living room and seated them on the leather sofa. He sat in his recliner. “What can I do for you, Agent Calston? May I see some identification?”
The two Agents produced laminated ID badges and Rawlins turned to his laptop on the end table beside him. He entered some information and then turned to the two Agents and handed the laminates back. “You check out,” he said. “Now what can I do for you?”
“How were you able to ‘check us out?’” Agent Brown asked.
“I design weapons targeting software for the US military,” Rawlins explained. “I have a TS/SCI Umbra clearance. I have access to personnel records at NSA.”
“I see, we had no idea,” Brown said. “Well, Mr. Sloan, we are looking for a fugitive; a young woman named Sawyer Raleigh. She stole sensitive information from a top-secret NSA installation and we understand that she made contact with your son. They were seen at together at a diner not far from here and we were wondering if he might be able to help us locate her.”
“Yes, I think he can,” Rawlins said. “He brought her here to our house. They stayed for a minute then he took her somewhere and dropped her off. She didn’t seem like a spy. She must be a talented young lady indeed to penetrate one of your installations.”
“She is a computer hacker with a lot of skill,” Calston said. “She penetrated a system and took sensitive information. May we speak with your son?”
“Of course,” Rawlins walked to the stairs and called up. “Lawson, could you come down here please?”
“Just a minute Pops, I’m drying off now. Let me throw some clothes on.”
Rawlins returned to his chair. “May I offer you gentlemen something to drink? I’m having a very old apricot brandy, would you like a taste?”
The agents agreed, and Rawlins poured from the decanter. “Very good, what is this?” Calston asked.
“It’s a Hors D’age from Remy Martin,” Rawlins informed him.
Lawson came galloping down the stairs and Rawlins introduced him to the two agents. “These gentlemen are with the NSA. They want to ask you some questions,” he told Lawson.
“We’re looking for a young lady you were seen with tonight,” Agent Calston told him. “We understand you bought her dinner and left the diner with her. We were hoping you could give us a lead on where she might have gone?”
“What do you want her for?” Lawson asked.
“Never mind that, Son, just tell the Agents if you know where she went.”
“Well, yes I do,” Lawson said. “I took her down to the bus station and she bought a ticket for Albuquerque.”
“How did she pay for the ticket?” Brown asked.
“Well, to tell you the truth, I paid for it. Was that bad?”
“No Lawson, you had no way of knowing she was a fugitive. Right gentlemen?”
“That’s right, Lawson,” Calston assured him. “You aren’t in any trouble. You seem like a very kind young man and she’s pretty clever at getting people to do what she wants. Well, we have the information we need so we’ll get out of your hair. I know Lawson has school tomorrow. By the way, Lawson, I understand you’re quite a football player. I hear USC has offered you a scholarship. I played there 15 years ago and if there’s anything I can do for you, your father knows how to get in touch with me.”
“How did you know?” Lawson asked. “I haven’t told anyone but Coach Weathers and Pop.”
“We’re the NSA, son,” Brown said, “We know everything.” He winked at Lawson and Rawlins escorted them out.
Rawlins closed the gate and Lawson exploded. “Dude, the NSA? What kind of trouble is Sawyer in?”
“Very serious trouble,” Rawlins mused. “They told me a bunch of lies about her being a computer hacker. The NSA doesn’t go after computer hackers. That would be the FBI’s job. Lawson, you’ve never caused me a minute’s trouble in your life. I guess you were saving it all up to drop on me in one big bundle; or, I guess I should say, one very small bundle. That girl is dynamite in a small package.”
“Yeah, but did you notice how hot she is?” Lawson whistled.
“Yes I did, son. I’ve always deplored your taste in girls, but this one is as cute as a month old kitten. I saw what you did at the bus station. Very smooth Lawson.”
“I’ve got game like that,” Lawson laughed.
“Yes, I guess you do.” Rawlins eyed his son dubiously. “I never suspected such subtlety. Let’s try to get some sleep, Lawson. We’ll need to be at the complex by eight in the morning. I’m sorry, but you’re going to have to miss school tomorrow.”
“Coach Weathers will make me run if I miss practice.” Lawson complained.
“I know. It will be good for you. I’ll call the school and tell them we have a family emergency. Maybe we can get you back by noon, that way you can still go to practice. Good night son, I love you.”
“Love you too Pop, ‘night.” Lawson took the stairs two at a time. He had a little trouble falling asleep. The thought of those soft lips clinging to his ran through his head and he missed his iPod. He always fell asleep listening to music. He got up, made a set list on iTunes on his desktop and soon drifted off to the sounds of Flying in a Blue Dream.