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Stolen

Stolen

DBS Publishing LLC

Copyright 2016  by DBS Publishing LLC

Shakespir Edition

Chapter 1

A light gust of wind brushed across the grassy, rolling hills that stretched to the horizon. The blades of grass wavered like the waves of an ocean, fluid and endless. Stars twinkled against the pitch black sky. No buildings, no roads, no people. It was quiet. But not for long.

Heavy-panting breaths grew louder with each new breeze. Legs sprinted through the knee-high grass. Oil stains smudged the runner’s cheeks, which only grew more slick from the sweat that cut through the rough stubble along his jaw. A name tag pinned to his chest flapped wildly with each hurried step: Reese Coleman, New Energy Inc.

Reese twisted at the waist to look behind him. A trail of matted grass stretched back in the direction of an amber red glow that encroached the night’s tranquility; gas runoff from the fracking sites. He squinted, a mixture of sweat and oil dripping into his eye. His left hand rose in a knee-jerk reaction to wipe it away, and the moment of blindness cost him his footing.

Grass and dirt flung upward as Reese skidded across the ground. Palms and right cheek scraped against rocks as the landing knocked the wind from his lungs. The sting of impact lingered as he lay on the bed of crushed grass, and despite his brain’s command to rise, he lay still.

The soil was cool against the heat and sweat of his body, and his muscles reveled in the opportunity for rest. But when he opened his eyes, the gleam of his wedding ring caught the moonlight and stars above. He fisted a clump of dirt in the moment of grit and pushed himself up.

Black soil crumbled from his shirt as he remained on all fours, only his back and head visible above the tall grass. The whites of his eyes glowed in the darkness as he scanned his surroundings. A breeze cooled the burn on his cheek. He saw nothing.

A gunshot shattered the quiet of the night, the echo masking the shooter’s location, and Reese flattened himself against the earth. His heart pounded against the ground, beating wildly. After a moment, Reese rose to his hands and knees, then crawled. Tears had cut well-worn paths down his cheeks. Every few hundred feet he’d look behind him, but he never stopped.

Another gunshot. A geyser of dirt erupted less than three feet to his left, and Reese abandoned his crawl. He sprinted through the grass in an adrenaline-induced panic, mumbling pleading nonsense to himself. A primal instinct of survival had taken over, but the adrenaline could only push him so far before his muscles melted into a soft jelly. Two more gunshots thundered in quick succession, and Reese screamed.

A vicious sting bit into the back of his right shoulder, and the force of the bullet knocked him to the ground. With his left arm, Reese pushed himself to his side. Any movement from his right triggered a knife-like pain. Blood trickled down the back of his arm, and the cool breeze suddenly felt cold. Muscle spasms ravaged his body, but he managed to rock himself to a sitting position. He craned his neck and saw that the dark figure of the shooter was less than one hundred yards away.

Reese whimpered then pushed himself to his feet, fear the only source of energy his body had left to burn. His pace slowed, and his right arm had gone completely slack. Any attempt to run was nullified by crippling pain.

Another gunshot, and Reese shuddered, but this bullet skipped to the right. He kept his eyes on the horizon, unsure of where he was running to. The only thing keeping his feet shuffling forward now was the chance for one more breath, one more painful, gut-wrenching beat of life.

The next harsh bite of the bullet connected with his left leg, and with a groan, he collapsed. Another warm trickle sprouted from his hamstring as he lifted his face from the dirt, his lips chapped with soil and grass. He rolled his tongue over the gritty texture and tasted the warm metallic blood that pooled in his mouth. Reese stretched his thumb to his ring finger, and when he pressed his skin against the metal, it felt cold. Everything was cold. A blanket of ice covered his body.

The sky of stars above was suddenly blocked by the looming figure that had chased him across the open plains. Reese didn’t know why he had thought he could have outrun him. When the man wanted something done, there wasn’t anything that could stop him. “Please.” The word left his mouth in a dying whisper. He raised his left hand. The gold gleam of his wedding ring had shaded to a dark crimson. “I didn’t say anything. I swear.”

The lever on the rifle ground metal and spit an empty shell from the chamber. In the moonlight Reese saw the shine of the rifle’s stock, a rich wood he couldn’t identify. A dirty hand loaded another bullet and then aimed at Reese’s head.

The harsh North Dakota environment provided enough natural enemies to kill a man: bears, wolves, the frigid cold of the winter. But he’d always thought he’d die on the oil rig, some type of gas bubble that would blow him off the face of the earth.

Oil. The next great boom, right here in his small little town of Barta, North Dakota. Of course, the mess he got himself into was just as much his fault as the oil company’s. The goddamn money was just too good. A few more months, and he would have had the down payment ready for his and Kelly’s first home.

Reese returned his gaze to the dark void of the barrel. “Just do it,” he said, coughing up blood that burned his esophagus. “I’m already dead.” But despite the request, the rifle was lowered, and the figure turned and walked away. “Make sure she’s okay!” Blood splattered over the front of his shirt as he yelled and lifted his head. “Please! Make sure no one hurts Kelly! You owe me that much—” The vicious spate of coughing returned, and what was left of his strength disappeared.

Tears leaked from the corners of Reese’s eyes. The sky above slowly blurred, and the stars dimmed. His mind offered a few fleeting images of his past, some of which he remembered, most of them unrecognizable in his final moments. One last breath brought his chest up, and then his body lay still.

 

Chapter 2

The steam from the shower filled the bathroom in a smoky haze. The air was hot and heavy. A thin layer of moisture covered the sink’s faucet and the top of the toilet. The mirror had fogged over, along with the shower doors, revealing the silhouette of a woman.

Lena Hayes closed her eyes and let the warm water roll down her body. She’d already washed, and she lingered under the faucet, enjoying the calm before the stress of the day began. She crossed her arms over her chest, grabbing hold of her shoulders. Her left hand rubbed against the raised scar of the tattoo she had removed a few years ago, one of the many reminders of a past she desperately wanted to forget.

Beyond the noise of the steady stream of water spewing from the showerhead, the clank of dishes and mumble of voices penetrated the bathroom door, which suddenly opened. “Honey, breakfast is ready.”

Lena removed her face from the cascade of water and wiped her eyes. “I’ll be out in a minute.” The door shut, and Lena grabbed hold of the crook of her left arm, an involuntary response whenever she was nervous. She rubbed her finger over the light bumps that still lingered after ten years, these scars more poisonous than the mark on her back.

Before becoming completely pruned, Lena shut off the shower and reached for a towel. Still dripping, she exited the bathroom, a cloud of steam trailing her toward the dresser, where she dried off quickly then wrapped the towel around the top of her head, where it remained until she was fully dressed.

With her hair still damp, Lena finished her makeup and then reached for the jewelry box, where she pulled out a small flag pin. She examined it in her palm for a moment, admiring the intricate details of the tiny stars and stripes. Then, carefully, she placed it on the lapel of her jacket, straightening it out in the mirror.

Even after six months she still felt a certain awe whenever she wore that pin, along with a healthy dose of fear and respect. There was a reason she won the election last fall, and those reasons were finally coming to fruition in just a few days. If she couldn’t deliver, though, all would be for naught.

On the way to the kitchen Lena passed her two daughters’ rooms, and was glad to see that both of them had risen early enough to make it to school on time. “Morning, everyone.”

Mark turned around from the skillet on the stove, a washcloth over his right shoulder and the morning stubble still fresh on his face. “Good morning, Representative Hayes.” He smiled and gave a wink. It was how he’d addressed her every morning since she was elected, despite having asked him to stop.

“Hey, Mom!” Kaley, Lena’s youngest, shouted through a mouthful of eggs and toast, then smiled and revealed her front left missing tooth.

Lena kissed the top of Kaley’s head. “Morning, sweetheart.” When she looked to her oldest, Gwen, the teen was already buried in her phone. On her way to the coffee pot Lena reached over and pushed Gwen’s phone down on the table, forcing her daughter to make eye contact. “And good morning to you, too.”

Gwen rolled her eyes and immediately returned her attention to the electronic addiction. “I’m going to get a ride to school with Lauren and Greg today.”

Mark set a plate of eggs and bacon at Gwen’s place at the table. “Do you think you’ll need a ride home?”

“No.” Gwen looked at the plate of food and grimaced. “I don’t eat meat anymore, Mark.”

“Since when?” Lena asked, steam rising out of the top of her coffee mug as she poured.

“Since now.” Gwen slid off the chair and headed to her room, navigating the house without ever looking up from her phone.

Mark raised his eyebrows and then scraped the food off the plate and split the bacon with Kaley. “More for us then, I suppose.” He took a bite and gave Kaley a wink, who smiled at the extra piece.

Still munching on her bacon, Kaley looked over to Lena. “Are you going to take me to school today?”

“Not today.”

“Why not?” Kaley puffed out her lower lip and lowered her head.

“Aww, sweetheart.” Lena walked over and scooped Kaley out of her chair, hugging her tightly. “Why don’t I pick you up after school? Would you like that?”

Kaley beamed a smile and nodded. “Can we get pizza on the way home?”

Lena laughed. “Maybe.” She set Kaley down and patted her on the butt as she scooted off to her room. “Hurry and get dressed. You don’t want to be late!”

Mark set a plate of eggs and bacon for Lena at the table and looked up. “You know she’s been looking forward to you taking her more.”

“I have a meeting.”

Mark frowned. “I didn’t see anything on your calendar.”

“It was last minute.”

“What’s it for?” Mark reached for the salt and pepper.

It was a question she’d hope he wouldn’t ask, but it wasn’t something she was going to hide from him. “I’m meeting with the families at the hospital.”

Mark stopped his fork on the way to his mouth, but then quickly shoveled the eggs down, chewing a little harder than normal. “Isn’t that what the town hall is for?”

Lena joined him at the table, trying to keep the conversation casual. A fight was the last thing she needed right now. “I just have to finalize a few things with them. Make sure they’re going to show up for the vote. It’s the reason why I ran for office in the first place.”

“I haven’t forgotten the past two years, Lena.” Mark kept his head down, shoveling his eggs and toast into his mouth faster. With his cheeks full and the plate empty, he left the table and dumped the dirty dishes into the sink, the plastic and metals clanging loudly. When he finally turned around he swallowed the rest of his food, and his expression softened.

Lena approached wearily and then gently massaged his shoulders. “I know how difficult everything has been on you and the girls. But it’s just a little bit longer. After the vote in a couple days it’ll just be a normal job from nine to five, and then hanging out with you and the girls in the evening.”

“They miss you, you know,” Mark said. “Even Gwen, though she’d be the last person to admit it.” He pulled her hands off of him and held them firmly. “And I don’t think stepdad Mark is going to be able to navigate Gwen through womanhood on his own. It was never my strong suit.”

Lena kissed his lips, feeling the scratch of his morning stubble on her skin, and then hugged him. “You’re more capable than you know. I wouldn’t have been able to do this without you.”

Mark wrapped his arms around her. “I’m just ready for all of it to be over. Kaley and Gwen aren’t the only ones that miss you.”

Lena shrieked and laughed when he pinched her rear. She slapped his arm, giving him a look up and down. “I’ve missed a few things too.” She winked as seductively as she could on her way toward the door, grabbing her briefcase on the couch where she’d left it the night before. “Tell Kaley we’ll get pizza from Tony’s. And tell Gwen we’ll put extra bacon on it.”

“God I love you,” Mark said.

“Love you too.”

Outside, the front yard of the house opened up into acres of undeveloped land with their home smack in the middle of it. A well-worn car path stretched from the house all the way to the main road half a mile away. She climbed in her sedan and started the car. She took a breath and gripped the steering wheel, fighting the butterflies in her stomach. She eyed the glove box and scratched her fingers over the cloth in the crook of her elbow on her left arm. She closed her eyes, shaking her head. I don’t need it. When she opened her eyes she started the car and shifted into drive. Just a few more days.

***

The inside of the trailer was crammed with trash and broken furniture, dwarfing the already tight space. The cabinet doors in the kitchenette hung from loose hinges, and the yellowed countertop aged the Winnebago, which had peaked in the seventies.

The squeak of bedsprings rocked in time with moans and heavy breathing in the back. A cowboy hat rested on top of a dirty pile of clothes, and the noise ended with a low grunt and a high-pitched squeal. Sheriff Jake Cooley rolled onto his back, his bare chest sweaty and his cheeks red. He looked to the woman in bed as she pulled the sheets up to cover herself. He picked his watch up off the floor and checked the time. “I gotta go.”

The woman curled her knees into her chest as she sat propped up against the back wall of the trailer. Curly blond hair with dark-brown roots fell over her forehead, which was still caked with makeup from the night before, as she grabbed the pack of cigarettes on the nightstand. When she reached for the lighter, Jake snatched her wrist before she could touch it.

“Don’t do that while I’m here.” He tossed her hand away. “It already smells like shit in this dump. Don’t make it any worse.”

“Helps pass the time.” She folded her arms across her chest, her eyes glued to the police vehicle parked out in the grass. “You gonna stop by any more this week?”

Jake buttoned his pants and shirt before he reached for the gun holster and belt that hung from the coat rack mounted on the wall in the corner. “Depends on how crazy it gets. That town hall meeting has everyone riled up.” He tucked in his shirt and adjusted the badge on the front. “I’ve already had to jail two protestors and three oil workers for creating a disturbance.”

“It’s your sister who has everyone riled up.” She reached for the small diamond ring on the nightstand and pinched it between her fingers. “Reese won’t stop talking about it either.” She set the ring down and then crawled to the edge of the bed seductively. “He’ll be working night shifts all this week.” She walked two fingers up his arm and onto his shoulder, where she rested her chin, and let the bedsheet fall. “Just so you know.”

Jake abruptly reached for his hat. “Gotta go to work.” The door slammed behind him, and he took a deep breath of the brisk morning air that filled his lungs, his mood immediately improved once out of the stink of the trailer. He climbed inside his truck and started the engine. He let it idle for a moment and then looked to the lever-action rifle, its stock coated with a shining walnut finish. He removed it from the passenger seat and returned it to the gun rack behind him. He opened the glove compartment and pulled out a pack of gum. He tossed a piece in his mouth and shifted the truck into drive, leaving the trailer in the middle of nowhere in Dunn County. His county.

***

It was at least a mile before Lena saw anyone else on the highway, and then another five before she reached the small cluster of buildings that comprised the town of Barta, North Dakota. The cracked pavement of Main Street and the old wooden structures on either side were just as weathered and worn as the people that inhabited them.

Oil workers from the night shift were piling into the diner for dinner, passing the morning shift that just finished their breakfast, heading for the fracking operation a few miles north. The dirty, hard faces eyed her luxury sedan as she parked along the street near her office, and when she stepped out of her car she saw the fresh graffiti sprayed in black across her windows. “Lena Hayes P.A.” had been crossed out and replaced with: KILL THE OIL BILL BITCH.

When Lena turned back toward the diner, all of the rig workers had stopped to watch her reaction. Some laughed, others pointed, but a few cast a more murderous glare. Ignoring the jeers, Lena grabbed her briefcase. When she unlocked the front door, the short blast of a police siren caught her attention, and she saw Jake’s truck pull into the vacant spot next to hers.

“Christ, it happened again?” Jake slammed his car door shut with force. He rubbed his fingertips across the paint and frowned. “It’s already dried.” He turned to the cluster of oil riggers still lingering outside the diner and took an aggressive step toward them with his hand on the butt of his pistol.

“Hey.” Lena jogged over, grabbing him by the shoulder and pulling him back. “That’s not going to solve anything right now.” The size of the crowd by the diner had grown considerably with Jake’s arrival. “You’re not going to change their minds.”

“You’re right. I’m just gonna beat the shit out of them.”

Lena slid her arm around his and yanked him toward her office. “C’mon. You can take out your aggression with some soap and a sponge.”

The inside of Lena’s office felt large. The open floor plan was only interrupted by a few columns that thrust from the floor and connected to the ceiling. Two desks were in the first room, and Lena placed her briefcase on the one farthest from the entrance. Another door rested behind her that led into a larger room, which had been gutted after she won the district election last fall. What had once been teeming with volunteers was now nothing more than an extra storage space.

Jake stood by the front window, glaring at the oil workers who’d dispersed across the street. “I’d put all of them in jail if I had the room.”

Lena set her briefcase down. “Probably wouldn’t be a good PR move. Not with you up for reelection next year.”

“I’ll just arrest everyone who doesn’t want to vote for me.” Jake grinned, those “get me out of whatever trouble I’m in” dimples promptly on display.

“Not sure how that’ll go over in the courts.”

The front door opened, and Janine walked in, both arms struggling to keep hold of the large box she carried. Jake quickly stepped over to help and relieved her of the burden. “Oh, thanks, Sheriff.” She gently touched his arm, where it lingered as Janine batted her eyelashes and smiled. When she realized they weren’t alone, Janine quickly removed her hand. “Hi, boss. I didn’t think you were coming in today.”

“I wanted to look over a few of the old case files before I headed to the hospital.” Lena reached for a box marked New Energy Inc. and thumbed through the pages of documents inside. She removed a thick folder and placed it on her desk.

“Well,” Jake said, setting the box down on Janine’s desk, “I need to head back to the station. I’ll send one of the deputies over to clean that off.” He pointed to the graffitied window. “And if you change your mind about pressing charges—”

“I was a lawyer for seven years, Jake.” Lena removed the thick rubber band holding the documents in place. “I think I’d know if I could win the case if I wanted to take it to court. It’s not a big deal, and don’t bother sending anyone over to clean it up. I’ll do it before I leave.”

“Too late,” Jake said, stepping out the door as a deputy parked out front. “Call me if you need anything.”

Lena watched Janine press her palm against the window, and fawn at Jake as he left. Lena held back a laugh. “Why don’t you just ask him out?”

“Huh?” Janine turned around quickly, her mouth slack, and she shook her head. “Oh, no. I’m sure he’s seeing somebody. Unless—” She stopped, her eyes widening. “Did he say something about me?”

“Janine, you are a young, intelligent, beautiful woman and far too good for my little brother.” Lena removed paperwork from the file then snapped it shut. “You’re not the first woman to have fallen in love with him, but if I had any say in it, you would be the last.”

Janine smiled. “Thanks, Lena.” She pointed toward the kitchen, heading in that direction. “You need any coffee?”

“No, thanks. I’m fine.” Lena kept her head down, reexamining the old depositions from her case against New Energy. Most of the documents she’d obtained from the oil company had been redacted. She set them aside and picked up a picture of a nine-year-old girl in a hospital bed. Tubes ran through her arms and nose, and her cheeks had grown puffy and pale. A beanie covered her bald head, and her mother was by her side, holding her hand. That could have been Kaley.

The front door hinges squeaked, and when Lena looked up, her fists tightened involuntarily. “If you’re looking for representation, I’m not taking any new clients.”

“That’s a shame. I promise you it would pay well.” Ken Lang was dressed in a fine Italian business suit, Rolex watch, and short-cropped brown hair. His polished shoes clacked against the floor as he leisurely strolled to Lena’s desk. “But I suppose that’s the sacrifice of holding public office.”

“What do you want, Ken?” Lena asked.

Ken glanced at the picture of the sick girl and her mother, then picked it up, pinching it between his fingers as if the illness could be transferred through the photo. “I wanted to give you one last chance to rethink your position on the bill.” He flipped the picture around where it faced Lena and then returned it to the desk. “You’re only going to hurt more people.”

Lena shuffled the medical documents back into the folder and then stacked the dusty box on the floor with at least a dozen others. “I’m not the one working for a company that shirked its responsibility in safety standards for its employees and blatantly ignored EPA regulations.”

“If you had been able to prove that in court, then neither of us would be here right now.” Ken rolled the tip of his thumb and forefinger together in quick, tight circles, squinting his eyes. “What makes you think that this course of action is the best for the town?” He looked back to the graffiti on the window. “It’s not a very popular position.”

“Sixty children hospitalized over the past two years, half of them now suffering from chronic illnesses. Seventy-four oil workers dead. Ruined farmland from nearly twenty million gallons of oils, chemicals, and pollutants pumped into the ground and air.” Lena raised her eyebrows and pointed to the boxes of depositions. “I’ll take that ridicule any day of the week if it means holding your people accountable.”

Ken placed his finger on the edge of her desk and dragged it along the outer rim until he landed on another picture frame. He gripped it between a pair of strong, tan, yet slender hands. “Beautiful family.” Keeping the picture, he gestured around the large office. “You did very well in private practice. I’m sure your family is very comfortable financially.” He adjusted the Rolex on his wrist. “Probably send your kids to the best schools.” He crossed his arms over his chest. “Do you have any idea what your proposed bill will do to the economy around here? It’s going to cost jobs. Hundreds of jobs. It’ll be millions in lost tax revenue.” He inched intimately close. “What you’re doing here will have a ripple effect across the entire state.” He thrust a finger in her face. “And all of that blame will be pointed at you.”

Lena leaned forward. “You and I both know it won’t cost any jobs. That’s just fodder to fuel public mistrust. New Energy has been toting that fear mongering campaign since you showed up.” She stepped around the desk and crept close until the both of them were nose to nose. She snatched the picture from his hand. “And if you ever walk through my door again without an appointment, I will throw your ass back out on the street.”

Ken flashed a smile, an impervious grin that accentuated his suit of armor. He turned on his heel and headed for the door. “I’ll be in touch.” The door slammed on the way out, and Janine returned from the kitchen, clutching a coffee mug between her hands.

“Is there anything worse than a lobbyist?” she asked, shaking her head.

Lena opened the top file on her desk, which revealed the images of one of the oil workers who’d been burned to death after an explosion on one of the rigs. “Yeah. I think there is.” She shut the folder and gathered her bag. “I’ll call you when I’m on my way back from the hospital.”

Outside, one of Jake’s deputies lathered the window with soap and went to work on the graffiti, giving Lena a curt nod as she passed. Across the street at the diner she saw Ken speaking to a man she’d never seen before. He didn’t wear any of the uniforms like the oil riggers but wasn’t dressed in a fine suit like Ken. His attire was a simple button-down shirt, dark-washed jeans, and black boots. The morning sun reflected off of his bald dome, and when he caught Lena staring, he nudged Ken’s arm, who turned around.

Lena climbed into the car and shook off the uneasy feeling it gave her. With the meeting at the hospital, she had more important things to worry about.

 

Chapter 3

The miles of open road, the sheer vastness of absolutely nothing—it was enough to drive Ken insane. The speedometer of his car tipped to seventy as the fields of grass passed by in a blur. He thought if he could move fast enough he could completely erase the empty void, but failed. He missed the height of buildings and the chaotic orchestra of noise that was the city. He couldn’t stand the quiet. It let him hear his thoughts too clearly, and all of them kept telling him to quit this madness and return home. But he didn’t get paid until the job was done.

Ken gripped the leather steering wheel of his leased BMW and checked his hair in the rearview mirror. The Bluetooth system notified him of an incoming call, and the name on the display panel situated on the center console simply read Home, accompanied by a picture of a woman with dark-black curly hair. He maneuvered his thumb over the accept button on his steering wheel and clicked. “How’s my sexy mamacita?”

Laughter echoed through the speakers, and Ken smiled at the sound of Sasha’s voice. “I could use a little more sexy in my life. How are you doing? Are you speeding again?”

The speedometer tipped past eighty, and Ken eased off the gas. “I don’t think they have speeding laws in North Dakota. It’s pretty much a free-for-all out here.”

“Well, you be sure to use that in your defense if you get pulled over. I’m sure the authorities will understand.”

Ken grimaced. “They’re not as understanding as I’d like them to be.” He reached for the wedding band in his cup holder and twisted it back onto his ring finger. “Hey, can I talk with Tommy?” A pause lingered. “Sasha, what’s wrong?” A sniffle and light sob answered, and Ken’s cheeks grew pallid. “Sasha, I need to know what’s going on over there. You can’t keep me in the dark. C’mon, baby, we talked about this.”

“I know.” Sasha’s voice was thick with phlegm, and she took a few sharp breaths to regain composure. “He’s not having a very good day today.”

“Did you give him the injections like the doctor told you to?” Ken asked, an unintentional edge of condescension in his voice. “You have to stay on top of that.”

“Yes, Ken, I did.” The answer was sharp, quick. “He’s not reacting to it the way he’s done in the past, though.” Sasha let out a sigh riddled with anxiety. “I just don’t know what else to do.”

Ken sunk into his bucket seat and the speedometer dipped below sixty. “We’ll just keep trying other treatments. We knew that it wasn’t a sure bet. Next month, we just take him back and try something else. He’s going to be okay, Sasha. We’re going to be okay.” Another call flashed on the screen, and Ken straightened himself. “Honey, I’ve got to go. Give Tommy a kiss for me. I love you.”

“I love you too.”

With his wife disconnected, Ken exhaled slowly as he maneuvered his thumb over the answer button. He hesitated, but eventually answered. “Mr. Alwitz, how are you?”

“I’ll be a lot better once that bitch stops trying to shove that worthless piece of legislation down my throat.” The voice was gruff, angry. “I hope you have some good news for me, Lang.”

“We’re making headway, sir. The town is already torn in half about the issue, and it’ll only take a few more pushes in the right direction to get us on the winning side. The bill won’t pass in this district, and that’ll kill whatever momentum Lena Hayes hopes to gain throughout the state.”

“Just make it happen.”

A flash of anger flared in Ken’s nostrils as the call ended. He slammed the back of his head against the headrest and then punched the roof of the car. Prick. He adjusted his collar and checked his reflection in the mirror.

Outside, the landscape finally changed, and the wide-open plains suddenly sprang to life with portable housing units that stretched for a few hundred yards. All of them the same bright white that New Energy had painted them.

Bursts of flames erupted on the horizon from the fracking rigs, and every time Ken pulled into his parking space in front of his own portable he felt as if he were entering the gates of hell. He let the car idle a minute and closed his eyes as a few workers in hard hats passed. You’re back in the game now, buddy. You chose this. Now you have to deal with it.

***

Lena pinned the visitor’s badge on her left lapel and made her way to the children’s wing. The rooms she passed were all full, an unnerving sight. The dim fluorescent lights of the hospital even caused the visitors to look ill. Some rooms contained laughter, some crying, but all of them were darkened with the plague of uncertainty. She arrived at the nurses’ station and forced a smile. “I had an appointment with the Myers family?”

The nurse had short-cropped blond hair and wore traditional blue scrubs as she reached for the sign-in sheet. “Of course. I just need to get you signed in here, and I’ll notify the family.”

“Thank you.” Lena grabbed the pen and jotted down her information once again while the nurse disappeared into one of the rooms. A few seconds later Dotty Myers entered the hallway, her face twisting in an expression that rode the line between grief and joy. Lena set the clipboard and pen down and embraced her in a hug. “How are you holding up?”

Dotty reciprocated the squeeze. A few strands of frizzy hair that escaped the tight bun on her head brushed Lena’s cheek. “We’re okay.” But despite the reassurances, the pallid complexion that exposed the blue veins on her face said different. “I’m so sorry. I forgot that you were stopping by today. Corey’s already asleep.”

Lena dismissed the apology quickly. “It’s perfectly fine. I know it was last minute.” She opened her purse and rummaged inside, pulling out a wrapped gift. “The next couple of days are going to be pretty hectic for me, but I didn’t want him to think I forgot about his birthday.” She handed Dotty the gift, and the woman cradled it delicately.

“Lena, you didn’t have to do that.”

“I know. I wanted to.” She looked around, the rest of the chairs in the visitor section empty. “Do you know if the McFurns are here today?”

The smile vanished from Dotty’s face, and her eyes grew glassy and red. “They had to take Sarah over to the ICU.” She fingered the gift in her hands nervously. “She had a really bad night last night. They don’t know if she’ll make it up the list in time to get a donor.”

“I thought she was already at the top.”

Dotty shook her head. “No. Not yet.”

Ever since the lawsuit against New Energy, the families involved had grown into a tight-knit group. Whenever one of their children’s conditions worsened, it was felt by everyone. “We’re going to win this one, Dotty.” Lena grasped her shoulder. “I promise you that. Once it passes our town hall we’ll be able to take it to the state legislature. The governor is behind the bill, and we have the momentum. They won’t stop us this time.”

“Lena, what you’ve done…” She trailed off, losing the train of thought as her shoulders began to shake. “I will always be in your debt.” She looked back at Corey’s room. “I’m so tired of having to watch him be hooked up to machines and tubes and wires and—” She rubbed her forehead. “I just want it to be over.”

Lena grabbed hold of Dotty’s hand and clasped it firmly. “I know. And that’s why I wanted to talk to you today. I don’t want us to leave anything up to chance at the town hall. I want everyone that can be present to arrive. We show the opposition the face of our cause, and we won’t lose. Do you think you could help spread the word for me?”

Dotty reciprocated the strength in Lena’s hand. “Yeah. I think I can do that.”

After another quick hug, Lena made the rounds with the families whom she had represented for nearly two years. Out of the sixty children that were affected by the water they drank, showered, and cooked with, more than half suffered long-term illnesses that affected everything from their nervous systems to their kidneys, liver, and intestines. What their community experienced wasn’t anything less than a plague, and the offenders got off with little more than a slap on the wrist.

Nearing the end of her visits, Lena grabbed a cup of coffee set up in the waiting area. She reached for the sugar when angered shouts erupted down the hall.

“Don’t you walk away from me!”

Lena turned around and saw a step in the front of a man. She squinted her eyes and recognized Carla Knox and her husband, Rick. They had a little girl. She was only a year older than Kaley.

Carla shoved Rick hard in the chest. “That’s our baby girl in that bed! And you’re still going back? You’re still working for them?”

Rick Knox remained frozen like a statue in the hallway, letting his wife pummel him with accusations. He didn’t scream, he didn’t try and stop her, he just stood there and took it, like a weathered rock by the sea that was punished by the unrelenting ocean waves. “And where do you want me to work? We have to pay the bills. Money isn’t just going to appear out of thin air.”

“They’re killing our baby!” Carla’s face flushed red, and the vein along her neck pulsed with rage. She balled her hands into fists and started to cry, clutching her arms tight around her stomach. And then without another word Rick left.

Carla buried her face in her hands and collapsed into one of the empty chairs along the wall. Lena adjusted the purse strap on her shoulder and joined her, gently putting her hand on the grieving mother’s back, which only exacerbated the sobs and cries.

The two remained silent for a moment, Carla regaining control of her emotions and Lena unsure of what to say that hadn’t already been said a hundred times in these hallways, or her office, in campaign speeches, the courtroom, or at the bedside of a sick child.

“I just don’t understand.” Carla shook her head, revealing a tear-soaked and puffy-eyed stare as she craned her neck to the doors where Rick had disappeared. “Every day he goes back to that… place. He knows what they did. I know he does. But he still won’t quit.”

“People process grief and pain in different ways.” Lena took Carla’s hand. “Maybe he thinks this is the best way for him to contribute and provide for his family.”

Carla exhaled, squeezing Lena’s hand. “I know. It’s just all this…” She gestured around to the hospital and her daughter’s room. “You never think it’s gonna be you. You see it on the news, you read about it in the papers. But you think you’re special.” She eyed her daughter’s room. “You try and protect them from everything.”

Lena slid from the chair and dropped to one knee. “There isn’t anything that can give your daughter back the time she’s lost. But I promise you that what we’re doing with the bill will force the people who did this to your daughter into a corner. Stricter regulations on what they’re pumping into the ground, and harsher penalties for breaking them. It’s going to help prevent this from happening to other families.”

Carla wiped the tears from her cheeks, her voice calmer than it was before. “If I had to choose between saving my daughter, or saving hundreds of other kids from the fate she’s going through, I’d pick Sadie every time.” She pushed herself from her chair and shuffled back to her daughter’s room.

Lena followed but stopped at the doorframe. The faint beep of the machine that monitored Sadie’s heart rate was the only sound inside. The lights were dimmed, and Lena left Carla alone with her daughter.

The elevator ride down and the walk back to the car were more somber than her arrival. The sun was setting on the horizon, and Lena quickly reached into her purse and grabbed her phone. No signal. When she saw the time she stomped her foot. “Shit!”

Kaley had been released from school an hour ago. She hurried to the car and floored it out of the parking lot, heading for the highway. He’s going to kill me. After all of the dinners, birthdays, and events that she’d missed over the past two years she no longer had any room for error when it came to family commitments. She kept telling herself it would get better, but the trouble with an addict is they always find something to replace their habit. For her, it was work.

The sun disappeared and a pair of headlights suddenly flashed in the rearview mirror. The truck approached quickly, the high beams flooding through her back windshield. Lena averted her gaze from the mirror that reflected the light.

The truck rode her bumper. Lena steered right, giving the driver room to pass on the left, but the truck remained glued to her tail, refusing to slow or go around. She pressed her foot on the accelerator, the speedometer tipping from fifty to sixty-five quickly, but the truck kept pace.

A light nudge jolted Lena against her seat belt, and shook her car. She tightened her grip on the steering wheel. “What the hell?” The truck rammed harder. The back windshield cracked and metal crunched loudly. The wheel jerked left and right as she struggled to stay in her lane.

Lena reached for the phone in her cup holder and dialed 9-1-1. The truck turned a hard left, speeding into the oncoming traffic lane, and stayed parallel with her car. A no-signal beep echoed in her ear, and when she checked the phone’s screen there still weren’t any bars.

The truck slammed into her side, shattering the driver-side windows. The seatbelt clung tight to Lena’s chest and waist, and she felt the shattered bits of glass scrape her cheek. Wind flung her hair in every direction. The force shoved her car off the road’s shoulder, but she jerked back onto the pavement quickly.

Lena snapped her head left, taking in the mangled brown-and-tan metal on the truck’s side. She tried to catch a glimpse of the driver’s face, but the truck sat too high for her to see. The sedan’s engine coughed a sputtering whine, and even with her foot floored on the accelerator, the speedometer wouldn’t tip past forty-five.

The truck rammed the driver’s side again, this time succeeding in shoving her off the road’s shoulder. Lena threw her body weight behind the steering wheel to keep the car straight, the view in front of her switching between asphalt and grass. The wheel slowly slipped from her grip, and her arms and shoulders burned from the strain to keep her on the road. Just before she spun out of control, the truck separated and slowed down.

The tension along her arms eased, and Lena swerved back onto the pavement, keeping her foot glued to the gas pedal. The headlights of the truck returned to her rearview mirror but kept their distance as they followed.

The skin on Lena’s fingers peeled off the steering wheel’s leather like Velcro. Her arms trembled. Her breaths were sharp. The howling wind ripping through the open windows stung the cuts along her cheek. Then, the pair of headlights in her rearview mirror suddenly disappeared, the truck blending into the night.

Lena turned around, squinting into the darkness through her cracked rear windshield, but saw nothing. She repeatedly checked her phone and the horizon, hoping for a signal or another car. But neither came to her aid.

The combination of the roar of the wind and the whine of the engine had deafened her to the rest of the world, and it wasn’t until the second before impact that she heard the truck’s roaring engine as it crashed into her for the final time. The impact was highlighted by the sudden flash of the truck’s headlights. The symphony of light and crushing metal flooded Lena’s senses with confusion, and the ejection of the air bag pounded her face with pain.

Almost weightlessly, she felt her body bounce violently with every crunching rotation of her sedan as she flipped off the road and into the grass and dirt. The rocking motion stopped and the horn blared a steady din. She tasted blood, and her head ached. The seatbelt was stretched tight against her waist as she hung upside down in her seat. She wiggled the fingers on her left hand and scratched the roof.

Even though the car had stopped, Lena still felt the motion of the wreck. Her head swam lazily through signals of pain. Her vision doubled, and when the driver side door flung open she saw four hands grip her throat and body then yank her from the car and slammed her face into the dirt.

“Drop the bill or die, bitch!”

A vicious kick to the left side of her ribcage triggered a twist at her waist, as the strong grip kept her face buried in the soil. The pain preceded a sudden wetness she felt on the back of her jacket, head, and legs.

When the attacker finally relinquished his hold, Lena flung her face from the dirt, gasping for breath, and rolled to her side. Clumped dirt fell from her eyes, but even with her vision blurred she was able to see the fist that knocked her unconscious.

 

Chapter 4

It was the light jerk of the gurney that woke Lena from the lucid dreams laced with pain. She opened her eyes wearily, sensitive to the brightness. The din in her ears was replaced by the dull chatter of voices and the soft beep of machines. She grabbed hold of the wire attached to the clamp on her index finger and ripped it off, which triggered more alarms. The closed curtains around her bed were flung open, and the nurse’s panicked expression quickly vanished at the sight of Lena patting her hospital gown. “Where am I?”

But before the nurse answered, Jake appeared at her side. “About time you woke up.” He gently ran his hand over her hair and kissed her forehead. “I thought I was going to have to douse you with ice water again.”

“It wasn’t funny when I was six. It won’t be funny now.” Lena brought her hand to her left temple, trying to end the pounding in her head and suddenly remembering where it originated. “Someone ran me off the road.” Bits and pieces came back in tiny fragments. “There was a truck, a man, I think. He—” But when she caught Jake’s glare she knew something was wrong. “What?”

Jake turned to the nurse and tapped her shoulder. “Could you give us a minute?” She gave a polite nod and then closed the curtain on the way out. Jake let go of Lena’s hand and gripped the side of her bed. “Is there anything specific you want to tell me about the wreck? Now? Before anyone else catches wind of it?”

Confusion spread over Lena’s face. “Jake, someone nearly killed me out there. They ran me off the road, beat me. They said—” She stopped herself, trying to hear the voice of the man who’d knocked her out. “It was about the bill.”

Jake drummed his fingers on the bedside, his lips pursed, and hesitated before he finally spoke. “Lena, when you were brought in your clothes reeked of alcohol.” He kept his voice low, and despite the closed curtain he looked around to see if anyone was watching. “Are you using again?”

At first she thought she misheard him, but when his eyes remained locked on her, she felt her cheeks flush. “No, Jake.”

“I’m just saying that you’ve been through a lot of shit this past year, what with the suit against the oil company, then running for office, and now this bill.” Jake flashed the same boyish concern she remembered before her first stint in rehab. It was the only time in Lena’s life when she’d seen her brother look helpless. “I know you have a lot riding on this town hall meeting. It’s not unnatural for you to want to use.”

Lena tried to push herself up on her elbows, but the pain in her ribs pulled her back down, and she winced. “I don’t need stress to make me want to use. I’m addict. I always want it.”

“That’s not what I meant—”

“Yeah, I know what you meant.” Lena cradled her head, the argument only infuriating the throbbing of her skull.

Before Jake got in another word the curtain was flung back, and Mark sidestepped Jake and rushed to Lena’s side. “Thank god.” Mark kissed her cheek then lightly patted her body as if he would be able to diagnose her wounds. “Are you all right? Jake said you’d been in an accident.”

“I’m fine.” Lena placed a hand on his cheek and smiled. “Where are the girls?”

“Back at home. I told them I’d call once I got here and checked on you.” He leaned in and kissed her lips, gently cradling her chin. “You sure you’re all right?” He clutched her hand firmly and gave it a reassuring squeeze.

“Yes. Call the girls.”

With Mark gone, Jake inched closer. “The doctor and nurses who examined you could smell the booze. And so did the guy who brought you in.” He turned and pointed to a man standing in the hallway, a clipboard in his hand, scribbling something down on a piece of a paper. “I have him filling out a statement. But I can’t make him lie about not smelling the alcohol.”

“I’ve see him before.” Lena squinted at the face and recognized him as the man who’d spoken to Ken Lang outside the diner in town. “He works for the oil company.”

“His name is Scott Ambers,” Jake said. “He got hired as their new rig manager last month.”

Lena reached for Jake’s arm and pulled him close. “What kind of car does he drive?”

Jake shrugged. “I don’t know. Why?”

“It was a truck. The one that ran me off the road. After I wrecked, the driver dragged me out of my car and made sure I couldn’t see his face.” The gritty taste of dirt returned on her tongue, and she remembered the splashes of liquid on her back and legs. “Whoever did this wanted to make me look like I’d been drinking.” But Jake’s expression gave no indication of whether he believed her or not. No matter how long you’ve been clean, even in the eyes of family, people were still skeptical. “Give me a blood test if you don’t believe me.”

“I already ordered one.” Jake’s firm tone contradicted the gentle touch of his hand on her leg. “I’ve got one of my deputies heading out to the site of the wreck. We’ll take a look around and see what we can find. Was there anything else you remember about the truck?”

Lena shut her eyes, trying to force the image back into the spotlight of her memory. “It was two-toned color. White and brown, I think.” She sighed, exhausted. “That’s all I can remember.”

“All right. The doctor will come back around in a few. I told him to give me the blood results first. When I know, you’ll know.”

“I’m clean, Jake.” Lena crossed her arms as she watched Scott Ambers approach.

“Sheriff.” He extended the clipboard to her brother, and the close proximity gave her a better look at his features. He was taller than she expected, a few inches over six feet. And though he was thin, his shoulders were broad and his jaw square, which gave him a menacing quality that was accentuated by the dark eyes and bald head. “I’ve filled everything out.” He turned to Lena. “I hope you’re feeling okay.”

“I’ve been through worse.” Lena eyed him curiously. “I didn’t see anyone else on the road except for the truck that ran me off. Funny how you just happened to be passing through after it happened.”

But before Scott had a chance to answer, Mark returned, giving their mysterious figure the once-over. “Who’s this?”

“Scott Ambers,” Jake answered. “He’s the one who brought Lena here.”

Mark shook Scott’s hand. “Oh my god. Hey, thank you. Thank you so much.” Once done, Mark put his arm around Lena and kissed the top of her head. “I guess we were lucky you were there.”

“Yeah,” Scott replied, keeping his eyes on Lena. “You were.” He quickly turned to Jake. “If you need anything else you have my information.” And just as mysteriously as he appeared, he was gone.

“I should get going too. Need to help my deputy with the wreck.” Jake leaned in and gave Lena one more kiss on her forehead. “I’ll be in touch.”

“Bye, Jake,” Mark said, shaking his hand. “Thanks again.”

Mark kept quiet until the doctor arrived. The diagnosis was bruised but not broken ribs, a few lacerations to her cheeks that were covered with small bandages, and a black eye. After the hospital staff vacated, the privacy curtains were once again pulled shut, leaving Lena and Mark alone. Mark laced his fingers between her own. “How are you feeling?”

“I’ll be fine.”

Mark exhaled. “Lena, maybe you should postpone the town hall.”

“What? No, we’re too close.”

He released her hand and took a step back. “You’re in the hospital.” He rubbed his forehead and shut his eyes. “It’s one thing to have your office vandalized. It’s another to have someone run you off the road!” When she furrowed her brow, he crossed his arms. “I heard you talking to Jake before I walked in.”

“I’m not giving in to this.” Although angry, she was relieved to see that his first thought on the wreck hadn’t been a relapse into her past. “This is the reason I ran for office. People are tired of being pushed around, and I’m one of them.”

Mark white-knuckled the end of the bed. “What happens if the next time they come after you it’s with more than just a car?”

“You don’t think I know the risks? You don’t think I haven’t thought about what it’ll mean? It keeps me up at night, Mark. I haven’t had a decent rest since the civil suit.” The pain in her ribs forced her to calm, and the bite in her words lessened. “They’re coming after me now because they’re desperate. I have them on their heels. I know it, and so do they. Now’s the time to dig in. To press forward.” She paused. “I’m not afraid.”

Mark paced around the tiny area and stopped at the privacy curtain. “I’m afraid.” He turned slowly, his face cast down toward the floor. “If this is what the bill is going to cost…” He lifted his head. “Is it worth it?”

“Yes.” Lena didn’t hesitate, and despite the pain in her body, her voice didn’t waver. “We’re almost there.” Lena squeezed his arm. “I can do this.”

“I know.” And while his tone suggested that he believed her, the lines of his smile told another story. One that had been riddled with the pain and grief of their relationship, which she’d tested the limits of since the very beginning. But through it all he’d stuck with her: the divorce from her former husband, the custody battle for Gwen, and helping her confront a past that was hard to look at. Demons never really leave a person. She just hoped hers would stay buried for a few more days.

***

Blue and red lights flashed in the night and flooded the open plains on the side of the highway when Jake pulled up to the crash site where his deputy had located Lena’s car. He parked his truck and joined the officer on the side of the road.

“Hey, Sheriff.” Deputy Longwood was at least five inches taller than Jake but skinny as a rail. Whatever intimidation his height offered was offset by a gentle face and kind eyes. The two had gone to high school together and joined the sheriff’s office at the same time, but while Jake climbed the ladder, Longwood preferred the backseat. He flashed a light into the darkness, which illuminated the battered taillight of Lena’s sedan. “Nasty wreck. How’s Lena doing?”

Jake eyed the second pair of tire tracks, which ran parallel to ones that led to Lena’s car. He knelt down, getting a level look at the road and the directions both parties had traveled. “Some bruised ribs. Cuts and scrapes. She’s all right, though.” And she was telling the truth about the second truck, at least.

“I found a liquor bottle in the grass next to the wreck out there. It was completely empty.” Longwood searched for his next words slowly. “Did she seem… out of it at all?”

“She was run off the road, and beaten.” Jake pulled out a pair of gloves on his way to the wreck. “Of course she was out of it.” He circled the car, taking note of the white and brown paint that clashed with the black of the sedan. He shone his flashlight into the cabin and crawled through the open door and into the driver’s seat.

Jake checked the floorboards, the backseat, and the center console but found nothing. He ran his gloved hands over the dashboard until he found the handle of the glove box. With the car upside down, the contents spilled onto the ceiling.

“Find anything, Sheriff?” Longwood asked, ducking to try and get a peek inside.

Jake sifted through the napkins, gum, candy wrappers, and insurance and registration documents, but when he saw the small, clear baggy with crystals in it, he froze.

“Sheriff?”

“No.” Jake stuffed the bag of meth inside his jacket before he backed out. “Nothing here. Go ahead and call the wrecker. We’ll try and get that paint analyzed at the lab, see if we can pull any prints off the bottles of liquor or the door handle of her car.”

“Sure thing, Sheriff.”

Longwood returned to his squad car, and Jake reached into his jacket, examining the ounce of drugs. “Damnit, Lena.”

 

Chapter 5

Lena kept her arm around the wound on her ribs, the tight wrap that engirded her torso keeping a steady pressure, which felt like an anaconda squeezing her to death. She looked to Mark in the driver’s seat. He hadn’t said a word all morning, not even when she asked him to drive her to the office. “Didn’t you break your ribs once?”

“Yup.” Mark kept his eyes on the road.

And that was all she was going to get. Lena rested her head against the window and watched the open fields pass by. When she looked north she saw the gas flares from the fracking site. “We talked about this last night.”

“Well, I remember you talking about it, and then I remember me talking about it, but I must have missed the part where you had to go back in to work today.” Mark finally looked over to her. “But, I mean, you were almost killed last night, so what would I know about taking it easy for a day.”

The ache in Lena’s ribs only itched the frustration brewing below the surface from the passive aggressive attacks she’d endured all morning. “The vote is tomorrow. I just need to make sure everything is ready to go. That’s all.”

“Yup.”

The rest of the car ride was in silence. Mark dropped her at the office and didn’t wait around as she limped toward the door. The morning’s paper rested on the stoop, and in bold letters the title of the front page read: State Legislator Celebrates Before Town Hall with a Drink and a Drive. Below the caption was a picture of her totaled car along with the falsely planted liquor bottle. Lena picked up the paper and tossed it in the trash on the way to her desk.

Janine emerged from the kitchen and nearly dropped her coffee mug. “Oh my god, Lena, what happened?”

Lena slowly lowered herself into her chair, doing her best to hide the pain. “I got in a car wreck last night when I was coming back from the hospital. Some truck ran me off the road.”

“Did you tell Jake?”

“Yeah, he’s chasing down some leads. But there’s nothing we can do about that now. Did I have any messages?”

Janine paused, looking at the cuts and bruises on Lena’s face, then blushed when she realized the length of her stare. She grabbed a few Post-It notes from her desk and shuffled through them. “The governor called this morning. Early. He said he wanted to speak with you immediately.” She placed the note on her desk and then folded the others away. “That was the only important call.”

Lena furrowed her brow. “What are those others?”

“Nothing.” Janine answered quickly, keeping the notes in her hand hidden behind her back. “Do you need anything else?”

“Head over to city hall, make sure they have everything they need for tomorrow. I have a feeling it’s going to be a large turnout.” Janine dismissed herself, and Lena reached for the phone, already knowing what the governor would want to talk about.

The governor’s secretary answered, and it wasn’t but a few seconds later that he picked up, the tone in his voice surprisingly cordial. “Good morning, Representative Hayes.”

“Good morning, Governor.”

“I was wondering if you could help me with something.”

“I can try, sir.”

“Well, I made a bet with Senator Banks yesterday evening on the odds of whether or not your district would pass your bill. He said that you lacked the political experience for anything significant to come about, while I touted your resume as a lawyer and the sheer grit with which you campaigned yourself to a win in the legislative assembly.”

Lena spoke slowly after a lingered silence. “I appreciate the support, Governor.”

“I know you do. But I was hoping you could tell me why I read an article online this morning about you driving under the influence? Because I can tell you right now, Hayes, that this is the type of stupidity that can sink a bill before it even gets off the fucking ground!”

Lena leaned her ear away from the phone as the governor raised his voice. Once he was finished, she treaded lightly. “Governor, I can promise you that whatever you read is nothing more than tabloid journalism.”

“I don’t care if it’s true or not. The damage is already done. You don’t think the oil company is going to pounce on this? You think people care about the truth?” The governor scoffed. “They care about gossip, Hayes, and this article has enough of it to keep the church ladies busy for the next month!”

“We’ll run a counter story for tomorrow’s paper. My blood levels were checked by the doctor, and they’ll come back this afternoon. I’ll put that in the article, and people will know what really happened.”

“I’m getting calls from your fellow state legislators all over North Dakota. They’re worried about what happens if the bill doesn’t pass in your town. We need the momentum that will come with your city.”

“It will pass, Governor. I promise you that.”

“For both our sakes, I hope you’re right. I’ve already publicly supported you on this. Don’t make me look like a fool, or I promise you that your career will be over before it even had a chance to get started.”

The call clicked dead, and the pain in Lena’s ribs flared up. She gently rested her elbows on the table and rubbed her temples. She knew the governor was right. If the bill didn’t pass in her town, then it was dead in the water. And that meant more sick kids, more deaths on the job, and the exploitation of their land’s natural resources. She was so deep in thought that when the front door opened and the woman stepped inside, Lena didn’t notice until she heard Janine’s voice.

“Can I help you, ma’am?” Janine asked.

The woman had wavy blond hair with dark-brown roots. Her eyes were circled with the dark lines of mascara, and her lipstick was hot red. She dressed in a plain white tank top and torn-up jeans, with a pair of boots on her feet. She crossed her arms, hugging herself, keeping a sheepish distance from Janine. “I was hoping I could speak with Lena Hayes?”

“It’s all right, Janine.” Lena waved, curious as to the woman’s identity. “You can come on back.” She gestured to the chair in front of her desk, and as the woman moved closer, she recognized her from the trial last year. She extended her hand, wincing from the pain in her stomach. “You’ll have to forgive me, but I don’t remember your name.”

“Kelly Coleman.” She took a seat and inched the chair closer to the desk. “I was—am Reese Coleman’s wife.”

“Of course, my apologies, Mrs. Coleman.”

Kelly pointed to her face while staring at Lena’s. “What happened?”

“Car accident. What can I do for you?”

Kelly bit her lower lip and shifted in her seat. “It’s about Reese. I think something’s wrong.”

Lena opened her drawer and reached for a pen and paper. “What do you mean?”

“He’s been working a lot lately.” Kelly fiddled with the ring on her finger, picking at it as if it were a scab. “He worked a night shift the other day, and he never came home. When I called the company they told me that he clocked out at the end of his shift and left. For him not to at least call me isn’t like him. I’m worried.”

“Have you told the sheriff about it?” Lena asked.

Kelly cast her eyes down. “No, I didn’t want to make anything official. I just thought that Reese might have reached out to you if something was going on. I know the two of you spoke a lot during the trial last year.”

Reese Coleman had been one of the few workers to openly testify against his own company, but it just wasn’t enough. All Reese Coleman had was water cooler gossip. The man had never been able to produce any hard evidence. “Has he been experiencing any trouble at work because of what happened at the trial?”

Kelly rubbed her arms, shivering in the chair. “I-I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have come here.” She jumped out of her chair and backed away. “I’m sure he was just partying with some of the guys and passed out on one of their couches.”

“Mrs. Coleman, wait.” Lena jumped too quickly and nearly collapsed, but she knuckled the desk for support. Sweat collected on her forehead, and she clutched her stomach as she hobbled to the door. “If there’s something your husband told you, you can tell me.” She placed her hand on the woman’s shoulder. “I can help.”

Kelly shifted her weight between her feet, trembling. “We haven’t really talked a lot lately. B-Because he’s been working so much,” she added quickly. “He seemed like he’d been a little on edge though, you know? Like something was bothering him.” She shook her head. “He just wouldn’t tell me what it was.”

“You should tell the sheriff,” Lena said.

Kelly nodded. “Yeah, maybe I’ll do that. Thanks again, Mrs. Hayes.” She pushed the door open and hurried down the sidewalk, glancing over to the diner, where the regular crowd of rig workers watched her leave, and Lena wondered just how far the oil company would go to keep their profits flowing.

The phone on Janine’s desk rang, and she answered quickly. “Okay.” She covered the receiver with her palm. “Lena?”

“Yeah.” When she saw Janine’ face, Lena felt her own cheeks grow pale. “What’s wrong?”

“Something happened at Gwen’s school.”

***

Men in hard hats and safety vests roamed the grounds as Jake passed the New Energy sign at the front gate. Flares from the gas runoff blasted into the sky, adding to the heat of the day. Jake kept his eyes peeled, but most of his concentration was on the call with the doctor. “So she was clean? Nothing in her system? Great. Thanks, Doc.” He ended the call, parked, and exhaled a sigh of relief.

Outside, the clank of metal and bursts of gas runoff filled the afternoon air. A group of workers passed, and Jake grabbed one of them by the arm. “I need to speak with Scott Ambers.” The worker jerked his arm away and then pointed over to one of the observation decks that surrounded the rigs, muttering under his breath as he walked in the opposite direction.

Scott Ambers stood on the edge of the platform’s railing, shouting to the workers below, his voice just as commanding as the structure on which he was perched. “It’s only noon, and we’re already behind schedule. Let’s move your asses, boys!”

Jake ascended the steps of the platform, forgoing the hard hat offered to him on the way up, refusing to remove his cowboy hat. When he reached the top he maneuvered around the narrow steel crates to where Scott presided over the edge. “Mr. Ambers, I need to talk to you.”

“Hold on, Sheriff.” Scott pointed to a man near the drilling’s core. “Knox! Get in there and make sure the pressure’s steady! The damn thing was acting up last night. I want everything recalibrated.” He wiped the spit from his mouth and then turned to Jake. “What do you want, Sheriff? I thought I filled out everything I needed to last night.”

“Look, it’s no secret that my sister’s bill is a thorn in your boss’s side.” Jake kept his thumbs hooked in his belt, his eyes nearly hidden under the rim of his cowboy hat. “And I know it’s your guys who’ve been vandalizing her office.” His boots thumped against the steel grates as he walked forward, each heavy thud slow and ominous. “There was definitely another car involved in Lena’s wreck. I need to look at some of your employee records. Check to see what kind of vehicles they drive.”

Scott tipped the lid of his hard hat high onto his forehead, the sweat from the day’s work glistening in the sun. “Well, that’s not gonna happen without a warrant.”

“Things will go a lot easier for you if you just cooperate. We don’t have to make it a legal thing.”

“I think your sister has already done a fine mess of that.” Scott wiped his forehead and repositioned his hard hat. “She should consider herself lucky after all that booze she drank and got behind the wheel. She could have killed somebody.”

The leather of Jake’s belt groaned as he tightened his grip and stepped forward until his chest pressed against Scott’s arm. “You know, it is kind of ironic how you managed to get to my sister so soon after the crash. Especially considering how hard the company you work for campaigned against her in the election. Are you helping your new boss with a little payback?”

Scott kept his gaze straight ahead. “You can check my car, Sheriff. And my alibi. Neither have any marks on them. Now get the hell off this property before I call security.”

Jake peeked over the side of the railing to the ground at least sixty feet below. “A lot of accidents happen around here.” He looked back to Scott. “I’d be careful.” He stepped backward and headed for the stairs.

One step down and a blast of heat and fire shot fifty feet up into the sky. The explosion of the rig to Jake’s right erupted in a plume of earth, concrete, and steel. The platform that overlooked the rig rattled, and Jake clung to the railing for support. He looked down to the wreckage below, men sprinting in all directions.

Scott knocked Jake in the shoulder as he sprinted down the stairs, his face as red as the flames. “Hoses! Get the hoses!”

Screams erupted from inside the inferno, and Jake quickly descended into the chaos. Faces covered in oil and soot were pulled from the base of the fire. Heat scorched the side of his face as Jake helped in the rescue.

Once at a safe distance, Jake pressed his fingers into the neck of one of the workers and checked for a pulse, and another bloodcurdling scream bellowed from within the depths of the blazing fires. He squinted into the flames and saw the outstretched arm of a man pinned under collapsed steel beams.

Two paramedics relieved Jake of the unconscious man, and he sprinted toward the structure. Even when he turned his face away he felt the heat of the fire burn his skin from a distance of ten feet. He lifted his arms to shield himself, but it did little to help. Smoke filled his lungs and stung his eyes. He stumbled through the inferno nearly blind. Twice Jake fell to his knees in a fit of coughing.

“Help!”

Jake tilted his ear to the right where the faint cry echoed. He dipped under one of the fallen beams and found the man, his hand still outstretched. Blistered and blackened flesh had replaced the right side of the man’s head. His hair had been singed off, leaving behind only a few wisps of charred ash that sprouted from his skull. He was on his stomach, the back of his jumpsuit so black Jake was unsure of what was flesh and what was cloth. “Hang on!” Jake knelt by the man’s side, checking to see where he was pinned, and the man curled his burnt fingers around his arm.

The worker’s screams slowly faded the longer he lay, and it wasn’t long before he was completely still. Jake saw that the beam that had pinned his legs had melted and formed a steel cast. A rain of molten fire fell all around, and Jake hooked his arms under the worker’s armpits and pulled. The steel around the leg added another hundred pounds, but Jake drove his heels through the ground, his muscles burning, and pulled.

Fire and steel rained everywhere, and Jake looked behind him to the narrow opening and the group of workers shouting and waving him onward. A few drops of fire set Jake’s jacket ablaze, and he felt the heat eat through the fabric and graze his skin. He screamed but didn’t let the man go. With one last heaving pull he yanked the burned man out of the flames, and the two collapsed onto the grass.

Jake ripped his jacket off, smothering the flames in the dirt. His face was covered in soot, and he doubled over, losing what remained of his breakfast. The burn of vomit stung his throat, and he hacked and coughed from the smoke inhalation.

Paramedics quickly swarmed him and the worker, pulling them closer to safety. One of the medics ran his blue-gloved hands over Jake’s body and gave him a mask of oxygen that helped clear the carbon from his lungs.

A solid column of tar-black smoke billowed into the sky. Everyone that could have been pulled from the disaster was being given medical attention, and the crew dousing the flames with water kept their distance as they tried to tame the chaos. Jake looked over and watched the man he pulled from the rig be loaded onto a gurney and shoved in the back of an ambulance.

Scott walked over and slapped Jake on the shoulder. “You all right, Sheriff?”

Jake nodded, keeping the mask on his face, sucking in a few more breaths of the precious air before he removed it. “What the hell happened?”

“Won’t know until we can get in there and see what the malfunction was, but I’m putting my money on a pressure pocket the equipment didn’t catch.” Scott took a step back, giving Jake a look up and down. “That was some real cowboy shit, Sheriff. I didn’t realize they grew ’em this big in North Dakota.”

Jake examined his hands and checked his arms and face in the reflection of the ambulance’s window for any burns that he couldn’t feel. Aside from flush-red cheeks and sweat, he was fine. The tension in his muscles eased. “That man I pulled out. Who was he?”

“Rick Knox.” Scott shook his head. “Poor bastard. That’ll be the last we see of him.” He turned to leave, and after a few steps he looked back to Jake, a smile creeping up the side of his face. “Oh, and Sheriff. I look forward to those warrants.”

Jake watched Scott join the cluster of workers that had gathered on the perimeter of where the fire crew had made their stand. Small streams battled the blazing inferno, its raw heat and power more than the hoses could handle. That was what they were all up against. That was what his sister was trying to stop.

“Sheriff.” The dispatcher’s voice crackled over the radio on his shoulder. “You there, Sheriff?”

“Go ahead, Jackie.”

“You need to get to your sister’s house.”

 

Chapter 6

Lena walked the empty halls of the high school, passing lockers and classrooms where half the students inside had dozed off, their attention span lacking the vigor needed to tackle their subjects. She stepped inside the administration office and saw Gwen sitting two seats from another girl. Both teens were disheveled, and blood oozed from cuts on their lips.

Gwen eyed her mother when she entered, but then quickly lowered her head, and before Lena got in a word the principal stepped out of her office. “Mrs. Hayes? Please, come inside.”

Lena took a seat in one of the two chairs as the door closed behind her. The principal sat in her chair across the desk and folded her hands together. “I know you’re aware of our school’s zero-tolerance policy on violence.”

“I’m aware, Samantha. I receive the newsletters.”

“Has Gwen spoken to you at all about what’s been happening with her at school?”

Aside from the occasional poor grade, Gwen had been a good student, despite the angst-ridden mood when she was home. But the truth was, Lena knew nothing about her daughter’s life anymore. “She hasn’t mentioned anything.”

The principal reached into the bottom drawer of her desk and pulled out a thick ream of files. “This is every student with a parent that works for New Energy Incorporated.” The stack was nearly a foot high. “Over one hundred students, Mrs. Hayes. And what do you think they’ve been talking about around the dinner table for the past few months?”

“Are you telling me the fight happened because Gwen is being bullied? Because of the bill?” Lena turned uneasily in her chair, and groaned from the ache in her ribs. Through the small sliver of a window she saw Gwen with her wild hair and bloodied lip. Her first emotion was guilt. The second was anger. “How long has this been going on?”

“This is the first time it’s escalated to such violence, but I can tell you that the verbal abuse has been going on for the past month. Maybe more.” The principal pushed aside the files. “Mrs. Hayes, I understand your position in the community, everybody does, but—”

The door burst open, and a woman rushed inside. Her cheeks were red and her hair unkempt and frayed. She switched her glance between the principal and Lena and then pointed back to the girls. “What the hell is going on here?”

The principal stood, straightening out her blouse. “Mrs. Foreman, if you could have a seat—”

“I’m not sitting next to that bitch.” Becky Foreman snarled. It was the same look she used to testify on behalf of New Energy. The company for which her husband worked. She was one of many who denied allegations that the oil company had done anything wrong. A belief she still held today.

“Everyone just needs to sit down and talk about this.” The principal stood, spreading her arms in attempt to bring them together.

“And what do you want us to talk about? Becky raised her eyebrows, her tone condescending. “How this woman is trying to destroy this town and every family that lives in it?”

The brick wall that Lena had banged her head against for the past two years was just as stubborn as when she started. “That’s not what I’m trying to do, and that’s not what’s going to happen. We have data that says—”

“You don’t have shit!” Spit flew from Becky’s mouth, and her neck flushed red to match the pink of her cheeks and ears. “You have no idea what you’re doing to our families.”

“Neither do you!” The final thread of Lena’s patience snapped. “You have no idea of what’s happened to the families who’ve lost their husbands and fathers. Or the kids who’ve spent their childhood in the bed of a hospital, with machines hooked up to them like some kind of battery!” She clenched her fists and held back the urge to wrap her hands around the woman’s throat. “I swear to god, if I see your daughter touch mine again, or any other student in this place, the oil bill will be the least of your problems.”

Becky Foreman deflated, slinking back into the lobby, where she grabbed her daughter by the hand and led her out the door. Lena released the tension in her hands, uncurling her fingers slowly, and regained control of her breathing and gently palmed her ribs. “I’m taking my daughter home.”

“Mrs. Hayes.” The principal stepped around the desk but kept her distance. “Just remember that even though there were people who didn’t vote for you in the election, you still represent them as well.”

“I remember.” Too well most times. Lena gestured for Gwen to follow, and her daughter did so without question. They remained silent all the way to Janine’s car, which she had borrowed for the drive over. Once buckled in, Gwen kept her eyes locked onto the passing landscape, her arms crossed, the blood on her chin crusted and dry.

“Why didn’t you tell me this was happening?” Lena shook her head in disbelief. “You should have said something, Gwen.”

“It wouldn’t have mattered.”

“What are you talking about? Of course it would have mattered! You’re my daughter. If I don’t know you’re in trouble, then I can’t help you.”

“Just like you helped all those other families?” Gwen whipped her head around, her face scrunched into a frown. “All those kids who got sick? All those workers who got killed? What did you do for them, Mom? Oh, that’s right. Nothing.”

Lena slammed on the brakes, the seatbelt pulling tight against her chest. She shoved the shifter into park and rounded on her daughter. “Enough, Gwen! I can’t stop something if I don’t know it’s happening. You’re the one who’s choosing to shut me out. Not the other way around. And don’t you dare try and use those families as some type of an excuse that I was a bad mother. They were in real trouble, not wallowing in some worthless pit of self-despair.”

“That’s not what makes you a bad mother.” Gwen kept her eyes locked on Lena’s. “Locking your five your old daughter in her room while you got high does.”

And there it was. Lena knew it was only a matter of time before the past resurfaced. She thought she was prepared. She wasn’t. “You’re right, Gwen. That does make me a bad mother.” She placed her hand on Gwen’s shoulder, but pulled away when her daughter flinched. “You have a right to hate me for that. But if you hang onto that for too long, it will define you. And the soul can’t survive on hate alone.”

Lena caught her daughter’s reflection in the window. Every tear that fell was a stab in Lena’s heart. But it was a pain she had to endure. Gwen was angry, and Lena was the punching bag. She’d have to take it for a while, let her daughter work through it.

“I should have stayed with Dad,” Gwen said.

Lena shifted the car back into drive and put her foot on the gas. “That’s one decision I’m not sorry about. But I want you to understand something right here and now. There is nothing, and I mean nothing, that is more important to me than you and Kaley. Not my job, not some bill, nothing. There is no competition between you and the rest of the world in my eyes.” The phone in her pocket buzzed, and she saw Jake’s name flash on the screen. “Hey.”

“Lena, where are you?” Jake’s voice was quick and panicked.

“I just picked up Gwen from school. We’re on the highway headed back to the house.”

“Thank god.” A breath escaped his voice. “Listen, do not stop until you get here, you understand me? Are you good on gas?”

Lena checked the gauge, which was at half a tank. “Yeah, it’s fine. What the hell is going on?”

“It’s Mark. He’s hurt.”

***

Tires kicked up dirt and dust from the unpaved road that had worn through the open fields. Lena didn’t let up on the accelerator until she was in her front yard, then slammed on the brakes, the tires skidding across the grass. She exited the car, the engine still idling, and sprinted to the blockade of officers at the front door.

Blood covered the front porch steps, and Lena felt her heart sink to the pit of her stomach. “Mark!” Both Jake and his deputies turned at the sound of her voice, and Jake intercepted her before she could see her husband.

“He’s all right,” Jake said. “Just got roughed up a bit.” Lena jerked left and right, trying to look past and break free. “Hey,” Jake said, trying to calm her. “He’s fine. All right?”

Lena nodded, regaining control of her breathing, the day’s emotional roller coaster getting the better of her. “Where is he?”

“In the house. We have the paramedics looking at him.” Jake looked past her to Gwen, who had remained by the car, and he furrowed his brow. “Jesus Christ, what happened to her?”

“She got in a fight at school.” The town’s anger was reaching a tipping point, and Lena wasn’t sure how much more she, or her family, could endure. “Did he see who did it?” And that was when she finally noticed the black ash on her brother’s face, and the bloodshot eyes. She wiped her thumb across his forehead, smearing the dirt.

Jake lowered her hand. “There was an explosion at one of the New Energy rigs. I’m fine.”

“What the hell were you doing there?”

“Don’t worry about it. Listen, Mark said he didn’t recognize the guys that roughed him up. Though he did give us a description of their truck. Brown and white. Looked like it had been in a wreck.”

“Believe me now?”

“I never said I didn’t.”

When Lena stepped inside she saw Mark at the kitchen table, a paramedic bandaging a laceration on his forehead. Aside from the large cut, his left eye and bottom lip were swollen. The paramedic had removed Mark’s shirt, revealing bruises that circled his chest and back. When they made eye contact he pushed the paramedic aside and hobbled to her. “Thank god you’re all right.” They both winced when they embraced, and Lena cupped Mark’s cheeks.

“I could say the same for you.” Mark gestured over to the table, and the paramedic excused himself, giving them a moment alone. When she went to touch his forehead, he intercepted her hand before it got there. “I’m fine. Really.”

“This is getting out of control.” Lena collapsed in the chair and buried her face in her hands. Mark joined her, and she felt his hand on her shoulder.

“I told you I’m fine.”

Lena shook her head. “It’s not that.” She bit her lower lip. “Gwen got in a fight at school.”

“What? Why?”

“The same reason for your surprise visitors today.”

The color drained from Mark’s face. He looked the way she felt inside. Wincing, he stood. He limped the length of the kitchen, and then back to the table. “We need to pull the girls from school.”

“I know. Jake already has someone picking up Kaley.” Christ, Kaley. What if someone had gone after her? A sudden burst of rage flooded her veins and she slammed her fists onto the kitchen table. “All of this fearmongering bullshit!” Her knuckles popped, but when Mark placed his hand over hers she felt the tension ease.

Lena summoned the paramedic back inside to finish up with Mark and also had him take a look at Gwen. With the three of them at the kitchen table with their injuries, they looked more like a gang of marauders than a family.

Kaley’s arrival was the only high point of the night, and once everyone was patched up the paramedic left, and Jake joined them in the kitchen, still smelling of smoke. “You need to cancel the town hall tomorrow.”

“No,” Lena said. “They know they can’t win, and now they’ve resorted to violence to stop me. It won’t work.”

“Dammit, Lena!” Jake kicked the chair, his fists looking to punch anything in his path. “I can’t arrest every single employee that works for the oil company! And you and I both know they’ll be in full force at the vote. We don’t have the manpower to deal with a crowd that large, and if things go wrong—”

“Things have already gone wrong, Jake!” The legs on Lena’s chair scratched against the kitchen floor as she quickly stood. “Things went bad when the shale boom took off. And it went bad two years ago when the children of homes that were in close proximity to the underground water runoff of the drilling sites got sick. And it went worse last year when more kids got sick and the fatalities on the oil rig reached double digits!” She approached Jake and gripped her brother by the shoulders. “We lose this, and we’ve run out of options of how to fight them. And then it will only be a matter of time until more people are hurt.”

Jake uncurled his fists. He nodded. “Fine. But each of you will have a deputy with you at all times until the town hall is over. And that’s non-negotiable.”

“Fair enough.”

“We’ve put out an APB for the truck,” Jake said, returning to business. “If they were stupid enough to start doing this shit in broad daylight, then they couldn’t have gotten very far.”

“I need to head back into the office and finish everything for tomorrow,” Lena said.

“Can’t you just work from home?” Mark asked. “What’s at the office that you can’t do here?”

“I’m going over the case files from the lawsuit, see what I can use against the opposition.” Despite the reasoning, no one liked the decision, but Lena got her way regardless. The next order of business was handling security of the house. Two deputies would stay and watch the girls during the town hall.

Lena tried convincing Mark to stay to help keep the girls safe, but he wouldn’t budge on attending. With security handled, Jake walked out the door, and Lena followed him to the truck, making sure they were alone. “Did Kelly Coleman file a missing persons report with you today?”

Jake shifted uneasily. “No. Why?”

The body language was off-putting, and Lena knew her brother well enough that she struck a nerve. “She came to see me earlier. She mentioned that Reese worked a night shift the other day and never came home. She thought maybe he was in trouble, something about the old civil suit we filed two years ago.”

Jake gesticulated his movements. “Never heard anything about it.” His voice wavered nervously and wouldn’t look her in the eye.

The wheels turned, and Lena cocked her head to the side, giving him the same look their mother would have. “Are you sleeping with her?” The pause was for only a moment before he tried to deny it, but it was enough for Lena to know the truth. “What the hell are you thinking?”

“What the hell am I thinking?” Jake reached for the inside of his jacket and made sure everyone else was still inside before he pulled out the bag of meth. “What the hell are you thinking having this?”

The color drained from Lena’s face, her skin matching the whiteness of the cloth that covered the cuts on her cheek. “Where did you get that?”

Jake shoved the drugs back into his jacket. “From the glove compartment of your car.” He stepped close, the winds of guilt now blowing in her direction. “You looked me in the eye last night after the wreck and said you weren’t using.”

“And I wasn’t.” She spit the words back at him, angrily, just as she did when during the years when she really was high. She felt the cold crawl of the addiction run up her spine. “I kept it to remind me of what it could do. To test me.” She could still smell it, the sweet stench of chemicals melting in the spoon. She felt the growing desire that clouded her mind from everything in the world except the greedy release of ecstasy that only a hit could unearth. And she never got tired of digging.

Jake shook his head. “What if one of the girls found this, or Mark? Hell, what if I had a deputy search the car instead of me?” He pounded his chest, his cheeks once again red with anger. “Don’t go back down that road.”

“I don’t plan on it.” Both of them took a moment to calm down before heading back inside. After Lena tucked Kaley into bed, she hitched a ride back into town with Jake.

Main Street was dark and empty when they arrived, and when she unlocked the door to her office Jake radioed Deputy Longwood to come over and keep watch. When Lena stepped through the door Janine pounced, bombarding her with questions and concerns, but after a few minutes of explanation Lena managed to sooth Janine’s worry, and the two got back to work.

The old files of the lawsuit had grown thick with dust, and every turned page of the ancient manifests filled Lena’s nose with the foggy haze of the past.

“Mrs. Hayes?” Deputy Longwood suddenly appeared in front of her desk. “There’s a Mr. Ken Lang outside.”

Lena watched Ken pace leisurely from the view of the window, his hands behind his back, gripping a thin manila folder. “You can let him in.”

The normal air of vanity that surrounded Ken had been replaced with a grit she hadn’t seen before. Without a word he slapped the folder on the desk and crossed his arms. “Renounce your bill, or that runs Friday morning in every newspaper in North Dakota.” Lena reached for the folder and opened the page, eyeing the documents closely. “Maybe even national syndicate if it picks up enough steam online.”

Lena closed the folder, which sent a soft gust of wind that ruffled the old papers of the civil suit. She pushed the folder away and stood, knuckling the top of her desk as she stared him down. “There isn’t anything you can say, or do, to get rid of this bill. Do you understand me? Nothing.” She stepped around the desk and inched close enough to smell the faint scent of cologne that lingered on his tie. “And if you ever go after me and my family again, I will end you.” She looked him up and down, disgust etched in stone across her face. “My town, and my state, aren’t some pawn for you to play with. Get the fuck out of my office.” She picked up the folder and slammed it into his chest with enough force to make him stumble backward.

Longwood appeared and escorted Ken out. Once the lobbyist was gone he popped his head back inside, chuckling. “I knew I voted for you for a reason, Mrs. Hayes.” He tipped his hat and then returned to his post at the door.

Lena sat down and returned to the old files, and though the show of force felt good, a sour pit had formed in her stomach. The more she fought it, the bigger it grew. And when she picked up the pen to jot down a few notes, she couldn’t stop her hand from shaking.

 

Chapter 7

The glow of Lena’s desk lamp was the only source of light left in the office. Janine had long since gone home, leaving only Lena and the deputy. The late hour wasn’t anything new. During her days as a lawyer, the addict within had always wallowed in the complete submersion of her casework. But like all addictions, it came with a cost. The absent presence was well documented in her family’s life. It wasn’t on purpose, it wasn’t out of malice intent, it was simply her personality. Whether it was good or bad, self-destructing or building character, she didn’t stop until it was finished.

The joints in her neck popped when she leaned back, and the bubble-wrap-like noises continued as she rotated her shoulders and stretched her back. She reached for her coffee mug and found that it was empty.

In the kitchen Lena tossed the rest of the pot out and reached for a new coffee filter. She had just poured in the coffee when the lights in the kitchen suddenly shut off. She palmed the wall until she made it to the door, bumping into a few open cabinets along the way. The lamp on her desk was off, and the only light in the office shone through the windows from the moonlight outside.

“Mrs. Hayes, are you all right?” Longwood’s silhouette grew larger as he stepped forward.

“I’m fine.” Lena squinted out the window, looking across the street, where one of the window signs in the convenience store still shone brightly. “One of the breakers must have flipped.”

“Where’s the box?” Longwood asked.

“It’s in the back near the—”

Gunshots blasted holes through the front windows. The deputy tackled Lena to the floor, and the impact angered the bruises on her ribs. She cried out, but her moans were muted by gunfire. The deputy reached for his gun and pulled the two of them behind the cover of her desk. “Stay down!” He leapt up, aiming toward the shooter out front, and Lena watched the flash of the muzzle illuminate three quick strikes.

Nearly deaf from the gunfire, Lena watched the deputy mouth something and then sprint toward the door. She rolled to her side, the adrenaline masking the pain in her ribs. She gripped the edge of her desk and pulled herself up.

Spider-like webs crawled over the glass, eradiating from dozens of bullet holes in the front windows. The street was empty. No movement. The din in Lena’s ears slowly faded, and she reached for her cell phone on the desk. With her hand on the device another gunshot thundered into the office.

Lena ducked behind her desk then dashed into the rear office, huddling behind one of the dividing walls. The door hinges groaned as the shooter entered, and she heard the crunch of boots on glass. Her heart caught in her throat, and she covered her mouth to mask her panting breaths.

A bullet splintered the adjacent divider wall where Lena hid, and hoped the sound of the gunshot muffled her scream as she crawled deeper into the office. She opened a few of the drawers she passed, looking for anything she could use to defend herself, and settled on a pair of scissors that she clutched tightly in her fist.

“I know you’re in here, Hayes!” The voice was angry. Two more random gunshots fired. “You think you can take our jobs from us without a fight? That’s our livelihood!”

Lena slid along the back portion of the wall, staying below the divider’s top. She paused once she reached the edge and waited. Footsteps grew louder, and Lena tightened her grip, coiling her arm in anticipation to strike.

A pant leg crossed her plane of vision first, and Lena drove the tip of the scissors into the man’s calf. She dug the metal tip deep and felt muscle tear. The man screamed and she threw her weight into his body, knocking both of them to the floor.

The gun skidded across the tile and under the desk of another cubicle. Lena clutched her side, drawing in sharp breaths that stabbed her ribs. She stretched a hand to reach for the gun, and a hand gripped her ankle and pulled her backward, her stomach skidding across the cold tile.

“You fucking bitch!” The shooter wore a black mask, only the whites of his teeth and eyes visible in the darkness.

Lena kicked and her heel cracked the shooter’s jaw. His hold loosened but didn’t fully release. She tugged viciously to free herself, all the while still trying to stretch her body across the floor to reach the gun only a few feet away.

A quick punch to her kidneys buckled her body, and she was suddenly flipped to her back. The shooter mounted her and raised his hand. “Should have done this a long fucking time ago.” The harsh crack of his knuckles against her cheek drew blood. Lena countered with a quick jab to the man’s nose, but her efforts were blocked, and she felt both her wrists pinned to the floor. “Feisty, ain’t you?” He raised his hand again, but Lena shifted her knee to his crotch and thrust upward. He doubled over, grabbing his privates and moaning.

Lena pushed herself backward with her elbows and then lunged for the pistol under the desk. Her fingertips had just scraped the handle when she felt something metal and cold press into the back of her skull.

“Don’t move, bitch.”

Two gunshots. Lena shuddered. When she turned around the shooter had collapsed. Suddenly hands were on her, and she smacked at them, but when they cupped her face she saw that it was Jake.

“Are you all right?” His eyes were wide, as they used to get when he was scared as a boy.

Lena threw her arms around her brother’s neck and squeezed tight. The flash of blue and red lights flooded the office walls and floors, and Jake helped Lena to her feet. On the way out her gaze was drawn back to the shooter, who now lay in a pile of blood.

Outside, another masked man was cuffed and thrown into the back of a squad car, and there were at least a dozen deputies outside, including Longwood, who had tracked down the second shooter. Jake threw a space blanket over Lena’s shoulders and shoved a bottled water in her hand. He examined the fresh cut. “We need a medic over here! Tell Johnson to get his ass out of bed!”

Lena did her best to hide the shaking, but even after the time it took for Mark to get a ride from the house and meet her in town, she still hadn’t calmed. She mumbled words incoherently, crying into Mark’s shoulder as they held on to one another. But while the fear of death had gripped its icy hands around her throat, dying wasn’t what she feared most. What if these men had chosen to attack the house and go after the girls? They had the deputies watching over them, sure, but all it would take was a stray bullet to ricochet off the wall, or a careless moment by one of the deputies. If they were trying to kill her, how much longer would they wait until they tried to kill one of her family?

***

Once Lena had been cleared by the paramedic, Jake helped her over to the squad car and made sure he sent an extra unit over to the house to keep watch. After she left, he turned his attention to the suspect that survived, still sitting in the back of the squad car, his head down and his hands cuffed behind his back.

“Sheriff?” Deputy Longwood approached wearily. “We’ve finished up with the crime scene inside. Should I send the paramedics in to take care of the body?”

“Yeah.” Jake kept his eyes glued to the suspect’s profile through the car window. “Have we filled out his report yet?”

“No, Sheriff. Not yet.”

“Good.” Jake left Longwood in charge and instructed his deputies to scour the streets, questioning anyone in the area about what they saw and heard. He wanted everyone out of the station, so he could interrogate the survivor alone.

The second shooter shifted uneasily in the backseat when he watched Jake climb behind the wheel. Tires screeched to a halt in the parking spaces outside the sheriff’s office, and without a word Jake yanked the man out of the backseat, handling him like a rag doll. He kicked the man into the interrogation room, where he smacked hard against the tile and slid to the back wall.

“Hey, man! Fuck you!” The shooter flopped on the floor like a fish out of water.

Jake grabbed the chair at the table and then slammed it down in the corner just below the video camera. He stepped up, plucked the cord, and the red light switched off.

The suspect gulped a wad of his own spit. “Look, we were never gonna actually hurt her. We just wanted to scare—”

The crunch of cartilage replaced whatever words were meant to come next. Jake’s fist throbbed, but he gripped the suspect by the collar and slammed him against the wall. The man’s skull whipped backward and cracked against the concrete. “You the same pricks that roughed up Mark?” The man’s eyes lolled back and forth, and Jake backhanded him, leaving behind an imprint of knuckles. “Answer me!”

“Yeah.” The man nodded his head quickly. “It was us.” His breathing was labored, and a small trickle of blood flowed from his left nostril.

Jake tossed him aside, and with the man’s hands still cuffed behind his back, he landed hard and awkwardly on the floor. Bones cracked, and the man screamed. Jake slammed the toe of his boot into the man’s stomach, giving him a distraction from the pain of the fall. “Were you working for someone at the oil company?” Only groans answered back, and Jake picked the big man up once again and slammed him onto the table, wrapping his hands tight around the man’s throat. “Who told you to do it?”

The man’s face turned a light shade of pink, then purple as he grasped at Jake’s arms and hands. He shook his head, throaty gargles and spit bubbling from his lips. Jake leaned in close. “What was that?” He slowly loosened his grip.

“It was Frankie’s idea. He just told me to come along.” He drew in a ragged breath, struggling to get the words out. “He never mentioned anything about killing her. Just. Wanted. To scare her.” The shade of purple in the man’s cheeks grew a deeper hue, and just when Jake thought the last breath had been drawn, he let go.

The man rolled back and forth on the table, sucking in huge gulps of air and coughing a painful wheeze. Jake’s hands trembled, but he hid the spasms with clenched fists. “You’re telling me this was all Frankie Lucas’s idea?” He’d gone to school with Frankie, and though he was four years older than Jake, the two had the same math class his freshman year. Not exactly the criminal mastermind. “Bullshit.”

“No, I swear to god. He’s the only person I talked to. He never mentioned anyone else.” He backed up until he collided with the one-way glass.

Jake wrapped his left hand around the man’s neck one more time, his right hand raised in a fist. “You run her off the road too?”

The man’s cheeks wiggled back and forth as he furiously shook his head. “N-No, I never did that. Maybe Frankie, but he never mentioned it.” Tears burst from the corners of his eyes, and Jake felt him tremble. “Jake, I wasn’t gonna hurt her. I swear to Christ I wasn’t.”

Finally, Jake let him go. The man slid to the floor, blubbering all over himself. Jake’s knuckles cracked, and he reached for the door handle, leaving the man cuffed and crying on the floor.

When he stepped out of the room, Longwood was there in front of the one-way glass, alone. “Sheriff, there’s someone here to see you. A Mrs. Kelly Coleman? She said it’s about her husband.”

Jake gestured inside the interrogation room. “Get him to a cell. And he doesn’t call anyone until the morning. Understand?” Longwood nodded quickly, and Jake headed toward his office, wondering what the hell that woman wanted now.

***

The deputies who escorted Lena home waited outside while Mark helped her into the house. Not much was said, but they held onto each other tight. Mark shouldered the door open, and Lena limped into the living room, the scene horribly familiar. The combination of the late hour, the foggy haze, the fear-induced panic that had overtaken any semblance of coherent thought and motor function—all of it reminded her of the nights she stumbled home drunk or high or both. The memories made her sick.

Lena took a seat at the kitchen table, and Mark poured her a glass of water, which remained untouched. He sat across from her, the two illuminated under the hanging lamp light. “I never thought it would come to this.” The shock had worn off and was replaced by a numbness that consumed her body. “What if the girls—”

“They’re going to be fine.” Mark squeezed her hand and smiled, the bruising on his eye beginning to shade into a darker blue and purple. “We have the deputies here.”

Even now Lena still felt the percussive blasts of the gunshots. “Have I pushed this too far?” The question penetrated through the noise of her mind, begging for an answer. “I poured nearly all of our money from my practice into the civil suit, and then what was left over we used on the campaign.” She shook her head. “Maybe I wanted to see something that wasn’t there. Use this to help right some of my own mistakes.”

“You took this case because there were people who needed help. You understand what it’s like to live at the bottom, feeling your way through the darkness.” He glanced to the hallway where the girls’ rooms were, then back to her. “You did it so your daughters wouldn’t suffer the same fate as the children of the families you’ve helped.”

Lena leaned over the table and kissed Mark, ignoring the pain in her body. When she pulled back she lingered near his lips. “I love you.”

“I love you too.” They held onto one another for a moment, and it wasn’t soon after that Mark announced that he was heading to bed.

“I’ll be in there in a minute.” Lena lingered at the kitchen table and looked out their front window to the two squad cars parked in the yard. She turned the light off in the kitchen, and when she walked down the hallway to Kaley’s room she felt the weight of the day slow her pace. Hell, it was the weight of the past two years.

Lena pushed Kaley’s door open and saw her youngest twisted up in her bedsheets, sound asleep. She rested her head against the doorframe and watched the steady rise and fall of Kaley’s chest. She walked inside and kissed her forehead. Kaley squirmed from the intrusion but didn’t wake.

Gwen was sound asleep as well, and just like her father, she slept on top of the sheets instead of under. She lay on her stomach. Her long black hair fell across her back and almost reached her waist. She had a lot of her father in her, more so than Lena would like to admit. She was stubborn and not quick to trust, but those faults rested on Lena’s shoulders. Gwen didn’t ask to have an addict for a mother, and Lena didn’t ask for an addiction. But both handled it as best they could.

With the girls asleep and Mark waiting in the bedroom, Lena lingered in the hallway. She closed her eyes and knew how close this was to being over, but there was still the long fight ahead to keep the bill alive in the state house. A victory tomorrow would make the journey a hell of a lot easier. She just hoped she survived long enough to see it happen.

***

Jake saw Kelly through the cracks in the blinds of his office. She sat with her back to him, and he watched her for a moment before he entered, trying to gather the nerve for what he needed to say. She shot out of her chair when he burst through the door, and he kept his tone quick and brisk. “Sorry about the wait. It’s been a crazy night.”

“What’s going on out there?” The tone suggested fear, and when she tried to get close to Jake he crossed his arms, and she backed off, her tone less eager. “I saw Lena’s office all shot up, with squad cars out front.”

“I’m handling it.” Jake cocked his head to the side. “What’s going on with Reese?”

Kelly sheepishly lowered her head. “I didn’t want to tell you because I wasn’t sure… well, how to tell you.” She clasped her hands together. “But I called the oil company, and they said that Reese didn’t show up for his shift tonight.” She swayed back and forth on her feet, the large hooped earrings dangling from her lobes. “Jake, something’s wrong.”

“I’ve put in a request for a warrant to check their personnel files and their security footage. I should have it by morning.” He gestured toward the door. “I’ll let you know if I find anything. I’ve got a lot of work to get ready for tomorrow. The town hall—”

“That’s it?” Kelly raised her voice. “That’s all you’re going to say?” She shrugged her shoulders, looking around the office in disbelief, as if the answers were in plain sight. “You’re unbelievable, you know that?”

“Now’s not the time for this.” Jake kept an even keel to his tone, looking through the blinds to ensure that none of his deputies had entered the building. “You need to go home, and when I know something I will call you.”

“Fuck you, Jake!”

The shriek triggered him to jump from his chair and grab Kelly by the shoulders. He pulled her close, and she winced. “What the hell did you think was gonna happen? You were gonna leave Reese and then I’d marry you? Is that it?” He looked her up and down. “Why would I marry trailer trash?”

Kelly ripped her arm free and slapped his face, the loud crack echoing through the office. The sting lingered on Jake’s cheek, and he felt the anger swell in him, and he watched Kelly’s eyes turn to fire. The next attack put her lips on his, kissing him hard enough to draw blood.

Jake tried to pull back, but the heat of the moment only drew him in, and he matched her passion, triggering a moan from her. Hands groped one another, each reaching for the other person’s belt. Caught up in the moment, Jake tagged it as another regret to add to his growing list.

 

Chapter 8

The morning passed quickly, and the afternoon even faster. Lena, Janine, and a few volunteers had spent most of the day preparing city hall for the vote. Once the majority of the preparations were finished, both she and Mark went home to change. They checked on the girls, both of whom were glad to be missing school, though Kaley was more vocal about her appreciation.

Lena changed from the shirt and jeans she wore in setup and put on her business suit, which she again complemented with the flag pin given to her when she was sworn in, a gift from Jake. She stared at the beaten face in the mirror, the makeup unable to hide all of the effects of the wreck. It was a face she barely recognized, but one that had neared the finish line.

Both Lena and Mark remained quiet on the final ride into town—every word they needed to exchange was done through the tight grip from their intertwined fingers. It was nearly sunset when they arrived, and though the meeting was still two hours away, cars had already started lining the streets. Mark parked by Lena’s office, where she met with Janine, and the three walked to the town hall with Deputy Longwood.

“Where’s my brother?” Lena asked.

“I’m not sure. I haven’t seen him since last night.” Longwood kept his eyes vigilantly on the encroaching vehicles, especially the large rows of trucks with a number of oil workers who’d arrived fresh off their shift with the company. “I can try him on the radio if you’d like.”

“I’m sure he’ll show up sooner or later.” The thought of Jake’s absence made Lena uncomfortable. With the attack last night still fresh in her mind, she needed all the support she could for the town hall.

Janine entered through the front doors once they arrived at city hall, while Lena and Mark diverted around to the back, away from the growing crowds. Inside, they ducked into one of the rooms backstage and Longwood waited by the door.

Lena took a seat at the table while Mark paced the floor with his head down. She closed her eyes, going through her opening statements and the rebuttals for the questions she knew were coming, but there was something she needed to tell him first. “Ken Lang knows.”

Mark stopped and looked over. It took him a moment to realize what “it” was, but that didn’t take long. “How?”

Lena shook her head. “Maybe one of the executives blackmailed somebody.” In regards to her former addiction, there were only a handful of people outside her immediate family that knew about it. It remained under wraps during the campaign, and once she was elected she thought she’d dodged the bullet.

“You don’t think Nick—”

“It doesn’t matter now.” The mention of her junkie ex-husband wasn’t a topic she wanted to flood her mind with at the moment. “If I don’t denounce the bill, then he’s going to run the story in every paper in the state tomorrow.”

Mark took a seat at the table next to her. He gently grabbed her hand, rubbing his thumb over the indented lines of her palm. “You nervous about it?”

“For the girls, mostly. It’s nothing Gwen doesn’t know, but Kaley never had to go through it. She looks at me differently than Gwen does.” Lena’s eyes turned glossy. “I don’t want to lose that.”

“Gwen just needs time. And Kaley loves you too much to let anything some paper prints stop that, and so do I.”

The sincerity was genuine; it was a trait she had always appreciated about him. The two lingered in the room, no sound except the growing murmur of the crowd in the main hall. It seeped through the concrete like a storm in the distance. Each rumble of thunder growing louder and fiercer than the clap before it.

A tight ball gathered in the pit of Lena’s stomach, and she felt it pulling her inward. Sweat gathered on her forehead and neck. She hurriedly unscrewed the cap of a water bottle and doused her dry mouth with water.

Time crawled forward and sped quickly in random intervals as she repeatedly checked the time on her phone. And then, at 8:55 p.m., she rose from the chair and buttoned her jacket. She paused at the door, taking a breath before stepping out. She closed her eyes and recited the names of the children still in the hospital, and of the men who’d died in the oil fields, and the dozens of other families that had sought her help. For them.

Mark took his seat among the crowd, and when Lena stepped onto the stage the crowd grew silent, but only for a moment. She found her seat at the far end of the table, where the five members of the city council were already seated. All but one supported the bill, and it was no secret who had lined his pockets with cash to make it so.

“I call this town hall to order.” The head city councilman, Raymond Burch, smacked the gavel and shuffled some papers. The normal proceedings of the town hall were handled first, taking care of prior business, calling roll of the members present, and fifteen minutes later the main course of the evening was ready to be served. “Up for vote tonight is resolution forty-five-C, which would strengthen regulations against entities currently drilling or seeking future drilling rights in the state of North Dakota’s shale deposits.”

Lena watched the crowd, each side of the room mixed with supporters for the bill and those that wished to kill it here and now. She saw the dirty faces of the oil workers who had come straight from work. She watched the mothers of the sick children in the hospital clasp their hands with one another across an entire row of chairs. They all had something to lose, and they all had something to fight for.

“We will hear from those that wish to speak now, but I will reiterate that anyone that is found using this evening’s platform to evoke any type of violence will be escorted out of this building immediately.” Burch pointed to the door, and the sheriff deputies that lined the edge of the crowd, with the head of his gavel.

Lena again looked for her brother, but amid the hundreds inside she couldn’t single his face out. The same tight ball from earlier returned in greater force as Burch called the platform open for statements. The first taker, an oil worker, stepped up to the microphone. The grease from the day’s work highlighted the lines of anger carved on his face, and he locked his gaze on Lena as he approached.

“Yeah, I just want to say that this bill is bullshit!” A cheer from the opposing side roared its approval, and Burch smacked the gavel, calling for order. The oil worker thrust his finger at Lena and looked back into the crowd. “I’ve lived in this town my entire life. And I’ve worked my ass off every day just to try and make ends meet for my family and me. And when the oil company came, it gave me a chance, gave us all a chance, to earn a little something extra for ourselves. And now they want to take that away? Well, I say no!”

Another round of cheers erupted from the opposition, while those who favored the bill shook their heads, casting disapproving glares at the ruckus.

And so it went. For the next hour nearly sixty people spoke their piece, some in favor, some against, but all of them afraid. The mothers of families were afraid that their children would get sick, and the workers were afraid they would lose their job. Fear guided actions on both sides, and every speech only doused gasoline onto an already raging fire.

Then, Lena watched Carla Knox slowly get up from her seat, her head down and her arms and hands huddled close to her body. She looked so small, so delicate, a shell of the woman she knew before all of this started two years ago, back when her daughter first became ill.

The microphone squealed feedback when she approached, and every head in the room winced. “My name is Carla Knox. Most of you know who I am and know who my daughter is.” She fiddled with her hands, squeezing them tightly as she looked at the floor when she spoke. “She’ll be eight next month.” A smile graced her lips, and a glassy film covered both eyes, shining under the fluorescent lighting of the hall. “The other day her father and I asked her what she wanted for her birthday. We’d both been trying to save up to make sure we could get her something.” She paused again, her lip twitching, but she retained her composure. “I thought maybe she’d ask for a new doll or toy. A pony, maybe.” A nervous laugh flitted through the air. “But she didn’t want any of that.” Tears rolled down the side of her face. “She told me she just wanted to go home.”

The air was sucked from the room and Carla dabbed the corner of her eyes with a tissue. “It’s so hard looking at your child and having to tell her that the one thing she wants more than anything in the world is the one thing you can’t give her.” Carla cried, the control over her grief evaporating. “And I know what a lot of you are thinking, that what this bill will do is hurt our town. But it won’t. Our town is already hurt. Our children are sick. And if you think that what happened to me can’t happen to you, then you’re wrong.” She drew in a breath, finding her strength once again and glanced back to the oil workers. “All of you know my husband. You know how hard he works. And right now he is in a coma, with burns over sixty percent of his body, fighting for his life!” The mic echoed a high-pitched feedback whine from her scream. “Is that what you’re fighting for?” She thrust her hands in the air. “Is that what you want for yourselves?”

With the final outburst Carla nearly collapsed at the podium. One of the deputies escorted her back to her seat, and a few more people spoke, but their words were dulled and quick. Burch smacked his gavel, and Lena felt her palms grow sweaty. “We will now hear from Representative Hayes, the bill’s sponsor. Mrs. Hayes, you have the floor.”

“Thank you, Councilman.” Lena leaned forward into the mic, her eyes drifting over the crowd, taking in the faces that looked to her for salvation and damnation. “Everyone, and none more so than our own Carla Knox, has spoken what they feel is right for themselves, and right for their family. But as I have sat here for the past hour, listening to everyone, I can’t help but sense the great swell of fear that has gripped us all. A fear of the unknown that is tomorrow and keeps us frozen in the present at the cost of our future.”

A few nods mirrored back, and Lena found Mark in the crowd. His eyes were locked on hers, and Lena paused, taking in a breath, knowing that the moment it was out, there was no putting the lid back on. “The lengths to which New Energy Incorporated have gone to ensure that this bill doesn’t make it to the governor’s desk have been nothing less than extreme. My family has been bullied, beaten, and just last night I was shot at and nearly killed. Those tactics will not stand in this community, on either side of the law.” She swallowed, her mouth dry as the desert. “Many of you saw the article that was run the other day about my accident, and while the doctors at Barta General found my blood-alcohol level to be zero, the article stated that I had been drinking and driving. And this morning, I was told by one of the oil companies consultants that if I don’t vote against my own bill another article will run.” A nervous tremor took control of her hand and she gripped the microphone to hide it. “They had a knowledge of my past that I was afraid to let people know. And they wanted to use that fear against me, much like the fear they have leveraged on you with their slander of taking away your jobs!” She slammed her fist into the table, and the mic squealed. “But it’s a fear that I will not let control my decisions and the beliefs that I hold.” She lifted her chin, straightened her back, and drew in a breath. “For nearly six years I abused alcohol and narcotics. I have been sober for over a decade, but there isn’t a day that goes by where that itch doesn’t beg to be scratched.”

There wasn’t a pair of eyes in the room that weren’t glued to Lena. Some people smiled, others frowned, but the majority wore a mask, their stoic expressions holding tight to whatever thoughts streamed through their minds. She hoped to reach their reason, to help them see that New Energy had blinded them with their promise of fortune but at the cost of their souls.

Lena reached for a few of the papers stacked to her left and skimmed to one of the statements she highlighted in her preparation. “There have been six independent studies on the groundwater near the drilling sites where families just like Carla Knox have homes, and this is what they had to say. ‘While the majority of the chemicals used and the amounts in which they are frequented into the soil during the fracking process is still unknown, it is clear that elements of unnatural and cancer causing properties have been found in the groundwater.’” She set the paper down. “And this is just one example of hundreds”—she picked up the stack of files and lifted them into the air for the room to see—“that we have collected over the past two years that all point to the clear fact that what New Energy is pumping into the ground is dangerous. This bill will change that. It will force the company to tell us what they’re using in their chemical mixtures and how much of it they’re pumping into the soil. It will ensure that regular safety inspections are mandatory to avoid accidents like yesterday that left Rick Knox burned and in a coma. Will this bill cost money? Of course, all legislation does. But will it bankrupt New Energy or any other oil companies that choose to do business in our state? Absolutely not.”

The entire room leaned forward, and Lena felt them in the palm of her hand. “Fear, ladies and gentlemen, is what people feed us when we’ve pinned them in a corner. And if we give into that fear I can tell you from personal experience there’s only one thing at the end of that road. Pain. Our community deserves better. Our families deserve better. Our children deserve better. Thank you.”

Sporadic cheers and applause erupted throughout the crowd, and a few of the family members with sick children broke down, but a large fraction of the room, most of them in New Energy uniforms, were unmoved by her words.

“Very well, then.” Burch cleared his throat and looked down at his document. “We’ve heard from everyone, and now it’s time for a vote. Due to the response that this bill has evoked, we will be holding paper ballots in lieu of our normal yea-and-nay procedure.” A few volunteers passed out slips of paper, watermarked to ensure the authenticity of the vote. “Mark your paper with a yes or no, and then distribute it to one of the baskets with volunteers in the red shirts. We have privacy booths set up in the next room with pens. The lines will start by the doors.”

With the crowd having said their piece and Lena hers, all that was left now was to wait. She found Mark in the crowd, and the two stood in line together. A few people approached her, but for the most part everyone kept to themselves. The nerves of every individual seemed to filter into the air and hover like a storm cloud.

The lines moved quickly, and Lena dropped her folded paper into the basket and waited for Mark by the door. He walked up, smiling, but then scrunched his face. “So, did you vote yes or no?” Lena punched his arm, and he laughed.

The crowds slowly returned to their seats, and Lena walked back up to the desk, where the rest of the council was waiting. Burch placed a hand on her arm and smiled. “You did very well tonight, Mrs. Hayes.”

“Thank you, Raymond.”

“How do you think it’ll do?”

Lena observed the crowd filtering in and out of the adjacent voting room. “I think people will do what they think is right. Whether that passes or vetoes the bill, we’ll find out soon enough.”

“It took balls to jump out in front of that drug scandal.” Gregory Finks, another member of the city council, polished the lenses of his glasses before placing them back on the large beak that was his nose. “You’re going to have a hell of a day tomorrow in the press.”

“And hopefully it’s because the bill passed.” The idle chitchat continued for a little longer, and Lena noticed the absence of Jerry Smith, the only city councilman who had openly opposed her piece of legislation. She searched the crowd and saw him in the back, speaking with Ken Lang. But before she had any more time to dwell on the matter, Burch touched her on the shoulder.

“Looks like they’re wrapping up. Better take your seat.”

When Lena turned back to where Jerry and Ken had spoken, Ken had disappeared, while Jerry had already returned to his seat. Whatever those two had to speak on couldn’t have boded well for Lena or the bill.

The baskets of votes were carried in ceremoniously by the volunteers and placed in front of Burch’s chair at the table. He plucked the first vote out and leaned into the microphone. “The tallying of votes will now begin. I will remind everyone in the room that the same rules of order and civility apply.” He dipped his glasses to get a better look. “One vote, no.”

Lena winced. With every strip of paper Burch pulled from the basket she felt every fiber of her being tense like the chord on a guitar string, each vote that was read plucking a note that was either in or out of tune.

A mixture of yeses and noes were pulled from the bag, then followed by a long string of nays, then a long string of yeas. Lena kept tally the entire time, the tick marks on both sides equal to their counterpart.

Near the end, approval of the bill jumped ahead six votes, and Lena saw that there were only a handful of slips left in the basket. But the next vote pulled was a no, which was then followed by two more nays. Four pieces of paper remained, and Lena recounted the tally just to make sure she didn’t miss any, but she was only three ahead.

“Nay,” Burch said, and Lena etched another tick onto the losing side. Only two ahead. But only one of the remaining three needed to be a yes. Burch unfurled another piece. “Nay.”

The tight ball of nerves in her stomach irritated the still sensitive rib cage. Lena kept her eyes glued to Burch’s hand as he reached for another piece of paper. The past two years flashed through her mind in the blink of an eye.

Burch studied the piece of paper for a moment and then leaned over to Gregory Finks, and they both whispered back and forth to one another then nodded in agreement. Burch leaned up to the microphone, looking down at the paper. “Yea.”

Every ounce of tension in Lena’s body released, and she found Mark’s eyes in the crowd just as he looked up from his notebook, where she saw hundreds of tiny marks. He smiled, and Lena nearly burst into tears right there on the stage.

“And our last vote is also a yea.” Burch reached for the gavel. “That puts our final tally at one hundred ninety-nine against, two hundred and one for. The bill passes.” He smacked the gavel, and half the crowd inside erupted into thunderous applause, gasps, and cries.

The council walked over to Lena, shaking her hand in congratulations, and a few of the mothers in the crowd rushed the stage, thanking her, their reactions ranging from tear-soaked cheeks to bright-white smiles. Lena stepped down and walked into the swarm of her constituents. “Thank you so much. Thank you for being here. We did it!”

But through the sea of smiling faces Lena watched three of the deputies rush to the front of the building. And just as a crowd had gathered around her, another one had gathered at the exit. Shouts and jeers erupted from the tight circle, and she saw one of the deputies tossed aside.

Fists flew in quick blurs, the frustration of the past week spilling over as chairs were picked up and flung across the room, hitting bystanders and smashing windows. One of the deputies pulled his pistol, firing warning shots in the air, which only sent the crowd into a frenzied stampede.

“Lena!” Mark pushed his way through the crowd and grabbed hold of her hand. “We need to get you out of here. Now.” He looked to the others surrounding her. “All of you. Get home, quickly.” With one pull he yanked her toward the back exit.

“What the hell happened?” Lena asked.

“I don’t know.” Mark shouldered the side door open, and they both sprinted as fast as their broken bodies would let them. “I heard some shouting and then saw some shoving, and then people lost it.”

When they spilled outside at the rear of the building, the night air had grown thick with the howls and screams of the frenzied horde out front. They kept low and stayed off Main Street, where the majority of the crowd had begun their march, tearing up cars, storefronts, anything and everything they could get their hands on.

“We need to get back to the car.” Mark yanked Lena forward, but she dragged behind, the pain in her ribs forcing her to walk.

Lena clutched her side, the sharp stabbing pain digging into her body with every breath. “Wait. Just wait.” She leaned up against the back side of the building and felt the rumble and crash of the looters who’d smashed their way inside. She took a step forward and limped along, Mark close to her side.

One of the back doors flew open, and three men spilled out, the frenzied craze of the mob mentality flashing in their eyes. Two of them lunged for Mark and pinned him against the wall. “Let him go!” Lena flew to his aid, but the third man easily flung her to the ground.

“You think some piece of paper can protect you?” The darkness concealed most of his face, but she recognized the colors of the uniform as a product of New Energy. “I’m not going to let you take away my job!”

Lena reached for the pepper spray Jake had given her after the shooting and sent the stream directly into his eyes. He clawed the air blindly, screaming. She kicked him in the groin, and he toppled to the ground. One of the other men took off, and Mark punched the remaining attacker, and the two grappled until eventually he sprinted off as well.

The air grew thick and hot from the pepper spray, and Lena’s eyes burned along with a sting in her nostrils. She grabbed Mark’s hand, coughing and hacking. “Are you all right?”

“Yeah,” Mark answered. “You?”

“Yeah.”

Orange glows illuminated the night sky, and it wasn’t long before Lena watched the small fires grow into ravaging flames. By the time they arrived at her office, they’d managed to put some distance between themselves and the front of the mob. She pulled out her cell phone, trying to dial her brother, but he didn’t answer. “Where the hell is he?”

“Lena, we need to get out of here. Now.” Mark looked out of the broken front windows, where he was bathed in the glow of the fires. “Take whatever you need, and get in the c—” Gunfire exploded, and he ducked below the window line.

Lena hit the floor as well. She craned her head around the desk and saw Mark still at the front, motioning her to come forward. She kept low, crawling on all fours, her ribs feeling as though they were snapping in half one at a time. She reached for Mark’s hand, and when she felt her fingertips graze his palm the mob stormed into the office.

The first two bodies inside knocked Mark over, and the rest nearly trampled him to death. But Lena had kept hold of his hand, and she pulled him away from the stomping boots. Desks were flipped, and chairs were smashed. The already-shattered glass was ground into dust, and the police tape covering the windows was torn down.

Mark and Lena limped over the wall and through the gaping hole of the window that had been smashed, nearly cutting her leg in the process. Outside, the chaos in the streets had reached a fever pitch. Car fires dotted the roads, and a few people had taken to looting some of the storefronts, while the rest simply smashed whatever happened to be in their path.

Their car had already been flipped to its side, and amongst the throngs of people in the mob, she could see the green uniforms of the deputies as they did their best to corral the masses back into order.

Hands suddenly groped her, pulling her toward the ground, and she heard Mark’s shout but then watched him become swallowed by another cluster of the mob’s long arm. Fists punched her, and boots kicked her. She was vaguely aware of the curses that accompanied the beating, but the sharp spouts of pain deafened her to their words.

More gunshots rang out, and just as quickly as the mob had attacked her, they dispersed. She lifted her head to the sight of two members of the gang on the pavement, clutching their arms or legs. Another pair of hands grabbed her shoulders from behind, and she flinched.

“Hey, it’s all right.” Jake cupped her face, his hair wild and his face dirty. Behind him were dozens of other deputies, their uniforms reading Stark County, which was to their north, and a caravan of militarized police vehicles. “We need medics over here!”

The ache in her body mirrored the pounding in her head, and she reached for her brother’s face. “Where were you?”

Jake scooped her off the ground and carried her to the end of the street, away from the crowd being doused in tear gas, the reinforcements dispersing the mob and slowly beginning the process of restoring order. He set her on the back of a truck, where a paramedic examined the cuts and checked her vitals. He left then quickly returned with Mark limping by his side, his arm slung over his shoulder.

Lena and Mark leaned into one another, burying each other’s faces into their shoulders, clutching one another desperately. She pulled back and kissed his face, one eye swollen shut from the attackers, and then looked to her brother. “Thank you.”

Jake nodded, but that was when she noticed the stains on his shirt. It was hard to tell in the night, but the dark-crimson blotches speckled his cuffs and sleeves. “What happened to you?”

“Hit a deer.” Jake shook his head. “Can you believe that?”

“Sheriff.” Longwood tapped Jake on the shoulder. “What do you want us to do with the suspects we’ve arrested?”

“Put them in the drunk tank—we’ll deal with them in the morning. And call the fire department and let them know they’ll need both trucks.” Longwood nodded and then trotted off, while Jake lingered behind for a second. He kissed Lena on the cheek and then squeezed Mark’s arm.

One by one, others who were injured from the chaos of the mob were brought over. For the most part the injuries treated were minor, but when Raymond Burch was brought over he was unconscious, and two of the paramedics went to work on him immediately.

“This is insane,” Mark said, his jaw slack as he watched the remaining fires illuminate the carnage along Main Street.

“Yeah,” Lena said, but in her mind she breathed a sigh of relief, knowing that this was the worst that would be thrown their way. It was over now. They were safe.

 

Chapter 9

Ken’s jacket hung on the back of the chair. It’d been in his office all night. Just like him. He looked out the window where he had a clear view of the burnt wreckage of rig number eight. It would set the company back a few million trying to get it back up and running, but the real damage had been done back in town last night.

While he spoke to his contact on the city council, he didn’t stick around for the after-party that wrecked nearly all of downtown. He received the news of the bill via text, and he was surprised at how calm he felt. It stayed with him all the way to the office, but when he opened the door and looked at his desk and the opened mail he had forwarded from his home address back in D.C., the calmness was quickly replaced by an overwhelming dread.

Bills stacked at least six inches high, bills that he didn’t have the money to pay. He looked over the mortgage payment that was past due by three months and the medical bills from his son’s visit to Europe. He’d cashed in everything to save his boy. Stock options, 401k, cars, boats—all of it was gone now. The experimental treatments in Finland weren’t cheap, and the plane tickets overseas were just as bad. He was in the hole, and the only way out was to burrow himself deeper. That was why he’d returned to the job he hated.

Ken turned around, his cell phone buzzing. He knew who it was, and he’d known who it was the first seven times they called. But he wasn’t ready for them. He returned his focus to the charred wreckage of rig eight and wondered how the man who’d been nearly burned to death was doing at the hospital. Someone told him the man had a daughter, one of the children who were sick and was part of the families that was included in the civil suit last year.

His stomach churned sour at the thought, and he walked back over to his desk, where the phone still buzzed, humming loudly and rattling the piles of bills. A picture of his wife and son rested on the table. It was three years old, before Tommy was sick. Before everything turned to shit. Mr. Alwitz’s words echoed in his head. You don’t get paid until the job gets done.

And this was the only job that would take him. When he left the lobbyist industry the first time he’d burned too many bridges, pissed off too many higher-ups. The phone continued to buzz. So he made his deal with the devil, and when that happened there wasn’t any going back.

Ken reached for the phone and answered. “Yeah.” He leaned forward, placing both hands on his desk. “I know. I’ll get it done.” He paused, his face scrunched in pain. “I know.” The call ended, and he flung the phone on his desk, harder than he should have, and it bounced off and landed on the floor.

“Dammit!” Ken slapped the desk, which tumbled the stack of bills and rattled the stationery. He pushed himself out of the chair and paced the office floor. It was doubt that was creeping into his mind now. But he knew if the bill passed that this was a road that they might have to go down. He just didn’t think he would be the one who had to make the call. But that was what a guy like him did, that was why he was hired. To do the job nobody else wanted to do.

Ken picked the phone up off the ground and dialed the number. He waited for the other line to pick up, and when it did he felt the sour pit in his stomach return. But he forced the words out. “Do it.” And with only two words spoken he hung up, knowing there wasn’t any need for more conversation. The wheels were in motion.

***

Jake watched the bookings through the window of his office. The two top buttons on his collar were undone, and dark bags hung under his eyes, dragging his face downward. It took all night to get everyone off the street, and then all morning to put the fires out. It’d be weeks before all the repairs to the storefronts would be completed, which meant that businesses were closed, which wasn’t going to help the multi-million-dollar price tag they’d need to fix the damages.

Longwood poked his head inside the office. “Hey, Sheriff, the guys from Stark County are wondering if they can head home.”

“Yeah. Tell ’em we appreciate their help.”

“Will do.”

If it weren’t for Sheriff Calhoun’s backup, Jake didn’t think he would have been able to bring the mob’s rampage to an end. He was glad he made the call. He tugged at the cuffs of his sleeves, the specks of blood still dotting around his wrist. He flipped them up, rolling them until he couldn’t see it anymore.

“Sheriff?” Jackie chimed in over the intercom. “You have a call on line one.”

Jake reached for the phone. “This is Sheriff Cooley.”

“Sheriff, this is Scott Ambers. I think I might have something over here you want to take a look at.”

“And what would that be?”

“Reese Coleman’s body.”

Jake slammed the phone down and reached for his keys. Once he was in his truck he didn’t let up on the accelerator until he reached the oil company’s property, skidding to halt and sending up a cloud of dust.

Scott Ambers met him in the makeshift grass parking lot. “Morning, Sheriff. Looks like you had a hell of a night.”

“Where is he?” Jake followed Scott to the center of their bustling oasis in the middle of nowhere, and when he stepped inside the compound he was greeted by a wall of monitors with live feed from security cameras. On the back wall were computers, dozens of towers connected to one another.

“Welcome to the command center.” Scott spread his arms wide. “From here we can monitor every stretch of our two-hundred-acre property.” He walked over to a particular monitor, which revealed two guards standing next to a body. “And this is where we found Coleman.”

Jake squinted at the screen. “When did you find the body?”

Scott walked over to one of the control consoles beneath the monitors with a thumb drive in hand, inserting it into the port. “We have security here twenty-four hours a day, but at night it’s a skeleton crew, and there’s no way one guy can watch all of these at the same time for seven hours. So every morning we have the team clocking in do a quick review of the feed from the night before with fresh eyes. And that’s when we found this.”

The center monitor played the video. For a moment there was nothing on the screen except grass. But a few seconds later the image of someone carrying a body wrapped in a plastic sheet came into view. The figure wore a black mask, concealing his face, and kept glancing around to make sure no one was looking. The body was unwrapped then dumped right where they’d found it in the morning.

Scott paused the video. “Now, whoever that was walked a very long way with that body, because we have cameras that stretch out in the field for three miles. And we followed this guy all the way to the end, and we didn’t see a car anywhere.”

“You think the person knew about the cameras?” Jake asked, his eyes glued to the screen and the suspect with the mask. “Could be an inside job.”

“Well, that’s for you to find out, Sheriff.” Scott unplugged the drive and tossed it to Jake, who caught it with his left hand. Scott smiled. “I’ll let the warrant slide on that piece of evidence.”

Jake returned to his car, where he radioed dispatch. “Get Longwood with the meat wagon to the New Energy property. Tell him I found Reese Coleman’s body.”

“Roger that, Sheriff.”

Jake set the receiver down and rubbed his hands. He eyed the glove box then reached for his keys and started the truck. He let the engine idle for a moment, drifting his eyes between the white portables and the glove box. He looked around, making sure he was alone, then opened the glove box. Inside was a black piece of cloth, and when he spread it out in his fingers it revealed the three small holes of a mask.

“Officer down! Officer down!” The deputy’s voice shrieked over the radio, and Jake reached for the receiver, slamming the mask back into the glove box and sealing it shut.

“This is Sheriff Cooley. Is that you, Mack?”

“Yeah. Sheriff, you need to get to your sister’s house now!”

***

Lena sipped the coffee gingerly, more for her swollen lip than for its temperature. She rolled the liquid around on her tongue, letting the bitter caffeine wake her from the nightmare she still seemed to be walking around in. Her view from the front door of her office was a front-row seat to what looked like doomsday.

Mark came up behind her, his eye still swollen from the night before. “All of this over a vote.” He shook his head when she offered him some of the coffee. “I’m going to sleep pretty hard when we get home. I don’t need that stuff keeping me up.”

Sleep. Lena couldn’t remember what that was like. Ever since she’d been clean she hadn’t been able to get more than four or five hours a night. Something in her brain changed when she sobered up, and she just figured it was her penance for all of those years she would black out, never remembering what happened. “I’ll call the insurance adjuster. Then I need to set up a press conference to do some damage control for what happened last night.”

“A little too late for that,” Mark said, glancing at the shattered storefront glass that lined the sidewalk on both sides of Main Street.

“If this is going to be what it’s like in every town, the governor will need to bring in the National Guard—”

“Mrs. Hayes!” Deputy Longwood sprinted from across the street, his long legs making the strides look effortless, but when he skidded to a stop right in front of them, his face was beet red, and he struggled to catch his breath. “Something happened at your house.”

Without another word Lena hobbled to the squad car that had taken them into town, with Mark close behind. Longwood climbed behind the wheel, and the tires screeched as he floored it. Lena slapped Mark on the arm and pointed to her purse. “Get my phone out!”

The speedometer tipped eighty and continued to rise as she dialed Gwen’s cell. She could barely hear the rings over the engine’s throaty chug as it roared down the highway.

“Hey, Mom.”

“Gwen!” Relief rippled through her body. “What happened?”

“What are you talking about?”

“Where are you? Are you home?”

A pause lingered before she answered. “Look, don’t be mad, but I went over to Catherine’s house. She wanted to hang out, and with school being closed because—”

“Do not move from where you’re at, do you understand me? I’m sending over a deputy to pick you up.”

“Mom, I’m fine. You’re overrea—”

“Stay put, Gwen.” The call ended, and Lena felt her pulse race. The house came into view, and she saw a cluster of squad cars in the front yard. Longwood slammed on the brakes, but Lena was already out of the car before it came to a complete stop. “Kaley!” Her throat hurt ached from the scream but when she looked to her left and saw the deputy that lay dead by his driver’s-side door the moan that escaped didn’t sound human.

“Lena.” Jake stepped out of the house and intercepted her before she could go inside.

“Where is she, Jake?” Lena clawed her brother’s chest and arms, her voice hysterical. “Where’s Kaley? Where is my baby?”

Jake’s face turned pale, and he stuttered the first few words, unable to get them out, until finally she heard, “She’s gone.”

 

Prologue: With a town still distinctively divided and a company on the brink of losing millions, the list of suspects in the abduction for Kaley Hayes couldn’t be longer. Lena Hayes, former lawyer and state representative to her community of Barta, North Dakota, will do whatever it takes to get her daughter back. But with her brother Jake potentially having to deal with an investigation of his own, she doesn’t know how much help she’ll get. Click the link below and continue the journey that begins to answer the question: Who took Kaley Hayes?


Stolen

  • Author: Roger Hayden
  • Published: 2016-06-08 21:35:08
  • Words: 26629
Stolen Stolen