Later Monday morning, Dallas
Will and David walked in slowly, almost hesitantly. Heads down, not making eye contact, they sat down. Gloria looked from one to the other and felt a chill, a foreboding bordering on panic. Ashen, both men appeared to have aged in the last few hours.
“Sit down, Gloria.”
She complied, noting Will had used her formal name, not his usual “Glory,” or “Glory-girl.”
David pulled Laura’s chair closer to his, lifted Ariel onto her lap and coaxed Allison to come to him. With a collective sigh, they melded together as he tenderly gathered them in his arms and buried his face in Laura’s hair.
Will cleared his throat. “As you may know, David and I spent most of the night on the phone with the people at Trucker’s Haven. I think I told you, Gloria, after you went upstairs with the girls last night we went over everything again, and when we did, David remembered a truck near the van. We jumped at the possibility that the driver of this truck might know something about Austin.”
“You know how Austin will latch on to something,” David said, without releasing his girls, “like Will’s trains, or prehistoric animals, and then want to learn everything he can about his current interest. Well, when we left home, he zeroed in on 18-wheelers.”
Will continued, “So, we called the truck stop later, and the woman who’d been in charge of the cashier’s desk happened to be on duty again, same as Thursday night.
“At first she didn’t want to tell me anything. She talks about the truckers as if they are her sons. ‘My boys,’ she calls them. She said ex-wives and girlfriends call to check up on their men, and they were enough of a pain in the neck, along with creditors, she didn’t want to be involved. She told me a couple of sad stories—I think she knows the life histories of all the regulars—and said that’s why she didn’t want to make trouble for anybody; most of them have enough trouble of their own. I could see I wasn’t making any progress, so finally I put David on the phone. You should have heard him Laura, you would have been proud.”
“If I hadn’t heard Will call her ‘Marge’ I never would have guessed I was speaking to a woman,” David picked up the account. “You know—one of those women, when you listen to them you can hear years of unfiltered cigarettes and cheap booze.” He shook his head.
“Tell you what, if she’s as tough as she sounds, I’d sure hate to be the guy who crosses her. Anyway, I told her who I was and why I needed her help. Her manager told her we called before, and first she acted real cagey.”
“Probably worried about being sued,” Will said.
“Well, I assured her we knew they weren’t at fault, we just wanted our boy back. I told her all about Austin, about his little sisters, how he’s cute and bright and spunky, and how he’s fascinated with big semis. I poured it on, but Austin really is a special little guy.” He swallowed the break in his voice.
“She didn’t talk for a minute; I could almost hear her thinking. Then she told me, ‘boys and trucks belong together, it’s the most natural thing in the world.’ She offered to try to go through the diesel charges between customers, but they were real busy right then, and she didn’t know how much good it would do.”
“I’d told her before I thought it was a place to start,” Will said, “but she told David not all the drivers pay with a credit card. Some of them use what they call T-checks or other company checks they use like a cash or debit card, and those are a lot harder to track.”
“Turns out, none of that matters anyway,” David said quietly.
“What do you mean? What do you know?” Gloria asked, hand on her heart.
“All of the sudden Marge remembered something,” Will said. “She asked if we were thinking Austin might have been kidnapped. We had avoided using the word ‘kidnapped’ because we didn’t want to even think it, and besides, we were afraid she might be defensive if she thought we were going to call in the authorities.”
“When we admitted the possibility had occurred to us, she told us she knew about this one driver who kept to himself, didn’t joke with her or the other drivers. I don’t think she liked that—she seems to enjoy a certain good-old-girl reputation with the drivers. Anyway, Jake Garret is this driver’s name, and she said she heard he’d been arrested on a felony kidnapping charge but was still driving because for some reason he wasn’t in prison, just had to serve probation.” David’s voice quavered.
“She gave us his name and the state where she thought he lived at the time, and Will looked up the case on the Internet.”
David, though exhausted, seemed to have become a man overnight, Gloria observed. He sheltered his wife and daughters in his embrace and their confidence in him was apparent in the way they fitted themselves together against his chest. All at once it came to her: She loved her son-in-law. She didn’t expect that!
Why has it taken me so long to realize it, she wondered. He’s a wonderful young man, and Laura loves him. What am I afraid of? Letting go of Laura? Is it about Bryan? Am I afraid that if I love David it means being disloyal to Bryan, that I might forget my own son?
She closed her eyes and took a deep breath, willing herself to go to the place of quiet strength, waiting until awareness of God’s abiding presence enveloped her. He shelters me under His wings, she reminded herself. She felt the Lord’s presence hovering over her like a cloud cooling parched earth. Enormous gratitude brought tears to her eyes. She thanked Him for bringing David into their lives. There would be time for weeping later, she knew. She needed to stay calm for the sake of Allison and Ariel. For all of them.
“And?” Laura urged them to finish.
Will cleared his throat again and tried to sound matter-of-fact. “I found the case in Lincoln, Nebraska, where he lived. He may still be based there. Some of what I discovered is encouraging. He was accused of abducting his own son.” He looked around at their reactions and continued, “He and his ex-wife were in the middle of a custody battle. He took the boy with him in his truck, and they crossed state lines, which is what made it a federal kidnapping case, a felony. Since it was his own child and there were certain other questions about the case, the charge was reduced to a state felony charge of domestic battery. The judge gave him time served plus five years probation.
Battery? Gloria had to know. “Was the child in that case—his son, you said—returned unharmed?”
Neither man spoke at first; finally Will said “No. His arms and legs were severely bruised.”
Before they had time to absorb this news, he explained. “One of the reasons he didn’t have to spend any time in prison was that the prosecution couldn’t make the case of Garret being the one who hurt the boy. Garret contended all along somebody else had been abusing him, and it was for that reason he took him away—to keep him from being hurt again, but the little boy claimed ‘Daddy did it.’ The thing is, evidently this kid’s word wasn’t all that reliable because at the same time he’s saying ‘Daddy did it,” he’s hanging on to his father for dear life. So even though they couldn’t prove it one way or the other, the case is still on his record and the charge of kidnapping is still there.”
“Now what?” Gloria asked. For no reason she could explain, peace buoyed her up, surrounded and comforted her. Over their house and the people in it she perceived—almost heard—a great benevolent, brooding presence. Even as she inwardly thanked God for the assurance that He was there with them, she knew it didn’t necessarily mean this would be one of those happily-ever-after stories. She only knew God’s intense concern for her family and that whatever came, He’d be there with them.
“Now,” Will said, “we wait. As soon as we called the highway patrol with what we’d learned from Marge they went into action. I don’t think they ever took us seriously before. They notified the FBI because if it is kidnapping it’s automatically a federal case on the assumption state lines were crossed.”
“The FBI?” Laura asked, astonished.
“They have amazing resources, Laura,” Will said. “For one thing, they checked to see if they could find out what company this trucker hauls for. If he had been working for one of the big companies they might have had GPS on his truck. Problem is, this Garret fellow is an independent owner-operator…”
“Wait,” Laura interrupted. “What is GPS and what do you mean when you say this guy is an owner-operator?”
“GPS means Global Positioning Satellite. Wonderful technology!” David came alive as he explained. “When you have one of these gizmos, you can determine, by satellite, your precise position. Altitude, latitude, longitude, the whole works. These days most big corporate trucking firms have them on each of their units, along with cellular phones, so they can track what their drivers are doing at all times.”
“But guys like this creep who has Austin don’t have this thing?” Laura wanted to understand.
“They can. Some of them do–drivers like Garret who own their own truck–but it isn’t a cheap toy, and if a guy is confident of where he’s going, like if he usually travels regular routes on the interstates, he might not feel he needs one. As far as we know, Garret doesn’t have one, but even if he did, he’s not hooked in with any company’s system. We know he has a cell phone, but there doesn’t seem to be any record anywhere that he used it since Thursday night.”
The doorbell rang, and before anyone could answer it, Suellen walked into the room and pulled up a chair. “I was on my way to Tom Thumb to pick up a pie for tonight and I felt impressed to pop in and pray for y’all.”