S A Laybourn - Empty Places
Author: S A Laybourn
Length: 56,645 words
Publisher: Totally Bound Publishing
The world has its empty places, and so does the heart.
Ellie Freeman, a low-level federal employee, is stuck in a dead-end desert town that no longer feels like home. What makes things worse are the threatening phone calls she’s been getting. When Duncan Harris, a British journalist, stops by to interview her for a series he’s writing, Ellie feels something close to hope that there’s still good to be salvaged from her life. But before that hope can be fulfilled, Ellie is kidnapped.
When Duncan finds out what has happened to Ellie, he throws his journalist’s neutrality out of the window and heads off to find her. What he discovers is a cult led by a deluded but charismatic leader. Somehow, he has to get Ellie out of his clutches and he’ll do whatever it takes. When the cult leader raises the stakes, the mission becomes very personal indeed.
Ellie allowed herself a small sigh of relief. If she was allowed to live, she would find a way out. No matter what they did to her, she would make it. She closed her eyes while her captors squabbled about the sins of eating bean burritos and the inevitable after-effects. She would’ve laughed if she didn’t hurt so much. She christened them the three stooges—it made her feel better to think of them as stupid buffoons whose intellectual depth extended only as far as discussing farts and Mexican food. She hoped they had bought the offending food from the little taco stand on the main road. They’d be doing more than passing gas before the night was through. The thought gave her some comfort while the van bounced over a bumpy road. Ellie heard the crunch of gravel when the van took a sharp turn. It slowed and the three stooges fell silent.
“What are we supposed to do with her?”
“Take her to Obidiah’s house. He’s got a place in the basement for her.”
“The Prophet doesn’t want her hurt.”
“You’d better come up with a good reason why you cracked her on the cheek, then.”
The van slowed to a halt and the clang of gates echoed in the cool night air. The van edged forward and the gates rattled behind them. Ellie remained still, hating that she couldn’t see anything. Gravel crackled under the tires and a damp breeze crept into the back of the van. Ellie smelled rain. Eventually, even the crackling ceased. Her three captors slid out of the front and, moments later, the rear doors swung open, admitting a welcome chill. Ellie made herself limp, determined to make the stooges work to sort her out. One of them climbed in beside her and pulled her into a sitting position. The rope tickled her wrists when he untied her. He eased the tape from her mouth while one of the others unbound her ankles.
“Which one of you bastards hit me?” She flexed her wrists.
None of them answered.
Ellie scooted forward until her legs swung over the edge of the van. “No, I didn’t think any of you would have the balls to ’fess up to hitting a woman. I hope I have a really big, purple bruise.” She stood up and glared at them, their bland faces pale in the fickle moonlight. They all looked the same to her—long beards, short hair. Like rednecks gone a little crazy. “Assholes.” She smiled as they stepped away from her. Knowing that they wouldn’t kill her helped.
“What’s going on out there?” a man’s voice echoed into the night.
Ellie realized that they were no longer in darkness, that a brilliant light illuminated the scene. Three witless stooges scarcely out of their teens, trying to look like hard men in black clothes. She glanced over her shoulder at the house the van was parked in front of. It was massive, one of half a dozen equally large houses spread out along a broad gravel road. A large man stood on the porch. The light turned his long, white hair to a madwoman’s wedding veil. A long beard gave lie to the illusion.
“Is this our guest?”
One of the stooges nodded. “Uh-huh.”
“Well, don’t leave her standing out here. It’s cold.”
Ellie shivered. She was so used to the humid warm nights of the desert monsoon that this place felt like the frozen north. She ignored her captors and walked toward the wide, brightly lit porch and the man with the long, white hair. “Who are you?” She didn’t feel inclined to wait for formal introductions, especially as the stooges seemed mute in the man’s presence.