“Sorry, kid. We’ve been here an hour and there’s no sign of your parents. We can’t stay here forever.”
Robert knew he was right. Whoever was looking for them probably hadn’t given up yet.
“I knew it was a long shot. What do we do now?”
“Well, we can’t stay here. I’ve got a place a few hours away that my niece is staying in. That’s probably safest.”
“What about this Standridge guy?”
“We’ll figure out what he’s up to later. But right now, I’ve got to figure out what to do with you.”
Robert started to open the back door, but Butch stopped him and opened the passenger door. He reached down and threw all the trash in the back seat and motioned for Robert to get in.
“Hand me the gun,” Butch said after he started the car. Robert reached into the floorboard, picked up the jammed pistol and handed it to Butch, who pulled back the slide and withdrew the defected bullet. He stuck the gun in the console. “Do you have any more bullets for this puny firearm?”
Robert responded by handing him his small box of ammunition.
“So you stole it?”
“More or less. I was on my own and couldn’t pay for anything.”
“Didn’t get caught?”
“I like you, kid. How old are you?”
“How’d you get a job at a big place like Ridge-wherever so young?”
“I was just a janitor. Well, not really. I straightened everything and cleaned up spilled coffee, but cleaning up after someone upchucked in the office was another guy’s job. I also made sure old files got shredded after certain periods of time.”
“And now they’re trying to kill an ex-janitor for some file he saw. Must’ve been pretty important. Did you tell the police?”
“It doesn’t matter. If I did, they’re not doing anything.”
Neither of them spoke for the rest of the trip, until after they came to whatever town they were in, and Robert asked, “Where are we?”
“A town called South Amber.”
That sounded familiar to Robert, but he didn’t know why.
Twenty minutes later they pulled into the driveway of their destination: a little brick house with musty windows. The roof shingles were slightly peeled, and a flowerbed that badly needed water lined the house. “You said your niece lives here?”
“Should. I don’t see her car.”
“Car? How old is she?”
“Nineteen. Get out.”
Butch stepped out of the car and up the moldy concrete steps. He reached under the weathered floormat and pulled out a key, which he then inserted into a lock that looked older than the house. The scraping that followed made Robert think the key had broken. Butch twisted the knob and pulled open the door, then pushed in the screen door. He poked his head in. “Brianna? You here?” Robert raised his head. “Did you say Brianna?”
“My sister’s name.”
“Hm. Curious.” He stepped inside. Robert hesitated for only a moment, following when Butch called after him.
The inside of the house matched the outside. Small kitchen, tattered couch, stained recliner. Several pictures were hung on the wall.
“Well, we may be alone for a few hours. Check the kitchen, will you?”
Robert stepped around the counter and opened one of the cabinets. He hadn’t seen anything yet when he heard the screen door slam.
“Uncle Butch? I saw your car outside.” Brianna.
Butch was in a bedroom. “Oh, yeah. Long story. I’ll tell you in a minute.”
“Well, I may not have running water next week. You may have to…” She stopped. “Robert?”
Robert turned around.
Brianna was his sister.
“What are you doing here?” she asked as he ran into her arms.
“No, I mean how did you get here? Where are Mom and Dad?”
“I don’t know.”
“What do you mean?”
“We were in a wreck two years ago, just a few weeks after you moved out.”
“Why didn’t anyone tell me?”
“No one knew your phone number or anything. You left really abruptly.”
“Well, where did you go?”
“I went for help. When I came back, they were gone.”
“So they’re not dead.”
“They didn’t look hurt enough to have died later. We couldn’t find them in the woods. I’ve tried police stations all over Arizona. They can’t even find their names on the Internet. They’re gone. It’s like they never existed.”
“And no one helped you?”
“They all told me I was insane. Only Roger still talks to me.”
“So how did you find Uncle Butch?”
“Wait-uncle?” This was news to Robert.
“I didn’t know she had a brother.”
“Well, surprise, I guess.” Butch walked into the kitchen.
“Why didn’t you tell me?”
“That I was your uncle? Kid, you never told me your last name. I wouldn’t know you were my nephew any more than you.”
“Butch, why are you here?”
“Eh, I’m not sure I should tell.”
“If it’s not worth it, I’m keeping my electric bill low and throwing you out.”
“On second thought, maybe I should let you know.”
“So you think they may be doing something illegal?” Brianna asked.
“Or worse. They don’t just not tell anyone about a project.”
“Unless it was classified. Did that occur to you?”
“Standridge doesn’t just have classified projects. Except in the case that they’re hiding it from a competitor. And those are few.”
“And you didn’t look into any of this?”
“I don’t exactly have constant Internet access.”
Brianna reached over Robert, who was sitting on the couch, and grabbed an ancient laptop.
“How old is that thing?” laughed Butch.
“New enough to work.”
“You know, I think Grandma had something like that. What was it called? A ‘typewriter’?” said Robert.
“Shut up, you two! I’m trying to think.” Then, under her breath as she typed, “Project…Ironthorn…Standridge Enterprises…”
“Mixed results. Movies, botany, a bunch of other stuff. But nothing about Standridge.
“Great. That sure helps. Try Kaleb Summers. But enter ‘Standridge Enterprises’ afterwards to narrow the results down.”
“Let’s see…Lots of stuff about Standridge, but nothing about Kaleb Summers.”
“I knew it.”
“That either wasn’t his real name, or he did Standridge’s dirty work. I choose the latter.”
“But his badge said he was head of security.”
“Probably just for clearance.”
“Not that I can think of.”
“Wait,” said Robert. “Look for Mom and Dad one more time.”
“If you say so.” She typed out their names. “No results on Joshua or Trinity Greggs.”
“Just a minute; I think I have an idea. Uncle Butch, what’s your last name?”
“Search Trinity McCallin.”
“Excellent, Robert! Ok, so…Hold on, I’ve got something. It’s a social media page or something. ‘Trinity McCallin was born in 1978 in Los Angeles. Married Joshua Greggs in 1996, and they had Brianna Greggs in 1997. Robert Greggs was born in 2002.’”
“Sounds accurate enough.”
“That’s not all. ‘Joshua and Trinity Greggs moved to Copperstone, Arizona in 2003. In 2014, three of the family members were in a car accident.’”
“How does the Internet know that?”
“This is getting weird. Maybe I should-” The screen flashed. Brianna took her hands off the computer. A face appeared on the screen. “Am I through?” it said.
Brianna put the laptop on the table. Whoever it was, they were talking to them. “Who are you?”
“Well, where am I?”
“Arizona,” answered Robert.
“America…Then I’m Jacob.”
“How in blazes are you on our computer?”
“Doesn’t matter. I’m simply here to tell you that your parents are alive.”
Robert jumped closer. Brianna drilled the computer with her eyes. “Where are they, you-”
“Whoa, whoa, whoa. Cool off or you’ll never get a man.”
“That’s not the point here! Where are our parents?!”
“I can’t tell you. And you wouldn’t believe me. My orders are only to tell you that they are alive and well. And you will see them again. But only when the time is right.”
“I don’t know. It’s not for me to decide.”
“We’ve been looking for them for two whole years!”
“I’ve been looking for them for two whole years. Almost three, actually,” corrected Robert.
“Hmm…It’s only been a few hours on their side…”
“Nothing. Just talking to myself.”
“Can you tell us anything about Franklin Standridge’s Project Ironthorn?” asked Butch.
“Ironthorn? I haven’t heard anything about anything. But if you think it’s important, I can search. Goodbye.”
“Wait, what do-”
The screen went blank.
“Well, that was weird,” said Robert.
“At least we know you were right, Robert.”
“How do we know that guy is legit?” interrupted Butch.
“We don’t. But how many people know our parents are missing?”
“All those cops you told.”
“Well, yeah. But how would they know to hack into this particular computer, at this time, and at this place?”
“Fine, I get your point. And great, my big sis is still alive. But I’m still being chased by some biochemists with guns. We’ll be safe here for a few days, but not long.”
“And now you dragged me into it.”
“I had nowhere else to go.”
“You seriously didn’t tell the police about any of this?”
“The cops aren’t going to stop these guys, Brianna.”
“You’ve never heard of the witness protection program?”
“Of course I have. But holing me up in a concrete building with some guards around it isn’t going to do anything.”
“I don’t think that’s how it works, but I guess you would know more about this than I do.” Brianna pushed out the table and stood up, walked to the kitchen. She opened a cabinet, reached into the back, and pulled out a box. Bullets. “For my gun. But you can have it.”
“How did you get ahold of a gun?”
“You have a boyfriend?” said Robert.
“Anthony. It doesn’t matter. Now, I work at the–”
“Hold on, I want to know more about this Anthony whose name I’ve never heard.”
“Later, Robert. I work at the library. It doesn’t bring much, but enough for me and maybe Robert. Butch, you think you could get a job?”
“I can get a job at any auto parts store in the state before you can say Yahtzee. Provided I don’t go by the name Butch McCallin. Do you have any experience in forging I.D.s?”
“Not exactly. But Anthony might have some contacts…”
“Anthony has friends who forge identities?”
“Shut up, Robert.”
“Nice. How long can we stay here?”
“I’m not running a Bed ‘n Breakfast, Uncle Butch. You guys are family.”
Brianna set the box on the counter. “Do you have a plan?”
“And find our parents.”
“Where do we start?”
Butch thought for several moments. “We need to get our hands on that file again.”
“You’re kidding, right?”
“No. If we could get the file and find someone who can read the code and understands the graphs and all that junk, we can figure out what Project Ironthorn is.”
“If I heard your story correctly, this ‘Summers’ guy isn’t exactly going to let you walk in to the place and take a confidential file.”
“Listen, girl. I may be a twenty-five-year-old wannabe lawyer, but I know a thing or two.” He pulled an unseen knife from somewhere on his person, twirled it around his finger three times, and threw it into the wall right beside Brianna’s head.
“You haven’t seen me in hand-to-hand yet.”
“Show off,” muttered Robert.
“So you can throw a knife. What do you plan on doing?”
“Nothing just yet. I can’t be Butch McCallin anymore. Call your boyfriend.”