As the tour came to an end, Louise led me to the main office of Pastor Sam. Being the chauvinist I was, I’d assumed Sam was a man. But it was Samantha, an African American woman, nearly my size in height, though not as heavy, but still with some arm and shoulder muscles to go with her military tattoos. One with the flag and bald eagle, saying “Freedom isn’t Free” adorned her left bicep. Her hair was straight, long, just over the shoulders and dyed a lavender color with blonde highlights and held back with a stars and stripes bandana. Faded blue-jeans covered her legs, a sleeveless black top tightly gripping her fit upper body. She must have liked the cool air, as it was chilly, even in her office.
She welcomed me with a firm handshake and offered up a chair in her sparse workspace. I handed over my business card, which she read before taking a seat behind her wooden desk.
“Wow, a real-life gumshoe,” she announced with a deep voice and joyous smile. “Hopefully you aren’t carrying. We don’t allow guns inside our facility.”
I opened my brown leather jacket, so she could see I wasn’t armed.
“I don’t like to carry unless absolutely necessary. It ruins the body line of my coat,” I declared with a grin.
“What can I help you with, Mister Mann?” she said while smiling at my humor, her hands linked together sitting in her lap.
“Please call me Jarvis. This is quite an impressive facility you have here.”
“It was a rat-infested hellhole at first,” Sam uttered with distain. “Lots of sweat equity to make it livable.”
“How long has it been open for?”
“Parts of it for short of seven years. It took twenty-two months to bring it up to code to be fully operational.”
I nodded, impressed by the achievement.
“You’ve been running things since day one?” I inquired.
She stopped and grabbed an empty white coffee cup and went over to her drip machine to fill up. On the cup in black lettering read “Human Rights are not Optional.” A sentiment I shared.
“Would you like some?” she asked. “I have to warn you, I make it strong.”
I made a sour face. “No thanks. I try to avoid caffeine whenever possible.”
“I wish I could. In all my years it’s the one vice I haven’t been able to shake.”
She sat back down after taking a long pleasurable sip, holding the warm cup in both hands. I noticed a few plaques on the walls, given for service to her country. On top of a filing cabinet were some pictures of her and family, and her posing with fellow soldiers.
“To answer your question, I’ve only been running this place for three years now. When it first opened, I was a member trying to find my way. I too lived on the streets. If it weren’t for the Mission, I’m not sure where I’d be now.”
“Not an easy life to live on the streets,” I declared. “Even more challenging for a woman on her own.”
“It was. I made a few acquaintances out there. Found a couple I could trust. But was always cautious of those who might take advantage.”
“From your tattoo and pictures in your office, I guess you were in the military?”
“In the Army. I did a tour in Iraq and some time in Afghanistan.” The gleam in her eye showed the pride in her service.
“A tough adjustment period when you returned?” I wondered.
She nodded her head. “Have you been to war—in combat, Jarvis?”
I shook my head. “Not like a soldier in a war zone like you have. But I’ve been in my fair share of battles where people I’ve known have been killed.”
“Does it haunt you?” She studied me with genuine interest in my answer.
“At times, yes.”
She took in the fresh aroma from her coffee cup, seemingly soothing her, as she closed her eyes. It took her a minute to respond, her open gaze now staring in the distance.
“It haunted me for many a day. Consuming me so I couldn’t work or relate to other people. In time, I was able to get past it. It still haunts me, but I’m at ease with feeling bad about all the crazy shit which happened over there. It no longer paralyzes me. I’m a functioning human being again. I try to help others who were in the same boat. Those are rocky waters many need guidance to navigate through.”
“Is one of those Parker Turner?” I inquired, curious if she knew him.
“Yes,” she replied knowingly, familiar with the name. “He is one of those that stays here from time to time. Has he done something wrong?”
“No. He came to me for assistance. Said you could verify something going on in the homeless community around here.”
This seemed to pique her interest, as she leaned forward in her chair, arms resting on the tabletop, coffee cup still in hand. “Concerning?”
“Friends of his who’ve gone missing. Taken away by two men, offering money and employment, never to return.”
She took another long savoring sip on her java, her eyes closed, thinking how to answer.
“There have been rumblings,” she noted, her eyes now open, gazing at me. “And I’ve noticed smaller crowds coming in these last few weeks. Which is surprising since it’s been so cold. On these brutal winter nights, we are normally overflowing with people needing shelter.”
My interest was piqued now. “What rumblings have you heard?”
“Much as what Parker told you. Men waving around cash and promising jobs. Anyone going with them not returning. Sometimes they were more forceful and intimidating to get them to cooperate. We had a visit the other day. Two men flashing around money and making bold promises. I told them in no uncertain terms to leave.”
“Have you reported this to authorities?”
Her neatly trimmed eyebrows raised in irritation. “Jarvis, I have my hands full keeping this place running. Other than the church and our sponsors, we get little help from the powers that be. They truly wish we were invisible and disappear into the night. We call them, but we aren’t a priority.”
I understood them being skeptical. So was I when hearing what Parker claimed. Yet somewhere in the back of my head, was a nagging suspicion something nefarious was going on. And when it came to mysteries, I liked to approach them head-on and find answers where no one else can.
“I have some free time, so I may snoop around—see what I can find. Any reason you can think of why I shouldn’t?”
“Nothing comes to mind. If I can lend any assistance let me know. Though, from your physique, there’s little doubt you’re capable of handling yourself.”
I smiled, to let her know, yes I could, resisting the urge to flex my biceps,
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