Bitter Tree by Frank Altobelli
Eleanor couldn’t have guessed influence the handsome, idealistic archaeologist, Rene, would have on her. She gave him her heart…yet kept her secrets.
Hidden beneath desert sands and cleverly written as an intriguing story in the pages of the Bible wasn’t a miracle that would bring clean water to the world’s thirsty poor, as Rene idealistically believed. Instead, Eleanor recognized that what was concealed was a weapon capable of humbling the world’s industrial powers if discovered.
Trapped between the longings of her heart and the danger she’s unwittingly unleashed, Eleanor finds herself on the run and separated from the man she loves. In order to do the impossible, she must overcome her mentor and former CIA boss, Steve Clarkson, as well as corrupt men plotting to destroy the strategic oil reserve by poisoning the United States economy’s lifeblood. Steve believes she’s a traitor to the nation’s enemies even as the terrorists see her as the one person capable of thwarting them–and the threat they have to remove at any cost.
GENRE: Thriller Word Count: 56, 815
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Eleanor ‘Lisa’ Laval’s head shot up at the sound of clanking bottles on concrete. Brushing her dark hair from her eyes, she came instantly awake at the sight of the two dirty, lanky men coming toward her like a pair of hungry wolves. The men swore and kicked aside the empty bottles that served as her makeshift alarm.
Her heart raced. Visions of her dream vanished from her mind. Night after night it was the same. Some nights she woke herself after the kiss, her favorite part. On those nights, it was a dream. Most nights, though, it played all the way through, ending with a gasp of breath after reliving the rocket forcing her plane down at sea, and the terrible crash that killed the pilot and her unborn baby. The last glimpse she had of her baby’s handsome father had been from the air. He waved once then sped along the beach, fleeing the soldiers. On those nights, it wasn’t a dream but a nightmare, one that left her anxious and restless.
The men made their way up the steep concrete embankment to her narrow perch at the top of the slope. Above and behind her, an unfinished overpass provided her with a roof and wall, but limited her escape.
Jumping to her feet, she called to the intruders. “I don’t want any trouble. I’m leaving. You can have the spot.”
“You stay put, we’re lookin’ fer company.” The man in the lead carried a stout piece of wood and wore a forbidding look.
The man with the knife snickered, revealing a jagged row of yellow teeth. “She’s a pretty little thing. You just run away from home, darlin’?” Intent on flight, she snatched her meager belongings, a backpack and a small black leather jacket spread on the dirt for her bed. Too late. The men were already at the ledge. They would take her from behind before she could get away. She would have to face them.
She tossed her pack behind her and pulled her jacket on. “No, please don’t hurt me.”
The pair reached the top and ducked under the road supports. The space was too low for them to stand, but left her a couple inches of headroom. Crouching, they came slowly toward her, faces twisted into cruel, leering grins. They were near enough she could smell the stale beer on their breath and the perspiration that stained their filthy clothing. She pulled the zipper up, closing her jacket tight against the men’s approach.
They chuckled and exchanged amused glances.
“No,” she pleaded.
“We’ll be nice.” Laughing, the man with the club reached for her.
Her movement was swift and deft, the effect immediate and dramatic. The stun gun discharged thousands of volts of electricity into his body, dropping him instantly to the ground. The second man’s surprise dulled his reaction. She slammed her heel into the side of his knee.
The joint buckled and he dropped. Folding himself into a protective ball around his injured knee, he twisted on the ground in mingled pain and fury. With a great effort he heaved himself onto his side, freeing his knife hand, but again it was too late. Armed with the first man’s club, she hit the back of his hand like a pinch-hitter connecting for a line drive.
The blow landed with a sickening crunch. The knife flew from his grip. She silenced the man’s screams with the same stun gun she’d used on the clubman.
Her limbs did not tremble, nor did her face reveal her emotions as she collected her small pack and straightened her skirt, concealing the razor sharp Katana blade strapped to her thigh. While her audience lay unconscious, she narrowed her eyes in thought. They saw me and even in this light could provide a reasonably good description to the police.
No, she decided turning away and nimbly descending the embankment to the road, I won’t kill them. They were a clumsy, stupid pair of scoundrels and not worth the risk of police involvement. Even the mangy desert jackals were wise enough not to confuse a viper’s attractive markings for an invitation rather than a warning.
At the street, she found two worn, dirty backpacks and a sign that read:
She had no fear of being spotted. The road was still under construction and empty. She unzipped the packs with a smooth, quick motion. Opening one after the other, she dumped their contents into the street and kicked the items apart with her foot. She took a plastic bag filled with a wad of dollar bills, loose change, a credit card in the name of Judith Ward and a cell phone. Opening the phone’s back, she tossed the battery and phone aside keeping only the postage stamp-sized, plastic SIM card.
Satisfied with the loot, she followed the empty road, putting distance between herself and the site of her recent confrontation until she reached the intersection of several major thoroughfares. Trendy stores, offices and apartment buildings ringed the brightly lit, but largely empty, intersection.
Although she was not far from the town’s center, it was late and the place appeared deserted. The shopping center’s unlit neon signs were pale dreary shadows in the night. The storefronts were shut and dark, their expansive parking lots empty.
Everyone else is at home, in their own warm beds, with someone’s arms around them, she sighed, suddenly feeling small and empty. “I can’t do this. I don’t want to be alone.” She raised her gaze up to the night sky, her heart heavy. Her throat tightened and tears burned her eyes, fighting to be free.
The fact she felt sad and alone no longer came as a surprise. As a child, she had longed for love and acceptance, but betrayal and disappointment had hardened her heart to the world. Too late, a man loved her without reservation. His affection had smashed down her defenses, covering her hurt like a salve and now she could hardly tolerate their separation.
In her mind’s eye, she saw his face. She pictured him pressed flat against the walls of a darkened alleyway, hiding from the flashing lights that lit the night. He would not escape from prison if he were captured again. If they were to be together, she would have to do this alone. Swallowing a hard lump of despair, she shook her head defiantly. I’m strong and clever. I can do it! Then she dried her eyes with the back of her hand.
She set her gaze on the surrounding buildings and turned in a slow circle, examining each in turn for possibilities. Several structures caught her eye, distinguishing themselves for their lighting, architecture or location. One building stood out from the rest. It looked safe, unobtrusive and quite unexpected.
“Yes,” she nodded, “that’s the one.”
Glancing around briefly, she walked quickly toward the shadows.
Fiona Carter groaned, dropping her overstuffed canvas sack beside the rear door of the church. The bag jingled with the many items she needed for her preschool-aged Sunday school class.
She hurried to open the activities building before the congregation arrived. Her husband, Pastor James Carter, was already in the sanctuary making his last minute preparations for the first of two services he would lead.
Summertime, when both her college-age sons were home, was particularly difficult for Fiona. It’s the same thing every Sunday; waking the boys, 20 year old Jimmy and 18 year old Andy, early enough for breakfast, chasing down their clean clothing while warning them not to miss their father’s service and, finally, a mad dash to church, arriving only moments before the congregation. Fiona loved being a pastor’s wife, but sometimes became frustrated, fearing she was unequal to the task.
She was already at the security panel when she realized that she did not hear the usual click indicating she had ninety seconds to enter the security code, disabling the alarm system. A sudden chill raced down her spine at the thought of walking in on a thief. She turned quickly for the door and a fast escape, but stopped in her tracks as she came face to face with a lovely, smiling, dark-haired, young woman. The girl looked to be in her late teens or early twenties. She wore an above-the-knee length cotton skirt and a form-fitting sleeveless top that revealed her athletic body. A black leather jacket was draped over the backpack hanging from her shoulder.
“Hi, I’m Lisa,” the girl said, extending her hand.
Lisa’s voice and expression were so pure and genuine that for a moment Fiona forgot her fright and took Lisa’s extended hand.
“I’m Mrs. Carter.” Remembering the alarm, Fiona threw a quick glance along the darkened hallway. “Dear, we need to leave. The alarm was off. I’m afraid someone’s in here.”
“Oh, my,” Lisa gasped. Taking Fiona’s arm, she pulled the older woman out of the building. Once outside, the girl positioned herself behind Fiona, careful to avoid the open door. “I’ve been out here for a long time. You’re the first person I’ve seen today. Do you suppose someone forgot to turn the alarm on?”
It was true that the Youth Pastor sometimes forgot to set the alarm. “Maybe.” Fiona wondered how this girl managed to appear suddenly behind her inside a building that should have been locked.
“Should you call the police, Mrs. Carter? People are starting to arrive.”
True, the congregation was arriving. Three men with boxes of doughnuts and grocery bags full of fruit and ground coffee were only feet away and making for the door.
“Wait! Don’t go in there.” Lisa raised a hand to stop the men before they reached the door. “Mrs. Carter saw someone inside.”
Fiona felt her face go red. “No, I didn’t see anyone. I noticed the alarm was off when I unlocked the door.”
“Oh, so the door was locked?” Lisa took a confident step from behind Fiona.
“Someone just forgot to set the alarm,” said one of the men. “We’ll take a look.”
“Happens all the time at our house,” another added.
Lisa sighed. “I’m so relieved those men showed up.”
Fiona agreed. “Are you new here?”
“Yeah, I just got into town. I don’t know anyone…except you.” Lisa smiled and her earlier cheery tone returned.
“We have a lot of young people at our church. How old are you?”
“Eighteen. Old enough to make my own decisions and young enough that they’re all wrong.” Lisa laughed.
Fiona liked the girl’s quick smile and energetic tone. “Are you here with your parents?”
“No, not exactly.”
“What’s that mean? Not exactly?” Reading the change in Lisa’s posture, Fiona gave her a soft, motherly smile and bent her head closer to Lisa’s face. “Is it something I can help with?”
“I really don’t want to bother you with all my problems. It’s nice you cared enough to ask.”
People gathered in small clusters around the door, uncertain if they should enter. Before Fiona could reply to Lisa or explain the situation to the growing crowd, the man with the doughnuts re-emerged. He pushed the door open and secured it in place.
“Come on in, we’re open for business,” the man said, grinning at those waiting. Then more softly he said to Fiona, “Someone forgot to set the alarm. Doesn’t look like anyone’s been in here.”
Lisa turned to Fiona with excitement. “Can I help you with something? Do you mind if I grab a doughnut? I’m starved! Do you have babies here? I love helping with babies. Can I help?”
Fiona laughed. “Sure, come on.”
Because of their many duties, James and Fiona Carter grew used to arriving early and leaving late from every church event. Rarely did they encounter anyone after church, save the few who were determined to see the pastor.
When Fiona emerged from the sanctuary with James and their two sons, she saw Lisa standing in the common area between the sanctuary and parking lot with a crowd of young adults from their church. The area’s central location and tree-shaded benches made it a favorite gathering place.
“There she is,” one of the young men said, pointing to Fiona. Lisa ran to meet Fiona; her eager enthusiasm radiated good cheer.
Fiona stopped to let her catch up. Reaching them in a bound, Lisa dropped her pack and threw her arms around Fiona, hugging her as if they were old friends, long parted.
Lisa released Fiona and turned, greeting her sons. “Hi, Jimmy, Andy!”
“Hi,” echoed Jimmy and Andy in unison.
Andy gave his mother a sheepish grin. “We met Lisa this morning. She was pushing a stroller… We were looking for you, Mom.”
Fiona frowned at the attentive way her sons eyed Lisa.
“We thought we saw her in a movie or something,” Jimmy added in a clumsy attempt to ease the awkward silence.
Extending her hand to Pastor Carter, Lisa smiled the same electric smile she’d initially given Fiona. “Hi, I’m Lisa.”
Pastor Carter grinned and his face went pink. “Hello, I’m James Carter. But you can call me Jimmy Carter, like the president.”
“James, she’s only eighteen. I’ll bet she’s never heard of Jimmy Carter,” Fiona intervened, rescuing her husband from his worn, but favorite joke.
Lisa offered a sweet, genuine smile for response.
“Lisa,” one of the young men at the bench called out. His voice carried an urgent desire to be on his way.
“Grant,” Andy muttered to his brother, looking as though he’d bitten into a very sour lime.
“It’s okay, you can go without me. I need to talk with Fiona,” Lisa called to Grant.
“I’ll wait,” he said, not hiding his disappointment.
“I don’t want to go with him, but I’m really hungry. It’s just that… Well, you know my situation,” Lisa whispered to Fiona, loud enough for her family to overhear.
Fiona did not know Lisa’s situation, but the girl’s embarrassed and hesitant tone roused her compassionate, nurturing spirit.
James leaned closer. “Can I tell Grant and the others you’re eating with us?”
Lisa nodded gratefully. “Come on, boys. Did Bobby tell you about that mule deer he got down near Big Bend?” James asked his sons.
“Only a dozen times,” whispered Andy. He gave Lisa a wink as he started after his brother and father.
Lisa maintained her sad and worried face.
“What is it, dear?” Fiona asked once they were alone.
“I don’t want to bother you. Really, I’m okay,” Lisa gasped and hid her face in her hands. Her shoulders shook from the release of her pent up emotion.
Fiona wrapped her arms around Lisa, rocking her slowly. “Shush, shush.”
“My husband’s in prison. I don’t have a job or money. I spent last night behind your church. That’s why I was there so early. I’m all alone and I don’t know what I’ll do…” Lisa’s voice was lost in her sobs.
Fiona blinked back tears. “Come home with us. We’ll help you think of something.”
Lisa raised her head and looked at Fiona through damp, red eyes. “Thank you, Fiona. You won’t be sorry. I’ll be good. I don’t drink or do drugs and I don’t steal. I’m married, so I won’t date or bring boys over–”
Fiona pulled Lisa close again. “Shush. Let’s get some lunch. I’ll bet you’re starving,” she said, halting further comment. Fiona did not want to hear the litany of cautions she should have considered before inviting this stranger into her home.
“Lisa, I’ll call you, okay? What’s your number?” Grant called before leaving. Lisa turned to Fiona for guidance.
“Lisa is staying with us, Grant,” Fiona yelled back.
Grant shot Andy a dark glance, but replaced his smirking grin when he turned again to face Lisa. “Oh, well, I’ll come over sometime and give you a ride in my Porsche.”
Lisa smiled weakly, nodding to Grant. “Okay,” she agreed without enthusiasm. Jimmy and Andy exchanged satisfied grins, watching Grant hurry off alone to catch his friends.
Both Andy and Jimmy were large young men, their stature derived equally from both parents. Their mother, however, was the sole contributor of their red hair. Andy favored his mother’s side in looks, with fair skin and great numbers of freckles. It was on the issue of temperament that the boys flip-flopped. Jimmy was like his mother, quiet and introspective. Fiona was a closet introvert, who forced herself to be outgoing as a concession to her husband’s profession. Andy, like his father, was at home in a crowd, thriving on the attention.
Lisa looked out of place in their company. Although she stood at five-foot six, average height for a woman, the slender girl seemed small beside these giants. Her hair was dark, almost black, and she was deeply tanned in contrast to the pale-skinned Carters.
“Lisa is staying with us for a few days,” Fiona announced, managing her best puppy-dog look for James, smiling and lifting her brows imploringly.
Pastor Carter rolled his eyes and nodded. “We’d best get a move on. “You must be starved, Lisa. You’re so thin.”
“No, you look fine, dear. You look like you work out.” Fiona gave her a friendly squeeze of reassurance.
Lisa’s stomach chose that moment to grumble rudely, bringing a grin to her lips, while those around her chuckled at her embarrassment. She rubbed the area self-consciously. “Thank you. I am really hungry.”
“Lisa, ride with us,” Andy said, reaching for her backpack.
“No!” Lisa snatched her pack away. “It’s heavy, I’ll carry it.”
Everyone around her froze. Andy straightened, wide-eyed and confused. Lisa put a hand to her forehead, looking tired and on the verge of tears.
“I’m sorry. It’s been so long since I’ve been around anyone I can trust.”
Fiona gave her a quick squeeze. “You’ll feel better after you’ve had something to eat.”
Jimmy waved a hand toward the parking lot. “The truck’s this way.”
Andy leaned in close to Lisa. “What’s in your pack, anyway?”
“You never ask a girl what’s in her pack,” she answered, with a brief laugh.
Andy playfully reached for her backpack. “Come on, what’s in there?” he teased.
“Weasels,” she said and laughed. “I’m licensed and certified to transport small, live mammals and marsupials.”
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