by Jack Wilder
Ex-Navy SEAL Stone Pressfield has a bad feeling about the proposed church missions trip to Manila, Philippines. The college-age church group plans to go to Manila and help victims of the sex-trafficking industry. Stone's lingering nightmare memories about the sex-trafficking industry have him warning church leaders that the trip is a bad idea. He knows all too well that it could end in violence, and those involved aren't to be trifled with.
When beautiful Wren Morgan goes missing, he has a sick feeling that he knows exactly who took her, and for what purpose. The problem is, Wren isn't just any other student. She's someone he's close to, someone he cares about. Now she's in the hands of cruel, evil men, and Stone is the only one who can rescue her before the unthinkable happens.
THE MISSIONARY TEASER
~One week earlier~
As much as he tried, Stone couldn’t keep himself away from Wren. It was as if he was drawn to her by some strange magnetic force. For the last two and a half weeks, he’d run himself ragged, scouting locations before the missions team arrived, operating as security while they did their futile, dangerous work in the slums and red light district, talking to prostitutes and paying them to spend time in the hostel, feeding them, offering them Bible tracts and prayer and smiles and promises of freedom from prostitution.
And all the while, Wren was on the edges of his awareness. Crouching beside a frail nineteen year old Taiwanese girl who’d been a prostitute since the age of six, smiling as she mixed poorly-accented words and phrases in Filipino with too-loud English. Playing checkers with a ten year old girl who’d been sold by her own parents. Serving food and bottles of water, never shrinking away from bad smells and harsh, distrustful glares. Stone would stand a few feet away from Wren, watching for the pimps and dealers who signal trouble, and he would find himself unable to keep his eyes off her. Her ink-black hair would fall across her eyes, and she would brush it away with her middle fingers. Her tank-top would ride up, revealing a sliver of dark skin, and she would tug it down absently. Sweat would run down her forehead, and she would wipe it away with a wrist. Stone couldn’t not watch her. She was beautiful, graceful, and always, always kind. She never ran out of patience, and she was always the last one to stop working. The first one to volunteer.
He never let himself talk to her, and she was still mad at him. Which was for the best. She didn’t really know him, or she wouldn’t have the puppy-love crush on him. He didn’t feel anything for her, he told himself. He was just attracted to her. Which was natural enough, after all. She was a gorgeous girl with a lush body and a sweet personality. How could he not be attracted to her? But it wasn’t going to, and couldn’t, go anywhere past that.
Not when Stone still had nightmares of bullet-riddled bodies, and memories of pulling the trigger that sent those bullets. He woke up sweating and terrified most nights, reliving and remembering. She didn’t deserve that.
So, Stone kept to himself, watched the students, and watched the streets. Followed behind the group as they made their way to dinner, guarded the bathrooms while they took showers. Kept his hand near the cheap but functional 9mm pistol he’d gotten ahold of within hours of wheels-down.
He was starting to think his intuition had been wrong. The trip was days from completion and nothing bad had happened. Less than a week to go, and the students would be boarding a plane for the States. Which meant Wren would be safe. He prayed the next five days would go quickly. But yet, the feeling persisted. The troubled gnawing sense of unease in his belly.
He refused to let anyone from the group leave the hostel without him, and without at least four other people. He slept less than four hours a night, and slept with his pistol under his pillow, as light as if he was in the field with his unit again.
When he didn’t dream of that night in Manila, he dreamed of Wren, of the hopeful gleam in her eyes when she’d told him she wished he would see her as someone other than a sweet innocent girl.
* * *
It was a Friday, less than forty-eight hours before their flight out of Manila. They’d spent the last twelve hours going out in groups of six, Stone as escort and tour-guide, seeing sights and having fun, unwinding before leaving for home. Now, he was at the head of the last bunch of students, leading them through the thronging crowds. They’d had pho for dinner, bought trinkets and t-shirts and postcards and souvenirs. Having been on his feet leading students on tours of Manila since eight that morning, Stone was exhausted. Holding up the level of vigilance he had over the last three weeks was beyond tiring. It was like tensing his muscles for not just hours on end, but for days and weeks without stop; the mind and body just weren’t made for it. But he couldn’t relax. Not yet.
He stopped at an intersection and did a head count; all six students were there, including Wren. The traffic light turned, and Stone led them across the street, watching the traffic on all sides, scanning the crowds. A squeal of tires and angry shouts in Filipino had Stone whirling in place, shoving people aside. Wren and three others hadn’t made it across the street, and had been nearly run over by a taxi before scrambling back across to the far side. Stone cursed under his breath; his group was now separated. He met Wren’s eyes, pointed at her and mouthed stay there. She nodded, and Stone turned back to the two students who’d made it with him.
He herded them up against the wall, next to the doorway of a liquor store. “Stay here,” he ordered, his voice gruff, taking on the tone of command. “I mean it. Don’t move, not for anything. Don’t talk to anyone, don’t answer questions, nothing. Just stand right the f—right here. Got it?” The two students, a high school senior named Brett, and a college freshman named Leslie, nodded, eyes wide. They clutched hands, and Stone clapped Brett on the shoulder. “I’ll be right back.”
Stone brushed his hand against the butt of the pistol at the small of his back, hidden under his loose gray Navy T-shirt. Wren and the other students were still standing on the corner, waiting for the light to turn. It was a busy intersection, four lanes of crazy, honking, speeding traffic. The crowds were growing as evening neared, bringing with it relief from the heat and humidity. Stone bounced on his toes, keeping his eyes locked on the small knot of students, then burst into a run as the light turned and the waiting crowd surged into motion, carrying Wren and the other three with them. He caught Wren’s arm in his right hand, wrapping his left arm around the other three, hustling them across the street, not breathing until they were safe on the other side, rejoining Brett and Leslie.
“Next time, run across. Don’t get separated again.” He met each of their eyes, received serious nods in return.
They made it back to the hostel, and Stone rested his aching feet before rounding up the last group, mostly volunteer staff and older college students. As they ate tacos and shopped, Stone’s sense of unease heightened. Every step had him scanning the crowds, hunting for the source of his fear. As always over the last two weeks, he saw nothing unusual. No tails, no suspicious faces.
But nonetheless, Stone’s gut churned as he led the last group back to the hostel.
And that was when it came, half a block from the hostel.
“Stone! Stone!” This was Emily, one of Wren’s friends, a tall, slim girl with nut-brown hair, tears in her eyes and a panicked expression on her face. She was running toward him, distraught.
“What is it, Emily? Are you hurt?”
“No, no. Oh my gosh, I don’t know what happened, but I’m so scared. We just went to the corner store to get some water, all four of us together. It wasn’t even a block, and we were all together the whole way, I promise! We even told John we were going. And then we turned around and she just wasn’t there, and we can’t find her!”
Stone felt his gut clench. “Take a breath, Em. Slow down. What happened? Who’s not there?”
“Wren! We can’t find her! She was with us, right there with us the whole time. And then she just wasn’t. We went back to the store but they hadn’t seen her since we left, and she’s not here, and—oh gosh, oh gosh! I’m so scared, Stone. What if something happened to her? Where would she go? Can you help us find her, please?” Emily was sobbing now, trying not to and failing.
“Where are the others you were with?”
“Right—right over there.” She pointed to two guys, sophomores at UV with Emily and Wren.
The guys weren’t crying, but they were clearly upset. “What happened, Doug?” Stone demanded.
“We just went to the store to get some bottles of water. Me and Aaron and Emily and Wren. We told John we were just going to the store and coming right back, and we’d stay together. We were like, a hundred feet from the hostel, and I turned around realized Wren wasn’t with us. She just…she just vanished, man! I don’t know what happened. She didn’t say anything, didn’t make a noise, just…poof, gone.”
“Show me where you realized she was gone.” He pointed to other two. “You two, back to hostel. Tell John I said no one leaves. No one, for anything.”
Doug brought Stone to a spot a few hundred feet from the hostel, a random location on the sidewalk, just like any other. No sign of Wren, no clues. He stood and tried to think. Wren wouldn’t just run off without telling her friends. If she’d been hurt, she would have told them, made a noise. There wasn’t any blood anywhere, no dropped articles. Just a hole-in-the-wall restaurant, an electronics shop, and the entrance to an alley, dark, wet, and smelly.
“Anything else you can think of, Doug? Anything?”
Doug shook his head, long blond surfer-style shaggy hair flopping. “No, man. Nothing.”
Stone took a few steps into the alley. The concrete was wet and rucked and puddled, a dumpster on one wall, bags of trash and an abandoned shoe, a broken wooden crate. A rusted, red-metal doorway led into the electronics shop on the left side, and on the right, a blank stone wall. At the end, another street, cars passing intermittently. Power lines overhead.
Stone turned in place, desperate for any clues, anything.
There. A cigarette butt on the ground. Crushed underfoot, but the white end of the cigarette was still white, recent. Not mud-stained or faded.
“Did a vehicle come out of this alley?” Stone asked Doug.
Doug started to shake his head, then stopped. “Actually, yeah. A van or a truck or something. I don’t know. I was looking for Wren, but I do remember seeing some kind of vehicle come out of here. I only noticed it because I was facing the alley, wondering if she’d gone back for something.”
Stone guided Doug back to the hostel, then found Pastor Nick and John, a parent volunteer and one of the deacons of the church. “Wren is missing.”
Nick’s face paled. “What? What do you mean she’s missing?”
Stone didn’t try to mask the anger in his voice. “She and three other students went to the corner store to buy water, and Wren vanished on the way back. They said they asked you first, and you let them go, against the policy we’ve gone by for the last three weeks.” Stone addressed this last part to John.
John nodded. “Yeah, they told me they were just going to the corner. It’s not even half a block. I thought it would be fine.”
Nick wiped his face with both hands. “What’s the next step then?”
“Contact the US embassy, file a missing persons report. I’ll look for her while you do that. John, you stay here with the students. Gather everyone together and stay together. No one goes anywhere. Not ten steps out of your sight.” Stone poked John in the shoulder with a stabbing finger. “I mean that, deadly serious. Not one person takes one fucking step out of your sight. Not for water, not to pee, not for anything.”
John nodded, and didn’t remark on Stone’s cursing. “Yeah, yeah, I got it.”
“Nick, go the embassy. Give them Wren’s information, show them her picture.”
“Don’t you have contacts in the embassy or something?” Nick asked.
“Yeah, but I need to look for Wren. Every second counts.”
“What do you think happened?” Nick kept his voice down, but his worry was palpable.
“I don’t know, Nick. Maybe she just got turned around or something.” He met Nick’s eyes, and knew he had to give his friend the truth. “I’m worried she got snatched, though.”
“Snatched by who?”
“The bad guys.” Stone couldn’t make himself say it. He pulled his pistol from his waistband, ejected the clip and checked the loads, more for something to do than anything else. It was a familiar action, one that helped him feel more like a Navy SEAL than a helpless church worship leader. The act of racking the slide of his 9mm sent him back to an older mindset, one in which he was a warrior. “Get the kids home. Get them to the airport tomorrow, and get them home. I’ll find Wren.”
Stone shoved the pistol back in his waistband and left the hostel, mind whirling with possibilities, contacts, potential locations, people he could shake down for information.
He went back to the alley where his gut told him Wren had been abducted. There weren’t any extra clues, just that one cigarette butt. Some oil on the ground, dripped from an old engine. Stone felt the rage of helplessness bite at him. Where to begin? He was a man of action, not an investigator. Others sniffed out the information. He acted on it.
His gaze flicked across the street, landed on an abandoned, shuttered shopfront, graffiti-tagged and piled up with trash. There, almost completely hidden in the piles of trash in one corner, was an old man. He was nothing but a dirty, straggly beard and small, beady eyes lost amidst the newspapers and food wrappers and Coke bottles and plastic bags.
Stone felt a fleeting glimmer of hope as he jogged through traffic and crouched in front of the derelict.
“You see something happen there?” Stone asked in rough but passable Filipino.
“See nothing.” The old man spoke Filipino as roughly as Stone. He probably spoke some obscure dialect. He claimed ignorance, but grime-crusted fingers poked through the trash.
“You sure?” Stone dug a wad of Philippine Pesos from his jeans pocket, stuffed a few bills into the outstretched fingers.
“A truck. Some men. They take a girl, American, look Filipino.”
Stone bit back a curse. He shoved a few more bills into the now-empty hand. “Who take her? You know?”
The old man shook his head, beard waggling. True terror flashed in his eyes. “Not say. Not say. You look Smokey Mountain. Maybe find her there.”
Stone peeled yet more pesos from the wad and shoved them at the old man, who only shook his head and refused to take them, burrowing down into the trash. A stump protruded from the garbage, where a foot had once been. “Who was it? Who are they?”
“Not say! They know.”
That in itself told Stone several things. First, if an old homeless cripple was afraid of talking about them, then he knew who they were. And if he was afraid of talking about them, they were organized, and brutal. Stone remembered the briefings before his team had gone into Manila, rumors of informants disappearing. Snitches turning up dead. Sources of information drying up cold, frozen by terror.
Stone also remembered debriefing interviews with the girls he and his team had rescued, at such great cost. They spoke of quick and silent abductions. Needles in the arm, brutal beatings and forced addictions, being sold to the highest bidder into sexual slavery.
Something told Stone that his team’s strike had only set back the trafficking ring, hadn’t killed the beast entirely. Organizations like that were hydras, seven heads emerging for every one you cut off.
And now they were back, and they had Wren.
Jack Wilder—aka Mr. Wilder—is one half of the writing team "The Wilders." You might know his wife, Jasinda Wilder, as the author of bestselling books such as Falling Into You, Falling Into Us, Stripped, and Wounded, among many others. The Missionary is Jack's first solo work, but you can bet it won't be the last. The Wilders live in the suburbs outside of Detroit, Michigan with their five kids, a dog that vaguely resembles a coyote,and a manny.
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