Ariela stared at the ceiling as she lay in bed. The glowing dial on her Luminox watch told her that it was nearly two in the morning. She had come off of guard duty at midnight and had been unable to fall asleep. Something gnawed at the back of her mind. She clasped her hands behind her head and tried to identify what it was. There was a creeping dread, an unsettled feeling that simply would not let go of her wakefulness.
Something wasn’t right with the Schmidt family.
Whatever they were … whoever they were … their arrival the same night that the Olsen place was raided was just too coincidental.
Ariela turned the problem over in her mind trying to look at it from different angles. On the surface, it didn’t seem to make sense that an apparently innocent family would be involved with a group that would conduct a coordinated raid on a farm nearly five miles away. But, if Ariela had learned anything over the course of her difficult life, it was that things were rarely as they seemed on the surface. Once that superficial layer was scratched off, deeper – and usually darker – things revealed themselves.
Ariela found herself wondering, “What would the Schmidt family reveal if their surface was scratched away?”
David really hadn’t pushed them. He sat them down and explained to them calmly and matter-of-factly, as David usually did, that their presence on the farm posed a risk, that they could not simply go free nor could they remain at Union Creek without some degree of restricted movement until they had proven themselves trustworthy.
David was such a gentleman … such a … Ariela struggled for the right word. The word “politician” came to mind, but that word carried with it too negative a connotation. Finding the right word wasn’t going to solve the problem, Ariela decided. She gave up trying and noted that there were times like this that simple tasks like word selection were much more difficult since her injuries.
“What was under the somewhat rough veneer of the Schmidt family’s sob story?” Ariela mulled it over.
Ariela was dying to know. Perhaps others would quite literally die if they remained in the dark as to the Schmidt’s ties, if any, to the Olsen farm attackers.
Ariela realized that she had grown to love the Johnson family as if they were her own. They had taken her in – cautiously at first. But, in the end, they had put their trust in her. She had already let them down once through her previous actions with the Schmidts. That mistake would not be compounded by further mistakes or … a failure to act.
Rolling out of bed, Ariela dropped her fleece pajama pants to the floor and stepped into her tri-color desert camouflage pants. The metal buckle on her duty belt jingled as she threaded it through the loops on her pants. Mandy, Ariela’s roommate, stirred in her sleep and rolled over.
Ariela had discovered early in their rooming relationship that Mandy was a deep sleeper. Not long after Mandy had arrived at the farm, Ariela had gotten up for guard duty. Neither the sound of her dressing nor the light of the lamp near her bed had disturbed Mandy in the least.
“What a blessing to be able to achieve such deep sleep,” Ariela thought as she pulled on a light, synthetic fleece jacket over her tank top.
“Blessing.” That was a relatively new term in Ariela’s vocabulary. She had grown up devoutly Catholic. Being blessed was not a foreign concept to her, but the Johnsons used the term much more frequently and differently than Ariela had heard the term used as a girl. The Johnsons talked about being blessed in the midst of this horrible collapse of society. They did it for no other reason than because they felt it. There was no one around to act holier than … no “holier than thou” here. The Johnsons were alive and doing relatively well and they appreciated it. That was all there was to it. It was one of the many things that had won Ariela over in the beginning – one of the many reason she had grown to love the family and … one of the many reasons she had decided to do what she was about to do.
Ariela slipped her paddle holster over her belt and slid her faithful Beretta into the holster. The somewhat outdated but wholly reliable 9mm clicked into place with a unique “snick” sound. Once the Beretta was in place, Ariela slid her folding knife into her pocket. The Strider SMF was the standard-issue folding knife for Ariela’s Marine unit. She’d always thought the tiger-striped blade was a bit overly dramatic but had grown to love the knife’s form and function over years of use.
With the pistol and knife in their proper place, Ariela grabbed a roll of duct tape from atop her dresser and descended the ladder from the loft of her cabin to the main floor. The hands of the brightly glowing dial of her watch showed 2:17 a.m.
Ariela inhaled through her nose and slowly released the breath from between her lips. She did not relish the task before her but she believed that it must be done. Although she had not specialized in this kind of work during her military career, she had been trained. In fact, she had been trained by one of the best in the U.S. military – a least according to her instructors – an Army Ranger named Manny Colòn.