Once Lila had supper well on its way, she strolled into the family room where she found John sitting at the computer. "What are you doing?" she asked as she peered at the screen. A chat room. This nine-year-old boy was in a chat room! After what happened to her sister with the twisted people online, she ordered, "Get out of the chat room, John McKade."
John swivelled in the computer chair and frowned at her. "Gram lets me."
"Well I'm sure your gram doesn't understand what can happen in chat rooms. It's dangerous."
After crossing his arms over his chest, John said, "No. Uncle Samson lets me, too."
"Then do it when your Uncle Samson is around you!"
Samson walked in, hearing Lila sound like she was about to have a cow. Not shouting at all but it must be her most stern kindergarten teacher voice. He cocked one eyebrow. "Do what while he is around me?"
"Nothing," John rushed loudly. He had already clicked on the X at the top of the computer screen to exit the web page.
Samson strode purposefully toward the computer and then nodded. "You're online, John. Let me see what you've done." His long fingers flew over the keyboard, opening files. "The firewall is still up and most of the other security, but you canceled the program to restrict access to only kid approved Christian sites."
John grinned toward Lila. "My dad says I'm going to be as good as Uncle Samson." Then he sobered when Samson cleared his throat.
Turning toward Lila, Samson stood and reiterated, "Do what while he is around me?" He saw the red-faced pleading look John shot her. She rubbed one small hand over her forehead, and he practically watched her war between telling him and bonding with John by not telling him. Samson couldn't get over her hair. She was very pretty already without the longest mahogany hair he'd ever seen . . . hair past her hips.
Finally, Lila sighed. "Please tell him, John."
John crossed his arms across his chest again. "Chatting."
Although Samson opened his mouth to respond, Lila exclaimed, "He said you let him do it. He's nine! Don't you know anything about chat rooms?"
Samson shot her a lopsided grin. "Do you?"
"I know John won't be in the chat rooms while I'm watching him. He can surf the Net, play games, whatever, but not chat." She was clearly upset, springtime green eyes glossy with tears at the surface.
Samson spoke softly but firmly. "John is not supposed to be in chat rooms. I've put up password blocks so he can't get e-mail or access beyond approved web sites, but he's a bit of a genius when it comes to computers." He pointed at John. "Come on, young man. Let's go upstairs and see to your punishment for disobeying me."
After disciplining John the same way his father punished Samson and his brother, Samson wondered about Lila's emotional upset over chatting online. What did a kindergarten teacher know about chat rooms?
He frowned and recalled her reason for coming to San Diego was to find someone. Who? Male? Female? A boyfriend or something more?
Once they had eaten, Samson leaned against the kitchen counter while Lila loaded the dishwasher. He closed his eyes for several minutes and prayed for guidance, for the right words, but she interrupted him.
"What are you doing?"
He opened his eyes and stared straight into hers. "Praying."
She looked startled, and then a hot pink blush swept up her neck to her lovely heart-shaped face. "I've never met anyone like you before," she whispered.
"You did the right thing with John. He broke the rules then lied. He needed to tell me the truth. I could see you were torn to keep his secret."
He leaned down, closer to her ear. "Good job, Lila. You'll do." Then he lightly pressed a swift kiss on her silky cheek.
Samson rushed up to his bedroom for his Bible, still not able to believe he'd kissed her even innocently. Oh sure, he found her attractive and sweet. But she confessed she wasn't a true believer, and Samson couldn't even consider an emotional tie to a non-Christian.
In his college days and after, he dated one woman after another. Affairs, his mother bluntly called them. She had a heart-to-heart talk with Samson about the kind of woman whom he wanted to end up with eventually as his wife. From that day, Samson stopped that lifestyle and repented.
He wanted a wife who had not dallianced with other men like he had women. He wanted a good Christian woman who shared his values. He wanted what his parents had, a triangle of man and woman with God at the center.
Maybe he and his family could witness to Lila. Maybe that's why God sent her to them. Maybe she would join them in their nightly devotional reading and prayer. He prayed for exactly that while he made his way back to the kitchen.
Gram, Sarah, John and even Lila were sitting at the table, waiting for him.
He knew he was smiling like an idiot but couldn't seem to stop. "What would you like to hear about tonight?"
Sarah raised her hand in the air and piped, "Oh! Oh! I know. Samson and Delilah."
Lila choked violently on the drink of coffee she had just consumed. She must have swallowed it down her windpipe because she coughed til her eyes watered.
Samson patted her on the back and lifted her arms in the air. When she had stopped choking but still looked a little panicky, he sat back down and read the story of Samson and Delilah again. The kids loved it. Plus when he was finished, he explained Samson's disobedience to God was his downfall and sent a pointed look at John.
Then after they all joined hands, he prayed, ending with, "Please be with Lila and help her as she gets to know us and we get to know her. In Jesus' name we pray. Amen."
Even after everyone had gone to bed, Samson could almost feel Lila's small hand in his much larger one as they had prayed. Something about it felt very right. Her lovely green eyes had again seemed shiny with unshed tears when he looked up at her after the prayer, almost like mentioning her by name in prayer was something she'd never experienced before.
Samson hoped Gram hadn't brought a nutcase into the house, shortly repenting for judging someone. He prayed again, this time for God's will, turned it all over to Jesus, then drifted off to sleep.
Although Lila didn't accompany them to church for either service on Sunday or on Wednesday night, the next week passed quickly. He was working his normal day shift again. Lila was doing a wonderful job taking care of his niece and nephew, even Gram and the house. In fact, the better Samson got to know her in the evenings, after their nightly reading and prayer, he believed her a sweet innocent and grew more and more fond of her. Yet, every day, when she thought she was unobserved, she seemed less and less able to hide a deep sadness, an almost desperation.
Friday was Lila's full day off, so Samson dropped the kids off at his minister's house to spend the day and night with their kids. Gram, who was always busy doing something Christian orientated, had another of her women's meetings. When he had left Lila in the house, she had appeared almost relieved to have the house alone.
At work, though, Samson's day started off rocky. His male co-worker, for whom he was taking over as day shift, told him they might just have a new player. They hadn't checked it out yet, but a female from all outward appearances. Her e-mail addresses were all registered under different aliases, different countries and time zones.
She hadn't really done anything yet, so no one traced her; however she was teetering on the borderline . . . sending out e-mail to the elite international group of hackers, sending it to dozens of their addresses, reduplicating the message to them to make sure they all received it. Worse yet, when he checked his dozen of e-mail sites, he had one of her near threats. Of course, she didn't recognize him under any of the different aliases. She didn't know he only pretended to be a member accepted by the group.
Her e-mail read simply:
I'm intrigued, very impressed in a sick sort of way, with your elite club. In fact I'm so fascinated, I'd like to join if you'd care to invite me. If you know where the girl who logs on here as Rebecca is, have her e-mail me and tell me she is fine, or I'll play your game as an avenging angel. And win.
Monitoring six computers, each logged on with a different nickname, Samson noticed the minute she entered the chat room, the hangout brimming with genius hackers. He hadn't seen her all week, so he quickly signed off on one computer, where he was posing as a child for any potential molesters, and logged back in with a recognizable alias. Little did she know he was in real life an FBI agent at the San Diego Headquarters, a High Tech Squad Computer Crimes Agent. And there was no way he could tell her and risk all the undercover work, the investigation. Although she was obviously a nice woman getting into treacherous depths over her head, he couldn't understand the pull he felt for her, the concern, all the prayer as God laid her on his heart many times a day.
He no sooner signed on under the nickname she knew, said she was starting to trust, than she sent him a private message.
AvengingAngel: Do you live in this chat room or what?
PromiseKeeper: What about you? It's daytime. You never chat this early. Did you call in sick at work today?
AvengingAngel: I won't tell you my job. I'm cramming from a book written for dummies. All I ever wanted to know about hacking.
PromiseKeeper: Angel, Angel, Angel. Be careful or you'll be eaten alive. How far will you go to get what you're after? Will you send out your picture? Your measurements? Or more? The thin ice you're on has cracked.
AvengingAngel: I thought it was hot water. You amuse me. Tell me about yourself, PromiseKeeper. You're probably the most secretive person in this room and that's saying a lot.
PromiseKeeper: Maybe I'm one of those bad hackers you're so hot for and I'm targeting you.
AvengingAngel: I don't think so. You're too nice of a guy.
PromiseKeeper: Hell will be filled with nice guys. I know you're a nice woman, but it's not enough to be nice. You need Jesus. Ask Him into your heart to guide and protect you.
AvengingAngel: Do you know where my sister is?
PromiseKeeper: I've never done this before, asked a woman before, but give me your phone number, Angel, and I'll talk to you about finding your sister.
AvengingAngel: Yeah, right. Like I'd tell you anything. Want my social security number, too? How about credit card number?
PromiseKeeper: Hypothetically speaking, let's say I could trace you back and track you down where you sit there right now online. Maybe I could tell you your real name, your address, your phone number, everything about you.
AvengingAngel: I'd say sorry, mister. But I've never given out anything. You can't find me. You can't tell me anything. As far as you and your hacker buddies are concerned, I'm invisible.
PromiseKeeper: Don't count on it.
AvengingAngel: Don't tell me, let me guess. You've placed pen-sized web cameras all through the house to broadcast me worldwide on your elite group's private web page.
PromiseKeeper: Your sister was terrorized, wasn't she?
AvengingAngel: Told she could run but couldn't hide. They called her at home, stalked her online, took over her computer.
PromiseKeeper: So what did the FBI Forensic Lab say?
AvengingAngel: I don't know. I'm not at home. They don't have a way to contact me.
PromiseKeeper: Silly woman! CALL them. They've probably tracked down your sister. Stay out of this chat. No more e-mails.
Lila, in such a rush to call Dallas, forgot to tell him thanks or goodbye. She signed offline, grabbed her long distance prepaid calling card, and dialed the number from the business card one of the FBI agents had given her. After explaining her situation twice, she was connected to a third person who took a message, her name and wanted the phone number where she could be reached.
Lila let out a short burst of laughter, instead of a sob. She didn't know the number here. There was no number written anywhere on the phone, so although the FBI agent may have found her long hesitation odd, he waited while she looked up Samson McKade in the thick phone book. Only he wasn't there; must be unlisted.
She sighed, wrote down the agent's name, and told him she'd call him back later with that information. Maybe then they'd tell her something; he said he'd check into it.
Neither Gram nor the kids were home this afternoon. Samson was at work. She didn't even know where he was employed so she couldn't call him and ask him his private home phone number.
Using the phone book, she called all the shelters again. No one recalled a girl matching Becky's description. It took nearly two hours before she was done placing calls.
Where in this monster maze of a city should she even begin to look for Becky? She didn't know her way around. The FBI had already told her the long distances charges to San Diego had been placed to various payphones located all throughout the city. A payphone! That's it.
With all the Bible reading and praying at night with the McKades, Lila uttered a little prayer, hesitant because it felt awkward and she grasped for the right words. From the way Samson talked, you just talked to God and He listened. If that were true, then God surely understood her general message to find Becky.
Lila hopped into her rented sedan and drove until she came to the nearest gas station. Bummer. That payphone didn't have a phone number listed on it, either. She was starting to get discouraged when she finally found a payphone with a number listed on it after a half dozen stops.
Agent Falcon seemed reluctant to release information but finally disclosed in confidence the e-mails convincing Becky of protection had been bounced off three countries, Russia, Holland, and Ireland, yet after working with officials from those countries to trace it, the e-mail had originated from the university in San Diego. They were turning it over to an FBI National Infrastructure Protection Center department and were close to discovering who sent it.
When he again asked for a phone number where she could be reached by the new squad, Lila reconsidered giving the payphone number. She told him she was out of town and didn't know the number so she'd call him back later when she did.
By the time she reached the McKade's though, Lila staggered into the sunken living room and onto the couch where she broke down and really cried.
She didn't know how long he had been there, but Samson sat beside her, wrapped his strong arms around her, and held her in a comforting hug. It felt so good, but she didn't want to blubber in front of him. What must he think of her? She wasn't sure, but she thought he might be praying again, until he pulled back and his smooth baritone softly asked, "Do you want to tell me about it?"
Lila sniffled hard, wiped her eyes, and told him her most recent problem. "I don't know the phone number here."
His lips twitched as he handed her his handkerchief. "Well that can be remedied easily enough. I like to stay unlisted. Do you mind telling me who you are giving it to?"
"I'd rather not," she whispered, not wanting to tell him about the FBI or her sister running off to a man she met online.
He frowned. "Your boyfriend?"
She snorted as her only reply.
"No, Samson. It's a man."
Those laser blue eyes flashed with something before he walked to the kitchen counter and wrote the number on a piece of paper. When he handed it to her, he asked quietly, "Your lover?"
This time she laughed out loud. "Never had one."
"I'm sorry." His smile and the gentle twinkle to his eyes suggested otherwise. "I shouldn't have asked such an intimate question."
"Thank you." She accepted the paper with the number. "Do you always interrogate people?"
"In a matter of speaking." As if to prove his point, he sat down and crossed his arms over his chest. "How old are you?"
She laughed again. "Twenty-five. I've taught kindergarten for two years since college. And you?"
"Twenty-eight. I worked as security for various corporations after college. That's how I acquired all this." He swept one arm toward the stylish inside surroundings. "But then my mom made me see the uh-errors of my way, God convicted me, and I switched lifestyles all the way to changing my job."
"So what did you go to school for?"
"Computer science." He seemed reluctant to talk about his job and redirected the quizzing. "You said you came to San Diego, looking for someone. Who would you travel so far from home to find?"
Gram swept in and sat down her shopping bags. "Hello, dears."
Samson rose and kissed her cheek. "Hi, Gram." He cocked one elbow toward her. "How about I take you ladies out for dinner?"
Gram hooked her arm through his.
Lila nearly panicked; she had to look terrible after crying, so she turned down his invitation. After returning to her room and surveying her face, she could no longer see any sign of her tears.
Grabbing her brush, she stroked in long swipes to her hips by brushing one section at a time. As she brushed, she walked down to the kitchen and surveyed the cabinets for a can of soup. She nearly jumped out of her skin when she turned around and Samson stood there like he was cemented to the spot, watching her brush her thigh length hair.
He cleared his throat, twice. "I wanted to see if I could change your mind about joining us for dinner."
Lila kept brushing, but nodded. "Ok. Thank you kindly. Just let me finish brushing this wild mane of mine."
"Please," his deep voice sounded a notch deeper, a shade quieter, a little rusty maybe. "Stop doing that."
"Brushing my hair?" she asked disbelievingly.
"A woman's hair is her glory. I'm asking you to stop tempting me." He fisted his hands at his sides, yet stepped slowly toward her, before reaching to test the texture of her hair, stroking one large gentle hand from her crown down to her lower back.
She sat the brush down on the counter and this time she cleared her throat. "Ready to go? Gram's waiting."