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By matt bronleewe
Thomas NelsonCopyright © 2007 Matt Bronleewe
All right reserved.
Chapter OneThe occupants of Flight 1213 weren't surprised when the lights went out. They had been flickering for the last ten minutes, so it was no shock when the blackness hit. It was more surprising, however, when the airplane dropped from the heavens like a bird shot in midair.
August Adams could hear the scream from first class over the deafening roar of the engines. A drink cart raced down the aisle, narrowly missing a curious youngster who retracted his head just in time. The plane leveled out for a brief moment, then dipped sharply to the left. A suitcase toppled out of an overhead storage unit, striking an old man two rows up on the forehead. He slumped forward. The child next to him began to wail.
At the window in seat 24F, August flipped open his seat buckle and jumped to his feet. He climbed directly over the row in front of him, angering the businessmen parked there. "Watch it, buddy!" one of them said as August put a foot on his shoulder.
August thrust his body over the next set of seats. The boy looked up at him and shrieked, "What's wrong with Grandpa?"
"Don't worry. It's going to be okay," August said to him, grabbing a scarf held out by a woman in the next row. A steady stream of blood oozed from the gash. Theman appeared to be unconscious. August rummaged through his mental files, calling up a first-aid manual he'd read during a CPR class. "What's your grandpa's name?"
"I think it's Ford," the boy said.
August tied the scarf around the grandfather's head, pressing to stop the bleeding. He instructed the businessman behind him to apply pressure to the wound. The businessman shook his head. "I'm staying right where I am," he said. Bathed in the red emergency lights that illuminated the cabin, the businessman bore the distinct expression of a man who had just wet his pants.
"This guy might die if you don't help me."
The speakers crackled above them, probably the captain trying to tell them to remain calm. Too late, thought August.
"Why don't you do it?" the businessman asked, voice quivering.
"Because I need to find a first-aid kit," August said. "C'mon, man! Just loosen your belt and lean forward. Wrap your hands around the top of the seat. I'll help you."
"I can't," said the businessman. "I'm sorry."
The two men next to him had their heads tucked firmly between their legs, their arms crossed protectively over their necks. They weren't going to be any help either.
"Someone get a first-aid kit for this man!" August said, slamming a fist down on the seat. The plane shook again, and he anchored his hand to the armrest like a bull rider.
The lights came back on. August felt a tap on his side. "Is my grandpa going to be okay?" The boy was only a couple of years younger than his own son. August weighed his answer. "I hope so," he said.
A flight attendant rushed down the aisle with the first-aid kit. She cracked it open and pulled out a wad of bandages, which she immediately placed over the old man's wound.
"Is there a flashlight in there?" August asked, pointing to the kit.
"I think so," she said, rifling through it. The plane dipped, and the contents spilled to the floor.
August reached down and retrieved a small penlight. He pried open the old man's left eye and shone the light in it. He then repeated the process for the right eye.
"You're checking for a concussion?"
"If the injury caused his brain to swell, there could be dangerous tissue compression inside his cranium. That compression would put pressure on his optic nerves, and his pupils would react strangely to the light." August stepped into the aisle and had her take a look at the old man's eyes. "You should check him every fifteen minutes."
"Are you a doctor?"
"I wish. You should ask for one on board. I just never forget a word I read."
"Lucky for him."
"Yeah, well, let me know if he's okay," August said, turning to go back to his seat. Down the aisle this time. "The kid too. He looked pretty frightened."
"He's not the only one," she said.
"Sorry about that, folks," the captain said, his amplified voice clear now. "Please keep your seat belts fastened, as we might be experiencing a few more bumps before we reach New York."
"If that was just a bump, I'd hate to see what a real problem looks like," the attractive occupant of 24D said to August as he squeezed past. "Not that you wouldn't be able to handle it, Superman."
"Just trying to help out," August said, sitting down. "I have a boy about the same age."
"And I'll bet he gets his casual good looks from you." She laughed. "You're married?" she asked, glancing at his ringless fingers.
August wondered if the question implied anything more. "Divorced. One year and counting," August said. He put out his hand. "August Adams."
"Xandria Muro," the woman said, returning the handshake with a confident grip. A memorable name to go with the memorable face. "We've got almost seven hours left to fly, so I apologize in advance if I end up telling you my life story."
August got the impression from her crisp business attire that her life story would be less than thrilling. "Actually, if you don't mind, I was thinking that I might-"
"Get some sleep?" Xandria asked. "Sorry."
"No, it's okay," August said, not sure why he felt bad about trying to avoid conversation. Her embarrassed blush highlighted her round cheekbones, which seemed lifted in a perpetual smile. "I probably couldn't sleep right now anyway. After all the commotion."
She accepted the invitation by tucking a gold strand of hair behind her ear and tilting her head. "You were quite the superhero, weren't you? So what do you do when you're not saving the elderly?" Xandria asked.
August laughed. "If I'm a superhero, then we're in trouble," he said. "I collect and sell rare books. Emphasis on the sell part."
"How'd you get into that?"
"I thought you were supposed to tell me your life's story," August said, restraining a smile. "But to answer your question, I used to be an archaeobibliologist."
Her full lips rounded into an O. "You studied Bibles?"
"Bibles are a primary focus, but an archaeobibliologist examines all kinds of texts."
"Examines them for what?"
"Clues. Historical and cultural references, mainly, but also for information about ancient secret societies, lost treasures ... you know, real-life Indiana Jones-type stuff."
"Sounds amazing. Why did you quit?"
"I didn't quit," August said. "I just got tired of sitting in a room, reading about adventure. I wanted to make some of my own."
"Is that why you were in Germany?" She pointed to a book on the seat between them about art confiscated by the Third Reich. August had dumped it there when he bolted up.
"I spent a month there tracking down a book. Now I'm going to New York to deliver it to the buyer."
"Must be a pretty important book."
"My buyer thinks so," August said. "It's a Gutenberg Bible. Dates back to about 1457. It was originally commissioned by a guy named Prince Hunyadi, who wanted to commemorate his victory at the Siege of Belgrade. After Hunyadi died, some of his subjects hid the book. No one knew where it was until about a year ago, when I was contacted by my buyer. He had a tip on where the book was buried. Turned out he was right."
"I guess that's not something you'd just send him in the mail."
August chuckled. "Insurance wouldn't cover it. Plus, I want to be there to pick up his check in person."
Xandria smiled. "Must be a big one."
"Enough to get me back on my feet, hopefully," August said. "I've got to start saving up if I plan to get my son into college."
"You don't look old enough to have a kid in college," Xandria said.
She was definitely flirting. He slapped on his Nicolas Cage smile again and ran a hand over his high hairline. "I'm not. Charlie is only eight."
"Does he live with you?"
"No," August said. "He lives with my ex. To be honest, it's probably for the best. Business keeps me on the road constantly."
Xandria fetched her purse from under the seat in front of her and pulled out a plastic sleeve full of pictures. "I've got two," she said. "A girl and a boy." She handed the pictures to August. "That's Eric. And that's Samantha. It's driving me crazy not to be with them."
"I know what you mean," August said, glancing through the photos. The beach. The zoo. The carnival. August couldn't help but feel guilty for not having similar pictures of Charlie. He handed them back to her. "Makes you think about what's really important in life."
A muffled ring came from Xandria's purse. She excused herself from the conversation and answered the call. "Hello? Yeah. Everything's great. We hit some turbulence, but hopefully it'll be smooth sailing from here." She placed a slender finger on her lips while she listened. "Okay. Yes. I will. Yes. See you soon." She hung up. "Sorry. My horrible boss is always checking on me."
"You get coverage up here?" August asked.
"It's a sat-phone," Xandria said, showing it to him. "Brand-new. A prototype. I work for the provider. I can talk to anyone in the world, crystal clear." She smoothed out a wrinkle in her black skirt. "You watch, everyone will have one a year from now."
"I should get one of those," August said. "I could talk to my son everywhere I travel. He'd get a kick out of that."
"Now you're making me feel guilty." Xandria held out the phone, her clear eyes dancing. "You want to talk to your son?"
August held up both hands. "I wasn't trying to imply anything."
"I know you weren't. But I know how it is, being away from home and everything. Here. I insist."
August looked at his watch. Charlie lived in Washington DC. There, it was only late afternoon. The timing was perfect. April, his ex, wouldn't be home for another few hours, meaning he could avoid an argument with her. "I'm sure it's a really expensive call," he said, as weak an argument as he could present.
"No problem. It's a company phone," Xandria said, placing the sleek device in August's hands. "I can tell you miss him. Believe me, I understand. You should call him."
August's calls to Charlie were far too infrequent. Traveling around the world, he would often forget what time it was back in DC and end up calling at three in the morning. Only a couple weeks ago, April answered, voice groggy, and immediately hung up on him after looking at a clock. "Hey, thanks for this," he said, dialing the number. It only rang once before someone answered.
"Adams residence. Charlie speaking."
His voice sounded younger than August remembered. "Hi, buddy," August said.
"Dad? Where are you? Are you in DC?"
"No, afraid I'm not," August said. "But I wish I was." In the background, he heard the sound of the television. Probably PBS, the only thing April allowed him to watch.
"I wish you were here too," Charlie said. "Hey, Dad, I made a new friend at school today. His name is Nicholas. He likes Power Rangers just like me."
"Your mom lets you watch Power Rangers?"
"Are you watching it now?"
"Yes," Charlie said, his slow response telling August the rest of the story.
"It'll be our little secret," August said. "Where's Grandma Rose?"
"She's talking in the other room with somebody."
"I don't know. But I think I heard him say something about the FBI when I was spying on him earlier."
The FBI? What could they want with Grandma Rose? "You playing Superspy today?" Xandria gave August a knowing smile and raised her eyebrows as she returned her photos to her purse. She had the prettiest-
"Oh, yeah! Mom got me a cool Sonic Sleuth for my straight-A report card. It's got a range of three hundred feet, Dad. Grandma Rose and I tested it. You'll have to check it out."
"You know I want to, buddy. Can you go find out who the guy is?" August asked. "I don't like the idea of a stranger in the house."
"Sure, Dad. Be back in a minute," Charlie said.
"But don't let him see you, okay?"
"Dad. Of course they won't see me. I'm a superspy." There was a clonk as Charlie set the phone down on the floor and pattered away.
August turned to Xandria, wondering if he had overstayed his welcome on her phone. "Sorry. I swear I'll be off in a minute."
"Don't worry about it," Xandria said, waving him away. "But you're going to owe me."
"I hear this airline has an amazing wine list."
"Perfect," Xandria said.
August listened as Charlie's phone rattled around on the floor. A few seconds later, he picked it up, wheezing. He kept repeating something, but August couldn't make out what he was saying.
"Slow down," August said. "What is it? What's going on?"
"... g ... gu ..."
"Son, you've got to breathe," August said, remembering a handful of late-night trips to the emergency room with Charlie when the boy was younger. Two years had passed without incident, as far as he knew anyway, and August wondered what would cause the problem to come back. "Breathe with me. In. And out. In. And out. Just like when you were little."
Charlie's wheezing relaxed as he followed his father's instruction. Then it worsened again. August heard the phone rattling. Was he running? No. Crawling. Crawling where? Why?
August felt a lump in his throat. Something was horribly wrong. "Hey, Superspy. Give me your report. Is Grandma Rose okay?"
"Dad ... please help," Charlie said, trying to calm down. He was being as brave as he could. "The guy tied up Grandma Rose, and he's holding a gun to her head."
August sighed, then shook his head. He'd almost bought it, hook, line, and sinker. It wasn't the first time Charlie had dreamed up something disastrous. Once, when he was four, he claimed a polar bear was trapped in the refrigerator. Only a few days before the divorce was finalized, he'd declared the backyard a nuclear war zone full of flesh-eating zombies. Maybe April was right to limit his television intake.
"Son, you know better than that," August said. "Guns are not a joke."
He turned to Xandria and gave her a you-know-boys shake of his head. Her clear blue eyes had darkened to gray.
"What if the boy isn't joking?" she whispered.
August froze, his mind unable to grasp what was taking place. What if the boy isn't joking? How could she know what was going on? He kept eye contact with her. "Charlie, listen to me. I want you to hang up and call 9-1-1 right now."
Xandria pushed up the armrests, slid into the middle seat, and grabbed the phone. August could smell her perfume. "Charlie, don't hang up. Don't move a single muscle, or we'll have to hurt your grand- mother," she said, as calmly as if she were reading him a bedtime story. She handed the phone back to August and put her lips near his ear. "We'll kill her, actually. And him too, if you don't cooperate."
August recoiled. "Cooperate?" he mouthed. He heard Charlie calling to him and placed the receiver back against his ear.
"Dad?" Charlie's voice shook. "What do I do?"
"Stay where you are," August said. "Everything's going to be okay. Just sit tight." Across the aisle, he saw a teenager, eyes closed, bobbing his head to the beat of whatever was blaring through his headphones. Next to him was someone August guessed to be his younger sister, thoroughly engaged in a book. To her right was a man, asleep, mouth wide open, wearing a T-shirt that acknowledged his status as the world's biggest windbag. And none of them had noticed a single thing that had just transpired. He put his hand over the receiver. "What do you want?"
She took the phone and ended the transmission with the touch of a button. "Once, when I was a child, I stole a cookie from the jar that sat in the middle of our dining room table. After supper that night, my father took out a Bible, excused everyone else from the room, and read to me from Proverbs 23. Are you familiar with it?"
August knew most of the proverbs, having studied them extensively with the Bible's other wisdom literature, but he sensed she didn't care to know that. He shook his head.
"It says: 'When thou sittest to eat with a ruler, consider diligently what is before thee: And put a knife to thy throat, if thou be a man given to appetite. Be not desirous of his dainties: for they are deceitful meat.'" Xandria pushed up the right sleeve of her pink silk blouse. "Do you know what he did to me after he read that?"
Silence. August didn't want to know.
"He took a knife, and he did this," Xandria said, showing August a long, jagged cross-shaped scar on the inside of her forearm. "I never stole from the table again," she said.
Excerpted from ILLUMINATED by matt bronleewe Copyright © 2007 by Matt Bronleewe. Excerpted by permission.
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