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Under the Radar
By FERN MICHAELS
KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP.Copyright © 2009 Fern Michaels
All rights reserved.
Charles Martin slipped quietly out of bed, careful not to wake Myra. He looked around the dim room, trying to figure out what, if anything, had wakened him from his deep sleep. All was quiet in the huge room. There was no air-conditioning making humming noises on Big Pine Mountain because it simply wasn't needed. He looked toward the open windows, where the sheer curtains moved with quiet gracefulness. Turning his head, he tried to decide if one of the dogs might have barked or if the birds were rustling in the big pines outside the window. Except for Myra's soft intake and exhalation of breath, the silence was deafening.
Charles knew sleep was out of the question because he was wide-awake. He got up and made his way to the bathroom, where he showered, shaved, and got dressed. The red numbers on the digital clock sitting on the mantel said it was three in the morning, an ungodly hour to be waking up to start the day. Not that rising at that hour was entirely outside of his experience. When he was planning a mission for the girls, sleep was something he usually did without.
In the kitchen, he made coffee. Just as he was pressing the button to start the automatic drip, he realized something was wrong. He looked down at his trembling hands. His hands never trembled. Never. He jammed them into his pockets as his mind raced. Myra was sound asleep, which meant all was well with his dearly beloved. One of the dogs, Murphy or Grady, would have alerted him if something was amiss with the Sisters. The phone wasn't ringing. So what could possibly be wrong? He listened to the silence around him as he tried to figure out if it was him or something else. Something was spooking him, and he didn't like the feeling. He'd never had such an ominous feeling before. Even when he'd been a covert agent for Her Majesty, he'd had nerves of steel. He'd always been cool and collected, no matter what the situation, his mind never going off on tangents.
Charles almost jumped out of his skin when he heard the last cheerful plop coming from the coffeemaker. He poured a cup and carried it to the War Room, where he checked his incoming e-mail and faxes. There was nothing to be seen, both machines glaring at him like two angry dark eyes. What the hell is wrong? He turned and walked back out to the main part of the house and opened the front door. The velvety night was dark and quiet. He walked over to the bench under a tall pine and sat down. The pungent scent of pine was so strong, he felt light-headed. Sipping his coffee, he lit up one of the cigarettes he thought no one knew about. He puffed furiously, hoping the cigarette would calm his twanging nerve endings.
Lowering his head as he tried to grapple with what he was experiencing, Charles let his gaze drop to the watch on his wrist. He could read the numerals clearly in the eerie blue light of the halogen lamp in the center of the compound: 3:45. He raised his head to look around. He'd never felt as lonely as he felt just then, that very second, in the whole of his life. He wondered suddenly if he was going to die. He shivered. For some reason, he'd never given his own death a thought until then. He immediately discarded the image. He squeezed his eyes shut as he tried to grapple with his feelings and his morbid thoughts.
Desperate, Charles fired up a second cigarette. After the first two puffs on his previous cigarette, he'd let it turn to ash. He inhaled deeply and coughed. Terrible, ugly, nasty habit, but he could understand why people smoked. Suddenly, he felt calm. The hand holding the cigarette was rock steady. His head felt clear, his senses sharp. This is it, he told himself. Either I'm going to die, or something is going to happen, right now.
The special encrypted phone he was never without vibrated. In that single instant Charles knew he wasn't going to die. He was sharply aware of the night around him, the rustling of the pines, the cough of a frog somewhere deep in the forest. For one second he thought he could actually hear the clouds move overhead. His uncanny sixth sense told him there was a possum or a raccoon within spitting distance. The sudden glow of two yellow eyes confirmed his feeling. A maple tree to the left of him rustled impatiently in the early-morning breeze. Off to the right, he could hear the creak of the cable car in its nest in the housing unit as the morning breeze kicked over into a light wind. Except for those rare times when he slept so deeply a building could have fallen on him and he wouldn't have woken, he had always been a poor sleeper, waking just the way he'd woken a little while ago. It had taken him a long time to get used to the mysterious moans and groans of the stationary cable car as well as to all the other mountain noises.
Dreading what he was going to hear on the special phone but needing desperately to know who was on the other end, he flipped it open and brought it to his ear. He rather thought he said hello, but later on he simply couldn't remember. What he did remember was the brisk voice that said, "Sir Malcolm," by way of greeting.
It was already midmorning across the pond. For his special friend to call him at that hour had to mean something very serious was wrong somewhere, and somehow it affected either him or the Sisters. Somehow Charles managed to find his voice.
"Tell me straight off, Bess." He took a second to wonder why he was calling his friend "Bess." Normally he called her "Liz." Bess was reserved for times of crisis. "Don't blather on, I can take it, whatever it is." Charles's long years of friendship allowed him to speak with such familiarity to the most powerful person in all of England.
"Very well. But, please, sit down, Sir Malcolm."
"Bloody hell, Bess, would you still tell me to sit down if I was in bed? Even the squirrels and birds aren't awake yet. I woke about an hour ago, knowing something was wrong." Then Charles's voice changed, it grew softer, almost pleading when he said, "Just tell me, and I'll deal with it."
Charles listened, the color draining from his face. Now, he thought, I really am going to die. I really am. The voice nudged him for a response twice before he could make his tongue work. "I heard it all. Thank you for calling me. Yes. Yes, I will be ready." The special phone went back into his pocket.
In a daze, Charles walked back to the main house on leaden feet to his bedroom, where he packed a bag in the dark. He looked down at Myra, who was still sleeping soundly. He wanted to touch her, wake her, to tell her ... so many things. Things he didn't understand. Instead, he left the room as quietly as he'd entered it.
Across the compound, Annie, on one of her nocturnal trips around the house she lived in, saw the lights go on in the main house. It wasn't all that unusual to see the main house lit up in the wee hours of the morning. Charles was a notorious nonsleeper, often working through the night, especially if they were on a mission. He was a master at those ten-minute power naps the media touted. But something prickled at the back of her neck, right between her shoulder blades. She always referred to the feeling as her own personal warning system. She didn't stop to think as she put on a robe and slippers and quietly left the house. She walked across the compound and up the steps to the main house.
Quietly opening the door, Annie walked out to the kitchen, where Charles was sitting on a kitchen stool, staring into space. To her mind's eye, he looked terrible. She poured coffee and sat down on the opposite stool. That was when she saw the bulging duffel bag.
Annie's stomach muscles crunched into a knot. She didn't bother beating around the bush. "Where are you going, Charles? It's not even light out yet. Were you going to leave us a note or just ... disappear? Does Myra know you're leaving? Of course she doesn't, or she'd be here in the kitchen with us. You need to say something, Charles, and you need to say it now."
"I ... I have to go away, Annie. I'm not sure when I'll be back or even if I will be back. I had some ... Well, let's just say I had some disturbing news that I have to act upon immediately, and there was no time ... What I mean is ... "
"You're sitting here right now. I am sitting here right now. That means to me that you had time to wake Myra, wake all of us, to tell us whatever the hell is going on with you. What does that mean, you don't know if you will come back? Exactly and precisely, what does that mean? What are you waiting for? Ah, a helicopter, right? Are you going to tell me or not?"
Charles looked down at his watch. He had eleven minutes until the British helicopter set down on the mountain. "Fetch the others, Annie, but be quick. I just have eleven minutes."
Annie ran. She rang the bell on the front porch of the cabin she lived in with the girls. She shouted to them to meet her in the kitchen of the big house, then ran, stumbling to Myra's room, where she literally pulled her from the bed.
"Get up and dress, quick, Myra. Charles is packed and ready to leave. A helicopter is coming, and he said he might never come back. Get with it, Myra, stop staring at me like a lunatic. Dress! That's a goddamn order. Don't forget your pearls," she added as an afterthought as she raced out of the room. That was a stupid thing to say; Myra was never dressed until the pearls were around her neck.
Annie arrived back at the kitchen just as the others stumbled across the dining room in various modes of dress. Myra was the last one in, sloppily dressed in a sweat suit. She was trying to smooth down her hair as she looked around in a daze. Then both hands flew to the pearls around her neck.
"Eight minutes and counting," Annie said breathlessly. "Go for it, Charles. The highlights, since time is short. We can fill in the blanks ourselves."
"What's going on?" Myra demanded, an edge to her voice as she eyed the bulging duffel bag at Charles's feet. Her hands feathered the pearls at her neck, a sure sign that she was agitated.
"I had a disturbing phone call from ... from a friend across the pond a little while ago. It seems my son was in a plane crash and is in extreme danger."
"Son! What son?" Myra screeched at the top of her lungs.
The others chimed in, wanting to know why he'd never mentioned a son.
Charles stiffened. "You weren't told because I didn't know I had a son until two hours ago. A long time ago, when I was just a lad, there was a young lady ... It's a long story. I was a commoner, she wasn't. I left to go on to other things, and I assumed she went back to her family in South Africa. Not only do I have a son and a daughter-in-law, I have three grandchildren. None of whom I knew about. It seems my son wanted it that way on orders from his mother, who is deceased.
"I have to go. I want you all to understand I have no other choice."
Overhead, the solid whump-whump of the helicopter could be heard.
"And you expect me to believe that?" Myra shouted, tears rolling down her cheeks.
Charles's tormented voice hung in the room like a death knell. "Yes, Myra, I do expect you to believe that. Because it's true, and I've never lied to you. I have to say good-bye now. I'll be in touch when I can."
Speechless, the women just stared at Charles as he bent to pick up his duffel bag.
"Don't bother getting in touch and don't bother coming back," Myra said coldly, the tears drying on her cheeks as she turned away to stare out the kitchen window at the darkness outside.
"Myra ... please ... try to understand ..." When he realized Myra was not going to back down, Charles let his shoulders slump. He started toward the door. A second later he was gone, the door closing softly behind him. There was a sense of finality to the sound.
The women rushed to Myra, all of them babbling and jabbering, but it was Annie who grabbed hold of Myra's shoulders and shook her like a rag doll. "Don't be a fool, Myra. Are you out of your mind? That man needs you right now, the way you needed him when Barbara died. Hurry, you can fight with him on the flight. If you don't go you'll regret it for the rest of your life. Go!"
The others pushed Myra toward the door. "But I'm not dressed ... he lied to me ... Well, maybe he didn't lie but he should have woken me to tell me ... I can't just ... go. I need my things."
"You don't need your things. You have your pearls, you don't need anything else," Annie shouted to be heard over the landing aircraft. "Run, Myra!"
The women raced from the room, out onto the porch, down the steps, across the compound as they half-dragged and half-pulled Myra to the helicopter pad. Somehow they managed to catch up to Charles, who was so stunned that he stopped in his tracks, his arms extended to clasp Myra to his chest.
The other Sisters stood in a huddle, the wind from the helicopter blades almost blowing the hair off their heads. They waved furiously, shouting words that couldn't be heard.
When the bird in the sky was just a speck, they trudged back to the main cabin, Annie in the lead.
Back in the kitchen, they fell to their assigned tasks and within minutes they had breakfast on the table.
"Eat! You know Charles's rule: first we eat, then we talk," Annie ordered.
The Sisters made a valiant effort to eat the pancakes and eggs, but for the most part all they did was stir the food around on their plates. Murphy and Grady waited patiently, knowing the food would find its way into their food bowls.
The minute the table was cleared and the dishwasher was humming, Isabelle poured fresh coffee. "Let's talk," she said as she plopped down in her chair.
"Charles has a family he didn't know about. How is that possible? Charles knows everything. How could he be ignorant of an entire family? If it was a secret, how did Her Majesty know about it?"
Something funny was going on, they finally agreed when all the questions they asked one another had no answers.
The Sisters' concern turned to themselves.
"We're rudderless. There's no one at the helm. What are we supposed to do?" Kathryn demanded.
"It's not exactly like we're busy," Nikki said. "We're missionless, if there is such a word, at the moment."
"Yes, but what if something comes up? What do we do then?" Alexis asked. "And I hesitate to mention this, but we haven't heard a word from our president-elect and the pardon she promised us. Maybe this is a good time to, you know, sort of look into it."
"Why don't we have a party?" Yoko suggested. "We can invite Lizzie, Maggie, Jack, and Harry, and anyone else we think it is safe to invite."
"That's definitely out of the question. That's one of Charles's rules. We can't go against it, as much as I would love to have some fun and see Jack," Nikki said.
"So ... we just sit here on this damn mountain and wait to see if Charles comes back. He said straight out he might not return. We need to make some plans," Kathryn said.
"Girls! We are not rudderless. I am, as of this moment, appointing myself as our new PM and will take the helm," Annie said.
Her Sisters laughed. "Annie, they only have prime ministers in England. You can't be a PM," Alexis said.
"No, no, no. I didn't mean prime minister. I meant point man. Or, in this case, PW, which means point woman. I considered saying point person, but PP doesn't seem quite right."
A couple of the girls snickered.
"That's another way of saying I'm taking charge! If there are any dissenters, now is the time to ... uh ... dissent."
A rousing chorus of yahs echoed in the kitchen just as Annie's cell phone rang. The Sisters looked at one another, their eyes full of questions. Annie put the specially encrypted phone to her ear, murmured a greeting, and then listened to the excited voice on the other end of the line.
Annie's expression went from disbelief to utter disbelief when she said, "Pearl, I have my own crisis right here on the mountain, and I can't get excited about what's going on in Utah. Besides, it isn't even light out, so it has to be around three o'clock in Utah, which raises the question: What the hell are you doing out there on some back road in the middle of nowhere at this hour of the night? I'll get back to you when I have time."
"What? What?" the other Sisters demanded.
Annie shrugged. "Like I know. I could barely understand her. Somebody's bus broke down. Not Pearl's."
Annie's phone rang again, then Nikki's pealed. Yoko pulled her phone out of the pocket of her robe just as it rang.
"Will someone answer the damn phones already?" Kathryn blasted.
Everyone started talking at once, on the phones and among themselves.
Five minutes later the Sisters were pacing.
"I'd say Pearl does have a crisis. But, I don't see how we can help," Nikki said.
Annie's phone rang again. She barked a greeting, then said, "We're discussing it now, Pearl. What do you mean, what should you do? Sing songs. Play games. That's what we used to do when our parents took us for buggy rides a hundred years ago. I'll get back to you."
Excerpted from Under the Radar by FERN MICHAELS. Copyright © 2009 Fern Michaels. Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
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