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|Hachette Digital, Inc.
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Out of the Night
By Robin T. Popp
Warner ForeverCopyright © 2005 Robin T. Popp
All right reserved.
Chapter OneGreat tongues of fire leaped from the structure, more brilliant against the night sky than any fireworks display; beautiful, mesmerizing-and deadly. Lanie Weber stood close, feeling the heat beat at her, her skin burning despite the protection of her gear.
"Lanie's crew takes left; Marcus-center. We'll take right. Let's go." The fire chief's muted voice carried to her over the roaring of the flames, and she nodded to let him know she'd heard.
With the fire hose cradled along her right arm, Lanie gripped the nozzle securely with both hands. Her second lineman braced her with his elbow, offering resistance against the pressure of the water, which tried to propel her backward as soon as the water started to flow.
Lanie adjusted the stream until a focused, narrow torrent shot forth. She concentrated on the left side of the structure, her only goal to contain the flames and protect the exposure of the house next door, because it was too late to save the one-story home. At least no one had been hurt.
Though she couldn't hear anything beyond the noise of the fire, Lanie was aware of the family's devastation. In their minds, they had lost everything, but Lanie knew what real loss was. Houses, clothes, possessions-those things could be replaced. The loss of a loved one ...
Shying away from the thought, she turned her full attention back to fighting the blaze. After ten years as a volunteer firefighter, the heat of the flames, the acrid smell of smoke, the camaraderie of the other volunteers, even the mechanics of putting out the fire-these things were familiar to her. Tonight, of all nights, she needed the comfort of familiarity about her.
Hours later, Lanie shut off the water for the last time and eased the hose to the ground. Leaving it to the rookies, she walked to her truck, the evening's adrenaline rush long since spent. It had been a long mop-up, and the sun was already climbing high in the sky. Removing her helmet, she tossed it into the back, then opened her jacket and welcomed the cool breeze against her hot, sweaty body.
"Don't you have a flight to catch?" The chief came to stand next to her, angling his raised arm to show her the time on his watch.
"Yeah, I guess so." Her tone sounded as weary as she felt. She briefly considered canceling, but arrangements were already made.
"Thanks for coming," he added. "It would have been a lot tougher without you here."
She shrugged. "I didn't feel like sitting at home last night anyway, and three calls in a row kept me from dwelling on other things, you know?"
He nodded, wrapped an arm around her shoulders, gave her a fatherly hug, and then walked off, leaving her to climb into her truck and drive off to face her future- alone.
Truly alone, because her father was dead. She knew the pain of his loss would hit sooner or later, but right now, she felt numb. It was like standing on the precipice of a great, bottomless chasm while the wind beat at her, pushing her until, eventually, she knew she would fall. But not yet. There was too much to do.
Arriving home, she saw the light blinking on her answering machine. Playing the message, she heard her employer's sympathetic voice urging her to take off as much time as she needed. Grateful, she showered and changed into fresh clothes, then saw that it was well after noon. She'd been too depressed last night to eat dinner and too busy fighting fires all morning for breakfast. Now there was no time for lunch.
Grabbing her duffel bag, she set the security alarm on her house and climbed back into her truck, navigating the Houston traffic until she was on the freeway headed out of town. She tried to focus on the road, but her thoughts pulled her back to a faded but never forgotten memory.
She was twelve years old, and her father had left her in the cold, sterile waiting room of the city morgue while he went in, alone, to identify her mother's body. He'd not wanted Lanie to carry the image of her mother's battered body with her for the rest of her life, wanting her, instead, to remember her mother as she'd last seen her-energetic, happy, and full of love and vitality.
Lanie had remembered her that way. So much so that for years, she'd suffered from the belief that her mother's death was all a huge mistake; that her father had identified the wrong body and any day now, her mother would return-because a woman so full of life would never have surrendered to death.
Now, sixteen years later, she was having to accept a loved one's death again. This time would be different, she vowed. This time, there would be closure. Yesterday afternoon, when she'd gotten the phone call from Admiral Charles Winslow about her father's accident, she'd been insistent. If her father was dead, then she wanted to see the body, and she didn't care how difficult or impossible it was to arrange. If her father's body couldn't be flown back into the United States, then she would go to South America.
Fortunately, the admiral had understood. A friend of the family for years, "Uncle" Charles was the one who'd talked her father into accepting the top secret research position earlier that year. He was also the one to suggest the private charter company that would fly her to the town of Taribu in the northern part of the Amazon, making the arrangements himself.
Bringing her thoughts back to the present, Lanie concentrated on driving. Three hours later, she steered her truck onto a narrow side road and drove for several minutes before spotting the gate with the large ANYTIME-DEY OR KNIGHT PRIVATE CHARTERS sign across the top. Pulling across the dirt lot, she parked in front of the plain white building that seemed so out of place in the middle of the endless open stretch of land. Behind it were two smaller buildings.
Getting out, Lanie was struck by the absolute silence. She found herself questioning the wisdom of driving out here alone, much less traveling alone to South America. Trying to discount her sense of foreboding as nothing more than extreme fatigue and an acknowledged fear of flying, she took a deep breath and headed inside the building.
"Hi." A young woman, almost wearing a low-cut tank top and tight blue-jean shorts, greeted her with a hundredwatt smile and eyes as warm as spiced ginger. "You must be Ms. Weber."
Lanie tried to return her smile, but couldn't quite manage it. "That's me."
"We spoke yesterday. I'm Sandra." She walked behind a counter and picked up a thin stack of papers that she quickly leafed through. "Everything seems to be in order. I've got you flying to Taribu today with a return trip day after tomorrow-is that correct?"
Lanie walked closer so she wouldn't feel like she was yelling across the room. "That's right. Did you have any problems getting the authorization from Admiral Winslow?"
"No, you're all set." She picked up a two-way radio and spoke into it. "Mac, your charter is here." There was a crackling of some response a moment later that made Sandra smile. Then she turned her attention back to Lanie. "Mac'll be here in a second. Can I get you something while you wait? No? Okay, if you change your mind, just holler. I'll be in back." She gestured to the door behind her, replaced the stack of papers on the counter with a smile, and then disappeared through the door.
Lanie wandered to the far wall where she took a seat in one of the chairs. The clock above her showed that she had less than an hour before her scheduled departure, and conflicting emotions warred inside her: grief, depression, anxiety. She glanced out the side window, hoping to distract herself, and spotted a single white jet. Compared to the commercial planes she was used to, it was a toy- surely incapable of the long flight to Taribu. Wherever the hell that is. Her ignorance slammed into her like a fist. She should have shown more interest in her father's work. Maybe if she had ...
No, he still would have gone, and in her heart she knew he'd understood. How many years had he dragged her all over the place in pursuit of his studies? The remote wilderness areas of Florida, the mountain regions of Washington, the desert plains of southwest Texas-even the impoverished farmlands of Puerto Rico.
She'd helped him research and catalog his findings to the extent that becoming a librarian seemed a natural choice of careers for her when the time came. She'd also liked the stability of staying in one place while attending college. Later, having settled in with the local fire department and taken a job with the university library, her days of traveling with her father stopped for good. She'd wanted her own life.
The creaking of a screen door being opened, followed immediately by the sound of it slamming shut, broke into her recriminations. She looked up to see a man walking toward her, tall and muscular, with broad shoulders. His features were dark, and he moved with the ease of a large jungle cat stalking its prey. Only the slight limp kept him from appearing totally predatory. As he drew closer, Lanie saw that the thick, nearly black waves of his hair fell so long, the ends brushed the back of his neck. The sun had tanned his skin to a rich, healthy glow and his dark chocolate-brown eyes seemed to miss no detail as they quickly came to rest on her.
"Ms. Weber?" His deep voice washed over her, sending chills racing down her spine and making her suddenly very conscious of her appearance.
"Yes." She fought the urge to run a hand down her hair in order to smooth the errant strands she knew must be sticking out from her head. The smoke from the fire had irritated her eyes, so she'd put on her glasses instead of her contacts and now felt as if she were staring out from behind a thick wall of glass.
"I'm Michael Knight, but folks call me 'Mac.' I'll be your pilot." His outstretched hand caught her attention, and she realized that she'd been gaping at him.
"It's nice to meet you." She took his hand and felt the warm, rough texture of it against her skin. His grip was firm and solid, giving her the impression of controlled strength. This was a man who could handle any situation and remain unfazed.
"We have a long flight ahead of us," he said, releasing her hand so he could glance at his wristwatch. "You understand that we'll have to fly to Brasilia first, since we're not technically a government aircraft. That adds about eight hours to our flight time, plus a short layover to take care of the administrative details."
She nodded, knowing that the unavoidable delays still had her arriving at the research facility long before she'd have been able to through standard commercial means. "Fine, then let me check the flight plan once more and then we'll be on our way." He didn't even wait for her response, but turned and walked behind the counter where he flipped through several sheets of paper.
At that moment, Sandra appeared, moving immediately to his side. "There you are."
"Hey, Babycakes." For the first time since he'd walked into the room, Mac smiled, causing Lanie's breath to catch. He was gorgeous, and Lanie wondered about the nature of his relationship with Babycakes. Were they married? Sleeping together? Just really close friends? The speculation cast her own solitary life into sharp relief. "Time to go."
Mac's announcement sent a spurt of adrenaline shooting through her, and she watched as he leaned down to give Sandra a chaste kiss on the cheek. "Be good while I'm gone."
"That's no fun." Sandra smiled as she returned his hug, but then her tone grew serious when she added, "Be careful, okay?"
"You know me." "That's what worries me."
Mac chuckled as he released her and crossed to the door, which he held open for Lanie to walk through. Outside, he stopped to put on his sunglasses and then glanced at the duffel bag in her hand.
"Where's the rest of your luggage?" "This is it." "Good."
His response was curt, delivered in a cool, distant tone that contradicted the warm laugh he'd just given Babycakes.
Lanie tried to judge his expression, but couldn't see past the image of her own pale, unkempt face reflected in his mirrored lenses. Once again, Lanie was reminded of a predator, studying its prey, and when he moved toward her, she couldn't stop herself from taking a quick step back. His expression changed to one of obvious irritation, and she felt like a fool when all he did was take her bag.
"Follow me. Plane's over here." He walked off, seemingly unconcerned whether she trailed after him or not. Already nervous, she refused to allow this man to intimidate her further. Hurrying so she could fall in step beside him, she tried to ease the situation with conversation. "Admiral Winslow speaks very highly of you."
A grunt was his only response. Undaunted, she tried again.
"Have you known him long?"
He glanced at her, his look telling her that he suffered her questions only because he had no other choice. "Ten years."
"Were you in the Navy?" "Yes."
"But you're not now."
Lanie sighed. She wasn't one of those people who could make conversation easily, and his lack of cooperation was frustrating.
"I'm a librarian." She cringed as soon as the words left her mouth. It made no sense; a random comment born of desperation, and she prayed that he ignored it.
"Really?" His tone revealed his complete lack of interest.
Up ahead, another fifty yards, stood the small white jet she'd spotted from the building. Seeing it up close, it still looked tiny, and another shiver ran down her spine. "How long have you been flying private charters?"
One year? Lanie almost stumbled. Did she really want to fly to a foreign country with a man who'd been flying for only one year? "How long have you been a pilot?" That was maybe the better question, she hoped.
She sighed with relief as they reached the plane and she stopped beside it, waiting for him to open the hatch. "Yo, keep moving."
Lanie jerked to her left, to see Mac staring at her from behind the plane.
"I said, keep moving. We don't have time to waste sightseeing."
Confused, she waved a hand toward the plane. "But isn't this-"
"Our plane?" He gave a short laugh. "Hell, no. I'm not flying a Falcon 2000 into that part of the Amazon." He leaned back and pointed to something she couldn't see, hidden on the other side. "That's what we're flying." With a feeling of dread, Lanie moved to the end of the small white jet and looked beyond it. She turned to stare at Mac in absolute horror and started shaking her head.
"Oh, no, no, no. I am not getting into that ... that ... what is it, anyway?"
"It's a plane-let's go."
She continued to stare. "It's a rotted-out tin can with wings-correction, one wing and a stump. Surely you don't expect me to ride in that? I mean, I can't. I won't."
"Can and will." He put a hand behind her back and gave her a gentle shove. "My instructions from Admiral Winslow are to get you to Taribu with all due haste. I believe those were your orders to him, were they not?" He glanced at her, but didn't wait for an answer as his hand continued to propel her forward.
"The only people flying into Taribu are drug dealers, DEA, and the poor souls trying to make an honest living transporting livestock and workers back and forth between the larger cities."
They were at the plane now, and Lanie saw that it truly was a rusted-out, beat-up old plane. Mac opened the hatch and threw in her bag before turning back to her. "Personally, I don't want the DEA thinking we're drug dealers or the drug dealers thinking we're DEA. So we'll go in looking like the poor souls who have to haul livestock." He waved a hand at the plane and gave her a smile, the first he'd directed her way, and it had a decidedly evil bent to it.
Lanie stepped forward as he jumped on board and saw that the inside looked only slightly safer than the outside.
When she felt his gaze on her, she tipped her head back, blocking the sun with her hand, and gave him a weak smile.
"I'm not going." "You're afraid of flying," he accused her. "Even if I was, I have serious doubts that this thing will actually attain an altitude high enough to constitute flying," she retorted. "But if it does, I assure you, it's not the flying I'm afraid of-it's mechanical failure and, possibly, pilot error."
This time his laugh sounded more genuine. "This is no time to be faint of heart. Man up, Weber. Time's a-wasting."
Man up? She didn't know what she hated more-his macho attitude or his obviously low opinion of her. Deciding it was the latter, she gritted her teeth, took a deep breath, and grabbed the sides of the open hatch to haul herself up.
Once inside, Lanie verified that it was as bad as she'd feared. Unbidden, her thoughts conjured the image of the plane doing a nosedive through the air, engines sputtering erratically and smoke billowing forth. "This thing is a death trap," she muttered, "and we're both going to die before we even make it out of Texas."
"Nice positive attitude," Mac chided, suddenly appearing from out of a cubbyhole near the back of the plane. "Here, drink this. It'll calm your nerves."
"What is it?" She stared at the small Styrofoam cup half full of light amber liquid. "Tequila."
Excerpted from Out of the Night by Robin T. Popp Copyright © 2005 by Robin T. Popp.
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