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By FERN MICHAELS
KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP.Copyright © 2009 Fern Michaels
All rights reserved.
The day was hot and sultry, the sun blistering in the bright blue cloudless sky. Even the birds that usually chirped a greeting when the Sisters appeared poolside seemed to have gone for cover in the cool, tall pines on Big Pine Mountain.
"I can't believe this heat! It's only July, and we're on a mountain!" Alexis said as she fanned herself with the book she'd been reading. "It's a good thing we aren't on a mission. We'd disintegrate."
Nikki stood up, a glorious nymph in a simple one-piece pearl-white swimsuit, and headed for the diving board. "Don't even say the word 'mission,' Alexis. We're on hiatus. My brain has gone to sleep," she shouted over her shoulder.
The Sisters watched Nikki as she danced her way to the end of the diving board. She bounced up, then hit the water, barely making a ripple. A perfect dive that would have been the envy of any Olympic diver who might have seen it.
After Nikki — a glorious bronzed creature — surfaced, she swam to the far side of the pool, climbed out, and walked back to the chair that sat under a monster outdoor umbrella. She immediately started to lather on an SPF 35 sunblock.
Yoko appeared out of nowhere carrying a huge tray, with plastic cups and a frosty pitcher of lemonade.
"What's for dinner?" Kathryn asked.
"Whatever it is, it better be slap-down delicious," Annie warned.
"Then you better get on the stick, my dear, since it is your turn to cook," Myra said with a straight face.
The wind taken out of her sails, Annie got up and headed toward the main building. "Don't you all be talking about my sagging ass while I'm gone," she tossed back.
"Don't worry, dear, when it gets down to your knees it will be time enough to talk about your derriere."
The Sisters giggled as Annie flipped her friend the bird and continued her march to the kitchen.
"Slap-down delicious! I wonder what she'll whip up," Isabelle said.
"Weenies on the grill. Wanna bet? And, she'll talk the whole time about how slap-down delicious they are," Yoko said, laughing. "We had weenies twice last week. I hate it when Annie cooks. A very nice shrimp stir-fry with jasmine rice would be nice."
"With a light, fluffy lemon pie or maybe a pineapple cake for dessert," Kathryn said.
"I'd settle for a corned beef on rye with a ton of mustard," Nikki said.
"Well, none of that is going to happen unless we get up, go to the kitchen, and toss those weenies I know she's going to make down the garbage disposal," Alexis said.
"We could go in and help," Myra said hesitantly.
"We could, couldn't we," Nikki said, making no move to get up.
No one else moved either.
No one said a word.
Because it was suddenly so silent, the Sisters were able to hear the gears of the cable car as it descended the mountain. Suddenly realizing that the cable car was going down, the Sisters looked at one another.
They moved then as one, racing to the main building, where the gun cabinet was located. Within seconds, Nikki had it opened and was handing each Sister her weapon. In bathing suits and bare feet, they ran out of the building, across the compound, and stopped only when Annie shouted for them to wait as she flew down the steps, gun in hand and a string of hot dogs dangling around her neck.
"Jack's in court," Nikki said. "I just talked to him at lunchtime."
"Harry's at Quantico," Yoko said.
"Bert is at the White House having lunch with the president," Kathryn said.
Alexis and Isabelle looked at one another and shrugged before Alexis finally said, "Joe Espinosa is on assignment in Baltimore."
"Lizzie?" Annie asked.
"She's in Las Vegas. She checked in early this morning," Myra said.
"Nellie and Elias went to Virginia to see Elias's new grandchild," Isabelle said.
"Then some stranger is on his or her way up the mountain," Annie, the best shot of them all, said. "Wait a minute, what about Maggie?"
"She and Ted went to Nantucket for a long weekend," Nikki volunteered.
"Then it has to be someone who knows us, knows about the cable car, and knows about the switch at the bottom of the mountain," Myra said. "Maybe we should stop the car halfway up until we decide who it is."
"But if someone knows about the car and managed to get it to the bottom, they know about the safety switch inside," Kathryn said. "We should cut the power! As you can see, the dogs aren't real happy. Otherwise, they'd have gobbled those weenies, and Annie would be flat on the ground."
The Sisters looked down at the two dogs belonging to Kathryn and Alexis, then to Annie and her necklace of hot dogs. As the two dogs pranced on and off the platform that housed the cable car when it was inactive, they snarled and pawed the ground.
"C'mon, c'mon, someone make a decision here," Kathryn hissed. "The car is coming up. Now, goddamn it!"
"Wait two minutes and cut the power," Myra said calmly.
Kathryn raced to the platform, her index finger on the master switch. "Tell me when, Myra."
Myra looked down at the oversize watch on her wrist with the glow-in-the-dark numbers. One hundred and seventeen seconds later, she said, "Now!"
The dogs went silent, running to their mistresses and panting as though to say, What now?
The Sisters looked at one another.
"I suppose we can hold out longer than the person in the cable car. We need to make a decision here," Nikki said.
Annie waved her gun. "Unless there are seven people in that cable car, I'd say we outnumber our visitors."
"Feds? CIA?" Alexis demanded.
Myra shook her head. "Bert would have let us know if anyone at the Bureau was looking at us. I was thinking more like Secret Service, but even that's a bit of a stretch. It is entirely possible some hunter, some stranger, stumbled over the hidden switch and is just exploring for a look-see."
Annie made an unladylike sound. "If you believe that, Myra, I am going to strangle you with this string of hot dogs."
"At least then we wouldn't have to eat them," Myra quipped.
For the first time, the two dogs seemed to get the scent of the wieners wrapped around Annie's neck. As she broke off the weenies and handed them out, she was suddenly their new best friend.
"How long are we going to stand here in the boiling sun?" Yoko asked as she swiped at her forehead with the inside of her arm. "I say we let the car come all the way up but stop it before it hits the pad. Let the passenger swing over the side of the mountain. We'll still be in control."
Myra thought about that for a moment before she looked at Annie and nodded. Kathryn flicked the switch that turned the power back on. They all held their breath as the cable car started upward, the gears protesting at the status change.
Myra looked down at the dogs quivering at her knees. Their ears were flat against their heads, the fur on the nape of their necks standing straight up and bristling, their tails between their legs. A trifecta that could only mean trouble.
Up high, a fluffy cloud bank sailed past, momentarily blotting out the orange ball of the sun. Someone sighed.
Annie looked at her fellow Sisters and liked what she was seeing. Then she looked at their hands. Steady as rocks. She took a moment to wonder how loud the sound would be this high on the mountain if all seven guns went off at the same time. Pretty damn loud, she decided.
Myra licked her lips. "Turn off the power now, Kathryn."
Kathryn turned the switch. The sound of the cable car's grinding gears screeched so loud that the dogs howled. The Sisters rushed to the platform and peered over the side. But all they could see was the top of the cable car and the grille on the side. The identity of the occupant was still in doubt.
"How about if we announce ourselves?" Annie whispered. The others looked at her, their eyes questioning. "You know, a shot over the bow, so to speak. In this case, I think I can shave it pretty close to the grille. If you like, I can shoot off the lock. Of course, if I do that, the person inside could fall out. Not that we care, but we should take a vote!"
Knowing what a crack shot Annie was, the Sisters as one decided it was a no-brainer.
"Do it, dear, we don't need to vote," Myra said.
Annie did it. Sparks flew, and the roar of outrage that erupted from inside the cable car made the Sisters step back and blink.
"Charles!" they shouted in unison.
One look at Myra's expression kept the guns in their hands steady as Kathryn turned the power switch back on. They all watched with narrowed eyes as the car slid into its nest, the door swinging wildly back and forth.CHAPTER 2
Charles Martin stood rooted to the floor of the cable car. He dropped his duffel bag and raised his hands as he eyed his welcoming committee with a jaundiced eye. Whatever he had been expecting, this definitely wasn't it. He couldn't remember the last time he'd seen so much exposed bronzed oiled skin. Nor had seven women ever gotten the drop on him. One part of him was pleased to see that the guns were steady even though they were aimed at every part of his body. He knew Annie could blow his head off in the blink of an eye. Myra would aim for his knee and hit the pine tree fifty feet away. The others would hit their mark, and he'd wind up dead as a doornail. Then they'd bundle him up and toss him off the mountain. Cheerfully toss him off the mountain.
He knew they were all waiting for him to say something. Anything that would make this little scenario easier. For them. Not for him. He hated the look he was seeing on Myra's face.
Murphy and Grady pawed the ground but stayed near the Sisters. They could not understand these strange goings-on. Charles was the guy who had slipped them bacon, fed them twice a day, and even gave them root beer on special occasions. And he was always good for a belly rub before going to bed. He had a good throwing arm, too, and would throw the sticks for them to retrieve for hours on end. They whimpered in unison, hoping for a kind word. They whimpered even louder when nothing of the kind happened.
Charles had known this little reunion wasn't going to be easy, but he didn't think it was going to be quite so devastating. He cleared his throat. "The way I see it, ladies, is this. I have two choices here — three, actually. One, I can pick up my bag and leave and apologize for this unexpected visit. Two, I can pick up my bag and go to my quarters, and we'll pick up where we left off. Three, you can riddle my body with bullets and toss me over the mountain. Decide, ladies. I'm very tired right now and in no mood to remain in limbo."
Annie risked a glance at Myra, who seemed to be in a trance. "An explanation would go a long way in helping us make our decision."
"As much as I would like to provide one, Annie, I'm afraid that I can't. Do you know you have a string of frankfurters hanging around your neck?"
Annie ignored the question. "Can't or won't?" Annie snapped.
"Both!" Charles snapped in return.
"You think you can just waltz back to this mountain and pick up where you left off with no explanations? You left us flat, to fend for ourselves," Kathryn screeched, her voice carrying over the mountain. "Your conduct is ... was ... unacceptable regardless of the circumstances. We deserved more, Charles," she continued to screech. Murphy reared up and pawed at his mistress's leg. "I-don't-think-so!"
"You want us to trust you, but you don't trust us? That's not how it works, Charles," Nikki said, frost dripping from her words. "Kathryn is right, your behavior is unacceptable."
"My situation is different from yours, Nikki. I have to answer to Her Majesty. In the past, you only had to answer to me. If I could, I would answer all your questions. Unfortunately, I am duty-bound to say nothing."
Myra squared her shoulders and leveled the gun in her hand. "NTK, is that it? If there is no trust on both sides, then it doesn't work. I think I'm speaking for the Sisterhood when I say need-to-know doesn't work for us."
Charles looked at his ladylove and noticed that she wasn't wearing her pearls. Chains with circles draped her neck. Annie was wearing the same set of chains. He didn't like this new look. Myra wasn't Myra without her beloved heirloom pearls. He realized at that moment that things had indeed changed here on the mountain since he'd left.
Isabelle stepped forward. "We found out the hard way that we don't need you. Back in the day, we may have wanted you because you made it easier with your meticulous planning. We managed two missions. And even though we bumbled our way through them, we are standing here in front of you, guns drawn. On you! There is no reason to assume we cannot bumble our way through more missions. Actually, Charlie, we're getting rather adept at meticulous planning."
"You used my people. My people, ladies," Charles said quietly.
"Your people are mercenaries, Charles. Mercenaries go where the money is. We have the money. I rest my case," Alexis replied.
Charles took his time as he looked from one to the other, then down at his bag. Without another word, he picked up his bag and turned around to flick the power switch that would connect the power to the cable car. All he had to do was get in and then hit a second switch that would send the cable car to the bottom of the mountain. "Then I guess there's nothing more to say. Good-bye, ladies."
Yoko stepped forward but not before she clicked the safety on her gun. Her hand dropped to her side. "I haven't spoken yet, Charles. I would like you to stay," she said softly.
Charles turned back to face the women. He smiled, and his tone matched Yoko's when he said, "I appreciate your vote, but I can't stay unless it's unanimous."
The women watched in horror as Charles pressed the main switch, not realizing he had just turned the power off. Then he sat down inside on the little bench so he could hold the door closed. When he realized his mistake, he stretched out a long arm to hit the power switch. He was going, leaving them again. Murphy and Grady howled. A lone tear rolled down Myra's cheek.
"Mom, don't let him go. If he goes, he will NEVER come back. You have to take Charles on faith. You know that. Pride, Mummie, is a terrible thing. Hurry, Mummie, hurry!"
Myra whirled around as she tried to reconcile what she was hearing from her spirit daughter and at the same time saw Charles reaching for the switch that would activate the cable car and take him to the bottom of the mountain. She literally leaped past the two dogs and pulled Charles's hand away from making contact with the switch. "We want you to stay, Charles."
The collective sigh behind her told Myra all she needed to know. The girls wanted Charles to stay but were willing to send him packing, thinking it was what she wanted. When she stepped back, she felt Annie's arm go around her shoulder. It felt so comforting that she wanted to close her eyes and go to sleep.
"Will you get rid of those weenies already? Charles will be preparing dinner this evening," was all Myra could think of to say.
Annie laughed as she peeled the string of weenies from around her neck and handed them all out to the dogs, who were waiting politely for the rest of their unorthodox early dinner.
Charles stepped out of the cable car and started to walk toward the main building, the girls following behind. Yoko was the last in line, her head down.
"Honey, I admire your courage," Annie said to her.
"I'm sorry, Yoko. I should have been the one to speak up to tell Charles to stay," Myra said. "It's refreshing to see you for once have the courage of your convictions. I don't know what we all thought we were trying to prove back there," she went on, waving her hand behind her, "other than to make Charles sweat and punish him in some way. It's my fault entirely. The others thought I wanted to send Charles packing, and they went along with it."
"We need Charles," Yoko said softly.
"Yes, we do," Annie said forcefully.
"I agree," Myra said. "But we are going to have a few new rules this time around."
"Do you believe Charles is not allowed to talk about whatever it was that went on over there by orders of Her Majesty, or was he pulling our leg?" Annie asked fretfully.
"Charles never lies. Rather than tell a lie, he simply says nothing. The fact that he even offered up the explanation makes it all ring true. Whatever went on over there, we are never going to know about it, so we had better get used to the idea," Myra said.
"Does that mean you are moving back into the main house, Myra?" Annie asked.
Excerpted from Vanishing Act by FERN MICHAELS. Copyright © 2009 Fern Michaels. Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
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