Vanishing Act, page 1
Books by Fern Michaels
Mr. and Miss Anonymous
Up Close and Personal
Fool Me Once
The Future Scrolls
What You Wish For
The Guest List
Listen to Your Heart
The Sisterhood Novels:
Under the Radar
Hide and Seek
Comfort and Joy
Sugar and Spice
Let It Snow
A Gift of Joy
Five Golden Rings
Deck the Halls
Jingle All the Way
Published by Kensington Publishing Corporation
KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP.
Five Years Earlier
It was a beautiful restaurant, beautifully decorated with well-dressed diners, discreet service, and ambience that had no equal. It was the kind of restaurant where there were no prices on the parchment menus because if you had to ask the price, you didn’t belong in The Palm, or so said the owner. Not the Palm Restaurant in New York. This was the Palm Restaurant in Atlanta, Georgia. On Peachtree Road. A hundred-year-old eatery passed down through multiple generations of the same family. When people talked about this particular restaurant, they always managed to mention Gone With the Wind in the same breath.
Plain and simple, it was a place to be seen. Not necessarily heard.
Not that the young couple wanted to be seen. Or heard, for that matter. They didn’t. They were there because they were celebrating the possibility of a business venture, and what better place than the Palm? Years from now, no one would remember that the couple had been there drinking priceless wine, eating gourmet food served on the finest china, and drinking superb champagne from exquisite crystal flutes.
The woman was striking, the kind of woman men turned to for a second look, the kind of woman other women looked at and sighed, wishing they looked more like her. She was a Wharton graduate. Her professors had given her glowing recommendations, assuring all and sundry that she would go far in the world of finance. She believed them implicitly.
The young man looked athletic, the boy next door, clear complexion, sandy hair. Tall, at six-two, a hundred and eighty pounds. He, too, was a Wharton graduate. He also dressed well—and women stared openly, men took a quick look and turned away, vowing to do something about their receding hairlines and paunches.
They looked like the perfect couple, but they weren’t really a couple in the true sense of the word. Partners was more like it, but in time they would drift together, not out of passion but out of need.
The man was fearless.
The woman was a worrier.
They were not compatible.
The only real thing they shared was their mutual greed.
The woman held her champagne flute aloft and smiled. The man clinked his flute against hers and liked the sound. A clear ping of crystal.
“So, is it a deal or not?” the woman asked.
“It has flaws.”
“Every plan has flaws. Flaws can be corrected,” the woman said.
“That’s true. I’m inclined to go along with it. But I think I need some reassurance.”
The woman set down her glass and reached over for her clutch bag. It was small and glittery and gold in color. She opened it. There was only one thing in the small bag. She withdrew the little packet and slid it across the table.
The man blinked, then blinked again as he looked inside the dark blue covers. At first he thought he was looking at a small stack of passports. What he was really looking at was a pile of old-fashioned bankbooks. Something in his brain clicked as he calculated the last stamped numbers. He pushed the little stack back toward the woman. She, in turn, deposited them in their nest inside the clutch bag.
“There’s over one million dollars on those books.”
“And I did it all myself. Imagine what we could do together. In five years, we could have a hundred times that amount of money. Offshore, of course. You look nervous,” the woman said.
The man sipped his champagne. “Only a fool wouldn’t be nervous. I’m not a fool. What you’re saying is that you require my organizational skills to continue, is that it?”
She hated to admit it, but she said, “Yes, that’s what I’m saying.”
The man remained silent long enough that the woman had to prod him. “It’s risky,” he said.
“Everything in life involves risk,” she said, finishing her champagne.
The waiter approached the table and poured more. She nodded her thanks.
The man raised his glass, smiled, and clinked it against hers. “All right…partner.”
“There is one thing,” the woman added. The man’s eyebrows lifted. “This is a five-year project, not one day longer. We need to agree on that right now. On December thirty-first, five years from now, our assets are divided equally. You go your way, I go my way. If you don’t agree to it, there’s no reason for us to stay here to eat the meal we ordered. I’ll leave now, and you can pay the check.”
“Why five years?”
“Because that’s my time line, my deadline.”
The man shrugged. “Okay. Should we shake hands or something?”
The woman reached into the pocket of her suit jacket and withdrew a tape recorder that was no bigger than a credit card. She smiled. “It’s on record. We don’t need to shake hands. Oh, look, here comes our food!”
An hour later, just as they were finishing their meal, the man asked, “Aren’t you forgetting something?”
The woman twirled a strand of her hair as she stared across the table at the man she’d agreed to partner with. Her eyes narrowed slightly. “I don’t think so.” She let go of the hair between her fingers and started to crunch up her napkin and gather up her purse.
“What about the…?”
The woman froze in position. “Do not go there. I presented the deal to you, and you accepted it. There are no other perks. That’s another way of saying w
The man wasn’t about to give up. “But—”
“There are no buts. Any other operations I have going on are solely mine. I mentioned them only to show you that the possibilities are endless.” She was fast losing patience with her dinner companion. “Well?”
The man still wasn’t about to give up. “Can we address this at some later point?”
“No. This is the end of it.” She could tell by the man’s expression that it was not the end of it. She sighed. Greed was the most powerful motivator in the world. She was on her feet and walking toward the door. Like I’ll really share my little gold mine with someone like him.
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.
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.
FERN MICHAELS SERIES:
Other author's books:
- Hot ShotSafe and SoundFar and AwayDeep Harbor3. Vendetta11. Collateral Damage15. Vanishing ActTo Have and to Hold
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