Manna From Heaven, page 1
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This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places and incidents are products of the authors' imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events or locales or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.
An Original Publication of POCKET BOOK
POCKET BOOKS, a division of Simon & Schuster, Inc. 1230 Avenue of the Americas, New York, NY 10020
"Manna from Heaven" © 2001 by Karen Robards
"Stone Cold" © 2001 by Andrea Kane
"Once in a Blue Moon" © 2001 by Linda Kirchman Anderson
"'Til Death Do Us Part" © 2001 by Marti Robb
All rights reserved, including the right to reproduce this book or portions thereof in any form whatsoever. For information address Pocket Books, 1230 Avenue of the Americas, New York, NY 10020
First Pocket Books printing May 2001
POCKET and colophon are registered trademarks of Simon & Schuster, Inc.
Front cover illustration by Lisa Litwack; photo credits: Yuen Lee/ Photonica; Tony Stone Images
Printed in the U.S.A.
MANNA FROM HEAVEN
ONCE IN A BLUE MOON
TIL DEATH DO US PART
MANNA FROM HEAVEN
THE GREEN GLARE OF THE INSTRUMENT PANEL was the only illumination in the pitch-dark cockpit.
"Ready?" Skeeter Todd stood by the door of the small Cessna, tightening the harness of his parachute. At his feet, perhaps three dozen duffel bags slumped, each equipped with its own parachute.
"Yeah." Jake Crutcher rose from the copilot's seat and moved toward Skeeter, checking his own parachute as he went. Then, in a gesture as automatic as a breath, he rubbed a hand over his chest to make sure that his Glock was still securely holstered. It was.
Skeeter opened the door. Cold night air rushed through the plane's interior. Bracing himself against the sudden gale, Jake went to work helping Skeeter toss the duffel bags out into the night sky. They were flying low, and the specially designed search light was on, making it easy to identify their target a narrow line of grassy fields in the midst of a heavily forested section of western Tennessee. A river ran nearby, and landing their cargo in mat would be a disaster.
"Just think, in about six hours from now I'll be sippin' a cold brew and sittin' in a hot tub with my baby." Skeeter stopped working to grin at Jake. Jake didn't grin back. His expression was grim.
"Like I told you, I don't think dragging your girlfriend into this was a good idea." Jake kept on heaving bags out the door, his booted feet planted wide apart so that he wouldn't slip. Skeeter was twenty-five years old, little more than a kid, a feckless, reckless fool who had no idea of the magnitude of what he'd gotten himself into.
"Laura's okay. I'd trust her with my life. Anyway, I didn't want to leave my truck parked out here for a week. Somebody might have stolen it."
That was so damned stupid that Jake didn't even bother to reply.
"There she is, right on time." Jake's silence either didn't register, or it didn't bother Skeeter. He sounded as cheerfully unconcerned as if he'd arranged for his girlfriend to meet him at a movie. Together, they tossed the last couple of bags over the side. Then Skeeter straightened and gave Jake a mock salute.
"See ya on the ground," Skeeter said, and stepped out the door. At the last second Jake noticed that a duffel bag was tied to Skeeter's waist.
Damned stupid kid, Jake thought, and stepped toward the door. Hanging onto the edge, he glanced down. Skeeter was nowhere in sight. Of course, it was dark as hell, and the kid would have been blown back behind them by the force of the wind. But far below he could see two tiny pinpricks of light that could only be the headlights of Skeeter's approaching truck with the unknown Laura at the wheel.
To get mixed up in something like this, she had to be as big an idiot as Skeeter, Jake thought, and that was saying a lot Shaking his head, he looked up at the pilot.
"I'm outta here," Jake mouthed, knowing the man wouldn't be able to hear over the roaring wind. He waved, and the man waved back.
Then Jake jumped into the vast emptiness of the night, enjoying the sensation of free-falling for the few precious seconds he allowed himself before he jerked his rip cord.
THE LOW, HISSING GROWL was enough to make the hair stand up on the back of Charlie Bates' neck.
Curled on her favorite blue velvet cushion in the passenger seat, Sadie whimpered in sympathy.
"It's okay, girl." Charlie glanced over at the tiny Chihuahua whose liquid brown eyes stared anxiously at her through the dim glow of the reflected headlights. "It can't get out. We're safe."
The cage door rattled violently. Charlie and Sadie exchanged mutually apprehensive looks. Charlie gritted her teeth, forced herself to focus on her driving, and tried not to think about what she was hauling in the back of the Jeep.
Another threatening growl caused her shoulders to rise in an instinctive bid to protect the nape of her neck. Sadie lowered her head, covered her muzzle with both paws, and whimpered again.
The critter in the back was one ticked-off raccoon. As she barreled down the pitch-dark highway toward the state park and animal preserve that was her goal, Charlie listened to it growling and rattling the bars of its cage with growing dismay. At the end of this journey, she was going to have to let the thing out. And she was really, really fond of her slender white fingers with their perfectly manicured nails. To say nothing of her long, creamy and all-too-vulnerable neck.
The things she did to earn a living! She was a singer, for God's sake. Not an animal wrangler. Especially not a wild animal wrangler. A country and western singer, trying her best to make it in Nashville, the New York, New York of the country music world.
An only modestly successful country and western singer, she had to admit. Otherwise she would never have allowed herself to be cajoled into doing this.
"All you have to do is drive the Jeep about a mile inside the park and let the animals in the back go free. What's the big deal about that?" That was how the job had been broached to her.
"And for this I get paid two hundred dollars?" Charlie had responded skeptically.
The persuasion had come from her sister Marisol, who was also her sometime singing partner—when they performed together, they billed themselves as the Sugar Babes—and the new owner, by way of a day job and about ten thousand dollars of carefully saved earnings, of County-wide Critter Ridders. The fledgling business billed itself as being able to rid residences of any and all unwelcome species of wildlife that had for one reason or another decided that sharing a home with humans was not half bad. Usually the humans disagreed, which was where Critter Ridders came in. For the right price, they (at the moment, they consisted of Marisol, her boyfriend Mark Greenberg, and Howie Stubbs, the previous owner, who was training them) would remove and relocate anything. Not kill, but move to a new home in a sylvan setting where creatures of the wild should live. The usually well-to-do homeowners who availed themselves of Critter Ridders' services liked the idea of that. They didn't want to kill Bambi. They just didn't want him living in their garage.
"So what's the catch? We're not talking bears or anything, are we?" Charlie had known her sister
"Squirrels, chipmunks, maybe a bird or a raccoon— no man-eaters, I promise," Marisol had said airily. Then, with a wheedling smile at her sister, she'd added, "Come on, Charlie. Mark and I just want the one night off to celebrate his birthday. Howie's going to pick up the animals and load them for us. All I need you to do is drive. It's not like you have anything better to do. You and Rick go out for Sunday brunch, and then on Wednesday and Friday nights, world without end. This is Thursday. So please?"
Put that way, Charlie's love life sounded positively dull, which she supposed it was. Rick Rozen was a big blond who coached football at St. Xavier High. Their dating schedule had long since settled into a comfortable groove dictated by Rick's need to have everything in life be on a schedule. Charlie was starting to find Rick and his schedule a little boring—all right, a whole lot boring—but he was good-looking and had a good job and, as Marisol pointed out, wouldn't be lacking for offers if Charlie cut him loose. Charlie hadn't even realized that she was thinking about cutting him loose until Marisol said that, but Marisol had, because she knew her little sister pretty darn well, as she frequently pointed out. Charlie's elder by two years, Marisol was, at twenty-nine, a tall, voluptuous, redheaded beauty with the personality of an army general and the determination of a bulldozer. As far as facial features went—oval-shaped, high-cheekboned faces, big blue eyes, delicate noses, wide, full-lipped mouths—Charlie and Marisol looked enough alike to be twins. But Charlie's build was far more slender than her sister's, even taking into account the D-cup implants that Marisol unashamedly admitted to, and Charlie's thick mane of shoulder-length hair was a quieter honey blond. And her personality was nowhere near as forceful as her sister's. Charlie could generally be counted on to go along to get along, a trait which (unless it was benefiting someone else at her expense) Marisol thoroughly approved of.
Only Charlie was getting tired of it. She had always been the good girl in the family to Marisol's bad one, and now everyone expected her to behave that way, and the role was getting old. A touch of excitement in her life would be a good thing. An exciting man in her life would be a good thing. Put it this way: If one suddenly dropped into her lap, she wouldn't turn him down.
Or would she? The truth was, she probably would. If a truly exciting man came into her life he would probably strike her as being too much of a risk. Her choices tended to be safe ones, and exciting was something that happened to someone else, not Charlotte Elizabeth Bates.
Tonight was a case in point. Hanging onto the steering wheel with both hands and leaning slightly forward as she strained to see through the darkness, Charlie cursed her own people-pleaser nature. Even if she ended up getting her throat ripped out by a wrathful raccoon, as at the moment seemed entirely possible, she had no room to complain, she scolded herself. She deserved exactly what she got.
After vowing not to, she'd given into Marisol's entreaties again.
The raccoon snarled and rattled the bars of its cage as forcefully as a convict demanding release. Maybe a raccoon, Marisol had said, oh, so casually. Well, this thing was as big as a bear cub and as mean as a badger. Charlie couldn't help it: Shivering, she glanced in the rearview mirror, which, as the raccoon's cage was wedged in with the others in the cargo area behind the backseat, allowed her to see precisely nothing.
The creature could be loose, and she wouldn't know about it until it leaped on her.
Sadie moaned. Charlie knew just how she felt.
"Just a little bit farther." Charlie realized as she said it that she was trying to comfort herself as much as Sadie. Not that the idea of reaching her destination was precisely comforting. Once there, she had to don the special gloves and mask and overalls that Marisol had provided, lift the cages from the rear cargo compartment of the Jeep, set them on the ground and open the doors.
And then leap back inside the Jeep until the animals chose to vacate the premises, at which point she was supposed to load the empty cages up again and return to home base.
What had she been thinking? Marisol's offer of two hundred dollars for a simple drive into the countryside was beginning to make sense. It was really more in the nature of combat pay.
There were other animals in the back besides the raccoon. A skunk, for one. A ticked-off skunk beat a ticked-off raccoon for sheer unadulterated unpleasantness any time, as Howie had told Charlie with a cackle when she had accepted the keys to the loaded Jeep from him. But this one was tranquilized—Howie informed her proudly that he'd hidden the dose in a section of apple—and peacefully asleep.
So what was she supposed to do when it came time to set it free, Charlie wondered for the first time with a touch of hysteria: Upend the cage and tip the poor drugged creature out beside the road?
She would, she decided, cross that bridge when she came to it.
The rest of her cargo—a possum and its kits, a barn owl, and an eight-foot long black king snake that made her shudder every time she thought about it—were awake, but more or less behaving themselves. Only the raccoon was throwing a hissy fit.
It was just after midnight. The song on the radio crackled, then sputtered away into static. After fiddling with the dial for a moment without success, Charlie turned the radio off. From past visits to the area, she knew that the surrounding mountains blocked all transmissions from here on out, including those of cell phones. Hers, in her purse on the floorboard beneath Sadie, was now useless, which was, she reflected, something she was better off not dwelling on. A small green rectangular sign flashed by: CHEATHAM WILDLIFE MANAGEMENT AREA, ten miles. Thank God, she was almost there.
The two-lane highway was deserted. Although the mountains rose up to scrape the sky to the north and east, this particular stretch of road was relatively flat. Grassy fields interrupted only by the occasional stand of trees stretched endlessly all around. The fast-flowing Cumberland River ran parallel to the road perhaps a half mile away, visible occasionally when a bend in its course brought it closer. The last sign of civilization had been a self-service gas station some fifteen minutes back. Which meant, essentially, that she and Sadie and the zoo in the rear were alone in the wilderness.
Except for the light in the southern sky, that is. Charlie had first noticed it when the Jeep had topped that last rise. At the time, it had been distant, noticeable only because the October night was so very dark, threatening rain, with clouds obscuring any hint of a moon or stars and fog creeping in from the river to cover the low places in the road. The light was beneath the clouds, way low for an airplane if that's what it was, and way bright.
Too bright? she wondered, watching as it drew nearer. And didn't airplane lights shine straight ahead? It almost seemed as if this light was directed at the ground, like a spotlight or a searchlight or something.
The rattling of the raccoon's cage reminded her that she had more immediate problems than a too low, too bright light.
Sadie whined. A glance showed Charlie that the six-pound dog was sitting up now and looking anxiously at her.
"I know. I should keep my eyes on the road." But with the best will in the world to do so, Charlie could not ignore the light. She barely had to lift her eyes from the gleaming surface of the asphalt to see it now. It was closer, brighter, and seemed to be coming straight toward the Jeep. Could it be a UFO?
The thought popped into her mind from the part of her brain that enjoyed X-Files and Stephen King novels, only to be immediately dismissed. She did not believe in UFOs. At least, not when it was daylight and she was within shouting distance of another human being. Tonight, on this deserted stretch of foggy highway with only her tiny dog and a bevy of disgruntled forest friends for company, the existence of UFOs suddenly did not seem quite so farfetched.
It occurred to her that the shining twin beams of her headlights made her about as visible to the craft in the sky as its light made it
Charlie was possessed of a sudden, almost irresistible impulse to douse her lights. Don't be an idiot, she scolded herself. She was not going to spook herself into a crash.
But no matter how hard she tried to focus on the highway to the exclusion of all else, the light was now impossible to ignore. Whatever the flying object was— an airplane or a helicopter were the only possibilities, of course—it was heading straight toward her. In just a few minutes the Jeep would be illuminated by the beam.
Alien abduction were the two words that popped into her head.
Which was ridiculous. She knew it. Casting a nervous glance at her instrument panel to make sure none of the dials were gyrating wildly—she would have had a heart attack there and then if they were—she stepped on the gas. From experience she knew that a thick stand of trees lay not more than two miles ahead.
If she could just scoot beneath the trees before the light reached her, she would be safe—wouldn't she?
She wasn't going to make it. Her speedometer read sixty, seventy—an insane speed for this stretch of road—and yet the Jeep suddenly seemed to be moving in slow motion. The light was close now, just a couple of hundred feet away and closing fast, its blinding beam illuminating the tall grass in the fields beneath it. The light was beside the Jeep, on the Jeep, its brightness lighting up the inside of the vehicle as if it were the middle of the day.
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