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Late August

Myra Rutledge sat alone at the kitchen table in her McLean, Virginia, farmhouse. The dogs were sleeping at her feet, giving her a comfortable feeling to be sure. Her husband, Charles, was down below in the dungeons of the old house, in what they called the War Room.

A pile of mail she’d just gone out to the road to pick up sat in front of her. Outside, it was raining the proverbial cats and dogs. A good day to be indoors and play catch-up on her weekly “to do” list. Reading mail was definitely not one of her favorite pastimes. Not many things these days were favorites of hers at all. When enough time had gone by, she attacked the mail with a vengeance. First, she separated the catalogs from the throwaway flyers, after which the “Occupant” and “Resident” mail went into another pile. Bills found their way into still another pile; then, finally, her personal mail, which was slim to none these days, went into the last pile. A good thing, too, she thought, because she had just run out of table space. Charles would handle the bills, so she moved them to the kitchen counter. One of these days, he had said, he was going to start paying online, an idea that Myra had nixed the moment the words were out of his mouth. She dumped the throwaway flyers, along with the “Resident” and “Occupant” mail, into the trash compactor and turned on the switch. The catalogs she added to the pile of catalogs already gracing the side of the fireplace. The stack was already almost two feet high. She either needed to look at them or toss them. Tomorrow would be time enough to think about that. She shrugged.

She was now down to the miniscule amount of personal mail. Three pieces. Two looked like invitations. She opened them and realized she’d gotten it right. One was an invitation to the wedding of the daughter of someone she barely knew. The second was a thank-you note from a charity to which she’d made a handsome donation. That left the long, legal-size letter with a return address in Rosemont, Alabama. Myra frowned. She didn’t know a soul in Alabama, much less Rosemont. She ripped at the envelope, being careful to preserve the return address. The frown stayed on her face. It wasn’t just a short letter; there were enclosures.

Myra reached for her glasses, but they weren’t where she’d left them. They were on top of her head. She finally put them on and read the letter, then the enclosures. There were tear splatters on her glasses when she removed them. She got up, walked over to the old-fashioned phone attached to the wall, and called Annie. “I know it’s raining hard, Annie, but do you think you could come over? I got something in the mail I’d like you to see. We can have lunch. Will that work for you?” Myra listened, then said, “Okay, how does tuna on rye sound? Hurry, Annie. This is really important. I think you’ll agree when I show you what came in the mail today.”

Myra swiped at her eyes as she opened the refrigerator. The tuna, thanks to Charles, was already made. All she had to do was slice the rye bread Charles had picked up earlier in the morning, peel off some lettuce leaves, slice a tomato that Charles had picked from the garden the night before, and lunch would be served.

Ten minutes later, the dogs were up and barking. Myra looked at the video feed above the door and saw Annie driving through the gates. Her luncheon guest had arrived.

The two women made a production out of hugging one another even before Annie could shrug out of her slicker and rain hat. She kicked off her shoes and padded barefoot to the table. Myra poured and handed Annie a cup of coffee. “It’s actually kind of chilly outside,” Annie said as she picked up Myra’s reading glasses and perched them on her nose. “Now, is this what you want me to read?”

Myra, tomato in one hand, a wicked-looking knife in her other, just nodded. The tomato and knife were forgotten as she watched her friend read what had come in the mail. She waited until Annie was finished. She watched as Annie removed the glasses and looked across at her. “This is ...beyond sad. We have to do something for this lady. That’s why you called me over, right?” Annie brushed at her own eyes, her lips set in a grim, tight line.

“She said she wrote to me before... when . . . shortly after it happened. She said I didn’t respond. Of course I didn’t respond, because I never got the letter. We were on the run then, hiding out. I never did find out where the mail went or . . . it doesn’t matter now. We can explain to her and, hopefully, she’ll understand.”

“We could call her,” Annie said. “She included her phone number.”

“Or we could go to Rosemont, Alabama, and explain why we never got in touch with her. You know, personal, face-to-face. Had I gotten this letter earlier, I would have moved whatever missions we had to the back burner and concentrated on her. Do you agree, Annie?”

“I do, Myra, one hundred percent. I think we should investigate this on our own before we call the others in.

“Now, are you ever going to make that sandwich? I think better when I eat, so get cracking, Myra.”

Myra got cracking while Annie made a fresh pot of coffee. When lunch was ready, both women looked at one another and burst into tears. “I know exactly how she feels,” Myra said as she reached for a paper towel to wipe at her eyes. She handed another towel to Annie.

“We could have helped her, Myra. We should have been there for her, and we didn’t even know about what had happened. And now look at what she’s facing. I say we call her after lunch. If I’m not mistaken, I think there’s a one-hour time difference between Alabama and here. Not that time matters. You don’t think she’ll hang up on us if we call her after all this time, do you?”

“I wouldn’t bet on it, Annie,” Myra said, chomping down on the tuna sandwich she didn’t even want. She did hate to waste food, though, so she would finish it even if it killed her. Annie ate just as fast as Myra, and they both finished at the same time.

“Who’s going to make the call?” Myra asked fretfully.

“Well, the letter was addressed to you here at the farm, so I guess it’s up to you to do the honors,” Annie said.

Myra was reaching behind her for the phone just as Charles appeared in the kitchen. “I see lunch is ready. Did you forget about me? Nice to see you on such a rainy, miserable day, Annie.”

“You, too, Charles,” Annie mumbled.

“Am I interrupting something?” Charles asked as he eyed what he considered two guilty-looking women.

“No,” Annie mumbled again.

“Yes,” Myra said forcefully.

“Will then,” Charles huffed, “I’ll just make my own sandwich and take it back downstairs with me.”

“That’s fine, Charles, but would you hurry it up?”

Charles slapped together a sandwich and poured coffee into a thermal container, gave a sloppy salute, and was gone within minutes.

The two women looked at one another, and both shrugged at the same time. The shrug meant they didn’t give two hoots if they had ruffled Charles’s feathers or not.

“Well, what are you waiting for, Myra, a bus?”

“No, dear, for you to read me the number. I’m not a mind reader.”

“Oh, okay.” Annie rattled off the number, and Myra punched it in. She listened as the phone rang six times before it skipped over to an answering machine. She left what she hoped was a comforting message and ended by leaving her unlisted phone number for a return call.

What Myra didn’t know was that, at the very moment she was leaving the message on Julie Wyatt’s answering machine, lightning struck a transformer in front of Julie’s house, and all power and phones went out. There would be no messages on Julie’s machine when she checked it later after the power came back on.

“How long do you think it will take her to call us back, Annie?”

Annie started to make another fresh pot of coffee, since Charles had emptied it. “I think it might depend on how pissed off she is that we ignored her for five long years. If I were standing in her shoes, I’d be pissed to the teeth, wouldn’t you, Myra?”

“Absolutely. Well then, let’s plan a trip to Rosemont, Alabama, so we can plead our case if she doesn’t return our call. Let’s take your plane, Annie. That way we can leave on the spur of the moment and not have to worry about reservations. Fergus won’t be a problem, will he?”

“Just as much of a problem as Charles will be. That means no problem,” Annie said, picking up one of the articles that had come in Myra’s letter. “You know what, Myra? I have the perfect punishment for that bitch.” She leaned across the table and whispered her suggestion.

Myra’s eyes popped wide. “Oh, Annie, I do like the way you think. That’s just lovely. I can see it now, playing out right in front of our eyes. Do you think the others will have a problem with this? It will be the first mission of the second string. I know you and I are up to it, but the others . . . they haven’t been around when we go into action.”

“Are you kidding? They’re going to love it. And, no, I don’t think any of them will have a problem. But first we have to lay all the groundwork. How long are we going to give Julie Wyatt to call us back?”

“Tonight, eleven o’clock. No one ever calls anyone after that for fear of scaring them. It will be midnight our time if they are an hour behind us.

 “If we don’t hear by tonight, then I think we should plan on heading south late tomorrow afternoon. Earlier, if you can make it. Do they have to do any maintenance on the plane before we take off? Check that out, Annie.”

Annie huffed. “My people always have the plane at the ready, so, no, it will not be a problem.  Bear in mind that this is summertime, Myra. There’s every possibility Ms. Wyatt could be on vacation. Have you thought of that?”

“No, I didn’t think about that. It won’t matter; we’ll be able to find out where she is vacationing, and we’ll just go there. We can’t let that poor woman think we won’t help her one minute longer than necessary. I’m certainly up for it, Annie. I can stay as long as it takes. How about you?”

“I’m with you, Myra. As long as it takes.”

“Let’s go into Charles’s office and do some googling. We need as much information as we can get before we head to Rosemont, Alabama.”

Walking down the hall, Myra called over her shoulder, “Do you really think that punishment will work?”

“Well, if it doesn’t, I’ll just plain old shoot the damned bitch,” Annie drawled.

Myra laughed, knowing full well that Annie meant every word she had just uttered. She was still laughing when she booted up Charles’s special computer.

“By the way, Annie, how are your hacking classes with Abner Tookus coming?”

“Abner said that maybe in twenty years I might be as good as Dwight something or other.

I told you about him, he’s Abner’s star pupil, and he looks like he was just hatched out of an egg.”

“Should I be impressed, Annie?”

“Hell no, Myra, but I am getting there. One of these days, I will be just as good as Abner himself. And then think of all the money I’ll save us. I work for free. If you have any doubts, think about that pole that I mastered.”

Myra started to laugh and couldn’t stop. She just loved Annie de Silva.

by by Fern Michaels

  • Genres: Fiction
  • Mass Market Paperback: 384 pages
  • Publisher: Zebra
  • ISBN-10: 1420121480
  • ISBN-13: 9781420121483