Update from Book One: Battle of Wills
Former US Airborne Ranger Jeff Maratti, severely impaired by head injuries received in Afghanistan, escapes from kidnappers demanding an unreasonable ransom from his aristocratic Italian grandfather, Rolf Maratti: the inheritance Rolf is poised to receive upon the imminent death of Jon Randolph Third, the man who married his mother and adopted him as a child.
Stumbling through a deep ravine near an historic Georgia battlefield site near Marietta, cold and disoriented, the injured Ranger dons a Confederate uniform washed out from an unmarked grave. By so doing, he quickens the spirit of the uniform’s previous owner, Union spy Major Jefferson Preston—150 years deceased—who is, to say the least, surprised! A big problem has just been dumped into his lap by his beloved younger sister, Sara Preston Randolph Manning, also long deceased, but still standing guard. Preston’s mission in a brand new century is to identify and destroy the assassins and thieves targeting her descendants including, to many peoples’ surprise, Jeff Maratti’s aristocratic grandfather.
Preston begins by building a team. First on his list is Lorena Manning, the lovely nurse who saved his life in the new world and is now his wife. Then comes family: Sue Bailey, Sara’s descendant by her first husband, Jon Randolph, who as a conscript in the Confederate army died in the Wilderness of Virginia, and Sue’s pharmacist husband Sid Bailey; as well as Lorie’s aunt Carol Kendall Barnett, a direct descendant of Sara’s second husband, U.S. Captain Marshal Manning, and her husband, Dr. Phil Barnett, who works with wounded vets.
An unexpected but welcome ally is wealthy entrepreneur and sometimes spy Ewen Taylor, a close associate of Jon Randolph Third, Sara’s recently deceased great-grandson.
Not family, but good men to have by your side, complete Preston’s team: Marietta police officers Randy Ross, Tim Murphy, Alan Macdonald, and Dean Harris.
The unknown foe has finally been identified as descendants of the crew of the 19th century pirate/slave ship Blackheart. The Blackheart Compact, signed and sealed in blood in the early nineteenth century, binds not only the original signers—among which, it seems, was Jeff Preston’s father, Isaac—but their descendants as well to eternal loyalty, death being the only alternative. Blackhearts have over many years infiltrated high positions in many jurisdictions; no one knows where they will next surface. Unwilling contemporary members, horrified to learn their ancestors have committed them to criminal activity, find their choice stark when they are called out by the Compact’s Inner Circle: submit or one of their family members dies.
The Inner Circle, however, is beginning to discover that its veil of secrecy is being pierced and some of its deepest secrets starkly revealed by dissidents who believe America’s version of the rule of law extends to all its citizens—Blackhearts included.
The story continues:
Wednesday, April 15, 2015
Lorie Maratti knew she was in trouble the minute she saw the lanky bearded man in the blue flannel shirt come out of the backroom office of the little country store. The Colt .45 he had in his hand was pointed at her.
She’d picked up a bag of split-pea soup mix and had been simply counting out proper change for the pretty mulatto girl at the cash register when he confronted her. “I know who you are,” the man said in a deep voice, all the more frightening because it lacked any aspect of emotion. “Don’t give me a hard time.”
She froze. She had not expected an ambush in this quiet place smelling of incense and cloves.
Neither had the girl handing her the receipt. “Pa?” she whispered, her warm smile instantly shuttered. “What are you … ?”
“Shut up, Celeste,” he said. “Do what I tell you. Git that twine over there and tie her hands together.”
Celeste paused like the proverbial deer in headlights, her doe-eyes growing even larger.
“Now!” her father said.
Instinctively Lorie reached into the pocket of her down jacket for her cell phone. The man moved like lightning. He grabbed her arm, shook the phone from her hand and kicked it across the floor. It slid under the pile of baby quilts through which she had been riffling earlier. Too far away to snatch it back.
She was too shocked to say anything. He put the gun down on a counter and tried to pull her hands behind her back, but the oversized jacket was too bulky. “She’s too fat,” he said gruffly to his daughter, once more picking up the gun. “Tie ‘em in front.”
“She’s preg…” the girl began, then stopped with a quick glance at Lorie, who sensed she had just gained an ally. The girl glanced at her father. “What you gonna do with her?”
“Don’t you be askin’,” he said brusquely. “I know what I’m doin’. Now tie her up so I can git her in the car. Then git your coat. You’re goin’ with me. I don’t want you stayin’ here alone.” He picked up her purse, threw it into the back office and locked the office door.
“No backtalk! Now git her tied.” He held the gun steady while, under his watchful eye, Celeste bound the twine around Lorie’s wrists—individually, with a little slack between—not tight enough to constrict, but too snug to work off given time.
Lorie’s mind seemed locked. So unexpected had been the attack she couldn’t quite focus on what she should do next. What did the man want from her?
Then the realization hit her.
He had to be a member of the Blackheart Compact!
Terror set in so quickly she felt her legs buckle. No! She balanced herself against the counter until feeling came back into her lower limbs. My god, what might happen to the baby? She was only a few weeks from her due date.
All she could do now was follow the man’s harsh instructions. “Outside, lady. Git in the backseat and lay down.” The old car was black, much used, more commodious than current models. It reeked of stale cigarette smoke, old boots and sweat.
He opened the door behind the passenger seat and she slid onto the slick pseudo-leather. She lowered herself against the seat as best she could, settling on her left side, her head bumping hard against the door behind the driver’s seat. Her hands, even bound in front, were of no use. The man pushed at her jeans-covered legs until they folded into the allotted space and then shut the door against her damp boots. She could still see the door lock shaft standing up. Perhaps, she thought in desperation, at some point when they weren’t watching she could work the old-style door latch open with the toe of her boot, slide out and make a fast getaway. With her hands tied? Well, she’d think about that later.
Her mind was reeling. How could she have got herself into this kind of fix? It was only a small country store, quaint and friendly-looking in a weather-beaten kind of way, almost hidden among the trees lining the narrow scenic road she and Jeff had chosen for their frequent commutes through the northeast-Georgia mountain country. In window boxes, rows of fragile yellow and purple crocuses peeked over a soft layer of lingering spring snow, and seasonal-sale items were placed on the wide wooden front porch in colorful displays among ice-locked rocking chairs. She had seen it often—the Cozy Corner Country Store—but had never had time to drop in, either going to or coming from the Fox Haven farm site where she and Jeff were planning to rebuild on the site of a mid-19th century ruin for their family that was to come.
All she had wanted to do was to use the bathroom. After a grueling afternoon meeting on site with their architect, she was finally headed back to the elegant log cabin where they were refugeeing until their own secluded home was finally move-in ready, and where Jeff would have dinner waiting for her. But the baby was doing gymnastics on her bladder. It was no more than ten miles from their temporary sanctuary as hawks might fly—but, in reality, it was twenty-five slow miles on the winding gravel roads she still had to navigate. She just couldn’t wait any longer. And the country store was still open.
She should have left immediately, she guessed. But because she didn’t think it was fair to use pristine facilities smelling of cinnamon and not leave a quid pro quo—rewarding someone for making the effort—she searched the counters casually for a gift for Jeff among the modest but clever and well-made craft products proudly displayed. Finally she had foregone gift items in exchange for something she felt might give Jeff the feeling he was doing something useful—hence the soup mix, because he loved to cook. He’d been in such a state lately. Not like himself at all. Moody, discouraged, silent for long periods of time. PTSD, she finally decided—not post-traumatic stress of his own, but of the young man whose imperfect mind and memories he was sharing. His recovery from an almost fatal bullet wound had been hindered by the other Jeff’s mental battles, which he also had to face. Because of it, she’d gently let him off the hook on the confrontation with their architect at the house site.
Clearly, this solo trip had not been one of her better ideas. If anything happened to her—or worse yet, to the baby ….
The girl settled into the seat of the car on the front-passenger side. She glanced quickly back at Lorie, who could see fear in that pretty golden-brown face as well. It was apparent the girl didn’t know what was happening any more than she did.
The minute Pa seated himself behind the wheel, the door lock shaft disappeared into the door with a firm “snick.” This was Compact related. Lorie was certain of it. Escape was essential. These people would have no compunction against using her or the baby to draw Jeff into their hands. An escape attempt would be so much easier, she thought grimly, if she didn’t have to worry what might happen to the small life resting quietly now inside its own cramped space. But she had to try.
The car jerked into gear and Pa backed out of the parking lot. Lorie was relieved she hadn’t been forced to wear a hood. She wanted to know where they were going. When the car turned out onto the road, it was headed east—the direction from which she had just come.
“What is it you want?” she finally said to the father.
“Shut up!” he said in a harsh tone and switched on the radio. Country music flooded the car, guitars and banjoes, plaintive riffs, lovely melodies, homely common-man lyrics. Too many sad endings. Lorie’s frustration and fear was growing by the second as she felt the miles tick away.
She looked down at her bound hands. Twine. When Jeff had been captured by the Compact he had escaped by chewing away the ropes that bound him. She pulled her hands to her face and found that with a little effort she could reach the binding with her teeth. It would take a while.
When she looked up, she saw for a moment the girl’s frightened eyes.
She stopped what she was doing. Celeste turned her head quickly away and began to rummage through her purse.
“What you doin’, girl?” her father said. Lorie could scarcely hear him over the throbbing beat of the music.
“Seein’ if my key is here,” the girl answered. “You made me leave so fast, I think I left it in the door. What if someone comes while we’re out, Pa?”
“This is more important,” he said sharply. “You won’t want to talk to me right now.”
The music got louder. As Lorie kept watch, she saw that Celeste was palming something from her purse. Then the little hand came down along the side of the seat and pressed backward. Still looking resolutely forward toward the roadway ahead, the girl was clearly trying to pass something over to her.
A small object.
Lorie forced her hands forward and the object slid safely into her cupped palms.
It was a small souvenir version of a Swiss army knife.
Tears of gratitude swam into her eyes. Immediately she worked the blade open and began awkwardly to saw away at the twine. It took no more than five minutes to sever the bond.
The girl glanced back again, furtively. A moment later Lorie saw the lock shaft on the backdoor shoot suddenly up.
No time to think further on it. She had to take the chance when it was offered. With loud music masking any sounds, she pushed herself up far enough to get a glance out the window. They were traveling back the same route she had taken to get to Fox Haven. She knew exactly where she was. The ancient burned-out ruin wasn’t more than a couple of miles away. She could travel cross-country through the hills and shelter there. There were trails if she could find one.
With the toe of her boot she worked at the latch. The car was just gearing up a steep hillside toward a bridge when she managed to crack the door open. She propped her right hand on the surface her head was pressed against, kicked hard with her heels at the gaping door, and gave herself a huge push. The sudden motion slid her across the car seat and propelled her out. Tucking herself as best she could around her baby, she hit the ground moving and let the momentum carry her on hip and back across the graveled roadway and onto the shoulder. Suddenly she was slipping down the side of a steep, brushy hill. She couldn’t stop her fall. All she could do was duck her head, hold her arms around her belly and slide. And slide she did. A long ways down, tumbling and skidding against fallen leaves, stumps and pine needles embedded in snow, rocks covered with frost, a stairway of small frozen waterfalls. She came to an abrupt halt in a mound of snow that had been captured by a large bush. She didn’t try to move, fearful of what she might discover, until she realized that she was getting cold.
She wondered if her child had survived—wondered how she had survived. Down had bulk to capture and contain body-heated air, but no real padding against a fall. However, a serviceable wool liner was zipped inside the jacket. She was also wearing a heavy woolen sweater with a high rolled collar. That and the sturdy high-topped boots she had put on that morning had probably given her some advantage.
She looked up toward the road. She knew the car must have stopped, turned back. The man would be looking for her. And what of Celeste? Surely the girl would be punished for helping her—at the least for not sounding an alarm. Lorie looked down at her left hand, found it clenched shut. When slowly she uncurled her fingers, she realized the small knife was still there. Closed. She dropped it into her pocket and zipped the pocket shut. She would never be able to thank that girl enough.
Had she broken anything? She was lying on her back on snow that feathered out onto solid ground. She thought she might just roll to her side. That worked. She put out an arm and pushed herself up to an uncomfortable sitting position. So far, so good. She grasped at some of the larger branches of the bush against which she was now leaning, pulled herself to her feet and skidded downward on ice to bare dirt at the far side of the bush. She lowered herself to her hands and knees, a somewhat more comfortable position considering her current bulk, and looked around, assessing her situation.
She couldn’t believe it. She was intact. The baby kicked and she started to cry. Not now, she admonished herself, and quenched the tears as quickly as they had come. The baby was okay. And so was she. For now.
She had to remain that way.
Afternoon light was beginning to fade across the hills. She had to find shelter and then think how she could let someone know where she was.
Shelter would not be found within the ragged bricks at Fox Haven. They must have known about the old farmhouse. Otherwise, how could they have known who she was?
Suddenly she knew exactly where she would go—if she could make it that far. Jeff had showed it to her when they’d first visited the old ruin. Located on a hillside above the farm, it had served as a springhouse for many years, a place where fresh clear water came bubbling right out of the rock into a stone basin placed beneath it. But it had been something a whole lot more back in those days when slavery was an ordinary thing.
It had been a hiding place on the underground railroad.
There was a secret cave in the hillside behind the springhouse, a cavern leached out of the rock by fresh spring waterfalls over eons of time. Many years ago, Jeff’s sister Sara had hidden there from murderous searchers—Compact killers. That’s where she would go.
She heard voices from the roadway above. A man’s voice. Yelling. And then another. She almost panicked and ran—then remembered that she was concealed right now from their sight by the bush that had so conveniently halted her fall.
She had to pull her head together if she were to get safely to the springhouse!
There was a stream at the bottom of the hill, swollen now by melting snow. She could see it winding cheerfully through the valley, racing away from Fox Haven, as she had wanted to do when she was going head-to-head with that stubborn architect. Now she would follow it upstream toward the old farm. She thought the spring might feed into it.
There was still fresh snow to deal with. From above, her footprints would stand out like arrows pointing directly toward her escape route. She pulled Celeste’s knife from her pocket and cut a small branch covered with tough little leaves. Then she began the careful downhill climb, turning and bending frequently to brush snow across every footstep, trying to make sure she stayed behind heavy brush and ridges where no one could see her from the road.
It was slow going. Once or twice she thought she heard voices from above. People calling out to each other. It was difficult to tell where the sound was coming from.
Finally she reached the stream. It rustled and bubbled through the woodlands, almost out of its banks. Darkness was closing in on the valley—it was getting hard to see anything.
Could she do this? She was beginning to feel so tired. So cold. Her mittens had been left behind at the country store when she’d pulled her change purse from her pocket. Her fingers and hands felt like frozen blocks of ice. Maybe she could rest a bit, put her hands inside her jacket for a time, rub feeling back into them. She leaned against the large trunk of a tree, trying to keep from shivering. Again she heard voices, this time louder. Closer.
Then she felt something else. A contraction. And an unwelcome rush of liquid running down her legs inside her jeans. “Crap!” she said aloud. There was no question now about moving ahead toward the springhouse. She had to hurry. There were pursuers behind her. And it seemed her baby was not going to wait either.
A warm breeze blew against her face, wrapped itself around her, and she thought she heard a voice. Follow me.
She looked around. Had she really heard that? Through the trees ahead she saw a shimmering light, and again she heard the voice, like a whisper from the forest. Follow me.
The men’s voices were quite clear now. They were coming downhill through the trees, calling out to each other as they descended. For a moment, she thought she saw the sharp glow of a flashlight coming down the hillside in someone’s hand.
She looked back at the shimmering glow on the bank of the stream. It was not a flashlight. Not by any means. She started towards it, stumbling and sliding, but in general, moving steadily forward. The light skittered ahead, always staying far enough away so that she couldn’t quite determine what was causing it. When in a moment of panic she suddenly remembered she had not stopped to hide her trail, she turned, and found her footprints being smoothed gently away by snow drifting down from branches above.
Now she knew the source of the light. Sara would guide her to the springhouse.