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Thursday, March 31, 2016

NIKKI'S TEST -- Excerpt #13

"Now is not the time to go overboard and tie myself into knots, or blame everything on waking up way too early," she told Gray. "Ready?"

Her companion nuzzled her shoulder, shifting to a definite shove with his head. Nikki laughed and roughed up his fur. She made sure of her keys, slid her phone out of the charging/connection station, tucked it into her back pocket, and opened the door. Gray leaped out after her and waited until she locked and closed the door. After all, what good would it do to be sweeping Brooklyn away to safety if the enemy managed to get into her Jeep during the ten minutes she was inside the house?

Nikki never got into the house. She rang the doorbell and heard it clearly -- several windows were open. She waited. No one came.

She rang the doorbell again. This time she pulled out her phone and watched the seconds tick by until a full two minutes had passed. She rang the doorbell, and then knocked immediately afterward. It wasn't like there was any music playing in the house that the doorbell chimes couldn't penetrate, but knocking would.

Besides, Brooklyn would be ready to go. She wasn't a late sleeper to begin with.

"Unless…" Nikki didn't want to give voice to the rapid montage of possible reasons why Brooklyn wasn't answering the door. She still had the phone in her hand, the screen turned on. Her hand didn't quite shake as she tapped through the menu to get Joan's phone. Was her sister at breakfast by now, or had she prolonged her morning run with Ulysses? Nikki couldn't remember if Joan had any early morning meetings planned. Wouldn't she be waiting for word that Brooklyn was safely out of Harper's Point?

Monday, March 28, 2016

NIKKI'S TEST -- Excerpt #12

Willow Avenue turned out to be a dead end, with a cluster of willow trees and three park benches in the empty lot, behind a pretty picket fence instead of the usual metal barrier and an ugly "dead end" sign. Nikki found Sheriff Holmes' house easily enough, since there were only twenty houses on the street. She pulled into the driveway and looked up and down the street for activity from the neighbors before getting out. Just in case there was someone unfriendly watching, to take notes on who came to carry away the sheriff's visitor. All was quiet. Maybe too quiet? It was just past eight on a school day. What were the chances that no one with school-aged children lived on this street?

That reminded her of the little girl she had glimpsed while heading down the mountain. Nikki shivered, feeling as if she had been told something and forgot the exact words, but knew they were important. Back before she messed up her life, choosing Brock over her family and God, she had what she believed were guiding dreams. Answers to prayers over important decisions or steps she needed to take, or just answers to problems facing her. Those dreams stopped after she ran away with Brock, but she had ample evidence that the dreams had returned during that terrifying time when Ringo's men dragged her back to be used as a distraction and shield for Ringo's drug-running activities -- as Brock had testified during the trial. Nikki had disobeyed the clear instructions in the final dream, and was convinced, despite everything Joan and her foster-parents told her otherwise, that it was her fault Kathryn had died and she had lost her baby. She had vowed to always listen to her dreams from then on -- which, of course, meant she hadn't had any.

Until last night, maybe? Yet if she had a guiding dream, wouldn't God have made sure she remembered it? Something about that little girl, or something else she saw, coming down the mountain?

Friday, March 25, 2016

NIKKI'S TEST -- Excerpt #11

Harper's Point reminded her of Mayberry reunion shows, with clean streets and no building taller than four stories and wide sidewalks. Benches waited at every intersection, where people could watch the traffic, with lots of trees to shade them. A square only two blocks in marked the "center" of town, with a fire station and sheriff's office on one side, the mayor's office around the corner from them, facing various little storefronts, including a barber shop -- right next to Caroline's Diner, open twenty-four hours a day. It looked so pretty, Nikki could almost taste a big platter of scrambled eggs, and waffles with strawberries and whipped cream. She shook her head and turned her head so she wouldn't see it. Chain restaurant drive-thru for her -- and maybe if she was a good girl, Brooklyn would have one of her miraculous waffle-sausage-fried egg breakfast sandwiches waiting for her. Concentrate on the scenery, dummy! There was a gazebo in the middle of the bright green grass in the square, right next to a glossy black-painted cannon and an old hand-pump that Nikki suspected still worked, gushing icy water that tasted of iron on hot summer days. Too bad this was a quick in-and-out retrieval. She would have liked to spend a day just wandering around the center of town, letting Gray run loose -- a town this small wouldn't have leash laws, would they? -- and lie in the sun to read for an hour, or maybe in the shade of that gazebo.

The turnoff to get to Willow Avenue arrived before she reached the fast food places and her longed-for breakfast. Nikki laughed at herself for the momentary groan of disappointment that escaped her. That would teach her two important lessons. First, always make sure she kept her cooler filled with ice and healthy drinks and snacks. Second, and more important, learn to ignore her stomach. She had gotten by on far less food when she had been living on the road, trying to work her way home, and entirely too proud and ashamed at the same time to call home and ask for help. Besides, according to the map and GPS display, the road out of town was much shorter if she continued up this road, where it widened to five lanes and offered highway on-ramps. When she picked up Brooklyn, they would head out this way and get breakfast.

Tuesday, March 22, 2016

NIKKI'S TEST -- Excerpt #10

Harper's Point appeared in a break in the trees just when she said "distracted." Nikki grinned, muttered a prayer of thanks for the timing, and concentrated on the town as it slowly grew closer. It sat in a wide, flat valley between the mountain she had just come down and the next three in the chain. The patchwork quilt of greens and browns, the white and black and brown and blue of houses, slowly took on detail. The blocky appearance faded away as the road rolled past under her wheels. Ten minutes later, Nikki came around the last curve of the mountain road and saw the sign welcoming her to Harper's Point. Just after the welcome sign was a menu board of businesses and arrows pointing which way to go, but not how many tenths of a mile away each one was from that point. Nikki saw two familiar chain fast food restaurants. That was one prayer answered. If she ran across either restaurant before she had to turn off the road to go to Willow Avenue, life would be wonderful.

"Breakfast, Gray. How about that?"

The Akita let out a grumbling woof. Nikki reached up and stroked his head.

Saturday, March 19, 2016

NIKKI'S TEST -- Excerpt #9

Nikki frowned, sensing there had to be something wrong there. She couldn't really tell how old the little girl was. Young enough not to need to be in school? Still, it was spring -- why be camping during the school week? She had been comfortable enough in her Jeep, with her sleeping bag and blankets and Gray for warmth, but she wouldn't have chosen to camp last night if she didn't have to.

Nikki gnawed on the question for another mile, then made a conscious effort to push it aside. It was none of her business. She had to find something to eat -- quick, cheap, but healthy enough that Vincent wouldn't know from eight hundred miles away and scold her as soon as she got home. Then she would find Brooklyn and get out of Harper's Point.

First, she had to get into Harper's Point. This was the main road into town, and according to the GPS, she had another twenty minutes once she crossed the city limits before she got to 5639 Willow Avenue. Brooklyn would be packed and ready to leave -- but would she assume Nikki would pass up breakfast to get there, and have something ready?

"Definitely need to get something in my stomach. Low blood sugar equals easily distracted."

Wednesday, March 16, 2016

NIKKI'S TEST -- Excerpt #8

There was no one else on the road that early in the morning. Everything in shadows, shapes indistinct, gave her surroundings a slightly spooky feel, with the sun barely able to penetrate the thick branches of pines that lined the road on both sides. Behind the dark silhouettes of the trees, and anywhere a thin spear of light penetrated, everything glistened with dew, shining softly with the reflected, hidden light. Nikki let her mind wander to the town waiting for her at the end of the winding, narrow road. Was it too much to hope Harper's Point had a chain restaurant of some kind? If not, she might have to go into a restaurant and hope they had carry-out. Or would that be taking too big a risk? Lingering too long in one place might get her too much of the wrong kind of notice. She was a stranger, after all. Maybe no one would pay any attention to her if she went in during the morning rush. Her chances were better if it was a decent local diner. Not one of those dives that always looked like a messy crowd of hockey players had just left. A place where she could order what she really wanted for breakfast instead of settling for whatever they chose to offer.

"Stop thinking about your stomach, dummy."

Gray snorted as if in agreement. Nikki lifted her gaze to the rearview mirror, almost missing a flash of pink moving through the trees up ahead, at the bend in the road. She let her eyes follow the movement while she coasted around the curve.

Just ahead of the curve there was a break in the trees where the mountain slope flattened out into a narrow sort of meadow, high with grass, almost blinding white with the thick, cold dew. A blond little girl in a pink shirt and shorts wandered through the grass that was over her waist. She didn't look around until Nikki was almost even with her, though the sound of the Jeep had to be loud that early in the morning, crunching on the gravel and broken asphalt on that side of the road. Nikki waved and smiled, but the child just gave her a blank look and continued her slow meander, heading across the meadow.

"Kind of funny, huh, Gray?" Nikki muttered. "I thought the map said there weren't any campgrounds on this road. We would have stopped there instead of doing the Gypsy thing in the middle of nowhere, wouldn't we?" She laughed when the Akita shook himself and adjusted his curled up position on the seat behind her. "Who would let their kids out this early in the morning, anyway? Besides, it seems kind of early in the season for family camping. Especially when school hasn't ended yet for the year."

Sunday, March 13, 2016

NIKKI'S TEST -- Excerpt #7

Nikki's stomach ached a little from emptiness as she started down the mountainside an hour later. There was still plenty of melt-water in her cooler after washing her face, but something nudged her not to use the rest of it. She chewed some sugarless gum that promised to whiten her teeth, and hoped it would be enough to trick her stomach into thinking she was eating. Just a little over half an hour to Harper's Point city limits. If she was desperately hungry by then, maybe the town was big enough to have a drive-thru where she could get a breakfast sandwich. Even a carton of milk or orange juice would help her. She smiled at the mist shredding in swirls as it seeped across the road in front of her, and could almost hear Vincent lecturing her on taking care of her body. How could she be on the alert, ready to look after Brooklyn and performing at her peak if she was hungry?

This would certainly teach her to plan ahead, to have stores of food for emergencies, even if they were just packets of crackers or a jar of peanut butter. She needed to carry a gallon jug of water with her at all times, even if she never had need to camp by the side of the road in the future. When she got home, she would probably find out Vincent or Joan or Elizabeth had given her just that sort of advice, but she hadn't listened or had forgotten. If she had stayed at the hotel last night as planned, she wouldn't be facing this sort of inconvenience, would she? Yet that was the point, wasn't it? Planning for emergencies. Now she understood how Su-Ma felt, berating herself every once in a while for messing up the little details.

Well, she could certainly do something about preventing a lecture from Brooklyn when she showed up with a growling, loud stomach.

"How about it?" she said, glancing in the rearview mirror at Gray. "Double sausage biscuits, the first place we find, in and out. You get the sausage, I get the biscuits. Sound like a deal?"

Gray woofed and bobbed his head, making her laugh.

Thursday, March 10, 2016

NIKKI'S TEST -- Excerpt #6

"So… how often are they able to get together?" Sophie said. "Do you think the trouble is from that far back?"

"It could be why they're sitting still," Carter said, after a short, thoughtful silence. "We will know better once that package from Brooklyn arrives."

"So, should I call Nikki?" Joan said.

"At this point in her training…" He traded glances with Elizabeth. She nodded. "I can't see how further information would help her. She already knows the situation is ticklish and time is of the essence. Sharing our speculations might just make her uneasy, awkward. The less she has to lie about, the safer she'll be. I'm sorry. This is a point where too much information could be crippling."

"There's no such thing as too much praying, though," Elizabeth said. She held out her hands for Carter and Joan to clasp. Joan took Sophie's hand, and she took Carter's, completing the circle as they bowed their heads and closed their eyes.

Monday, March 7, 2016

NIKKI'S TEST -- Excerpt #5

"All right. So… what's their story? Brooklyn has confessed even less than Vincent." Joan grinned at Sophie. "Does Brooklyn really have an English accent, or is that just part of her disguise?"

"Please say no," Sophie hurried to say. "If she loses the bet, she has to turn over her complete set of 'Firefly.'" A chuckle escaped her when Carter just sighed and raised an eyebrow.

"What do you have to pay up?" Elizabeth said.

"Her entire Stuart Granger collection," Joan said.

"Excuse me?" Carter sat up, his tone thickening with pretended pique. "You have a collection of Stuart Granger movies and haven't shared them?"

"Talk to Joan," Sophie said. "They're hers now. I assume you're trying to be gentle, telling me Brooklyn is English, born and bred."

"Sorry." Elizabeth stood up to unwrap the teapot and start pouring for all of them. "Brooklyn and Preston were junior MI6 operatives and were burned, essentially, very early in their careers. Through no fault of their own, they became too hot to handle, and came to the U.S. about thirty-some years ago under multiple layers of assumed identities. When one was shredded, they took up another and moved on. They realized fairly quickly that they were safer if they separated. Preston took up the identity of Preston Holmes and worked his way up from deputy to sheriff. Brooklyn stayed mobile until she met up with us."

Friday, March 4, 2016

NIKKI'S TEST -- Excerpt #4

Joan signaled her stepmother to stay seated while she took care of replenishing the tea. Elizabeth would need to be brought up to speed on everything said during the conversation with Brooklyn, and what they had arranged with Nikki, as well as the new suspicions she and Nikki had both come up with. Because of the constant experimenting with Dr. Carson's herbal treatments for Carter's condition, a new addition to the kitchen was a hot water tank. Near-boiling water was always ready, on tap. It was a matter of a few minutes for Joan to clean out and refill the infuser ball and rinse the teapot, then refill it with steaming water. She inhaled the first gush of spicy tea-scented steam and put the lid on, then wrapped the pot in the quilted cozy before carrying it back across the hall. Sophie was still talking, relating what they had discussed with Nikki.

"Should we call Nikki and tell her to bring Preston back with her?" Elizabeth said, after a few moments of silence once Sophie finished. "Brooklyn's brother," she explained, before Joan could ask.

"Sheriff Holmes is Brooklyn's brother?" Joan said, just to be clear.

"I think if the situation is bad enough…" Carter shook his head, still staring unseeing at the point in the air. "If it's bad enough to get out of there, it might be too dangerous for him to flee. That would be letting whoever is his enemy know that they have been detected. If they're able to get to Brooklyn's phone, and she fears she has been compromised, then they might have the power to strike. There might be innocent people he's protecting. After all," he added, finally blinking and raising his gaze to meet Joan's, "Brooklyn could have just left, as soon as she realized something was wrong. I fear the two of them are hip-deep in alligators, as the saying goes."

"Then Nikki shouldn't be going in there. She isn't trained for this."

"If Brooklyn and Preston are involved, you should feel sorry for the alligators," Elizabeth said. "If the situation was unsafe, they would have found a way to tell us not to let Nikki come. She'll arrive early enough, and she and Brooklyn can pack up and get out of there before anyone realizes what's happened." She rested a hand on Joan's and squeezed. "They'll both be fine."

Tuesday, March 1, 2016

NIKKI'S TEST -- Excerpt #3

The Carsons only stayed for another hour. Joan and Elizabeth walked them out, to take Frankie to the kennels and then to the parking area by the stables. When they came back in, Carter and Sophie were still in the breakfast room, dividing up the last of the lukewarm tea. Sophie nodded to her, and Joan guessed that her father had been filled in on the call from Brooklyn and what they had surmised.

"You made the right call," Carter said. "Brooklyn called," he added, as Elizabeth slid back into the seat beside his wheelchair. "In Butterfly McQueen mode, her phone missing, presumed stolen."

"Ah. And speaking in code because she feared someone was listening in on the unsecured line." Elizabeth took the lid off the teapot and glanced inside. "Are we going to need a fresh batch while we talk?"

"I'm guessing Brooklyn has been in a situation like this before? Butterfly McQueen?" Sophie said.

"Prissy, from 'Gone with the Wind,'" Joan explained. "We were wondering if there was something going on we didn't know about. Something in her past, maybe whatever is going on between her and Sheriff Holmes?"

"I should hope not," Carter murmured. He frowned, staring at a spot in the air a few inches above the table's surface. "Yes, dear, I think we'll need another pot."