DELIVER US FROM EVIL
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Chapter One --- Friday 5:30pm
Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Tennessee
The tickling vibration against her palm made Brannon Callahan loosen her grip. Wind pushed against the HH-65 Dolphin, slamming the helicopter into more turbulence. The vertical speed indicator dropped a notch --- they were falling too fast. She pulled back on the collective, piloting the helicopter steady over the Great Smoky Mountain National Park. She kept her gaze locked on the ephemeral-covered landscape for any unnatural movement. Far below them, the mountain peaks jutted out from the snow-covered red maples like a snaggle-toothed beast baring its teeth. The tree canopy blocked most of the ground from their sight.
“You about ready to head back?” Lincoln Vailes asked over the headset. Her partner and friend must have felt the shifts of the aircraft, yet he remained relaxed. Complete trust. Brannon smiled.
Snowflakes glided downward, drifting on the bursts of wind and settling on the pine and hemlock trees in the upper alpines. The last purple hues of the setting sun streaked across the peaks, making the January snow glisten and dance before her eyes. She couldn’t help herself --- she gave a soft sigh. All beneath her, God’s masterpiece laid out a canvas of beauty that beckoned the soul. Tennessee was definitely God’s country.
“Yeah, let’s head back.” Brannon pushed the foot pedal to turn the helicopter and moved the cyclic.
“Beautiful, isn’t it?”
She nodded. “Even though I’m witness to this amazing view every day, it always steals my breath.”
“He has made everything beautiful in its time.” Lincoln’s black moustache twitched as his grin spread. “Come on, Brannon --- book, chapter and verse.” His dark eyes caught the reflection of the sun’s last rays, making them appear to glow.
“Um. That’s a hard one.” She piloted toward the heliport at the ranger station, her mind racing through Scriptures. “Song of Solomon?”
He gave a snort. “Nope. But close.”
“Good work. Now tell me chapter and verse.”
She pulled the helicopter into a level altitude, then used the collective to cushion the landing. “Can’t you see I’m busy?”
“You can fly in your sleep, hon.”
Probably. She’d done thirteen years with the Coast Guard flying this model of helicopter. But still…
Using the pedals to align the landing gear with the ground track, she settled with hardly more than a bump. After shutting down the engines, radioing to control, and marking her logbook, she yanked off her headset and hung it on the clip. Lincoln completed his checklist before jumping from the seat of the Dolphin. Brannon did her own walk-around, then leaned into her partner as they rushed into the Abrams Creek ranger station, snow crunching under their feet.
The bell tinkled over the door as they pushed inside, a blast of wind and snowflakes sweeping in with them. The fragrant aroma of simmering coffee filled Brannon’s senses. A fire crackled in the rock-front fireplace, the pops and hisses a welcome greeting from the frigid temperatures outside. She stood in front of the fire, holding her hands as close to the orange flames as possible. Tingles shimmied into her fingers as the warmth seeped through them.
“Temperature’s dropping fast,” Lincoln commented as he hung his issued coat on the hook beside his rig.
“Supposed to have a blizzard heading this way.” Steve Burroughs took a sip of coffee, slurping before he set the mug back down. “Everything clear out there?” Although only in his late forties, the chief ranger looked two decades older. Gray hair, hawk nose and skin like tanned leather, Steve had already lived a lifetime.
Brannon hung up her belt beside Lincoln’s and shrugged out of her coat. “All clear. No sign of anybody.” She tossed her jacket over a chair and backed up to the fire. She pulled the scrunchie from her hair, ran her fingers through the damp strands, then secured it again into a ponytail at the base of her neck. Little beads of snow fell, melting before they landed on the scuffed wooden floor.
“Let’s hope the free-skiers have enough common sense to stay off the terrain.” Lincoln plopped down on the threadbare couch and propped his boots on the sitting table. “I don’t want to get a call to go out anytime soon if the storm hits.”
“That’d be nice, for a change.” Steve took another noisy swallow of his coffee. “Maybe we’ll have a slow weekend.”
“I hope so.” Brannon moved to the coffee station in the corner and stared at the men over the table. She lifted the carafe and stared at the thick mire in the bottom of the glass pot. With a mental shrug she pulled out a mug --- no matter how much it resembled sludge, bad coffee was still better than no coffee. Temptation for a cup of fresh java nearly made her cross the mudroom and enter her living space. Exhaustion stopped her. If she went anywhere near her bedroom, she’d curl up and sleep immediately, and she still had two hours left on her shift. “I’m beat. Rescuing those climbers yesterday wore me out.”
Lincoln laid his head back. The ends of his dark hair curled up at the tips. “They were young and stupid, Brannon. Cut them a little slack.”
She dumped several spoons of granulated sugar into the cup and stirred. It still looked like something you’d have to slog through in a swamp. “Please. Any amateur with half a brain would know better than to try to climb the Clingmans Dome in winter.” Didn’t people realize if something happened to them they’d leave behind devastated family and friends? Loved ones who would mourn them forever? She fought against the familiar pain every single time she was called out for a search-and-rescue. All because people hadn’t taken necessary precautions.
“They didn’t know any better.”
“It takes a special kind of stupid not to have researched your climb.” Most SARs could be avoided if people planned a little more. It ripped her apart that so many parents, grandparents, siblings ... fiancés ... survived to deal with such grief. She even volunteered to teach nature preparedness classes twice a year to help prevent such heartache.
“Hey, did y’all get the memo from this morning?” Steve stood and held out a piece of paper.
Brannon shook off the discussion she and Lincoln had debated many times, took a sip of coffee --- it wasn’t as bad as it looked --- and grabbed the sheet.
“What’s it say?” Lincoln asked.
Still scanning, she crossed the room and dropped beside her partner on the couch. “It doesn’t say anything.”
Tugging on the end of her ponytail, he chuckled. “Okay, Miss Picky, what information does it relay?”
She raised a single eyebrow. “Wow, good comeback. I’m impressed.”
Lincoln gave a mock bow from his seat. “Thank you kindly, milady.”
“Looks like we’re getting another pilot.”
That got her partner’s attention, just as it nabbed hers. The National Park Service had only added the one helicopter for her two years ago, three years into her employment with them. She was the first Great Smoky Mountain National Park official pilot, and the superintendent had fought to get funding for the Dolphin and her GS level upgrade. Did the district believe they needed another helicopter and pilot? Her heart pounded. Or did they plan to replace her? If they did, she’d not only be out of a job, but out of a place to live as well --- her living quarters were part of the ranger station. Lincoln sat straight and cocked his head. “Really? Why?”
“Seems NPS feels there’s a need.” Her gaze scanned the memo again. “Oh, and happy day, the new pilot is scheduled to report for duty Monday.”
Twisting around and staring at their supervisor, Lincoln grunted. “Hey, Steve, something going on we don’t know about?”
Steve huffed and dropped back into his chair. “They don’t tell me nothin’. Never have. I hear things same time you do.”
Lincoln turned his attention to Brannon. “Don’t worry about it, hon. You’re the best pilot the park service has ever seen. And you have experience.”
“Hmm.” Brannon stood, energy bouncing through her muscles as she read the last paragraph of the memo. “Jefferson Montgomery…I can’t believe it.” Her breathing went shallow.
“The new pilot? You know him?” Lincoln asked.
“Know him? The man made my life miserable back in the Coast Guard. Challenged me daily. Hated me because I’m a woman.” Visions of his torments clouded her vision.
“Odd to have been stationed in Florida and uproot to Tennessee.”
She wracked her brain. “Actually, if memory serves me correctly, I believe he’s from Tennessee. Has family here.”
“So, it’s logical he come home.”
“Right.” Oh, Lord, he’s coming here.
Lincoln nudged her leg with his toe. “It’ll be okay.”
“What if he’s my replacement? They can’t fund two pilots, much less two helicopters.” She reread the memo. “It doesn’t say we’re getting another chopper, just another pilot.”
“You’re still the best there is.” Lincoln’s brows crinkled. “Besides, God’s got this all under control.”
Calmness swept over her like a gentle breeze, not like the wind whipping through the Appalachian Trail. Of course, God had everything under control. He always did, and she shouldn’t struggle with what she couldn’t control. Hadn’t God dealt with her on that for several years already? She sure didn’t want to go around that mountain again. Brannon stretched before grinning at her partner. “Three, eleven.”
“Chapter and verse. Ecclesiastes, chapter three, verse eleven.”
Lincoln chuckled. “You’re good.”
“I know.” Brannon chuckled and moved to the television, flipped on the local news station, and hovered in front of the screen. “Let’s see if there’s any breaking news.” Her hand paused over the remote as a newsbreak flashed across the screen. She backstepped to her seat, her eyes glued to the image of two men rushing out of a hospital.
“In a joint endeavor between the FBI and US Marshals, a donor heart is being rushed to a recipient at Parkwest Medical Center in Knoxville, Tennessee. Unidentified sources reveal the heart is intended for a government witness who has information on the largest child trafficking ring in American history, being run out of Tennessee. We’re live, from the New Hanover Regional Medical Center in Wilmington.”
The screen focused on the news reporter shoving a microphone in a man’s face. A very handsome face, Brannon conceded, framed by blondish-gray hair trimmed into a crew cut. His eyes were as dark as the depths of Snake River, but she couldn’t tell if that was merely a play of the lighting. A long white scar running the length of his jawbone marred the smooth tan of his face. Decked out in a marshal uniform --- no coat, just a sports jacket with gun and badge prominently displayed, the man pushed the microphone from his face and let out a gruff “no comment.”
A man shorter and blonder than the marshal, wearing hospital scrubs beneath a coat, carried a small cooler. Round glasses magnified his young eyes as he pressed close to the marshal. Cameramen and reporters crowded them.
Lincoln leaned forward, resting his elbows on his knees and letting his hands dangle between his legs. “They’re heading our way.”
Excerpted from DELIVER US FROM EVIL © Copyright 2017 by Robin Caroll. Reprinted with permission by B&H Academic. All rights reserved.
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