The Chief Councilor stood alone on the tarmac. Acrid smelling fires burning low on the horizon snuffed out one by one, the team reclaiming the protective cover of darkness. Collateral damage from the fierce firefight surrounding the plane had been cleared, leaving the ground free of evidence. Once the remnants of smoke dissipated, it would appear as if the intense battle had never been fought. The distant staccato beats of automatic weapons being fired had ceased, replaced now by spates of exchanges occurring away from the airstrip, far beyond his line of sight.
“Nautical dawn, fifteen minutes,” he whispered the warning into his lip mic, watching the ambulances being loaded with human remains from inside the aircraft.
Two of the three ambulances departed without sirens or flashing lights. A team of trusted cleaners streamed down the stairs like ants, their arms filled with debris they tossed into a dump truck, then jumped into the back of their own canvas-topped transport. Both the truck and the transport departed. Traveling without headlights, darkness quickly swallowed them.
Minutes later, a streak of movement caught his eye—the sound of rushing feet, approaching him. Dressed in all black tactical gear, the officer joined him. His hand rested on the grip of his gun, but he didn’t draw it. He was expected.
“Sir,” the officer said, slightly winded.
“Report, Captain.” The Chief Councilor continued his visual sweep, his senses open to any sign their actions had been detected by lingering hostile forces.
“The plane has been cleared, sir. All evidence has been removed and the truck carrying it has arrived for incineration. Completion ETA is seven minutes. Verification is pending. As soon as the last ambulance leaves, the plane will be ready to depart.”
Seven minutes. “Civil dawn is in ten minutes.” The Chief Councilor worked to keep his voice calm and steady and met with partial success. “Are we going to make it?”
“Yes, sir. The plane has passed inspection and the pilot has boarded. His preflight check is complete.”
The Chief Councilor nodded, satisfied the covert operation, Phantom I, was progressing without exposure. That was not only essential. It was critical. “The package?”
The captain passed over a parcel the size of a large mailer. Something so small and yet it irrevocably impacted the future of so many. Chief Councilor tucked it inside his coat and lifted his face to the bitter cold wind. No one appeared at the plane’s rear window. Not yet.
The remaining ambulance received the final body bag. Tiny, carried with reverence by one man, not two. The child… The Chief Councilor swallowed a knot of tears from his throat, blinked to clear his blurred vision. Horrendous sacrifice. Horrendous…
Finally, the attendant slammed the vehicle’s rear door and the ambulance departed. He riveted his gaze back to the plane’s rear window, waiting, watching, anticipating the signal that all was as it should be. Every nerve in his body sizzled, hyperalert and threatening to fray. It was the same for all the team. And if they knew the truth, it would be the state of every citizen in Lovenia. Fortunately, most had no idea, and he prayed it would stay that way until after phase II of the mission activated and was executed successfully. Otherwise, the men who fought valiantly here tonight would meet with certain death. There was no other penalty for what would then be deemed treason.
“Sir, was the diversion inside the gates successful?”
The staging, the entire Phantom mission, relied heavily on the fog of war. “Yes,” he told the captain. “Six witnesses attested to seeing the bodies firsthand, including me.”
“And the coronation of the new king?”
“Is now in progress. The public coronation will be held at his pleasure.” Likely once he felt confident his throne was secure. The Chief Councilor’s stomach lurched, hollow and empty. The transfer of power. An era ending…
“The last obstacle has cleared, then.” The officer exhaled a stuttered breath. “There’s every reason to hope for survival.”
“Provided this plane gets off the ground.” Why wasn’t he at the window? Of all roles assumed in this mission, his was by far the most important. If he failed, they all failed. What was taking so long?
The captain paused, tapped a fingertip to his ear, then relayed an update. “Incineration is complete, sir.”
The Chief Councilor nodded, glad to hear it verified but not daring to glance away from the window.
The familiar face he awaited suddenly appeared. Kasper. He lifted a hand in farewell.
From the ground, the Chief Councilor returned the wave, uncertain if Kasper would see it. Thank you, God. Thank you.
“He’s there, sir. He’s there!” The captain made the sign of the Cross.
“Yes.” Tension coiled tighter in the Chief Councilor’s body, and he willed the plane to go, prayed for a swift and safe departure. That, not the coronation, was the last obstacle. It would define the success or failure of all that had happened tonight. It would determine who lived and who died.
In the annals of history, it would forever define his homeland, his country’s future. The monarchy’s future.
The plane moved, taxiing from the tarmac, and then lining up for departure. The two men waited silently, breathlessly, watching the 727 roll then sweep down the runway, gather speed, lift off, and fly.
Moments that seemed like lifetimes passed. The plane’s lights dimmed, weakened to distant specks, then finally disappeared into the threatening dawn.
“Sir, if that plane doesn’t find its way safely…”
The Chief Councilor locked gazes with the officer. “We’re all dead.” He turned and left the airstrip.
Walking from the terminal to the parking lot, he ordered the tower chief to eliminate the flight from his log, and before he slid into the seat of his car, he received the final verification.
“Sir, Phantom has left our airspace and escorts have engaged. Phase I is complete. Going dark.”
The allies had engaged. It was up to them now. With a sigh of relief, the Chief Councilor removed his earpiece and lip mic then squeezed his eyes shut. Dark.
Enormous risks had been taken, unparalleled sacrifices had been made, and the night’s covert work ordered by His Majesty was done. The secret plans were active, the protections in place. All that could be done to preserve his legacy had been done.
The king is dead. Long live the king.
Until the dead heir is grown…
The long silent wait had begun.
United States of America, Kerra, Georgia
Sixteen years later…
Penny Crown blotted the coffee drip from her black skirt with a tissue. At least, no stain would show. Standing near the media center’s hallway door facing the stage, she watched Lucas and Alana interact with reporters and journalists at the tenth press conference they had requested the couple attend in the past two weeks to talk about the international swim meet being hosted next week at Miller University in Kerra, Georgia. It had been an incredibly busy May, and Penny silently rejoiced today was the 29th and this soon would be over.
No one could have predicted such intense interest, and were it the meet alone, the media wouldn’t have been intrigued beyond a quick mention. But Lucas, the swim team captain, was tall, blond, and charming, and his fiancé Alana, a team competitor, was a beautiful woman with rich red hair and twinkling green eyes. Together, they made a striking couple, wearing their hearts on their sleeves for all to see and experience.
Early on, Lucas and Alana speaking of their engagement had captivated audiences and started a buzz. Revealing that the demands of the competition required them to delay their engagement celebration fueled it. When the media coverage went national, the couple shared their engagement party was scheduled for the Friday night before the swim meet opened on Monday, and the wedding attendants were all members of the swim team. That captured the nation, and people everywhere got caught up in their romance.
Americans love nothing more than a love story, especially with their sports. The media requests erupted, and social media expanded the frenzy to cyberspace. Now, the couple received congratulations, questions, and marital-bliss advice from all around the world.
As swim team mom, Penny had agreed to escort the couple to these media events—for her daughter, Lisa, also a swim team member, and for Lucas. Though he was four years older than Lisa’s seventeen, Lucas and Lisa had been close friends since her first birthday. Penny had developed a tender spot for him right away, and after Lucas’s mother had passed away when he was twelve, Penny had felt those bonds strengthen. His father, Kyle Hoff, flatly refused to get within a mile of any media or any camera. After the dogging Penny had experienced, with reporters nipping at her heels non-stop—including an incident where two reporters outed her while she was on a stakeout, destroying her chances of gathering evidence against an unfaithful husband whose wife, Penny’s client, sorely needed it—Penny understood Kyle’s refusal. But Lucas needed someone in his corner present.
Trying to support herself and Lisa with her fledging investigations business, Penny could ill afford to spare the time, but when asked, sometimes you must make time for those who matter, regardless of the cost. As a widow who knew there would be occasions when Lisa needed her father and he couldn’t be there, Penny hoped someone would step up and fill in for him. She prayed for it. Believing someone would appear for Lisa when needed allowed Penny to sleep at night. How could she refuse Lucas’s request for mothering, knowing her daughter would one day be making similar fathering requests?
Some might be able to refuse him anyway. Penny couldn’t. Besides, she tilted her head and watched him—Relaxed. Conversational. Utterly adorable—she loved seeing Lucas happy. For such a long time after his mother’s death, he wore the sadness of grief. It gave Penny hope to see life on the other side of grief. It existed. Lucas found it. She would, too. One day, she would find life on the other side of Mark Crown. One day…
Her phone rang.
Recognizing Lisa’s ringtone, Penny stepped out the door and into a quiet hallway then answered. “Hello.”
“Mom. Oh, Mom, you’re not going to believe it!”
Lisa sounded breathless, excited, elated. Penny’s lips curved into a smile. “What it is, honey?”
“I got it. I…got…it!”
From the awe in her voice, she’d conquered something significant to her, yet confusion flooded Penny. “What did you get?”
“Accepted to Oxford and to U.G.!” Lisa squealed.
Penny jerked the phone away from her ear. University of Georgia. That had been Penny’s choice, more for financial reasons than school preference. Lisa had longed for Oxford forever. How in the world would Penny pay for Oxford? Crown Investigations was growing but still in its infancy.
Not now, Penny. Worry later. Celebrate now.
Tamping her concerns, she laughed. “That’s wonderful news.”
“It’s amazing. I can’t believe it,” Lisa said, then rattled on for a full three minutes.
Penny didn’t want to cut her off, but she really did need to get back inside to monitor what was happening. “This is terrific, honey.”
“Yeah. Now I just have to decide if I want to take on loans for Oxford or take the U.G. scholarship.”
So, Oxford hadn’t offered a scholarship at all. Penny’s worry returned and doubled. Maybe a mortgage on the house? “What are you thinking?”
“I haven’t decided yet. I’d love to get through college without loans, but for Oxford… I don’t know. I’ve always wanted Oxford, Mom.”
Penny’s heart tugged. If Mark were still alive, they’d have easily managed Oxford. But without him…? “I know.”
And worrying about money. A shaft of resentment streaked through Penny. She nixed it. Everyone worried about something, and pity parties and could-have-been regrets never resolved anything. “Well, isn’t it wonderful that you have a choice? I’m so proud of you, Lisa.” Penny’s mouth went suddenly dry. How she wished Mark could have been here to share this. He would have loved seeing Lisa so happy. “I have to run, honey. The press…”
“No problem. We’ll talk more when you get home. Don’t tell Lucas. I want to do it myself. John William and I are having lunch to celebrate.”
John William. Penny’s old boss, art mentor and dear friend. And he already had gotten the news. “Perfect,” Penny said. John William had always been there for Lisa and Penny, and he would be until his last breath. Alone himself, he had claimed them as his family years ago. “Love you.”
Lisa hung up.
Certainty bit Penny. Her daughter was too excited not to share her news, but she was still miffed about their disagreement that morning. Otherwise, she would have called Penny with the news first and she would have responded with an I love you, too.
You’re smothering me to death, Mom.
Smothered. Still baffled by that declaration, Penny sighed. How could expressing an interest in her daughter’s life be smothering her? Weren’t mothers supposed to be interested in their kids? Apparently, not that interested because her grief counselor, Dr. Elizabeth Mason, agreed with Lisa. Do more for yourself, Penny. Something just for you. Don’t live vicariously through Lisa. And don’t observe life, participate in it.
Penny resisted an urge to sigh again. Deeper. Since Mark’s murder, she and Lisa had disagreed far too often. The shock of Mark’s death had numbed them both for a time. When the numbness wore off, the disagreements began. There’d been a brief respite from them right after Penny had discovered Mark’s killer and he’d been arrested, but the reprieve hadn’t lasted long. Right or wrong, fair or not, Lisa felt Penny smothered her and she deeply resented it.
That discovery still horrified Penny. Honestly, it annoyed her, too, though she kept that reaction to herself. Lisa was all Penny had left of Mark, the most important thing in her world. How could Penny not want to do all she could do to support her? She had been totally invested in her happiness, success, and well-being long before Lisa’s first breath.
Rites of passage. Dr. Mason’s voice echoed through Penny’s mind.
Yeah, well. Moms have them, too. The issue that had been a brick wall between them certainly wouldn’t be resolved right now. Penny took in a steadying breath, dropped her phone back into her handbag, then opened the media center’s door.
Laughter greeted her.
A quick scan of the thirty or so reporters seated in front of the stage proved Lucas had charmed the media. Again. He definitely had a knack for it.
Penny ducked inside and listened.
“Family tradition is for the groom to give the pendant to the bride on their wedding day,” he said, responding to a question Penny had missed.
Whose family tradition was it? His or hers? Unsure, Penny listened closely.
“So, Alana, why are you wearing it now?” A familiar female reporter wearing red stopped and gasped. “You haven’t eloped!”
“No,” Alana said. “The wedding is still the Saturday following the swim meet.” She glanced at Lucas, who nodded, then went on. “So much goes into preparing for an international meet. Miller University has been amazing, but the logistics alone, coordinating all the teams, are a nightmare. They just make it look easy.” Alana smiled and lifted her shoulder in a dainty shrug. “Lucas knew I was disappointed about delaying our engagement party and so I got the pendant early.” She pivoted to smile just for Lucas. “He was being thoughtful, and, well, being Lucas.”
He dipped his chin and smiled back at Alana, clearly head over heels in love with her. “Every man who has ever loved a woman knows exactly why,” he said. “I want her to be happy—and I want to stay out of the proverbial doghouse.”
Laughter echoed off the walls, mingling with a buzz of mumbled agreements. A plethora of camera flashes aimed at the couple had Penny averting her eyes. Gauging by expressions, there wasn’t a person in the room who disagreed with Lucas. Not a woman who didn’t want that thoughtfulness aimed in her direction or a man who wouldn’t move mountains to avoid landing in the doghouse. Mark would have been among them. He couldn’t stand Penny being angry with him. Another winner, Lucas. He won over the women without alienating the men. Maybe he should have majored in diplomatic relations instead of public administration. You’ve definitely got a gift.
Before nightfall, these photos would be plastered across the globe.