It’s almost party time! And it wouldn’t be a party without surprises, special guests—and prizes. So stay tuned over the next few weeks for details of the celebration, which will include a fun online debut party with friend and fellow author Krista Phillips. Krista’s first novel, Sandwich: With a Side of Romance, also releases from Abingdon Press on September 1, and we’re in the final stages of party planning.
In the meantime, here’s a sneak preview of The Road to Mercy, courtesy of Abingdon Press. If you would like to read the first chapter, you can find it at the Abingdon Press website (click the cover to the right).
October 10, 1959
Jack Randall jerked his foot from the accelerator and instinctively applied the brakes. His mind raced as his Plymouth Belvedere slowed to a stop. Police cars with lights blazing blocked the intersection that led to his home. The reflection off the wet pavement created an eerie blur, and shadowy figures danced across the sides of the squad cars.
Must be a bad accident. The storm that passed earlier in the night had soaked the black asphalt.
As he watched the policeman walk toward his car, Jack cranked down the driver’s side window. The uniformed officer flashed a bright light in his direction, not quite in his eyes.
“Sorry, sir, no through traffic this morning. A small plane crashed on the Neimann farm.”
Jack’s heart pounded. “Anyone hurt? I need to see if my family is—”
“No one on the ground was hurt, sir. Everyone in the plane was killed. May I see your driver’s license?”
Jack reached into a back pocket for his well-worn wallet. From it he pulled a small piece of paper, which he placed into the gloved hand of the Illinois State Trooper.
“Did the storm bring it down?”
The officer nodded while studying the license. “Lightning took out the engine. It was en route to St. Louis.” His brusque demeanor softened and he returned the paper to Jack. “A family of four. Two kids onboard.”
“Terrible.” Jack tucked the license back inside his wallet.
“You can go home now, Mr. Randall. Hug your kids. Life is short.” The trooper tipped his hat and stepped away from the blue sedan.
Jack punched his pillow down. Sleep would not come. Thoughts of the plane crash crowded his consciousness. His wife lay beside him. His children were safe in their beds. Why did he have such an uneasy feeling? Why did he feel compelled to go to the crash site?
He prayed softly and sat up on the side of the bed. “Lord, what should I do?”
Running his hands through his hair, he stared at the fluorescent green numbers on the clock face. Five thirty.
“Jack?” His wife roused beside him.
“I’m sorry.” He turned to her. “I didn’t mean to wake you, honey.”
“When I came home this morning, the state police had the intersection blocked. A plane crashed on the Neimann farm. I’m thinking about driving over there.”
“What can you do?” She propped herself on an elbow.
He kissed her on the forehead. “I don’t know. I just have to see if I can help.”
A few minutes later, Jack turned left out of his gravel driveway, his headlights illuminating the heart-shaped leaves of the tall catalpa trees growing in the vacant lot across the street. Pods dangled from the branches like bony fingers, sending a chilling reminder of death through him.
The Neimann farm lay to the southwest, about a mile as the crow flies, toward the small town of Mercy. He had been there last year for an estate sale after old man Neimann passed away. The Neimann children had auctioned off the farm equipment and livestock. Mrs. Neimann continued to live in the house, while the land had been rented to other farmers in the community.
Sunrise streaked the twilight sky by the time Jack approached the turn onto Mercy Road. This narrow strip of asphalt led all the way into town, no more than ten miles past the farm, which was less than a thousand yards beyond the intersection.
He pulled his sedan into the gravel driveway and recognized the face of a friend, Canaan County Deputy Sheriff Harold Chester.
“Hey, buddy. How are you?” Chester said, walking toward him.
“Good, but I heard about the plane crash. Anything I can do?”
Deputy Chester shook his head. “A real shame. Two beautiful kids, maybe five to seven years old.” A tear welled in the deputy’s eye. “Not much older than my kids or yours.”
“Need any help documenting the scene, measurements, anything?”
Chester smiled, brushing moisture from his cheek. “You’re still a law enforcement man at heart, Jack. Gets in your blood, don’t it?” He nodded toward the barn. “We’ve got it done. I’m just waiting for the Feds to come in and do their assessments before we cart off the wreckage. There’s metal all over this farm.”
“Not surprising,” Jack said.
“I’m not sure how the bodies were so intact. Not much trauma, except for the pilot. He had a gash on his head. We’re pretty sure he was the father. He was still inside the plane. The mother and two kids were thrown out.”
“Would you mind if I look around?”
“Not at all. You know not to move anything.”
“Sure. No problem.”
The deputy pointed toward the orange streaks in the awakening horizon. “The main wreckage is about five hundred feet beyond the barn.”
Jack pulled his flannel shirt collar up around his neck and set out toward the deteriorating structure that stood between him and the crash site. The chilly wind chastened him for not wearing a jacket. Thankfully, he had worn his boots. Weeds had taken over the lot. The rain still clung to them, and his pants legs were quickly soaked to the knees. He scowled. If old man Neimann could see the shape this place was in, he would turn in his grave.
Jack noticed the faint odor of decaying cow manure as he walked through the open livestock gate. The old hayfield beyond had grown past the time to harvest, and ragweed stood half a foot higher than the tops of the fescue, alfalfa, and red clover.
He saw the plane wreckage straight ahead. From this distance it mimicked a kind of abstract sculpture someone had dropped onto the field. The wet surface glistened in the early morning light, creating an unnerving glow. As he approached, Jack noticed beads of moisture covering the white, twisted metal.
Four people died in this wreckage.
The distinct odor of burnt wiring filled his nostrils. No doubt lightning had struck the plane. Fortunately, the whole thing didn’t go up in flames. Not that the outcome would have been any different.
There was an unpleasantness in thinking about the bodies now lying in the county morgue. It was a far cry from the destination they must have planned in St. Louis. Lord willing, those four souls had reached an even better place, the throne of their Creator.
Had it not been for such a terrible accident, the beauty of this quiet morning would have been refreshing. He loved the open land. Especially when it stretched further than the eyes could see, like it did on this estate. Old man Neimann had certainly enjoyed a gorgeous piece of nature. Perhaps he was part of the welcoming committee for the…the… Jack realized he didn’t even know the names of those who had died here.
He reached out to touch the squared-off tail section of the plane. Teardrops of moisture clung to his fingers. He wiped his hands on his trousers. There was nothing he could do. He might as well go home to his family.
Turning toward the barn, a piece of trash from the plane caught his attention. A familiar shape out of context. It took a moment for him to process what he was seeing. Something was missing. What was it? Lack of sleep had slowed his cognitive processes, and he strained to put the pieces together.
A bottle. It was a rubber nipple from a baby bottle.
He thought back to what Chet had said. Two children, five and seven years old, had been found. They wouldn’t need a baby bottle. So what was…?
The realization hit him hard. An infant had been onboard. There was another body. Oh, God. Help me find that child. He needs to be with his family, not alone in this field.
Jack scratched his head. Where should he start looking? If only he knew where the other bodies had been located. The mother had likely been holding the child in her arms during the flight. Chet had said she was expelled from the plane, but where had she been found?
He scanned the weeds for a sign. A red kerchief lay east of the wreckage. Perhaps the mother had worn it over her shoulder when burping the baby?
Come on, Jack, you’re grasping at straws. Just walk around the site in a grid. You know the rules, he reminded himself. Search and Rescue 101.
He set out to walk every inch of soil in the field. It took more than thirty ever-widening circles before he reached the fence line. When he approached the final turn, he debated what he should do. No doubt he had scoured the entire field. Perhaps it was time to call in assistance.
Then he heard a sound.
He stopped to listen.
Only the low chirping of birds filled his ears. Must have been a barn cat.
Wait! He heard it again. It was coming from that haystack, and it sounded like…a baby.
Jack sprinted toward the loose mound of hay. How could a child have survived such a horrendous crash? What would he find? Walking closer, he saw what appeared to be a newborn. The baby was dressed in bright blue and lay motionless in a crater of grey-green straw.
Energy drained from Jack’s body. Had he arrived too late? When he touched the infant, he knew he hadn’t. The child’s soft, pale skin felt moist and warm. Jack gently picked up the sole survivor of the crash and held him to his chest, shielding him from the cold wind.
Panic replaced relief. The baby needed immediate medical attention. He could have internal injuries, complications from exposure, or even shock.
Lack of sleep had begun to take its toll, and Jack operated on remote power. He traversed the uneven terrain back to his car as fast as he could without jostling the fragile life cradled in his arms. If Chet was still there, he could drive them to the hospital in the squad car. If not, he would find a way to secure the baby in the front seat of his Belvedere.
When Jack passed through the gate, he saw the deputy’s green Bel Air, but no sign of Harold Chester. “Chet! Chet! I need help!”
A few minutes later, Jack watched Harold Chester’s right foot hover close to the floorboard of the police cruiser. His other leg jiggled nervously, as if peeved that it had no particular task in this special mission. They had decided to take the baby to Mercy Hospital. Although a small facility, it was the closest to the farm.
Despite the upset and commotion that had come into his world today, the infant lay quietly in Jack’s lap, swaddled in Chet’s olive green jacket. The siren screamed, making conversation impossible. Jack cupped the baby’s ears between his hands and tried to focus on the narrow road ahead.
A patchwork of color blurred in his peripheral vision as they sped past white clapboard farmhouses and red barns with silver silos. He imagined farmers interrupting their chores and wives peering from porches to investigate the early morning disturbance. They would soon be the talk of the neighborhood. In fact, the party lines were probably already buzzing.
When Chet pulled into the hospital parking lot and stopped, Jack jumped out of the car and ran to the hospital entrance. Because the deputy had radioed ahead, a group of doctors and nurses met him at the door. As he transferred the baby into the arms of a nurse, the infant opened his blue eyes and held Jack’s gaze—for what seemed like a lifetime.
Three days later, Pastor Sam Lewis caught Jack’s shoulder and spun him around. “I heard about the rescue. Good work, brother.” He reached to shake Jack’s hand.
Jack smiled and thanked the reverend. People had made over him like he was some kind of hero. But he had done what any other man would do. “Right place at the right time,” he said. “That child is fortunate to be alive.”
“Blessed, I would say.” The reverend nodded. “In fact, I believe God has plans for that young man.”
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