"Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, and cometh down from the Father of lights, with whom is no
variableness, neither shadow of turning." 
James 1:17


"You did what with them?"

The thin young woman gripping the telephone receiver cowered even though the man on the other end of the line was behind bars and miles away. "I didn't know they were so important, Sam. They were just a bunch of old keys in a drawer. How was I supposed to know any of them mattered?"

"If they were mine, they mattered," he shouted. "Get them back, all of them, you hear."

"I'll - I'll try."

"You'd better do more than try," he said with evident menace. "You'd better have every one of those keys in your hand and be waiting for me when I get out of here in sixteen more days or you'll never do another one of those idiotic craft pictures of yours - or any other kind."

"They're three-dimensional collages," she replied, sniffling. "I've sold quite a few of them and it's a good thing, too, or I'd of starved waiting for you to serve your time. I don't know why you couldn't have just told them what they wanted to know and cut a deal."

"Plea bargain?" He cursed colorfully. "Not on your life. I kept my mouth shut for a reason and you had the keys to my future - to our future - until you lost them."

"But which ones do you want? How will I tell?" She began to sob. "Oh, Sam, honey, I - I'm so sorry."

"Shut up. Pull yourself together and think." 

"I will. I promise. I only used the keys in three or four pictures and I'm pretty sure I remember who bought them. If they won't sell them back to me I'll do whatever I have to do to get my hands on them. I promise."

"You'd better," he rasped. "I'm not the only one who's counting on you. My partners aren't nearly as soft-hearted as I am. Understand?"

Nodding, she bid him a tearful goodbye, ran to the shoebox where she kept her receipts and dumped its contents onto her bed where she could spread everything out. . .

. . . . The trembling fingers of one hand clasped the receipts while she gently touched her cheek with the other, remembering previous encounters. She dared not fail. 

Chapter One

Charlene Nancy Boyd, Chancy for short, loved antiques so much that she was willing to work 24/7 to find and preserve them. On balmy spring days like this one, however, she was happy to find a good excuse to leave her shop and venture into the beautiful Ozark hills. Dogwood trees had started to lose their white blossoms and the oaks were producing tiny chartreuse leaves that would grow, darken and soon fill the skyline. 

The auction at the old farm place off Hawkins Mill Road was the kind that always made her sad. A couple's lifetime worth of belongings was being liquidated. Both Jewel and Pete Hawkins had passed away and their heirs were selling their entire estate, one piece at a time. 

Those items which didn't interest surviving relatives were often the most valuable, Chancy knew, and she wanted to be there to bid. If she bought something that eventually brought a profit, fine. If she let nostalgia or enthusiasm influence her and paid too much, that was simply part of the business. She much preferred auctions to private sales because she was far too soft-hearted when it came to the old people who were selling their last treasures. . . .

. . . In the background, the auctioneer began making his opening announcements. Chancy tensed, half-listening. . .


. . . The twin-engine Cessna 310 flew low over Serenity and set up for a landing at the rural airstrip. There was no control tower but that didn't bother pilot Nate Collins. Considering some of the storms he'd encountered in the course of his job, nothing much rattled him. The excitement of being a storm-chasing meteorologist had influenced him so deeply that he often felt a letdown when nothing dangerous was in the offing.

He banked, flared and set the wheels of the plane on the numbers painted at the end of the short runway. Cutting the power he taxied to transient parking where a beat-up old green pickup truck waited.

An elderly man wearing denim overalls and a frayed jacket over a blue shirt got out of the truck, shaded his eyes beneath the bill of a sweat-stained baseball cap and waved. 

Nate set his jaw as he returned the greeting. Grandpa Ted looked more unsteady every time he visited. Good thing he'd done his homework and lined up a retirement home for him and Grandma Hester before he'd left Oklahoma. It was high time they gave up this hard, dreary lifestyle and moved into a place where they'd be properly taken care of. And where he could look in on them every day if need be, Nate added, feeling pleased with himself for having taken the initiative and solved everyone's problems ahead of time. . . . . .

. . .Ted greeted him with a bear hug and a slap on the shoulder while the old, shaggy, black-and-white farm dog riding in the back of the truck barked a greeting. 

"Good to see ya, son," Ted said. "Good flight?"

"No problems." Nate grabbed his overnight bag and laptop computer. "I see you've still got that noisy old dog."

"Yup. Domino and I are a pair. We're both still hangin' in there. He's good company, especially when I want to sit on the porch and watch the world go by."

"How've you been? And how's Grandma?"

"Oh, you know us," Ted said with a wide grin splitting his leathered face. "Even old age can't keep us down. Your Grandma's been bakin' ever since we heard you was comin'. She's made all your favorites."

Nate rubbed his flat stomach with his free hand. "Good thing I don't get to visit that often or I'd be fat as one of those pigs you used to raise when I was a kid."

"Speaking of being busy, how's the storm chasin' business? After all those hurricanes a few years back, are tornadoes startin' to look tame?" 

Nate laughed and clapped the old man lightly on the back. "Not from where I stand. I'm glad I could sneak away for a few days. Tornado season is almost here and I never know what may pop up."

"How's this week look? Can you stick around a little while, do you think?"

"Probably. There's a high pressure ridge in place that should keep most of the bad weather out of the plains, at least for a few days. I'll keep my eye on it."

Nate walked toward the truck with his grandfather and paused to ruffle the old dog's silky ears before he asked Ted, "Mind if I drive? I still have a soft spot in my heart for this old pickup."

"Not at all. Keys are in it. It'll be my pleasure to just ride for a change." He chuckled as he hoisted the legs of his overalls and climbed stiffly into the passenger's seat. The door slammed with a rattle and a dull bang. "Reminds me of the time I was teachin' you to drive and you ran us into that ditch over by the Mullins place. We like to never got out of that mud."

"In this very same truck, back when it was almost new. I'm amazed you didn't yell at me," Nate added. "We did have some good times, didn't we?"

"That, we did." Ted's shoulders shook with silent humor. "I wasn't too sure it was gonna work out when you first came to stay with us but you turned out all right, son. Yes, sir, you surely did."

"Thanks to you and Grandma Hester," Nate said, sobering. His fingers tightened around the steering wheel. "I owe you both a lot."

"Nonsense," Ted said. "You don't owe us a bloomin' thing, boy."

"Still, I'm thankful I'm in a position to take care of you the way you took care of me."

Watching his grandfather out of the corner if his eye to gauge his reaction, Nate saw him stiffen and push himself up straighter in the seat. 

"You ain't gonna start that nonsense again, are you?" 

Nate ignored his scowl. "It's not nonsense. You and Grandma deserve a chance to kick back and relax."

The old man sighed and shook his head as if he thought Nate was addled. "If I don't have my chores and my shop and Hester don't have her kitchen and garden to tend, we might as well curl up and die right now. I appreciate your concern, truly I do, but we're not ready to retire from life."

"Okay," Nate said. He didn't want to start off on a sour note. There'd be plenty of time to discuss making sensible changes during the remainder of his visit. 

He drove out of the airport and headed down Byron Road. To his surprise, cars were parked on the grassy shoulder on both sides of the two-lane road as he neared its junction with Hawkins Mill Road.

"What's going on here?" Nate asked.

"Farm auction." Ted grimaced as if it pained him to say the words. "The Hawkins place. Jewel went first. Ol' Pete was lost without her. He didn't last three months after she died. Didn't think he would." 

Nate arched an eyebrow but held his peace. Jewel and Pete Hawkins had been friends and neighbors of his grandparents for literally decades. Losing them both so close together had to have been difficult. He saw no need to point out the obvious correlation between their lives. 

"Half the population of Fulton County must be here," Nate remarked with disdain. "Who taught these people how to park, anyhow?"

"Old geezers like me," Ted answered. "Your grandma wanted to come to the auction today but I talked her out of it. We'll never live long enough to wear out all the junk we've already got, let alone find good use for any of this stuff." When Nate's head snapped around the elderly man guffawed. "That don't mean we're ready to pack it up and move to some fancy old folk's home, so don't go gettin' any funny ideas, y'hear."

"Yes, sir." 

Nate slowed even more, edging forward inches at a time rather than scrape one or more of the unevenly parked vehicles. "I don't believe these people. Don't they care about their cars?"

"Sure they do. They're just not in an all-fired hurry the way you are. Slow down. We're almost home. Those chocolate chip cookies you're cravin' will wait."

Before Nate could comment, a slightly-built woman staggered onto the roadway directly in front of him. She was carrying such a big box her face was obscured and she obviously couldn't see where she was going. He slammed on the brakes to keep from hitting her, jammed the truck into neutral and jumped out, fully intending the deliver a lecture on safety that would turn her ears red. 

The woman must have heard him screech to a halt and get out because she peeked around the side of the cardboard box and gave him a sheepish grin. "Sorry about that. I should have looked before I crossed. That's my van right over there. The tan one that says, 'Chancy's Second Chances' on the side. It's not locked. Do you mind?" She passed the bulky box to Nate with a smile. "Thanks. That was getting heavy."

Flabbergasted, he stood there in the middle of the road holding the box and staring after her as she turned and hurried back the way she'd come. 

Traffic was beginning to pile up in both directions. Someone honked. Nate's head swiveled from side to side as if he were watching a professional tennis match. True to her word, the woman had vanished back into the rapidly dispersing auction crowd. Southern manners dictated that he deliver the box to her van whether he liked it or not, and given the worsening traffic jam, the sooner the better. 

As he stepped out of the way he noted that Ted had slid behind the wheel of the farm truck. The old man leaned out the open window to call, "Can't park here. I'll go turn around and come back for you."

Nate shook his head. "There's no need for that. Just get out of this mess and go on home. I'll walk over."

"You sure?"

"Positive. It's not far."

"Okay. I'll meet you at the house. Take your time."

"Yeah, right." Nate was miffed. Free time was the one thing he had far too little of. He'd come to Serenity for the sole purpose of convincing his grandparents to sell their small farm and move to Oklahoma. He had not flown all those miles to waste one minute carrying useless junk to some peddler's wagon. He was a man on a mission, a man with an important goal.