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Thrillers Sampler: The Best Of WildBlue Press

 

Best of WildBlue Press

Thrillers Sampler

 

 

 

 

We are providing this sampler so you can see if you like these books before you buy them.

https://wildbluepress.com

 

These samplers are works of fiction. Names, characters, businesses, places, events and incidents are either the products of the author’s imagination or used in a fictitious manner. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or actual events is purely coincidental.

 

 

Best of WildBlue Press Thrillers Sampler published by:

WILDBLUE PRESS

P.O. Box 102440

Denver, Colorado 80250

 

Publisher Disclaimer: Any opinions, statements of fact or fiction, descriptions, dialogue, and citations found in this book were provided by the author, and are solely those of the author. The publisher makes no claim as to their veracity or accuracy, and assumes no liability for the content.

 

 

 

Copyright 2017 by WildBlue Press

 

Each book contained in this sampler is copyrighted by its respective author.

 

All rights reserved. No part of this book, or the excerpts of books contained herein may be reproduced in any form or by any means without the prior written consent of the Publisher, excepting brief quotes used in reviews.

 

WILDBLUE PRESS is registered at the U.S. Patent and Trademark Offices.

 

Cover design, interior formatting by Elijah Toten

www.totencreative.com

Table of Contents

 

Lockout by John J. Nance

Savage Highway by Richard Godwin

Borderland by Peter Eichstaedt

Pitfall by Cameron Bane

Paper Wings by Les Abend

The Pure and the Hated by Richard Godwin

 

 

 

 

Click to see all of our WildBlue Press thriller books.

 

LOCKOUT

 

By John J. Nance

 

 

PROLOGUE

October 2012

 

 

On approach to Anchorage International Airport, Alaska

 

Dan Horneman tried to relax his death grip on the control yoke, but the turbulence buffeting the Boeing 737 was alarming, and with every lurch his right hand squeezed harder.

There was no time to enjoy, or even look at, the snow-covered Chugach Mountains, a framed wonderland off to the right. He was barely hanging on.

Friggin’ testosterone test! Dan growled to himself. This flight wasn’t a formal checkride, but obviously Captain Tollefson had decided to see what the new guy was made of and whether he could hold his own against the always flawless airmanship of the Arctic Eagles—the name the airline’s experienced, Anchorage-based pilots called themselves. Dan had been warned about their superior attitude, a special self-appointed elite among Pangia World Airways pilots, and so far Tollefson was living the image precisely

And I had to pick one of the worst weather days of the year!

It wasn’t as if the whole hazing experience was a surprise—Jerry Tollefson had asked enough ridiculously overbearing technical questions before departure from Salt Lake to tip his hand. Slightly younger than Dan’s thirty-eight years and slightly shorter at five nine, Tollefson seemed like a decent sort, if a bit too sure of himself. But Dan fully expected to be grilled further during their layover. Clearly Tollefson had heard the rumors about Dan Horneman.

For that matter, who hadn’t?

From his left seat position, the captain was glancing over at Dan now with a smile, clearly enjoying the grim, determined look on his first officer’s face, and the arrogance riled Dan even further.

“It’s a mite breezy today, to say the least,” Jerry Tollefson said.

“No problem,” Dan managed, trying to force a smile, his throat feeling like cotton. It was his turn to land, and there was no question that any competent Pangia Airways copilot should be able to take any weather conditions in stride.

Yet …

Tollefson was leaning forward importantly, reading something on his forward computer screen as Dan reached to the glareshield and adjusted the airspeed selector, dialing in 160 knots, an electronic order to the autothrottles to maintain that speed. The landing gear was already down and locked and the flaps extended to thirty degrees—the final setting for landing. He was fighting to keep the Boeing 737 under control, the jet’s flight path moving them steadily toward the runway even though the nose of the jet was pointing almost twenty degrees to the left, crabbing into the wind. Their destination, Anchorage runway 7R—one of two parallel runways aligned with compass heading 070—lay three miles ahead, the threshold of the runway beginning on a small cliff some 300 feet above sea level. All afternoon it had been swept by a vicious wind from the north propelling snowdrifts across its 12,000-foot length. To make matters worse, the tower had reported poor braking on 7R, the only runway open and plowed. He might need every inch of the ice-covered surface to fight the airplane safely to the ground and slow her down.

“Winds are three-five-zero at twenty-two, gusts to thirty …” Captain Tollefson said, repeating the latest information from the tower. “That’s about a twenty-five knot crosswind component, and … our limits.”

“Got it,” Dan managed in a low croak.

The tower controller cut through his concentration with the final landing clearance, and Jerry responded in a routine tone of voice. “Pangia 113 cleared to land Seven-Right.”

The jet seemed to be settling, but its motion felt a bit strange, and Dan glanced at the airspeed indicator without registering the value. They were bouncing so severely it was hard to read any of the instruments.

He was behind the airplane, barely hanging onto her, like a terrified rider trying to stay on a runaway horse.

An interphone call chime from the flight attendants had reverberated through the cockpit moments before, and Dan’s brain was only now registering the fact that the captain had already pulled the interphone handset to his ear, his attention suddenly diverted.

“Smoke in the cabin? Where’s it coming from?” Tollefson asked.

From what Dan could hear of the exchange, smoke was curling from one of the restrooms in the back, and it was getting worse, which could mean a real emergency. Whatever the cause, it was now completely distracting the captain.

Dan doubled his concentration on the flight instruments, looking in momentary panic for the ILS, the Instrument Landing System indications, before remembering that the captain had turned it off.

“Dan, you don’t need the ILS or the flight director,” Jerry had said moments before, breezily playing the instructor. “Your runway is in sight and we’re cleared for a visual approach. Real simple, partner. There it is. Go land on it.”

For some reason, being cleared for a so-called “visual approach” hadn’t struck fear in his heart. At least not like it had before. He’d had almost no flight time in a real 737 since passing his rather pro forma checkride, and even that had been administered in a flight simulator safely bolted to a concrete floor. Not that he couldn’t fly manually, but what was upsetting him was the unnecessary loss of the Instrument Landing System’s guidance. He wasn’t used to flying a big jet visually, without the step-by-step procedures of what pilots called an instrument approach.

Dan glanced quickly at the captain. Mr. Macho over there seemed to love seat-of-your-pants flying. He half expected Jerry to turn around and snap off the autothrottles as well, which would force Dan to ride the throttles manually with his left hand to maintain airspeed. He was barely hanging onto the beast as it was!

The fleeting thought that he should make absolutely sure the autothrottles were, indeed, engaged crossed his mind. But the thought instantly fell victim to the avalanche of other stimuli cascading through his consciousness. Trying to figure out why the big Boeing seemed so sluggish and slow was taking center stage.

To Dan’s left, Jerry was still hunched over the center console with the interphone handset, trying to guide the flight attendants through the specific steps needed to isolate a cabin fire. Whatever was happening back there wasn’t getting any better, and Jerry was violating the sterile cockpit rule talking about other matters during a difficult approach—not that Dan wanted to challenge him on protocol. They might have to declare an emergency any second and ask for the fire trucks, but the immediate plan would still be the same: Land as expeditiously as possible on the runway just ahead.

There it was again, that same feeling they were sinking too much. It shuddered through Dan, prompting him to pull more back pressure on the yoke as he ran the pitch trim nose up to compensate. He had to be missing something. Nothing felt right!

Still more back pressure and more nose up trim. Definitely not right!

“Get out the fire extinguishers and check the trash bins in the restrooms and turn off the circuit breakers in the galley,” Jerry barked the order into the phone.

“Should we declare an emergency?” Dan asked, glancing at Jerry in time to see him shake his head.

Dan glanced back up at the glareshield, confirming the 160-knot speed he’d dialed into the speed selection window. But his confusion was growing over what the wallowing of the 737 was trying to tell him. He stole another glance at the real airspeed indicator with such a firm expectation of seeing the same 160-knot reading that his brain refused to contradict him with the fact that it read only 130 knots.

The jet was descending through an altitude of 600 feet above the snow-covered surface of Turnigan Arm, the body of shallow seawater that alternately became a vast mudflat at low tide, the scope of it extending from the western end of the runway several miles across the channel.

“You’re kidding! A cigarette in the trashcan?” The captain was shaking his head, still on the interphone.

Once more Dan ran the pitch trim nose up and increased his pull on the control yoke to get them back up on the glide path, but as the nose seemed to respond, a sudden, massive, audible vibration coursed through the control column, refusing to stop, the vibrations buzzing through Dan’s consciousness, confusing him, paralyzing him, the shaking making no more sense than the sudden blur of motion in his peripheral vision as the captain loosed a guttural cry and lunged forward, flinging the handset away.

“JESUS!”

Tollefson jammed the throttles to the stops and shoved the control yoke forward. The engines wound up to full power, accelerating and buzzing at full takeoff setting, as Dan moved his left hand to back up the captain’s on the throttles, but the captain angrily waved him away.

“I’VE GOT IT! MY AIRPLANE!”

The seismic shaking of the control column stopped, but Tollefson’s eyes were aflame as he glanced toward his copilot.

With the airspeed rapidly increasing and the nose down, they sank below the 300-foot threshold of the runway as the four blood-red VASI lights ahead disappeared.

Dan was already folding up with embarrassment. He’d failed to recognize the so-called stick shaker, the most basic emergency warning in the cockpit—the 737’s way of telling its pilots that the plane was a mere three knots away from not having enough airspeed to stay in the air. He’d all but stalled them, and now Jerry was fighting to keep them in the air.

Tollefson pulled gingerly, carefully, the big 737 too low to get over the embankment less than a quarter mile ahead without more altitude, the airspeed accelerating slowly now above 130 knots. He arrested their overall descent less than 150 feet above the muddy bay, the engines screaming, the Boeing gaining airspeed, the captain careful not to re-enter the event horizon of a stall as they began climbing again, struggling to nurse the jet back above the altitude of the runway threshold.

And just as quickly they were high enough and the runway surface reappeared, the aircraft now climbing, the airspeed coming up through 165 knots, flashing over the threshold embankment at the end without shearing off the landing gear, but with little more than thirty feet to spare.

Jerry swept the throttles back to idle, fighting too much airspeed as well as the vicious, gusting crosswind. He wrestled the 737 toward the concrete, the yoke continuously in motion, using the rudder to kick out the twenty-degree crab into a sideslip as he set the jet down on the left main gear about halfway down the runway. He let her roll to the right enough to settle the right main gear and nose gear and in a blur of movement yanked the spoilers out and the thrust reversers into operation, struggling to keep her on centerline, listening to the chattering of the anti-skid system as they slowly decelerated on the slick surface through a hundred knots, then eighty, then sixty, the end of the runway coming up too fast, his stomach in a knot.

With agonizing slowness the speed decreased until at last it dropped below twenty, and Jerry Tollefson gingerly steered the 737 to the left and off the end of the runway, where he came to a complete stop on the runup apron.

The captain took a deep breath and looked over at Dan Horneman, as if an alien had suddenly plopped down in the copilot’s seat.

“What in holy hell was THAT, Dan?”

“I …”

“You almost killed us!”

“I … I don’t know, Jerry, I …”

“Where the hell was your airspeed control?”

“I had the autothrottles on …”

“You WHAT?”

“The autothrottles, I had them on and …”

“No you didn’t…they weren’t even armed! I turned them off when I killed the ILS and told you to fly the damned approach manually. You were supposed to be flying this mother, not programming her!”

“I don’t know what to say, Jerry, other than I humbly apologize, and I recognize that you saved us.”

Tollefson was shaking his head in utter amazement, his left hand still on the yoke and shaking slightly as he tried to get a handle on what to say and how to answer the tower controller who was waiting for them to change to Ground Control.

“Where in the hell did you learn to fly, Horneman? Microsoft?”

CHAPTER ONE

Three Years Later

 

 

National Security Agency, Ft. Meade, Maryland (9:05 a.m. EST / 1405 Zulu)

 

Jenny Reynolds sighed and let her mind refocus as she forced herself to stop tapping out a desktop drum solo with her pencil. Two hours trying to unravel a mystery message had passed her personal breaking point.

Jenny shook her head in a gesture no one noticed and forced herself to disconnect from the puzzle. An hour ago she’d yanked off her iPod headset to concentrate, but the challenge of an uncracked code would not stop chewing on her. Why had a simple unidentified satellite burst managed to offend her so profoundly?

NSA’s satellites and computers picked up endless bursts every hour that she couldn’t translate, at least at first—transmissions with no known syntax, no known purpose, and no recognized source. Of course, there were also sophisticated communication “gamers” all over the planet who loved to stick a finger in the NSA’s eye from time to time with sequences which were exactly what they appeared to be: garbage. Gobbledygook uplinked just to worry Washington and give Ivan, Ahmed, or Chan a good laugh, especially since that scumbag Snowden defected.

But this transmission was different somehow. Not a game. Wrong point of origin, wrong frequency, wrong everything. It was there, just out of reach, teasing her to recognize something in the encoding.

And, there was that other disturbing reality: People didn’t waste time encoding messages hidden in frequency harmonics and piggybacked on routine transmissions unless there was a very specific purpose to be served.

I’m trying to be the perfectionist again! she thought, well aware that her penchant for being perfect tended to irritate her geeky coworkers—as did the fact that she liked to dress well. “Learn to call for help every now and then,” she’d been told in her recent job review. It was a slap in the face that still stung.

Jenny slipped her feet back into the black pumps that gave her a fighting chance of seeming taller than her petite five feet, and she force-marched herself through the labyrinth of cubicles to her boss’s corner office.

As usual, Seth Zieglar’s lanky six-foot frame was pretzeled nose-down in his computer, yet he was acutely aware of the skirt leaning into his doorway.

“You clattered?” he asked without looking up.

“Sorry?”

“Your stilettos,” he explained, looking over and smiling. “They’re like your signature. Along with your Georgia accent, that is.”

“They’re called pumps, Seth.”

He pulled off his glasses, his voice characteristically laconic as his eyes took in her black skirt and tailored, slightly frilly white blouse. “Whatever they are, may I say without fear of receiving sexual harassment charges, that they become you?”

“As long as you don’t call them FM boots again. That wasn’t even subtle.”

“Never! I’ve been appropriately reeducated. Although … now that you’ve once again voluntarily instilled the image of hooker boots in my head …”

“Seth!”

He raised his hands in surrender. “Sorry!”

“I’ve got a problem.” She laid her notes on his desk and sat down beside him. “You said I should call for help, so … ‘Help!’”

“Sweet! See? Wasn’t that hard, was it?” He pointed dramatically at her face. “I especially liked the tentative curl of your lower lip.”

“Jeez, Seth!”

“Okay … all seriousness aside, what’s up?”

She sat down beside him. “The computers snagged this burst transmission about three hours ago. The thing was trying to ride undetected on a routine satellite uplink from the UK. The source, however, I think is somewhere off the Irish coast, and while there’s one US Navy ship splashing around in the area, this isn’t a syntax the navy ever uses. Frankly, I don’t know what the heck it is.”

“Well … any guesses?”

She sighed, another sign of defeat she hated. “It’s … probably a programming order of some sort. It’s asking another computer to do something. Closest thing in my experience would be the multiple-repeat commands we learned to send from the Jet Propulsion Lab in California to distant spacecraft. You know, ‘Hey there, V-Jer, turn your antenna towards this, fire your rockets at that, and give us a precise readback.’ Orders we wanted to absolutely make sure got through without error.”

“But what’s the urgency, Jen? What’s worrying you?”

“Dude, what’s it programming? That’s what’s bothering me.”

“Okay,” he said, stroking his bony chin.

“I mean, is this a targeting order for a remotely piloted vehicle, like a Global Hawk or a Predator? Is it a test? A … a programming order for a spacecraft that the owner of the satellite doesn’t want seen?”

“You’ve run all the usual …”

“Oh, yeah,” she said, unconsciously running a hand through her mane of perpetually curly chestnut hair. “I jammed it through the main supercomputers, and they can’t match it.”

Seth leaned forward, studying her. “You’ve got a hunch though, don’t you?”

“No … not a hunch, really. Just a worry.”

“Go ahead.”

“Well, just that … if something sophisticated and in motion is being programmed, we need to know what it is and where it’s headed or pointed. I mean, taking into account everyone in the world who wants to harm us and the fact that the only countries on the planet who remain our friends are Monaco and McMurdo Sound in Antarctica …”

“McMurdo is not a country, Jen.”

“My point exactly. Anyway, it makes me real nervous to have what feels like a targeting sequence being sent to an unseen, unknown receiver.”

“Was there a latitude or longitude in the message?”

“Maybe. There are numbers.”

He nodded. “Okay, then pull our esteemed friends at the North American Air Defense Command into this, and if they act puzzled, light up Defense Intelligence.”

“Whoa, Seth! I’m worried, not professionally suicidal. You want DIA pulled in on nothing more than a wild suspicion of mine?”

“We at least need to know if this is one of ours, right?”

“You think it could be a US military thing? Like a black project?”

“They don’t tell us, Jen. That’s why they call them black projects.”

“Would they tell us if we asked real nice?” she countered, tilting her head.

“Not directly, but something would be said. Or someone very authoritative with dark glasses and a black suit would be sent over to make us calm down. And, by the by, just because the navy hasn’t used a particular code pattern doesn’t mean they couldn’t be doing so for the first time.”

“You are kidding about that, right?”

“About what? The navy?”

“The strange guys with dark glasses and black suits?”

He looked at her for a few seconds and smiled. “Maybe.”

“That scares me, Seth, and I think you know it. I’m not in covert ops.”

“None of us is. That’s why men in black scare us.”

“Okay, stop it. Seriously? Please. I don’t want to know about that stuff.”

“Remember, Jen,” he chuckled, “just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they’re not out to get you!”

Jenny shook her head in mock disgust and rolled her eyes. “Why do you like torturing women, Seth?”

“I don’t! At least, not women in general. Mostly I just like torturing you,” he grinned.

“As I always suspected.”

“Seriously, Jen, they’ll let us know if it’s out of our bailiwick. Don’t worry.”

She sat in thought for a few moments. “I checked on airborne traffic, including drones passing through the area that might have birthed the transmission.”

“And?”

“Nothing out there but regularly scheduled commercial flights, and none of them could use a transmission like this.”

Seth was sitting quietly, waiting.

“Am I … missing something?” Jenny asked.

“Now that, my resident perfectionist genius, is the real question. And if we figure it out, we’ll probably discover it’s just some idiot in Iowa programming his toy helicopter.”

“But, if we get this wrong …”

Seth sighed openly, a weary look crossing his angular features as his thoughts focused inward for a second. “Well … if we get it wrong and something really skanky happens … like another 9/11 … nobody will ever love us again. Ever. Not even our mothers.”

“Jeez, Seth.”

“Welcome to life on the edge, Miss Reynolds.”

She got to her feet and paused at the door, looking back.

“And for the record, y’all? I don’t have an accent.”

CHAPTER TWO

 

 

Ben Gurion International Airport, Tel Aviv, Israel (4:15 p.m. local / 1515 Zulu)

 

First Officer Dan Horneman checked his watch as he arrived at Gate B5 at Tel Aviv’s airport. It was the last place he expected to be this afternoon. He had picked up an extra reserve trip from New York to Tel Aviv because it offered a four-day layover, and even if he’d stayed in the mid-level hotel Pangia rented for its crews, that would have been a great deal. Four days to relax and enjoy Tel Aviv … now shot to hell, along with the extra money! Dan had indulged himself and rented a shamelessly expensive suite at the King David Hotel and quietly cancelled the company room. He had barely settled into the luxurious digs when crew scheduling found him by phone to assign an unwanted return trip, and suddenly Dan was back in uniform, dragging his brain bag to the gate as a last-minute replacement copilot, and trying to adjust to the idea of another all night flight.

A female voice somewhere behind him failed to register at first, but its familiarity persisted at the margins of his memory until he turned to see the smiling face of Janice Johnson, her shoulder-length black hair pulled into a small pony tail riding behind her Pangia uniform hat.

“Hey there, fellow misfit,” she said, giving voice to their shared outlier reputation: she for simply flying while female, he for having, as she teased him, more money than God.

Dan smiled in return as unbidden memories of their brief dating history flashed like a slightly dated movie trailer through his mind—a recent anthology that included a hedonistic week in Maui which had been as glorious for the companionship and intellectual ferment as it had been for the rather unbridled sex.

“Janice! Did you just fly this bird in?”

“Yep. And I hear you’ve been drafted to fly her back with our resident self-appointed diety. Captain Skygod.”

“Captain who?”

“Breem. Bill Breem. God’s gift to aviation. A legend in his own mind.”

“Oh! I thought I was flying with Jerry Tollefson.”

“Tollefson is your captain. You guys are the relief crew, but el supremo Breem is the primary captain.”

“He’s that bad?”

“To start with … spoiler alert … he and Jerry Tollefson hate each other. I mean, frothing at the mouth homicidal hate!”

“The old North Star Airlines versus Pangia Airways rivalry again?”

“No, no, Danny. Worse. Breem was a longtime captain with Stratos Air. He lost his 747 captaincy when Stratos Air was bought by Pangia, before Pangia bought us at North Star. Breem’s been madder than hell about everything ever since.”

“Is Breem still a training captain?”

“Oh, God, no! Not for years,” Janice replied. “But he still looks down his nose at anyone who wasn’t hired by the original Stratos Air, and he complains about North Star captains constantly. Breem’s pushing sixty-three now, and we’re all counting the days till he’s gone.”

“Sounds like a wonderful evening.”

“Good luck, dude,” she said with a smile as she leaned in and brushed his cheek with a kiss. “Miss you!”

“Why did we stop dating, by the way?” Dan asked, smiling in return“Because we could never get together on the same continent,” she said, waving as she pivoted with her bags and headed for the exit.

Dan stood for a few moments in thought, amazed at the ridiculousness of the constant internecine warfare among angry pilots from the different airlines that had been cobbled together to form Pangia.

It was less of a war within the flight attendant ranks, but there were bruised feelings, lost seniority, and simmering upsets there as well—such as the famous thirty-year war between Pangia’s two most senior flight attendants stemming from a stolen boyfriend in the late seventies. Now at ages seventy-six and seventy-eight respectively, the two were the oldest flight attendants still flying, but neither would retire before the other.

A Pangia captain was approaching the gate with a fistful of papers, his eyes on the paperwork as he passed by. Mid-thirties, Dan judged, and with a squarish, friendly face framed by sandy hair that he remembered all too well. Jerry Tollefson hadn’t noticed him yet, but before Dan could snag his attention, another captain in full four-stripe regalia strode into Tollefson’s face without offering his hand.

“So you’re my relief crew tonight.”

“If you’re flying Flight 10, Bill, that would be correct,” Tollefson replied, his voice cautious and all but icy.

“I thought you were still on your initial operating experience trip. What’d you do, son, scare off the check pilot?” Breem chuckled.

“Actually, I think what did the trick was finding out you were coming along,” Jerry replied, his eyes boring into Breem, who wasn’t about to flinch.

“Well, they warned me a boy captain from North Slope was playing relief crew.”

“North STAR, Bill,” Tollefson corrected, rolling his eyes. “Our airline was quite profitable and had a name.”

“Oh, sorry. It’s hard to remember the name of the different little operations we’ve bought over the years. No disrespect intended.”

“Right, like calling me ‘boy captain?’”

Bill Breem responded with a snort. “Well, how old are you, Jerry?”

“Thirty-five.”

“I rest my case. You’ve done damn well getting to four stripes in a major international airline by age thirty-five. I’ve just been around a lot longer and so, sometimes, I’ll admit, it seems like I’m surrounded by boy wonders. I apologize if the term offended you.”

“It did, but I accept your apology.”

“Good. See you aboard.”

 

CHAPTER THREE

 

 

Gate B5, Ben Gurion airport, Tel Aviv, Israel (4:40 p.m. local / 1540 Zulu)

 

Two black sedans with heavily tinted windows slid to a stop in a scene so familiar that few of the ramp workers took anything but passing notice. Two men with dark glasses, dead serious expressions, and equally serious automatic weaponry emerged from the lead car and in a fluid and practiced routine, scanned the surrounding tarmac for threats. Satisfied, the two moved to the second vehicle and opened the rear door, ushering a short, bald, older man and a stunning younger woman to the jetway stairs. In less than two minutes, the lead driver was back behind the wheel, escorting the second car from the airport and disappearing into the busy streets of Tel Aviv, their presence on the ramp nothing more than a whispered myth.

The rapid entrance of Moishe Lavi and the woman to the forward-most seats in the unoccupied first class cabin of Pangia Flight 10 had been witnessed by no one but the flight attendants. Not even the pilots had been briefed that a former prime minister of Israel was joining them, and the lead flight attendant had been warned to collect all her crew’s cell phones until after takeoff, assuring that no one who noticed could report Lavi’s presence.

Still grieving the loss of the trappings of great power, Moishe Lavi settled uncomfortably into the elaborate sleeper seat, motioning immediately for his companion to lean close and take a new round of notes in the non-stop soliloquy of action items and ideas he’d been firing at her since arising at 5:00 a.m. Instead of complying, Ashira Dyan settled into her own seat and smiled, shaking her head slightly as she mouthed a warning in Hebrew to wait. Lavi started to protest but thought better of it and smiled back with a nod, his mind replaying the delicious memory of her naked form gliding across the hotel room a few hours earlier after she’d pulled away from his embrace.

Ah, sweet Ashira! he thought. Only thirty-four years old with a perfect body and shoulder-length black hair. She was like so many accomplished Israeli women who could melt you with their femininity, or effortlessly break your neck with their military training.

Especially Ashira, whose prowess as a power-hungry she-wolf entranced him even more. She was a decorated major in the Israeli Defense Force, well trained in intelligence, and a perfect secretary when she needed to be. He was well aware that the only reason she was playing the role of his mistress was the eternal seduction of great political power.

Of course, now that he’d been thrown out of office, how long would that last?

He thought of the long flight and what lay ahead. He could probably depend on her loyalty for a few more months before she jumped ship—before she realized he was never going to regain power. He understood that power was the aphrodisiac. If Moishe Lavi had ever been a physical prize to any woman, those days were ancient history.

Of course, he was soon to be history himself.

Moishe fished out his iPhone and fumbled inexpertly at the screen, surprised when Ashira wagged her finger.

“No!” she said, with the understated confidence of the senior Mossad agent she’d long been. “You could be tracked. We don’t want any chance of being located until we’re long gone. Even then, it would be hazardous to everyone aboard.”

He met her eyes and nodded. She didn’t understand, of course, despite her training. His enemies were many, and while the worst of the lot were well outside the borders of Israel, they were equally determined to kill him. Especially the Iranian mullahs. Which was, he thought, why killing them first was the only viable option.

But for the moment, tactically, she was right, and that reality irritated him.

“Very well,” he replied, indulging in the slight vanity of puffing his tone up to make it sound like the idea was all his own. “I think it’s best to call in flight.”

He swiveled his squat, aging body toward the adjacent window of the Airbus dismissively, letting his thoughts return for the thousandth time to the stand he’d made in the Knesset—the no-compromise throw down that had destroyed what remained of the coalition that had made him prime minister. He was right, of course, that they would eventually be forced to launch on Tehran. But it would be too late. It would be a doomsday nuclear exchange, and two nations would essentially cease to exist.

If Israel waited.

Moishe snorted to himself, barely aware of the presence of the two pilots as they moved past him up the aisle toward the cockpit. As much as he loved this land, he was suddenly very anxious to leave it.

CHAPTER FOUR

 

 

Mojave Aircraft Storage, Mojave Airport, California (8:10 a.m. PST / 1610 Zulu)

 

The manager of Mojave Air Storage looked up from his battered old desk trying his damndest to figure out how his most uncommunicative employee could have acquired a sense of humor in twenty-four hours. But the perennially taciturn man just stood there in his dirty coveralls as if he’d walked out of a Grant Wood painting without his pitchfork, expressionless except for the slight look of alarm in his eyes, his voice as humorless as a funeral director.

“Not there, huh,” the manager repeated, mocking the same Eeyore-class monotone his employee had used.

“No-pah,” the man replied, stretching the single word into two syllables.

The wind was whining around the cracks in the old desert line office, coating everything with the fine grit the rows of airliners outside were sealed against.

“Look,” the manager began, “I appreciate that you probably stayed up all night figuring out this little joke, but … see … it really isn’t funny to suggest we might have misplaced a $200 million airplane.”

“Not a joke, sir. I can’t find that serial number. That company in Colorado we thought was probably a front for the military? It was their airplane. One of the A330s we got out there. They need it by next Thursday. I thought you had seen the order.”

“How many A330s do we have out there?” the manager asked, a cold knot of apprehension beginning to make its presence known in the pit of his stomach.

“Nine. There were nine. Now we have eight, and that serial number … the one belonging to the Colorado group … isn’t one of them.”

“Okay,” the manager replied, “get the team and inventory the A330s, one by one, by serial numbers and placement, and come back and we’ll get this figured out.”

“Pad 79, where the Colorado A330 should have been, is empty. I think we sent the wrong one away,” the man said, leaving the shaken manager to reflect on the possibility that he might not have a job a week from now. The phone on his desk was mocking him, challenging him to call the hotheaded owner of Mojave Aircraft Storage who lived several miles away, but that was the last thing he intended to do until they were certain Mojave Aircraft Storage had actually delivered the wrong airplane to the wrong client.

CHAPTER FIVE

 

 

Cockpit, Pangia World Airways Flight 10 (1610 Zulu)

 

With Captain Bill Breem and his first officer seizing the designation of primary pilots, Jerry Tollefson and Dan Horneman had been relegated to the status of relief crew and left to watch the takeoff from the cockpit jump seats. As planned, ten minutes into the flight, Jerry and Dan headed back for their programmed sleep period in the cramped underdeck crew rest facility.

“Programmed” always seemed so oxymoronic, Dan thought as he settled in. Some pilots could drop off on cue, but he had never been one of them. In addition to dozens of random thoughts keeping him awake, there was the “gee-whiz” factor of being a crewmember on such a sophisticated machine, and it hadn’t worn off yet. The amazed little boy in him was usually too excited to drift off to sleep and instead demanded—demanded—permission to stay up just to watch himself lounging in such a technologically advanced cocoon.

This time, however, sleep came uncharacteristically fast. It was startling when the alarm function on his cell phone corked off after almost four hours, the watch showing him it was 1951 Zulu and alerting him that it was time to get back to the cockpit.

Dan rolled out of the crew bunk and made his way up the narrow stairs to the main deck and into one of the restrooms, closing the door for a moment of solitude and looking at the deep circles under his eyes in the mirror. He loved this job, despite feeling like an alien in Pangia’s pilot culture, but there was no evading the reality that he was approaching a meltdown of cumulative fatigue. The impromptu vacation days in Tel Aviv he’d looked forward to were supposed to address that fatigue, but now they were gone.

The circles aren’t too bad! he thought, admiring his full head of dark hair which always seemed to fall into place with little or no effort. His face had never been described as thin, but his facial features were angular, almost chiseled, like an emotionless sculpture, according to Laura, the one lover he missed the most. Long before his tryst with Janice Johnson, Laura had given up trying to understand the world-girdling schedule she considered ridiculously unnecessary and had tossed that backhanded compliment at him the morning they’d parted for good. Strange that he would remember that so clearly among all the other things she’d said that morning—especially the hurtful words, like saying he would never be happy until he decided he deserved the things he’d worked so hard to acquire.

The rebound girlfriend he’d found after Laura had also backed away, equally unsure he was ever going to be comfortable in his own skin.

Gotta start dating again, he promised himself. He felt no compelling need to find a mate or make babies, but … it just wasn’t much of a life without sex and female companionship, and every pretty woman he saw just reminded him of what he’d lost when Laura finally gave up.

“You’re filthy rich, and I’m eager to sign a pre-nup, and there’s no reason not to retire right now!” she’d all but screamed. “Why the hell are you doing this? Buy your own damned jet! What are you trying to prove?”

The vivid memories faded again, and he sighed and straightened his tie, checking the crisp, professionalism of his image before leaving the restroom in time to tag along behind Jerry Tollefson as they made their way forward.

With the cockpit door closed and sealed, Dan watched Tollefson stoically endure the overly officious handoff briefing from Captain Bill Breem before sliding into the left-hand captain’s seat. Breem’s briefing was the usual litany: their current position, altitude, airspeed, headwind, weather, and fuel remaining, along with their estimated time of arrival in New York, but it was delivered in the fashion of a master about to turn over the wheel to a rank amateur. Breem and his copilot were scheduled to return to the cockpit in five hours and take the arrival and landing at Kennedy.

“So,” Breem finished, “your job, Tollefson, is to wake the A-Team in five hours, and don’t break anything in the meantime.”

Dan could see Jerry’s jaw muscles gyrating, absorbing the irritation of such a demeaning order, but he held his tongue for nearly thirty seconds until Breem had closed the cockpit door behind him.

Alrighty, then!” Jerry said, rolling his eyes in an expression of utter contempt.

“Is he always like that?” Dan asked, as much to commiserate as to confirm.

“Oh, yeah! Pompous asshole with delusions of adequacy.”

“An original Stratos Air alumnus?”

Jerry Tollefson nodded and then stopped.

“Yes. They’re not all like that, but this one is a really angry dinosaur. Angry and mean.”

“I’ve heard of him, of course, but never met the man before tonight.”

“You didn’t miss anything.”

Jerry busied himself for a few moments with building his nest in the left-hand captain’s seat, arranging his crew bag and the company-supplied iPad as Dan Horneman had just done on the right side. Satisfied all was in its place, Jerry sat back, taking in the broader nighttime view from the cockpit of Flight 10.

The lights of Zagreb, Croatia, some eighty miles to the east were visible to their right as the Airbus cruised along at 37,000 feet, and neither pilot spoke for several minutes.

Jerry snorted, shaking his head, one more thought incapable of suppression. “The thing I can’t stand about Breem is his air of superiority and his constantly demonstrated disgust for the rest of us.”

Dan let the words parade by, trying hard not to focus on the concept of hypocrisy as related to Jerry Tollefson. He tried to see Breem through Tollefson’s eyes without seeing Jerry in the same light, but the effort was failing. He wondered if Tollefson, too, had suddenly realized the ludicrous nature of his hypocritical slam.

No, Dan concluded, he’d never see it.

The autopilot was doing the flying, but now that their perceived common antagonist had left the cockpit, Dan could feel tension rising between himself and the captain, evaporating what moments before had been a fleeting brotherhood between the two of them based on a classic “we’re okay, but he’s not okay” bond.

Without Breem, Dan was now the outsider, and there was, indeed, an elephant in the cockpit—a big one—and it was going to be a miserable flight if someone didn’t throw a spotlight on the beast.

“So, Jerry …” Dan began, intending to slip gently into the subject of their near-disaster in Anchorage years before, but Jerry Tollefson was already locked and loaded.

“So, Dan …” Jerry echoed, sarcastically, “Had enough fun playing airline pilot?”

Dan glanced over at the left seat and tried hard not to overthink his response. He’d expected something snarky, and clearly he wasn’t going to be disappointed.

“Well, I’m still here.”

“Yeah, so I noticed. With all your millions, I thought you’d have bought your own jet by now and just hired one of us poor schmucks to fly it.”

“It may be difficult to understand, Jerry, but I enjoy this challenge of being an airline pilot.”

“Really?”

“Yes.”

“Enjoying the process?”

“Yes. Definitely.”

“Well, that makes one of us at least.”

“Look, Jerry …”

“So … when we last tried to crash together up in Alaska, you didn’t have a lot of flight time. Had much since?”

“I had just checked out, if you recall.”

“Oh, I certainly do recall,” Tollefson replied with a snort. “It was almost the last thing I ever recalled. It’s interesting, talking about the merger of North Star and Pangia, since it was Pangia that hired you. At North Star, we had this irritating little tendency to hire competent pilots rather than raw trainees. Pangia, apparently, doesn’t differentiate.”

An uncomfortable silence filled the space between them for almost a minute.

“Okay … Jerry, look, I know we got off on the wrong foot three years ago …”

“Ya think?” Jerry snorted, turning to face the copilot. “But I wouldn’t exactly call it getting off on the wrong foot, Danny. I’d call it perhaps the worst crew introduction in airline history.” He paused studying Dan’s stoic expression for a few seconds, reconsidering the force of his pent up anger. “Look, Dan, you’re obviously a nice guy, but your flying sucks, and the memory of that botched approach still scares the hell out of me. But … as I say, I guess you’ve had a lot more experience since then.”

“More than three years.”

“Good!” Jerry kept his eyes on the right-seater as he reached out with his left hand and pointed to one of the instruments on the forward panel. “For example, you do now know about this little thing here called an airspeed indicator?”

“You really can’t let this go, can you?” Dan asked.

“Well, I admit I get a mite testy when people try to kill me with a complete lack of aeronautical skill, okay? Or were you going to tell me it was all systemic and not really your fault? Use crew resource management as an excuse for no individual accountability?”

Dan cleared his throat, internally holding onto the throttle of his own anger.

If you were my employee, I’d fire your ass on the spot! Dan thought.

“Jerry, I don’t do excuses, okay? But the fact is, if you’ll recall, you gave me a visual, manual approach in high winds that day, and then, because you got distracted by a cabin smoke problem, I was totally solo, and I wasn’t—”

Tollefson whirled on him, his voice raised. “You damn near killed a planeload of innocent passengers and me, Dan, and the real cause is apparently because you decided to come over and slum a bit, pretend to be an airline pilot, but one who didn’t understand the basic fact that we need at least some wind over the wings. I’ve never had to take the airplane away from a copilot or a captain before, or since!”

“So that’s the bottom line, right?”

“What?” Jerry replied, the word spoken with the report of a bullet propelled by contempt.

“Not that I’m a bad pilot, or even a good pilot who made a bad mistake, but that I’ve got too much money and therefore can’t be part of the club.”

What? If you don’t know how to fly safely … if this is some dilettante exercise, playing airline pilot … you shouldn’t be here. That’s all I meant.”

Dan was shaking his head angrily, energetically, letting the dampers fall away from his usual reluctance to engage an unnecessary fight.

“Okay, bullshit, Jerry! That’s just frigging bullshit! You just tipped your hand, Buddy. The real truth is, I’m a permanent outsider here because I have too much money and I was a success in another field. And … and … because I failed your testosterone check. Right? But that overblown Alaskan bush pilot cowboy shit is just as toxic as it is intoxicating. Hail the Arctic Eagles! If you’re not swaggering enough and macho enough to impress us, you can’t join the club, because you don’t have the right stuff! And if you have too much money, you’re automatically excluded.”

“None of us cares a whit about your money, Horneman, and this has nothing to do with bush flying. We’re professional pilots, and what we do care about is precision and safety and competence!”

“Jerry, you were exuding that cowboyish bush pilot attitude from every pore the day we almost bought it with my mistake. Remember turning off the autopilot and the autothrottles and even the damned ILS? What ever happened to the company rule about using all available nav aids?”

“You were relying too much on the automation!”

“Of course I was. You’re right. Know why? Because that’s how I was trained! But you don’t need automation because you guys never make mistakes, do you? As long as you survive, that is. I’m surprised you don’t rank each other by how many enthralled women throw their panties at you when you walk down the street!”

“What the hell are you nattering about, Horneman?”

“The profession and responsibility of flying versus the swaggering ‘Hi girls, I fly jets!’ version of daring airmen bringing it in on a wing and a prayer. That’s what I’m talking about. You’re locked in the Jurassic Age of piloting, Jerry. YES I fucked up. Yes! But you apparently can’t forgive that, because in your world, being imperfect is not the right stuff. Well here’s the truth: Real men and real pilots make mistakes.”

“I’ve made lots of mistakes!” Jerry snarled. “I’ve never claimed to be perfect!”

“Yeah, but, holding everyone else … particularly me … to a standard of being perfect is the same thing. But again, it’s all so easy because I’m not one of you.”

Jerry snorted, shaking his head, the gesture as dismissive and disgusted as he could make it.

“Well, I can see this is going to be one hell of a fun evening!”

“I didn’t start it, but I’m not going to sit here like a whipped puppy and take your unjustified contempt.”

“And what if I hadn’t pulled it out and we’d crashed, Dan? Would you accept the contempt then? If you’d survived and others died wholesale because of your screw up?”

“No one would have greater contempt for me than me, and for that matter, what makes you think I did escape unscathed? I had my own destroyed self-esteem to deal with, as well as all the added scrutiny from the chief pilot and the training department.”

“Poor you!”

“Jerry, what kills me is that you won’t even admit your own complicity in going head down on the interphone while you should have been monitoring the approach and your obviously untested first officer. What do you think the NTSB would have said about that if we hadn’t made it?”

“You couldn’t find the damned throttles! That’s the bottom line for me. Competent pilots don’t lose sight of the airspeed!”

“I’m sorry. I thought the autothrottles were engaged. As I say, I made a huge, honking mistake.”

“Yeah … and about that …” Jerry Tollefson had swiveled partially around in the captain’s seat, glaring at his right-seater with blood in his eye, daring the underling to talk back again as he played the challenged alpha wolf. “Whoever taught you to just sit there and watch the airspeed deteriorate without touching the throttles? What kind of moron doesn’t teach watching the throttle movement or listening to the engines?”

“You wouldn’t believe what I was and what I wasn’t taught, Jerry,” Dan said, as quietly as possible. “You asked me after you’d saved us where the hell I learned to fly, but I never had a chance to answer you.”

“You made the same ridiculous mistake as those systems operators at Asiana made in 2013 in San Francisco! Maintaining one’s airspeed is the prime directive.”

“Which I was never taught.”

“Excuse me?”

“Where did you learn to fly, Jerry?”

“The United States Navy,” Jerry snapped. “So where were you trained?”

“I learned in one of the toughest flight training environments you can imagine,” Dan said, earning a contemptuous sideways glance from the captain.

“Oh, really?”

“Yeah … it might as well have been a correspondence course! It was a civilian ab initio program provided by a little airline in New England desperate for pilots … an airline that didn’t care if I had never even flown in a small plane and didn’t think it was important. The same kind of deficient ab initio course the big airlines are now trying to use. This little carrier was looking for trained monkeys to fill the legal square and didn’t even realize it themselves.”

Jerry Tollefson had leaned forward to jab at the buttons of what in a Boeing would be a flight management computer, but he stopped suddenly and straightened up in his seat, fixing Dan with a questioning gaze. “What do you mean? You telling me you didn’t even have your private pilot’s license when you got your first airline job? That kind of ‘ab initio?’”

“Private ticket? Hell, Jerry, they hired me out of my office in Seattle. I’d never even flown a small plane. I was disillusioned about my Internet business and from having too much success too fast, and I’d always, always wanted to fly. So I decided to sell my company and go the route of any other average individual without much money. I thought that was the honorable thing to do, something that would be respected as paying my dues, you know? I had no idea how contemptuous people would be about that decision.”

“What do you mean, contemptuous?”

Dan shook his head, smiling ruefully, trying hard not to say something even more sarcastic.

“It was a huge relief to sell my company and stop spending every day worrying when the whole thing might collapse. I watched my father and my family lose everything to a recession and never recover. I was very lucky to make enough and get out in time.”

“When I flew with you,” Jerry said, “… everyone was talking about our billionaire boy pilot. We figured you were slumming with the working stiffs.”

“I hated that. I still hate that impression! I’d had 2,000 hours of flying airborne computers by the time I applied here, and as I said, I had no idea I was deficient. I was trained to fly primarily by autopilot and dial in altitudes and headings and airspeeds and told to keep my hands off the controls if the autoflight system could do it better. Precisely the same malady that caused the Asiana crash in San Francisco in 2013.”

“A systems operator.”

“Yes. Exactly. I was trained to be a dumb systems operator, not a pilot. When I hit the line, I had less than 300 hours. It was before the FAA changed the rule to require 1,500.”

“Less than 300?”

If I’d had any idea how little I knew about stick and rudder flying, I could have bought 400 or 500 hours of quality flight instruction. But what I didn’t get a chance to practice were those basic skills. I had no idea that was a deficit.”

“And then we hire you,” Tollefson said flatly.

“Yeah. Sorry about that!”

“What’d you do, pull strings?”

Dan shook his head with a rueful laugh. “Jesus, you, too? I guess everyone thinks that. No, I didn’t pull strings. Wish I had. Someone might have told me to back off. Instead, after driving regional jets around for almost two years and seldom ever touching the yoke, I dropped an application in the box at the very moment you guys were desperate for new first officers, and after a whirlwind ground school and a few sessions in the simulator, you got the lucky number. I mean, Pangia World Airways knew my limited aeronautical background a heck of a lot better than I did.”

“Did they also know you were uber rich?”

“I wasn’t uber rich, not that it has any bearing on the situation. I’m not uber rich. But I had no intention of telling them or anyone else I was well off. It was simply immaterial.”

“So what was your net worth? Bill Gates country?”

“Hell no. I had a paltry sum compared to what I could have received if I’d kept the company several more years and taken it public before selling.”

Dan Horneman met Jerry Tollefson’s gaze for a few seconds, knowing what the response was going to be if he spoke in dollars. It was impossible for anyone with an average professional income to bridge the philosophical gap that separated their respective bank accounts. It was far more than numbers, it was a gulf measured in unfathomable terms of struggle and misunderstanding, and ultimately, it was always a case of ‘You have what I don’t, and I resent it!’”

How paltry?” Jerry prompted. “Speak to me in numbers.”

“About $500 million.”

 

 

 

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***

 

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[]

SAVAGE HIGHWAY

 

By Richard Godwin

 

 

1.

Midnight.

Beyond the stained window the hissing scar of the highway was deserted. Patty was aching with hunger. The diner was empty apart from the guy in the corner. He’d been eyeing her all night.

‘I don’t suppose you have a light?’ he said, walking over.

‘Sure,’ Patty said, flicking her Zippo, then snuffing out the brief flame. ‘Spare a smoke?’

‘Oh yeah.’

The waitress bristled past, all swish of starched uniform and the click of over-chewed gum. She looked at them out of the corner of her eye, a slight curl of her lip.

‘They call me Jim,’ he said. ‘You coming?’

Patty followed him outside into the mix of ice cold and diesel fumes. After the initial silence, they started the smokers’ chat. Weather, journeys, directions, bitching about this and that, and then he said it. Just like that. No interlude, no buildup. As if he was ordering a burger.

‘Last night I killed a man.’ He took a deep drag and blew it skywards then turned and looking her right in the eyes. ‘A guy got smart. He was nobody, really. I shot him. Twice.’

‘That right?’

Silence. And just two burning cigarette ends in the cold and the smog. A truck whizzed by.

‘Why you telling me this?’ she said.

‘Cause there’s one thing I always feel like doing after I kill someone.’

‘No shit?’

‘You look good to me with your dark brown eyes and your long hair. Got a good figure on you. Good ass, too. You’re a real brunette bombshell.’

‘I ain’t gonna sleep with you.’

‘I ain’t asking you to sleep with me, honey. How old are you anyway?’

‘Twenty-six.’

‘That right? There’s a bad dude out there, in case you ain’t heard. He’s been chopping women up. Much badder’n old Jim. I don’t kill ladies, just fuck ’em.’

‘I can look after myself.’

‘Heard one woman got her throat opened up. Out here, alone, just her thumb in the air and only her poontang to pay. They call him the maniac trucker, although I hear this guy drives a pickup.’

‘Thanks for the smoke,’ she said, walking back in.

Inside, the waitress stared at her from behind the counter, hands on her hips. Just another anonymous small-town judge. Patty watched as she went out back. She felt weak as Jim walked in, laughing, almost dancing across the diner to where she sat.

‘Come on, we can do it in the john,’ he said.

‘What makes you think you can buy me?’

‘I know desperation when I see it.’

The smell of pizza drifted across the air.

‘How much you got?’

‘I knew you were a pickup. I reckon you’re worth a hundred.’

‘Hundred and fifty.’

‘Done.’

He peeled a stack of tens out of his wallet and laid them in her palm.

‘I’ll see you in the john,’ she said, taking her worn canvas bag from the seat next to her.

After a few minutes Jim made his way there.

She was standing at the back, past the urinals, outside the only clean cubicle. The place stank of urine. Patty stared at the piss on the floor as Jim walked in and put a broom against the door.

‘Well, hallelujah baby,’ he said, rubbing his hands together.

‘Come on,’ she said, walking into the cubicle, pulling down her jeans.

‘You’re as sweet as cherry pie, ain’t you?’

‘Put this on,’ she said, pulling a condom out of her faded denim jacket.

‘That’s like playing the piano with gloves on.’

‘Well, Beethoven, it’s either that or no pussy.’

‘You really want me to put that thing on?’

She crossed her arms and waited for him to do it.

‘Give me a little help here,’ Jim said, unzipping his fly.

She touched him and thought of food, a bed for the night as Jim tore the packet open with his teeth and pulled the condom out.

‘Happy now?’ he said.

She leaned back against the wall and saw endless miles of road as his skin made contact. He shoved his right hand inside her blouse and groped her breasts. His skin was callused and felt like sandpaper on her nipples. She thought she heard someone trying the door as he entered her.

‘You’re safe with me, but you sure picked a bad place to stop,’ he said. ‘If I was you I’d get out of here, this place will eat you alive.’

She looked over Jim’s shoulder at a fly crawling across the graffiti. Someone had scrawled ‘Animals’ on the chipped and tarnished paint. She looked into his eyes and watched them empty of desire. She felt the cold wall against her buttocks as he stopped.

He winked and ran his finger across her cheek.

‘Told you I ain’t the maniac trucker.’

After he left she heard a pickup drive off as she readjusted her clothes and checked herself in the mirror.

Then the door swung open and the waitress walked in.

‘I knew it,’ she said. ‘I saw him leave, I’m calling the po-lice.’

‘Why you such a bitch?’

‘You just made a big mistake, you hooker.’

‘You don’t get to call me no hooker. You’re just a fucking waitress.’

‘You don’t belong here.’

‘Belong where? This is nowhere.’

‘We have regular customers who like things a certain way. You don’t muscle in on territory that ain’t yours. I’m giving you two minutes to git.’

The diner was filling up when Patty went back outside. The waitress was smiling at a trucker in faded Wranglers and blue suede cowboy boots who was leaning on the counter.

‘What can I get you Pete?’ the waitress said to him.

‘Oh, just a coffee.’

Patty headed outside and stood among the women who were gathering to trade sex. They wore hot pants and halter tops, some of them sheer blouses. She looked at her clothes. Her blouse was missing a button, and her bra showed through the gap.

‘Hey, how about it?’ a large man with a thick matted beard said.

‘I don’t think so.’

Patty wandered off as she heard the women talk among themselves.

A black Chevrolet drove past her and pulled into the truck stop. A tall lean man in a red coat got out and walked over to the women. He stood there with his hands in his pockets, said something to a small dark prostitute in a black skirt, nodded, and then entered the diner. He waved at the waitress.

‘Evenin’ Theodore,’ she said. ‘We have some fresh pizza.’

‘Sounds good, I’ll just use your restroom.’

The waitress continued chatting to Pete. She didn’t pay any attention to the prostitute in the black skirt who wandered in, the waitress merely glanced at her, then touched up her lipstick using a makeup mirror that she pulled from her purse. The woman went to join Theodore in the cubicle Patty had recently vacated. She was in her early twenties but had the used look of a life that held no pleasure except the diminishing high she got each night as she shot up.

Theodore didn’t look at her but waited as she pulled up her skirt, slipped down her G-string, and fumbled with his fly. He lifted her halter top. His small black eyes gazed at her breasts. She leaned against the door and Theodore entered her. She didn’t look at his face as he penetrated her. Theodore began to sweat as he increased his rhythm, and the smell of grease broke from his pores. When he stopped he ran his hand through his thick black hair and stared up at the ceiling, then pulled out and zipped up. He counted out the cash and waited until she left.

He was washing his hands at the cracked sink thinking about the meat loaf the diner served when the door opened. Then someone reached over his shoulder and ran a straight razor across his neck. Theodore never got to see his killer. He was holding his hands to the wound as the door closed. He staggered across the room and collapsed by the urinals. As he lay there drowning in his own blood, it looked like his red coat was melting into the urine.

2.

1:00 a.m.

Patty didn’t see the ambulance arrive at the diner. She’d caught a ride from a driver who smelt of beer and onions.

‘I figured you were looking to trade,’ he said after they’d travelled in silence for a few miles.

‘Trade what?’

‘What do you think?’

‘I’m just trying to get somewhere.’

‘We’re all trying to get somewhere.’

He winked at her and put a CD into the dashboard player, yanking the volume up and pulling a can of Coors from a cooler that sat by Patty’s legs. His hand brushed her thigh as Aerosmith’s ‘Flesh’ started to pound the inside of the cab. He tilted his head back and swigged from the can. Patty glanced at him, taking in his thick neck and broad shoulders. His heavy hands rested on the wheel as if it was a toy. He turned and stared at her with cold green eyes that looked like marbles in his suntanned skin.

‘Look, I just need a ride,’ she said.

‘Where to? All you told me when you climbed in is you’re heading the way I’m going.’

‘Next town along here.’

‘You’re going nowhere, ain’t you sweetheart?’

‘Excuse me, but I ain’t your sweetheart.’

‘And whose might you be?’

Patty leaned forward and turned the music off.

‘Hey, I thought we were going to have a party,’ the driver said.

‘I hate parties.’

‘Aw come on, we got the night.’

‘Can you let me out?’

‘You only just got in.’

‘I know.’

‘Look, I was just messing with you. Forgive me. It gets boring on the road all day, and sometimes I lose perspective. My name’s Red.’

He reached out his hand, and Patty took it briefly and sat back against the door.

She stared out at the black highway. There were no cars, no trucks, no houses visible.

‘I didn’t catch your name,’ Red said.

‘Call me Patty.’

‘Well, Patty, there’s cold beer if you want one.’

She opened a can and sipped from it. She could see some sandwiches in a torn plastic bag next to the box.

‘Hungry?’ Red said.

‘Not really.’

‘When was the last time you ate?’

‘I had something at the diner.’

‘Strange place.’

‘You could say that.’

‘Come on Patty, have a bite,’ Red said, picking up a sandwich, opening it, and offering half to her. ‘Cheese, won’t hurt you any. And besides, next town’s a ways.’

‘I thought it was a few miles.’

‘Now I don’t know where you think you are, but there’s nothing out here. I mean nothing, just a few snakes and me.’

Patty took the sandwich from him. The bread felt hard and stale.

‘So deserted. What is it with Arizona?’

‘Arizona? You ain’t in Arizona.’

‘Well where am I?’

‘You’re in a wilderness run by animals, sweetheart.’

‘I told you not to call me that.’

‘OK, OK,’ he said, turning towards her, holding both hands up before him. You sound like my ex.’

‘Would you keep your hands on the wheel?’

‘There’s nowhere else I can put them unless I play with myself.’

‘What’s the next town called?’

‘Nothing, really. It’s just a place where a few people live out their bitter lives.’

She looked at the landscape. She saw shapes move and blur like deformed nocturnal sculptures.

‘Why bitter?’

‘Most people you’re going to meet here are ruined in some way, they need to be.’

‘You’re messing with me again.’

‘I’m not. I tell you this is one weird place.’

‘You’re not from around here.’

He nodded.

‘Massachusetts. I got into trucking to escape.’

‘Escape from what?’

‘You really want to know?’

‘Since you bring it up.’

‘Something I saw.’

‘You mean a crime?’

‘You could call it that, although I’m not on the run. What I saw wasn’t some shooting by a gang or Mafia heist or a robbery. I’m not afraid someone’s gonna come and get me, pop me, ’cause I’m a witness. No, what I saw etched itself into my mind, and the only way I can remove it is to use the constant backdrop of the highway.’

‘Etched? You have a fancy way with words for a trucker.’

‘I like words. I like women more. I ain’t your average trucker.’

‘So what was it? This thing you saw that messed you up.’

‘I’m a big fella, as you can see. I used to be a psychiatric nurse. I could hold down the crazies, and I tell you they got the strength of a tiger when it’s in them. I seen that thing enter the minds of men who were half my size, and they could throw a man like me across the room.’

‘What thing?’

‘I don’t know what to call it. It’s like some light or an absence of light, and I’ll never figure out which, but they become absorbed by something, an entity if you will. Light and darkness are strange phenomena. I look out the window of my cab so often at night and see a light hover on the landscape, and in some of the brightest lit places I go to, the people seem empty. Maybe this won’t make any sense to you, but I saw something. The light I’m talking about doesn’t come from the sun, but somewhere else.’

‘What did you see when you were a nurse?’

‘The man I’m talking about wasn’t normal by any standards, none of the people in that place were, but he was extreme. You don’t want to look into his eyes. One day he assaulted a nurse, broke the guy’s jaw like he was popping a bubble. Then he abducted a female nurse. I found him in his room, straddling her. She’d lost her shoes in the scuffle, and she was kicking out beneath him. All I could see was his back and her legs. Then I walked around and saw what he was doing to her.’

‘What was he doing to her?’

‘He was eating her face.’

‘Jesus.’

‘It took four of us to pull him off her. Her jawbone was showing through the ragged flesh. It’s an image that I’ll never forget, no matter how many miles I drive, or how much beer I drink. He stood there with her skin all over his mouth, like he was wearing the mask of a ghoul. He looked straight at me and said, “I feed off the road. I live on the savage highway.” Then he spat a piece of the nurse’s chin at me.’

‘What did they do to him?’

‘Drugged him. He was so far beyond the criminal that he made no sense in terms of the law. He was going to stay there for life. He’d been sent there for setting fire to a cop. But afterwards, a few days before I left the job, we found out the other things he’d done.’

‘And what were they?’

‘He’d been collecting heads. I’m told the cellar of his house was packed floor to ceiling with the bleached skulls of unknown men and women.’

‘Is this for real?’

‘Unfortunately, yes.’

‘Pretty creepy stuff.’

‘Creepy? No. Creepy is a guy feeling your thigh at a bus stop. This goes far beyond creepy.’

‘Well, he’ll never get out.’

Red stared out at the highway. Patty noticed he’d slowed his speed.

‘Some months later, after I left, they moved him to a new facility for the criminally insane. He escaped in transit.’

‘How?’

‘We’ll never know, but the two guards were both found decapitated.’

‘He’s still on the loose.’

‘The police all over Massachusetts looked for him, but he was never found.’

‘How long ago was this?’

‘A few years.’

‘Sooner or later the law will catch up with him. What was his name?’

Red pulled a pack of Marlboros from his pocket and lit a cigarette.

‘Donald Lake.’

In the light of the Zippo his face looked as though it was burning, and Patty noticed a long scar on his cheek and neck that faded at the collar of his chequered lumberjack shirt. His hand bore the tattoo of a woman in chains and some kind of animal.

‘What’s the tattoo?’ Patty said.

‘What’s it look like to you?’

‘A chick. What’s the animal?’

‘The animal is whatever you want it to be.’

‘Is it a wolf?’

‘Looks like a wolf, don’t it?’

On closer inspection the animal appeared to have a man’s body.

‘How much further to the town?’ Patty said.

‘Why are you in a hurry?’

‘I want to get some sleep.’

‘You can sleep right here.’

‘I never can, moving.’

‘Do you think I’m going to touch you? That ain’t my way. I like them live and kicking.’

‘Kicking?’

‘Just an expression.’

‘You want some tail, all you need to do is turn this truck around and head back to the diner.’

‘You mean the hookers? Now they’re a sight for sore eyes.’

‘You approve of exploitation?’

‘Exploitation? I think it’s the other way around, the money they charge. Have you seen some of them?’

‘They’re addicted.’

‘Addicted to selling their pussies. You never sold it for a little cash?’

‘Those women have no choice.’

‘How do you know?’

‘I just do.’

‘You sure are talkative all of a sudden when sex is mentioned. Maybe I ought to take you out back and slide it inside you and see how you squeal out here in the dark.’

‘That ain’t funny.’

‘Patty how about shedding them clothes and showing me your hot little thing?’

‘Is that how I pay for the ride?’

‘A lot of women like it rough and hard. That’s what my wife never understood.’

‘What?’

‘I only did it the one time, to show her how much pleasure a girl can get. Held her down with a pillow over her face while I lifted up her skirt.’

‘Let me out.’

‘You picked the wrong truck darling.’ He looked at her, dropping his eyes to the hint of bra that showed through the missing button. ‘I’ve screwed all the hookers at that diner. I ain’t never seen you, and I want a little action. Is that so hard to understand?’

‘No.’

‘I’ll pull over, and we can go in the back of the truck. I got a bed back there, real nice, subdued lighting. You’re lucky you picked Red. You probably heard the stories about women getting into trucks and never being seen again. I know a few truckers who are into that kind of thing. They fuck ’em and beat ’em up. All I want is to stick it in your snatch.’

‘That’s all?’

He pulled the truck over at the side of the highway.

‘That’s all.’

Patty picked up her bag and climbed out. She could see some lights in the distance.

‘I need to pee,’ she said.

‘Don’t be shy,’ Red said, walking around to her side of the truck.

Patty walked a few feet to a bank that ran down to some bushes. She began to clamber down.

‘Not too far, do it there,’ Red said.

He stepped towards her. She turned her back, lowered her jeans, and squatted. She figured it would take him a few seconds to reach her. When she finished, she pulled her jeans back up, grabbed her bag, and dived down the bank, cutting herself on brambles. She could hear Red coming after her, branches breaking beneath his weight, and she went straight into the bushes, tangling her clothes, tearing her skin, running until she emerged on the other side in a field beneath a pale moon. Then she stopped and listened to the silence. In the distance was a small town, and Patty walked towards it as dawn began to leak pink light into the trees.

Red was a few miles away as she approached the town. He was talking into his cell phone.

‘She went through the field, she’s heading your way,’ he said.

His truck cut through the dawn like a juggernaut as he set his cold eyes on the highway.

 

 

 

You have reached the end of the sample for this book.

 

***

 

Savage Highway details

http://wbp.bz/savagehighway

 

Buy it at Amazon

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Information about Richard Godwin

https://wildbluepress.com/richard-godwin/

 

[]

*_BORDERLAND_ *

 

By Peter Eichstaedt

 

Prologue

 

Doña Ana County, New Mexico

 

Sam Dawson dreaded being on his knees.

Always had. They hurt. Badly.

And now it was worse than ever.

Pain radiated from his kneecaps to his ankles and up his thighs as he struggled to balance on the floor of the panel van. His hands had swelled from the duct tape that tightly bound his wrists. The tape encircling his head tore the skin near his eyes and ripped out his thin hair.

Bent forward, his back and neck ached. Blood dripped from his throbbing nose and split, puffy lips. His heart pounded in his ears as he drew a breath. He had thought he was being kidnapped and would be held for ransom. They did that. But now he realized. These bastards are going to kill me!

“You got this all wrong,” Sam said in a wavering voice. “Listen to me. I didn’t tell them anything, I swear.”

He fell silent, waiting for a response. Nothing. Only the whine of the truck tires.

“Killing me will make problems for you,” he said.

He listened for a response as the truck tore along the desert highway. Nothing.

Sam tried again. “People will find me. And when they do, they’ll come after you.” He paused. “It’s not a threat. It’s a fact.” He took a breath, licked his lips, and tasted his own warm blood. He coughed, then caught his breath.

Sam felt the truck slow, then swerve off the pavement and bounce onto rutted dirt. Brush scraped the sides of the van. The truck slid to a stop. Sam cried out in pain as his shoulder hit the metal floor. So now it comes. This is how I die. Like a dog in the desert. The engine died, pinging in the silence. The front doors creaked open, then slammed shut as footsteps pounded to the back of the truck. The panel doors banged open. Sam felt the rush of cool night air.

Terrified, he curled into the fetal position, unable to stop his body from shaking.

“No! No!” Sam cried. Two men lifted him by the arms and tossed him out. His face mashed into the dirt, his shoulder crackled with pain. He groaned, gulping in air. Sensing that death was imminent, he began to pray aloud. “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want. He maketh me to lie down in green pastures…”

He was hoisted again and set on his knees. “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death…” Sam heard only the heavy breathing of his captors. “I will fear no ev—”

The sharp crack of a gunshot pierced the stillness, and everything went black.

Chapter 1

 

Washington, D.C.

Kyle Dawson staked out a position in the Dirksen Senate Office Building corridor, just outside the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee room. He took a deep breath, hitched up his jeans, and straightened his rumpled corduroy jacket. He raked his fingers through his gray-flecked hair. He hated this. Ambush journalism. But he had no choice.

In moments his target, Senator Micah Madsen, emerged from the elevator and strode toward him, looking confident in his gray suit and red power tie. In good shape for his mid-fifties, he had thick salt-and-pepper hair and a rugged face. His press aide, Jodie Serna, a harried, middle-aged woman wearing a beige silk blouse and gray pin-striped skirt, trailed him, her heels clacking on the floor. She looked exasperated, loaded down with files. Both stared straight ahead, on a mission.

Dawson stepped forward. “Senator!” he barked, holding up his hand.

Madsen paused, looking irritated at the intrusion. “What is it?”

“That shootout at the border crossing yesterday.”

“What about it?”

“One of the three men killed was a staff member of your Las Cruces office.”

Madsen jerked his head in surprise. “Where did you get that information?”

“Why was he carrying $500,000 in U.S. currency?”

Madsen snorted as his face scrunched into a frown, his jaw muscle flexing. “No comment,” he said loudly enough for others to hear.

Dawson’s stomach tightened as nearby heads turned and conversations quieted. He wanted this conversation kept private.

“I have a committee meeting to chair, and you’re in my way,” Madsen said, again so others could hear. “So, if you’ll excuse me.”

Dawson didn’t move. “You didn’t answer my question.”

A couple of television cameramen moved in, flicking on lights.

Madsen grimaced at the cameras, his lips taut, his face reddening. He turned back to Dawson. “We’re looking into it. Now get out of my way before I call security.”

Jodie Serna jumped between them, motioning for Madsen to go into the hearing room. Madsen pulled the door open and disappeared inside. Serna shook her head disgustedly at Dawson, then went through, slamming the door behind her.

Dawson squinted in the glare of the camera lights.

“What the hell was that about?” one cameraman asked.

Dawson slipped his notebook into his jacket pocket. “Read about in tomorrow’s Herald.”

His stomach churning, Dawson hustled back down the hall and into the committee room’s public entrance, then stood in the rear. Madsen, the senior senator from New Mexico, sat in the center of the committee desk. Having composed himself, he banged his gavel down, cleared his throat, and scanned the crowd.

“Drug war violence is a deadly plague along the U.S.-Mexico border. Of particular concern is the recent gun battle at the Rancho la Peña border crossing in southern New Mexico. Because of this, I am going to conduct an emergency field hearing in El Paso to assess the state of our border security. I urge all committee members to attend. With that, I call our first witness.”

After handing the gavel to his vice-chair, Madsen stood and left the hearing room, shaking a few hands on his way out.

Dawson sucked in a breath and left for the newsroom. He hadn’t expected Madsen to say a damned thing. Yet he was satisfied. Madsen now knew that he was watching him. That alone was worth it.

 

  • * *

 

Dawson jaywalked across the street and quickly scaled the steps to the Washington Herald, his employer for the past eight of his more than twenty years in journalism. The story about Madsen’s staffer could make this re-election race between the sitting president, liberal Democrat Barry Montgomery Harris, and Madsen, his conservative challenger, very interesting. Three people shot dead in their vehicles by drug cartel henchmen as they waited in line to cross the border into Mexico. Two were Mexicans. The third was a U.S. citizen—Madsen’s staffer—who had no apparent reason to be there. It was the kind of thing that unraveled campaigns. Just find a loose thread and pull. His pulse quickened at the thought. Game on.

He pushed through the glass and brass-handled doors, then waved his ID card at the guard as he hustled across the lobby to the elevator, sandwiching himself inside as the door dinged shut.

Dawson stepped from the elevator and balked at the sea of fluorescent-lit desks and waist-high dividers that filled the newsroom. He hated the fake light and felt a headache coming on. This was a far cry from Iraq and Afghanistan, where each day was a damned miracle. When you went out on a story, you might not come back. If you did, you might not have all your body parts. I’m back. I’m back now, he kept telling himself. It had been a way of life that he would never forget. Ever.

Dawson tried to be grateful for the assignment to cover Senator Madsen’s run for the White House. Everyone said it was a reward. Help him take the next step up the ladder. Ladder to what? Covering this campaign was suffocating. The predictable quotes, poll-driven speeches, minutiae magnified to ridiculous proportions. An exposé on this border shootout could put him back in the field, where he belonged, where he could breathe, where things really mattered. But first he needed one man’s approval.

Dawson stood at the open office door of his boss, Ed Frankel. The managing editor was as tough as they come. The glory days of big newsroom travel budgets were gone. The campaign was a priority. Dawson knew his pitch had to be a damned good one. He took a breath and rapped his knuckles on the frame.

Frankel swiveled from his computer screen and frowned, looking irritated at the interruption. A stocky man in his late sixties, Frankel was on the verge of retirement. His habitual paisley tie hung loosely at the neck, frayed around the knot. The chest pocket of his white shirt was spotted from pens he’d forgotten to cap. Matching his cropped white hair was a drooping white mustache, accenting a face creased from forty years in the news business.

“What did Madsen say?” Frankel asked.

“He wanted to know where we got the information.”

“And?”

“He said they’re looking into it. They’re scrambling, trying to figure out how to spin it.”

“Couldn’t happen to a nicer guy,” Frankel said. “But we still need to explain the connection. Can we quote your buddy Garcia?”

“His name stays out of it,” Dawson said. “Deep background. That’s the deal.”

“Of course. Deep Throat’s back. So what can we print?”

“The U.S. citizen who was killed—Madsen’s staffer from the Las Cruces office—was just a kid, twenty-one, a student at New Mexico State.”

“What about the money he was carrying?”

Dawson shrugged. “It had to be drug money.”

“The staffer was dealing drugs?”

“No one carries that much money by accident.”

“You’re right.”

“Obviously, the Mexicans knew money was coming across the border. The shooters on the Mexican side riddled the vehicle. Tried to take the money. The Border Patrol fired back. It got pretty nasty. Three U.S. border guards are in critical condition.”

Frankel paused. “All that at a border crossing? Incredible. Remind me not to go. Anything else?”

“Not so far.”

“We have a few more hours till deadline. Keep pushing.”

Dawson cleared his throat. “Madsen’s called an emergency committee meeting in El Paso to look into the shooting. I want to go cover it.”

“El Paso is home for you, right?”

“My parents live near there.”

“Are you missing them or something?”

“Madsen is milking the border issue all he can. He hopes to ride the issue into the White House. There’s a war happening along the border. I’d like to take a serious look at it. This shooting is just the tip of the iceberg.”

Frankel groaned. “This is not a good time to pull you off the campaign and send you to El Paso on what could be a wild goose chase.”

“No one is writing about what’s behind the violence. That’s the real story.”

“Causes are not news. Leave that thumb-sucking stuff to the columnists.”

“Drugs and migrants flow north, and guns and money flow south. They just step over the dead bodies and keep shooting.”

“Jesus, Dawson. You don’t give up, do you?”

“We need a story with meat.”

Frankel leaned back, locking his fingers behind his head. “This newspaper’s on freakin’ life support. We need another Watergate or we’re all going to be on the street. Where the hell’s Richard Nixon when you need him?”

“This story has potential. I swear.”

Frankel gazed out his window at the Washington skyline. Dawson had heard all of his stories. Like how he had interviewed rebel commanders no one else could find, once with a gun to his head, held by a fidgety fighter who needed only a nod from his boss to pull the trigger. Frankel had always gotten the story, but never the prize. So he had settled for shepherding prize-winning stories by Dawson and other reporters. Dawson held his breath. He’d dangled the bait. Now he’d see if Frankel would bite.

Frankel sucked in a breath. “Put it in writing. I’ll see what I can do.”

Chapter 2

 

Doña Ana County, New Mexico

 

Special Agent Raoul Garcia surveyed the crime scene, his eyes shaded by iridescent sunglasses, his lips pressed together. Garcia scuffed his suede desert boots on the grit, then tugged up his cargo pants and smoothed his black DEA T-shirt inside the waistband. The blazing sun heated the Special Forces boonie hat covering his shaved head. Garcia clenched his jaw as he stroked his closely cut goatee. The more he thought about the dead man on the ground nearby, the angrier he got. “Friggin’ bastards,” he said.

The Dona Ana County sheriff had called him a couple of hours earlier, saying that his deputies had found a body. Despite the head wound, the sheriff said they were confident it was Sam Dawson. Garcia had left immediately.

By the time he arrived, crime scene tape fluttered everywhere, bouncing in the hot wind that blew across the desert scrub. A couple of county sheriff deputies stood by their vehicles as blue and red emergency lights pierced the sunlight. State Police investigators milled about. Green and white Border Patrol trucks were parked nearby. Flies buzzed angrily.

Garcia nodded to the deputies as he lifted the tape and stepped closer to get a good look. The victim’s head was held together by the duct tape, the jaw mangled, upper teeth and bone exposed. Yeah, it was Sam Dawson. As if Sam was hard to miss. The jowly face, no neck, barrel chest, and medicine-ball belly covered by a bloodstained polo shirt monogrammed with the country club logo.

Garcia had known Kyle Dawson’s dad since forever. “Shee-it,” Garcia said with a sigh. Times were different back then. Innocent. Where had it all gone wrong?

The gun battle at the border crossing two days earlier was bad enough. Now this. Sam Dawson was dead, executed to be precise. A high-profile land developer with strong political connections. And the father of his cousin and best friend. That black cloud that he felt hovering over Juárez was growing. Now Kyle was involved.

Two medical technicians from the Las Cruces hospital unfolded a black body bag, placed it on the ground, and zipped it open. They pulled on latex gloves.

“Help me here,” one said, swatting at swarming flies.

The other brushed away crawling ants and used a pocket blade to cut the tape that bound Sam’s wrists, freeing the arms beset by rigor mortis.

Garcia remembered Sam’s hands, big enough to palm a basketball. Sam used them to pat the backs of friends and prospective land buyers. The technicians stooped to lift the body, then worked the legs into the bag.

He gazed at the wire fence that marked the U.S.-Mexico border, stretching into the horizon, fading into the sand and sparse brush. Just five strands of barbed wire that marked the dividing line between two countries tied together in more ways than most people wanted to admit. The sun felt heavy on his shoulders. Garcia had already made one call. He dreaded the next.

A white Chevy Tahoe bounced over the gravel and skidded to a stop. The doors were emblazoned with a blue “7 News” inside a circle. El Paso television reporter Anita Alvarez stepped out, her dark hair cascading to her shoulders. She wore a turquoise blouse with a deep neckline, a linen jacket, designer jeans, and running shoes. Damn, Garcia thought. She always looked good. Hadn’t aged a day from high school. He took a deep breath and slowly exhaled.

She hurried toward him, holding a reporter’s notebook to shade her eyes. “Thanks for the call, Raoul. I can’t believe someone would kill—” She caught her breath as she saw the body, then turned away, wincing. “Oh, Jesus.”

The medical technicians noisily zipped the bag shut. They groaned as they heaved it onto a gurney, which they shoved into the back of the ambulance and slammed the doors shut. They climbed into the cab, revved the engine, and drove off. Garcia watched the vehicle disappear in the scrub before bouncing onto the paved road.

“Did the Borrego cartel do this?” Anita asked, squinting in the sunlight.

Garcia lifted his hat and ran a hand over his head stubble. “A lot people in Juárez could do this.”

“Why Sam Dawson? Everybody loved him.”

“Not everybody.”

“Ten years of covering the drug wars. Thousands dead. This one hits close to home.”

“Yeah, it does.” Garcia walked to his unmarked black SUV, opened the door, and climbed in. He lowered the tinted glass window.

“Hey, I need to talk to you,” Anita said.

“Go talk to those guys,” Garcia said, pointing a thumb at the Dona Ana County Sheriff’s Department truck. “They got jurisdiction here.”

“The sheriff doesn’t know crap.”

Garcia shrugged.

“Does Kyle know about this?”

“I’m calling him now.” Garcia showed her his phone.

Anita looked at him. “Raoul?”

“What?”

“Thanks for making the call.”

Garcia nodded again and waited until she returned to her vehicle, where she slid into the front seat and made a call. Her cameraman stood nearby, panning the scene.

Garcia tapped the speed dial and held the phone to his ear.

Chapter 3

 

Washington, D.C.

 

Dawson sat at his cluttered desk, wondering when Frankel would have an answer to his request. He needed a break from the campaign. Badly. His junked-up desk was a hazard of the business, he told himself, due to the endless blizzard of press releases, studies, and reports, each spiral-bound, stapled, or glued. Much of it he refused to toss. Reference material. Someday it would come in handy. He subscribed to the bumper sticker philosophy another reporter had pasted on the side of his computer: “A clean desk is the sign of a sick mind.” And this? Healthy chaos.

He leaned back in his chair, switched on the computer, and thought about the story he was about to write. It was short on details, but the link to Madsen, now in the throes of a presidential election, gave it strong news value.

Madsen’s dead staffer had only come on board six months earlier. A third-year student majoring in political science. Madsen’s office said the kid had been vetted, but apparently not well enough. The staffer had no apparent involvement in the drug trade or a criminal record. Jobs like the one this student had were political payoffs to friends and donors. That a twenty-one-year-old was walking around with half a million dollars was no accident. Nor was the fact that he was with those Mexicans. But Madsen’s office wouldn’t comment, which was why he had tracked down the man himself.

They were “looking into it,” Madsen had said. It was a weak response. Dawson chuckled to himself. He’d found out that the kid was the nephew of Jodie Serna’s husband, Trini. That set off alarm bells. Trini Serna was Madsen’s right-hand man and had been for years. He was officially listed as a senior advisor. Maybe that’s why they’d missed something in the kid’s background. They weren’t really looking.

His cell phone buzzed. He picked it up, read the number, and held it to his ear. “Raoul. What’s up?”

“Uhhh,” Garcia said slowly. “Got a second?”

“You don’t sound happy.”

“The police just found a body.”

“Where are you?”

“State Road Nine. West of Rancho la Peña.”

“Okay.”

“It’s your father, Kyle.”

Dawson’s blood went cold, his mouth dry. He swallowed hard. “My…father?” He took a deep, halting breath and exhaled.

“I’m sorry to be the one to tell you, Kyle. They just collected his body and took it to the morgue.”

“Jesus.” Dawson stared at his desk as visions of the desert filled his head. “What…what happened?”

“He was shot.”

Dawson sucked in another deep breath as his stomach knotted.

“Back of the head.”

“An execution?” Dawson said softly. “This is… Who would… I don’t…understand. Why would…” He leaned forward in his chair, elbows on his knees, and stared at the floor.

“He was kidnapped after leaving the country club. We think there were several of them. It was clean. Very professional, though I use the word loosely.”

Dawson straightened up and massaged a temple slowly as he looked across the newsroom. “Well…uhh…I need to get out there.”

“Yeah. You do.”

“Does Jacquelyn know yet?”

“I doubt it.”

“She’ll be a wreck. What about my mother?”

“I haven’t called anyone except you.”

“I’ll call them.” Dawson sighed deeply. “After all these years, my mother still loved him.”

“She still has you.”

“Yeah. She does.”

Chapter 4

 

Washington, D.C.

 

Dawson put the phone down, staring at it as he struggled to accept what he’d just been told. He opened his desk drawer and fished through a sea of clutter until he found what he was looking for—an old leather baseball. He turned it a few times, his thoughts going back to a day with his father when he was eight years old.

They were living in Florida at the time. He and his father had climbed into Sam’s Cadillac Coupe de Ville and headed for the baseball park. The Coupe de Ville was a yellow two-door, and the back quarter-panel of the roof was white vinyl. Kyle thought it was the fanciest car he’d ever seen. He relished each and every ride, even though he had to stretch up to see out from the deep back seat.

But that day, Kyle rode in the front. The day was hot and humid, and, like always, the back of his legs stuck to the hot leather seat. They drove to Fort Meyers, where they walked into the biggest stadium he’d ever seen. He clung to his father’s hand as they passed through the turnstiles. Amid shouts and echoes careening inside the cavernous structure, they made their way through the crowd to buy hot dogs and sodas. His mind racing, his pulse throbbing, he rode the roar of the crowd and the thunderous applause and cheers like a roller coaster.

Their seats were close behind first base, where he could feel the force of every pitch and the smack of the ball in the catcher’s glove rippling through his thin body. As the innings wore on and his excitement waned, the sharp crack of a bat turned his head to home plate. The ball sailed high. But rather than going into the outfield, it curved toward him, falling fast. He panicked for a moment. Sam stood, whipped off his cap, and reached out over his head. Whup! The ball was in Sam’s hat.

Kyle looked up, blinking into the harsh sun as his dad shouted and danced, waving the ball to the cheering crowd. Sam reached down, grabbed Kyle’s hand, and slapped the ball into it. “Here ya go, son. Don’t say I never gave ya nothin’.” Sam laughed and squeezed his shoulder. Kyle grinned, his momentary fright replaced by the heart-pounding thrill of a prized baseball in his hand.

Later, his stomach bloated by the ballpark hotdogs and sodas, Kyle’s face, arms, and legs began to burn on the way home. He remembered his mother yelling at Sam, saying it was his fault as she sprayed him with Solarcaine to soothe his seared skin. He lay in his bed that night, heat radiating from his sunburned body as he traced the red stitching of the baseball and inhaled the scent of the smooth, white leather.

The ball was stained brown now, the threads frayed. Dawson hefted it a couple of times. Leaning back in his chair, he pulled off his glasses, squeezed his eyes shut, and massaged the bridge of his nose. He shook his head, trying to clear his thoughts and keep a headache at bay. He slowly swiped his hand down his face. Jesus. Now what? Still gripping the baseball, he stood. Feeling off-balance, he caught himself, then trudged through the maze of desks back to Frankel’s office where he put a heavy hand on the door frame and leaned in.

Frankel again swiveled from his computer screen. “Change your mind?”

“Uh…I know this is a bad time,” Dawson said, swallowing hard. “But I need to take some time off.”

Frankel frowned. “You just said you wanted to go to El Paso! And we’re in the middle of a presidential campaign.” He lowered his voice. “What’s the problem?”

“My father. He was found dead.”

Frankel’s face dropped. “Jesus Christ, Dawson. That’s terrible.” He lowered his eyes, lacing his fingers on the desktop, then looked up. “In El Paso?”

“Near.” Dawson massaged the baseball. “Southern New Mexico.” He debated whether to divulge the details, then decided Frankel ought to know. “He was murdered. Shot to death.”

“Oh, God. That’s awful.” Frankel cleared his throat. “Have a seat,” he said, motioning to a chair. Dawson sat stiffly. “Did it happen near the border? Was it the cartels?”

Dawson’s stomach tightened as he glared at Frankel. “My father was a land developer, not a drug dealer.”

“Just sayin’. Look, I’m sorry. I guess I’m not so good at talking about these things.”

Frankel winced, glanced out the window, then back at Dawson. “You gonna be OK?”

Dawson twisted the ball. “It makes no sense.”

“It rarely does. It’s always hard when your father dies. A piece of you is missing.”

Dawson stared at the baseball, his mind whirling. “I’ve been out of touch with him for years. Now, just like that, he’s gone.” He looked up at Frankel, searching for an answer. “He did some things he shouldn’t have. But he paid his debt to society. He didn’t deserve to die like that.”

“What are you talking about?”

“It was a long time ago,” Dawson said, squeezing the ball and looking down at the carpet.

“You don’t have to like everything the man did.”

Frankel’s words hit home. He didn’t like what Sam had done. No, not at all. And he had thrown up a wall between them. For far longer than he should have. Now he regretted it.

“How much time you need off?”

“A week, maybe two.” As soon as he’d spoken, he wanted the words back. How much time? Who the hell knows? Dedication was part and parcel of the profession. The news never stopped. Only people did. Maybe it was his turn to bail out.

Frankel leaned back in his chair. “Take three. You have bereavement leave, so don’t worry about it.”

Dawson took a deep breath and stood. “Thanks.” As he left the office and made his way back to his desk, he felt a burden had been lifted.

Chapter 5

 

El Paso, Texas

 

Dawson shoved his carry-on into the overhead bin and settled in for the plane ride back to El Paso. With a tight connection in Dallas, he’d be home before sundown. Home? Yeah. Despite having been gone for twenty-five years, El Paso still felt like home.

Another trip to El Paso many years earlier roiled in his memory and caught in his throat as he closed his eyes for takeoff. He’d been born in El Paso, back when Sam was selling used cars under the name of Big Sam Dawson. His father’s name was in neon atop a towering sign. Sam had a mechanic, Juan Garcia, who had an instinct for auto repair that verged on mystical. He could take the worst wreck Sam could find to his shop and turn it into a serviceable vehicle with brakes that didn’t squeal and a motor that purred. Sam would hire boys to clean and fix the upholstery, then he’d mount the car with retreads and put it on the lot.

Juan had a pretty young sister, Mercedes, who kept his books. Soon she and Sam, then a lean and lanky Texan, were dating. Six months later, they were married, and nine months after that, Kyle was born. Juan had three children, two boys and a girl. The oldest of the boys, Raoul, was born the same year as Kyle, and as far as he was concerned they were brothers.

But selling used cars had never been enough for Sam. He had dragged Kyle and his mother across the South, finally settling in Florida where Sam struggled to hit it big—in construction, alligator farms, demolition derbies—anything for a quick buck. The early years of Kyle’s life had been spent moving from one town to another and entering one new school after another—he’d hated it. Always the new kid, wondering what it would be like to live in one place.

Not long after they’d gone to that baseball game, black squad cars had pulled up in front of their apartment building. Pounding on the door, detectives burst in. Sam left in handcuffs, collared, Kyle learned later, for his part in a fraudulent land sales scheme.

Kyle had sat with his mother in the courtroom behind Sam and his lawyer, feeling uncomfortable in the starched white shirt, the new coat and tie, his face scrubbed nearly raw, his hair neatly combed and parted. It had been for the benefit of the judge and jury: Sam the family man. It hadn’t worked.

“Your father has to go away for a while,” his mother told him afterwards. She had tried not to sound worried, talking as if it was a normal thing. But even then Kyle sensed her fear. It left a hollow, empty feeling inside him that only grew as he rode in the wide back seat when Sam drove his Cadillac to Fort Myers to begin serving his time. They climbed out of the long, yellow car and stood on the curving brick walkway, his father’s face contorted with regret.

Kyle’s eyes welled with tears and his chin quivered uncontrollably as he reached out for his father, hugging him tightly around the waist. They stood like that for an interminable time, it seemed, until Sam finally let go and stepped back. Sam’s strong hand gripped Kyle’s shoulder.

“Now I don’t want the two of you to go worryin’ about me,” Sam said. “I’m gonna be fine. The time’s gonna go by faster’n you think. Y’all can come visit me most any time ya want, and I hope to God you see fit to do that. Kyle, I want you to be a strong young man for your mother. Ya hear me? Got that?” He squeezed Kyle’s shoulder again. “You mind what she says.”

Sam took Mercedes in his arms. “It’ll be all right. It’ll be all right.” He held her close, patting her back. “I’ll call you as soon as I can. I’ll let you know where they’re gonna put me. Now git on home before we make a spectacle of ourselves.” His father turned and walked into the police station, leaving Kyle and his mother to wipe away their tears in the midday sun.

With Sam gone, Mercedes worked multiple jobs. When she cleaned hotel rooms, Kyle collected the dirty towels and helped her tuck in the crisp, white sheets. When she waited tables at a local diner, he filled salt-and-pepper shakers, wrapped napkins around the silverware, and cleared dishes when things got busy. When things were slow, she made him sit at the back of the restaurant, where he did his homework. Mostly, he just tried to be a good kid.

Dawson gritted his teeth at the memory. Eight years old. Left alone to be the man of the house. Helpless to do a damned thing about it. Too young to work, too old to be a child. Yeah. You were a bastard, Sam. A damned bastard.

His chest tightened as Dawson drew a deep, halting breath, remembering the morning after Sam was released. Mercedes couldn’t contain her excitement. She cleaned the apartment several times and prepared a fancy meal. That was even more emotional for Kyle and his mother than when Sam had gone to prison because now they believed they could breathe a sigh of relief. The two long years of struggle were over. Or so they thought.

The next day, Sam cast a restless eye around the sparse apartment. He began talking about going back to El Paso. People were flocking to the Sun Belt, he said, fleeing the closed factories in the Midwest Rust Belt. There was money to be made—big money.

Two days later, Kyle again fought back tears as his father backed the yellow Cadillac out of the parking lot and drove away. “It won’t be long,” Sam promised. “Y’all just wait till I call, and take care of yerselves.”

It was too much for Mercedes. She lasted only six more months, then quit her jobs. She stuffed what little they had into two large suitcases, and they climbed into a Greyhound bus back to El Paso. Kyle stared out the bus window, his resentment of Sam smoldering with every passing mile. The lush, green landscapes of Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana ultimately gave way to the brown of West Texas.

Back in El Paso, Sam wanted nothing to do with Mercedes. He’d hit it big, he said, with some desert land deal along the southern New Mexico border, just west of El Paso. Some big money people were behind it, and Sam was in the middle. He’d finally found what he was looking for, and that included a new woman, Jacquelyn. Rejected and disgusted, Mercedes went back across the border and lived in Juárez with her parents. Despite Kyle’s objections, after the divorce she took him back to Texas to live with Sam and his new wife. It was a better life for him, she had insisted, as tears streamed down her cheeks. Kyle had gone, but he had not forgotten.

  • * *

 

The flight attendant’s voice blared from the speaker overhead: “Please ensure that your seat is in the upright and locked position and that your tray table is securely stowed.”

Dawson stirred, looked around the crowded cabin, then out the window to the familiar, scruffy land. Golden sunlight flashed throughout the passenger compartment as the plane circled and bounced onto the baked concrete.

When the seat-belt light dinged off, Dawson pulled his bag from the overhead bin and stood in the crowded aisle, impatient to get off the plane. The other passengers seemed to move in slow motion, taking their sweet time to collect their bags and empty down the aisle. He smiled weakly as the stewardess and copilot lingered by the exit door, thanking him for choosing their airline. As if there’s much choice?

A ripple of excitement propelled him along the concourse and to the baggage claim. It felt good to be back in El Paso. Like he was in another country, free again to move at will. Yeah, he told himself, this was about as close to a third-world country as you could get without leaving America. He felt a smile coming on.

He joined the other passengers at the rumbling baggage turnstile as bags popped out, clunking onto the conveyor. There was no crowding, no elbowing to get their bags. Yeah, Washington was a long way away. Dawson yanked his bag off the belt, turned, and banged into Raoul Garcia, who was standing behind him, his meaty arms crossed, smiling broadly.

“Welcome home, Kyle.” Garcia gave him a bear hug, nearly squeezing the wind out of him.

“Hey, thanks. Good to see you. You’re looking as ugly as ever.”

“Still prettier’n you. C’mon. I’m parked at the curb.” Garcia grabbed Dawson’s bag. “The traffic cop’s watchin’ my ride.”

Outside, Dawson took a deep breath of the warm evening air. He felt himself relaxing as he shed his jacket and tossed it on his canvas brief, then slid into the front seat. “It’s good to be back,” he said, as Garcia pulled out of the airport and eased the black SUV into traffic.

“I’d invite you over for dinner, but I know you got business. When you can, though…”

“Count on it,” Dawson said. “No one can burn a steak quite like you.”

Garcia shrugged and smiled.

Dawson glanced at the familiar sign that directed them north on Interstate 10 and to the turnoff to Rancho la Peña. The gritty landscape lay wide and open. A far cry from the concrete canyons that he roamed these days. He looked at Garcia and flashed on those years at El Paso High School, the Friday night lights on the football field, the late-night drinking parties in the desert, his pickup trucks. Anita in his arms.

Dawson swallowed hard as he remembered the reason for this trip.

“Why do you think he was killed?” he asked.

“Sam? I don’t know.”

“Don’t know or can’t say?”

“It’s being thoroughly investigated. Believe me. Everyone’s on the case. Local, state, feds.”

Dawson shook his head and looked out the window. Not what he wanted to hear. The whole thing stunk. He felt helpless once again, like when he was a kid and Sam had gone to prison, like when his ex-wife had told him she wanted a trial separation. Shit. There was nothing “trial” about it. He fought back the growing sense of loss and desperation.

“So what are you going to do?” Garcia asked.

“Find out what happened.”

“I told you, the police and feds got this one covered.”

“I don’t trust them. They’ll find out what happened. But I need to know why.”

“Kyle Dawson, investigative reporter.”

He looked at Garcia for a long moment. “Not for a story, but for me.”

“It’s not like D.C.”

“Jesus, Raoul. I worked in Iraq and Afghanistan. Give me a break.”

“Have you talked to Anita yet?”

“Why should I?”

“You two were something else in the day.”

“In the day, Raoul. In the day. Times change. People change.”

“That’s what they say.”

At Rancho la Peña, the sun still burned hot as it balanced on the horizon, spreading thick orange across the desert, throwing angular, sharp-edged shadows.

“Are you sure you want to stay with Jacquelyn?”

Dawson nodded. “Yeah. It’ll be best. Mom has a small place there in Juárez. And she’s always got relatives staying with her.”

“Yeah,” Garcia said with a sigh. “She does. But—”

“I’ll see her tomorrow or the next day,” Dawson said sharply. “I’ve got enough to deal with right now.”

“Don’t get cranky.” Garcia guided his vehicle down curving paved streets that seemed more crowded with houses than before. Each was coated with stucco, topped with tile roofs, and fronted by yards of pea gravel, crushed red lava rock, and spiky cactus. The house that Dawson knew all too well sat on a cul-de-sac, a two-story, stucco-and-tile McMansion. For a moment he felt like a college kid coming home from a spring break. But the feeling faded as he thought about his stepmother inside and how distraught she must be.

Garcia turned into the wide driveway and eased to a stop. “We need to catch up.”

“I’ll be around.”

Chapter 6

 

Rancho la Peña, New Mexico

 

Dawson watched Garcia back out and drive away, reluctant to face what was next. The call to his stepmother had gone as well as he expected. He’d told her he had some very bad news. “Sam’s body was found this morning.”

“His body?” Jacquelyn had asked quietly, then fell silent. “That means…” After a moment she groaned and sobbed softly.

Dawson had listened, then swallowed hard. Despite her sobs, he didn’t believe she really cared if Sam was dead or alive. Over the years, her and Sam’s relationship had disintegrated. Sam’s cowboy charm had worn thin and she came to resent his blustery and rarely truthful talk. She stayed with Sam because she increasingly controlled the development and the country club operations. In truth, calling Jacquelyn to tell her that her husband of thirty years was dead felt like victory. He knew something she didn’t. As he listened to her whimper, he had wondered if maybe she already knew.

To Dawson, she was his father’s business partner more than a wife, and he thought of her as Jacquelyn, nothing more. Mercedes was his mother, and that would not change—nor would the fact that she lived across the border in Juárez, a different world. Dawson would concede that Jacquelyn had been good for him, though he was loathe to admit it. Her drive to succeed was infectious. She pushed him to get good grades in school and to play sports, however ineptly. She smiled with self-satisfaction when he was accepted at St. John’s College in Santa Fe. But she questioned the value of a liberal arts degree, complaining that it was worthless. Now as he stood at the door, Dawson smiled to himself. That degree had been perfect for him, a natural springboard into his journalism career.

He paused for a moment to take a deep breath, then banged the door knocker gently. Silence. He waited and tapped it again. More silence. He looked to the evening sky. A couple of black vultures circled, their feathers tinged in red from the setting sun, gliding on the heat currents.

The door opened. Maria, his stepmother’s maid and long-time companion, looked at him with teary eyes. She spoke softly, “Muy triste. Muy triste.” Very sad. Very sad. Dawson swallowed hard as he put an arm around her shoulders.

“Oh, child,” cried Jacquelyn as she shuffled across the tiled floor in fuzzy bedroom slippers, wrapped in an embroidered blue silk house kimono. Her thick white hair, once blond, was stacked on her head and held with a couple of black lacquered sticks. Despite routine facials and Botox treatments, she showed her age. Clutching a handkerchief, she mashed herself against him and whimpered.

Dawson sighed as he hugged his stepmother’s thin, yet vibrant body. She clung to him a moment, then stepped back, dabbing the handkerchief at her eyes.

“Whatever are we going to do now?” she asked.

Dawson held her hand and puzzled for a moment. If anyone knew what to do, it was Jacquelyn. While Sam had been the boisterous, back-slapping persona of the Rancho la Peña development, she kept a firm grip on the business operations that kept the development on track. It had been that way pretty from day one.

Jacquelyn was everything that Sam was not. She attended the University of New Mexico and had gone into real estate sales in Santa Fe when Santa Fe was discovered by the glitterati. Land prices climbed skyward and she’d made a small fortune. She had floated in influential circles, which Dawson later learned included the now Senator Micah Madsen, who was then the state’s attorney general. When Rancho la Peña surfaced, she saw its potential and invested heavily, and met Sam.

What were they going to do? The question struck Dawson as absurd. He glanced about the large and lavish house. It felt hollow and empty as he realized that never again would he hear Sam banging through the front door, tromping his feet as he did to knock off the dust. Or hear his boisterous, squeaky laugh. Or see Sam’s flushed, sunburned face as he grumbled about the endless march of problems, madness, and mayhem that was his life. Now it was just Jacquelyn and Maria, a woman who had been part of their lives as much as anyone.

“You must be hungry,” Jacquelyn said.

“Well, ahh, actually…” He was famished.

Seated at the small kitchen table, he watched Maria pull a baking dish from the oven, filling the kitchen with the aroma of an enchilada casserole. It rekindled his sense of being home, a feeling that had become foreign. He thanked Maria as she handed him a full plate. He rolled up a warmed tortilla, dipped it into the steaming red chili sauce, and ate hungrily.

Jacquelyn sat facing him and refilled her wine glass with chardonnay. Lines of worry were etched into her face, her eyes seemed sunken, her cheeks sagging.

He cleared his throat, trying to chase away Sam’s uncomfortable absence.

“The funeral home arrangements have been made,” Jacquelyn said, with her typical certainty. “Closed casket, of course. A memorial service. A lot of people will be there, including our good friend, Senator Madsen.”

“He announced a Senate committee hearing here in El Paso just yesterday. And, he’s in the middle of a presidential campaign. He has time for a funeral?”

“Of course. He wants to deliver the eulogy.”

“How convenient.” It grated on Dawson that politicians would use any and all opportunities to shape a public image of being a good guy, a friendly and caring neighbor. Now his father’s death was being used by Madsen. His stomach tightened.

“Why yes,” Jacquelyn said, smiling as if it should not be a surprise. “He and Sam, as well as me, are on very good terms. You know that. Micah helped your father a lot.”

“I’d say it was the other way around. Sam was one of his biggest contributors.”

“Madsen is a worthy candidate.”

“With Madsen at the funeral, there’ll be lots of press.”

Jacquelyn nodded knowingly. “It’s only right. Sam was an important man. I don’t think it’s too strong to call him a visionary.”

“A visionary? Is that what Madsen is going to say?” Resentment gurgled inside Dawson, gnawing at his gut. The chili sauce burned its way down to his stomach. He shifted uncomfortably.

Jacquelyn shrugged. “Of course.”

No longer hungry, he wiped his mouth with a napkin. She was turning Sam’s funeral into a circus. A goddamned circus. He got up and went to large, stainless steel refrigerator and got a beer. He pried off the top and took a couple of swallows, trying to calm his anger. “What’s going to happen to Rancho la Peña now?”

Even as the words came out, he was surprised at his own question. Rancho la Peña was not something he ever thought or cared about. He’d spent much of the past twenty years trying to forget about it. Rancho la Peña was Sam and Jacquelyn’s thing, and it had been Sam’s dream. Now Sam was dead. As he gazed at his stepmother, Dawson realized that his own refusal to be involved in the development project or the golf course had been his way of rejecting Sam, getting back at him for what he’d done to him and his mother.

“Rancho la Peña?” she asked. “Sam’s passing should not affect anything.”

Dawson nodded. It was what he expected. Jacquelyn remained in control with or without Sam. He knew Sam didn’t pay much attention to minor details like bills. He only cared if there was enough in his bank accounts to buy whatever he wanted. Jacquelyn wisely had him on an allowance. “He was good at making money, wasn’t he, but bad at managing it.”

“One has to take the good with the bad,” she said.

“I suppose.”

“He did a lot of good. I know you’ve been resentful and angry at him. But he changed. You should accept that. He joined the Mormon church, and he built a temple here at Rancho la Peña.”

“You know he became a Mormon only because of the business connections.”

“That’s not true. Why can’t you forgive him?”

“What about the bar in the house here and in his office? Mormons aren’t supposed to drink.”

Jacquelyn sighed and looked away, not wanting to pursue the conversation.

In fact, Dawson had stopped hating the man long ago. Somewhere along the line, he had accepted his father as a man who wanted nothing more than to be a big shot, drive a big car, live in a big house, have all the stuff that showed the world he was a success. With that acceptance, his anger had dissipated like a morning mist in the harsh light of day. He had even been able to laugh at himself for harboring that resentment all those years.

But now, that emotion was replaced by another, heavier weight: remorse. He never told his father that he forgave him. Sam had died thinking that his son, his only child, hated him. “I forgave him a long time ago,” he said, trying to sound sincere. “Only he never knew it.”

Jacquelyn eyes opened wide for a moment, then narrowed as she swallowed the last of her wine. “Poor darling.”

Dawson struggled to contain his desire to argue with her. He resented Sam for dying the way he did and for her being so damned good at covering up and cleaning up Sam’s messy life.

She cleared her throat. “You asked about Rancho la Peña. If you wanted to leave Washington, D.C., there would be a place for you here, now that Sam is gone. You’d be closer to your children. And, it’s something that Sam would have wanted.”

Dawson flinched at the thought and let out a long, slow sigh. Such a move was out of the question since it meant he’d be working for her, in effect. “I’m a journalist, not a land developer.”

She nodded. “How often do you see your children?”

The question unleashed a gush of guilt. Jacquelyn was good at such effortless jabs. “My kids? Not often enough.”

“Another reason why you should move back here.”

Dawson clenched his jaw. “Maybe someday.”

 

 

 

You have reached the end of the sample for this book.

 

***

 

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[]

PITFALL

 

By Cameron Bane

 

Chapter One

 

 

With a shriek of tortured metal, another bullet slashed by my face, tumbling end for end, by the sound. Ricochet.

Tucking myself further back into the three-by-three steel cubbyhole at the end of the hall, not for the first time in the last ten minutes I questioned my inability to say no to pie. No doubt about it, if I got out of this alive I was going to buy a Stairmaster. Maybe two, one for each leg. In circumstances like these, inches could mean death.

Resisting an urge to panic, I quickly pushed it away as I glanced down and checked my weapons again. One was still hopelessly jammed, the other one empty. So much for that. I know it’s weird, but rounds just don’t seem to last as long as they used to; I lay the blame for that squarely at the feet of Rosie O’Donnell. It would have been sweet for a bullet fairy, Disney-like and with a soft blue neon glow, to come flitting in right about then to bring me some fresh ammunition, but truth to tell what I really needed was something with a little more authority. Like maybe a rocket launcher.

“Mister Brenner?”

Boneless again, with that grating, reedy voice of his. Although I doubted he much cared what I thought of it. About that or anything else.

He liked his voice, I knew. He liked it a whole lot, as a matter of fact. In his heart of hearts I think he believed he sounded like a white Johnny Mathis. He didn’t. The labored wheezing of his speech beat coarsely against my ears, putting me in mind of a man with a twig lodged in his larynx.

“Hello. Earth to Mr. Brenner.”

Boneless sounded awfully confident, reedy voice or not. He and his men were nicely ensconced at the other end of the hall, safe from anything short of a tactical nuke. Safe enough from no-bullets me, at any rate.

“Come now, speak up. That last one was a bit close, I’ll admit, but you’re still alive and with us. For the moment. So here’s some food for thought, if you’re able to digest it. I believe you’re completely out of ammunition and have been for the last few minutes. Am I right?” He waited for an answer he wouldn’t get. “No matter. The only reason I haven’t rushed you, or had one of my men roll a hand grenade your way is because you have something of mine. I wish it back unharmed.”

He meant the data disk I’d stolen; he didn’t know I’d already hidden it.

“So let’s take a moment to pause in this fracas for some itemization. First, you’re bleeding. I should know; I inflicted your wounds. Plus you’re afraid. And who wouldn’t be in your position? Finally, you and I both know there’s no rescue coming. Not in this lifetime. There’s only one way out of this hallway, and that’s past me.” He brayed a guttural laugh. “And that’ll make a feller pucker, as your kinfolk like to put it.”

Still I kept silent, trying to breathe as quietly as I could. The hallway reeked of the sharp smells of burnt gunpowder and sour sweat.

“But you already know that. Now allow me to brighten your day and tell you something I’ll bet you aren’t aware of. Listen closely. A sad and muffled sort of crying?” He whispered the name. “Sarah.”

The word hit me like a ray. He was lying. She was safe. But on the off chance it was true, how in the—?

“Yes, I have her. Life is plain old chock full of surprises, isn’t it? She was apprehended before she even made it to the fifth level. The girl’s standing next to me right now, shaking like she has the plague. But we’ve had a good talk, she and I. Sarah told me she’s really hoping you’ll make the right choice here and not only save her life, but yours too.” His voice brightened. “I imagine she has a few choice words for you, if you’d care to chance coming out and talking with her.”

Yeah, right.

“But something tells me you don’t really believe I have her, Mr. Brenner. Or may I call you John?”

Nope.

“Anyway, John, although over these past few hours I truly feel we’ve become fast friends, I don’t think your psyche could take the strain of knowing you’ve failed again. Much in the same way you failed your wife and children, and after that nearly a dozen of your men in the Gulf, what was it, over eight years ago now.”

I refused the bait, biting back a reply. Recurring nightmares still plague me about those times. A heart surgeon couldn’t have slipped in the knife more effortlessly.

“I know you must have doubts. I would, so let me prove it. I’ve heard your young friend is a marvelous singer. Really something special.” Boneless’s voice dimmed slightly, and there was a rustling, shuffling sound. “Sarah, could I impose on you? Might I ask you to sing something for John?”

If she answered, I couldn’t hear.

“You will? Wonderful. Make it something pretty.”

Seconds crawled by, and then whatever Boneless did caused me to know for a surety he had the girl because she erupted with a shriek that nearly stopped my heart.

The note climbed in a crescendo straight up into the stratosphere and then some. It was a horrendous sound, reverberating off the metal walls, in an echo that was terrified, pain-filled, abandoned, and alone. Assaulting my ears came the agonized entreaty of someone completely bereft of hope, the heart-rending wail of a lost, little child floating in the dark in a flooded basement as the black waters rise and mottled green pit vipers drop in through the broken windows, and mommy and daddy’s not coming back, ever.

I’ve heard a lot of gut-tightening things in my nearly four decades on the planet, combat included, but nothing quite like that. I wouldn’t have thought it possible a human throat could make such a sound. And with that I vowed Mrs. Brenner’s wayward son was not going to end his life in this lousy corridor. Not today. Not until my adversary and I had an accounting. Because everyone knows payback’s a mother, and its grim dictates would make sure before Boneless killed me, that smirking clown would die by my own hand.

The echo of Sarah’s screams faded, and I heard her tormentor chuckle, clapping his hands appreciatively as she wept. “That was lovely, Sarah, very sweet. But what do you say? Let’s try it once more, this time with feeling.”

The girl moaned her terror and denial, “Oh my God, somebody help me, oh no, no, no please God …” and I heard her simultaneously sob and gag, like something was being forced down her throat. My fingers twitched like fleshy spiders, impotent with fury.

Another time I’d felt this helpless; Boneless had alluded to it, the night back in 2006 when I’d overridden my gut feeling and unwittingly led my men into an insurgent trap near the Kuwaiti border, while following orders based on faulty intel.

I felt now like I had then. All I could do in that desert was lie there semi-conscious, fighting to get up and help them as the jagged shrapnel from the roadside bomb burned like liquid fire inside my body. All the while I had to listen to the screams of those under my command as they died. One by one.

But that was another time, and an equally dark place. Surely I had some options now … if I could just think of one. With my head concussed and broken ribs stabbing, intense sweat rolled down my beard-stubbled face, and my mind churned like a cigarette boat with a sheared-off prop as I searched for a workable solution. There didn’t seem to be one. Drawing a short, ragged breath, I raked my eyes over the corridor one last time.

And that’s when I noticed something I’d missed before.

The twin industrial lights running along the hall were extremely long, spanning almost twenty feet, but had been spaced only three inches apart. Just three inches. And the empty guns and clips in my hands weighed in at a shade over seven pounds … I almost shook my head at the insanity of the idea. But I didn’t because that’s all there was.

Hefting the guns, I closed my eyes. Then with my heart pounding like a Detroit punch press and threatening to rip right through my ribcage, I shifted my weight and hurled the things as hard as I could straight up into those overhead lights.

And ducked.

A crash, a flash, and the hallway was instantly plunged into darkness. Howling a feral war cry as the glass rained down, I used that sudden gloom to barrel straight at Boneless and his troops.

My plan’s simplicity was trumped only by its daring. I couldn’t see a thing, but neither could they. My idea was that the very audaciousness of my attack would take his men by surprise, sending them scattering like so many field mice before a goshawk. Then I would scoop up Sarah, and somehow we’d beat feet to safety. As I said, not a world-class plan, but it was all I had. The devil was calling this dance.

And no surprise. It didn’t work.

As I charged the line I felt the air around me tear apart in thunderous explosions of gunfire, the Stygian blackness detonating into a brilliant, deafening cacophony of light and sound. Boneless’s men not only hadn’t trampled each other in fear, they’d opened up on me in a deadly fusillade.

The plan had been worth a shot, even though I’d been told earlier this evening the security forces here consisted of former SEALs, ex-Delta Team guys, a couple of Marine Force Recon experts, and a few hardened Russian Spetznatz troops who’d whiled away their misspent youth terrorizing Afghan villagers. In other words, mercs all.

But I was committed now, like I should have been when I’d first agreed to this job, so I guess it really is true: you can’t change your destiny. Or can you?

I didn’t know. I just kept on barreling flat-out toward the guards like a broken field runner juking and jiving this way and that, bellowing a rebel yell like one of Bobby Lee’s finest boys in butternut brown as I skittered down the pipe. And as I went I couldn’t help wondering how I ever got into this mess. But I knew full well.

This is how.

Chapter Two

 

 

There’s an old saying that the past is like a shadow: although it has no real substance, it’s always at your heels. That’s how it is with me. Most days roll by almost without notice.

Until something unexpected happens.

The early Midwestern August morning was surprisingly nice for a change. After running my customary five miles, I lifted weights for thirty minutes with an old retired middleweight boxer, Fred “Ironman” Miller, as my spotter before working out for an hour on the heavy bag in the old wood-floored, boxing room at the YMCA. Fred held the bag in his two sure and liver-spotted hands as I slammed it hard with a fast combination. As always, I was overdoing my regimen, pushing the envelope, going harder than was wise or prudent. Like I was trying to prove … something.

I’d just completed another series of hits when my lower back suddenly wrenched and spasmed violently. For a few more seconds it grew worse, which in turn caused my right leg to convulse and stiffen before collapsing completely. Losing my balance, I dropped heavily to the floor; the pain making me gasp.

“Man, John.” Fred squatted on his haunches near me. “You all right?”

“Fine,” I managed to grunt. “Go get yourself some juice or something.”

Worry lines covered his battered face. “You sure? I can—”

I just gave him a look, and muttering, he left. I rolled over and painfully sat up.

My body still contains tiny, razor-like shards from that Iraqi I.E.D., too small and dangerous to be worth going after, the VA docs say; it makes going through airport screening interesting. Sometimes if the weather’s cold or I’ve been over-exerting, my frame reacts like that without warning. It’ll shudder, convulsing for maybe thirty seconds before my leg turns numb as dead as mutton. A few minutes will pass before the feeling comes creeping back, and soon I’m fine; after that I may not get another attack for six months.

Lately though, they’ve been coming more frequently. And increasing in intensity and duration.

Basically the problem is nerve damage, or so I was told at Walter Reed. But most of those same Army surgeons had said I’d never walk again, or lead a semblance of a normal life. The only holdout who’d disagreed was Doctor Sam Melbourne, our unit’s physician. After many months of grueling effort I proved him right and those naysayers wrong.

But even after I learned how to get around again on my own, those injuries were still bad enough to dump me out of the Army Special Forces altogether, and the only life and real home I’d known since I was twenty-two. Now I was working out of Madison, Ohio, plying a new trade. At least I was still mobile, and I was thankful for that; I simply can’t take the idea of riding a desk the rest of my days.

Because someday, those grim doctors tell me, a piece of that Iraqi metal, which already lies too close to my spine, is going to shift the wrong way, and I’ll face permanent paralysis, or worse. Then they’ll be forced to operate again, despite the consequences.

What’ll happen on the other side of that surgery is anybody’s guess.

I was glad I’d sent Fred away. I couldn’t stand him pitying me as I lay there because I cannot abide weakness in myself. The pain gradually retreated, and my strength returned. Picking myself up, forcing my unwilling limbs to respond, I slowly limped down the hall to the old sour-smelling locker room for a hot shower. The old and faded boxing posters lining the hallway rattled like bones in their frames as I went.

As I let the steaming water flow over my body, I reflected on the injuries that had so thoroughly wiped out my entire command in Iraq, nearly killing me in the process. The mission had been based on faulty intel; I only found later out just how faulty it was.

I lay flat on my back in that Walter Reed hospital bed, bandaged like Boris Karloff doing the Mummy act and tranked to the gills, when a tall, well-dressed, soft-spoken balding man with hard black eyes paid me a visit. I’d had dealings with these G-5 government spooks before, debriefing them after an operation, and those meetings were usually just a formality. Not this time.

“I wanted to prepare you for some rather bad news,” the spook—whose name turned out to be Ferguson—said, unconvincing concern filling his features. And with the drugs the docs had given me, I’m recalling his words as best as I can. “There are some things you haven’t been told about why your mission failed. Once you’re out of here and into rehab, we’ll debrief, and I’ll share more with you.”

“Share what?” I managed to croak.

His fake smile was wintry. “All in good time. For now, get well, Captain.” The smile expanded, but was still just as chilling. “Nothing’s too good for our latest Silver Star hero.”

Sure. Something about this, about him, wasn’t sitting right with me. I couldn’t shake the feeling I’d just had a target painted on me. And I was glad a Fox war correspondent had gotten footage of the attack’s aftermath and had sent it worldwide via satellite. Good insurance.

I wasn’t wrong. One sunny April afternoon three months later I was out of ICU and into the rehab unit when Ferguson again visited. And what he said this time was sobering.

After swearing me to secrecy, he told me the person who’d passed that bad info on to my unit had been connected. Highly connected. As in a long-term, United States senator’s grandson connected. What compounded the problem was months earlier the grandson had sold out to al Qaeda for a goodly sum of non-traceable cash, and his intelligence “error” was really nothing more than a full-tilt, remote-controlled, balls-to-the-wall mass assassination.

But as the flack danced around the edges of it, revelation of the threat finally dawned. Regardless of his flag-filled “think of your country,” patriotic spin, the truth of the thing was simpler. In fine and in sum I was being blackmailed: I could take a medical retirement with a generous, as in the high five figures, monthly stipend.

Or else.

Looking back, had I really expected them to kill me? I don’t know; I’d heard stories of CIA-sponsored “accidents,” things no one could explain. All the publicity the operation had gotten would seem to preclude a personal attack, but you never know.

So not being an idiot, I accepted the deal.

But I turned the tables. After Ferguson left I made some calls to some friends, and a month later, when he visited again (checking up, really), I had some jarring news for him.

I told him I was fully aware that sometimes Uncle Sammy forgets his promises, so to keep things on a level playing field I’d made full documentation of everything, with verbal testimony, hard copies, and CDs of the same, safely squirreled away in several sites around the world against the day anything untoward happened to me.

I went on to say if a week ever passes without me checking in with the people who hold that proof, then the lid comes off, the lights come on, and the shit hits the fan. Then no doubt Mr. Ferguson and his bosses will be invited for a command performance before the Senate Armed Services subcommittee to explain exactly what they’d pulled.

That said, I awarded him a sunny smile. He opened his mouth, and closed it. Then shooting me a hard look, he stalked out. On reflection, I suppose what I did makes me a jerk.

But I sleep well.

And it gets better. Rather than spending the rest of my days slurping mai tais with beautiful brown-skinned women on a Costa Rican beach, I now assuage my guilt by unofficially taking on hopeless tasks that just skirt the edge of the law.

For free.

After leaving the gym I headed home, and fifteen minutes later found me pulling my car, a 1965 candy-apple red Mustang, into an open spot in my apartment house, concrete parking lot. Still stiff and sore from the attack, I’d just slid out cautiously, black field bag in hand, when I heard a young boy’s high, familiar voice calling out to me. “Hey, Mr. Brenner! Hey, coach!”

Turning around and looking across the lot, I smiled. It was Mark Brantley, one of the ten-year olds whose football team I coach for the Butler County urban league. He was pedaling his ancient, faded red Schwinn bike toward me, coming so fast his legs were almost a blur. A second later the boy skidded to a halt, his brow knitted in concentration, leaving twin foot-long trails of stinky rubber from his already thin tires.

“All right, Mark! Pretty slick.” Shutting the car door with a solid thunk, I turned to face him and gave him a high-five. “Looks like you got that move down.”

“You like that, huh?” Beneath his thick thatch of yellow hair, his corn-fed, freckled face now beamed. Ever since he told me he’d seen a kid on some TV show do that stunt, he’d been practicing. The last two times he’d taken a nasty fall, but he was game.

I removed my sunglasses, hanging them from my red tee shirt by an earpiece. “You think you’re ready for the big screen yet?”

“Pretty soon now.” His nod was absolutely serious. And then, as kids will do, he completely changed the subject. “Have you seen Billy?”

“Billy Cahill?” Billy and Mark were best friends, sticking to one another like rare-earth magnets. “I think I saw him down the street at the corner store a few minutes ago.”

Mark nodded. “Yeah, he’s supposed to be gettin’ us some red licorice whips. But I think either he got lost, or he’s readin’ that new Blue Menace comic.”

Licorice. The most foul candy known to man. “Now then, what can I do you for?” Locking the car and pocketing my keys, I turned and started heading around to the front of the old building, where the entrance was, knowing he’d follow. “And this being Monday, how come you’re not in school?” I matched Mark’s stride as he walked his bike alongside. The traffic on this narrow side street was light this time of day.

“In service day,” he explained. “All us kids got off.”

“I used to love in service days.”

He watched the spokes of his front wheel as we walked. The cardboard, New York Giants trading card he’d inserted there chattered like a machine gun. “I was wonderin’ when we’re gonna run those new plays you were talkin’ about.”

“I was thinking about introducing those at practice next week. The city has that open area at Park and B streets reserved for us.”

He pulled a face. “I wish we could run them at the school field.”

“The high school team gets first dibs on that, Mark. You know that.”

He pulled a face. “Yeah, and it sucks.”

I couldn’t argue with him. Many times they don’t let us use the field even when it’s available, but I don’t tell the kids that. By then we’d reached the front sidewalk. “Remind the guys, Sunday, three o’clock. And be on time.” I lowered my voice to a conspiratorial mutter. “I’ve got a quarterback sneak play up my sleeve we used on my college team. It’ll catch those Highland momma’s boys flatfooted next Saturday.”

“Yeah!” Excitement filled his blue eyes, and Mark flashed a grin from ear to ear as he climbed on his bike. “Well, see ya, coach!” A moment later he and his machine were fading away fast down the street, his legs pumping like pistons.

Once inside the building I climbed the stairwell to the second floor, and down the hall to 3-B, my place, to grab a shave. Slipping the key into the lock, I wrestled with it a moment before the tumblers clicked. As I did I heard the most ungodly screeching erupt from inside the room, followed by high-pitched alien sounds of a loud wolf whistle, ending with, “Hey, baby! Hot stuff!”

Opening the door I found the source of all that noise: Smedley, my eight-year-old, green-tailed, one-eyed parrot. He’s a good pet, relatively clean, even-tempered, and he takes peanuts from my hand without biting. His only fault is his upbringing.

Being reared by his original owner, a Cincinnati saloon keeper who served a twenty-year hitch in the Navy, may have its good points, but a clean vocabulary isn’t one of them. As a kid I’d always thought it would be a hoot to have a parrot that could curse with the best of them, but Smedley’s incessant filthy mouth and raucous comments had embarrassed me more than once. It wouldn’t be so bad if what he spouts has anything to do with the moment at hand. It doesn’t, of course. They came up with the word “birdbrain” for a reason.

“Have you been good today?” I asked him. He simply cocked his head in reply, showing me the black cotton eye patch I’ve slapped on him. Don’t snicker. I wasn’t trying for a pirate look (much); it’s just that the injury from another bird that took his eye before I got him was so stinking ugly.

Smedley’s vet is the one who made the suggestion of keeping the socket covered, for appearances sake if for nothing else. He’d said that after a while he’d leave it alone. He has. The fact he ended up looking like Long John Silver’s boon companion is something we’ve both had to deal with. If I could just get him to sing buccaneer ditties, we’d be golden. I have drawn the line at sawing off his leg, though.

After lathering my face with Gillette’s best and waiting while warming up the safety razor under hot water, I scrutinized myself objectively in the bathroom mirror. It’s never a good experience. My late wife Megan had always said I was “ruggedly handsome,” with a “boyish charm.” But as the saying goes, love is blind.

The intense, weathered visage of the blue-eyed gent staring back looked quite a bit worse for wear these days, but that was to be expected. Battle and grief can scar a man in many ways, and life’s taken a heavy toll on me.

The eyes reflected lasting grief mingled with hardship, eyes that had seen too much, but still somehow managed to retain a sense of humor and cussed stubbornness. Many times I’m amazed there’s anything left of the curious boy who hunted and fished around the towering forests of rural West Virginia.

Regardless of my injuries my muscle tone remains good, and since I try to get in a run each day, my legs have kept their strength. In spite of the injuries to my spine my six-foot-three frame still stands straight, and my medium length, wavy, dark brown hair only holds a few gray ones. Plus I’ve been favored with straight white teeth, and so far have somehow managed to keep them all.

Strolling into my bedroom I hung the wet towel on the back of the door and began rooting around in my walk-in closet for something clean; like most men I know, I hate doing laundry. Before pulling on black Levis and short sleeve, navy and gold striped tee shirt, for a moment I regarded the tats on each of my deltoids. They’re still as bright and clean as the day I’d gotten them, more than twelve years ago.

That was no surprise: the man who’d put them there is an artist. His parlor is located just outside Fort Campbell’s gates, and over the years he’s done similar work for countless other members of the 101st Airborne Rangers, my outfit. Some of the soldiers in my particular group, the 2nd of the 502nd Infantry, HHC Company, had even gone so far as to have our official nickname, “Headhunters,” inscribed on their chests.

I didn’t really want that, so I just chose our other unit-approved emblems: on my upper right arm I had him put a picture of a nasty-looking, spread-out eagle talon, and below it a gold banner reading “Strike.” On my left shoulder he placed a profile of an eagle’s head with “Airborne” inscribed above it, and “de oppresso liber,” our unit’s motto, underneath.

To free the oppressed.

Figuring I still had some miles left on the chassis, I headed over to my office.

Since leaving the service I’d started my own industrial security systems training company, and business has been good, as people steal things and screw one another with disheartening regularity.

As I came in my phone was ringing. I picked it up. My cable bill was due, and I just can’t get along without the Animal Planet channel. Those chimps slay me. “Good afternoon.”

“Mr. Brenner?”

The deep voice sounded familiar. “Speaking.”

“Jacob Cahill. I hope you remember me. You coach my son Billy on your football team.”

“Of course I remember you, Mr. Cahill. How can I help you?”

“Something’s … happened.” He paused, and I heard him swallow. “To my child.”

My blood instantly flashed cold. “You mean Billy?”

“No. Not Billy.” I heard another odd sound over the receiver, like a choke. Or a sob. “Can we meet? Please?”

“All right,” I told Cahill. “Why don’t you stop by my office?”

“I will.”

I gave him the directions, and made the appointment for within the hour. After hanging up I went out to get a sandwich at the little Art Deco diner up the street, figuring to bring my dessert back with me. When I returned I found him already standing in the hall outside my office door, waiting.

I recalled the man, but we’d never really spoken at length. He was in his early forties, tall, trim, and well dressed, with short salt and pepper hair crowning a narrow face. Gold, wire-frame glasses framed his deep-set brown eyes, eyes holding a faint sheen of desperation.

I shifted the white Styrofoam box containing a piece of chocolate cream pie to my left hand, offering my right. “Mr. Cahill. Sorry to have kept you.”

His reply was friendly enough as he stretched out his hand, but the words seemed forced. “No problem.”

We shook, my grip firm but brief. Fishing out my keys, I opened the heavy wooden door to my stark, gray and white linoleum-floored office. “Come on in.”

“Thanks.”

I walked around to the far side of my battered, old walnut desk and indicated the visitor’s chair in front of it with a tick of my head. “Have a seat, if you’d like. Or stand. Whatever suits. I’m not big on formalities.”

“Okay.” Gingerly the man lowered himself into the old Shaker chair I’d picked up for a song at Goodwill. He was acting as if he was afraid it would break under his weight, but he’d be all right. I’d tried the chair myself when I’d bought it, and if it could hold my one hundred and seventy-five pounds, it would take his one thirty-five without strain.

Seating myself, I hooked a thumb toward my coffee maker perched on the small, scarred cherry table next to the desk. Next to it sits a small, glazed, painted porcelain French mantle clock with a sweet Westminster chime. It was a wedding gift for us from my late wife’s parents. Truth be told it’s a bit delicate for my taste, but she loved it. And I loved her.

The rich aroma of the Colombian brew saturated the air. Picking up the pot and pouring myself a cup I asked, “Would you like some? It’s fresh, and I made plenty.”

“No thank you.”

Cahill still seemed ill at ease, and I watched him surreptitiously while I put the dessert box on my desk.

This is always an interesting time, observing how a prospective client takes in my office. They need to trust me implicitly, and not ask a lot of questions or be overly concerned with appearances. The training I’ve received over the years has taught me how to read subtle eye signals and body language, and I’ve discovered something fascinating: how a person views my workplace very often determines how well we’re going to get along. It’s not a hard and fast rule, but it works more often than not.

Roughly I’ve placed them into three categories: say-nothings, nodders, and thin-lips.

Say-nothings is self-explanatory. These types could care less whether we’re meeting in a dark-leather-and-plush-carpeted suite on the twentieth floor of a luxury high-rise, or a local bar. They’re all business and my kind of folks.

Nodders are a bit harder to read. You aren’t sure if they’re thinking, “Unpretentious office. The fellow that works here must be a straight shooter; surely he can help me get my pilferage problems solved,” or “Look at this place. I should have brought along a flea bomb.” You simply have to let them talk for a while to see which way they’re leaning.

And then we come to the thin-lips; you know the type. They enter a room and start staring around, gauging, measuring. It’s obvious they’re not happy with what they’re seeing, and then, count on it, like clockwork the eyebrows lower and the shoulders tighten and the lips … grow thin. Airs and appearances are all-important to these people, and I know from the start we aren’t going to get along.

It’s at this point I usually say something to discourage them from wanting to do business with me, something on the order of, “I trust I can do you some good, Mr. Jones. You’re my first client since I’ve gotten out of prison.” A swirl of wind and they’re gone. Using this arrangement is the reason why I haven’t dressed the place up more. It seems to work fine as my very own people barometer.

But Jacob Cahill’s reaction was unique. As he began looking around, I saw him giving the area the fish eye. His mouth grew taut.

Here it comes. I was about to give him a variation on the line about prison when he sighed, and smiled weakly. “Mr. Brenner, your place isn’t quite what I expected. But that’s irrelevant. You see, I’ve heard about … your other job.”

I kept my face blank. “Is that right.”

“I believe I can trust you.”

Yes you can, I started to say. But before I could … the oddest thing happened. I can’t explain it, but the air around me abruptly seemed to crystallize, the atmosphere growing still and dead. Hard after it a weird fluttering, almost like the wings of a moth, began vibrating around the walls of my heart, and a sudden icy dread gripped me, horn to hoof.

And didn’t let go.

Like the sulphorous, blackstrap molasses I remembered enduring as a kid, a dark conviction slowly started pouring into me, the grim assurance that this man with the sad eyes was bringing something huge into my life, something more than a promise to be kept or a problem to be solved. A lot more.

Something terrible.

I suddenly knew, without a shadow of a doubt, that whatever Jacob Cahill was about to involve me in was going to escalate uncontrolled into a nightmare neither of us could have ever conceived, and it would change my life forever. And I had no choice in the matter, none at all. Events had been put into motion that could no more be changed than I could alter the rotation of the earth.

My Granny used to say that some mountain-bred people have “farsight” to one degree or another. I never really understood the term; as I kid I thought maybe it had something to do with Indians. Which was pretty cool.

But one day she told me farsight meant foreknowledge. As far back as anyone could remember, she said, every now and then mountain people simply know beforehand what’s going to happen, before it happens. Some things have no rational explanation but exist just the same.

By way of illustration, Granny related a story about her sister Ferdie’s youngest son, Uncle Jimmie Ray, and what happened to him as a little boy of eight. While at a friend’s Saturday afternoon birthday party, Jimmie Ray had grown inexplicably morose. Nothing could console him. The cake went bitter in his mouth, he said, and the milk tasted sour. An awful wrenching sadness had seized him. Somehow he knew it was a sorrow that couldn’t be turned but had to be faced. He went home sobbing, and from there straight to bed.

It was the very next day that a Western Union man on a motorcycle wheeled into the farmyard, where the party had been held, bearing an official notice in his battered leather satchel telling the old man there that a week earlier his oldest boy had been killed in a fierce battle on some faraway island called Iwo Jima.

And here, at long last, “farsight” had happened to me. And this wasn’t the same as a psychic vision, a hunch, or a gut feeling. It was altogether different. I was almost forty years old, a world-weary, card-carrying cynic, a man light-years beyond hill country legends. Or so I thought, as I’d never experienced anything even close to what my aunt had described.

Until now.

I suppressed a shudder. An unwelcome thought had stolen its way into my mind, the certainty that of my own volition I’d just entered a dark carnival on a far bleak shore, and the mad barker had strapped me in for one hell of a ride.

 

 

 

You have reached the end of the sample for this book.

 

***

 

 

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PAPER WINGS

 

By Les Abend

 

Chapter One

 

Saturday

15:30 EDT

 

Tony cocked his head back and swallowed the last remaining gulp from the Budweiser can. He scrunched his face as if he had eaten a raw lemon. The beer was flat and warm. Despite the Neoprene coolie cup embroidered with a cartoon caricature of a Hooter’s girl that engulfed the can, the early morning Florida sun had warmed his favorite beverage way beyond his liking. Tony jammed the empty container back into the cup holder just to the right of the shift levers on the Donzi. He wiped his mouth with the back of his left hand. With his right hand, Tony pulled back on the two throttle levers. The thirty-five-foot boat began to slow, the bow settling into the turquoise waters of the Gulf Stream.

Frank climbed up onto the deck of the Donzi. His bronze beer belly jiggled over the top of the elastic waist band of his calf-length khaki shorts. He lowered his sunglasses, straining to see any sign of a person on board the express cruiser that was floating a hundred yards in front of them.

“Do ya see anybody, Frankie?” Tony bellowed from behind the Plexiglas windscreen of the center console.

“Nope…nuthin’ yet, Tony.” Frank slid his feet out into a wide stance, balancing himself as waves rocked the bow. “I think the boat is one of them old thirty-foot-somethin’ Sea Rays with an aft cabin. Probably ‘80’s vintage.” Frank let out a throaty belch, releasing the trapped gas from his last can of Coors Light.

The two men had known each other since elementary school in New Jersey. They had learned how to drive together. They had learned about girls together. They had got into trouble together. Nothing much had changed except for their ages. For almost fifteen years, the two men were partners in their own Fort Lauderdale construction company, a business that had flourished despite the fact neither Tony nor Frank had been educated beyond the eleventh grade. This weekend, they were escaping the wives and the kids for their annual July fishing trip to Bimini.

Halfway back from the island, Tony’s eyes had captured a brief glint of the light reflected off something on the horizon. The light had come from the deck rail of the Sea Ray. The older boat was now bobbing a few feet in front of them. The white hull was chalky, dulled by years of neglect, tortured by the sun.

“Yo Anybody home?” Frank yelled, cupping his hands in front of his mouth. No response from the Sea Ray.

Tony called to Frank. “I’ll get ya close enough to jump off, Frankie. Climb on board and see if you can find somethin’.”

Frank looked back at Tony and raised a thumb in a sign of approval.

As Tony maneuvered the Donzi alongside the Sea Ray, inches from touching, Frank lurched forward, taking a small leap onto the side deck of the other boat. With his friend safely aboard, Tony pulled the gear levers aft, moving the Donzi in reverse and away from the Sea Ray.

Frank stepped down into the cockpit and underneath the faded blue canopy. He swiveled his head, scanning the entire boat from bow to stern. A beaded trail of red dots spattered a portion of the deck. A black, semiautomatic handgun that Frank recognized as a Glock, similar to what he and Tony carried with them to some of their undesirable job sites, was lying on the cockpit floor.

Reaching down, Frank picked up the Glock using two fingers pinched around the gnarled grip. He didn’t know why, but suddenly realized that touching the damn gun was probably a mistake. Frank dropped the Glock back down onto the deck as quickly as he had retrieved it.

He looked at Tony and shrugged his shoulders. Tony pointed at the sliding door that led down the short stairway into the cabin. Frank nodded.

“Anybody home?” Frank called out again as he stared at the closed cabin door. He began to feel a sense of uneasiness, unable to determine why. He took a deep breath and then unlatched the door. He put a foot on the first step and peered inside the cabin and into the salon. He surveyed the entire area.

A plastic tumbler was rolling back and forth in the salon sink. Resting on its side, a half empty bottle of Bombay Sapphire gin sat on the center table. A wooden model of some type of commercial airliner was crushed on the floor like a large bug; the two miniature engines were separated from the wings. Nothing stirred. Frank took another step lower. That was as far as he got.

An overwhelming stench filled his nostrils. The stench seemed to invade every pore of his body. He began to gag. Frank turned and stepped back up into the cockpit. He slammed the sliding door shut. He stumbled toward the stern of the boat and through the transom door out onto the swim platform. He leaned forward and dropped to his knees, spewing out what remained of his mahi-mahi sandwich and the day’s beer.

With confused amazement, Tony watched his wide-eyed friend scurry out of the Sea Ray cabin.

“Frankie? What the fuck? Are you all right?”

Frank raised his hand in a stop motion, a signal to give him a moment. He retched again. Frank scooped water from the ocean and splashed it on his face. He repeated the process a few more times.

“Whatcha see, buddy?” Tony asked, an impatient tone to his voice. He jockeyed the Donzi closer to the Sea Ray. “Was it your sister naked or something?” He chuckled. “That would ruin my whole week, man.”

Frank spit out some sea water, turned his head toward Tony and said, “Didn’t see nothin’. It just smelled in there…worse than anything I ever known.”

“No shit?”

“Yeah, no shit.”

“Whad’ya think it was, man?”

“Don’t know…Don’t think I wanna know, Tony.”

“Okay…okay.” Tony pursed his lips for a moment and sighed. “Well…we can’t just leave this boat out here floatin’. We’d be breaking some kinda maritime law or something. We gotta drag the damn thing in. Let’s take it through the inlet and give it to the Coast Guard on the other side.”

“I say fuck it.”

“Yeah…I know how you feel, Frankie. But what if it was your boat?”

Frank took a deep breath and shook his head. “All right. Throw me a line and I’ll cleat it to the bow.” Frank put his hand on his hips and stared at Tony. He gestured back at the Sea Ray cockpit. “But I ain’t gettin’ back into that cabin again.”

Tony nodded. He walked over to a side compartment on the Donzi and pulled out a coiled, white line. He tossed the line to Frank. Frank unwound the line as he walked to the bow of the Sea Ray. He pulled the loop end through the bottom of the cleat on the starboard side and hooked it to the prongs. He gave the line a tug and tossed the remaining length back to Tony. Tony secured the other end to a port side cleat on the transom of the Donzi. Frank shuffled his way back to the lower deck of the Sea Ray and then jumped aboard the Donzi.

Frank grunted as his flat feet plopped to the deck. “Go slow, Tony.” He fed out the line attached to the Sea Ray until it was taut and the boat was about seventy-five feet behind them. The bow of the old boat waggled for a moment and then remained steady as Tony moved the throttles forward, increasing the speed.

“We’re good,” Frank said. He watched as the size of the wake splashing along the sides of the bow on the Sea Ray blossomed. He turned forward and took a few steps toward Tony, who was leaning against the bolster seat behind the center console. He pointed at the GPS. “Ten miles to Port Everglades. It’s gonna take us friggin’ forever to get there with that damn boat in tow.”

Tony grinned. “Yeah, but look on the bright side. That’s gonna mean less time you have to spend listenin’ to the old lady bitch at you for going away this week.”

“You got a point there,” Frank said with a smile. “I guess there’s only one thing left to do then…” Frank glanced at the white cooler that rested against the stern bulkhead. It was the size of a foot locker. He walked over to the cooler and opened the lid. He reached in with one hand and pushed cubes of ice aside. It sounded as though gravel was being moved by a metal rake. He pulled out two cans of beer and handed a Budweiser to Tony. The two men pulled their ring tops in unison. The popping sound was a familiar orchestra.

 

18:30 EDT

 

The towing of the Sea Ray proceeded without issues, at least until just before Port Everglades. As an afterthought, Tony had decided to call the Coast Guard on Channel 16 about two miles from the inlet. After a few brief exchanges, the professional voice at the other end of the radio began to develop a chill. Tony was slurring his words.

The fact that Tony had to respond on the VHF with the call sign of his boat didn’t help matters. The Donzi was named “Bottoms Up.” It was not the kind of attention that either man needed.

The Coast Guard officer requested a few details regarding the condition of the Sea Ray and then ordered Tony to discontinue the tow. A Coast Guard vessel would arrive shortly to resume the operation. The Donzi would be escorted to a dock at the Coast Guard station, just to the south of Port Everglades.

As if the flashing lights from the Coast Guard boat weren’t enough, it would soon look like an outdoor disco a short while after Tony and Frank arrived at the dock. The Broward County Sheriff’s Department became part of the production. An assembly of police boats and cop cruisers descended upon the area.

Frank knew it was going to be a long day when the pimply-faced Coast Guard officer who climbed aboard the Sea Ray exited the cabin in a rush. It was the same rush that Frank had done hours earlier. But this time something had been seen. And by the anguished look of the young officer’s face, whatever was down in that cabin had to be awful.

Shit! Why couldn’t they have just left the fucking boat to float out there? It would have been somebody else’s fucking problem!

It didn’t take long for the cops to separate Frank and Tony. Frank was brought to a room in the Coast Guard station. Tony was escorted to an aft seat on one of the sheriff’s boats. Tony always wanted to see what kind of equipment the cops had on board their boats, but not this way. This way sucked.

Darkness had fallen hours ago. Tony had lost track of time. And now a man with a brown pockmarked face was stepping off the dock and onto the sheriff’s boat. He wore casual slacks and an open-collared palm tree shirt that hung over a belly that strained against the lower buttons. He smiled and introduced himself to Tony as Detective Jorge Alvarez. He held Tony’s driver’s license between his puffy thumb and forefinger. The driver’s license had been surrendered to the Coast Guard officer just after they had docked.

“Mr. Cusmano, have you ever been in trouble with the law before?” Detective Alvarez asked.

Tony stared at his feet for a moment and then looked back at the brown-skinned man. “Uh, yeah…maybe a couple of times.”

Christ! How far back are they going to go? Certainly not as far back as the dopey car heist that they pulled in their twenties.

Alvarez asked, “You’ve got a pending DUI conviction, isn’t that right?”

“Oh, shit,” Tony thought. He forgot about that one. He was almost relieved. “Yeah, Detective. I got a little stupid one night.”

Alvarez nodded. He scanned the Intracoastal Waterway for a moment and then looked back at Tony. His dark eyes didn’t waver. “Tell me what happened with the Sea Ray.”

Tony took a deep breath. “Nothin’ happened. We just found it floating about ten miles off the coast and towed it in to you guys. End of story. Shit, we thought we were doin’ the right thing.”

“Tell me the whole story…from the time you and Frank left for Bimini until now.”

Tony sighed. He opened his mouth to protest, but no words came out. He stared back at the big detective. He shrugged his shoulders and began to tell the story from the morning they left the dock on Friday until they found the old boat today.

When Tony finished, he raised his palms in a sign of resignation and said, “That’s it. There’s nothing else.”

Alvarez stared at the deck of the sheriff’s boat for a moment. He looked up. “Tony, I want you to answer a question honestly.”

“Oh, shit, here it comes,” thought Tony.

“How do you feel about gays?”

“What?” Tony answered with an incredulous expression on his face.

“You know what I mean. Gay people. What do you think about gay people, Tony?”

“Hell, I don’t know. I don’t care.” Tony cleared his throat. “Why?”

“You ever feel like killing one…just out of principle, let’s say?”

“Fuck no. Why should I?”

“Did you ever cut up a man and throw him in a dumpster?”

Tony started to squirm on the seat. A uniformed cop on the boat shifted his stance and stared at him.

“Detective, I don’t know what the hell you’re getting at.”

“Mr. Cusmano, does the name Jonathan ring a bell?”

“No…should it?”

“Ever been to a restaurant on Los Olas Boulevard and have a heated discussion with someone…someone like the owner?”

Oh, crap. Tony had completely forgotten. Tony said, “His father and I had issues, but that was just between us. It’s been weeks since I had the argument…discussion with his dad.”

“But you did go to the son’s restaurant and threaten to cut his balls off if his father didn’t produce a decent roofing contract.”

“Who told you that?”

“Technology told me that, Mr. Cusmano.”

“What does that mean?”

“We have a security video of what appears to be you in a rather animated discussion with the restaurant owner. After viewing the video, a witness recalled the threat you made.”

“Do I need to call my lawyer now?”

“It depends on what you and your buddy say.”

Tony let out a breath through his nose and asked, “Guess you guys found something on that boat?”

Alvarez looked at the uniformed officer. The uniformed officer shrugged his shoulders. The detective’s eyes narrowed. He stared at Tony.

“A guy with a bullet through his chest, Mr. Cusmano.” Alvarez paused for effect. “He was lying on the V-berth in a pool of blood.”

“I’m sorry to hear that. What’s it got to do with me…or the gay kid at the restaurant?”

“Well, you guys claim that you found the boat floating by itself. You’ve never been a choirboy, Mr. Cusmano. That’s no surprise to anybody. And your last adventure now connects you with a murder, a murder of a homosexual.”

“Murder!? Are you nuts? When did this happen? I’ve been away for the weekend!”

The detective grinned and gestured his head at Tony’s Donzi, still tied up at the Coast Guard dock. “Judging by that boat, you must have a few bucks in your wallet. Fuel’s not cheap these days. Maybe you had someone else get their hands dirty.”

“You guys think that I’m a gay basher?” Tony’s voice was developing a slight angry tone. Clenching his teeth, he asked, “So who was this guy on the boat, anyhow?”

The detective nodded at the uniform cop and then slid next to Tony on the aft seat. The two men were now separated by only inches.

Alvarez whispered into Tony’s ear. “The guy was a pilot. He flew for Patriot Airlines, based in Miami. A few cops have seen him at the restaurant.”

“So?”

“So…a picture was found on the cell phone of the dead pilot in the cabin of the Sea Ray. And guess what?”

Tony could feel something move to the bottom of his stomach. He braced for Alvarez’s next statement.

The big man’s lips held a slight upturn at the corners. “The picture is none other than the gay restaurant owner that was found in the dumpster weeks after you had words with his father.”

Tony’s chest started to tighten. His vision narrowed into a small swath of gray. He was fucked.

Chapter Two

 

Friday (One day earlier)

08:15 EDT

 

Jim adjusted the power levers to stop the unsynchronized throbbing of the two engines on the Boeing 767. Like most pilots, he found the noise annoying. As always, his copilot was oblivious. Mike’s head was lowered toward his flight bag on the right side of his seat. He seemed focused on retrieving something from the bag.

A muffled boom shook the airplane all the way into the flight controls. The electronic beep of the master caution system sounded in the cockpit. The amber caution lights were illuminated on both sides of the eyebrow panel. The EICAS alert-system screen in the center of the instrument panel annunciated the words, “AUTO PILOT DISCONNECT.”

Jim sat up rigid in his seat and instinctively gripped the control yoke with his left hand. With his thumb, he clicked the red autopilot disconnect button twice. The action silenced the caution siren, extinguished the amber light, and cleared the EICAS message from the screen. Ordinarily, it was no big deal. It was not unusual for an autopilot to experience a momentary fault and cause the warnings. It was a simple matter of re-connecting one of the other three autopilots with a push of a button. But something wasn’t right.

Jim continued to hand-fly the airplane at 37,000 feet, an untypical task. At high altitudes, the thin air made hand-flying a sensitive operation. Jim scanned the instrument panel for a sign of why the hairs were standing up on the back of his neck.

The sound of the electronic fire bell pierced the momentary silence. Both pilots glanced in unison at the EICAS display. The display now had the red words, “R ENGINE FIRE.” The master warning lights were blinking on both sides of the eyebrow panel. The right engine fire handle glowed red. Jim stabbed a finger at the master warning light on his side. The bell went silent.

Jim’s heart raced. He was not flying a simulator. It was not his annual recurrent training check ride. The drama unfolding before him was real.

“And I had high hopes that it was going to be a good day.” Jim remarked, his expression stone faced. “Engine Fire/Severe Damage checklist,” he commanded.

Mike leaned to his right and began to tap on the iPad that was attached to a suction cup mount against his sliding window. He searched for the appropriate electronic page of the emergency handbook. When he found the page, he pulled the iPad from its mount and held it in one hand.

In a methodical tone, Mike began to read. “Engine Fire/Severe Damage checklist.” He took a deep breath. “Auto-throttle arm switch.” He paused. “Off.” Mike reached over to the mode control panel in the eyebrow and moved the toggle of the auto-throttle switch down. “Off,” he re-stated. Mike glanced back at the iPad. “Right thrust lever…Close…The pilot flying will retard the thrust lever to idle.”

Mike nodded as he watched his captain move the correct thrust lever to the idle position.

“Close,” Jim confirmed.

A chime sounded in the cockpit. Both men glanced at the overhead panel. The FWD flight attendant light was illuminated in blue. The lead flight attendant was calling.

Mike glanced at Jim. He was waiting for approval or disapproval to answer the intercom. Jim shook his head. He sighed and said, “Let’s get through the checklist first. They probably want to know why they have no galley power.”

Mike nodded and began to recite more of the checklist. After he rotated the fire handle in the center console, he waited for the amber bottle discharge light to illuminate. When the light illuminated he reached down behind the center pedestal and unsnapped the intercom phone from its cradle.

Mike put the interphone to his ear and said, “Sorry, but we’ve been busy up here.”

“Mike, it’s Jackie. We’ve got serious problems back here.”

“What’s going on?”

“The right engine…when it blew up, or whatever it did…well…it threw stuff into the cabin at Row 19. We’ve got slices in the side of the fuselage. And…” Jackie paused for a brief moment. “I think two of the passengers in that row are…are dead. They were hit.”

Mike’s jaw tensed. “Are you sure, Jackie?”

“Yeah, I’m afraid so. It’s not good.”

“How big are the slices in the fuselage?”

“We can see daylight through them…there’s a handful…maybe about three inches long for each slice.”

“Shit. Thanks for the info. Do the best you can back there. We’re gonna get this thing on the ground ASAP. Probably Bermuda. As soon as we get things cleaned up here in the cockpit we’ll get back to you. Okay?”

“Okay.” Her voice had a guarded tone.

“Have you called for medical assistance yet?”

“Yes, we did. A nurse responded.” Jackie paused. “It didn’t take her long to start shaking her head. I’m looking down the aisle. I think she’s covering the Row 19 passengers with blankets right now.”

“Thanks, Jackie.”

Mike heard a click and then Jackie was no longer on the line. He reseated the interphone onto the cradle. It clacked into place. He looked at Jim.

“Two passengers may be dead. It sounds like the right engine threw shrapnel into the main cabin. There are holes in the fuselage.”

Jim shook his head. His expression was somber. “This really isn’t a good day.”

In the very brief moment that the two pilots took to contemplate the situation, the electronic siren broke the silence. The instrument panel was now a sea of red lights. The EICAS annunciated a new message among the list of others already displayed: “CABIN ALTITUDE

Jim reached forward and jabbed the master warning light button in the glareshield eyebrow with his index finger. The siren stopped its high-pitched wail.

Both pilots glanced at the overhead panel. Their eyes focused on the needle in the round cabin altitude gauge. The needle was moving past ten thousand feet. The adjacent cabin rate gauge was showing a 300-feet-per-minute rate of climb. On a normal day they would have felt the pressurization change in their ears. Today, more urgent matters had distracted their attention. The holes in the fuselage were allowing pressurized air to seep outside.

Jim asked, “Did I have my second cup of coffee?” He shook his head while looking at the cabin altitude needle. “We’re losing the cabin,” Jim stated. He glanced at Mike. “I thought that I’d never have to say this in my career, but let’s get the masks on. Checklist.”

If they lost the cabin completely at thirty-seven thousand feet, the pressurization issue could render both pilots useless in about fifteen seconds. Jim and Mike reached for their oxygen masks. They squeezed the opposing red tabs of the release levers. The whooshing sound of air inflating the headband cage of the masks filled the cockpit. They secured the oval cup of the mask to their faces and released the tabs. The cages encapsulated their heads.

Someone not familiar with the system would have remarked on how the two of them looked like extras in a B-grade horror movie. It was as if the creepy octopus creature from Aliens had attacked their faces.

“You got me?” Mike asked, keying his mic switch on the control yoke and glancing at Jim. His voice sounded muffled and nasally over the speaker.

“I’m up, Darth Vader,” Jim said nodding.

Mike tried to grin, realizing that acknowledging his captain’s attempt at humor would ease the tension. But the oxygen mask and his own tension prevented the recognition. Instead, Mike began to recite the depressurization checklist from memory, “O2 masks…On…100 percent.”

Jim responded. “On. 100 percent.”

“Communications…established.”

“Established.”

“Cabin altitude and rate…check”

“It’s not controllable,” Jim stated.

“I agree.” Mike took a breath through his mask. “Passenger oxygen… On.” Mike glanced at Jim and then at the overhead panel.

“Time for the rubber jungle,” Jim said.

Mike reached up to the overhead panel and pushed the “Passenger O2” button. When the activation light illuminated, he nodded. He imagined the rows of yellow masks hanging from above passengers’ heads like moss from a cypress tree.

“Passenger O2…on. Descent…accomplish.”

Jim glanced at his altimeter and said, “We’ve started to drift down already because of the loss of the right engine.” The altimeter pointer was moving past 36,400 feet. He tilted his head back and stared at the cabin altimeter on the overhead. The small needle indicated a cabin pressure of twelve thousand feet. “We haven’t completely lost pressurization by any means. And there may be structural integrity issues considering the holes in the airplane. Would you agree that we don’t need to rush downhill at the moment?”

“I’m with you, boss.”

“All right.” Jim glanced at the transponder on the center console. “Put the emergency code in the box. Transmit on 121.5. Give a Mayday call. Let everybody know where we are and what we’re doing. Then get a hold of New York AIRINC on the HF and declare the emergency.” Jim glanced at his HSI display. “We only have about one hundred miles before we’re radar contact with New York Oceanic in Bermuda’s airspace. I’m going to turn away from the airway now so we don’t hit anybody on the way down.”

The flight was in an area of the Caribbean that had no radar coverage. Airplanes were separated by assigned speeds, routes, and altitudes. Each flight reported its position via a long-distance radio frequency to a contracted service called AIRINC. The AIRINC operator entered each reporting flight into a computer database which in turn created a real-time display of airplanes. The operator also had a direct link with New York Center.

Mike nodded at Jim’s instructions. He pushed the number two VHF button on his radio control panel and began to transmit. “Mayday. Mayday. Patriot Six-Three has experienced a catastrophic engine failure with a rapid depressurization. We have passenger injuries. We are a Boeing 767. Be advised that we are descending out of flight level Three-Six-Zero off airway Lima, four-six-two seventy-five miles south of PIREX intersection.”

As Mike began to repeat the message, Jim reached forward on the overhead panel and snapped on the landing light switches. It was part of the emergency procedure. It made them more visible to other airplanes. He turned the control wheel to the right, banking the airplane away from the invisible airway in the sky. The triangle that depicted the airplane on their HSI map displays began to move off the magenta course line.

Jim reached to his right and pulled the speed brake lever back. He felt the familiar buffeting. He glanced at the vertical speed indicator. The needle was settling on a 3,000 feet per minute rate of descent. That rate should keep them out of trouble with the cabin altitude. And if the airplane had structural problems, it should hold together till they landed.

Had passengers really died on board his airplane? Jim’s stomach tightened. He hadn’t so much as scratched the paint in twenty-five years with the airline. And now this. Christ…it will be on CNN before he gets home. He glanced at his radio control panel and pushed the round PA button. The button glowed red. Jim gulped and took a deep breath. He squeezed the mic switch on his control yoke.

“Ladies and gentlemen, this is Captain Sanders. I am sorry for not making an announcement earlier. As you may have imagined, we have been working through our problems up here in the cockpit. You are probably aware that the right engine has suffered major damage. In addition, the engine pieces that entered the fuselage have caused a pressurization leak. We are in the process of descending rapidly in order to get down to a habitable altitude. The oxygen masks were deployed as a precaution. Although oxygen is not an issue, please use the masks until you are advised that we are at a safe altitude.”

Jim released the mic switch for a moment and took another deep breath. He glanced at his copilot. Mike was displaying an upturned thumb. He had made contact with New York AIRINC. Jim nodded.

Jim re-keyed his mic. “Ladies and gentlemen, this airplane is perfectly capable of flying on one engine. We have no controllability issues. I am diverting the airplane to Bermuda. We anticipate arriving safely at the airport in St. George in approximately thirty minutes. As I am sure you have been doing, please follow the instructions of your flight attendants. They are experts in your safety. Thank you for your cooperation.”

Jim released his mic switch and glanced out the forward windscreen for a brief moment. Nothing but pastel-blue ocean lay before them. The island of Bermuda seemed light years away. Everything that he had done in his airline career would be focused into the performance he was about to give in the next few minutes. He shook the realization from his thoughts. Who could have imagined that a simple Caribbean flight from Port of Spain in Trinidad to JFK would be his defining moment?

Through his oxygen mask Mike said, “We’re good, boss. New York cleared us direct to Bermuda’s runway three-zero outer marker. Descend at our discretion. No other traffic should be in our way.” Mike pointed at the radio control panel on the center console. “The next frequency is in the box. They’re ready for us. We’ll be in radar contact soon.”

“Good job,” Jim said. He turned toward Mike and attempted to smile. Despite the cumbersome apparatus engulfing his face, his expression was visible. His eyes twinkled. “This is damn serious shit, isn’t it?”

Mike nodded.

 

08:25 EDT

 

A glance down the aisle from the back of the airplane was all it took to realize that things weren’t right. The jungle of rubber masks dangling from the overhead ceiling panels made the scene even more chaotic. Newspapers and assorted personal items littered the blue floor and the handful of empty seats. Other than an occasional sniffle from a passenger, the cabin held an eerie silence.

Jackie walked forward toward the front of the airplane. The green oxygen bottle was slung over one shoulder with the yellow strap. She took quick breaths through the mask that was cupped to her face. With the airplane in a noticeable descent, the floor angle required her to pace herself as though she was descending a steep hill. Although Jackie attempted to divert her eyes from Row 19, her efforts were futile. Row 19 was a train wreck.

Aside from the occasional disconcerting slice of sunlight that pierced through the small holes in the side of the airplane, the carnage in the seats was worse. Red was spattered everywhere in the immediate vicinity. Red was on the seatbacks. It had sprayed across the passenger service units above the seats. It had spread to the floor. It had dotted the clothes and faces of nearby passengers.

The two victims had become lifeless forms, covered with blue blankets from head to torso. Their legs flowed out from underneath the blankets in distorted positions. Jackie had helped the nurse cover them, treating the chore as a matter of course…until now. Now as she approached the victims’ row, she had to fight the lump clogging her throat and the moisture seeping into her eyes. It was not the time.

An electronic chime sounded as Jackie approached the cabin class divider bulkhead. She looked at the small light that was illuminated in the ceiling near the forward galley. The pilots were calling. Jackie began to increase her pace. From a seat in first class, a hand reached up and gently gripped her wrist.

“Miss?” a scratchy voice asked.

Jackie glanced down at a man with wispy silver hair, wearing a monogrammed shirt and a striped tie, who had pulled the oxygen cup away from his face. “Yes, sir. Can I help you?”

The man released his grip and beckoned Jackie to lean closer. Jackie knelt on one knee and tilted her head toward the man.

“Has the crew considered this to be an act of terrorism?” the silver-haired man asked, his eyes narrowing. His tone had no inflection.

Jackie sighed, trying to hide the surprise of the unexpected question. She moved her oxygen mask to the side of her face. “Uh…no, sir. Right now the crew is busy trying to handle the emergency.”

“I understand, but please have them consider the possibility. Trinidad has a history of breeding terrorists. It’s a documented fact.”

“I appreciate your concerns, but it will not change the way the pilots treat the condition of this airplane.” Jackie began to rise. “I’m sorry, but I need to answer my intercom.”

The silver-haired man nodded. His face held a grim expression.

Jackie strode into the first class galley. The man’s statement had given her an unsettled feeling. She unsnapped the intercom phone from its cradle and slipped the mask off her flowing brown hair. She put the phone to her ear.

“It’s Jackie. Sorry for the delay.”

A muffled voice from the cockpit answered. “No problem. How’s things going back there?” It was the captain.

“As well as can be expected. We’ve got the cabin pretty well secured.” Jackie cleared her throat. “It didn’t take much. When the oxygen masks popped out, everyone was scared to death. This is the first time I’ve seen passengers actually stay in their seats when the seat belt sign is on.”

“I can only imagine,” Jim remarked. “Our Bermuda ETA is about twenty minutes. We’re almost level at 10,000 feet. It’s safe to take off your masks. I’ll advise the passengers in my next PA.” Jim paused. “I don’t anticipate the need for an evacuation. Unless you guys see something different, our indications are that the fire has been extinguished.”

Jackie said, “There’s a lot of goop dripping out around the engine. Parts of it are pretty black, but no fire.”

“Good deal. Review your procedures just in case we encounter a problem. I anticipate us taxiing to the gate under our own power.”

“Okay.”

“And Jackie…”

“Yes?”

“Do we have injuries other than the passengers hit by the engine pieces?” Jim wasn’t ready to use the word “dead.” And technically, until a medical professional made a pronouncement, he couldn’t.

“No, no other injuries that I know of.”

“I guess we can be thankful for small favors,” Jim responded.

“I guess…” Jackie replied, thinking about her last glimpse of Row 19. She paused for a moment. “Captain, I had a comment from a passenger. It’s probably not important, but I thought I’d pass it along anyhow. The man didn’t seem crazy, although he was intense.”

“Go ahead.”

“He asked if you guys had considered this whole thing an act of terrorism.”

“Hmm…hadn’t really had time to think about that one.” Jim sighed. “I guess that’s up to the accident investigators when they tear the engine apart.”

“Gotcha. That’s kinda what I thought.”

Jim cleared his throat. “Although, it might be wise for us to advise the local authorities. They may want to detain passengers who have questionable credentials. If you observe anything suspicious, let us know. Perhaps we should have the authorities query the passenger making the remark about terrorists.”

“Okay.”

“Thanks, Jackie. I’ll see you in Bermuda.”

The intercom clicked and then went silent.

 

08:35 EDT

 

As Jim descended the airplane through ten thousand feet, he took a deep breath. The checklists were done. The flight attendants had the cabin under control. And the airplane was performing without issues. No pilot ever develops a complete comfort level operating a two-engine airliner on one engine. It’s just not natural.

Had anything been forgotten? They had reached that awkward period of time between the initial rush of adrenalin and when it just became a matter of flying the airplane to its destination. The checklists were complete. The procedures for the approach had been briefed. Nothing else remained.

Jim’s copilot didn’t appear to be affected with the same anxiety. Although Mike had been a professional during the heat of the battle, he now appeared withdrawn and detached. Mike’s stare out the windscreen was unfocused. He hadn’t uttered a word since they had stowed their oxygen masks other than to respond to the instructions of the air traffic controller. The copilot was once again preoccupied with his own thoughts.

The fire bell punctured the barely noticeable white noise of air flowing through the cockpit ducts. The EICAS screen displayed an all too familiar message: “R ENGINE FIRE.” This time Mike was the first to press the master warning light in order to silence the heart thumping ring of the fire bell.

“You’ve got to be kidding!?” Jim said with an incredulous tone. “Can’t we freeze the simulator? I could have sworn I heard our check airman say, ‘Nice job guys.’” He glanced down at the center pedestal. The right fire handle glowed red. He looked at Mike. “Something in the engine must have re-ignited. Maybe a greater concentration of O2 at the lower altitudes? Doesn’t make sense. What’s left to burn?”

Mike nodded and grasped the illuminated fire handle. He rotated the handle to the right.

“Let’s hope that the last Halon bottle does the trick,” Jim said. “Otherwise we’re in deep doo-doo.”

After taking note that the Halon discharge light was on, the two pilots lapsed into silence. Both Mike and Jim took turns glancing at the red fire handle in the center pedestal. It continued to remain illuminated. Six minutes passed.

The flight attendant call chime sounded. Because of his intense focus, Mike was momentarily startled. He snatched the intercom phone off its cradle at the back of the center pedestal and put it to his ear. He knew exactly what he was going to hear.

In an anxious tone Jackie said, “The fire is back on the right engine.”

Mike didn’t know quite what to say. He asked, “How bad?”

“We see flames extending out from underneath the back of the wing.”

Mike grimaced and looked at Jim.

Jim didn’t need to hear the other end of the conversation. He nodded and shook his head saying, “Tell her to brief for a possible evacuation. She’s got about ten minutes…but tell her not to throw people onto the slides until I turn on the evac horn. The rescue guys may be able to put out the fire.”

Mike nodded and repeated the instruction to Jackie. He re-seated the intercom phone and looked forward out the windscreen. The island of Bermuda was starting to appear through the scattered layer of cotton clouds. Mike glanced at his altimeter. The airplane was descending through six thousand feet.

Mike keyed the transmit button on his control wheel. “New York Center, Patriot Sixty-Three has an engine fire that will not extinguish. We may have to evacuate the airplane.”

An even-toned anonymous voice replied, “We’ve advised Bermuda. The equipment is standing by. I’ll be handing you off to the tower in one minute.”

“Roger. Thanks,” Mike responded.

Jim’s eyes were focused on the instrument panel. His left hand was gripped around the control wheel. His right hand rested on top of the left power lever—the only one that operated a good engine. He took a deep breath. He had never evacuated an airplane before. An evacuation sometimes created more problems than the actual emergency. The slides could be a nightmare. Broken arms and legs. Cuts and bruises.

Jim clenched his teeth and glanced at the airspeed indicator. He scanned the rest of the instrument panel. The distance readout on the HSI display showed them fifteen miles from the airport.

“Flaps one,” Jim commanded.

Mike slid the flap lever on the center pedestal to the one-degree notch. The needle on the round flap gauge jiggled for a moment and then moved to the appropriate position. The airplane buffeted slightly and then began to slow.

Jim glanced at the airspeed indicator again and ordered, “Flaps five.”

Mike moved the flap lever to the five degree notch. The needle began to point toward the number five but then abruptly stopped. The electronic beeper blurted. A new message was displayed on the EICAS screen: “TE FLAP ASYM.”

“Shit,” Jim said at a barely audible volume. “We’ve got a trailing edge flap asymmetry. Do you think this would be a bad time to ask for another cup of coffee?”

The latest problem was an indication that the flaps on one wing had deployed at less of an angle than they had on the other wing. The problem had the potential to create control issues rolling the wings level, but an automatic system senses the malfunction and stops all flap movement. Unfortunately, the flaps had stopped at a degree that was a far distance from the normal landing configuration.

Mike said, “I bet a part of the engine came apart into the flaps and jammed them on the right side. I’ll start the checklist.”

Jim nodded and said, “I’ve got the radio.” He cleared his throat and keyed his mic switch. “New York, Patriot Sixty-Three. We’ve got another problem. Our flaps will only extend partially. We’ll be landing at a higher speed and using more runway.”

“Understood, Patriot Sixty-Three. We’ll advise Bermuda again. Do you have the airport in sight?”

Jim peered above the instrument panel. The white concrete of Runway 30 was just becoming visible. He responded, “Affirm. Airport in sight.”

“Patriot Sixty-Three, cleared for the visual, Runway Three-Zero. Contact the tower on one-eighteen decimal one.”

“Eighteen-one. Patriot Sixty-Three. Thanks for your help.”

“Good luck, sir.”

“Thanks.” Jim changed the frequency on his radio control panel and pushed the transfer switch to the right. “Bermuda tower, Patriot Sixty-Three on the visual for Three-Zero.”

A voice with a cheery tone responded. “Roger, Patriot Sixty-Three. Cleared to land. The equipment is standing by.”

Jim responded, “Roger. Cleared to land.”

Almost muttering, Mike read the checklist for the trailing edge flap asymmetry. He pressed the appropriate switches and made the appropriate responses. The checklist didn’t involve much. The primary task was computing the appropriate reference bug on the airspeed indicator. They would be landing at almost one hundred eighty miles per hour, at least thirty miles per hour above the normal speed. The rollout would involve three-fourths of the runway.

 

08:45 EDT

 

Strapped into the jumpseat nearest the forward entry door, Jackie was relieved that she couldn’t see the engine fire from her position. Her anxiety level was at an all-time personal high. Her energies would be better spent focusing on the possibility that her next task would be to get people off the airplane in a major hurry. She was ready.

Despite the drawn faces on the other eight flight attendants, she was confident that they would all perform. They had no choice.

During the two-minute briefing she had given, Jackie had locked eyes with each flight attendant. Not one of them had moisture in their eyes. Not one of them had shaky hands. Not one of them had the thousand-yard stare. It was as if they had pushed their own personal autopilot buttons. They would need that mindset to activate the lessons of their training.

Jackie leaned forward against the shoulder harnesses on the jumpseat. She glanced to her right and then through the galley to her left. Her attention was focused on the L1 and R1 doors. She closed her eyes for a moment and concentrated. She visualized the movement of the handles and how she would position herself. She imagined the hiss of the evacuation slides inflating. She rehearsed the commands that she would bellow to her passengers. She was certain that the other flight attendants were doing the same.

Jackie knew that the worst part of the emergency would be the long few seconds between the time the airplane touched down and the time it took to stop. And when the airplane did stop, she would have to make an immediate assessment. Would the condition of the airplane require her to initiate an evacuation on her own or would she be able to wait for the captain’s command?

Jackie glanced out the round viewing port window in the forward entry door. The whitecaps were visible enough to contrast against the intense blue of the ocean. They were nearing the airport.

 

09:05 EDT

 

“One thousand,” the robotic voice stated, indicating their altitude above the ground.

“Checklist complete. Cleared to land,” Mike announced.

The copilot raised his head and looked out the windscreen at Bermuda. The large white stripes of the airport’s Runway 30 filled the view. It was a welcome sight.

Mike glanced at his captain. The man’s face was pure focus. Although Jim’s left hand was firmly attached to the control wheel and the right hand to the operating power lever, there was a relaxed fluency to his subtle movements. It was a fluency born of years manipulating the same machine over thousands of hours.

Jim made a quick crosscheck of his instrument panel. He peered out the windscreen at the runway. He glanced down at the center console. The right fire handle still glowed an ominous red. Although it was impossible to see the engine from the cockpit, he visualized orange flames and black smoke.

“Five hundred,” stated the unemotional male voice of the automatic altitude call-out.

“Sinking at eight hundred. On speed,” Mike called out.

The eyes of both pilots danced between their instrument panels and the outside. Fire trucks and emergency vehicles were visible on the parallel taxi to the north. The flashing lights accented the urgency of the situation. It felt as if the whole world awaited their arrival.

Chapter Three

 

Friday

09:05 EDT

 

Hart Lindy perched himself at the end of the exercise bench and then lay down with a pair of dumbbells poised on each side of his chest. When he was flat on his back he sucked in a deep breath and began to push the weights upward. Before he had completely extended his arms, an image on the flat screen TV caught his attention. Hart exhaled, the escaping air from his lungs emitting a sound like a deflating air mattress. He allowed the dumbbells to descend back to his chest in a controlled motion. He rose back to an upright position and released his grip.

The rubber-coated weights dropped to the padded floor with a muffled thud. The gym was quiet except for the clang of a barbell being re-racked on a nearby bench press machine.

As Hart stared at the TV mounted high in the corner of the room, he felt his stomach start to tighten. CNN was broadcasting a disturbing video. The video footage was of a large airplane landing on a runway. The aft portion of the airplane’s right engine was engulfed in flames. The airplane was a Boeing 767. A large furled American flag was painted on the tail. The flag was the recognizable logo for Patriot Airlines. Patriot Airlines was Hart’s employer. He took a deep breath. This wasn’t good.

Although the image was slightly erratic, the detail was sufficient. The picture was being filmed from a camera that must have been located at the far end of the runway. The angle was almost head-on from slightly above. The upper right hand corner of the TV screen displayed the printed words, “LIVE.” The video feed had to be coming from a news helicopter.

The 767’s main gear trucks were only a handful of feet from the concrete. Hart gritted his teeth. The closed-caption words rolled across the bottom of the TV screen. The captions frustrated Hart. The words moved at a snail’s pace.

A wisp of white smoke blossomed from underneath the tires as the airplane touched down. The smoke dissipated like the after-effects of a magician’s trick. The nose of the 767 lowered toward the ground. Emergency vehicles of all sizes began to chase the airplane, lights flashing. In a few moments, the image of the bulky airliner filled the screen. All movement stopped.

Hart held his breath. Would he see the white tentacles of the slide rafts deploy from the doors? If smoke from the engine had not infiltrated the bleed system, the cabin should still be habitable. Hart slid his hands to his hips and shifted his weight to the other foot. His muscles tensed. He crossed his fingers. He stared into the darkened windows of the cockpit. Don’t rush, Captain. Wait.

A steady stream of foamy, white spray flowed from a fire truck and onto the fiery orange glow of the right engine. Black smoke rose above the top of the fuselage and then disappeared. The white stream stopped. Water and foam dripped around the entire perimeter of the gaping engine nacelle. The only colors that remained were black and grey. The glow of orange was no longer visible. No flames. A short burst of spray was directed back into the engine.

A man wearing a bulky silver jumpsuit appeared in front of the nose. The man focused his attention on the cockpit. He held a portable radio to one ear. The man dropped the radio to his side and held up a gloved hand. He positioned his fingers to form an awkward OK sign. Emergency vehicles began to roll away from the airplane.

A blocky, blue tug with painted red, white, and blue stars banded along its sides positioned itself in front of the nose. Two men were seated on the tug. The man in the passenger seat stepped to the pavement. The man scurried to the nosewheel and began to connect a tow bar. A few moments later, the man walked out from underneath the nose and gestured a thumbs-up at the tug driver. The 767 lumbered forward.

Cool! No evacuation. No injuries. Good deal. But what the hell happened…? Hart read the captions. “Bermuda. Airplane departed Port of Spain, Trinidad…175 passengers…possibly two fatalities.” Two fatalities…? Shit! How…?

Hart reached to his hip for the cell phone that was normally clipped to his waist band. It wasn’t there. Damn! The phone was in his truck. He looked at the dumbbells that he had dropped to the floor. Should he…? Hart hesitated. If he didn’t finish his workout now, he would never finish it. Exercise would help him think straight.

As the pilots union safety investigation chairman, Hart’s phone would be ringing all day. How many beers had he knocked back when he relented and finally let Sam volunteer him for the position? PAPA had other qualified people. He didn’t really have the time.

With the chemotherapy and radiation treatments intensifying, his father needed Hart more and more. No matter how many times Dad had claimed that he was managing just fine, Hart began to notice a creeping deterioration. The family airport, Dad’s livelihood, was taking incremental steps backwards. Bills not being paid. Hangar customers leaving because of leaks and decay. The maintenance shop sitting idle more frequently. The little paved strip out in the boonies of upstate New York had become a burden even before Dad got sick. The place squeaked out barely enough of a profit to pay for groceries.

But Dad was emphatic about Hart accepting the chairman position. It was important work. And Hart had the credentials and the qualifications. The fact that the president of the pilots union considered Hart a valuable asset was an honor. Besides, giving back was a quality that his father insisted upon.

Giving back to what though? Hart grunted to himself. The majority of his contemporaries did nothing. They criticized and bitched, complaining about the ineffectiveness of their leadership. But at the end of the day they went home to their families and collected their paychecks, never once volunteering to assist in union business.

For some, PAPA had become an acronym for necessary evil. The Patriot Airlines Pilots Association had been unable to conclude a contract settlement with the company for the last four years of negotiations. The National Mediation Board hadn’t helped to advance the process either. It was the same old crap. Politics. Infighting. Contentious management. Employee morale at all-time lows.

None of that mattered. Hart had volunteered for the assignment. He had made a commitment. Plain and simple. The Bermuda event he had just witnessed on TV was now on his watch. Well…only if the British government granted the NTSB authority to conduct the investigation. They had no reason not to. Bermuda had limited resources. And the airplane was registered in the U.S. to a U.S. airline. The government wouldn’t want to spend time and effort on an accident that probably didn’t involve British citizens.

Hart twisted his neck from side to side until he felt a satisfying crack. He could feel the tension starting to build. He looked away from the TV.

The twenty-something kid with the tattoos obliterating his arms strutted into the free weight room. He grunted his usual unintelligible greeting to Hart. Hart nodded. The brief interruption took Hart away from his thoughts.

It was time to work up a good sweat. He took a couple of steps toward the flat bench, bent down, and then gripped a dumbbell in each hand.

 

09:30 EDT

 

Jim sighed and looked at Mike. They had just been towed to a gate stand. The airplane’s nose faced the pastel orange terminal building as though it had been scheduled to arrive like any other Patriot Airlines flight. Despite the circumstances, the two pilots remained professional. They completed the parking checklist as they had done thousands of times before.

“I hope this is really Bermuda, because if it’s not, then we have other problems,” Jim said with a wry smile. “I guess it’s time to face the music.” He rotated the clasp of his seat-belt harness and began to rise. Jim extended a hand toward his copilot. “Thanks for the help. Couldn’t have done it without you.”

“Nice job, boss.”

“Thanks, Mike. If you don’t mind, I’d rather not have to do this again.”

As Jim slid away from his seat, he glanced out the left side window. Ground personnel were scurrying about the ramp area. One of the fire trucks that had responded on the runway was parked a few yards away. Portable air stairs were being driven to the forward entry door.

“The welcoming committee is about to board. I hope our agents have organized a game plan for the passengers that go beyond ten-dollar meal vouchers,” Jim remarked.

“We’ll see…,” Mike said with a doubtful tone.

Jim opened the cockpit door, stepped down, and walked out to the space between the forward galley and the entry door. He surveyed the cabin. To his surprise, many people were still seated. Expressions varied from wide eyes to weariness. Many just stared.

And then amidst a few long seconds of awkward silence, a handful of passengers began to clap. Initially the sound was random and unorganized. But within a few moments the entire airplane became a symphony of applause.

Jim’s face felt flush. He nodded with a reluctant smile. Jim turned back toward the cockpit and motioned for Mike to step forward. Mike shook his head and remained within the safety of the flight deck, his trim physique framed by the door opening. Jim glanced to the left and locked eyes with Jackie, standing only a foot away. As she attempted to form a smile, water began to fill her eyes. Jim clasped her shoulder.

The awkwardness was soon broken up by a familiar whooshing sound. The forward entry door was being opened by the agents outside. Jim was grateful for the interruption. When the door locked into its upward position, a small crowd of people in various uniforms, suits, and IDs flowed onto the airplane.

A young man in a crisp, tan suit spoke first. “Nice job, Captain. We can only imagine other outcomes.”

“Thanks, but two fatalities are enough.”

“I understand, sir.” The young suit paused for a moment. “In that regard, we will need your passengers to remain seated in order for our medical examiner to make a determination of death. And then we will have to remove the deceased.”

Jim felt a surge of blood and adrenalin flow into his veins. He peered over the head of the young man. He exchanged glances with the two uniformed Patriot Airlines gate agents standing behind the man. He recognized them from some of his flights that they had worked over the years. The agents shrugged their shoulders.

“And who might I have the pleasure of talking with?” Jim asked.

The young man looked down at the blue carpet and then shuffled his feet. He smiled at Jim and said, “Michael Brown, assistant airport authority manager.”

“Mr. Brown…,” Jim clenched his teeth for a moment and tried to grin, “…these passengers have not only been through hell they have lived it. Forcing them to remain on the airplane while your M.E. verifies the carnage seems counterproductive…especially if you want cooperation from these folks.”

“I’m sorry, Captain. But it’s procedure.”

It was the first time that the melodic island accent of Bahamas residents sounded abrasive to Jim.

“I see. Well, I have procedures too.” Jim clasped his hands behind the small of his back and rocked on his heels. “One of my procedures is not to torture passengers unnecessarily. So…your choice is either to allow them to deplane in an orderly fashion to a safe area of your choosing in the terminal, or…they can deplane right now onto the ramp willy-nilly style. I’m certain that neither your boss nor your Customs officials would enjoy the chaos.”

The assistant airport manager opened his mouth to speak, but Jim halted his comments with a raised index finger. One of the gate agents nodded at Jim. On cue, she took a few steps toward the forward bulkhead and unsnapped an intercom handset from its cradle. She pressed the PA button. Her voice amplified itself throughout the cabin. Passengers began to sigh in response to the agent’s deplaning instructions. They gathered their belongings from the overhead bins and from underneath seats. They shuffled into the aisles, anxious to exit the bad B-movie in which they had unwillingly become actors.

The young suit shook his head. He stepped back onto the landing of the portable air stairs to await the parade of passengers. An older man with nappy graying temples and a crisp, open-collar shirt stood beside the assistant airport manager. Jim could only assume that the gentleman was the M.E.

With carry-on bags gripped in their hands or strapped across their shoulders, the passengers began to deplane. Some nodded. Some shook Jim’s hands. Some offered words of thanks. Some wiped tears from their eyes with the back of their hands. Some just inhaled the fresh sea air that flowed into the cabin.

As the last passenger walked out the door, Jim gestured his head toward the young Mr. Brown, inviting him back inside the airplane. The older man with the graying hair accompanied him. The older man nodded at Jim and followed the assistant airport manager down the right side aisle toward Row 19.

Jim felt compelled to assess the damage also. He was the captain after all. And passengers had died on his flight. Jim drew in a deep breath and began to walk down the aisle. The images of Row 19 would haunt him long past his retirement.

 

09:45 EDT

 

The whop-whop sound of helicopter blades beating the air overhead was distracting. Mike pressed the End button on his cell phone, terminating the call. Fortunately, the conversation was brief. The noise would have made further reception impossible anyhow.

Mike had taken the opportunity to assess the damage outside the airplane. He peered up from his position on the ramp. A royal blue Jet Ranger hovered less than a hundred feet above the airplane. The insignia of a local TV station was circled on the side. Mike could see the figure of a man seated sideways inside an open door. The man’s legs were slung just over the skids. A video camera was perched on one shoulder.

The thought of displaying a lone middle finger in the direction of the helicopter was a brief consideration. Instead, Mike opted for a quick salute. That would make a nice video clip for the networks. His family would enjoy the vision of him standing by the airplane that he had heroically helped to land. Well…maybe.

Mike had dropped a bombshell the night before he left on the trip. Despite the frustrating hormonal mood swings of his two teenage daughters, they had taken the news better than anticipated. His wife was another story. She had reacted with anger and bitterness. It didn’t matter. Their relationship had been drifting apart for years. Now she knew why. But the why wasn’t what she had expected. Frankly, it wasn’t what Mike would have expected either.

Mike exhaled in a slow and deliberate fashion. He wiped the thoughts from his head. For the moment, he had more immediate concerns. He continued his pace around the front of the nosewheel and over to the right side of the fuselage.

When Mike looked at the right wing, he stopped in his tracks. He hadn’t prepared himself for the scene. He felt his eyes grow wide and his mouth open. Holy shit! Except for the basic shape, the big GE engine barely resembled the same power plant that he had seen during his preflight walk-around inspection in Port of Spain.

The inlet was a black hole of soot. It oozed fire retardant spray. The symmetrical mosaic of crafted titanium fan blades was an obliterated mess. The scattered few blades that remained were twisted and contorted. Most of the blades were broken like shards of a sliding glass window. It was as if a rock had been thrown at a smiling row of teeth.

The inboard side of the engine cowl was split and shattered. The composite material was sliced and fractured. Pieces of compressor blades and assorted engine parts must have blasted through and then pierced the fuselage where the passengers were killed.

Mike’s brain was having difficulty absorbing the catastrophic damage. His eyes were downloading visual information faster than the images could be processed. He narrowed his focus and scanned the impact area of the fuselage. The impact area was just forward of the wing root. It was peppered with dents and slices. The aluminum was warped in places, wrinkled in others. It was a miracle that they had been able to maintain pressurization at all.

As Mike continued to stare, he was oblivious to the smattering of airport personnel that were doing the same. Fingers pointed in various directions. Heads shook. Feet shuffled.

“Not much you can say, except, ‘Holy shit!’” a strained voice said over the noise of the APU and the helicopter.

Mike turned to see Jim standing behind him. The captain was peering directly into the inlet of the deformed right engine. Jim’s tie was drawn tight. His white uniform shirt had barely a wrinkle. His hat was perched on his head in perfect alignment.

Jim said, “It could have been worse.” He gestured his head at the damaged area of the fuselage. “Boeing knows how to build an airplane.”

 

10:00 EDT

 

The armored car drove through the perimeter gate and toward the Patriot Airlines 767. Although the unexpected stop would add another half-hour to his route, the driver didn’t mind. He loved airplanes. He loved the St. George airport. He would make the pick-up from the cargo hold and take the opportunity to chat with his airline friends. Expecting the usual nods and greetings as he approached the ramp, he soon realized that today would be anything but routine.

Instead of the typical baggage cart vehicles and fuel trucks, the 767 was engulfed by fire trucks, official airport cars, and police units. The sooty, black mess of one engine told most of the story.

Shit! What the hell!? And how was he going to get anywhere near the airplane? He slowed the armored car to a crawl. He recognized the smiling white teeth of Patriot Airline’s crew chief. The crew chief didn’t have much of a smile today. The driver waved at him through the windshield. The crew chief nodded and motioned him forward toward an open cargo compartment.

The driver maneuvered the car in position, backing toward the open cargo door in the fuselage. He parked and stepped out onto the ramp. He exchanged greetings with the crew chief. The driver gestured his head at the deformed engine.

“Engine exploded,” the crew chief yelled above the noise. “Stuff went through the cabin, mon. Two people dead.” The crew chief sighed and shook his head. “Fucking mess, mon.”

With a sympathetic nod, the driver acknowledged the explanation. He surveyed the scene again and then turned his attention toward the cargo compartment. He peered in.

The crew chief pointed at a box wrapped in clear plastic about the size of a small file cabinet and said, “I tink dat’s your pick-up, mon.”

“Tanks,” the driver said as he walked over to the rear of the armored car. He swung open the double doors and then turned toward the cargo compartment of the airplane. He slid the wrapped box across the floor of the compartment and into his arms. He wrestled the box into the back of the armored car and closed the heavy doors with two thwacks.

Somebody always had a reason to move money. A bank. A business. A rich guy. He never really knew the reasons. It was better not to know. At least that’s what his boss always told him. It didn’t matter. He shrugged inwardly and handed a clipboard to the crew chief. The crew chief signed the release form attached to the clipboard and handed it back. The two men shook hands. The driver climbed back into the armored car. He put the car in gear and rolled away from the airplane as slowly as he had arrived.

 

 

 

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***

 

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[]

THE PURE AND THE HATED

 

By Richard Godwin

 

 

1.

 

Marigold and Joyce lived in the house by the red barn that passing tourists used to photograph. They came to that part of Vermont for the skiing. They’d hit the slopes, fill the restaurants, and leave with their memories. I envy them now. I wish I could exchange my memories for those of another man. I have no vacations left inside me.

The drive I took from Stowe to visit my nieces once made my heart ache with its beauty, but in the end that gentle road leading into the mountains felt like a scar. I used to help Marigold and Joyce with their reading when they were little. My sister, Holly, did so much for them. Their father, Dwight Fisher, had run off years ago, no one knew where, leaving her alone. That was before they were born. He returned off and on; he had a knack for doing that. He spent a few years with my sister, watched her get pregnant and neglected her. Then he vanished for good one summer’s day, leaving her to bring her daughters up on her own. She never spoke of him, but reverted to the family name of Butler.

Having lost my own son, Felton, to a hunting accident, I came to feel Marigold and Joyce were like two daughters to me. My wife, Mary, never recovered from Felton’s death. She said the loss of a child ended something inside her. Her maternal care seemed to wither. The kitchen was full of dead flowers for many months after his loss. She liked Marigold and Joyce but rarely visited them. And it seemed to me that I was pouring all my paternal instincts into the two girls, wanting to protect them when I had been unable to save my own son’s life. The fool is protected by his folly. I never envisaged the cruelty that life held in its card-dealing hands. I never saw what was to come. Perhaps that is why I became the man I am, a barely recognisable sum of memories that have altered my image and bruised my heart. I wish I could erase them, but they feed on me. The deepest bruise of all dwells like a swollen rose inside me, reminding me of that time with its thorns, that wounding time that violated us all.

Everything changed in those years, apart from the landscape. Its beauty in the fall still stops my breath; the green mountains of Vermont and shades of shifting colour overwhelm me. The vistas of clear brooks and streams. The hills flowing into mountains tell me that the earth is wiser than us.

My sister and nieces lived outside Stowe, beneath Mount Mansfield that always seemed to be sleeping, waiting for snow. I sometimes think it watched the events as they unfolded. The countryside there has a purity to it that is endlessly consoling. And to a certain kind of man that purity may aggravate his own sense of corruption, engendering thoughts of defilement.

The tourists came and went, brought money and took away stories and snapshots. They faded like invisible ink. But there was one man who passed through and left something ineradicable behind in those violated years. He passed through all right. He did so like a scythe that cut all certainty from my life and left me with thoughts that were alien to my soul. Temple Jones. There was no way of knowing him or predicting what he would do.

I remember something Mary said to me about him, ‘Shepherd Butler, sometimes you just can’t know a man; some men keep things too well hidden.’

And what Temple Jones did to Mary was nothing compared to what he went on to do. He stole my understanding of the world and handed me back a reality that lacks all consolation. I crave the solace of purity and find only hatred. And I know that innocence is an affront to some men.

Even the well outside the window seems corrupted by the memory of him sitting there, his face reflected in the window pane. But I have other memories. I try to reach back to a time when I didn’t know him and the world seemed good. I remember the sandstone well many years ago one sunlit morning in the early years of my marriage. It glowed like honeycomb and beneath me Mary’s face was full of a fertile joy I have never known another woman to have. She tasted of mountain streams as I kissed her mouth, and I lived in a world of certainty as she took me inside her on the wet grass.

I am sure that was the day Felton was conceived, there beneath the well in the quiet privacy of our Vermont garden. My fingers smelt of wild columbine and sweetgrass, and Mary was mine, as was the future in all its broken knowledge. My wife had the purest skin, there was not a scar on her body, and as I touched her I was conscious my hands had been rooting in the soil, as if I was unfit for her body and all it would allow. But she yielded to me and gave me things I would never have dared ask from her. There was no restraint or inhibition in her touch, which gave permission to my desire. The marks she carries now can’t be seen. Her sapphire blue eyes that once would search my face have faded, and while I inhabit the same house as her I have to reach into the past to feel her reality.

Her alabaster skin, her mouth, her erotic lips parted as I entered her on the pure earth, her full breasts and strong thighs, exist in a moment that has been removed from me, as she has been stolen from herself. I feel the ache of an amputated limb and want to dwell inside her again, but robbers have invaded our home and carried us away.

I am unmanned by events beyond my control and seek the feminine to prove myself again. I have become the castrated father of the tribe, my children are butchered, my possessions looted. That is the purpose that hatred serves. But I will not yield to that poisoned Bible. There was a time before corruption. I seek to separate the past from the wounds he inflicted. His deeds invaded us like a virus, replicating their own hatred inside us, taking away the things we once believed in. And while I can still see myself making love to Mary that day, I can also smell the fresh grass and see the columbine’s spurs and feel the ones that Temple Jones wore cutting into my sides, as if he was on my back without my knowing, all along, even then.

 

 

 

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Thrillers Sampler: The Best Of WildBlue Press

A collection of the cream of the crop thrillers published by WildBlue Press from the likes of John J. Nance, Richard Godwin, Peter Eichstaedt, Les Abend and Cameron Bane. This collection takes you sailing through the skies ("A wild ride through the night sky" - Capt. Sully Sullenberger, author of #1 New York Times bestseller "SULLY" about Nance's LOCKOUT) and through the heat of the Mexican border dealing with cartel killings. Six celebrated authors are represented in this sampler, and here are details of each of them: Borderland by Peter Eichstaedt When a prominent land developer is brutally murdered on the U.S.-Mexico border, it's not just another cartel killing to journalist Kyle Dawson. The dead man is his father. Dawson, a veteran war correspondent, uncovers the truth and brings down a man poised to take the White House. Paper Wings by Les Abend An in-flight emergency. Passenger fatalities. A forced diversion. What exactly happened to Patriot Airlines Flight 63 has baffled experts. But when a boat and its grisly cargo are found adrift off Fort Lauderdale, the investigation leads to more than "just" murder, as the evidence points to a connection with the mysterious Flight 63. As the accident's investigation chairman of the pilots' union, Captain Hart Lindy will find himself reluctantly drawn into the National Transportation Safety Board's inquiry only to discover that someone is going to great lengths-including murder and kidnapping-to prevent the facts from being exposed. But who? And why? These are the questions Lindy will need to answer in order to get at the truth about what really happened to Flight 63. His task is complicated by his own personal demons, including the horrors of past airline crash investigations, as well as having to walk a diplomatic tightrope with an eccentric FBI special agent who is barely tolerating NTSB protocol, and an ambitious female NTSB investigator with eyes for Hart. Lockout by John J. Nance Whoever disconnected flight controls of Pangia Flight 10 as it streaks toward the volatile Middle East may be provoking nuclear war. The pilots must risk everything to wrest control from the electronic ghost holding them on a course to disaster. "As he has proven again and again as ABC New’s aviation consultant, John Nance knows everything about what makes an airplane operate and, conversely, what can go wrong. So he is uniquely... " - Charles Gibson, former anchor ABC World News and former host, Good Morning America The Pure and The Hated by Richard Godwin A man takes a stranger into his house only to unleash a savage lesson from the past. A psychological crime novel about the past, the nature of justice, family secrets, the nature of forgiveness, revenge, identity, hunting and predation. “Richard Godwin knows how his characters dress, what they drink and what they drive. He knows how they live— and how they die. Here’s hoping no one recognized themselves in Godwin’s cold canvas. Combines the fun of a good story with the joy of witty, vivid writing.” —Heywood Gould, author of The Serial Killer’s Daughter. Savage Highway by Richard Godwin Women are disappearing on the highway, a drifter hunts the men who raped her, and a journalist discovers law has broken down in the area. On a remote highway in Arizona women are disappearing at truck stops. Marshall Simmons knows a lot about the goings on in the area, and has a young woman captive. But it seems a darker truth is at the heart of the abductions. Savage Highway is a novel about predation and the hunt for justice. Pitfall by Cameron Bane Life has never been easy for former Army Ranger John Brenner. The wounded Iraqi war vet and ex-cop must rely on his wits, his fists, and a wry sense of gallows humor to make it through each challenging day. For at his core, this transplanted West Virginian is a throwback to an antebellum time: he is a southern man of honor. But his latest mission may be his last.

  • ISBN: 9781947290266
  • Author: WildBlue Press
  • Published: 2017-08-15 00:17:24
  • Words: 39360
Thrillers Sampler: The Best Of WildBlue Press Thrillers Sampler: The Best Of WildBlue Press