Disclaimer: Xena, Gabrielle and any other characters featured in the actual TV series are copyrighted to MCA/Universal and Renaissance Pictures while the rest of the story and other characters are my own.
"No way. Absolutely not." Catherine Phillips stalked about the bedroom, grabbing her travel bag and carelessly throwing a change of clothes and toiletries into it. Her long dark hair fell loose and was still damp from the shower shed just taken; her blue oxford shirt hung open, and the button of her jeans were still unsnapped.
"Kate, please! If youd just"
"Didnt you hear what I just said?" Icy blue eyes narrowed. "There is no way you are coming with me." Kates face was set like a stone; her jaw was clamped shut, and her normally tanned skin took on a pale, translucent glow in the white light blazing around her. After Cyrus call, the pilot had stormed through the bedroom switching on every available light. It was as though she had tried to chase away the phantoms of the nether world that dwelled so near in those darkened hours between the midnight and the dawn.
Rebecca Hanson crossed her arms in front of her chest, swallowed hard, and shook her head. "I have the time off, Kate. And I dont think you should be alone"
"What you think," Kate cut her off, "is not the point. I have a job to do, and it doesnt involve you!"
Kate sounded angry, that was obvious, but Becky suspected it was all bluster. Shed already caught sight of the pain and anguish that flickered just behind the taller womans blue eyes. How she wanted to make it all disappear! There was only one thing for it. She would not let Kate continue on this way, as the woman was no doubt used to having done in the past, shouldering alone a frustrated rage and helplessness that inevitably bled into a numbing withdrawl. No, she would not let Captain Catherine Phillips get away with it. Not this time.
"Now, did you see where I threw that damned bag with the lap-top?" The pilot dragged a hand through her hair. "Cyrus said hed have Rory e-mail me with a manifest of the flight."
"Kate," Rebeccas voice was tired, patient, "Do you know how to operate it? Ive never even seen you take it out of the bag."
"It cant be too complicated," the pilot replied, miffed that the younger woman had chosen to point out her technical shortcomings. "I mean, I have a desk-top model. And I can fly the most complicated planes Uncle Sam has in his arsenal. I think I can get by."
Kate wrenched the zipper on her travel bag shut, grabbed a second smaller, battered suitcase sitting near her night table, and moved towards the doorway.
A small blonde with blazing green eyes stood in it, blocking her path.
"Im coming with you."
"Dont argue with me, Rebecca," Kates voice was hard, "Get out of my way."
"No. Not until you say yes."
The pilot tried to push past her, but Becky reached out and seized her with both hands.
"Then Ill follow you Kate, I swear I will. Cant you see whats happening to you?"
Kate pulled an arm free of the smaller womans grasp and glared at her.
"I can see," Becky continued, "and I know youre hurting. That you feel like youve failed, somehow." She could see Kate stiffen at that. "Well you havent Kate, not by a long shot," she said fiercely, "Not in my book, anyway. But you shouldnt be alone right now. I dont want that. For either of us."
Damn. Kate released a heavy, hitching burst of air, and turned her glistening eyes towards the window. The ceiling. Anywhere but at Rebecca Hanson. For if she did, she feared shed never be able to get the words out. "Its going to be awful, Hanson," she said weakly, in a voice she barely recognized as her own. "A fucking nightmare from hell, if you must know." She paused, collecting herself. "The kind of nightmare thatll haunt you forever. A shadow walking just behind you when youre awake. Oozing into your soul while you sleep. Nobody should have to see to go through that."
At last, Kates gaze fell upon Rebecca, and she reached out and briefly rested the back of her fingers against her cheek. "Especially you."
The flight attendant sighed, understanding that once more the pilot was trying to look out for her. To protect her. It was a trait that while admirable, could be most annoying at times. "Kate let this be my decision to make. Please, baby? We need to stick together, you and I. Just look at you!" she took a step back and gestured at the tall, dark woman. "Youre walking out of here half-dressed, half-packed, and carrying your flight kit."
Kates eyes dropped down, noticing for the first time that indeed, shed grabbed her flight case as shed done thousands of times before when rushing out of her apartment to the airport. But that had been when she was flying. And she wasnt piloting a plane anywhere this dark early-morning. Cyrus had arranged for an Orbis charter to take her and the rest of the Orbis team to the crash site.
Kate shook her head and let some of the tension leave her body as she considered the wisdom of her friends words. She released her flight kit to the floor with a thunk! and curled the corner of her mouth up in a small, wan smile. "Kinda half-assed, huh?" She began to button her shirt one-handed.
"Here, let me," smaller hands reached out. "I cant take you anywhere, you know that?"
Kate closed her eyes against the warmness of the gentle touch against her skin. Rebeccas request it was wrong all wrong, and went against every better instinct she possessed. But if there was one thing shed learned in these past months with Rebecca Hanson, it was that being wrong was sometimes okay. And that sometimes you just had to step aside, to swallow your pride, and trust in something, or someone else. It was a new process, and one unfamiliar to her, but she was working on it. By God, shed get it right yet.
"Aw hell ." Kate looked down at Rebeccas earnest, upturned face and threw in the towel. "Can you be ready in ten minutes?"
"Im a flight attendant," Becky said softly, "watch me."
It was a dreary cab ride to the airport, but the rain had stopped, and Kate was not surprised to see that the traffic, even in the muggy wee hours of a Saturday New York morning, flowed steadily around them. People moving, rushing, wrapped up in their own worlds, unaware and uncaring of the disaster that was unfolding in the red spruce and white pine forests of northeastern Maine.
New York, Kate thought ironically, gazing out a smeared window, the city that never sleeps. The streets glistened wet, like black ice, and there was a distinct chill in the cab that matched the one in her gut, despite the relative heat of mid-summer.
Trying to shake off the feeling, she swung her gaze to the young woman by her side. Hanson sat quietly, unmoving; her face pale and still, yet determined.
God, what am I getting her into? Kate wondered, and she reached out and slowly took Rebeccas hand in her own. Cyrus had said that she could name her own staff, but this was certainly the last thing shed had in mind, even if it was for the short term. What if it were all too much for Rebecca?
"You sure about this?"
"Kate," Becky leveled green eyes at her, "I have no doubt that my place is with you. Deal with it, okay?" and then she offered the pilot a faint grin.
Kate gave Beckys hand a squeeze. "Im workin on it."
It was 0420hrs by the time they arrived at JFK, and it would be another half-hour before the Dornier 328 Cyrus Vandegrift had commandeered from Orbis Express would take off. The terminal was nearly empty at the early hour; the retail shops were closed, their shutters pulled down tight. The artificial lighting gleamed unnaturally white against the faint glow of the airport runways outside the picture windows. The runways themselves were no more than thin shimmering strips of silent concrete, nearly swallowed whole by the darkened sky above. In the distance, an empty baggage cart moved towards the edge of the terminal, a ghostly rider gliding along the tarmac.
A small cluster of Orbis staff gathered near the gate; their faces were drawn, and they spoke in hushed tones. Cyrus would not be making the flight, choosing instead to stay behind and run damage control with the press in New York. He had faith in Kate and her team, and there would be more than enough people crawling around the crash site, screaming for answers, without adding his own voice to the chorus.
Kate let her eyes travel around the assembled group: people from Orbis Risk Management Unit; Bo Sample, Orbis executive vice president of operations, and several of his staffers PR people no doubt. The suits. Sample was nice enough, Kate considered, from what little contact shed had with the fellow since shed made the job switch. Young, no more than forty, he dressed exclusively in dark blue business suits and white shirts that very nearly matched the Orbis corporate colors. Always quick with a handshake and a smile, the tall, angular executive was not smiling now. And gone was his formal attire, replaced instead by khakis, work boots, and a blue polo shirt that looked a few sizes too big for him. His shoulders were slumped over, as though he bore the weight of the world upon them. Maybe be did, Kate considered, the weight of Orbis, anyway.
Additional travelers on the Orbis Express flight included two FBI investigators from the bureaus Manhattan command post. They were hitching a ride to the crash site, all in the spirit of inter-agency co-operation. About 15 people in all, perhaps half-filling the Dornier 328.
Introductions were made, hands shaken, business cards exchanged, and what few crash details were known reviewed. The FAA and NTSB would already be rushing teams to the accident scene too, with all parties converging in the old-growth forests just outside of Pohassat, Maine, northeast of Bangor. But it would be the FBI who would be running the show, Kate knew, until such time as the accident could be termed exactly that. And the pilot had her doubts about the investigation reaching that prospective conclusion. Planes didnt just fall out of the sky.
Rebecca trailed behind Kate, smiling politely when she was introduced, trying to remember everyones names. As Bo Sample and Kate began to discuss the weather conditions over Maine, Becky found herself drifting away from the group, edged out by the executives hangers-on. The flight attendant didnt mind. So far, no one had questioned her purpose, theyd simply assumed she was a member of Catherine Phillips team. Maybe she was, Becky thought wryly, as she shifted Kates laptop bag from one shoulder to the other. God knew that Kate could use the organizational help. It was at Beckys own insistence that they had fired up the laptop before leaving the apartment, just to make sure the darn thing was working properly and to download Kates e-mail. Best to clear that stuff out now before the deluge resulting from the crash began to hit.
E-mail. And there was that, Becky sighed, as she pushed a day-old newspaper aside and sat down in a seat near the jetway entrance. "Good God Kate," shed said when shed seen the extensive queue of mail sitting out there, "Look at all this older stuff. How often to you go through it?"
"Every day," Kate had replied, looking over Beckys shoulder at the flickering screen. "Ive been meaning to set up some separate save files for some of it, but I just havent had the time ."
"Dont worry about it," Becky had held up a silencing hand, "Ill take care of it."
Becky heard one of the FBI men call out to Kate and motion her over. The tall woman excused herself from Bo Sample and walked slowly towards the agent, putting on her best corporate face. Better to let her friend do her thing, Becky thought, and stay out of the way.
After a moments consideration, she opened the laptop bag, flipped open the unit, and turned it on. Time to start earning your keep, Becky-girl.
"So, Catherine, has Orbis received any direct threats of violence or sabotage?" Special Agent Hank Danner felt for a packet of cigarettes in his breast pocket. "You know, terrorist stuff?" Danner was forty-something, with a gut hanging over his belt, a reddened nose that was not from lack of sleep, and deep wrinkles that lined his face. Too much eating, drinking, and smoking, Kate surmised. Shed met his type before, both in and out of the military.
"We get it every day, you know that," Kate finally replied. Danner would not be the Agent in Charge of the investigation, and just as well, since shed taken an instant dislike to him when theyd been introduced. "The programmer out in La Jolla who was pissed off when his Orbis stock took a dive after the hijacking. The banker in London who was bumped from his overseas flight and missed his business meeting in New York. And our special friend in Willacoochee, Georgia, who threatens at least once a month to destroy Orbis unless we turn over control of the airlines to the Callistoans.
"Beg pardon?" Danner leaned forward as he took out a pack of Camels.
"Callisto. Its one of the moons of Jupiter. This guys from there. Or so he says," she gave the robust agent a dry stare.
"Ah gotcha," Danner shook his head. "Youre right. Theres always that lot of powder kegs and nut cases. And then," he eyed her carefully, "theres always the Abbado El-Yousefs of the world."
He waited for a response. "Right?"
"El-Yousef doesnt make threats, Hank," Kate said, quickly tiring of the conversation, "he takes action. Thats what makes him dangerous." A pause. "And deadly."
"Ah hell," the agent brought a cigarette to his lips, "its just too damn early to tell till we hit the ground up there. Shit, for all we know, they could have run into a flock of Canadian geese or something."
"Not at 30,000 feet. According to Bangor Control, that was when they received the last transmission from flight 180." Kate checked her watch, wishing it were time to leave. Another 10 minutes to go. Damn. Under the best of circumstances the pilot hated talking shop, preferring to let her actions do the talking for her. And now, as conversations all around her shifted to speculation and conjecture, she felt her patience waning. Worse, this guy was a talker, too. He didnt know when to stop running his mouth.
Special Agent Hank Danner took out a Zippo lighter.
"Its no smoking in here, you know," Kate said, casting a glance towards where Rebecca was curled up in a seat, playing with the laptop. Kate knew how sensitive her young friend was to second-hand smoke. Her eyes would tear up, and immediately she would become congested. Hell, the first time shed seen the phenomenon, shed thought Hanson was coming down with the flu.
"Theres nobody around!" Danner opened his arms towards the deserted terminal, the unlit cigarette dangling from his lips.
The agent took a long, hard look at the tall, imposing woman in front of him. Theyd be working together over the next few days, weeks even, and given the frosty gaze capturing him now, he decided hed do well to choose his battles carefully. Great. Just what he needed. Some bitch with attitude getting in his way.
"Hey, no problem," he said, shrugging his shoulders and tapping the cigarette back into his pack. "Wife says I gotta quit, anyway."
"You should listen to her." Kate turned at the sound of heavy footsteps pounding down the concourse towards the group.
"Mac!" Kate felt some of her irritation flee as her eyes took in the familiar sight of her husky chief investigator. He had a garment bag folded over one arm and carried a light jacket with the other. The wrinkled tail of his sports shirt was working its way out of his putty-colored slacks.
"Whats the word on this again?" the big man drew up to her side and ran a hand through his rumpled graying hair. "I was so bushed when you called, all I heard was crash, Maine, and airport now."
"I know what you mean," Kate replied, gazing fondly at her chief investigator. "I couldnt believe it when Cyrus called me. Didnt want to believe it." She paused, glancing out the window into the darkness beyond, before she continued. "The flight originated in Lisbon, stopped in Paris, and was delayed getting out of Charles deGaulle. Three and a half hours late, finally, it took off for Montreal." She hesitated. "It never made it."
"Maine, eh?" Mac rubbed the stubble on his chin. "Were lucky it didnt hit in the goddamned ocean!"
"No kidding," Kate agreed. "Emergency teams are on site already. Agency types: NTSB, FBI, FAA us are on the way. Weve even got a couple of your former bureau colleagues hitching a ride on this flight," Kate nodded towards Hank Danner. "And Rebeccas helping us out too, just with some of the organization and information coordination stuff."
Mac followed Kates eyes towards where the young blonde sat diligently working on a computer. The big man had certainly become aware over the past few months of how close Becky and his boss were, and it never failed to escape his notice how the mood of the mercurial Catherine Phillips instantly changed for the better whenever the flight attendant was around. Of course, hed heard of the smaller womans bravery during the hijacking of Orbis flight 2240, and of the ultimate price shed nearly paid then for her actions.
This would be a rough trip, on all of them. And for Catherines sake, he was glad Becky would be coming along.
MacArthur turned back towards Kate. "In other words, all that detail shit you hate."
Kate smiled. "You noticed, huh?"
"Hey, Im an investigator," Mac said, "Im paid to detect these things." He paused before continuing, his voice more somber now, "Casualties?"
"It doesnt look good Mac," Kate said, noticing for the first time how tired Mac looked as though hed just rolled out of bed. Hell, they all had, for that matter. "Its " she fought to control the emotion in her voice, "theres nothing no word, so far. Last communication at 0229 hrs, 30,000 feet, en route to Montreal everything was normal."
"What about the weather?" Mac stifled a yawn." Its been pretty crappy around here, after all."
"Low rain clouds, but they shouldve been flying in smooth air at that altitude. No reports of turbulence in the area. Rorys following up on it, hell keep us posted."
"What a kid," Mac shook his head in wonder. "I left him at the office tonight - last night, I mean - at 8 oclock. Still trying to crack that code."
"Im worried he might not have to, now," Kate said, stuffing her hands into the pocket of the blue wind-breaker Rebecca had made her wear.
"El-Yousef?" MacArthurs eyes glittered in thinly veiled disgust.
"Maybe. Its our job to find out."
They stood together silently for a moment, each considering the implications of the mandate the Strategic Operations unit had been charged with. To protect. To prevent. To save. Had they failed in that duty tonight? Had the 210 souls on board the Boeing 747 paid the price for that possible failure? Or not? Kate struggled with the emotions battling inside of her, pressing upon her with all the force of pulling an 8-G loop. She didnt know which answer she dreaded more.
The rushing waters of the mountain stream exploded with a churning, primal force, battering solid rock, sweeping away any object living or dead unfortunate enough to be caught in its path. Waters that despite the high summer afternoon, were bone-chilling, mind-numbingly cold, fed as they were by the Hindu Kush to the north and the mighty Himalaya Range to the east. Foaming, twisting, smashing its way along a course that was constantly changing, eroding, as it pursued its timeless assault upon the land; impatiently driven to carve out its own path of least resistance against the battlements of nature.
Down down the water flowed, through a rugged, hardscrabble landscape whose rocky outcroppings rendered it wholly non-arable. No man watched its passing, nor beast, either. For where once a shepherd might have herded his sheep among the meadow steppes, there were only the occasional small piles of stones marking the locations of unexploded land mines. Where once the wild mountain goat might have ranged free, a gnawing hunger in the valleys below had caused it to be hunted into near-oblivion.
The ancient, glacial waters were no stranger to such human struggles. For the land once known as Bactria had been the target of migrating civilizations and cultures since the dawn of time: from the legions of Alexander the Great, to the armies of Buddhists and Muslims, all left their mark of influence upon the people. In modern times, it was a British King and a Communist Russias turn to fail against the fiercely independent people of Bactria Afghanistan.
Relentlessly, tirelessly, the water journeyed past bombed-out villages and burned-out tanks, through a man-made badlands pock-marked with craters and graves. But it was no threat from a strange land this time which caused the water to roar and to cry out to its mother earth. To sigh and groan in abject grief at the scars it witnessed upon the land. No, it was a turmoil of the worst sort that whose seeds were sown from within.
For when the aged Russian bear had at last expended itself and retreated to its lair to the north, licking its wounds, the many factions of the Afghan mujahideen turned on one another in a struggle for supreme ruling power. The civil war raged on, bloody and costly, with the former holy warriors all tacitly agreeing to follow the Sharia. The one point of order they could all agree upon. And so Islamic Law became the only law enforced in a country that could not decide what country to be; a nation played out of resources, of peace, and of hope.
On and on the water raged, weeping over smoothed rocks, sobbing under broken-down bridges, until it last it tumbled out exhausted and spent in the central highlands northeast of Kabul, near the village of Birat. It was here that the waters progress was thwarted at last, and it pooled into a mountain lake forged millenia ago. The Khyber Pass was still to the south, and there was nothing save more desolation and barren landscape to the west, but here, amidst the dusty hillsides and uneven ground on which the little village perched, there was life, at least.
Low cement-block huts, an occasional concrete block dwelling, a few shops, a small mosque, and the mullahs house constituted the whole of Birat. Small children and their dogs played inside mud-walled courtyards, while women clothed head to foot in traditional Afghan dress tended to the outdoor cook-fires and wash basins found in the rear of each little home. The mid-day meal had just been consumed, and the spicy scent of it still lingered in the hot summer air.
With no running water, no electricity, no phone, and no governmental infrastructure to speak of, Birat was just like a thousand other villages in Afganistan that had been decimated during wars past.
But no longer.
It would be time soon, to turn once again towards Mecca and give glory and praise to Allah, to thank him for his blessings. For Allah had brought hope to Birat, had he not?
He had brought Abbado El-Yousef.
The children of the village had full bellies now, for the first time in many seasons. There was firewood real firewood - to provide fuel for heating and cooking. Not the wormy, dried out scrub brush that was all that remained of the bristle-cone pines which had once flourished in the valley. The last of the stately trees had been harvested by desperate, freezing hands some winters back.
The men of Birat had work of another sort now, keeping strangers away from the encampment that had sprung up at the eastern edge of the village, facing the hills. Feeling proud and powerful with their Kalashnikov rifles slung over their shoulders, they smiled as they walked the dusty streets, chain smoking and talking in their native Dari. In spite of the heat, they wore their turbans and chapans, long-sleeved cloth coats tied at the neck.
Flighty chickens and balky goats now shared the road with boxy Russian army trucks Urals co-opted from the recent invaders. But the armored personnel carriers were new, as were the trailers carrying AT-2 Snapper tank-piercing mortars and Iranian-made surface-to-air missiles.
Drawing closer to the encampment, comprised of two-score or more variously sized tents and hastily constructed outbuildings, one could hear the hum of generators, the rapid-fire pop!-pop!-pop! of target practice in an adjacent field, and animated conversations in a variety of languages, including Arabic. More men, armed with AK47s, swaggered through the camp. They wore a hodgepodge of colors, some featuring green or dusky brown fatigues, others more traditional, neutral clothing. They bustled in and out of tents, talking, laughing. Life here was good, or as good as it could get in this godforsaken corner of Afghanistan in an alpine valley tucked away in a corner of the world forgotten by most.
In a massive tent in the center of the compound, the front flaps were tied open and a large slab of plywood rested atop 4 poles driven into the ground at the entrance. It provided a haphazard bit of shade for the small field table and chairs which rested there, obviously battered, scavenged pieces.
Inside the tent, it was another story. The canvas had been assembled atop a wooden platform, a rare concession to luxury in these parts, the better to keep the sudden rain washes which erupted down the hillsides from streaming in and muddying the tent floor. Atop the platform, rich Persian carpets had been laid, ablaze with a rainbow of colors and flaming red medallions. The furnishings spoke of extravagant comfort as well, with two plush settees strewn with silken pillows, and a low-footed dining table arranged in the front of the interior. Towards the rear, there was a separate work area featuring chairs and a polished table worthy of a Fortune 500 executive, adjacent to a canopied field bed fit more for a five-star hotel than for the rugged central highlands.
The hum of a generator just outside the rear of the tent powered lights, a desk-top computer, an air conditioning unit silent for the moment - and a satellite-based communications phone system.
A solitary man sat at the dining table. He was of middle age and middle height, neither fat nor thin. He wore the flowing clothes and turban of a traditional Arab man. With long, manicured fingers, he thoughtfully stroked a black beard that traveled down to the middle of his chest in length. The other hand rested across his stomach, and he watched silently as two women quickly cleared away the remnants of his midday repast: a delicious chalow of lamb, eggplant, bell peppers, and tomatoes. Heavy on the garlic and onion, just how he liked it. Together with nan, a coarse bread topped with sesame seeds, it was a local meal hed acquired quite the taste for since arriving in the valley in early spring.
He noted appreciatively how the serving women avoided his gaze, how they wore the burqa shielding their faces, and how they kept a quiet, respectful distance in his presence. As it should be. He pushed back from the table, stretching, and moved to a settee. Dark eyes, bright with intelligence, scanned the tents interior from a face deeply lined by the sun. Impressive toys, he thought, for a temporary shelter in the middle of the badlands. But the equipment here was nothing compared to the hardware positioned in the caves above Birat. More computers and generators, full climate control, a satellite dish, a communications center, and enough firepower, courtesy of international arms merchants, to take Kabul for himself, if he was of a mind to.
He was not.
No, here in this scarred valley where hed cultivated the fierce loyalty of the locals, thanks to his zakat or charity, his personal security force, nearly 300 in number, was nicely supplemented. Exiled by his native Saudis, expelled from the Sudan, Abbado El-Yousef had come to a staggering Birat, propped it up, and taken it for his own. All as part of his larger plan to drive the infidels from lands belonging to the people of Allah. He was the Chosen One. Destined to lead the umma, the worldwide Muslim community. With enough money to buy and sell Afghanistan a thousand times over, he was committed to his lifes work. His obsession. His purpose. And he would not rest, until his work was done.
A rustle at the entrance to the tent. It was Rashid, his right-hand man. A fellow Saudi, hed first made his acquaintance at school in Switzerland. It was there they found that their politics and beliefs were nearly identical. And when El-Yousef had decided to undertake his own personal jihad, Rashid was right there by his side, vowing his undying loyalty. It was common among his followers, that. Death was welcomed, if it was in the service of the Chosen One.
"Come," El-Yousef waved an arm.
Rashids boots were dirty and a trail of dust snaked out behind him. His turban was slightly askew, and he leaned against a post in the tent, struggling to catch his breath. El-Yousef smiled. His lieutenant had chosen to track down the hillside from the communications post, rather than make a call on the 2-way radio system they used to stay in touch within the camp. Good. It could only be positive news, then, for Rashid always liked to deliver that in person. When things were not so good well, Rashid wisely understood it was best to keep his distance from the Chosen One.
"What news have you, my friend?" El-Yousefs dark eyes narrowed, and though he smiled, jaw was tightly clenched, his face held no mirth.
Above the sound of Rashids heaving gulps, El-Yousef could tell that the target practice had ceased. Now he could hear the tinkling of the bells on the goats as they were ushered in from the meadow; they yelps of a dog barking, the squalls of a baby crying.
"We are picking up the first transmissions, Chosen One," Rashid gasped, producing a black and white checkered kerchief to wipe the streaks of perspiration from his face. With his free hand, he formed a fist. "Success!"
"Ah," El-Yousefs face broke open in a wide grin, revealing perfect white teeth, and the darkness left his eyes. "Thank you. Thank you for that bit of news, my friend."
Rashid, happy to be the bearer of it, bowed slightly and returned the smile.
Abbado El-Yousef, leader of the umma, steepled his fingers and squeezed his eyes shut. "Allahu Akbar!"
Indeed, God was great. And this was only the beginning.
The Dornier 328 got them to Bangor just as the faint first rays of the rising sun began to peek above the horizon. It had been a quiet flight with very little talking; most of the passengers chose to make use of the air time to doze. There would be precious little time for rest soon enough. Gazing across the narrow aisle, Kate noticed that Beckys head was tipped against the window; the girl was fast asleep, and her hands still cradled Kates laptop. Just in front of the flight attendant, Jim MacArthurs head was flung back, eyes closed and jaw hung open, lightly snoring.
Kate could feel the slight thunk as the Dorniers pilot lowered the landing gear. The planes air speed reduced, flaps were lowered; final approach into Bangor. A last sweeping turn, and suddenly the warm, burnished glow of the dawning light flooded the cabin, bathing the passengers in rich tones of copper and gold. In the stillness, in the calm, in the peace of the moment, all seemed well with the world. How deceptive it was! Kate thought. Shed stayed awake the entire trip, the true purpose of the flight never slipping from the fore of her consciousness for even a moment.
Illogically, Kate had found herself dreading her arrival at their destination. The clamminess of her palms, the churning of her gut, hell, she hadnt felt this way since she was a kid. Then, there had been times whether going to the doctors, or to school on a test day, or to her fathers funeral when shed squeezed her eyes shut and prayed to god that she never arrive. That she might just keep going and going, never stopping. Never having to think. To hurt. To feel. Childish thoughts. Childish nightmares.
Sighing, Kate turned to look out her window. This nightmare was all too real, that was the problem. Swaths of green, the open fields surrounding the airport, rushed up from below, still shrouded in the wispy remnants of a pre-dawn mist. Cool air blasted her from the vent above her head, chilling her, but she welcomed the sensation of it. It helped to keep her alert. On her guard.
The plane dipped lower, and there was the concrete runway of Bangor, just beneath them now. Nice even steady, the pilot was taking them in, and doing a good job of it. In just a few seconds, they would be on the ground. Kate glanced back across the aisle; Rebecca was stirring. Mac too, yawning and awkwardly stretching out his long legs under the seat in front of him.
The plane glided over the runway, lower and lower; a light touch of the wheels, then another, harder this time, and they were down. The Dornier shuddered as the pilot immediately applied his brakes, pitching them all slightly forward in their seats. Quickly, the aircraft slowed and began to taxi towards the terminal.
Becky grabbed the handle of the laptop. "Mnnn were here."
"Yeah," Kate said, feeling the tension in her face. She breathed in deeply. Dammit, she had to find away to get her emotions under control, or she risked burnout. Something she simply could not afford. She had a job to do.
"Hey are you okay?" Fingertips rested lightly on the sleeve of her wind-breaker. "You look a little pale."
"Fine. I I just dont like being cooped up on these smaller planes," Kate lied. "Ill be okay as soon as we get off."
"I know you. Youre a bad passenger. Youd rather be flying this thing."
Kate flicked a hand towards the cockpit. "Ah he did okay."
"Good morning folks!" As if on cue, the intercom crackled to life. "Welcome to Bangor, Maine. Sorry it has to be under such tragic circumstances." A brief pause. "The local time is 6:15 AM, and the temperature is 59 degrees. But itll be another warm one later today, were expecting a high of 82 degrees. Well be at the terminal shortly, where I understand there is transportation waiting to ferry you directly to Pohassat. There will be personnel at the gate to guide you." Another longer pause. "Ah our prayers will be with you."
The pilot turned to Rebecca. Green eyes looked at her, blinking, searching for some sort of reassurance.
Kate turned away, and stared straight ahead. She had none to give.
As promised, a small fleet of 4-wheel drive vehicles plus a Bangor Emergency Response van stood ready to transport the aircrafts occupants to the crash site outside Pohassat, an approximate 45 minute ride away. The SUVs, featuring blue emergency lights on the dashes, were obviously personal vehicles belonging to the regions predominantly volunteer fire and rescue squads.
Kate quickly claimed an older Chevy Blazer for herself, Becky, and Mac. The vehicle had seen more than a few New England winters, judging by the rusted looks of it, and the driver himself seemed barely old enough to have a license. Just a few stray wisps of hair above his lip passing for a mustache, and a worn Pawtucket Red Sox cap jammed on his head. But the gangly, thin-faced youngster wore the orange blaze vest of an emergency worker, and that was good enough for Kate.
"Hello, maam," he held out a grimy hand to the tall pilot, "Freddy Comstock, at your service."
"Hi, Fred," Kate shook his hand, and let the youth grab her bag.
"If you give me your gear, folks, well get it stowed away and get you up to Pohassat shortly."
Kate climbed into the front passenger seat of the Blazer, and watched her fellow passengers clamber into the other vehicles. Bo Sample and his staff, plus most the Orbis Risk Management people, took the van. The pilot was not unhappy to separate herself from that crew. Bo and his people seemed nice enough, but they were suits, paper-pushers, just the same. She didnt really know them and didnt need to, in order to do her job. Corporate politics be damned.
Hank Danner and his younger colleague, Rick Falzone, plus the rest of the passengers on the flight, divided themselves up among the remaining sport utility vehicles. Kate spied agent Danner awkwardly hefting himself up into the front of a brand-new Ford Expedition.
Figures, Kate shook her head. She unconsciously leaned forward in her seat, anxious to get going now. Her dark fears had faded away with the light of the rising sun, and her adrenaline was kicking in. She could feel the tingle of excitement in her blood now; a mission was at hand. The anticipation, the apprehension, the thrill it was all there for her now, just as it had always been. The energy, the power those feelings summoned, were at her disposal.
Time to get moving. The sun was creeping higher in the sky; it was damn near 0700hrs. Valuable time was wasting away.
Kate swiveled around in her seat. "You people ready back there?"
"Yeah," breathlessly, Becky hopped into the blazer.
Jim MacArthur ducked his head as he gracefully maneuvered his bulk into the truck. "Ready."
"Why dont we move out, Fred?" Kate said impatiently. "These people dont need to follow us, right?"
"Well ayuh ." Freddy Comstock gulped hard, and turned rounded eyes to one of the most imposing, intimidating women he had ever seen. "Nobody said in particulah"
"Good," Kate settled back in her seat, facing straight ahead. "Lets go."
After a moments hesitation, the young man put the truck in gear and peeled out of the airport lot, following signs towards interstate 95. "Well only be on the highway for a bit," he apologized, "then well have to head east into Hancock County. Some of it off-road. Pohassat will be that-a-way." He pointed a knobby finger towards the northeast.
"Gods country, eh?" Mac grunted from the back seat. He was tired, his leg had a cramp, and he was half-considering using the time on the ride to grab a few extra zs.
"Gods country," Freddy repeated, and he wagged his head. "It is that, sir, normally. And a fine country, it is," he paused, "but not today."
A silence wound its way through the Blazer, heavy, cloying, and neither the hum of the wheels grabbing the road beneath them nor the occasional whoosh of highway traffic opposite, heading south, filled the gaping, cold void.
Finally, a warm voice lifted up from the rear. "Thanks for the lift, Freddy. We really appreciate it."
The drivers eyes flickered to the rear-view mirror, and his tired, dirtied face split into a faint smile. "My pleasure, maam."
Becky had taken note of the stiffened way the young man carried himself, of the dark splotches under his eyes. It couldnt have been an easy time of it for these local people, she reasoned. To have to deal with a tragedy of such magnitude how could anyone train prepare for something like that? In that respect, she didnt feel at any more of a disadvantage than anyone else here, save for the technical experts.
As a flight attendant, much of her training had been focused on life-saving and crash survival. On a cognitive level, she knew that the worst could and sometimes did occur, and one had to be prepared for that. But that was not her role here, she knew. It was to keep Kate organized, to keep the information flowing between Orbis and the crash site as quickly and as smoothly as possible, and just to be there, for the woman whod grown so important to her over these past few months. At what had to be one of the toughest times in the older womans life.
Becky knew how personally the pilot took her new role at Orbis, how she felt responsible, on a personal, visceral level, for bringing the guilty to justice. To prevent incidents like the flight 2240 hijacking from ever occurring again. At times, Becky worried that Kate had bitten off more than she could chew. There was evil out there, in the world, that was for certain. And as long as there was how could one person, one woman, ever hope to put a stop to it all? Taking on a mission that, realistically, was impossible to fully execute?
In spite of that overwhelmingly negative prospect, Captain Catherine Phillips fully intended to try.
Becky let her eyes rest on the back of Kates head, admiring how the early-morning sunshine threw flecks of onyx highlights into her hair. Ah, well. Kate had never let superior odds stop her.
Becky sighed. She supposed that was one of the reasons why she loved her so.
"Any word on survivors yet, Freddy?" Mac posed the question through a yawn.
"The hospitals are on standby, ready to receive any injured, thats all I know, sir."
"And have any injured been transported yet?" Blue laser beams bored into Freddy Comstock.
"Uh " another hard gulp, "not that I know of."
More silence, as the Blazer turned off the interstate and picked up rural route 2. The trees began to thicken, to drape the land, and a hint of damp moisture hung in the air, the remnants of yesterdays rainfall.
Becky shifted in her seat, determined to keep the young man talking. Anything was better than the quiet, the emptiness. Now was not the time to let her imagination run away with itself, with troubled thoughts of what might lay ahead for all of them. She cleared her throat. "Are you from this area originally?"
"Lived here all my life maam, but I aint seen nothin like this." Freddy caught her gaze in his rear-view mirror, and Beckys heart ached at the sight of his bloodshot, moist eyes. "Nevah anything like this."
Freddy Comstock made good on his promise to get them quickly to the crash site. From interstate to winding country lanes to nothing more than a barely paved cowpath, he had gotten them there, over roads hed known since boyhood. They had passed through the old mill town of Pohassat, just coming to life on what should have been a lazy summer Saturday morning. But it was not meant to be, as the streets were already beginning to clog with emergency vehicles and the odd news van. Freddy waved to a few pedestrians he knew; they returned the greeting, gazing curiously at his vehicle and the strangers he carried.
"Folks round these parts might just be a-figurin out what all the excitement is about," he observed, turning the Blazer out of town and directing it along a narrow logging road, lined with pines and spruce. Quickly, they were enveloped by the blanket of trees, so thick they nearly blotted out the sun, and the rich, earthy scent of the forest filled the air. The truck bounced its way along the road for another ten minutes, maintaining a decent speed, before the squat body and whirring lights of an ambulance came into view. The Blazer slowed.
"Hes from Binghamton," Freddy said softly. "Hes come a-ways."
A few more minutes, and they were part of a little caravan of vehicles winding their way towards the site. No one was leaving, not yet anyway, and it was a good thing, Kate thought, based on the narrowness of the road.
"Folks have set up a staging area at the old Sheetz & Campbell logging camp, but aint nobody worked it for ye-ahs, not since the mill closed down." Freddy clucked his tongue. "My fatha worked there as a young man. The stories he told us "
The logging road suddenly widened, flaring open towards a muddied compound clogged with police cars, fire equipment, and emergency vehicles of every shape and size. A few broken-down buildings and barracks, tin roofs sagging under the weight of the elements and the years, were scattered throughout an open space cleared long ago of its virgin-growth forest. "The plane or whats left of it, is about a five minute walk due east of he-ah."
Freddy cautiously maneuvered his way through the haphazardly parked vehicles and rushing rescue personnel, and worked towards a large trailer adjacent to the old barracks. As they drew close, Kate could see Bangor City Emergency Response Mobile Command Unit emblazoned in a shock of red lettering along its side. A small satellite dish sat on its roof. The door of the trailer was open wide, and a constant stream of people flowed in and out.
"This is where Im supposed to leave you good people," Freddy said, gesturing towards the trailer. "The FBI fella kinda kicked Sheriff Longworth out of they-ah once he showed up."
"FBI guy?" Freddy suddenly had Macs attention.
"Big-shot from the city, I suppose," Freddy said, pushing his cap back on his head. "Hes the one in charge now, they say. Dont sit too well with the Sheriff, Ill warrant, giving up his trailer. The law does love his toys!"
With a grinding of wheels against gravel, the Blazer pulled to a stop. "He-ah you ah," Freddy jumped out of the Chevy and moved around to the back, pulling out their bags as Kate, Becky, and Mac got out and stretched. From the dead of a New York night to the rosy glow of a New England dawn, it had been some journey to get themselves to this point. And the day was far from over.
"Thanks Freddy," Becky smiled at him, taking her bag and the laptop. "Youve been great."
"Yeah, thanks," Kate said, echoing her smaller companions sentiments. It was an effort for her sometimes, dealing with the common courtesies, they had always seemed so trivial to her. But shed sworn to herself that she would show Rebecca she was capable of it.
Mac had drifted off towards the door of the trailer, interested in the loud shouting coming from within.
"Ill leave you folks to it, then," Freddy tipped his hat and blushed, looking every inch the boy he was. "You need anything a ride, whatever, you just ask for Freddy Comstock, you he-ah?"
"You bet," Becky said, giving the young mans hand a squeeze.
With a quick nod, Freddy melted off into the crowd.
Becky sidled closer to Kate. "Wow," she said, looking over the compound, "looks like a war zone."
"Yeah," the pilot replied, letting her eyes take in the scene, "And Ill bet every emergency vehicle in the entire state is here."
"And more coming," Becky said, watching a lumbering red fire truck emerge from the forest, followed closely by the van and SUVs from Bangor airport.
Their traveling companions had arrived.
Kate pointed to a break in the trees behind the barracks. "The aircraft has got to be through there." Emergency workers slogged back and forth on the path, sweat-streaked even at this mid-morning hour, caked in mud and soot, bearing ominously bundled burdens on stretchers. Their faces were etched with the horror of what they had seen, or perhaps of what they had not seen; Kate saw nothing which indicated that a survivor might be anywhere in the compound. No ambulances rushing off, sirens screaming, loaded down with patients, and no on-site first aid being rendered other than to a fireman having a bloodied hand bandaged.
The burly, rugged looking fireman sat on the back bumper of a rescue wagon. His protective coat hung open, his hair was plastered to his head, and his helmet sat by his side. Like a little child, the big man held his hand out to the EMT for examination and repair. Make it go away. Tears ran down his face, and not from the pain. No, there would be no fixing of this.
"Im telling you, this is an FBI-run operation, not the NTSBs!!"
The angry words came from within the trailer.
"Its our goddamned jurisdiction!" The pounding of heavy footsteps fairly shook the command center.
Kate spun around at the commotion, just in time to see a large, hulking form fill the doorway, holding a cell-phone. His hair was firecracker red, his eyes a pale blue, and his skin a healthy burnished tan, belying his apparently Northern European heritage. The pilot guessed him to be at least several inches past Macs height, though younger, with shoulders impossibly wide. She wondered whether straight-on, hed be able to fit himself through the opening. He wore what appeared to be the uniform of the day: jeans, work boots, and polo shirt. A blue wind-breaker with the block letters FBI on the back, hung from his hand.
Shaking his great head in pained disgust, the giant caught sight of the three Orbis employees standing outside his door. He motioned to them, waving them into the trailer.
"I dont care if the goddamned president himself shows up, as the ranking Assistant Director in Charge, I say that this is an FBI investigation until such time as the evidence demonstrates to my complete satisfaction that were not looking at a crime scene!" He paused in his tirade to allow the party on the other end of the line to get a few words in edgewise. The mans face was flushed over his summer coloring, his eyes were narrow slits of vitriol.
FBI fella in charge, eh?
"Thats bullshit, Mike!"
Kate liked him immediately.
The large man resumed his argument, turning towards a bank of blinking communications equipment lining the far wall of the trailer. A table and bench chairs were built-in to the center of the space, and more communications, video, and surveillance hardware filled pre-fabricated work-stations that lined the sides.
Rebecca edged closer to Kate. "Maybe we should come back later," she said in a hoarse whisper.
"Dont mind this guy," Mac volunteered before Kate had a chance to respond. "For him, there is no good time."
Kate raised an eyebrow. "You know him?"
"Know him, hell!" Thats Gordy Ballard. He used to work for me in D.C. on the bureaus counter-terrorism unit. Until he kissed enough ass to get himself promoted out from under me HEY!" Mac smoothly dodged a balled-up windbreaker thrown at his head.
"We dont know yet ." Ballard shouted, raking a hand through his red buzz-cut. "Ill have to let you know ." More pacing. "FINE!" he barked, violently cutting the connection. "Damn Feds! I hate em!"
"You are a Fed," Mac said dryly, stepping forward and offering his hand.
"Yeah, not like some retired old bastard I know." Ballard grinned and gave Macs hand a vigorous shake. "I heard youd gone private sector and hooked up with Orbis. What some cushy deal, right? Stock options? Bonuses? "
"I dont know," Mac chuckled, "Youll have to talk to my boss about that." The investigator nodded at Kate. "Gordon Ballard, meet Catherine Phillips, Director of Strategic Operations at Orbis."
"Miss Phillips," Ballard eyed Kate evenly and liked what he saw. "How-do."
"Call me Catherine." Blue eyes returned the gaze, "and Mac has one hell of a deal."
"Ill keep that in mind," Ballard said, smirking.
Mac cleared his throat. "And this is our ." He looked to Kate for help.
"Associate this trip, Rebecca Hanson."
"Becky, please," the flight attendant blushed, unaccustomed to her new role. God, she thought, what have I gotten myself into, here? Steady, girl! She swallowed hard. Just try and look like you know what the hell youre doing!
"Bo Sample, our EVP of Ops is right behind us," Kate continued, "with something of an entourage."
Ballard lifted thick, bushy eyebrows that ran like slashes of rust across his forehead.
"PR Risk Management types," the pilot explained.
"Great," Ballard said in a hard voice. "As long as they stay the hell out of my way."
"And a couple of your guys hitched a ride with us too, Gordy," Mac said. "Hank Danner and"
"Great," Ballard interrupted, holding up his hand. He was clearly relieved. "The more people I can put out in the field, gathering data, conducting interviews, the better. Getting a-hold of some of these guys, on a weekend, youd think they were in the witness protection program or something," he shook his head and grabbed a half-cold cup of coffee from the table. "Cant reach em."
"You certainly got here pretty quickly," Kate observed, "and a good thing for it."
"Yeah well, I hate to diminish your fine impression of me so soon, Catherine," he said, flashing a white-toothed grin, "but I was already vacationing down in Northeast Harbor. Its only about an hours drive from here. The wifes family is from Philly and theyve got quite a place, right on the water. Boat dock, clam bakes, a hammock--"
"And the kids like it too, right?" Mac chuckled, dropping his garment bag to the floor of the trailer.
"Yeah," Ballard said, "I hated to break up their vacation like that but what the hell."
"Youll make it up to them, once this is all over," Becky said earnestly.
"Thats what I keep tellin myself, little lady," Ballard shook his head wistfully, and finished his coffee in one swallow. "I hope youre right." He paused, rubbing the palm of his hand over his face, as if trying to erase the horrific images that burned his minds eye. "No survivors." The sorrow, the grief, the loss, wound its way like a snake through his gut, twisting, turning. The pain rolled off him in waves, Kate could feel it. Smell it. Was accustomed to it, herself.
"None?" Next to her, Rebeccas voice was a faint wisp of a prayer, and she could see a tremor skip through the smaller womans body.
Ballard turned to look sadly out the door of the trailer onto the barely controlled chaos that until a few short hours ago was an abandoned, sleepy logging camp. He crunched the styrofoam cup in his paw of a hand. "Theyre gone. Every goddamn last one of them."
Assistant Director Gordon Ballard quickly demonstrated to Kate and her companions the skills which had gotten him promoted so quickly through the ranks of the bureaus best and brightest, finally landing him in charge of the Orbis flight #180 investigation. Agent Hank Danner and Rick Falzone, his partner, were instantly shunted off to Pohassat to locate witnesses to the crash.
"Fer chrissakes, somebody had to have seen something!" Ballard fumed. "Find em!"
"Yes SIR!" Danner replied, standing as straight and tall as his heaving belly would allow. The man looked as though he might actually salute, before he remembered himself and thought the better of it. He turned on his heel and left, with the younger Falzone trailing closely behind.
And no sooner had the shadows of Bo Sample and the rest of the Orbis group crossed the trailer door, than Ballard had handed them off for a briefing to his deputy or SAC, Marissa Bello, Special Agent in Charge.
The agent betrayed no emotion at the prospect of baby-sitting the airline staffers; with the features and demeanor of a prim and proper schoolteacher, she took to her assignment with a cool, patient ease, shepherding them out of the trailer towards the barracks next door. Bo Sample remained, insistent on touring the crash site with Ballard.
"Its gonna be rough, Mr. Sample," the assistant director warned.
"I know. But for the families, for those people out there, I have to." Samples narrow, angular face was pallid, but his voice was firm, and Kate found herself respecting the executive for his conviction and for his intestinal fortitude. Rough didnt even come close to describing what desolation awaited them. She knew that much.
Ballard thought about Samples words for a moment. "Okay," he said at last, "Lets go." He turned towards the door. "You all can leave your bags here for now. Ill just take you along the perimeter of what we believe is the primary debris field. The sites not secure yet, so I cant have you disturbing any evidence," the big man cautioned.
"We understand," Sample said, tugging nervously at the sleeve of his wind-breaker. "Lead on."
Kate moved to follow them, when she heard the small clearing of a throat behind her. Rebecca. Damn! What had she been thinking? Kate turned to see the young flight attendant standing stock still near the wall of the trailer. Her green eyes were wide as saucers, her face blanched, the line of her mouth drawn tight and thin. The pilot recognized that look of her partners. The girl was scared stiff, and as bound and determined as ever.
"Ill be fine, Kate," the small blonde said, drawing herself up to her full height and breathing deeply. "Really."
Kate thought fast. "How are you making out on that manifest?"
"Yeah," Ballard paused in the doorway, blocking the sunlight. He looked back to Kate and Rebecca, his blue eyes alert. "Passenger list, crew, cargo, we need to get crackin on that."
"It should be coming in shortly," Becky shifted her gaze to the laptop shed set on the table.
"Plenty of dataports in here. Feel free to use em, courtesy of Bangor city!" Ballard tramped down the steps and out into the compound, followed by Bo Sample and Jim MacArthur.
Kate stepped close to Rebecca and laid a hand on her arm. The young girl was trembling, in spite of the warm, still air inside the trailer. "Why dont you get working on that?" Kate softly suggested.
"Please," Kate bored her eyes into the Rebeccas, "its important. I need your help."
"Well," Kate could see some of the tension leave the smaller womans body, "if youre sure."
"Im sure," Kate said firmly, hating herself for having brought her into this horror. "Well see you in a while, okay?" She brushed the tip of her finger under Rebeccas chin.
"Kay," the flight attendant smiled faintly, and moved to open the laptop bag. "Be careful."
"I will, I promise," Kate said, watching Becky for a moment as she began to work, before turning and pushing out into the bright sunlight where Mac and the others were waiting.
"Shes gonna get working on that manifest," Kate said, eyeing them carefully.
"Okay," Ballard pointed towards the break in the trees that led to the crash site. "Lets get going."
"Good thinking, about that manifest," Mac muttered, falling into step next to Kate. The pilot merely looked at him and nodded. She knew what he meant.
Ballard led them at a fast clip along a narrow trail winding through the woods; tire tracks cut into the soft ground that had been protected from the brunt of the last evenings rainfall by the softly swaying canopy of trees overhead. Workers with gravel-filled wheelbarrows and chain-saws were already working on widening the path and stabilizing the surface for the small army of emergency personnel ferrying back and forth.
"Let me walk you through what weve got so far," Ballard said, slowing down a bit. "We know that while there was a misty rain in the area last night, weather conditions shouldnt have been a factor at the altitude where the incident initiated."
"At 30,000 feet," right?"
"Thats when the last reported contact occurred, yes."
"Then youre right," Kate said, thinking, her boots crunching along the gravel. "But you cant rule out clear air turbulence."
"No," Ballard replied, "although if that were the case, one would think the captain or copilot wouldve had a chance to get off an emergency call. And there were no maydays received from flight 180. Whatever happened was sudden, and catastrophic. We know that much. Of course, once we have a chance to analyze the CVR and FDR, well know more."
"The cockpit voice recorder and flight data recorder, youve found them already?" Bo Sample was impressed.
"Yeah," Ballard pushed a low-hanging pine bough out of his way, "we got lucky. A piece of the tail section was recognizable in the debris field, and of course thats where theyre located.
"Since the tail is most likely to survive a crash intact," Sample added.
Ballard cast a fish-eye at the executive. "If you say so. But theyre in rough shape. Were waiting for them to cool down naturally before we let our people have a look at them. We dont want to rush the process and risk damaging the tapes and telemetry further. Our top priority at the moment," the group stopped to let two EMTs pass by bearing a stretcher loaded with a body bag, "is to recover the victims in a swift, dignified manner."
"Of course," Sample said, chastened. Kate could not help feeling sorry for the man at that moment. He was clearly in over his head. Hell, they all were, for that matter.
"Second," Ballard continued, is to collect all available evidence from the scene. And its a helluva scene. The nose cone and a portion of the flight deck were ripped off from the rest of the fuselage by the force of whatever happened, and the tail section, too. But everything else," Ballard shook his head, "is all over the place. And virtually unrecognizable."
"Have you turned up anything evidence-wise, that could point to what happened?" Kate wanted to know.
"Nothing yet," Ballard said, "but my guys are good. They know what to look for, even in this mess. TWA 800, ValuJet, the Pittsburgh USAir crash theyve been around the block a time or two. If theres something out there thats not right, theyll find it."
"And youll be working closely with the NTSB, right?" Mac could barely contain a smirk at what he knew to be a sore point with his friend.
"Yeah, and the FAA too," Ballard replied, his large form moving gracefully through the forest with an althletic ease. "Those NTSB guys arent too bad, not really," he allowed. "Bob Joseph, the agencys vice-chairman, should be here by noon."
"Ready to take charge," Mac said, winking at Kate.
"Not if I can help it," Ballards voice was sharp. "Ive been to enough crime scenes in my day to know em when I see em. And by god, Mac," the big man sighed, "this sure as hell looks like one to me. I can feel it in my gut. Thats where your data comes in so important, Catherine."
"And youll have it," the pilot said. "Well get to you the specs on everyone who had their hands on that 747. Not just the passengers and crew, but the cleaners, fuelers, caterers, baggage handlers, inspectors everybody from Lisbon to Paris."
Kate tilted her head into the air, they were getting close now, she could tell. On the light breeze there was a thickening scent of woodsmoke, and another, more offensive odor. Burned insulation, rubber, and worse. It stuck in the back of her throat and began to water her eyes, but there was no escaping it.
"Once the NTSB types get here," Ballard was saying, "well have to have some sort of press conference. "Im thinking about 3 or 4 oclock. By then we should at least have something to give em."
"I Id like to be there."
Ballard stole a quick glance at a pale Bo Sample.
"Fine although you could take some flak. Frankly, until we do determine what went wrong here, youve got one hell of a potential liability. You, Boeing if there was a structural failure, Pratt & Whitney if the engines malfunctioned"
"I know," Sample gulped. "But I I feel I should be there."
"Be my guest," Ballard said, picking up his pace once more. There was silence for a moment, nothing, save for the crunching passing of emergency workers, and the occasional shout through the trees up ahead. "Aw hell, who knows," the assistant director continued, "By that time maybe well have somebody taking responsibility for this, eh? And then you guys will be off the hook.
"Not likely," Kate said, in a deep, throaty voice that rumbled out into the damp forest. "Not by a long shot."
Suddenly, with little warning, the trail fell away into a jagged-edged open space within the forest, littered with charred, twisted pieces of aircraft. The shock, the sudden there of it, stole the breath from Kates body. Emergency workers, some already wearing white bio-hazard protective suits, pored over the wreckage, while firemen still hosed down smoldering hot spots. The plane had burned upon impact, that was eminently apparent, taking along with it the surrounding woods. The occasional blackened tree limb jutted out from random chunks of debris, looking for all the world like ghostly, darkened appendages waving for help.
Lining the perimeter of the clearing were trees that had survived the initial impact and fire. Standing as silent witnesses to the horror of those first early-morning hours when flight 180 fell from the sky, they clearly had had the life seared from them. Their scorched trunks still valiantly stood straight and tall, but their boughs sagged and wept in shades of charcoal and gray, the living, vibrant greens of life, but a memory now. Unlike the sudden death of their fellows, the end for these trees would be agonizingly slow. With limbs unable to take up the nourishment they so desperately needed, they would starve, after a fashion, until finally with a dry, crackling last gasp, they would tumble over dead to the forest floor, perhaps at the hand of a strong wind or winters storm.
Several smaller emergency trucks were parked at the side of the clearing where the newly forged path flared open to meet it. Ballard led the way towards one, motioning to the EMT standing at the rear of the open vehicle. "How about getting us fixed up with a few masks?"
Immediately, Kate knew what Ballard was doing. The pilot normally had a stomach of iron and a will to match, but already she felt her gut twisting and churning under the assault of the indescribably putrid air she was forced to breathe in. It was almost a solid thing, the force of it, and she could feel it seeping into the strands of her hair, the essence of her memory, the marrow of her bones, and she doubted whether shed ever be truly free of it. All she could do was be grateful that Rebecca was not here to be marred by it. Kate was content to bear the burden of this scene for the both of them.
"Here you go." Ballard handed each of them surgical-type masks featuring a dab of menthol vapo-rub on the insides. "Theres more if you need it. Sorry we dont have gloves or anything more than this weve run out at the moment. You really shouldnt be back here without em. But since were just going to skirt the perimeter"
"What is this?" Bo Sample held the mask out distastefully from his body.
"Its for the smell, Mr. Sample," the big man replied tiredly, patiently. "Itll get to you without it, believe me."
"Is this really necessary? I think Ill be fine"
"Best put it on, Mr. Sample," Mac said. "Take a clue from the rest of these fine people here." And indeed throughout the debris field, everyone was similarly protected.
Sample spared a quick look out at the crash site, and then silently did as he was told, his thin bony fingers tying off the mask behind his head.
"Okay then" Ballard said once they were outfitted, "All I ask is that you watch your step and stay out of my peoples way."
The assistant director gingerly picked a line that ran along the edge of the debris field and set off, followed closely by Kate, Mac, and Bo Sample.
"You can see that we had a bad burn here," Ballard huffed, "but whether it was a result of the impact or if the aircraft hit the ground already in flames, we dont know. We need to find some witnesses to this damn thing," he said quietly, as if to himself. "We do believe that the plane was not in one piece when it hit."
"Why do you say that?" Kate asked, as they passed by what her trained eye knew to be a warped fragment of the tail section and rear stabilizers.
"Primarily due to the scatter of the wreckage," Ballard replied, wiping the perspiration from his brow. He stopped. The heat radiating from the still-smoking wreckage was like that of a burning hot pavement on a blistering summers day. "You can see where we found the tail. The section of front nose cone weve located is way the hell over there," he gestured towards the far end of the clearing. "Ive got a report of an engine in some guys pasture about five miles from here. Plus a cabin door eight miles away, and reports are still coming in."
"Something happened up there," Kate said, knowing what sort of explosive picture Ballard was painting and not liking it at all. "Something big."
Ballard stepped carefully off again into the sodden soup of the forest floor. "Thats the premise were going on."
Silently, the little group followed in single file, working their way along the edges of the hellish scene. There were flashes of color amidst the barrenness of the destruction, small red spotter flags, blowing gently in the breeze, indicating the location of human remains. Scores of them dotted the debris field. Workers moved quietly among the flags, bearing olive green and navy blue body bags, speaking from time-to-time into shoulder mics and walkie-talkies.
After a time, Kates eyes became accustomed to the blackened, misshapen landscape, and she forced herself to look closely. To take it all in. To remember. For the victims sake.
The pilot had seen crashes before of course, back at Randolph Air Force Base and during Desert Storm but nothing like this. Charred seat cushions. An Orbis Airline napkin, untouched by the flames, its soggy blue and white globe logo gazing sightlessly at the sky. Fragments of luggage. A mans shoe, separated from its mate forever. And Kate had to fight down the bile in her throat when she caught sight of what she knew had once been the framework of a childs stroller.
Even through the menthol-daubed protection of her surgical mask, Kate could still detect the foul odor of burned insulation, of oil, of death. It was Abbado El-Yousef who was the architect of this killing field, she knew it. And as her cloudy eyes rested upon the carnage that he had wrought, she vowed silently to herself and to whatever god was listening, that she would make him pay. These people never had a chance, she thought angrily, feeling the blood boil in her veins. They were helpless inside the tube when the moment of disaster hit, lined up agreeably like eggs sitting in a carton, and just as fragile. She could only hope that their final awareness of what was happening was fleetingly, blessedly swift. The alternative was too horrible to contemplate.
As they pressed farther into the debris field, Kate found herself conscious of the unnatural silence that permeated it all. Maybe it was because of a reverence for the impromptu graveyard which spilled out over the landscape, but the emergency workers all moved quietly among it, speaking in low tones to one another:
"Here, now," one would hold up a hand to another who would approach with a red flag.
"Ive got one." Another hand raised.
The bodies. Too damn many.
Ballard stopped walking on the far side of the unnatural clearing. "At the same time we recover the victims," his voice was hushed, respectful, "were trying to put together a schematic of what is being found where. The aircrafts skin, interior, hydraulics, and so on. Itll help us to put together a complete picture of how this event unfolded."
A strangled cry came up from behind them.
There was Bo Sample, pointing a shaky arm towards something in the scorched brush just outside the perimeter.
"What the" Ballard pushed past Kate and Mac. "Oh god," he said, blanching. He raised his hand for an emergency worker. "Can I have a marker flag over here, please?"
Kate felt herself unwillingly propelled towards the spot, she was powerless to stop her feet from moving, a part of her had to see. There it was, half-hidden in a burned-out bush. She had to look closely at it for a moment, clinically, before her mind was able to fully process the sight before her.
It was a portion of a human leg, the skin of it charred and flaking. Its owner had lost it from just below the knee down to the ankle and heel, but the front part of the foot and toes were missing.
Behind her, she heard Bo Sample retching.
Kate felt her mouth run, could sense her mind reeling unsteadily. She closed her eyes briefly and swallowed hard, knowing that breathing deeply would do little to help her now. God, she thought, thinking of the hapless victim, no-one deserves this.
Willing herself to regain her balance, the pilot recovered herself just as Gordy Ballard turned back towards them. Above the white line of his surgical mask, his gray-blue eyes were misty wet. The mask moved as he spoke. "This is some goddamned vacation, isnt it?"
"Lets get out of here, Gordy," Macs voice was hoarse, "weve seen enough." He took a few steps towards where Bo Sample leaned with one hand against a tree, bracing himself. His face was a sickly green, and his soiled mask now hung below his chin. "You okay, buddy?" he laid a hand on Samples back.
The executive nodded an uncertain affirmative.
"Lets go," he said, helping Sample move out behind Ballard.
Kate was the last to leave, pausing for one last look at the scorched debris field, burning it into her minds eye, searing her soul. She would never forget it, this steaming, stinking bit of hell on earth.
She would be sure to remember it to Abbado El-Yousef.
The group quickly, quietly, made its way bag to the logging camp. Each individual alone with their thoughts, digesting what they had seen. As they approached the head of the trail at the main compound, Kate could see Rebecca standing next to the old barracks, her arms folded across her chest, staring. The pilot followed her gaze, and saw that the young flight attendant was focused on a row of body bags that were being loaded into waiting ambulances.
There would be no rush to get them to town, Kate thought sadly. Her heart went out to her friend, knowing how the scene had to be chewing her up inside, she of the gentle, sensitive soul that did not deserve to know of such horror in the world.
As they drew closer, Becky heard their footsteps on the gravel and lifted her head.
Kate could see the protective façade slip into place.
"Ive got those files we were waiting for," she said, moving to meet them. "Ive printed them out and given them to Agent Bello."
"Good," Ballard said, flicking his eyes towards the sun. "We can get going on that. A complete passenger list?"
"Yes, including flight crew and what background information was available on all of them." Becky briefly lowered her head before continuing. "Plus, the service history of the aircraft, flight log, and a detail of how it spent its last 72 hours."
"Thank you, Rory," Kate said gratefully, thinking of Rory Calhoun, their computer wizard back in New York.
A grinding whir of wheels and the sound of a straining engine turned their attention to the logging road leading into the compound. A ¾ ton pickup truck was hauling a large Winebago trailer into the clearing.
"Thatd be for the NTSB and FAA folks," Ballard observed. "Look," he checked his watch, "its nearly 9 oclock now. Why dont we get together at noon, all right? Well go over what weve got so far." Ballard looked doubtfully at Bo Sample. "Mr. Sample, I know the EMTs have set up a rest and recovery area in the barracks. You may want to go in there and check it out."
"Dont mind if I do," the young executive quickly replied, and he wobbled off.
"Catch you later, Mac, Catherine," Ballard said, shaking their hands. "And thanks for your help," he nodded at Becky. "Now," he sighed heavily, "Let me go track down Agent Bello."
"She maybe back in your trailer by now," Becky called after his broad, retreating back. The assistant director acknowledged her words with a wave.
"Seems like a good guy," Kate commented, turning towards Mac. "Do you miss working with him?"
"Nah," Mac replied, and the big man blushed. "Im happy where I am. Besides which I dont envy him this job. Not by a long shot." He paused, and Kate saw him look towards the body bags. "Listen boss, how about I go talk to the recovery people, see what I can find out about the condition of the remains. Might give us our first indication of what kind of trauma: fire, or whatever may have hit them.
"Sounds good," Kate agreed. "Poke around some. See what you can find out. You know," she smiled faintly, "do your investigator thing."
"You got it," and he headed off.
"Phew," Kate took a deep breath of air, trying to shake off her dark mood. Barely 0900hrs, and yet she felt so drained, exhausted beyond measure. "I need something to drink," she said, tiredly, swallowing through her parched throat.
"Theres a canteen truck set up over here," Becky directed the pilot to a busy area next to the barracks. "So," she said, looking up into the slightly sooty, sweat-streaked face above her, "how are you?"
"Fine," Kate answered, too quickly. A hand on her shoulder stopped her, and resignedly she turned, gazing down upon Rebeccas knowing, probing look. "What?" she exclaimed, averting her eyes.
"How are you?"
"I it it was bad, Rebecca," Kate sighed, relenting. "Im glad you didnt have to see it. The sooner we can pin this on that bastard--"
"You will Kate, you will." Becky could see the anger, the frustration building in the tall pilot. And that was okay, she figured, at least Kate was letting it out, talking about it. That, she could work with. "And therere plenty of people around here able to help you... who feel the same way."
"Yeah. I know." Kate lowered her head. "Youre right."
They started off again towards the canteen, dodging scurrying emergency workers.
"That was good work you and Rory did."
"Hes still working on that code thing, too, he wanted you to know."
"Were a little late for that now but whatever," Kate said, reaching a long arm towards the back of the busy truck and grabbing two bottles of cold water. She handed one to Rebecca.
The blonde twisted open the lid and took a long swallow, eyeing her tall companion carefully. "Well, Ive organized your file system on the laptop."
"Did you?" Kate looked curiously at Becky. "Does this mean Ill never be able to find anything again?"
"You rat!" Becky gave her a playful swat on the arm. "Like you ever could before."
"Gimme a break!" Kate grinned. "I managed."
"Barely. Anyway, do you want to hear about it, or not?"
"By all means!" Kate waved her bottle of water in the sunshine.
"Well, Ive organized your file system into new, pending, and closed, and sorted them in date order by author, along the lines of project, operations, technical, personal, staff, and miscellaneous.
"Really!" Kate breathed, impressed. "When did you do that?"
"This morning," Becky said shyly, on the way here."
"Christ, in three months I couldnt get around to doing that. Thanks," she said, noting the blush creep up the cheeks of the smaller woman. Kate knew how important it was for Rebecca to feel useful, needed. Her performance this morning, under the most trying of circumstances, had more than fit the bill.
"Listen," Kate said, swallowing the last of her water, "Im going to trail after Mac. Why dont you go check on Bo. He had a rough time of it out there, and Im sure he could use a friendly face right about now."
"Gosh, I noticed he didnt look too well," Becky said, a brow creasing her forehead, "the poor man. With all that responsibility on his shoulders, hes got to feel terrible about all this!" She put the cap back on her water bottle. "Let me go find him." And the young woman was off, her caring, supportive nature kicking into high gear.
Kate watched her go, so proud of the woman she cherished more than life itself. "Rebecca," she called after her.
"Mnn?" Becky spun around in the dirt, eyebrows raised.
Kate felt her throat constrict with emotion, as she struggled to get the words out. Words she needed to say, and Rebecca needed to hear. "I Im glad youre here."
"All right, lets review the purpose of this meeting, people." Gordy Ballard stood at the head of the small table inside the command trailer, perspiring heavily at high noon, despite the groaning air conditioning unit behind him. Special Agent-in-Charge Marissa Bello sat next to him, still and unsmiling, with not a strand of her limp brown hair out of place. Bob Joseph, vice-chairman of the NTSB had arrived, as had a team from the FAA. Bo Sample, apparently recovered from his earlier bout of stomach distress, had also taken a seat. He nervously played with a pen, constantly clicking the ball point on and off.
Kate slumped against a wall near the rear of the trailer, as far away from the table as she could get. Mac and Becky stood next to her, following her lead. Best to stay out of that hornets nest of suits, Kate thought, eyeing Gordon Ballard sympathetically. The big man dwarfed those around him, and she could see the jaws of the FAA people slacken and their eyes grow round as they took him in, wondering what to make of him.
There were entirely too many people in the cramped trailer for her tastes, but Kate resolved to plant her feet and stay put. Much had happened over the long morning, and the pilot was determined to stay up to speed on those events.
Whatever it took to move her closer to her mission objective.
Ballard leaned forward, resting his meaty hands upon the table. Kate smirked to herself as she noticed Agent Bello inwardly cringe at the close contact. Big men had never intimidated Kate. She rather enjoyed their company, as a matter of fact, seeing them as kindred to her own spirit. Dating back to her father, she supposed with a longing sigh.
"We will have these periodic status updates as needed, going forward," Ballard stated. "At each meeting we will review the data collected thus far, and endeavor to ensure that the spirit of inter-agency cooperation is upheld to the highest degree. The American people, our employers," he let his eyes roam over the faces of those seated at the table, "would demand nothing less of us. There will be a coordinated, cooperative exchange of ideas, and respect for one anothers interests will be paramount," he continued, "and we will focus a critical eye towards maximizing the assets available to help us accomplish our goals. And I believe we are all agreed on just what they are, are we not?" Ballards face was flushed down to the red-tipped roots of his brush-cut hair.
"We all want to find out what happened, Gordy." Bob Joseph spoke up, looking to his table-mates for affirmation.
"And why." Bo Sample finally laid his pen down on the table.
Ballard nodded. "Lets not forget the most important item of all"
"Who did it," Kates voice carried up from the rear of the trailer, and heads swiveled her way.
"If there is an individual responsible," the NTSB vice-chairman said, holding up a warning hand. "Were not sure a crime has been committed here."
"I am," Ballard said firmly. "Heres what weve got." The assistant director started talking, in his element now. "The FAA is looking into whether there were other planes in the vicinity of where flight 180 went down, but the one thing we do know is that all voice and radar contact with the aircraft was lost this morning at 02:29hrs when it was at 30,000 feet. No mayday signal was ever received. Wreckage is scattered over a wide-ranging area, and the plane burned upon impact. The CVR and FDR have been recovered, and soon well be able to get our first look at what was going on in the cockpit. The FDR will help us determine the planes altitude throughout the sequence of events, as well as airspeed, heading, and attitude."
"Is that all?" Bo Sample began his nervous pen-clicking again. "I thought that"
"The FDR on the Boeing 747 records the status of more than 300 other in-flight characteristics that can aid us in this investigation," declared the FAAs Eric Brown. He began ticking off a list with his fingers. "Everything from flap positions and smoke alarms, to microphone keying, so we can coordinate and time data from the FDR with the cockpit transmissions."
"Right," Ballard said. "Once weve analyzed that data, Bobs people here from the NTSB can generate a computer animated video reconstruction of the flight, visualizing the airplanes altitude, instrument readings, power settings the whole nine yards."
"But you think this is a crime scene," Joseph persisted.
"Yes, I do. The scatter of the debris, the sudden and catastrophic loss of contact and power, all point to some sort of on-board explosion."
"Agreed," the NTSB vice-chairman said, removing his owl-framed glasses and rubbing his eyes. "But whether due to mechanical failure, structural failure or a well-placed bomb"
"We just dont know," Ballard finished for him. "I realize that, Bob. But well find out, I assure you. And soon." He paused for a moment, clearing his throat. "A temporary morgue has been set up at a school in Pohassat, and weve got a hanger on stand-by at Bangor International where well begin reconstructing the remains of the aircraft as soon as this evening."
"And weve got our people working with the victims families in Lisbon, Paris, and Montreal," Bo Sample added, "From flight 180s point of origin through to its final destination."
"Well want to follow up on that with interviews of our own," Ballard said, his eyes falling on Agent Bello. The woman quickly jotted down a note on her memo pad. "We cant overlook the possibility, however incredible as it may seem, that one of the passengers was involved in the destruction of the flight."
"Whether knowingly or not," Kate stirred. "Terrorists arent above using unsuspecting mules to get their deadly cargo on-board."
"Good point, Catherine," Ballard nodded at her, while the NTSB vice-chairman gave her a sour look.
"That remains to be seen," he said, placing his glasses back on his face.
"In the meantime people," Ballard held up a hand, "I recognize that we are all under a lot of stress and pressure here. The public and the victims families will be looking to us for answers. I appreciate your ongoing professionalism, and I firmly believe that the FBI, working in concert with the National Transportation Safety Board, the Federal Aviation Administration and Orbis Airlines, can come up with them."
"Whats happening the rest of today?" Bo Sample asked, still fidgeting.
"We continue focusing on victim recovery, which is nearly complete, Ballard said. "And looking for witnesses locally, who might have seen something. Concurrent to those efforts are scene reconstruction and pre-event and post-event investigation, with assistance as needed from Orbis and Boeing."
"But youd said something about a press conference?"
"Oh yeah," Ballard ran a hand through his close-cropped hair. "The press." Clearly, it was not one of his favorite topics. "Weve organized a pool of reporters to be here on location, the better to keep our work-site clear and any potential evidence undisturbed. Well be having the press conference off-site, for that reason, in the Pohassat town hall. You all are welcome to join us there at 3 PM today.
"No way," Kate muttered under her breath. She turned to Rebecca. "Unless you want to go."
"Im with you," Becky shivered. "I dont want to hear this stuff all over again."
"I second that," Mac said. "Weve got more than enough to keep us busy here. Leave that to the pretty PR types. Its what they get paid the big bucks for."
The meeting was breaking up, with people filtering out the door into the uncomfortable mid-day heat. Kate could feel the warm air rush into the small space of the trailer, sucking out the last bit of coolness that remained.
"Director Ballard! Sir!"
A young federal agent, woefully mis-dressed in a suit and muddied dress shoes, shoved his way into the command post.
"What is it?" Ballard swung around to him, annoyed.
"Turn on CNN, sir!" he gasped.
"What thewheres the goddamned TV"
"Got it," Becky said, calmly stepping forward and flipping the appropriate switches on a video unit.
Kate raised an inquisitive eyebrow to her.
"One of the guys showed me around here when you were out this morning," Becky explained, moving away from the console.
An image quickly flickered into view: a young turk male reporter looking solemnly into the camera, the CNN logo discretely visible in the lower-right corner of the picture.
" and our sources tell us that a cabin door belonging to the Boeing 747 was found ten miles east of the primary crash site, an indication that there was an explosion of some sort on board the plane."
"Its eight miles, you asshole," Ballard swore. "Wheres the volume on this thing?"
Becky fiddled with the controls. "There," she said, as the reporters voice came through loud and clear.
"At least one witness says that the plane may have been on fire before it hit the ground."
"Fuck!" Ballard pounded his fist into the wall, rattling the trailer.
On-screen, the camera pulled back to reveal a balding, paunchy middle-aged man, wearing a t-shirt and jeans.
"I am standing here with Herbert Ames, a delivery man for a local bakery. Tell us what you saw in the sky early this morning, Mr. Ames, at approximately 2:30AM." The reporter stuck the microphone in the face of one obviously camera-shy delivery man.
"Weeeell," he drawled, I was on Beverly road"
"And where is that?"
"Oh," he scratched his head, "about three miles east of Pohassat."
"What did you see there, Mr. Ames. Can you tell us?" The reporters voice oozed with impatient sensitivity.
"I was on my way to my next delivery at the Stop n Shop, when I heard this rumble in the sky. Sounded like thunda or somethin. It was raining on and off a bit, so I didnt think much of it."
"Then what happened?"
"I slowed down some, it was so dark, you see, and then came a white flash, then a bright orange flash. Right there, up in the sky. I knew then it werent no thunda."
"And what did you do next?"
"Stopped my truck I did, and got out. Up there in the sky," he said, his voice wavering a bit, "there were all these hot orange fragments you seeing, falling, dropping like that stuff from a volcano. I didnt know what to think." The truck driver paused, daubing at his face with a handkerchief.
"And how did you feel, seeing that?" The reporter was nothing if not persistent.
"It was awful. Really, really devastating, I've nevah seen anything like it," Ames choked out, and he was unable to continue. The camera zoomed in on his face as he lifted a shaking hand to cover his eyes.
"And there you have it," came the reporters sonorous voice, "an eyewitness account, live from Pohassat ."
Ballard was ready to blow, Kate could see that. And she didnt blame him. Special Agent Hank Danner and his team were in charge of rounding up witnesses, and here theyd been scooped by a network reporter.
Ballards jaw worked furiously, and the corded veins in his neck stood at attention. "Where the fuck is Hank Danner?" Ballard roared, furiously punching in a number on his cell-phone. "Gone fishin?"
The afternoon was a nightmarish blur of activity, only briefly interrupted by a breath of a pause at 3PM, when many of the workers gathered around portable radios to listen to the press conference. Kate, Becky, and Mac had chosen to remain in the command center, scrutinizing the data sent to them by Rory Calhoun, paying particular attention to the passenger lists and who boarded where.
At 1500hrs, Becky flipped on the television.
The press conference itself was a heated, ugly affair, and Kate was glad shed chosen to stay away. The worst of it came when that same damned reported from CNN posed a question to Gordy Ballard.
"Mr. Ballard, is it true that this crash is the latest evidence of a consistent, ongoing terrorist war being mounted against the United States of America in general, and Orbis Airlines in particular, by Middle Eastern groups striving for political gain?"
"I dont know where you get your information sir," Ballard said, losing his cool. "I think its important that out of sensitivity to the families, we not speculate on what may or may not have happened. Just let us do our job!!" And with that, he stormed away from the podium as the cameras clicked and whirred.
Kate did not look up. "Turn it off," she said, her voice hard.
The day wore on and the sun continued to slip lower in the western sky, shining as a faint glimmer of light now through the thick swath of spruce and pine surrounding the compound.
Kate had given a brief call to Cyrus Vandegrift before stopping to grab a quick bite for dinner from the canteen truck. Cyrus was doing his part, trying to keep a lid on the hysteria and fear brewing in New York.
"Folks here are going to want answers, Katie. And soon."
"Ill get them for you Cyrus," shed vowed, "I promise."
She hoped her former mentor trusted in the words she did not quite believe in herself.
Later, Bo Sample found Kate propped up against a tree, nibbling at a pasta salad. Her long legs were stretched out in front of her, and the sleeves of her blue oxford cloth shirt were rolled up, revealing tanned, toned arms.
"Look," he said, glancing from her legs to the setting sun, "were heading back to Bangor tonight. Ill be leaving tomorrow morning. Theres not much more I can do here," he said, gazing morosely through the trees to where the downed plane lay.
Kate had to admit it, he was probably right. "Well see you, then," she replied, unsure of what he expected her to say. She stabbed at a piece of pasta with her fork.
"Ive reserved some rooms for you at the Airport Holiday Inn, if you need them."
Kates fork hovered in mid-air, and she rested her eyes on the young executive, considering how much older his boyish features looked now at the close of day. His designer sportswear was soiled and wrinkled, and his hair stuck out at odd angles from his face.
She doubted she looked much better.
It had been a rough day for all of them, and she appreciated his offer. Frankly, she hadnt given a fig of a thought as to where shed spend the night. Although she was not ready to leave just yet, and didnt relish a long drive back to Bangor.
"Thanks," she said finally, sensing Rebeccas presence behind her.
"Well," he fumbled, "ah thanks for all your work here," and he left, trailed to a waiting van by his slightly worse-for-the-wear entourage.
"What was that all about?" Becky sat down beside her with a hamburger and fries.
"He said he has rooms for us in Bangor, if we want em," Kate said, chewing on her pasta.
"I I thought if you wanted to stay closer--"
"Yeah " Kate glanced sideways at Rebecca.
"I reserved three rooms for us at the Lumberjack Motel in Pohassat."
"Really!" Kate grinned broadly. "Rebecca, you are good. I figured any local accommodations wouldve been taken up by all those press yahoos and the like."
"Oh they are," Becky agreed, returning the smile. She bit off the tip of a french fry. "But I made the reservations early this morning, after we drove by the motel in Pohassat. Knowing you, I figured youd be willing to sleep out here, given half a chance."
"Youre right," Kate shook her head, chuckling. " But three rooms?"
"Hey, we have to keep up appearances now, dont we?"
"Yeah, but at three rooms, Im not sure we are." Kates eyes twinkled as Jim MacArthur hauled his tired body next to them. Mac knew of course that she and Rebecca were roommates, and he knew that they were close. How close, hed never asked, and never would. Although, Kate had toyed with the idea more than once that if he ever did question her, she was not inclined to lie to the man. Shed grown close to him over these past few months, and trusted him. Why not tell him the truth?
No, Mac had never asked. Maybe he didnt need to.
Aaah!" he said, collapsing to the ground, cradling his dinner. "I dont know about you ladies, but it feels as though its way past my bedtime!"
"Speaking of which, Rebecca was just saying shes made reservations for us at a local motel. So there is that," Kate took a sip of water, "or Sample is holding extra rooms at the Bangor Holiday Inn."
"Do I have a choice?" Mac lifted tired eyes to his boss.
"I cant deal with Bangor again today. Or Bo Sample for that matter, if its all the same to you, thanks."
It was all Kate could do to withhold the merriment from her eyes. "Dont thank me, thank Rebecca."
"Becky," Mac smiled at the small blonde, "Id tip my hat to you, if I had one."
"Youre welcome," Becky replied. "Glad to be of assistance!"
The flight attendant took another bite of french fry and then, sighing, pushed her plate away.
"You okay?" Kate noticed that Rebecca had barely touched her food.
"Fine. Im just not hungry," the blonde said, leaning back against the tree.
Kate let the subject drop, but she knew that for Rebecca Hanson to walk away from a meal, paltry as it was, after so long a day, something was bothering her.
"Well go soon," Kate said, noting the exhaustion etched on Rebeccas delicate features, "I promise." She looked past the smaller womans shoulder to where the last of the victims were being loaded into vans and ambulances. 210 passengers and crew, gone in a flash of light in a darkened sky. This time last night they were all still in Paris, laughing, talking, perhaps grumbling about the delay in takeoff, but at least they were alive. Now there was no going back. Not ever.
"See you tomorrow morning," Gordy Ballard stood at the bottom of the metal steps to the command trailer. It was the last of twilight, and the light breeze carried on it an evening chill. The sky overhead was a deep, vibrant indigo, and evening stars were twinkling clearly in the crisp Maine air. "You people got a ride?"
"Yeah, thanks," Kate looked to where Mac and Rebecca were loading their bags into the back of a decrepit Chevy Blazer. As promised, Freddy Comstock was once again at their service.
"Should be interesting," Ballard said, shrugging on his FBI wind-breaker. "The lab boys are taking a look at a couple pieces of luggage, and a section of a luggage rack."
"Maybe. The initial field forensic and metallurgical tests look promising."
Kate turned at the sound of the Blazers engine growling to life, and saw Mac and Becky hop in with a wave good-bye to Ballard. "Listen," she began haltingly, "I appreciate all your help today. It means a lot." Until shed actually met the assistant director, she hadnt expected much. Had planned on fighting for equal time and full disclosure every damn step of the way. But with Gordy Ballard, unexpectedly, she hadnt needed to.
"No problem," the big man smiled faintly.
"Thanks," Kate shook his hand firmly, then struck out for the waiting truck.
"Kate," Ballard called after her, and she stopped, her eyes struggling to penetrate the darkened gloom surrounding the trailer. She could barely make out his hulking form against the side of it, and his voice drifted softly to her from the shadows. "Remember, were on the same side."
It was dark by the time they checked in to the Lumberjack Motel, situated on the sleepy outskirts of Pohassat, along the same road that wound towards the Sheetz & Campbell logging camp. A 1950s style diner sat squat and low in the lot next door, and seemed to be doing a brisk late dinner business. Out-of state vans and cars filled the parking area, and Kate had no doubt they belonged to the hallowed press corps covering the plane crash.
They said their goodnights to Freddy Comstock, after the young man agreed to pick them up the following morning at 0700hrs.
"Oh, god," Mac groaned. "Sorry if Im not the life of the party here, but Im hitting the sack."
"Yeah, we all should get some sleep," Kate said, fitting her key into the door of her room. "Long day." The three Orbis employees had adjoining accommodations on the first level of the ancient motel. All the rooms opened out onto a gravel parking area, and a large, grinning neon Lumberjack stood flashing just outside the motel office, his ax forever frozen in mid-chop over a short-circuited block of wood.
"Not bad," Becky observed, peeking around Kate as the pilot flipped on a light, illuminating a simple, sparsely decorated room.
"It looks clean, thats all I care about," Kate said, smiling tiredly. She reached for the doorknob, and her hand brushed lightly against Rebeccas arm. She held the young blondes gaze for one brief, longing moment, before her eyes flickered to Mac. "Gnight guys," she said, and she disappeared behind the door to her room.
The lights of a pickup truck pulling into the parking lot flashed over Becky as she walked the three steps up to her own door. "See ya, Mac," Becky said, and the investigator gave her a yawn and a wave in return, retiring into the next room down.
The flight attendant clicked open her door and turned on the light switch. Her room mirrored Kates: bed up against one wall, a small window looking out onto the rear of the building, and a low table and two overstuffed chairs adjacent to a wood-veneer bureau.
Becky put the laptop on the table, dropped her travel bag to the floor, and flung herself down lengthwise across the bed.
Some day, she thought. Every bone in her body ached, and there was a light buzzing in her head that would not go away. Probably because I didnt eat much today, she reasoned, although food was the last thing on her mind right now.
Regardless of whether her eyes were opened or closed, she could not blot out the images of the day that flashed across her consciousness. The body bags, the shattered faces of the rescuers who had found no lives to save, the muddied, trampled down wood of what had once been a peaceful, quiet forest.
And the smell in the compound; the foul fumes from the idling engines of the emergency vehicles, mingling with the choking smoke of the nearby crash site. How were Mac and Kate able to bear it all? Becky marveled at their resolve.
She wasnt sure she could have done what they did today. Just one look at Bo Samples face when they returned from the debris field, was proof enough to her of that.
With a heavy sigh, she pushed herself up to a sitting position, and looked at the wall she shared with Kates room. The tall, dark pilot was just that far away, yet to Becky it might as well have been a gaping, yawing chasm with no bridge to span it.
They had a job to do this trip, they were working, and she had to be a professional. Shed done her job today, hadnt she? Kate and Mac had told her so. Even Gordy Ballard, who didnt know her from Eve, had thanked her. And shed been there for Kate, when the older woman had needed her.
Sure, the pilot was tired now, they all were.
So Kate had spoken few words during the course of the day, so what? That wasnt unusual for her, and besides, when she had spoken, shed made it count.
The important thing was, that her partner hadnt withdrawn into that cold, darkened part of herself that was frightening to behold. A place that changed her. That turned her into a sullen, dangerous being, one whod been hurt deeply and was uncaring of passing that hurt on to others. No, the woman shed said goodnight to a short while ago was still her Kate. And she was grateful for that.
So then, why the tears? Becky could feel them coming now, pushing up from her chest, into her throat, spilling from her eyes. She should be feeling pretty good about things, right? Her mind skipped back to the manifest. She had it memorized by now. All those passengers names. Ages. Where they were from.
And the crew. Shed known two of the flight attendants from one of her recent New York to London assignments. Two women, older than her, but theyd seemed nice enough. Now, she wished shed been able to get to know them better.
Damn, whats the matter with you, girl! Becky shoved herself to her feet and stripped out of her filthy clothes, feeling dirtier than she had in ages. A thorough shower in the dimly lit bathroom washed away her tears; she paid no heed to the lukewarm water, she was thankful just to be clean again. Quickly toweling off, she threw on an oversized t-shirt and tumbled into bed.
But sleep would not come to the young woman. Tired beyond words, her mind numb, Becky simply lay there, staring at the popcorn paint ceiling of the darkened hotel room. She could hear the hum of the air conditioning units in the other rooms, but shed been unable to get warm since her shower, and had no desire to make a chilly situation worse. Doors slammed and cars came and went in the parking lot. Hushed voices and footsteps would pass outside her door, but eventually they too, fell silent.
Great. All of Maine is asleep but me. Again, Becky felt a tightening in her throat, the moist drop of a tear forming at the corner of her eye. Great. Just great!
The young blonde snuffled at her nose and rolled over on her side, cursing her rotten luck.
No. It couldnt be.
Becky bolted upright in bed, listening.
There it was again, a light knocking on her door.
Throwing off her bedcovers, Becky flew to the peephole. A bright blue eye, attached to tanned, smooth skin, stared back at her.
Becky threw a hand over her mouth to stifle a cry. Of relief? Of Joy? She could not put a name to it. She only knew that she needed Kate badly.
She fumbled with the lock on her door and threw it open. In one swift movement, the pilot slipped inside and took Rebecca up in her arms, holding her, kissing her with a desperate, heated passion that dried the smaller womans tears, and set her ardor aflame.
Wordlessly, Kate moved her to the bed, pushing her down upon it, and Becky welcomed the invasion; embraced the forceful, knowing caresses of a woman she had no desire to be separated from, not ever, and not on this night, most of all.
Their joining was quick, frantic, each of them driving the other onward, needful of the life-affirming, explosive energy of it all. They pushed closer and closer to their limits, electrified by the touch of skin on skin, of tongues meeting flesh; teasing, biting, dominating, and then withdrawing. When Becky thought she could stand it no more, when she feared that she might be driven insane for want of her release, she heard a distant cry that she recognized as her own. It was the only sound in that darkened room, followed immediately by the feel of Kate joining her in that sweet deliverance. The pilots body shuddered, silently, and then went still; and then there was nothing save for the wild beating of two hearts, and the heaving, gulping breaths of two souls that would not be divided.
Rebecca fell asleep soon after, her consciousness at last willing to discard its grasp on the horrors of the day, content in the knowledge she was held fast and safe by the warm, protective arms that encircled her.
As the flight attendants eyes slipped shut, as her breathing became deep and even, two blue eyes continued to stare into the night. Watchful. Alert.
Later, when the first rays of dawn tickled the dusty window blinds of Beckys room, when the songbirds of the northern woods chirruped to greet the new day, a persistent, lingering chill once again crept into the young blondes tired bones, fingering the base of her skull.
And she awoke.
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