Chapter One

Monday, June 21

Juneau, Alaska

 

At 2:29 a.m., the outside temperature at the Juneau International Airport was forty-nine degrees. The cold air was heavy with the scent of hemlock and spruce trees standing like a battalion of soldiers at parade rest just across the shrubby field. The Mechanic walked across the wet tarmac, picked the lock at hangar number 3, and slid open the gray metal door just enough to squeeze through. Closing the door behind him, he flipped on his infrared goggles and headed for the yellow single-engine eight-passenger de Havilland Otter, tail number 2774. He moved to the front of the plane, lifted the engine cover, and smiled. This was going to be the easiest two hundred grand he ever made. He slipped back out of the hangar, carefully closing and locking the metal door behind him, then made his way back across the field and down the access road to the black Suzuki motorcycle hidden just inside the dense tree line. He was already spending the money in his head as he drove past the private charter hangar on the east side of the airport.

 

v

 

Cleveland, Ohio

 

Rain pelted against the conference room window as Rachel Portola watched the tops of the trees bending from the gale-force winds. The cannonade of thunder rumbled between the flashes of lightning in the thick charcoal-colored clouds, the sound vibrating off the walls.

Justin seemed to match the storm as he moved toward her, raising his voice, slapping his hands on the conference table and leaning in, his knuckles white as he pushed against the table.

Rachel was sick of it. She had had enough. His attempts at intimidation were getting ridiculous. He was the division director, acting like a six-year-old throwing a tantrum because his momma told him to eat his vegetables. She leaned in, put her hands on the table, and raised her voice. “I know exactly what the program can do, Justin. I’m the one that redesigned it. And I’m telling you, you simply can’t reprogram SECO back to its original configuration.”

She knew the program had global potential to alter how corporations dealt with secure information, and she knew Justin knew it. SECO was designed to automatically encase and protect sensitive data within a computer system in the event of an unauthorized attempt to breach the system, then trace back to detect the origin of the attempted cyberattack.

The project had been in shambles under Justin, but after two years of her leadership, SECO—secure environment for computer operations—was now almost complete, in spite of the fact that the closer she got to final completion, the more Justin’s emotional outbursts intensified. She saw through his attempts to sabotage the project. He was a jealous, self-serving tyrant, who became more unstable as the weeks went by.

He looked down at the table, stood up straight, and shoved the report back over the table at her. “I think it’s not going to work, but you are the head design engineer on this project, and it’s going to be your ass when it all comes crashing down on you.”

She’d give anything to slap that smug look off his face—just once. “I know the program, Justin. It can handle the changes and do what it’s designed to do.” She refused to back down, feeling her muscles tense and her heart rate increase. Sooner or later she knew they would be facing each other in some sort of major confrontation. It was just a matter of time.

Justin left the room, slamming the door behind him. She couldn’t tell if he had actually retreated or was just biding his time before changing his plan of attack.

 

v

 

The gray evening overcast continued to brood on the Cleveland skyline as Justin entered A.J. Henson’s fourth-floor office and closed the door behind him. He sat down heavily in one of the cushioned armchairs across from A.J.’s desk and glowered.

He watched as A.J. looked back, lifting his hands in the air.

“What now?” A.J. demanded.

“I thought you said there wouldn’t be any problems with the switchover,” Justin said.

“I did. She won’t know the difference. All you have to do is start the sequence by seven tonight.”

Justin folded his arms tightly across his chest and looked at his wristwatch. “Well, that’s not going to happen. She’s still working, and she just changed her access code.”

“She’ll leave, relax,” A.J. said, turning his monitor on.

Justin continued to glower, his eyes narrowing as he strained to look at A.J.’s computer screen. He watched A.J. as he took a deep breath and swung the computer screen around to him.

“See? She’s off-line. She’ll be out of the building in ten minutes, and you’ll still have plenty of time to get the new code and start the sequencing,” said A.J.

“Once she leaves on Friday for her vacation, we can get into the final sequencing, replace the paperwork and program with the fake ones, and then I can get the hell out of here. We should hear something about her missing plane by Saturday afternoon,” said Justin.

A.J. put his hand up. “I don’t want to know the details, Justin. I gave you what you needed—the rest is your business. I don’t want to see you in my office again. Stay on your own floor. And don’t think you can intimidate me with your shark eyes.”

He shifted in his chair when Justin looked back at him. Justin knew A.J. didn’t want him around him, but he also knew A.J. desperately needed the money they both would get from stealing the SECO program. He knew A.J. viewed him as a circling predator waiting for the right moment to attack. Justin smiled as he heard A.J. breathe out a sigh of relief as he started to leave his office. He looked back, seeing A.J.’s face moist with nervous sweat and that his glasses had slipped down to the end of his nose.

“Don’t kid yourself, A.J. You’re already in this up to your fat ass.”

Justin smelled blood in the water.

 

v

 

Tuesday, June 22

 

Rachel’s alarm went off, breaking the relief from what little sleep she had managed to get. She put the pillow against the headboard and leaned back, hearing more rain beating against the windows, feeling her head throb to the rhythm of her heartbeat, another restless night, another night of disturbing dreams. She reached for the Tylenol on the nightstand and popped two into her mouth, washing them down with the lukewarm glass of water leftover from the night before. She was sick of making herself get up, sick of making herself face another day, and sick of Cleveland. The only thing that made Cleveland bearable was living near her best friend, Claire Davenport.

She showered, wrapped a towel around herself, and sat down at the makeup table, flipping on the mirror and rooting through the nest of makeup. She held up the eyebrow pencil, staring at it as she replayed the argument with Justin the day before. She knew unless she did something, the situation was never going to change. She liked her job at Henson Corporation and didn’t want to leave, but she couldn’t bear the thought of dealing with Justin once the SECO project ended. She didn’t trust him. She hadn’t told him the project was essentially done, or that she had embedded a special trigger into the program that would corrupt any operating system using it, unless the trigger was disabled by the deactivation code, which only she knew.

When she reached her psychologist’s office, the rain had finally stopped, but a gray shroud of mist still hung over the morning. The secretary smiled as Rachel entered the small waiting area.

“Good morning, Ms. Portola. Dr. Montgomery will be ready for you in just a few minutes.”

Rachel nodded and sat down in one of the blue-cushioned chairs. Betsy Montgomery had praised her for coming in when she did and said it took courage. Rachel didn’t know if she had courage; all she knew she had was progressing insomnia and mental anguish. Her mouth was dry, and her palms were slightly moist. She didn’t like talking about her life and her feelings, but somehow it was helping, and she knew it wouldn’t get better unless she faced what she had to. She could feel her anxiety increase as she stared down at the carpet, tensing her hands together, sensing it was time.

Betsy opened her office door, stepped out, and greeted Rachel, motioning for her to come in. They took their usual seats: Betsy in the wingback chair and Rachel on the overstuffed sofa directly across from her.

Rachel felt her stomach churn as she sat stiffly, forcing herself to breathe deeply. She didn’t want to go through this emotional roller coaster. Betsy asked her how she was sleeping.

“A little better, but still not sleeping through the night.”

“Rachel, how are you feeling about Alex this week?”

Rachel shifted in her seat and clasped her hands. “I think I feel better about him. I regret we were headed for a divorce and that we argued the day of the car accident. I wish so much the last day could have been different, but I can’t change any of it. It’s been two years since it happened. I’m sure time has made a difference, and perhaps because we were on the verge of divorce and not as close as we once were.”

She began to cry and pulled a tissue out of the box on the table beside her. “I hate this. I hate that I cry every time I come in here.”

Betsy smiled. “Rachel, think of it as washing the pain away.”

“I miss him.” She looked out the office window. “I ache for his hugs, his laughter. My arms are empty and…” She stopped herself, unable to bear the pain, looking down at her hands, unlocking them and slowly rubbing her palms together. “Alex and I didn’t say good-bye that morning, and then he walked out the door and I never saw him again. I realize tragedy just happens and that our argument didn’t have anything to do with the car accident. The accident wasn’t his fault and there was nothing he could have done to prevent it. I think I’m finally okay about it, at least more than I have ever been.”

“That’s great progress, Rachel,” Betsy said.

Rachel could feel the other things she knew she needed to talk about pushing their way to the surface, feelings that would not be denied any longer, finally clawing their way to the forefront, trying to break out, things that were causing the recent increased anxiety and depression. They were coming out in her dreams, especially her feelings about her childhood and Claire. They seemed to be meshed together, distorted like someone had taken a palette knife and smeared the colors on a canvas so you could no longer distinguish the tones or hues.

Betsy stayed quiet, looking at her.

She knew Betsy was waiting for her to talk about what was below the surface, why she still couldn’t sleep, and what was causing the dreams. Her knees began to tremble. Fear reached in and wrapped its gnarled claws around her mind, squeezing like a vise. She clenched her hands and forced herself to speak, looking down, unable to make eye contact with Betsy. “I feel so much better about Alex, but there’s more I know I need to talk about.”

Betsy reached over and touched her trembling knees. “Sometimes we reach an emotional crisis in our life because it’s time for growth, and in the end, that can be a very positive, healthy thing. The crisis brings a crossroads, and there is always conflict, anxiety, and pain associated with it because the unknown comes into play and it’s scary. It’s okay, Rachel, there’s no hurry. I want you to take your time about this. Don’t rush through this. What are your fears?”

Rachel thought about the question and then looked intently at Betsy. “If I say it out loud, then it makes it real. What if I won’t be able to handle it once it all comes out, or I lose control?”

“Rachel, you have handled it for years. You just need some skills and a little help to work through it and put it in its proper place. Whatever happened is in the past. You don’t have to carry it with you—you can let go of it. And as far as losing control is concerned, it’s highly underrated. Some of our most important experiences happen when things go south, and we lose control. Once you work through the feelings of fear you have, you are going to feel a whole lot better, I promise.”

Rachel swallowed and looked down again. Not making eye contact somehow made it easier. “My tribal heritage is the most eastern band in Arizona. I told you a couple of months ago that my mother was Indian, and my father was white, but what I didn’t tell you was that he was a drunk who abused her.” Rachel felt like she wanted to vomit. The vivid scenes of her father beating her mother came into her mind, but she forced herself to continue, grabbing her knees with both hands. The familiar feelings of self-loathing forced their way in—she hadn’t done anything about it. She had stood by and watched, too scared, too weak, too…She forced herself to stop the thoughts.

Betsy leaned forward and said softly, “Deep breaths, Rachel.”

“My mother died when I was nine—supposedly my father found her out behind our trailer, entangled in the clotheslines. Authorities ruled it an accident and never investigated any further. They didn’t do anything, not one thing. It was as if the police, law enforcement, anyone with any kind of authority just didn’t care. I thought he killed her—and I wanted to kill him.”

She made herself look up, as if facing a reckoning, requiring herself to take accountability for what she had just said. Meeting Betsy’s soft blue eyes, seeing comfort and no judgment, she found strength to continue. “My Native American grandfather pressured my father to put me into foster care, and a family in Tucson took me in, but I felt like I didn’t belong anywhere.

“Six months after my mother died, my father died. He was hunting on the reservation with my mother’s family up in the mountains and slipped and fell over a cliff. I know now my grandfather and uncles avenged my mother. Nothing was ever said to me, and no one ever spoke about it. We had his funeral and moved on. I was glad he was dead. I spent my summers with my grandfather on the reservation. I found acceptance and comfort in the mountains and with my grandfather. He taught me how to defend myself, fish, hunt, and live off the land. I became skilled at survival and would go off for days by myself. My grandfather often told me I was the most skilled of all The People. He died four summers later, and I never returned to the reservation. My foster family and tribal leaders encouraged me to go back, but I couldn’t face going there without being with my grandfather. He was all I had left.” She paused, tears flowing down her face. “I convinced myself I didn’t need to talk to anyone about what happened in my childhood, even though I continued to have nightmares and occasionally had to fight off panic attacks.”

And now she was finally ready to talk about the living. She took a breath, gasping for air as if coming up out of the water after someone had held her down until her lungs would explode. She wiped her tears and looked straight at Betsy, pressing into the floor with the toes of her high heels, as though backing onto the edge of a cliff, determined to push herself off. “I met Claire Davenport in our sophomore year of college when Claire transferred to Arizona State from back east. She saved my life that year. I had been drinking pretty heavily for a couple of years. I suppose trying to cope with all the things in my life. It got to the point where I was almost ready to drop out of school, but Claire stood by me, helped me get control, and helped me stop drinking.” Rachel’s fingers tightened into her thighs. She hesitated, stumbling to find the words. Fear was surfacing again, grabbing ahold of her and dragging her over the cliff and down into that murky emotional pit. She could feel herself trembling and her voice weakening, but she forced herself to go on. “Lately, I’ve been having dreams about Claire. One in particular I’ve had more than twice. Claire and I are in a room. There are people off in the distance, mingling, talking, and standing around. She is ready to leave, and I want to go with her, but I can’t find my purse. Every time I think I know where it is, when I go to get it, it’s gone. She starts to leave, and I panic. I want desperately to go with her, but I can’t leave because I can’t find my purse, and then the dream ends.”

“Recurring dreams are often significant, Rachel. What do you think the dream means?”

Tears began to flow again. Shaking her head, Rachel put her hand up to her mouth and then repositioned herself on the sofa. She looked down at her skirt. Silence filled the room like a ghost at a séance. She took a deep full breath and pulled another tissue from the box, wiped her tears, placed her hands in her lap, looked at Betsy for a long moment—and then broke down and sobbed.

Betsy moved beside her on the sofa and placed her hand over hers. They sat in silence until Rachel regained her composure. They talked about survivor’s guilt and the tendency of children to blame themselves—the if-only syndrome. If only I had screamed louder. If only I had told someone sooner. If only I had done something more or something different.

Rachel scheduled another appointment for two weeks and walked out of Betsy’s office, beginning to feel a relief from despair, seeing a light at the end of a tunnel and finally feeling like it wasn’t a train coming straight at her. She drove to work, fighting the morning traffic.

 

Chapter Two

Justin couldn’t eat breakfast. His hands shook slightly, he felt nauseated, and he had a pounding headache. The dreams were back, the vivid memories, which lingered like a plate full of unwanted stinking fish someone shoved in his face and insisted, Here, eat this. He tried to push it out, but it was there now. He was ten years old and on the playground at school. The other boy on the swing wouldn’t stop swinging and give him a turn. Justin got mad and told him his turn was over. The boy laughed at him, but finally stopped and got off the swing. As he started to walk away, Justin grabbed the swing and brought it toward himself, drawing the swing higher, and then suddenly pushed it forward as hard as he could toward the boy, striking him at the base of his skull, catching the swing as it returned. The boy fell quiet and was still. Justin screamed at the boy to get up, but he wouldn’t. He just lay there like one of the mannequins at the clothes store. The teacher came, and then more adults. The ambulance came, and two men put a cover over the body, then took it away. Justin’s parents cried but not one tear from Justin.

They moved to Cleveland. A year later his parents bought him a brown Labrador puppy to play with, but he thought it was funny when he woke the dog up every time he found him sleeping, and the dog would jump or whimper. He took it for a walk one evening and threw it over a cliff, hearing an odd thump when it hit the rocks below. Later that evening, when he came back without the dog, he told his mother the dog ran off and he couldn’t find it. He didn’t have any more animals.

He didn’t like to date, but in his senior year in high school he began enjoying prostitutes, and then in college any extra money he could get was spent on prostitutes and gambling.

He graduated from Cleveland State University with a master’s degree in computer engineering, and then spent three years in low-level jobs and five years at a programing job in Detroit. Detroit…he immediately pushed hard to get rid of the memory of that dark, cold winter night in January. He could feel the warmth of her body as he put his hand around her neck and squeezed. He felt her struggle to breathe as she gasped. She was a prostitute—no one even missed her, just a couple of paragraphs in the local paper that her body had been found in the alley next to her apartment where he had dragged her.

He landed a job at the Henson Corporation back in Cleveland. He liked it and thought he was doing well working his way up the ladder, but then Rachel Portola arrived and everything went downhill. He hated that bitch. She ruined everything he had going for himself, everything he had worked for. A.J. Henson thought more of her, the employees in his division started going to her when there were problems, and before he knew it, she was taking over the SECO project. It was the last degradation he could take. He decided he needed to get rid of her and thought for a long time about the best way to do it, but then realized, once she made the breakthrough on SECO, he could get a twofer—he could get rid of her and steal the SECO project. The program was worth at least $300 million to any major corporation in the world—she had no idea how much it was worth.

He tried to get into the program four different times but couldn’t get through her firewalls or security protocols. He knew he needed help, so he watched A.J. for months until he found his weaknesses. He found out he liked to take some of the company’s income and invest it before he reported it, and then put the money back, keeping the interest from the investments. He also found out A.J. had two offshore accounts he didn’t report or pay the taxes he should have paid. All of that information had been very valuable when he approached A.J. six months ago. Justin needed A.J.’s money and his international connections, and he was going to give them to him or suffer the consequences. Andrew J. Henson, good ol’ A.J., caved like a cheap canvas tent in a gust of wind.

His temples throbbed. It was practically done anyway, so why worry about it now? The arrangements were already set in motion. He was the one with the power now, not that half-breed, self-righteous, skinny bitch. He was the one who should have gotten credit for the project in the first place. He knew within six months of her starting the project that she would get past what the others couldn’t. All he had to do was sit back patiently, watching, waiting for the right time, and then he discovered her vacation plans. Rachel had made the arrangements, through the corporate travel agent Lisa Alexander, to take a six-day vacation with three of her friends near Sitka, Alaska. Justin frowned, thinking about Lisa. The sex hadn’t been worth it, and he’d had to pay a lot of money to get the travel information.

He doubled down on the arrangements to assure Rachel’s plane would not make it to Fauler’s Landing. The charter pilot for their trip to Sitka took a $21,000 bribe, agreeing to fly an unscheduled flight path to pick up some illegal Alaskan artifacts—at least that’s what he was told.

The real expense, his ace in the hole, was The Mechanic. A.J. gave Justin the name of an Asian contact who gave him The Mechanic’s phone number. They arranged a meeting at a Cleveland Indians home game. Justin felt confident this guy could get the job done. He guaranteed his work and assured Justin the plane would crash. Justin had to pay him $200,000 in advance. Giving him the money before the job was done was not something Justin wanted to do, but that was the risk of doing business. If they survived the crash, search and rescue would never find the four women because they would be looking in the area of the scheduled flight path, not the one the plane actually flew.

Justin thought it wasn’t that hard to have someone killed, a lot easier than killing them yourself. You made plans, made some calls, paid some money, and it was done. He felt bad other people would die because of Rachel Portola, but it wasn’t his fault. That’s just the way it turned out. She was the one who chose the vacation, not him, and she chose to go with her friends. It was the only way he could get rid of her—that was just the way it was.

He grabbed a cup from the overhead cupboard and waited for the coffee to finish.

 

v

 

The weather finally cleared in late evening. Rachel stood with her arms folded, looking out her third-floor corner office window, watching the sun’s evening glow break through the lighter gray and lavender clouds just to the southwest. She felt emotionally and physically exhausted from the morning’s session with Betsy, but she felt better.

SECO was essentially completed. She would give the final plans to her secretary tomorrow, and she was confident she’d be able to leave the company soon. The program development was exciting, she liked her job, but it just wasn’t worth what she had to go through to constantly deal with Justin. The only real thing holding her in Ohio now was Claire.

She sighed heavily as she surveyed the skyline again. She missed the West and needed sunshine, certainly more than Cleveland could offer. She could see her own reflection in the tinted glass as the sun began to set. Tonight, she didn’t look thirty-three. Tonight, she looked tired, worn out, and drained. She stood staring down at the streets below, bulging with cars and people. Something had to change—she couldn’t live like this much longer.

v

 

Wednesday, June 23

 

Rachel met Claire in late afternoon at the Huntington Golf Club for their weekly round of golf. Claire grew more concerned as Rachel told her she thought Justin was slowly losing his grip on reality.

“He gives me the creeps, Claire. I’m not kidding. I wouldn’t be surprised to see him show up one day at work with an automatic weapon and start shooting anyone he saw.”

“Rachel, you have years of training and experience as a survivalist and in self-defense, and you could take him out in a physical altercation in a New York minute, but you have to tell someone what’s going on.”

“Who? No one ever does anything about it. I have complained to Andrew many times, but I get no response, and to go to the police would just be a total waste of time. I can take care of myself.”

“Not against an automatic weapon, you can’t.” Claire frowned.

The sun finally broke through the clouds as Claire watched Rachel tee off the par four hole, slicing the ball again, landing it about four yards in front of the second sand trap.

“A bold strategy there, Ms. Portola,” Claire said, laughing, barely able to see Rachel’s ball.

Rachel smiled, but Claire could see the deep stress in her face.

“How’d the therapy session go?” Claire asked.

“Good—hard, but good. I feel better. It’s helping.”

Claire stepped up to the tee, set her ball up, and took her two slow practice swings, eyeing the fairway like she always did. She looked at Rachel and then back to the fairway. “Rach, why don’t you just leave the company? Justin is an ass and he makes me nervous for you. Besides, you’re too valuable to be stuffed away in that shitty environment.” She reset her position, took a full swing, and drove the ball straight down the middle of the fairway 226 yards, ending up about 50 yards farther than Rachel, with a straight shot 125 yards into the green.

Rachel’s mouth dropped open. “Why don’t you hit the ball, Claire?”

Claire smiled and moved up to Rachel, putting her arm around her as they walked toward the golf cart, instantly feeling the rich, warm comfort of being close to her. “It’s not good for you, Rachel. I mean it—why don’t you leave? You’ve been through so much. You don’t need this crap in your life.”

Claire felt suddenly overwhelmed at the thought of Rachel not living close to her. She couldn’t imagine her life without Rachel in it but wanted what was best for her, and she knew Rachel wasn’t happy living in Cleveland. She looked at Rachel, thinking perhaps it was the best thing for both of them if Rachel moved away. It seemed like the closer they were, the more complicated their relationship became, but the thought of Rachel not being close by was almost unbearable. They had been there for each other through death, divorce, and everything in between.

She stopped the cart even with Rachel’s ball, watching Rachel as she slowly got out. Graceful and athletic, Rachel was a shade taller than her own five foot seven. “You know, Rachel, we wear the same size, but you somehow always manage to look better in your clothes than I do in mine.”

Rachel walked by and touched her face. “Claire, that’s so not true. You are gorgeous.”

When Rachel touched her and looked into her eyes, Claire felt the familiar emotions of need and desire and want stirring deep within her. She continued to watch Rachel walk to her ball and then stare at it for a long time, as if deep in thought. “Hey, Rach, you have to hit the ball to get it to move,” Claire teased.

Rachel smiled and looked back at her. “I can’t wait to get away from here. Any chance you three are going to change your minds, and we’re going to Hawaii or Tahiti instead of Alaska?”

“No chance,” Claire said, laughing. “It’s going to be great—you’ll see. Spa every day, massages, walks, anything you want to eat, fire at night. No sweating in the hot sun. When you get into that Jacuzzi, you are going to feel like a hot-fudge sundae—cold on the outside and warm on the inside. You’ll love it. I’m going to win you over about it, and you’re going to feel bad about dragging your feet.”

“Have you heard from Sarah and Tilly?” Rachel asked.

“Yes, I talked to them last night. They’ll meet us at Cleveland Hopkins.”

Rachel set up her angle, changed her club to a five-wood tight lie, and nailed the ball up over the maple tree, bouncing twelve yards in front of the green, and rolling onto the green about seven feet from the pin.

“Nice recovery, Rachel,” Claire yelled back as she walked to her ball. “Time for trash talk,” she said under her breath.

Claire stopped the cart even with the next tee box.

“Claire, are you sure Fauler’s Landing in Sitka is where we should be going? Tahiti is a much better climate.”

Claire laughed. “Yes, Rachel, I’m sure. I haven’t had a real break in almost a year. I need this so badly. I know Sarah, Tilly, and I talked you into this, and I know you caved in to peer pressure, but honestly, you’re going to like this. It’s just what you need.”

It had taken six months to coordinate all their schedules. Her pottery business kept her busy, making it hard for her to take time off. Rachel was always working long hours. Tilly’s calendar was the hardest because she was booked solid. Matilda Ruth Evans—Tilly—was singing at one of the clubs in downtown Cleveland and was also traveling back and forth to Chicago and Las Vegas. Sarah’s schedule was the easiest because it was routine, three twelve-hour shifts per week at Cleveland Metro Hospital as a surgical nurse. Her husband Ricky said he and their fourteen-year-old son Tommy would hang out and have some guy time for a few days while she went.

She’d been friends with Sarah and Tilly since she was nine and her family moved from Syracuse, New York, to the Cleveland area. Rachel had become friends with Sarah and Tilly through Claire’s friendship, and they all did things together, especially since Rachel had moved to Cleveland for her job. They were not able to get together as often as they would have liked because of everyone’s busy lives, but they decided they needed this vacation and were excited to get to spend it together and take the time to relax.

Claire was ready to talk to Rachel about how she felt about her, and although Rachel had never discussed her feelings, Claire sensed her need also, but she knew Rachel needed time. She was emotionally vulnerable right now, and Claire didn’t want to push her or add any stress to her life. She hoped this vacation was the opportunity they both needed. She felt the growing attraction between them getting stronger. She wanted to get it settled between them, even though she was afraid she might lose Rachel’s friendship and companionship. Rachel’s friendship was everything to her, and she desperately needed her in her life.

 

Chapter Three

Saturday, June 26

 

The Mechanic reentered hangar number 3 at two a.m., feeling his heart rate and breathing increase. Go time, and he always loved the challenge of the job.

“Come to Papa,” he whispered when he saw the de Havilland.

He sat the small tool bag down on the cement floor beside the airplane and slipped off his leather gloves, eyeing the plane. He used his bare hands—no gloves. He enjoyed the feel of his touch on the engine and wires, knowing he was controlling the plane and its passengers’ destinies. He knew there were increased risks because he didn’t wear gloves when he worked, but if he wore gloves, where would the challenge be? And besides that, it would take all the fun out of it. He methodically and skillfully manipulated the yellow plane’s engine and wiring, then replaced the cover, carefully wiped his fingerprints, put his gloves back on, picked up the small bag of tools, and left the hangar.

He knew the CIA had a dossier on him, but he also knew they didn’t have very much, and frankly, he just didn’t care. They were idiots, pencil pushers who were obsessed with evidence or uptight jocks that would blunder any crime scene to make a name for themselves.

Unfortunately, in spite of their inept investigations at any given crime scene, they were able to recover enough of his blood to map his DNA, but that was the only physical evidence they had of him. They only got it because he ripped up his knuckle on a jagged engine bolt when he rigged an EC120 four-passenger helicopter engine to fail twenty minutes after takeoff, killing the pilot and all three of the South Korean corporate executives onboard. It had been one of his best jobs; unfortunately, it was also the only job that produced any physical evidence against him.

He again retraced his path, making his way back to the motorcycle—another quality job completed.

 

v

 

Rachel, Claire, Sarah, and Tilly flew into Juneau and spent Friday night in their hotel rooms, too exhausted to go out. They took off Saturday morning in the eight-passenger yellow single-engine de Havilland DHC-3 Otter, tail number 2774.

Jimmy Davis, the pilot, turned to talk to the women ten minutes after takeoff. Rachel thought he acted nervous. He informed them he had to make a stop but would get them to Sitka with only about a two-hour delay. What could they do? They were already in the plane and flying.

One and a half hours into the flight, Rachel suddenly heard an odd sound in the engine. Claire, who was seated by a window across the aisle and to the left of Rachel, sat bolt upright.

“Rachel!” she yelled out, squeezing the right armrest in a grip so tight, her tendons stood out beneath her skin.

Rachel immediately heard the fear in her voice and felt the change in the motion of the plane as the engine sputtered several times. She grabbed the left armrest to steady herself as the engine suddenly cut out, sending the plane into a dive, listing right, forcing a collective gasp from everyone on the plane, including Frank Nash, the male passenger in the front seat next to the pilot. The yellow de Havilland’s engine revved and the plane banked deeply to the right, continuing off course for several more minutes as the pilot desperately tried to get the plane under control. Rachel heard Sarah shout into her cell phone, “Call Ricky,” and then heard her cuss.

The engine began to run smoothly again in what seemed like minutes but was actually only three seconds. Everyone gasped in relief. Rachel hesitantly glanced out the small window on her right, seeing the rugged Alaskan mountain range getting alarmingly closer. As the plane gained altitude and leveled off, the engine suddenly began to sputter again.

Rachel clutched the armrest, looked over at Claire, and then watched as the pilot made three more quick futile attempts to correct the problem, but then the engine began to sputter more rapidly. More altitude was lost, and Rachel knew it was only a matter of seconds before the plane went down.

Rachel looked over at Claire. Claire turned toward her, her tear-filled eyes fixed on her.

“Rachel,” Claire said, barely audible.

Rachel saw Tilly out of the corner of her eye as Tilly screamed, clasped her hands together, and called out, “Oh God, help us.”

Rachel wanted to get to Claire, but they were out of time.

Sarah cried out for her husband one last time into her cell phone.

Jimmy ordered them to pull their seat belts as tight as they could. More precious seconds went by, then suddenly, the engine cut out completely, immediately sending the plane into a dive, dropping the plane closer to the foreboding mountain range. He shouted for everyone to hang on as Frank spat out foul curse words, demanding Jimmy get the plane under control.

“I’m going to send a Mayday,” Jimmy shouted, but just as he touched the button to activate the microphone, the plane veered to the left, barely missing the crest of a large grouping of pine trees at the top of the mountain range. He managed to get the plane into a glide path as it dropped lower, but the front dropped too quickly, striking treetops, shearing the right wing, and bringing the plane down into the mountain range.

The last thing Rachel was conscious of was being thrown forward to her right against the side of the arm of the seat as she caught a glimpse of Sarah’s shoulders being thrown forward toward the back of the pilot’s seat.

 

v

 

In the distance Rachel heard the faint muffled voice of someone but couldn’t make out who was calling her name from far away. Claire?

“Rachel, Rach, wake up. Oh God, wake up.”

Rachel heard Claire calling to her. She felt the pressure and sound of wind rushing through her ears and heard herself moan as she regained consciousness. The right side of her body felt like someone stuck her with a red-hot poker and then rammed it further up into her side; searing pain and nausea swept over her as she struggled to breathe. Finally becoming fully aware of her surroundings, she looked over at Claire to her left, facing her. Claire was slumped in the seat, blood running down her face from the deep gash on the left side of her head, near her hairline. Rachel could tell Claire’s left hand was broken by the way she was holding it.

Claire called out again, “Rachel?”

Rachel labored to speak. “I think my ribs are broken. What about you?”

“I think I’m okay, but I’m not sure. I can’t see Sarah and Tilly. Where are they?” Claire asked.

“Do you think anything else is broken besides your hand?” Rachel asked, watching Claire frantically search the cabin for Sarah and Tilly.

Claire winced as she moved her broken hand, resting it in her other hand. “I don’t think so. I just hurt all over and my head hurts.”

A haze of dust covered the inside of the plane as the smell of fuel, dirt, metal, and burnt rubber filled the air. From what Rachel could tell from her seat, looking out the windows, the plane had wedged itself between boulders when it finally came to a stop. The front end was obliterated; both wings were sheared off except for about a three-foot section on the right side, and the body of the plane was tilted slightly up and to the right.

“Claire.” The hot searing pain surged up into Rachel’s side as she tried to speak louder to get Claire’s attention. “Claire, take that neck pillow down there on the floor and press it against your head. You have a bad cut on the left side of your head.”

Rachel unbuckled her seat belt, painfully lifted herself up, and moved to Claire’s seat, helping her unbuckle her seat belt. “I smell fuel, Claire. We have to get out of the plane.”

Once Rachel stood up, she could see Sarah and Tilly. They were alive. Sarah was moving to try to get out of her seat to help Tilly, whose right upper thigh was covered in blood.

“Sarah and Tilly made it,” Rachel told Claire, supporting herself on the back of the seats and struggling two seats forward toward them.

Rachel could see the blood where Claire had been thrown forward and left, hitting the window frame with the left side of her head. Tilly, who was seated in front directly behind Frank, had also been thrown forward. The pilot’s seat belt and harness anchor had been severed by a piece of metal from the plane, which threw him into the left side of the plane’s windshield, probably breaking his neck and killing him on impact. Frank had been thrown into the instrument panel.

Deep searing pain shot through Rachel’s right side again and up into her chest. She could see Frank pinned in the copilot’s seat. He was lying against the upper right side of the plane still cussing, groaning, and pleading for the women not to leave him and help him get out. His coat was unzipped, and his torn light blue shirt and the top part of his tan pants were soaked in bright red blood. A large piece of what looked like yellow painted metal trim from the plane’s dash was impaled in the lower left part of his abdomen.

She continued to make her way forward toward Tilly, Sarah, and the two men, trying to catch her breath and speak in spite of the pain in her ribs.

“We have to get out of here—fuel is all over,” she told Sarah.

Sarah looked up but didn’t speak.

“Where are you hurt?” Rachel asked.

Sarah looked into the cockpit and then to Rachel, holding her thigh. “My left thigh has a big gash, it’s hard to breathe, but I don’t think anything is broken.”

Rachel looked down at Sarah’s face. “I think your nose is broken.”

Sarah gently moved her hand to her face and felt her nose. “Tilly has some deep cuts in her right arm and leg. She’s pretty beat up, but I think I can get the bleeding slowed down,” she said.

Sarah grabbed her scarf from her coat, went to Tilly, and wrapped the scarf tightly around Tilly’s right thigh as Tilly fumbled to unlock her seat belt.

Frank moaned again, cussing.

Rachel painfully continued to inch her way forward toward him. Sarah caught her attention, shaking her head slowly, looking over at the dead pilot and then back to Frank. Sarah’s meaning was clear. If Frank didn’t die before Rachel could reach him, he soon would. Rachel made her way to the injured man and lifted his torn shirt, pulling it away from the metal so she could see more clearly.

Frank looked up with desperate panic and fear, grabbing Rachel’s right arm. She winced and gritted her teeth as the pain shot up through her arm.

“I’m on fire,” he gasped.

Rachel tried to move closer to him. His right leg was pinned under the middle of the console and under what was left of the radio panel. She could see into the muscle and the pieces of bone from his badly fractured leg, but it was obvious the injury in his abdomen was the one that was fatal. It was just a matter of seconds now before he bled out. Sarah was the nurse, but she was busy trying to control the bleeding in Tilly’s leg and stop the bleeding in her own leg. Rachel tried not to react to what she saw.

Trying to comfort him and do what she could, she reached out and touched his shoulder. “It’s okay. We aren’t leaving you. We’re here. You aren’t alone.” Rachel knew she was saying her last words to this dying man she didn’t know.

He tightened his grip on her arm and the pain surged again up through her body. It was then she saw the blood dripping down her right forearm and the large jagged cut about three inches long near her elbow. As she looked back at Frank, his eyes lost focus and he began to choke, blood spewing from his mouth as he tried desperately to speak, but his words were inaudible, making only a gurgling sound. He struggled to inhale, but then suddenly exhaled and stopped breathing. She watched helplessly as the color quickly drained from his face. His hand, which was still clinging to her forearm, suddenly relaxed. She gently took his hand from her arm and put it in his lap. A hot flood of tears filled her eyes as she tried to see her way back to Claire. She wanted to cry. She needed to cry but knew she couldn’t, not now. She quickly wiped the tears from her eyes with the back of her left hand and gritted her teeth. Stay focused, stay focused. She inched her way back toward Claire as another surge of pain shot through her side. She could feel her heartbeat in her throat and felt herself weaken as she staggered and began to pass out. She felt Sarah grab her and guide her down onto one of the cushioned seats.

“Easy, Rachel, take a second, it’s okay. Breathe as deeply as you can,” Sarah told her.

Rachel focused on Sarah’s voice as she stared off into the opening on the right side of the plane. All she could see were rocks and trees and pain. She looked down at her right arm and saw more blood dripping from the jagged, fleshy wound. “Where’s my carry-on bag?” she asked, looking back toward Claire.

She told Sarah that Claire had a broken hand and a bad cut on the side of her head. “I think my ribs are broken,” she said.

Sarah patted Rachel’s left knee. “We’re alive. God knows I don’t know how, but we’re alive.”

“We have got to get out of here, Sarah. Grab what you can, and let’s get out and find a safe place,” Rachel said.

Sarah looked down at Rachel’s arm and then over again at Tilly. “I agree, but we need to get ourselves together a little more. It’s okay. We have a few minutes. We need to get something around your arm to slow the bleeding.”

Sarah made Rachel stay seated as she pulled herself up and moved back to Claire. The overwhelming pungent smell of fuel from what was left of the plane’s wing was nauseating and filled the plane.

Rachel sat motionless and watched as Sarah helped Claire.

“We’ve got to get out, Claire,” Sarah told her.

Claire nodded and struggled to get out of her seat. “My head is pounding and I feel dizzy.” She threw the bloody pillow down on the floor, pulled herself up by grabbing the back of the seat with her right hand, but cried out in pain. “My hand. I can’t, Sarah,” she said, starting to collapse.

Sarah grabbed her with her right arm, supporting her body. “Come on, Claire, you can do this, push with your legs.”

They staggered together the short distance to the front of the plane. Sarah helped her sit down on part of Tilly’s seat, then went back, grabbed Rachel’s scarf from her coat on the floor, and brought it back, placing it around Rachel’s arm and instructing her to hold it there.

Rachel regained some of her strength and painfully made her way just a few steps behind the last row of seats to find her carry-on bag, Claire’s bag, and the emergency bag from the plane. She brought the emergency bag forward, setting it down next to Sarah, then looked over at Claire, who looked pale and weak.

Sarah opened up the bag, reached for a package of gauze pads, ripped two open, and forced them into Claire’s trembling right hand, guiding her hand up to her bloody temple.

“Hold that on your head, Claire,” Sarah instructed.

Sarah then moved back to Tilly and told her to put pressure on the gash on her right upper arm. “Firm pressure, Tilly, as much as you can.” She opened one of the elastic wraps and rewrapped Tilly’s leg tightly. “We’ll deal with your leg when we are out of the plane,” Sarah told her.

Tilly nodded in agreement as she tried to wipe her auburn hair away from her face with the back of her shaking hand. Sarah reached over and brushed her hair out of her face, then touched her shoulder. “Hang on, Till.”

Rachel inched her way to the back of the plane again, grabbing more of the carry-on bags and bringing them forward. She sat down on one of the cushioned seats, peering into the pilot’s area. The radio was in pieces—no lights, no power, and no sources of communication. In desperation, she looked at Sarah, who was leaning up against the back of what was left of the copilot’s seat. They made eye contact but didn’t speak. They all stared off at a fixed point in front of them, silent and in shock.

Rachel finally spoke. “We have to get out of the plane. Once we get out, we’ll find a place and do what we have to do medically, and then find shelter as soon as we can.”

Sarah nodded in agreement. “We have plenty of daylight left, but once it’s dark we can’t risk going anywhere because it’s too dangerous.”

“I agree,” Rachel said. “But you know, Sarah, once we leave, if we can’t find shelter, we’ll be out in the open and exposed.”

Tilly quickly spoke up. “I can’t stay in here, not with those two bodies. I just can’t.” She put her hands to her face and began to cry.

“Tilly,” Rachel said firmly, “I get it, but I’m just saying it may be worse outside.”

Tilly looked up at her and stopped crying. They were silent again for what seemed like a long time, just staring out the jagged open hole in the plane as the sunlight streamed in and dust particles floated in the air above Frank’s blood-soaked body.