Chapter 2




          It was nine o’clock when they arrived at the hospital on Pioneer Street in Chadron, Nebraska.  Rachel had slipped into a dull, aching acceptance that the two vibrant people she knew and loved were now lost forever.  They may still be alive but their personalities were gone, their voices stilled, the lively intelligence in their eyes evermore dimmed.  The bodies lay in the ICU, being kept alive by machines.  It wasn’t them.  Alex, on the other hand, had drawn strength from some inner reserve the closer they’d gotten to landing.  Proximity fed hope.  Maybe not hope of a miracle but hope of finding out the truth. There was nothing worse than hearing of an accident and being hundreds of miles away.  The helplessness was real and smothering.  As that distance grew less, the helplessness receded.  Nick .. it was difficult to tell.  He didn’t speak and he didn’t move.  The barriers behind his eyes were firmly in place.  If he felt anything, he refused to let it show.  Rachel suspected he was refusing to feel anything at all.  It was on a simmer, beneath the surface.

          Yet, as they arrived in the parking lot, he said abruptly, “You go on in.  I’m gonna check out the latest at the precinct house.”

          Rachel was shocked.  “Nick.  You – ”

          “What can I do for her?” Nick asked quickly.  “I can’t bear to see her like that, Rachel.”

          “She needs you now, more than ever!” Rachel responded.  “If she dies, Nick, and you’re not there, you will never forgive yourself.  Never.  Believe me, I know.”

          Alex took his hand but he jerked it away.

          “Ten minutes,” Rachel insisted.  “Start with ten minutes.  Peri’s worth at least that much of your time, even if you two haven’t been getting along so well just lately.  We’ll get an update from the doctors.  Find out for sure exactly what the situation is.”

          Nick hesitated, shaking his head in frustration.  “Didn’t Alex tell you?  Profelis looked for Aquila.  And – ”

          “Have you considered the possibility, however remote or vague, that he could be wrong?” she cut in.  “There’s a chance, Nick.  Only God is omnipotent, and, as they are so fond of telling us, they’re not God and they’re not angels.  They’re not perfect.  They can make mistakes .. especially in a situation like this.”  She straightened, meeting his hesitant, pain filled eyes with a direct and challenging stare of her own.  “Ten minutes.”

          He yielded.  Rachel swallowed as she turned away, wishing she could believe her own words.  It all came down to that war zone where faith met science.  She was a scientist.  She had to go with the facts.  But, if she could help Alex and Nick discover hope thru faith, she’d do it.

          They crossed the parking lot, angling toward the automatic doors.  Rachel led the way, Alex following closely.  She resisted the urge to look back.  Nick was a little more distant but he’d go thru with it.  Now the moment was here, Rachel felt less cold and more in control.  Like she’d told Kat, she had to be strong.  The others would be looking to her for guidance and advice.

          A nurse frowned slightly when they explained who they were and who they were here to see.

          “Are you family?”

          The urge to say yes was overpowering.  In their hearts, they were.  Hearts, however, carried no legal weight.

          “Peri Boyle is my wife,” Nick replied.  “Derek Rayne is a very close friend.  We all work together.”

          The nurse nodded.  “Yes, you’re down here as next of kin.  Would you wait over there, Mr Boyle?  I’ll page the doctor.  He’ll be along shortly.”

          Rachel leaned forward.  “What about the crew?  The plane they were flying belongs to our organization.  We may be able to help track down family for them.”

          The nurse consulted her charts.  “I don’t know how anyone survived that crash, I really don’t,” she remarked.  “The pilot – Mike Stannis – and the navigator, co pilot – William Osborn – are in the ICU.  Like your friends.  Deep comas.  Their families have been notified.  They’re on their way from New York.”

          “Do you know anything about the crash?” Alex asked.  “We came straight here from the airport.”

          The nurse half shrugged.  “Only what I heard the police saying earlier.  The plane seemed to lose power.  It coasted a fair distance then flopped belly first into a field.  Bounced a few times and broke up.  No explosion, no fire.  A miracle no one was killed.”

          “And the injuries?” Rachel ventured.

          She’d pushed her luck too far.  “You’ll have to speak with Dr Park,” the nurse said.  “Waiting area’s just thru there.”

          Rachel backed off and herded Alex and Nick into the waiting room.

          “It sounds promising,” she remarked.  Nick turned scornful eyes toward her but Rachel refused to go under.  “A jet falls from the sky?  You’d expect at least some fatalities.  For everyone on board to survive .. and no explosion or fire?”

          “Luck or the pilot was damned good,” Nick discounted.  “He glided it as far as he could before crash landing.”

          “Okay,” Rachel conceded.  “I won’t argue with you, Nick.  I’m too wound up an’ tired.  I find it promising.  You think whatever the hell you want.”

          “Please,” Alex begged.  “Don’t argue.  I can’t bear it, not right now.”

          They lapsed into silence.  Rachel sat down and stared at nothing.  Alex stood where she’d halted.  She looked exhausted.  Nick moved over to the window and stared out at the automobiles and the bare limbed trees.  He felt washed out, dull, hurting and angry.  He had so much he’d wanted to say to Merlin.  Now he’d never get the chance.  He knew Rachel was trying hard to be positive, to instill a little faith in them, but she hadn’t seen the empty disbelief on Profelis’ face, she hadn’t listened to his words.  His voice had been dead.  Hopeless.  And Nick couldn’t have faith in a God who could let this happen.  Merlin wasn’t just anyone.  She fought for God.  If she’d died in combat, Nick could have understood.  But this .. it wasn’t fair.

          “Mr Boyle ..?”

          Nick turned.  There was a fresh faced young man peering over the top of his spectacles at him.  “That’s me.”

          “I’m Dr Park.  Silas Park.  I’m the physician in charge of your wife’s care.  I understand you work for the gentleman who was with her?”

          “We all do,” Nick replied as Rachel and Alex came to join him.  “My colleagues – Alex Moreau and Dr Rachel Corrigan.”

          Silas Park looked round and smiled quickly.  “I’m so sorry we have  to meet like this.  Let me first ask, does Mr Rayne have any family?”

          “A mother and sister,” Alex said.  “I can call them for you.”

          “Thank you,” he nodded.

          “Does Derek’s family need to be here?” Rachel inquired.

          He blinked and then the import of the question sank in.

          “Oh .. no.  They’re not in any immediate danger.  The police said it last night, I know I’ve said it often enough today, everyone involved in their care has said it.  It’s a miracle.  Okay, let me run thru what happened as best we know but you should really speak with the police and the crash investigators.  The Lear, I think it was, appeared to lose all power but it managed to keep a good angle as it fell.  The pilot glided a considerable distance before belly flopping into a field.  If he could’ve managed another ten or fifteen miles, he might have brought it in to land at the airport.  By the time it went down, the emergency services had already been alerted by the airport tower.  No one on the ground was hurt.  The Lear bounced several times and then broke up on final impact but there was no explosion and no fire, despite the avgas in the tanks.  I’d say someone was watching over that plane, I really would.  In fact, an eye witness described the descent as almost as if the plane was being held in a hand.”

          He smiled and laughed briefly.  “Okay, well, the injuries as such are minor.  Cuts and bruises.  No broken bones.  The pilot has two sprained ankles and a dislocated shoulder.  The co pilot is pretty banged up – black eye, nasty gash on the temple.  Mr Rayne and Mrs Boyle are in quite good shape, all things considered.  What puzzles us, however, is the coma and the depth of it.  There is brainwave activity but very slight.  It’s inconsistent with their injuries.  They were unconscious when the paramedics got there and they’ve shown no signs of coming out of it.  Yet they’ve suffered no impact trauma to the head, or anywhere, really.  They’re just .. deeply unconscious and, with the brainwave activity so minimal .. I can’t honestly say I’m hopeful of any kind of recovery sometime soon.”

          Dr Park paused.  “I’m not saying never.  The human body, the brain, is such a complex piece of machinery that, while we know a lot, we don’t know everything about what goes on.  They could wake up in a week, or a month, or next year, or never.  We just can’t tell.  Similarly, we can’t assess with any kind of accuracy the condition they’ll be in should they wake.  They could be fine, or completely mentally impaired or any degree of brain damage in between those two.”  He looked at them. “Not the best of news, I know.  I’m sorry.”

          “Can we see them?” Rachel asked.

          “Of course.  Nurse Carusi will take you thru,” he nodded.  “Mr Boyle, I need to speak with you alone.”

          Nick hung back, his heart thumping.  He hated hospitals anyway.  Nothing good ever happened in a hospital.  Silas Park waited until Rachel and Alex had gone out then he gestured at the chairs.  Nick’s heart sank like a stone.  He sat and waited for the bad news to come.

          “Your wife did suffer some impact damage, Mr Boyle,” Dr Park began, sitting next to him.  “We weren’t aware of it at the time we called you.  There were no surface signs at all.  She began hemorrhaging badly and we had to perform emergency surgery.  She’s fine now.  She’s had a transfusion, and we’re monitoring her very closely.”  He fell silent, studying his notes.  “I don’t know quite how to say this, Mr Boyle.”

          “Just give it to me straight,” Nick said.

          “Okay.  There’s usually an unspoken rule .. when faced with the choice.  In this case, however, there was no choice.  We had to operate to stop the bleeding.  It meant a full hysterectomy.  Your wife lost the baby.  There was no way we could save the pregnancy.  I’m sorry.”

          Nick blinked.  He’d been expecting bad news but he’d never thought it would be this. 

          “She was pregnant ..?”

          “Yes, she was.  Not far advanced.  Only the first trimester.  I’m not an obstetrics expert but I was told .. possibly eight to ten weeks.  She may only just have become aware of it.  You didn’t know?”

          Nick shook his head.

          “The unspoken rule is save the mother at the expense of the child.  As I said, we had no choice.  And, it means now, of course, there can’t be any further opportunities for Mrs Boyle to conceive.”

          Nick nodded.  Silas Park took his silence for shock and disappointment and, to a degree, he was right, but Nick was also badly confused.

          “Would you like to see her now?”

          “Yeah.  Thanks.”

          “It’s this way.”

          Nick rose and, rather unsteadily, followed the doctor down the hall and thru a set of swing doors into the ICU.  He was only vaguely aware of people on beds, people around those beds, the constant bleep, whirr and hum of machines.  Silas Park halted.  Nick halted too.

          “We’ll be moving her soon to a room.  We just want to observe her progress for a little longer.”

          “Yeah.  Sure.”

          The doctor nodded and backed away.  Nick turned in a daze and his eyes focused.  Merlin looked a little pale but, other than that, she seemed asleep.  There was an oxygen tube up her nose but she was breathing on her own.  The monitor showed a steady if slow heartbeat.  Another monitor, more ominously, displayed the very slight brainwave activity by way of three hardly moving tracer pens.  Nick lurched forward and sank onto the chair.  He stretched out a hand and saw it was shaking.  Then it hit him and he felt tears burn his eyes.

          “Why didn’t you tell me ..?” he whispered, holding her hand.  It felt cold.  “How is it .. how was it even possible?  I thought … ”  He shook his head.  “Merli .. I don’t know if you can hear me but I love you.  Find a way back to me … ”




          “No immediate danger,” Rachel repeated an hour later.  “That’s encouraging.  What isn’t so good is this prognosis regarding the coma.”  She shook her head.  “Did you call Ingrid and Barbara?”

          Alex nodded.  “Barbara’s in Europe but the person I spoke to said they’d get an urgent message to her.  Ingrid said she would pray for him but she won’t come.  Did you call Kat?”

          “Yeah,” Rachel replied.  “Kat wants to fly out here.  I told her there’s no need.  We’ll arrange to have Derek and Peri taken to San Francisco and she can go visit them there.”

          “Is it just me or are you feeling ‘here we go again’ as well?” Alex sighed.  “Derek woke up the last time with no ill effects.  Can our luck stretch to a second time?”

          They strolled around the parking lot. The sky was heavy with cloud which promised rain at the least, but more likely sleet.  Both were hunched into their coats, hands pushed deep into the pockets.

          “Maybe,” Rachel agreed.  “Look at the facts here.  For all that it was a plane crash, it was a very controlled crash. Those tanks were fueled for a coast to coast flight, yet no explosion?  Not even a fire?  It’s … ”

          “Miraculous?” Alex suggested.

          Rachel shrugged expansively.  “More like remarkable.”

          “The eye witness said it was as if the plane was held in a hand … ” Alex recalled.

          Rachel glanced at her.  “Don’t tell me you think it was the hand of God.”

          “Why not?”

          “It could have been some kind of force, yes, but why the hand of God?” Rachel queried.  “Why not the hand of the Devil?  If this was God’s work, Alex, why didn’t they walk away?  Why did Profelis say Aquila is missing?”

          “When Nick comes out, we’ll go to the police and start investigating this for ourselves.  At least we know Derek isn’t in any danger.  The most we could miss is him waking up,” Alex responded, avoiding Rachel’s questions.

          “I’d like to hear what the crash investigators have to say,” Rachel agreed.  “Did you call Andrew?”

          “No, not yet.  I should.  Poor guy’s going to have a rough time.  We’ve left him with everything for the Forum and still no firm information.”

          Rachel halted.  “You don’t think this crash is the work of the Darkside, do you?  It seems very convenient.”

          Alex frowned.  “Maybe but I have to ask .. why now?  Wouldn’t it better to wait till the Precepts are all on their way?  Or even at the island?”

          “I guess.  Does Paul know what happened?  If he’s still in New York, he might want to postpone his flight back to London,” Rachel commented.

          Nick emerged from the hospital, saw them and jogged over.  Both saw his eyes were red rimmed but Rachel and Alex tactfully said nothing.  For a moment, they all looked at each other.

          “How is he?” Nick asked.

          “Like he’s asleep,” Rachel replied.  “I’ve looked thru his notes.  I can’t explain it any more than Dr Park can’t.  From the extent of his injuries, he shouldn’t be in a coma.  But he is.  How’s Peri?”

          “The same,” Nick said.  “Like she’s asleep.  Rachel, I’m sorry.  You were right.  I needed to be there.”  He straightened.  “What’s the plan?”

          “I’ll call Andrew,” Alex said.  “You call Paul Emery at the New York house.  We’ve just been talking about whether the Darkside’s behind this.  If it is, he may want to postpone going back to London.”

          “Then we’re going to the police,” Rachel concluded.



          Paul Emery wanted to come to Nebraska but Nick assured him he had everything under control.  Nick did ask Paul to call the San Francisco house to give Andrew as much information on the conference as possible, assuming it would still take place.  Paul asked Nick’s permission for it to go ahead, stating that Derek would want it to.  Nick said okay.  He also told Paul that Profelis was at the house and could act in Merlin’s absence.  Between Andrew and Profelis, the conference planning would go ahead.  Nick, Alex and Rachel could remain in Chadron for as long as was necessary.  Rachel made a few calls of her own, alerting the hospital in San Francisco, putting the air ambulance on standby.  As soon as Dr Park gave the all clear, she would see her friends safely home.

          The decks cleared of other responsibilities, the next step was the local police.

          “Ah, Mr Boyle.  We spoke earlier today.  I am sorry I had to make that call.  Randy Sciavelli.”

          Nick gripped the man’s hand and released it.  “My colleagues at the Foundation – Alex Moreau – ”

          Alex nodded.

          “ – and Dr Rachel Corrigan.”

          “Hi,” Rachel said.

          “Doctor,” Detective Sciavelli queried.  “As in ..?”

          “Medical doctor.”

          He nodded.  “Just so I know.  I have your wife’s belongings, Mr Boyle, and those of Mr Rayne .. only I notice from some of his papers that he’s a doctor too.  Medical doctor?”

          “Philosophy,” Rachel said with a brief smile.

          “What can you tell us about the crash?” Nick asked.

          “Can I get you guys some coffee?” Sciavelli asked in reply.

          Alex nodded wearily.  “I could use that.  It’s been a long day.”

          “I just bet it has, an’ not an easy day either.  I’ll be just a moment.  Hey, Jimmy!” he called as he went out.  “The personal stuff from the crash scene.  Bring it in here, will you?”

          When they were alone in the interview room, Alex leaned forward.  “There wouldn’t be anything sensitive in Derek’s papers, would there?” she murmured.  “He was coming from a meeting with Paul.  We may have to run a little damage limitation.”

          Detective Sciavelli returned with four Styrofoam cups.  “Black only, I’m afraid.  It’s all we live on.”

          “That’s fine,” Rachel commented.

          “Okay, the crash.”  He sat down at the table and leaned forward, resting his forearms on the scarred wood.  “I’m working closely with the crash investigators from the FAA, although, honestly, my involvement is minimal, as you can imagine.  I can tell you that, at two fifty this morning, Central time, the Lear55 was cruising at twenty thousand feet and was in contact with the tower here at Chadron to request permission to climb to thirty thousand feet because they had thick cloud and turbulence.  Apart from that, everything was absolutely fine on that jet plane.  The tower granted permission, the Lear started its ascent.  It came thru the cloud at around twenty five, twenty six thousand feet.  It was .. one hundred eighty miles east and a little north of here.  At three o’clock and ninety five miles out, the pilot got onto the tower again to say there’d been a catastrophic power loss.  Every system on board had shut down – engines, electrical, hydraulics.  Even the backups were offline.  He intended to glide as far as he could an’ he hoped to make the strip here.  The tower had them on radar and cleared everything for an emergency landing.  At three ten, only thirteen miles east of here, they lost the trace when the Lear crashed.  The emergency services were scrambled.  I got the call at three fifteen an’ went straight out there.  Paramedics were already in Mike Adley’s field when I arrived.”

          He paused and shook his head.  “To be honest with you, I expected it to be a hell of a lot worse.  I thought I’d be helping to pick up body parts an’ bag ’em for the coroner.  There were a few big gouges in the field where the Lear had hit an’ bounced, like a stone skimming a pond.  The last time it came down, the wings were torn off and it broke into three parts.  There was the tail section, the cockpit an’ the main fuselage.  That was the extent of the wreckage.  The nose was tipped forward but the rest was just in the field, as if someone had placed it there.  Weirdest thing I ever saw.  Mike Adley saw it all happen.  Guy suffers from chronic insomnia an’ he sits outside on the porch, all year round.  Watches the stars.  Says it helps relax him.  He saw the nav lights and the jet was descending fast but it had a good angle.  He should know cos he goes crop dusting.  He said the nose was up and it looked like someone was holding the aircraft in a giant invisible hand, guiding it down.  It hit tail first, kinda like the heel of my hand, y’know?  Bounced, traveled three hundred yards, hit again, bounced, went a hundred fifty yards, hit, bounced, hundred yards, then came down belly first and broke up.  The FAA don’t know what the hell to make of it.”

          Nick nodded slowly, picturing it in his mind.

          “The paramedics were inside the fuselage.  I saw ’em working.  Your wife an’ Dr Rayne were still in their seats, strapped in,” Sciavelli continued.  “They didn’t appear injured.  Flung about but not seriously hurt.  The crew were in slightly worse shape but everyone was alive.  They were on their way to the hospital within thirty minutes and I followed them to the ER.  Dr Park can’t explain why they’re in comas.  I can’t explain how that jet came down without so much as a fire, let alone an explosion, cos the tower told me it had landed in Des Moines to refuel.  Those tanks were practically full of avgas.  Your people should have died.”

          Nick nodded again.  “Can we talk with the crash investigators?”

          “And with Mr Adley?” Rachel asked.

          “Sure.  I’ve no objection.  If you tell ’em you’ve already talked it over with me, they shouldn’t give you a hard time.  Ah, here’s the personal stuff,” he said as the door opened.  “Mr Boyle, would you sign for everything?”    

          “Yeah.”  Nick scrawled his name at the base of the form.

          “There’s no damage to any of it.  Dr Rayne’s attaché case and Mrs Boyle’s holdall were in the cabin.  Their suitcases were in the baggage area in the back.  Just where they were put.  Not even a scratch,” Sciavelli marveled.

          Nick handed the attaché case to Alex without comment.

          “You’ll be staying in Chadron?”

          “For a while,” Rachel replied.  “As soon as Dr Park says they can be moved, we’ll fly them back to San Francisco.  Until then, we’ll be in the area.”

          “I can recommend the Pioneer Hotel,” the detective said.  “It’s a couple of blocks from the hospital.”

          “Thanks,” Alex murmured.

          “Well, I hope your people recover.  It’d be the damnedest thing if, after surviving that, they stayed in a coma.”  He stood and held out his hand.  “The FAA are moving the wreckage to a hangar at the airfield but it won’t be till tomorrow.  “You’ll find them at Mike Adley’s place today.  Go outta town, heading east, keep going for twelve miles or so, you’ll see a dirt road heading north.  Leads to Mike’s place.”

          Nick, Alex and Rachel shook hands with him and left.  Out on the street, Alex checked the attaché case.  It was locked.  They breathed a silent sigh of relief.

          “It seems pretty straightforward even if it is mysterious,” Rachel remarked.

          “No,” Nick countered.  “A catastrophic power loss?  All systems, even the backups?  Yet the nav lights still worked?  Tanks full of avgas, yet no fire?  This isn’t straightforward at all.”

          “Is it sabotage?” Alex inquired, frowning.

          “Let’s go talk with the crash investigators,” Nick replied.




          Mike Adley was yawning hugely when he glanced round at the arrival of yet another vehicle on his property.  He didn’t scowl though.  He looked like he was enjoying all the activity.  He walked over to meet the new strangers, his hands hooked into the rear pockets of his jeans.

          “Howdy,” he nodded.  “I’m Mike Adley.  This is my place.  You with the FAA as well?”

          “No,” Nick replied.  “Detective Sciavelli said it was okay for us to come out here.  It was my wife and our boss in the Lear which crashed in your field.”

          “Oh, man, I’m sorry.”  He flushed with embarrassment.  “They gonna be okay?”

          “Still undecided,” Rachel replied.  “Rachel Corrigan.  This is Alex Moreau an’ Nick Boyle.”

          Hands were shaken again.  “Detective Sciavelli said you saw it all?” Alex queried.

          “Yeah, I did,” Adley nodded.  “I don’t see much out here.  It’s quiet, y’know?  Big sky.  Lotta stars.  Change happens but it’s real slow.  This is gonna be the talk of the town for years,” he remarked with fat relish, then flushed again.  “Hey, I’m sorry.  I don’t mean to sound disrespectful an’ all, seeing as your friends are in the hospital.”

          “It’s okay,” Nick replied.  “Can you tell us what you saw?”

          Nick suspected the man would be enjoying free dinners on this for months to come.  Adley wasn’t intruding on the investigation but he was hanging nearby, watching everything with the avid curiosity of someone who never got to see things like this close up.  It was more excitement than he’d had in years.

          Mike Adley was in his late fifties, iron gray haired, ruddy of complexion, with the large callused hands of a guy who worked the earth for a living.  He wore a plaid shirt and denim jacket over his jeans, and a hat on his head.  He didn’t seem to feel the cutting wind which was coming straight down from Canada.

          “Surely.  Well, I suffer from insomnia,” he said, getting into a measured pace.  “Strange, seeing as I get plenty of exercise an’ fresh air.  Think I’d sleep real easy but I don’t.  I was on the back porch; faces east.  Wasn’t so cold last night.  Lotta cloud cover.  Couldn’t see any stars.  Thought it might snow today.  Anyhow, I’m sitting there, thinking I might turn in soon,” he related, “when I saw these lights come outta the cloud.  Fair way off still.  First, I wondered if it might be one of them flying saucers but then I saw the lights winking on an’ off so I knew it was a plane.  It was kinda low if it was going for the airport an’ coming down fast but at a good angle.  Wasn’t nose first.  Seemed to happen slow but it was fast.  Few minutes, that’s all.  I thought to myself, he’s gonna crash.  He ain’t gonna make the strip.  But … ”

          He paused to run a hand around the back of his neck.  “It was controlled.  I’m a pilot, I got my own crop duster.  I know what I’m talking about here.  That pilot had no control over his plane except the angle.  It was silent.  He had no engines.  He was gliding it in an’ he was doing a damn fine job.  Best I ever saw.  It was like .. some force held it and eased it down.  Like it was held in a hand.  Then it hit.  About a mile yonder, I’d guess.  It came down pretty hard but it didn’t crash as such.  It bounced an’ went on, dumping speed the whole time.  Then, neat as you like, the wings came off and it landed belly first and broke up.  By that time, I was on the horn to the cops, telling ’em what had happened, then I got in my truck and drove out there.”

          He faltered, flushed and lapsed into silence.

          “What?” Rachel coaxed.  “What is it?”

          “I’ll tell you cos you know those poor people but I ain’t told no one else,” he admitted softly.  “I went inside.  I was the first one.  Before the paramedics got here.  I thought, y’know, first aid or something.  But they were just sitting there, looking for all the world like they was asleep.  It creeped me out, really did.  There was a cup of coffee on the table, I remember that.  Hadn’t even spilled.  I checked ’em for pulses an’ they had ’em, so I hightailed it outta there an’ went to the nose section.  Crew were a little more banged up but they looked the same.  Alive, fast asleep, when they should’ve been dead.”

          He gestured at the teams crawling over the wreckage of the Lear.  “I listen to ’em,” Mike Adley concluded.  “They can’t make it out, no sir.  The force of the impact, hard enough to tear off both wings, should’ve meant a fireball.  Never happened.”

          “The cup of coffee,” Nick said.  “You saw it by flashlight?”

          “Didn’t need one.  Cabin lights were on.”

          “Thanks for your time, Mr Adley.  If you remember anything else, we’ll be at the Pioneer Hotel in town,” Nick said.

          “I’ll call, if I remember,” he nodded.

          They moved on, leaving Mike Adley alone on the perimeter.  “The lights were on ..?” Alex queried.  “What about the power loss?”

          “Could’ve been on a timer,” Nick commented.  “But why here?  I mean, if I were working for the Darkside and wanted to take out a Legacy Precept an’ an Enforcer, an’ guarantee they wouldn’t survive, I’d bring ’em down in the Rockies.  No way a Lear could bounce up there.  It’d crash and it’d blow up.  Bringing it down here .. makes no sense.”

          “It could just be the act of a psychopath,” Rachel remarked.  “Nothing in it, no motive except the sick thrill of knowing they’d caused a plane to crash.”

          “Or terrorists,” Alex added quietly, “though a small jet with only four people on board does seem a small target.  It’s hardly world shattering news, is it?”

          “Excuse me,” said a voice, “but who are you an’ what are you doing here?  This is an FAA investigation at a crash site.  It’s restricted.  No press.  We’ll give a statement later an’ you’ll be notified.”

          It was one of those voices designed to irritate.  She would have irritated anyone just saying ‘good morning’.  Nick turned slowly, his eyes becoming frosty. 

          “Who are you?” he demanded.

          The woman, a thirtysomething with brown hair and eyes, and a thin, pinched face, took a step back.  Nick had that effect when he turned on the menace, and sometimes even when he didn’t.  Her shoulders hunched defensively.

          “I’ll call the cops,” she threatened.

          “You do that,” he invited coldly.  “Detective Sciavelli.  When he gets here, he can tell you he sent us.”

          “We’re not the media,” Rachel added, irritated that assumptions had been made without waiting for the answers to the questions she’d asked.

          “We’re family of the victims,” Alex explained, stretching the truth.  “We want to see the wreckage.”

          “We want to conduct our own investigation,” Nick corrected.

          The woman shook her head.  “That’s impossible.  I’m sorry.  I assumed you were reporters.”

          “You were wrong,” Nick growled.

          “Edie, what’s going on?”

          She glanced round and blushed.  “They say they’re the family of the victims.”

          “Go help Rob over near the tail section,” the guy ordered then approached the Legacy team.  “I’m sorry about that.  Edie is enthusiastic.  I’m Terry Fitzconnor, the super around here.  You say you’re family?”

          “The woman passenger, Peri Boyle, is Nick’s wife,” Rachel explained.  “The other passenger, Derek Rayne, is our boss.  The jet belongs to our organization.”

          “Is that so?  Actually .. until we’re done, that jet belongs to us .. but you may be able to help with some background information.  Put this crash into some kinda context,” Fitzconnor mused.

          “Be glad to, provided we can do our own exam of the wreckage,” Nick agreed.

          The supervisor’s eyes narrowed.

          “C’mon, you’re working to a deadline here.  It’s gonna snow soon.  Evidence could get buried.”

          “We’ll share our findings,” Alex offered, “if we find any.”

          Fitzconnor slowly nodded.  “Could be a big help.  You’d know what you’re looking for.  We don’t.  To be honest, I’ve had teams crawling over this from eight thirty this morning.  Haven’t found a thing.  There’s no explosive residue to indicate some kinda bomb.  There’s nothing on the black box except a total power failure .. an’ that’s very unusual.  The voice recorder is clear – there was no pilot error and the crew stayed calm in the emergency.  They went by the book.  Even just prior to the crash, they stayed calm.  Never cursed, didn’t even pray.  I’m at a loss to explain the power failure.  Everything checks out fine now.”

          “Timer?” Nick suggested.

          “I thought the same thing.  We haven’t found anything alien to this jet’s systems or wiring frame.  No glitches on the computer,” the supervisor replied.  “Sure, you can take a look around.  I’m breaking all the rules letting you do that, you understand, but it’s on the provisos that you don’t touch anything and you share what you find .. if you find anything.”

          “Deal,” Nick nodded and held out his hand.  Fitzconnor solemnly shook it.

          It broke the ice.  Now everyone was on the same side.  Fitzconnor beckoned them forward.  “What’s the news from the hospital?”

          “Coma,” Rachel replied briskly.  “No idea yet of a recovery time.”

          “I’m sorry.  Seems incongruous, y’know?”  He shook his head.  “I’ve investigated my fair share of these.  I’m used to huge craters, scorched earth, body parts .. if any come thru the inferno.  I’ve never seen anything like this.  The jet refueled in Des Moines.  You can see the wings over that way.  Tanks haven’t ruptured.  Not even a leak due to stress fracture and they had a lotta stress.  Seeing as how they got off so amazingly lightly, your people .. most they should’ve been is concussed.  Coma is all wrong.  This whole scene is all wrong.”

          He glanced round at them.  “I take it you know how to investigate?”

          “Yeah,” Nick replied.  “It’s what we do.  Investigate things.”

          Fitzconnor nodded.  “Great.  Okay, I know the flight plan was New York to San Francisco via Des Moines.  Why were your people in New York?”

          “Business meeting with someone from our London office,” Alex answered.

          “What kinda business?”

          “They were discussing an upcoming conference which will be held in San Francisco,” Nick stated.

          “Any military or government connections?”

          They shook their heads.

          “You think this could be sabotage?” Nick asked.

          Fitzconnor halted.  “No, because I can’t find any evidence that anything’s been tampered with.  But, like I said, I’ve seen my fair share of downed planes and I’ve developed an instinct.  No, I don’t think it was sabotage but my instinct is still telling me it was deliberate.”




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