by Loree Lough
02:00, November 1: Patapsco State Park, near Baltimore, Maryland
Honor Mackenzie shivered, and not just because the temperature had dipped to near-freezing. The far-off wail of a coyote harmonized with the moaning wind, and the creak of leafless trees only intensified the ghostly atmosphere.
Crisscrossing beams of high-powered flashlights sliced through the sleety black haze and shimmered from the river’s surface. The Patapsco seemed alive tonight, pulsing and undulating like a monstrous turbid snake. From deep in the woods, Honor felt the cagey stares of a thousand unblinking eyes, and shivered again as she panned a wide arc, walking backwards every few steps; the crash had probably sent every critter scurrying…but that's what she'd told herself the night a feral dog bulleted from the underbrush, teeth bared and snarling and—
“Is it just me,” Elton huffed, jogging up beside her, “or do I smell gas?”
She jumped, then jumped again to make the first one look like an attempt to maneuver around a tree root. “Maybe it's that swill you claim takes off the chill." Elton was a good guy, but got way too much pleasure from scaring her out of her shoes.
A puckish grin warned her to brace herself, but before he could deliver a biting come-back, a frantic baritone blasted through the fog: “Over here!”
“Sending up a flare,” hollered another.
Most of the Boeing 747 that plummeted from the mid-November sky during rush hour had landed square in the middle of I-95. The cops shut down all lanes in both directions to enable the two available med-evac copters to airlift passengers of the airliner—and those in the vehicles it had crushed—to Baltimore's shock trauma. And because eyewitnesses reported seeing fiery bits of the plane falling due north of the explosion, her search and rescue squad was sent into Patapsco State Park. Honor's unit included a couple of young guys just returning from Texas, where they'd earned Wilderness Certifications. Like thoroughbreds at the gate, both chomped at the bit to prove they could keep up with more experienced personnel. With any luck, they hadn't yet heard the rumors about her past, and wouldn't pummel her with the usual acerbic questions when the mission ended.
The scent of jet fuel grew stronger with every step, and she thanked God for the sleet. Yes, it added to their physical discomforts, but it would douse any embers hiding in the wreckage. Helped her focus on the task, not potential taunts, too. Elton stopped walking so fast that his boots sent up a spray of damp leaves. His voice was barely a whisper when he grated, "Holy crap."
Honor followed his line of vision. Holy crap was right.
There, in the clearing a few yards to their left, was the tail section of the airliner. Like a beached whale, it teetered belly up on the bank, one mangled wing pointing skyward, the top half of the airline’s logo submerged in riverbed muck. Twin witch-finger pillars of smoke spiraled upward, as if reaching for the treetops in a last-ditch attempt to pull itself free of the sludge.
A nanosecond later, they were on the move again, hopping over rivulets carved into the earth by rushing rainwater, ducking under low-lying pine boughs as they picked their way closer. Two pink palms slapped against a window, and between them, the bloodied and terrified face of a boy no more than ten. The sight startled Elton so badly that he lost his footing in the slimy mud. Arms windmilling, he staggered backward a step or two before regaining his balance. “Donaldson!” he bellowed.
“Kent? That you?”
“No," Elton snarled, "it's your old maid auntie." He muttered something under his breath, then added, "Fire up the radio. Let 'em know we need more boots on the ground. And equipment, on the double. We've got survivors!”
Well, at least one survivor, Honor thought, closing in on the craft. She hopped onto the rain-slicked wing and inched nearer the window, then lay her palm against the glass and matched the kid's handprint, finger for finger. "You're okay," she said, trying to look like she believed it. Not an easy feat, now that she'd aimed her flashlight's beam over his shoulder. Only God knew what he'd seen, or which of his family members lay motionless at his feet. She'd seen that frantic expression before, and it reminded her of the day when the Susquehanna slammed through a Boy Scout camp. After hours of searching for one still-missing kid, something made her look up, and she found him, clinging to a tree. Though the water had receded, he'd been too frantic to climb down. She'd probably said "Don't be scared" a dozen times before he found his voice. "Why do grownups always say dumb things like that?" he'd demanded.
And she'd never uttered the words again.
"You're okay," she repeated now. "Help is on the way."
“Mackenzie, get down from there.”
The poor kid’s pleading, teary eyes locked with hers, seeking reassurance and hope, and she couldn’t look away. Wouldn’t walk away, either.
In the window's reflection, she saw Elton behind her, pointing toward the biggest column of smoke. “I’m dead serious, Mack. Get down from there,” he repeated, this time through clenched teeth.
A second later, the heat of yellow and orange flames flared on her right. The boy saw it, too, as evidenced by a pitiful wail that, because of the window, no one outside the airplane could hear. “Help is coming," she said again.
And please God, she prayed, let it get here fast.