worry about that right now,” Jake said tightly. He was trying not to panic. It wasn’t working. “Just concentrate on landing this thing.”
A DEA agent, Jake had been undercover for nearly a year to get evidence on Charlie Betts, one of the most notorious drug dealers in the southern United States. The agency had never been able to catch him with the goods. But now, here Jake was, in a plane with its cargo hold stuffed full of illegal drugs recently obtained in Canada and a pilot willing to testify against Betts, and they were going down!
John was still talking nervously as he worked furiously to land the plane in a clearing he’d spotted below.
“I can’t believe Charlie would sabotage a million-dollar plane and risk millions of dollars’ worth of product going up in smoke just to get rid of me.”
Jake figured John was talking to calm himself, so he joined in the conversation, even though he felt that discussing anything right now, other than how to save their lives, was counterproductive. “You sound hurt, John. What did you expect from a murdering bastard like Charlie Betts?”
John turned to look at him for a split second, fear and anguish in his eyes. “The clearing’s a no-go, but I’m going to get this baby down in one piece, one way or another, and if I don’t make it, take care of my family. I shouldn’t have told Lynn. I’m such a fool.”
“The agency’s been watching over your family for weeks now, ever since I suspected you were coming over to our side,” Jake told him. “And we’re both gonna make it.” He nodded at the controls. “Ground’s coming up fast. Work your magic, John.”
“Hold on!” John yelled. The plane careened into a pine forest. The sound of the crash was deafening. Shards of glass flew around them like sparkling rain. The nose of the plane slid down a huge tree trunk to the forest floor, and then the plane fell onto its back, which was lucky for them, because the fuel tank was on the bottom of the plane. That, and the fact that the tank was nearly empty when they crashed, saved them from an explosion. Jake didn’t have time to brace himself. His final thought before losing consciousness was that if he was going to die he hoped it would happen quickly.
* * *
“I know what you’re up to, Grandpa,” Amina Gaines said accusingly as she trailed her grandfather up a steep slope. He had an amazing energy level for someone in his eighties. “Getting me out here on the pretense of scouting new camping sites for the guests is just a ruse to keep me from watching CNN, totally spoiling my Thursday morning routine.”
“All that talk about the troops pulling out of Afghanistan just brings back bad memories for you,” Grandpa Beck said matter-of-factly. He paused, looked back at her and breathed in the clear, fresh mountain air. “This,” he said, his arms spread wide to include all of nature, “is so much better for you. Besides, the place I’m going to show you will be a good hiking destination when we open up again next week.”
Mina laughed shortly. She had to admit that living and working with her grandfather at his lodge had been good for her. She had spent ten years of her life in the military. Four years at a military academy and six years as an army helicopter pilot. Her last hitch had been in Afghanistan where she’d lost the love of her life, Keith Armstrong, who was killed by an improvised explosive device. After Keith’s death, her heart was no longer in making the military her chosen career. So, when her hitch was over, she had not re-upped. Now she felt kind of like a fish out of water. But the past year or so, up here near the Cherokee reservation and the Great Smoky Mountains, her soul had felt more at home than it had in a very long time.
She smiled at her grandfather. He was a trim man of average height with long, wavy snow-white hair that he wore pulled back in a ponytail. His weather-beaten brown skin was the color of well-worn leather. In his youth he’d been a handsome man. He was still striking, although, as he liked to say, he’d earned every wrinkle on his face and he was proud of them.
“Stop grinning, and keep moving,” Grandpa Beck ordered brusquely, turning to continue their trek. “We’ve got a couple more miles to go before we reach that ridge I was telling you about.”
Mina paused to grab a bottle of water from her backpack. Drinking deeply, she peered up at the crystalline-blue September sky and spotted a plane coming toward them. Its trajectory was way off. It was flying far too low to even clear some of the tops of the nearby trees.
As it got closer she could hear its engines. Her pilot’s ears told her the plane was definitely in distress. That intermittent sputter or hitch in the engine was not normal.
Her grandfather was watching it, too, a frown marring his features. “Is it supposed to sound like that?” he asked.
Mina was paying close attention to the plane while putting her water bottle away and securing her backpack. “No, it’s not. I think they’re going down.”
“Are you sure?” Benjamin hesitated. “Maybe it can still get control of itself.”
Then the sound of the engine went completely silent, the plane disappeared from view, and they heard the thunderous boom of a crash. A look passed between granddaughter and grandfather. They knew that they quite possibly could mean the difference between life and death for the occupants of that plane.
Mina took out her cell phone to see if she could get a signal. Just as she had suspected, there was none. There were no cell phone towers in the vicinity.
“Grandpa,” said Mina as she stuck the phone in her jacket pocket. “We can’t call anybody, so you need to get back to the lodge and contact the forest rangers or mountain rescue. I’m going to the crash site to see if there are any survivors.”
“The site could be miles away,” Benjamin protested. “And we’re at least five miles from the lodge. I should stay with you in case we have to carry someone out of here.”
Mina was shaking her head. “There could be more than one survivor. Plus, I’m going to have to hustle, and I can make better time without you,” she told him frankly. “You know these mountains. If anyone can point the rescuers in the right direction, it’s you.”
Benjamin reluctantly nodded in agreement. He went into his backpack and handed over his extra water and energy bars. “You might need these before it’s over with.”
Mina accepted his provisions and shoved them into her backpack. “I’m going now,” she said. “Be careful going back down the mountain, Grandpa.”
“I’ll be okay,” Benjamin said. “You’re the one walking into an unknown situation. Better put on your captain persona, baby girl.”
Mina smiled at him and gave him a thumbs-up before turning and rapidly walking in the direction in which she’d seen the plane go down.
Captain was the rank she’d earned while in the army. No one had called her that in two years.
After half an hour, she realized that even though she could guess in which direction the plane’s wreckage could be found, she needed more accurate information than that to go on. So she decided to climb a tree to see if she could spot the downed plane from above. It had been a while since she’d had to scale a tree, although she and her sisters had done it all the time when they were kids, and she had done it on weekends as part of endurance training while in the army.
Removing her backpack and dropping it onto the ground beneath a fifty-foot pine tree, she put on the supple leather fingerless gloves that she had in her backpack to protect her hands while rock climbing. She kept her jacket on to protect her arms and chest from the rough bark of the tree. She removed her rubber-soled hiking boots and thick socks because bare feet gave her more traction. She took hold of the tree trunk and shinnied up the tree enough to grasp an upper branch. Then she carefully climbed from branch to branch until she was about thirty feet up. Muscles she had forgotten she had burned with the effort. She looked around. There, to the south, was the plane resting on its back. She didn’t see any rising plumes of smoke, which she figured was a good thing.
Getting down out of the tree was much easier