her watch as she ran. It was a few minutes after one in the afternoon, several hours before sundown. She and Grandpa Beck had gotten an early start this morning. Hopefully their early start would bode well for any survivors of the crash. Search and rescue would have a more difficult time finding them in the dark. Plus, this being autumn in the mountains, nights could get very cold.
Leaning into her sprint, she ran on, praying all the while that when she reached the site she would find someone alive.
* * *
Jake groaned as he came to. For a moment, his vision was blurry. When his eyes did finally focus, everything still appeared screwy to him. Then he realized he was upside down. He was afraid to move in case something was broken. So he stayed still and took a mental inventory of his body. Where did it hurt? Pretty much everywhere was his answer. “John?”
His voice was barely a whisper. “John!” No reply.
“John, if you can hear me, please say something!”
No sounds issued from John Monahan. Jake sighed in despair.
His vision clearer now, he looked around. Shattered glass, pine needles, broken branches and wrapped bundles of drugs littered the floor. No, not the floor, he remembered. It was the ceiling of the plane, because they were upside down.
He took a couple of deep breaths. He couldn’t stay here like this. What if no one had seen them go down? Some parts of these mountains were very isolated. There was a possibility that the only way he was getting out of this predicament was by his own efforts.
First he had to figure out which, if any, parts of him were injured. So he started by wiggling his fingers and toes. All moved normally. Then he tried moving his arms and legs. Once again, they seemed in good shape. Next he turned his head. That was when he saw poor John slumped to the side with a tree branch stuck in his chest. Jake viciously cursed the fates. It wasn’t fair. The guy was trying to turn his life around. Now he was dead for doing the right thing.
Jake vowed that Charlie Betts would pay for this.
With new resolve, he reached over to unfasten his seat belt, realizing that as soon as he did so, he would fall to the roof of the plane. He anticipated a lot of pain when he did so, but he had no alternative.
Just as he was about to click the release button, he heard a noise. It sounded like someone was trying to force the door open. Then he could have sworn he heard a muffled voice on the other side of the door.
* * *
Mina pulled hard on the door. It seemed to be jammed. She braced one foot on the side of the plane and put her back into it. The door popped open suddenly, throwing her off balance and onto her backside. She got up and pulled the door all the way open and peered inside. “Hello, can anyone hear me?”
“Yeah, thank God, I can hear you!”
Mina gingerly stepped inside. The ceiling of the plane was covered in padded leather the same neutral tone as the interior’s six seats. She stepped around bundles of something that appeared to have been put in opaque garbage bags and then wrapped with duct tape for added security. Glass and pine needles and various-sized tree branches crunched underfoot.
“Are you alone?” she asked the man who had answered her.
“No, the pilot’s here beside me,” he said. “Please check him. He hasn’t said anything since I regained consciousness.”
“Okay, I’m getting closer,” Mina told him. Momentarily she was right beside him. As he’d asked, she checked the pilot first. She was horrified by the sight of the tree branch sticking out of his chest, but that didn’t stop her from feeling for a pulse. She’d seen worse-looking injuries in Afghanistan, and some of those soldiers had actually survived them. So she was thorough about checking for signs of life.
“I’m sorry,” she said after a couple of minutes, her tone solemn. “Your friend is gone.”
She heard a sharp intake of breath from the survivor and then a long exhale. “I was hoping I was wrong and he’d made it,” he said.
Mina moved close beside him as he hung upside down in his seat, and that was when he got a good look at her. She was twentysomething, about five-five, and slender. To him she had the face of an angel, a black angel with golden-brown skin and abundant black hair that she wore in braids down her back.
“Are you the advance person of a team of rescuers?” he joked.
Mina smiled as she began running her hand across his body, trying to ascertain the nature of his injuries. “My grandfather and I were hiking in the mountains when we saw your plane go down. We couldn’t get a cell-phone signal, so he’s on the way back down the mountain to notify the authorities. Until they get here, I’m all you’ve got.”
“It’s not that I don’t appreciate your help,” Jake said, “but I weigh two hundred pounds. I don’t think you could carry me if I’m unable to walk.”
Mina was still running her hands over his body. “Does anything on you hurt when I touch you?”
* * *
For a moment Jake forgot about the pain. He thought that must be a good sign. That a pretty woman could make him forget he’d just been in a plane crash. “I don’t think I have any broken bones,” he told her. “If you can help me out of this seat, I believe I can walk out of here under my own steam.”
“All right,” she agreed immediately. “I’m going to get close to you and spot you. You unfasten the seat belt on a count of three.”
Their eyes met. Mina’s dark brown eyes were encouraging. His probably looked doubtful. “Whenever you’re ready,” Mina said confidently.
Jake took a deep breath, counted out loud to three and hit the release button. Gravity did the rest. But what he had anticipated would be a painful experience was not, because the woman whom he had thought was not strong enough to carry him was supporting him securely in her arms. His legs felt weak initially, and when he felt the blood trickling down the bridge of his nose, he realized that he had a head injury. Being upside down, he had not noticed the blood. His hand went to his head.
The woman smiled at him. “It doesn’t look bad,” she told him. “I’ll take a look at it when we get outside.”
Jake’s legs felt stronger. Believing he could walk now, he gestured toward the door with a nod of his head. “Maybe we should get out of here. We’ve been lucky so far because the plane was nearly out of fuel when we crashed, but who knows?”
“I’m ready when you are,” Mina said.
They walked slowly to the exit, and Mina helped him step out of the plane onto the forest floor. He squinted up at the sky. It had taken Mina nearly three hours to reach the crash site after she’d spied it from her perch in the pine tree.
“Somehow I thought the sun would be lower in the sky,” he said. “It feels as though I’ve been in there for hours.”
“Only three hours,” Mina assured him as they continued walking away from the plane. “It was a bit after one when I heard the crash, and I got here about three hours later.”
He looked down at her in amazement. “I can’t believe you did that. You had no idea what you could be walking into. What made you do it?”
“Let’s find you a safe place to sit down before I tell you my life story, okay?” Mina said lightly.
“Easy,” Mina cautioned as she helped the stranger sit down with his back against a sugar maple tree. They were out of the copse of pines in which the plane had crashed. Mina thought it wise to put some distance between them and the plane. He’d mentioned that the fuel had been depleted before the crash, but better safe than sorry.
She saw that the scratch on his forehead was still bleeding and shrugged off her backpack to look inside for something