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By Sandra Brown
Read by Victor Slezak
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Rye Mallett, a fearless “freight dog” pilot charged with flying cargo to far-flung locations, is rough-spoken and all business, but soft on regulations when they get in the way of meeting a deadline. But above all, he has a rock-solid reputation: he will fly in the foulest weather, day or night, and deliver the goods safely to their destination. So when Rye is asked to fly into a completely fogbound northern Georgia town and deliver a mysterious black box to a Dr. Lambert, he doesn’t ask questions.
As Rye’s plane nears the isolated landing strip, more trouble than inclement weather awaits him. Greeted with a sabotage attempt on his plane, he has barely recovered from the crash landing when he meets Dr. Brynn O’Neal, who claims she is receiving the box for Dr. Lambert. Though he has a strict “no-involvement policy” when it comes to others’ problems, Rye finds himself being irresistibly drawn in to the intrigue surrounding his cargo . . . and to the mysterious and alluring Brynn.
Soon Rye and Brynn are in a treacherous forty-eight-hour race to deliver the box. With everyone from law enforcement officials to hired guns hot on their heels, they must learn to trust each other to protect their valuable cargo from those who would kill for it.
No. Not doing it.”
“When I called, you were Johnny on the spot.”
“But I didn’t know then about the weather. It’s socked in solid, Dash.”
“Fog ain’t solid. You can fly through it, you know. Like clouds. Or didn’t your online flight school teach that?”
The young pilot rolled his eyes. “They closed Atlanta. Closed it. How often does that happen? It must be bad, or the airport wouldn’t have been shut down the night before Thanksgiving. Be reasonable.”
Dash pressed his beefy hand over his heart. “I’m reasonable. I’m the soul of reason. The client, on the other hand…He don’t care the airport’s shut down. He wants this box here”—he slapped his hand down on top of the black metal container sitting on the counter behind him—“to get there”—he pointed in a generally southern direction—“tonight. I guaranteed him that it would.”
“Then you’ve got a customer relations problem.”
He was called Dash, first because the few who’d ever known his real name had forgotten it, and, second, because the name of his charter and airfreight company was Dash-It-All.
Older than he owned up to being, Dash had a potbelly that served the same purpose as a cowcatcher on a locomotive: Little could stand in the path of his stomping tread. Always under a deadline, his singular expression was a scowl.
As menacing as that glower was, however, thus far it hadn’t fazed the pilot who was resistant to taking off from Columbus, Ohio, for Atlanta, where, for holiday travelers, the weather was screwing with tight schedules and well-laid plans.
And if airfreight was your business, satisfaction guaranteed, it was screwing with your livelihood.
Frustrated, Dash clamped down on an unlit cigar and worked it between his stained teeth. Smoking was prohibited in the fixed base operator. His rules. But also, his cigars. So he gnawed on one whenever somebody was giving him a hassle he didn’t need. As now.
“No real flyer would get squeamish over a little fog,” he said.
The pilot gave him a look.
Okay. Only to himself, Dash conceded that it was more than a little fog. It was the likes of which no one alive had ever seen. People along the Atlantic seaboard had awakened this morning to find their cities and towns engulfed. The fog had created traffic hazards and general havoc over the eastern third of the United States and showed no signs of lifting.
The Weather Channel was getting a ratings boost. Meteorologists were practically giddy over the phenomenon, which one had described as “biblical,” and another had called “epochal.” Dash wasn’t sure what that meant, but it sounded grim. What the blasted fog meant to him was lost revenue.
At Hartsfield-Jackson and other major airports in a double-digit number of states, passenger flights and cargo carriers had been grounded on this Thanksgiving eve when it seemed that everybody in the nation was trying to get from wherever they were to someplace else. Dash figured it would take till Christmas for the carriers to unsnarl the mess, but that was of no concern to him.
His concern was keeping his fleet of airplanes in the air, shuttling stuff that people paid to have shuttled in the shortest amount of time possible. Birds nesting in the hangar didn’t make money. He needed this pilot to grow a pair, and quick, so he could back up the guarantee he’d made to his client, a Dr. Lambert, that this box would reach Atlanta before morning.
Hoping to shame the young aviator into taking off, Dash looked him up and down with unconcealed scorn. “You could make it fine if you wanted to bad enough. Scared of the fog, or scared you won’t be back tomorrow in time for your mama’s turkey dinner and pumpkin pie?”
“I’m waiting it out, Dash. End of discussion.”
The pilot was on the shy side of thirty. Even at this time of night, he was clean-shaven and smartly dressed in black slacks and white shirt. His eyes were clear, like he hadn’t violated the FAA’s bottle-to-throttle minimum of an eight-hour abstention from alcohol before flying, and also had gotten that many hours of sleep.
Dash had years of experience sizing up flyers of every caliber, from top guns to crop dusters. He gauged this one as an uptight stickler who flew by the book and wouldn’t know an aeronautical instinct if it bit him in the ass. He abided by the rules no matter what. All the rules. All the time. No exceptions.
Dash wanted to strangle him.
Curbing that impulse, he tried again. “You’ll be jockeying the Beechcraft. Just had it overhauled, you know. All the latest technology. New seats. Cushy as they come.”
The pilot stood his ground. “When the weather in Atlanta clears, and the airport reopens—”
“A decade from now!” Dash interrupted in a shout. “If they reopened right this minute, it’d be hours before they work through the stack-up. By then your tuna fish sandwiches will have spoiled.” The client had agreed to pay for a catered box lunch for the “crew.” It had been delivered wrapped up all nice in a white pasteboard box. It, too, sat on the counter behind them.
In an ominous mutter, Dash added, “They’ll have spoiled or been snatched.”
He cast a look across the lobby toward the sofa against the far wall. The couch was an eyesore. Its turquoise-and-tan plaid upholstery was lumpy, stringy, greasy in spots, and stained with not even God knew what.
But its condition seemed not to matter to the man stretched out along it. He lay on his back, hands linked over his stomach, a years-old aviation magazine with curled pages tented over his face while he slept.
Dash came back around to the pilot. Still speaking in an undertone, he said, “We get all kinds passing through here, you know.”
“I’ll guard my lunch until I can take off.”
Dash exhaled with agitation. “It’s not like your cargo is a rodeo bull.”
He had actually flown one such snorting mean bastard from Cheyenne to Abilene in a DC-3. Damn thing had bucked all the way there. The bull, not the plane, which had been a sweetheart. That was 1985, if he was remembering right. Back when he was young and wild and thin. Well…thinner.
He sighed with nostalgia for the good ol’ days then resumed his argument with the pilot. “All you’ll be carrying tonight is this fancy tackle box.”
“The airport is closed, Dash.”
“The big mama, yeah. But—”
“And so is every FBO in a two-hundred-mile radius of Atlanta.”
Dash shifted the cigar from one side of his mouth to the other, then held up both hands in surrender. “Okay. You win. I’ll cut you in for a larger share.”
“I can’t spend extra pay if I’m dead.”
Dash bit off the soggy end of his cigar and spat the wad into the trash can. “You’re not gonna get dead.”
“Right. Because I’m not flying until the fog dissipates and the airport reopens. The plane is fueled and ready to roll when we get the thumbs-up. Okay? Can we drop it?” He pulled himself up taller. “Now, the crucial question. Is the popcorn machine still busted?” With that, the pilot turned and followed the odor of scorched corn kernels toward the hallway that led to the pilot’s lounge.
Dash’s cell phone rang. “Hold on. Maybe this’ll be your thumbs-up.”
The pilot stopped and turned. Dash answered his phone. “Yeah?” When the caller identified himself, Dash held up an index finger, indicating that it was the call he’d hoped for. It was his counterpart who’d brokered the charter at a private fixed base operator attached to Hartsfield-Jackson.
“Yeah, yeah, he’s ready. Good to go. Chomping at the bit,” he added, skewering the pilot with his glare “Huh? Divert to where?” His frown deepened as he listened for another half minute. “No, I don’t think that’ll be a problem.” Even as he said that, he knew better. “No PCL system? You’re sure somebody’ll be there to turn on the lights?”
The pilot flinched. A pilot-controlled lighting system would have enabled him to turn on the runway lights from his cockpit.
“Okay,” Dash said. “Email me the particulars. Got it.” He clicked off and said to the pilot, “We’re in luck. There’s an FBO outside a small town in northern Georgia. The client will meet you there. He’s leaving Atlanta now by car. It’s a two, two-and-a-half-hour drive, but he’s willing—”
“Northern Georgia? In the mountains?”
Dash made a dismissive gesture. “Not big ones. Foothills.”
“Is it controlled?”
“No. But the landing strip is plenty long enough for this aircraft if you, uh, set down at the very end of it, and the crosswinds aren’t too strong.” Reading his pilot’s dubious expression, he snapped his fingers. “Better idea.”
“I wait for Atlanta to reopen.”
“You take the 182.”
The pilot sputtered a laugh. “That bucket? I don’t think so.”
Dash glowered. “That bird was flying long before your daddy was born.”
Which was the wrong thing to boast because the pilot chuckled again. “My point exactly.”
“Okay, so it’s not as young and spiffy as the Beechcraft, and it’s seen some wear and tear, but it’s reliable, and it’s here, and you’re going. I’ll gas her up while you file your flight plan. Name of the place is—”
“Hold on, Dash. I signed on for the Beechcraft, flying into a controlled airport, not chancing it in uncontrolled airspace over mountainous terrain, in pea soup, and landing on a short strip where there’s likely to be strong crosswinds. And hoping that somebody will be there to turn on the runway lights?” He shook his head. “Forget it.”
“I’ll pay you triple.”
“Not worth it. I’d have to be crazy. Up to you to head off the client and make him understand that nobody can deliver tonight whatever is in that box. He’ll get it when the weather improves. I’ll continue to monitor it and get on my way as soon as I can.”
“You pass on this, you’re history with my outfit.”
“Not so. You need pilots too bad.” He picked up the boxed lunch and took it with him as he crossed the lobby and headed down the hallway.
Dash swore under his breath. He’d issued an empty threat, and the smug son of a bitch knew it. He needed pilots rated for several categories, classes, and types of aircraft who could climb into a cockpit and fly at a moment’s notice.
This one was an asshole, but he was a bachelor and therefore more available than the men with families. He was eager to chalk up hours that he could eventually peddle to a commercial passenger carrier.
And, truth be told, to fly into that backwoods airfield under these more-than-iffy conditions, he would have to be altogether crazy. He wasn’t. He was a levelheaded pilot who didn’t take unnecessary risks.
Dash needed the other kind.
He looked across the lobby toward the sofa, shifted his cigar again, hiked his pants up beneath his substantial overlap, and took a deep breath. “Uh, Rye?”
The man lying on the sofa didn’t respond.
“Rye,” Dash said more loudly, “you awake?” The sprawled form remained motionless, but Dash continued. “I’ve got a situation here. Rotten kickoff to the holiday season, and you know that’s when I make half my year’s income. This guy’s turned pussy on me, and—”
Dash stopped talking when Rye Mallett lifted the old magazine off his face. He rolled up and swung his feet to the floor. “Yeah, I heard.” He stood, tossed down the magazine, and reached for his bomber jacket and flight bag. “Where am I flying?”
Rye had opted not to take the Beechcraft for the reasons cited by the other pilot, whose name he didn’t know and couldn’t care less about. Dash had put the Cessna 182 through its preflight check while Rye accessed a computer in one of the waiting areas. He’d gone onto a website that provided aerial photos of airports.
He’d studied the bird’s-eye view picture of the Howardville County Airfield, made note of the lay of the land and how the FBO fit into the landscape, then printed out the photo to take with him.
He called flight service and filed his flight plan using instrument flight rules. He would be relying on instruments from takeoff to landing. Nothing unusual about that, but the fog was.
Wanting to get the skinny, and not from someone in a TV studio with capped teeth and cemented hair, he’d logged on to several flight-related blogs to see what the chatter was. As expected, nearly all the messages posted today had been about the fog and the hell it was creating. The pilots who’d flown in it were warning others about vast areas of zero visibility.
Typing in his user name on one of the sites, Rye had posted a question about Howardville. He’d received a flurry of replies, the first of which was, “If ur thinking of flying into there tonight, what color flowers do you want on your casket?”
Another: “Beware the power lines. If u make it as far as the landing strip alive, brace yourself. That bitch is a washboard.”
Similar posts had followed, words of caution spiced with graveyard humor and the irreverent quipping that was universal among aviators who didn’t wear uniforms. The upshot of the online conversation was that one would be wise not to fly into Rye’s destination tonight.
But Rye often received such warnings, and he flew anyway.
Even Dash had seemed uncharacteristically concerned. The only thing Rye had ever seen the older man get sentimental over was a three-legged cat that had hobbled into the hangar one day. The animal was emaciated and flea-ridden. It hissed and scratched at anybody who went near it. But Dash had taken a shine to it and had fed it until it was strong enough to hobble off. Which it did one night, never to be seen again. When Rye asked after it, Dash had told him with noticeable gruffness in his voice, “Ungrateful bastard run off.”
Rye had gotten a glimpse of Dash’s well-hidden softer side then, and again now as Dash escorted him out onto the tarmac where the Cessna workhorse sat ready.
Dash grunted as he bent down to remove the chocks from the wheels and, after grumbling about his damned trick knee, said, “The box is buckled into the copilot seat.”
Rye nodded and was about to step up into the cockpit, but Dash cleared his throat, signaling that he had more to say. He removed the cigar from his mouth and regarded the unlit tip of it. “You know, Rye, I wouldn’t be asking you to fly tonight except that it’s the start of the holiday season and—”
“You already said that.”
“Well. And, anyhow, you’re the best pilot for this type of flying.”
“In lieu of flattery, how about a bonus?”
“Besides,” Dash continued without addressing the mention of a bonus, “I doubt it’s as bad as they’re letting on.”
“I doubt that, too. It’s probably worse.”
Dash nodded as though he also feared that might be the case. “After you make the delivery, don’t worry about flying right back.”
“You’re all heart, Dash.”
“But if you could return her by noon tomorrow—”
“I know that’s a quick turnaround, but you don’t require a lot of sleep.”
Rye had conditioned himself to function well on as little sleep as possible, not only because that particular skill made him more flexible when it came to FAA regulations—and cargo carriers appreciated flexibility in their freelance pilots—but also because the less he slept, the less he dreamed.
Dash was saying something about the pilot’s hoarded boxed lunch. “I could weasel a sandwich out of his stingy self if you want to take one with you.”
“Can’t stand tuna.”
“No, me neither. There may be a couple of stale doughnuts left over from this morning.”
Rye shook his head.
Dash worried the cigar between his teeth. “Look, Rye, you sure you’re—”
“What’s with the hand-holding, Dash? Are you working up to kissing me goodbye?”
Dash’s comeback was swift and obscene. He turned and lumbered back into the building. Rye climbed into the cockpit, called flight service and got his clearance, then, after a short taxi, took off.
When he was only a few miles from his destination, Atlanta Center cleared him for the VOR approach. Rye told the controller he would cancel his flight plan once he was safely on the ground.
“Good luck with that,” the guy said, sounding very much like he meant it.
Rye signed off and tuned to the FBO’s frequency. “This is November nine seven five three seven. Anybody home?”
There were crackles in Rye’s ears, then, “I’m here. Brady White. You Mallett?”
“Who else have you got coming in?”
“Nobody else is crazy enough to try. I hope you make it just so I can shake your hand. Maybe even scare up a beer for you.”
“I’ll hold you to it. I’m on VOR/DME approach, ten miles out at four thousand feet, and about to do my first step-down. Go ahead and pop the lights.”
“Lights are on.”
“Descending to thirty-two hundred feet. Still can’t see crap. What’s your ceiling?”
“It’s whiteout almost all the way to the ground,” Brady White told him.
“Got any more good news?”
The man laughed. “Don’t cheat on the last step-down, because there are power lines about a quarter mile from the runway threshold.”
“Yeah, they’re on the chart. How bad are the crosswinds?”
Brady gave him the degree and wind velocity. “Light for us, but it’s a mixed blessing. A little stronger, it’d blow away this fog.”
“Can’t have everything.” Rye kept close watch on his altimeter. Remembering the name on the shipment paperwork, he asked, “Dr. Lambert there?”
“Not yet, but due. What are you hauling?”
Rye glanced over at the black box. “Didn’t ask, don’t know.”
“All the hurry-up, I figure it must be a heart or something.”
“Didn’t ask, don’t know. Don’t care.”
“Then how come you’re doing this?”
“Because this is what I do.”
After a beat, Brady said, “I hear your engine. You see the runway yet?”
Brady chuckled. “Make that two beers.”
On his windshield, beads of moisture turned into wiggly streams. Beyond them, he could see nothing except fog. If conditions were as Brady described, Rye probably wouldn’t see the landing strip lights until he was right on top of them and ready to set down. Which made him glad he’d elected to fly the smaller plane and didn’t have to worry about overshooting the end of the runway and trying to stop that Beechcraft before plowing up ground at the far end. Also, he had near-empty fuel tanks, so he was landing light.
No, he wasn’t nervous. He trusted the instruments and was confident he could make a safe landing. As bad as conditions were, he’d flown in worse.
All the same, he was ready to get there and hoped that Dr. Lambert would show up soon. He looked forward to having the doctor sign off on the delivery so he could raid the vending machine—assuming Brady’s outfit had one—then crawl into the back of the plane to sleep.
Dash had removed the two extra seats to allow more cargo space. To save him the expense of a motel room for overnighters, he’d provided a sleeping bag. It stank of sweat and men. No telling how many pilots had farted in it, but tonight Rye wouldn’t mind it.
The nap he’d taken at Dash-It-All was wearing off. Sleeping wasn’t his favorite pastime, but he needed a few hours before heading back tomorrow morning.
He reminded himself to make sure Brady didn’t lock him out of the building when he left for home. Otherwise Rye wouldn’t have access to the toilet. Assuming there was a toilet. He’d flown into places where—
He saw the runway lights flicker through the fog. “Okay, Brady. I’ve got a visual on your lights. Is that beer good and cold?”
“Brady, did you nod off?”
In the next instant, a laser beam was shone into the windshield and speared Rye right between the eyes.
Instinctually he raised his left hand to shield his eyes. Several seconds later, the piercing light went out. But the damage had been done. He’d been blinded at the most critical point of his landing.
He processed all this within a single heartbeat.
The ground would be coming up fast. Crashing was almost a given, and so was dying.
His last thought: About fucking time.
Pilot training, reflex, and survival instinct kicked in. Despite his blasé acceptance of almost certain death, Rye automatically and unemotionally began to think through options and react in a way that would better his chances to live and tell about this.
And he had milliseconds in which to do it.
Instinctively he eased back on the yoke to tilt the craft’s nose up and pulled back the throttle to reduce his airspeed, but not so much that he would stall.
If he could achieve a touch-and-go on the airstrip and stay airborne long enough for his vision to clear, he could possibly do a go-around and make another approach.
He would like to manage it just so he could kill Brady White.
But below him wasn’t wide-open spaces. If he overshot the runway without enough altitude, he would clip treetops. If he gained enough altitude to clear the trees, he would still have to get above the foothills, and he no longer trusted his ability to gauge their distance. With the fog, and purple and yellow spots exploding in his eyeballs, he was flying by feel.
Likely case: He didn’t stand a snowball’s chance in hell. He couldn’t see his instruments for the frenzied dancing dots in front of his eyes. Without the instruments, his spatial orientation was shot. He could be flying the plane straight into the bosom of Mother Earth.
And then ahead and slightly to his left, he spotted a lighter patch of fog that intensified into a brighter glow that soon separated into two beams of light spaced closely together. Looked like headlights. A parking lot? No, the road. The road he’d noted in the aerial picture of the airfield. In any case, the lights gave him some indication of how close he was to the ground.
No time to ponder it. He went into an ever so slight left bank and aimed the craft toward the lights.
Nose up enough to clear the headlights.
Easy easy easy, don’t stall.
The plane sailed over the lights, stayed airborne for maybe another forty or fifty yards, and then hit the ground hard. The plane bounced back into the air a few feet. When it came down again, it did so on the left and front wheels only. Then the right gear collapsed. The plane slewed to the right, the right wing dipped, and, catching the ground, whipped the craft into an even sharper right turn, which Rye was powerless to correct.
His instantaneous reaction was to stand on the brakes, but if the wheels had been torn off or even badly damaged, the hydraulic line would’ve been cut, so brakes were useless.
The plane skidded off the road and into the woods. A tree branch caught the windshield. The Plexiglas remained intact, but the cracks created a web that obscured his vision all the more.
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- Jun 25, 2019
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