"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 they teach that in your online flight school?”
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 the general direction of Atlanta—“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 air freight company was Dash- It-All.
Older than he owned up to being, he had a pot belly that served the same purpose as a cow catcher on a locomotive. Little stood in the path of his stomping tread. Always under a deadline, he wore a singular expression—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 for Atlanta where, for holiday travelers, the weather was screwing with tight schedules and well-laid plans.
If air freight 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, and 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, who had insisted on this box reaching Atlanta tonight.
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 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 coffee and corn kernels toward the hallway that led to the pilots’ 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 FBO attached to Hartsfield-Jackson.
“Yeah, yeah, he’s ready. Good to go. Champing at the bit,” he said, 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. “You’re sure somebody’ll be there to turn on the runway lights?”
The pilot flinched.
“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. Howardville. 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 crosswind isn’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 to fly into a controlled airport, not chance 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 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.”
The pilot snuffled. “Not so. You need pilots too bad.” He crossed the lobby and headed down the dimly lit 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 in 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 pilots with families. He was eager to chalk up hours that he later could peddle to a commercial passenger carrier.
And, truth be told, to fly into that backwoods FBO 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 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 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 mag- azine, and reached for his bomber jacket and flight bag. “Where am I going?”
Dash put the Cessna through its preflight check while Rye went into the briefing room. Using the computer there, he went onto a web site that provided aerial photos of airports. He studied the bird’s-eye 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 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 logged onto several flight-related blogs to see what the chatter was. As expected, nearly all the messages posted today were 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 anonymous user name on one of the sites, Rye posted a question about Howardville. He 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 wash- board.”
Similar posts 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 seemed uncharacteristically concerned when he escorted Rye out onto the tarmac where the Cessna workhorse sat ready. He 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.
“Did you schedule a refueling stop?”
“No. It’ll go the distance on full tanks.”
“If nothing goes wrong.”
Dash removed the cigar from his mouth and regarded the tip of it. “You know, Rye, I wouldn’t be asking you to fly tonight except that it’s the holiday season and—”
“You already said that.”
“Well. And, anyhow, you’re the best pilot for this type of flying.”
“Skip the flattery. Pay me a bonus instead.”
“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, do you?”
No, he didn’t. 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 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 and, 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 IFR 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 four three. 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. “Dr. Lambert there yet?” he asked, remembering the name of the client on his paperwork.
“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.”
His windshield was clear but he couldn’t see anything through it 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. He’d flown drunk 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 make room for 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 al- most 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 to tell about this.
And he had milliseconds in which to do it.
Instinctually 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 could fly into the face of a foothill. It would be near impossible to pull off such a maneuver with ideal weather conditions and perfect vision. But 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? A 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, throwing the plane to the right. The right gear collapsed, the wing dipped, and, catching the ground, whipped the craft into a sharper right turn that 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 had too much momentum for brakes to do much good anyway. It skidded off the road and into the woods. A tree branch caught the windshield. The Plexiglass remained intact, but the cracks created a web that obscured his vision all the more.
The Cessna hit an obstacle with such impetus that the nose crumpled, and the tail left the ground before dropping back down with a jolt that made Rye bite his tongue when his teeth clamped.
He was rattled but cognizant enough to realize that, impossibly, he was on terra firma and still breathing. The plane wasn’t engulfed in flames—one benefit of dangerously stretching the fuel range and landing with tanks that were almost dry.
He was alive.
He allowed himself time to catch his breath, slow his heart rate, and run through a mental checklist for likely injuries. The purple and yellow dots were dissipating. He could see well enough. He wasn’t hurting anywhere, only feeling pressure against his torso from the yoke that the cockpit panel had jammed against his chest.
The plane was so old it didn’t have a shoulder restraint, only a lap belt. He labored to get it unbuckled, but eventually was free of it. The door on his left appeared undamaged. He unlatched it and shoved it open. Cold, damp air rushed in. He sucked in a lungful of air and expelled it through his mouth.
It took several tries and teeth-gnashing effort, but he squeezed himself from beneath the yoke, out of the seat, and through the opening. His flight bag was on the floor in front of the copilot seat, crammed underneath the panel. It was a strain to reach it, but he snagged the leather strap and wrangled the bag free. He pulled it out of the cockpit and tossed it to the ground.
That left only the black box.
In a crash situation, the pilot was allowed by the FAA to take only his flight bag from the plane. Everything else was to be left as it was until an accident report was filed with the FAA and it was determined whether or not an onsite investigation was necessary.
But, remembering the urgency behind this cargo, he released the seat belt, then picked up the box and cradled it in his left elbow. As he backed out, he shut the door of the plane, then hopped to the ground like he’d done roughly ten thousand times over the course of his career.
Only this time his knees gave way. He went to the dirt and was very glad that nobody was there to see his impersonation of a rag doll. Apparently he was more shaken than he’d realized.
He sat up, bowed his head low between his raised knees, and concentrated on taking deep, even breaths. He stayed like that long enough for the dampness of the ground to seep into the seat of his jeans.
Eventually he raised his head and opened his eyes. He was wrapped in fog and total darkness, but his vision was clear. No more dancing spots. He could distinguish the two fingers he held up.
He didn’t realize till then that he’d been thrust forward on impact and had banged his head. Tentatively exploring, he discovered a goose egg at his hairline, but it couldn’t be too bad. His vision wasn’t blurred, he didn’t need to puke, and he hadn’t blacked out, so he ruled out a concussion. He was just coming down from an adrenaline surge, that’s all.
He rested the back of his head against the fuselage and swiped his forehead with the back of his hand. It came away wet with sweat, while inside his bomber jacket he was shivering.
He wasn’t too bothered by it, though. His shakes weren’t anything a good belt of bourbon wouldn’t cure.
Having reached that conclusion, he dragged his flight bag toward him and unzipped it. Fishing inside it, he found his flashlight and switched it on. With the black box still in the crook of his left arm and the shoulder strap of his bag on his right shoulder, he braced himself against the fuselage and stood up to test his equilibrium.
He wasn’t in top form, but he was okay. He ducked beneath the wing and moved toward the plane’s nose. The freakin’ tree he’d crashed into had to be the biggest one in Georgia. It was massive. With only the flashlight for illumination, he surveyed the damage to the aircraft.
He could see enough to know that Dash was going to be pissed.
He sat down again, this time with his back propped against the trunk of the tree, and pulled his cell phone from the pocket of his jacket. When he saw that the screen was busted, and the phone wouldn’t come on, he searched his flight bag for his spare. He couldn’t recall the last time he’d used it, or charged it, and, sure enough, it was as dead as a hammer. Atlanta Center needed to be told that he was on the ground, but he couldn’t notify them until he got to a working telephone.
Muttering a litany of obscenities, he looked around him, but he couldn’t see a damn thing except fog and more fog. The flashlight’s beam was strong, but instead of penetrating the fog, it reflected off it and made it appear even more opaque. He switched off the flashlight to conserve the battery. Left in the dark, he considered his situation.
If he was smart, he would sit here, maybe nap, and wait for the fog to lift.
But he was madder than he was smart. He wanted to go after Brady White and beat the living shit out of him.
He’d been so busy trying to avert a catastrophe, he hadn’t had time until now to contemplate why the guy would sweet-talk him to the end of the landing strip and then hit him with a goddamn laser. It had to have been a fancy one in order to penetrate the fog and impact his vision as it had.
Brady White had seemed a likable character, and a bit in awe of Rye. Not like somebody who had it in for him.
But who else besides Brady White had even known Rye was flying in? Dr. Lambert. But he hadn’t arrived yet, and even if he had, why would he book this charter to get the payload here tonight, and then sabotage the plane? Made no sense.
Made no sense why Brady White had sabotaged him, either, but Rye was going to find out and then teach him a hard lesson in aviation safety that, for the rest of his natural life, he would remember. Rye wanted to inflict pain and regret in equal portions.
In anticipation of that, he looked around, trying to orient himself. Once he reached the road he’d seen, he would be able to find his way to the FBO office. He only hoped that while thrashing through the woods in search of the road, he wouldn’t stumble over a fallen tree and fracture a leg bone, or step off into a ravine and break his neck. Best to get on with it, though.
He shouldered his bag and was about to stand when, out of the corner of his eye, he caught a diffused light making a sweeping motion through the woods.
So, he didn’t have to go in search of Brady Boy, after all. Brady had come looking for him. Like an arsonist watching the building burn, this sick bastard wanted to gloat over the destruction he’d brought about.
Well, Brady White had no idea what he’d let himself in for.
Moving quickly but creating as little sound as possible, Rye duck-walked around the trunk of the tree and out of sight. Without taking his eyes off the fuzzy orb of light bouncing in the fog, he reached into his flight bag and unzipped the inside pocket where he kept his Glock pocket pistol. He covered the slide with his palm to help mute the sound as he chambered a bullet.
He watched from his hunkered position behind the tree as a dark form materialized in the fog. White’s flashlight wasn’t substantial. In fact its beam was rather yellow and sickly, but on one of its sweeps around the clearing, it moved past the aircraft’s tail, then swiftly reversed and spotlighted the tail number. He froze in place, one foot still raised.
Rye didn’t move, barely breathed. He could hear the hand on his wristwatch ticking off the seconds. After ten, the guy lowered his foot and continued walking toward the plane but in a much more hesitant tread. He moved the light along the fuselage until it shone on the smashed nose.
Cautious still, he continued forward. The fog made him indistinct, but Rye could tell that he was dressed head to toe in dark clothing, the hood of his coat covering his head.
Rye’s first impulse was to rush him, but he savored the guy’s obvious hesitancy. Who would deliberately disable a pilot in flight from a safe distance on the ground? Only a damn coward. Rye’s anger surged at the thought. His hand tightened around the hilt of the small Glock, but he decided not to do anything until he saw what this stealthy son of a
bitch would do next.
When the guy reached the wing, he bent to clear his head as he walked under it, then aimed the flashlight up
at the window on the pilot’s door. The angle was wrong and the beam too weak for him to see into the cockpit. He seemed to debate it for several moments, then climbed up until he could reach the door latch and open it.
It was obvious to Rye that he had expected a body to be strapped into the pilot’s seat because he reacted with a start and shone the flashlight around the cockpit. Rye could see the beam crazily darting behind the cracked windshield.
The guy pulled back, gave a furtive look around, then hastily scrambled down and started walking back in the direction from which he’d come, no longer hesitant. In fact, he was moving in a big damn hurry.
“I don’t think so.” Rye lurched to his feet and charged.
The tackle almost knocked the breath out of Rye, so he knew his saboteur had borne the brunt of it, and that gave him a tremendous amount of satisfaction.
The flashlight was dropped and landed on the ground a few feet away from where they tussled. White reached for it, but Rye wrapped his arms tight around the torso beneath his, pinning the guy’s arms to his sides and rendering his legs useless by straddling them and practically sitting on his butt.
“What’s the matter, jerk off? Did you expect to find my bloody corpse in the pilot’s seat? Well, surprise.”
He flipped him over, grabbed a flailing wrist in each of his hands, even as his right maintained a grip on the nine millimeter. He forced the guy’s arms out to his sides and flattened the backs of them against the rocky ground.
As angry as he’d ever been in his life, he growled, “I want to know just what the fuck—”
He broke off when he realized that the eyes glaring up at him were set in a soft, smooth face framed by a tumble of dark wavy hair. He said, “Who the hell are you?”
Rye recoiled in shock and looked down at the chest inches from his face, which was rising and falling with agitation . . . and was also indisputably female. “Dr. Lambert? I expected a man.”
Then she kneed him in the balls.
Damn!” She’d missed. He had sucked in a sharp breath of anticipation and shifted his hips just enough to prevent a direct hit. Teeth clenched, she said, “Get off me.”
He didn’t. Instead, he secured her legs by pressing them more tightly between his. “You’re supposed to be at the FBO. What are you doing out here?”
“Why do you have a gun?”
“I asked first.”
Their eyes engaged in a contest of wills, but he was large, angry, strong, and on top of her, all of which gave him the advantage. “I missed the turnoff because of the fog. The road came to a dead end at a cyclone fence. I was about to turn around when your plane swooped in from out of nowhere. At least you missed my car when you crashed.”
“Wasn’t my fault.”
“No. The fact is, I kept the craft from falling out of the fucking sky which it would have done if I weren’t such a fucking good pilot. It took a hell of an effort to avoid taking your head off, lady. You should be thanking me.”
“Well, too bad. Gratitude isn’t exactly what I’m feeling for you right now. That plane scared me half to death. How did you miss the runway?”
“Someone—” He stopped before saying what he had in- tended to and changed it to a tersely said, “Power outtage.”
“On your plane?”
“These kinds of conditions, being able to see your instruments can mean the difference between living and dying. I managed to pull it off.” He continued to stare down at her with mistrust. She forced herself to hold his stare without shrinking, although he looked unscrupulous and kept her mindful of the gun in his hand.
“How long are you going to keep me pinned down? You’re hurting my hands, and there’s a rock planted in my left kidney.”
He didn’t react immediately, but then he must have decided that the standoff was pointless. He released her wrists, moved off her, and stood. He picked up the flash- light she’d dropped and shone it directly into her face, staying on it until she asked him with curt politeness to get it out of her eyes. He kept the flashlight on, but angled it away from her. It provided ambient light.
She sat up, rubbing the gouge on her back. “What’s your name?”
“Mr. Mallett,” she said in a murmur as she started to stand. He cupped her elbow to give her a boost. As soon as she was on her feet, she pulled her arm free and began brushing the dirt and twigs off the backs of her hands, now nicked and scratched. One had a smear of blood on it. She shot him an accusing look.
“Sorry,” he said. “I thought you were a guy.”
“It would have been nice if you’d made that distinction before coming after me. Armed. Was the gun really necessary?”
“If you have to stop and ask, then probably.”
“Do all pilots carry guns these days?”
“What other pilots do isn’t any of my business.”
She looked over at the plane. Even without being an expert on aircraft, to her the damage looked considerable. He’d been fortunate to walk away from it, much less have the strength to overpower her and keep her pinned down. “You don’t appear to be injured, Mr. Mallett. Are you all right?”
“Are you sure?”
“I’m fine. Do you know Brady White?”
“The man who owns the airfield? I talked to him on the phone tonight. He agreed to be here when you landed, although I don’t think he believed that you would actually fly in. He said—” She broke off when a thought occurred to her. “He did show up, didn’t he? He turned the lights on?”
“Yeah. He turned the lights on.”
“Good. He did what he was supposed to, then.”
“According to your directions.” His jaw was tense with what appeared to be cold fury. His eyes narrowed on her.
“What’s in that black box?”