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Running from the Devil
EMMA CALDRIDGE WENT TO SLEEP IN FIRST CLASS ON A BRITISH Airlines flight from Miami to Bogotá, and woke sixty seconds before the plane was downed in the Colombian jungle.
It was the middle of the week in early August, and the half-empty plane contained business travelers, a few tourists, and Emma. A chemist and endurance racer, Emma was on a mission to reclaim her life. Dying in a plane crash would be a cruel twist of fate, but only one of the many cruel twists she’d endured this year.
She listened as the pilot’s voice came over the intercom, warning them that the airstrip he’d been ordered to use was too small for the jet and asking the passengers to assume crash position. Emma pulled her backpack out from under the seat in front of her and curled over it.
The plane pointed downward at an angle so extreme that Emma slid forward in her seat. The walls vibrated as the jet picked up speed. The engines whined while the plane tilted from side to side, as if the pilot and the copilot were in a battle for the controls. The other passengers started screaming.
The cabin depressurized and the temperature dropped so fast that ice formed on the windows right before Emma’s eyes. She tried to breathe, but her lungs felt like they were collapsing from the inside. The screaming passengers went silent, as if they no longer had enough breath to shriek. The ceiling opened up and the air masks dropped down, swaying on their rubber tubes. Emma snatched at her mask, yanking it once before sucking greedily into the yellow cup.
They hit the ground with a huge bang, still catapulting forward. The lights went out, plunging them into darkness. Only the tiny row of exit lights running along the floor remained on, illuminating their path to nowhere. Emma’s seat pulled away from the floor and she flew into the black.
EDWARD BANNER STOOD IN THE COMMUNICATIONS CENTER OF the United States Southern Command in Miami and watched as a breathless CNN correspondent broke the news about Flight 689 to the world. Carol Stromeyer, his company’s vice president, stood next to him.
“Did you brief CNN?” Banner said.
“I left that to the State Department. They’re trying to control the information flow.”
“Do we have a manifest?”
“British Airlines is faxing it now.”
“Was a marshal on board?”
“We don’t think so.”
Banner pulled a hand through his salt-and-pepper hair. His blue suit fit to perfection, and his tie formed a faultless knot at the neck of his custom-made shirt. Former military and current CEO of Darkview, a company that provided special forces personnel under contract to the Department of Defense, Banner brooked no wrinkles, slackers, or untidy Windsor knots. Despite his current age of forty-five, he could still shoot a rifle with deadly aim, dispatch an assailant with a well-placed kick, and outdrive the best of them behind the wheel of an armored Mercedes. Only he knew that his contact lenses were bifocals, his right hand sometimes shook from a bullet-wound injury he’d sustained fifteen years ago, and his left rotator cuff throbbed every time it rained.
“Any idea how this happened?”
Stromeyer sighed. “None. The pilot’s last communication was a routine check with the control tower. After that, silence.”
“Then why do we think it was hijacked?”
“It was a flight to Bogotá, but it turned long before and headed to the mountains.”
“Any chance that the instruments failed and sent the pilot off course?”
“Did it veer toward Venezuela?”
Stromeyer shook her head. “Don’t know. The hijacker turned off the tracking transponder. It could be anywhere.”
“Has anyone contacted the Colombian government?”
“Everyone has contacted the Colombian government. They claim to know nothing more than we do.”
“They’re lying. A jet that size doesn’t change its flight plan unannounced without someone noticing something. At the very least, land-based radar would paint the jet as it flew by.”
“They think it was downed in the northwestern mountains, near the Venezuelan border.”
“That’s the Freedom Fighters of Colombia territory.”
“And the drug cartels.”
“And way too close to Venezuela,” Banner said.
Stromeyer nodded. “Intelligence is trying to determine if anyone from that country had a hand in the incident. If they did, the press will go into a frenzy. It’ll take their focus off the Middle East.”
“What time do we brief the president?”
“In ten minutes,” Stromeyer said. “I’ll check for the fax and meet you there.”
Banner watched her leave. At forty, Carol Stromeyer was one of the best officers he’d ever met. She was as well trained as he in the fighting arts, but had never employed her skills in the field. She’d spent her early years in the administrative and noncombat roles routinely relegated to women in the army. She’d risen through the ranks by virtue of her almost uncanny ability to find any piece of information within five minutes, and her detailed knowledge of all things, and forms, bureaucratic. If a new unit needed commissioning, money needed assigning, or a whole army brigade needed moving, Stromeyer knew who to contact to get it done and what forms to file in triplicate to grease the wheels. When Banner left the special forces to start Darkview, she was the first person he’d recruited.
Banner figured she’d have the manifest in three minutes and detailed information on every passenger listed in under twenty-four hours.
He grabbed a notepad from his desk and headed to the meeting.
EMMA LANDED ON HER BACK IN SOME BUSHES, STILL STRAPPED into the seat. Her arms flung outward, and the backpack flew off her lap. An explosion ripped through the air, sending a wave of heat washing over her. She struggled to remove her seat belt, rolled off the seat, and staggered to her feet.
What she saw was Dante’s Inferno.
Emma stood to the right of the wreckage. The plane’s nose and what was left of the first-and business-class cabins lay in front of her about one hundred yards. The remaining debris sat farther back and at a forty-five-degree angle to the makeshift runway, with a gaping hole where the plane had ripped in half.
People swarmed at the hole in the fore section. The lucky ones jumped to the ground. The unlucky ones fell when they were pushed from behind by the stampeding passengers.
The people from the aft section of the plane were not as fortunate, because the rear of the plane was on fire. Heavy black smoke poured from the twisted metal. The passengers jumped from this section of the plane as well, but some were already burning. They dropped and rolled, but as they did the flames increased. The ruptured fuel tanks sprayed fuel everywhere, and the people were rolling in it and reigniting themselves Several trees caught fire. Emma watched as the spewing fuel leaped out to meet them. When the fuel reached the burning trees, they exploded, sending a huge fireball into the air. The force kicked Emma’s feet from under her and threw her several feet. Her back hit a tree and she slid down it. Her legs didn’t seem to work. She slumped at the base of the tree and watched the carnage. Huge tongues of fire shot straight upward, turning the sky an orange-red color.
A large group of men, all armed and dressed in fatigues, stood at the beginning of the runway next to the plane’s tail. Their faces glowed red and black in the eerie blaze of the fires. The men watched in fascination as the passengers jumped from the airplane. They roared with laughter each time a passenger rolled and caught on fire. Light flickered off the bottles of liquor they passed from man to man.
Hell comes complete with its own army, Emma thought.
The lead soldier barked an order, and the soldiers fanned out. They walked toward the plane, collecting any surviving passengers as they did.
Emma tried to stand, but the world spun around her. She dropped to the ground and crawled away from the landing strip. When she reached her backpack, she grabbed the strap and dragged it with her. Her fingers clutched at the earth as she pulled herself forward. She gasped for breath and shivered in what she supposed was some sort of shock reaction. She couldn’t control the shaking. The blood from a cut on her head had congealed into a sticky mass from her temple to her jaw. When she moved, the mess cracked, like dried mud. Her head pounded with an unholy sharp, stabbing pain. She stole a quick glance behind her. The men in fatigues were busy collecting the survivors. They didn’t look Emma’s way.
She focused on reaching the safety of the tree line. Once there, she scrambled into the forest and collapsed behind a fat bush. She rifled through her backpack, looking for her cell phone. She found it, flipped it open, and waited while it searched for service. After a minute, the screen displayed NO SERVICE. She felt blind panic rise in her, swamping her. She willed herself to calm.
“Screw it,” Emma whispered.
She typed a text message anyway. She knew that the text system often worked even when the phone service did not. Her fingers shook as she dialed her boss’s number and typed:
Am alive, plane downed, in jungle, army men taking hostages. Help.
Emma hit send and waited while the phone displayed a little hourglass that spun as it searched for service. After a minute the display read UNABLE TO SEND.
“You worthless piece of shit!” Emma hissed out loud at the phone. She turned it off and snapped it shut. She slumped back down and stared at the burning treetops. Her eyes grew heavy, her head ached. She felt a strange languor wash over her. She worried that a concussion was causing her drowsiness, but she no sooner had that thought than she slipped into unconsciousness. The orange flames blurred as her mind shut down.
BANNER SAT IN SOUTHERN COMMAND’S CONFERENCE ROOM AND gazed at a large screen that contained a PowerPoint satellite photo of a black mushroom cloud. He wasn’t sure of the significance of the picture, but he figured it didn’t bode well.
Department of Defense, State Department, NORAD, and Department of Transportation personnel filled the room, as well as a soldier named Miguel Gonzalez, who’d been appointed to run a possible special operations first response force. About thirty, he was a slender five foot ten, and Banner guessed he was of Cuban descent. The others referred to him as “Major.” Banner didn’t know Miguel’s background, and no one offered the information. Presumably Stromeyer knew the details, but she hadn’t volunteered them, either.
The group in the room consisted of some of the best military and political minds in the country. The highest-ranking members of the army, navy, air force, and marines fiddled with legal pads, flipped pencils in the air, and sipped coffee from china cups that they held like mugs, ignoring the elegant, curved handles.
Jordan Whitter represented the political branch. Whitter’s reputation for maneuverability within the State Department was legendary. As a result, his career had already outlasted two presidents. Whitter had shrewd eyes and a lifelong bureaucrat’s aversion to sticking his neck out. He wore a dark suit and a striped tie that he kept adjusting.
Banner watched Whitter fidget with his tie and wondered why he’d chosen that particular combination. He’d bet a week’s salary that the stripes on the tie matched Whitter’s college colors.
Banner’s own participation in the meeting wasn’t clear, even to him. He attended at the request of an old friend, Brigadier General Robert Corvan. Corvan asked Banner to moderate the meeting, but made no mention of hiring Darkview for a mission.
When Darkview provided the military with highly qualified special operations personnel, Banner flew the men into extremely volatile situations—wars, guerrilla insurgencies, and genocidal civil conflicts. Although they often fought alongside the regular army, they were technically not a part of the United States military machine, and so their deployment could not be considered by the “host” country as a formal act of war.
The men’s unique status conferred some equally unique benefits. They were not required to follow military protocol, they had state-of-the-art equipment, and their pay was much better than their regular army counterparts. Their status conferred some negative consequences as well. Although they died in battle, their deaths were not included in official war tallies, no one hailed them as war heroes, nor did anyone present their widows with posthumous medals acknowledging their sacrifice. The unkind called them mercenaries.
Recovering a hijacked plane, even by force, could be handled by regular military search-and-rescue teams sent openly into the target area. Banner’s crew generally implemented covert missions, and so Banner wondered what the collected men in the room knew about this situation that he did not.
Miguel fiddled with a laptop computer, replaced the mushroom-cloud photo with a large satellite map of Colombia, and began his presentation.
“The first thing we did was look for any distress signals emitting from where we believe the plane landed. A satellite passing over Colombia returned a report of a cell-phone-based GPS transmission in this part of the country.” Miguel pointed to the northwestern mountains near the Colombia-Venezuela border.
“Unfortunately, the satellite passed again approximately one hundred minutes later, and the ping was gone.”
“Could it have been from a passenger’s phone?” the undersecretary of the navy said.
Miguel nodded. “The GPS transmission code was registered to a phone owned by a passenger named Emma Caldridge. And Ms. Caldridge was kind enough to send us a note.” The photo behind Miguel shifted to a copy of Emma’s text message. The words army men taking hostages were highlighted.
Whitter groaned. “This is awful.”
Banner couldn’t agree more, but he was surprised at Whitter’s empathetic response. Perhaps the man had a heart after all.
“I agree, sir. But at least we know that some people survived the crash. Better to be a hostage than dead,” Miguel said.
Whitter slapped his hand on the table. “Hostages are a political nightmare! How many? There were two hundred and sixteen people on that jet. This administration cannot have such a breach of security under its watch.”
What an asshole, Banner thought.
Miguel shook his head. “Tough to know how many survived. Once the cell-phone ping disappeared, we looked for any other anomalies that could indicate a downed jet, and we found this.”
The mushroom-cloud photo reappeared. Miguel pointed at it with a laser pointer.
“We believe it was a large explosion that caused this actual cloud. If this is the plane, either it exploded on landing, or it was deliberately exploded.”
“How long will it take to get a small troop to the location pinpointed by the cell phone transmission?” Banner said.
“It’s done already,” Miguel said.