600 miles southwest of Hawaii
Holly did not appreciate the irony of the moment.
Not even a little.
She’d been sitting one row from the very rear of the Airbus A330-900neo jet. If she didn’t hack off her legs to get away from the muscle spasms soon, it would be a Christmas miracle—too bad it was October.
Tall people were not meant to sit in economy on fourteen-hour nonstops. But National Transportation Safety Board investigators also knew better than to sit in the front of airplanes.
Statistically, the rear rows of modern jetliners were marginally enough safer that she couldn’t quite bring herself to sit forward, no matter how safe airplane travel in general had become. Far and away the safest form of transport—except when it wasn’t.
And her job as a crash investigator was all about when it wasn’t.
The very tail of all wide-body jets had a motion that seemed disconnected from the rest of the aircraft, and, at the moment, the vibration was almost as annoying as her legs.
Only six hours into fourteen, for a flight she didn’t want to make. It was lucky for whoever wasn’t there that the seat beside her remained empty; it was best that her need to vent her frustrations to someone, anyone, had no ready target.
Hell, at the moment she’d even vent to Mike, though their parting at the airport hadn’t gone smoothly.
Are you sure you don’t want me to go with you? And Mike had even insisted on driving her to SeaTac for her flight. As if he somehow knew how hard this trip was going to be for her—despite her not telling anyone anything about why she was going. Of course it was Mike, so he’d known even without being told.
Which was almost as annoying as how comforting his presence had been on the drive.
But the last thing she wanted was her past touching any part of her present.
It was a completely rank horror-show that she herself had been given no choice.
Then at the curb he’d gotten all clingy, like he was going to miss more than having her in his bed most nights. Like he…owned?...some piece of her?
So not her.
She’d already been with him longer than anyone before in her life. Maybe it was time they were done—just to avoid his getting too attached. Soon, maybe he’d be wanting more than she was willing to give.
The period of the vibration shifted.
Rather than the slightly annoying slow sway of the airplane’s butt—like riding in a big old 1970s station wagon that desperately needed new shocks—it took up a distinct rhythm.
One that accelerated fast.
With a periodicity that, in all her experience, should never happen to any airplane.
She opened her left-side window shade to glare out. Her eyes ached as they adjusted from the dim you-should-be-sleeping-now interior to the glaring dawn over the Central Pacific.
There was the source just at the edge of her view—the Number One engine was shaking visibly.
It didn’t explode or shatter like an uncontained turbine failure. Those happened in milliseconds; things occurred fast when meter-wide titanium fans shattered at thirteen thousand rpm.
This engine was swaying side-to-side on its mount.
She’d never seen that before. Or read about one doing that. Or even heard of such an event. Holly barely had time to wonder if Miranda ever had.
Three seconds later it broke free of the left wing.
Shit! There was an event she could go a lifetime without witnessing herself.
Just as the engine mount’s shear bolts were designed to do, rather than letting the engine destroy the wing, they sheared.
The suddenly disconnected Rolls-Royce Trent 7000 turbine— unburdened from doing its half of dragging the two-hundred-and-fifty-ton twinjet across the ocean—shot forward, then climbed up and over the wing. As it passed safely above the wing, the engine did finally fail. It shattered spectacularly before disappearing aft faster than she could track.
Holly cringed and dug her fingers into the arm rests, but no metal pinged off the main fuselage.
She held a deep breath for maximum blood oxygenation, ready to exhale with the abrupt hull decompression.
But there wasn’t one.
No oxygen mask suddenly dangled inches from her face.
Apparently the hull was still intact. The engine failure was directed downward from the inverted engine’s top, pummeling the wing with a single loud bang. The well sound-insulated plane muffled it to little more than the noise of retracting landing gear.
Holly’s fingers ached as she released the padded armrests, even though it had only been seconds.
She tried to remember the last aircraft she’d heard of suffering a complete breakaway engine loss, but she wasn’t Miranda Chase. Her team’s IIC—Investigator-in-Charge—carried the entire encyclopedia of aircraft accidents around in her head. It was only one small part of what made Miranda the best IIC in the entire National Transportation Safety Board.
Herself, not so much.
Holly took a slow, deep breath before she dared to look again.
The engine was definitely gone.
She focused on recalling her military training to remain calm in a crisis—because crisis was just the normal state of operations.
Then she looked down and lost the bit of calm that she’d mustered.
That was definitely the vast emptiness of the world’s largest ocean seven long miles below.
She looked over her shoulder at the two flight attendants. Still chatting quietly in their seats.
A glance up the long aisle revealed that most people were asleep, except for a few diehards watching movies. It was seven a.m. back in the flight’s origin city of Seattle—after a one a.m. departure; sensible people were asleep just the way any airlines wished their passengers to be. Always. She was surprised they didn’t just drug the coffee and be done with it.
The aisles were empty, and there was no splash of light from any other open window shade revealing the pile-driver sunrise pounding in her window.
She knew that from the angle of the cockpit it would be impossible for the pilots to check the engine visually. However, their instruments would certainly be reporting the loss with several catastrophic tones. Trained pilots would now be ensuring the integrity of the Number Two Engine.
But someone should be coming out to look out a window that could actually see the engine. Or at least a flight attendant should have been asked by the pilots to inspect it for them if they were too busy with alarms.
She would count to ten.
Holly made it to five before she punched the call button.
One of the flight attendants behind her, a male, reluctantly unbuckled and came up to her seat.
“You really should keep the shade down, miss. Others are all catchin’ a bit of shut-eye.” While she enjoyed the Aussie accent—it was a real relief after spending the last year in the US—she had other priorities.
“I didn’t want to alarm anyone, but you just lost an engine.” She kept her voice down and her tone even.
The attendant hadn’t started out looking friendly and now was looking less so. “I’m sure the pilots have everything well in hand.”
Holly grabbed the attendant’s pretty two-tone tie by the back strap, used her thumb to slide the knot tighter to make sure she had his full attention, then dragged him across the empty seat beside her and her lap to mash his face up against the window.
His choked-off squeak of alarm sounded ridiculous coming from a guy, especially an Aussie.
“We’ve lost a bloody engine, mate. See?” She thumped his face against the plastic a few times to make her point.
Holly looked up and into the muzzle of a Glock 19, the new Gen5, which she’d been meaning to check out. An air marshal must have been sitting in row 56 directly in front of her. He now knelt on his seat and had aimed his sidearm at her over the seat back.
Her former training as an operator in the Australian Special Air Service Regiment kicked in.
The air marshal held it one-handed, and with his finger outside the trigger guard. He was making it too easy.
Keeping one hand firmly on the flight attendant’s tie, she swung her other hand up from where the marshal wouldn’t be able to see it over the seatback. Catching the barrel in the Y-shape between her extended thumb and hand, she grabbed on and rotated it upward away from her face, forcing his finger to slip completely off the trigger guard and below the weapon.
If he’d been using a two-handed hold, she’d need a different, more difficult technique, but he didn’t even get that right.
Continuing the motion, she peeled the gun completely out of his hand.
Then Holly tossed it in the air just enough to flip her hold from barrel to handgrip and jammed the barrel up his nose.
Her finger was inside the trigger guard.
“You! By law, air marshals are required to flash their badge and give a warning before wielding a sidearm. So you’re in serious trouble there, mate. Now sit down and behave unless you want your brains to finish the flight with a free upgrade to First Class.”
He made a tiny nod of acknowledgement—about as big as could be made with a 9 mm pistol rammed up one nostril.
She hit the magazine release, dropping it on the back of the flight attendant still pinned across her knees. He flinched and gagged a bit.
Racking the slide back against the edge of her folded tray table, Holly saw no round in the chamber. He hadn’t been a real threat at all. She pulled the trigger on the empty chamber, tugged the paired slide release levers midway down the barrel, nudged the slide against the tray table again, and, with a quick shake, the gun fell into pieces.
The air marshal started to move, but not the right motion to turn and sit.
She dropped the rest of the parts on her temporary tray table built from the choking flight attendant’s back—she eased up his tie a bit—and grabbed the air marshal’s windpipe with her free hand. Holly pinched hard enough that he wouldn’t make a sound that could alarm other passengers.
“And if you reach for your bloody baton, you wanker, I’m going to use your own handcuffs on you and leave you face down in the thunder box.” Not an airline toilet in the world didn’t reek after the first six hours of a flight.
She shoved him away, gathered up the Glock parts from the flight attendant’s back, then hauled him off her lap.
“You! Call the bloody cockpit and tell them they’ve lost the Number One engine.” She glanced out the window and saw it was even worse than she’d expected. “And that the wing isn’t looking so pearla either.”
First Officer Quint Dermott slid into the empty seat next to the golden-blonde staring out the window. She was a serious treat. If she had the face to go with that hair and body, she’d be a stunner.
If this was an airport bar, he’d think some thoughts. But they’d just carked a bloody engine in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. If the flight attendant hadn’t been freaking, he sure as hell wouldn’t be here—it was hard to spook one that much.
“I’m the copilot. What seems to be the issue here?”
“Well, mate. I’d say you’re the one having a serious issue.” She didn’t bother turning to face him as she spoke. Her Strine was so broad it was like being home.
“Fair dinkum?” Quint could have a good time calming this passenger down, not that she looked upset. Long blondes with legs to match and who spoke like they were from the heart of the Outback were something he hadn’t run into in far too long. Maybe never a Sheila of this quality. Too bad he had to hustle back to the cockpit.
Twice he’d been blocked from the left side of the aircraft by some doddering fool getting out of the seat, so he’d just hustled down the right side without getting the outside view he wanted to check the engine’s status. They’d hit the fire bottle, but there were no readings at all, which they should have from even a crippled engine.
She waved out the window.
This wasn’t the best angle to see the engine but it was better than nothing. He leaned in. Close enough to see the wing out her window and feel—his heart skip the next three beats.
An ES—Engine Separation. s**t! No wonder there were no readings coming back to the cockpit.
“I’m seeing some serious flexion at rib number nine,” her accent slid away as she continued at a volume barely louder than a cozy whisper in his ear. “Directly above the engine pylon is where it seems to be doing the worst of it. You’re already getting enough buckling in top panels eleven through fifteen that I think the rear spar is FUBAR as well.”
He leaned in again. He was a pilot, not a mechanic, so how in the world would he know which skin panel was which? But practically lying in her lap, he could see what she was talking about. There was a crinkle in the aluminum skin directly above where the engine had been. Like a fist had punched down on it from above—a damn big fist. f****d Up Beyond All Recovery was a depressingly accurate assessment.
“You’ll also want to switch off any cross-tank transfer pumps or that leak is going to empty the plane of fuel faster than a possum up a gum tree.”
Now that she’d pointed it out, he could see the dribble, okay, the fair gush of petrol going the wrong way.
“Oh, one more thing.” She dumped the parts of a handgun into his lap, then reached forward and patted the head of the man seated in front of her.
He cringed as if he’d just been whacked by a hammer—a ruddy farrier’s one. For shoeing Budweiser Clydesdales.
“I didn’t really want to give that back to your air marshal. He seems inclined to want to shoot me.”
“Not anymore.” She offered a luminous smile.
No time for finding out how she knew any of that.
Nor how she’d disarmed an air marshal.
“ATSB structural specialist on loan to the NTSB,” she answered his first question at least.
On the Australian and the Yanks’ Transportation Safety Boards? That explained a hell of a lot.
Definitely time to get back to report to the captain.
“You’re with me.” He shoved to his feet.
Or tried to.
She hooked onto his belt and used it to slam him back into the seat before he was half out of it.
“Don’t want to scare the B&S unless you’re into a dog’s breakfast,” and her broad Strine was back.
He looked up the long aisles.
A Bachelor and Spinsters Ball was a common dance party in rural Australia—a fun and typically very big gathering. Maybe not as many as were presently on the plane but on a good night…maybe. It wasn’t only singles who came out for a B&S Ball dance.
And a dog’s breakfast was always a proper mess.
Righto, he’d leave the passengers to their quiet sleep and free-movie pacifiers.
He did his best to smile at the blonde and rose as normally as he could.
She smiled back like she hadn’t a care in the world.
“Dani. It’s me. I have a tagalong,” he looked at the pieces of the air marshal’s gun that he’d carried up the aisle. “I’m the one with the weapon. We’re good as Vegemite.”
He ignored the blonde’s snort of laughter.
It was today’s agreed-on safe word. Without it, Captain Dani Evers wouldn’t have opened the door.
There was a sharp snap as the cockpit door’s three heavy bolts unlocked.
He swung it open and flinched when he saw the captain’s sidearm aimed to just behind him. Quint hadn’t known that Dani was one of the thirty percent of airline pilots who now flew armed. He showed her the gun parts, not that he had a clue how to put them together, then moved for his copilot’s seat and dropped them into a cup holder.
Dani lowered her aim just enough to center on the blonde’s chest as soon as he was out of the way.
“Clean as if I showered just last Thursday.” The blonde didn’t flinch. Instead, she did a slow turn with her hands out, like she was a runway model for airplane disasters, then shut the door behind them.
“Who is she and why is she in my cockpit? And how bad off is my engine?”
He just waved a hand at the woman.
She sat in the jump seat located just behind and to the left of his own righthand seat. She slipped on a headset, then propped her feet up on the end of the central radio console that ran between his and Dani’s positions as if she was kicking back at home to view a program on the telly.
Dani offered the blonde one of her patented Looks of Death.
The feet went away. Experience had taught him that Dani Evers’ Look of Death could scorch a pushy guy in a pub right down into a puddle on the beer-stained floor. He could almost feel the blonde shrug as if it was no big deal.
However, in keeping with her stated background, she launched into her observations, explaining the status to Dani in a way that was detailed, concise, and rattled off like the professional she claimed to be.
Quint buckled in and cut the fuel flow to the left wing.
Dani looked at him in question when she described the damage to the wing.
He nodded that it looked exactly as bad as the assessment made it sound.
Dani’s semi-eyeroll was her version of a violent curse—not something you did when the cockpit voice recorder was listening. It was one of the many reasons he liked flying with Captain Dani Evers. No games; there was never any question about what she was thinking.
He watched the fuel gauges for a minute to make sure the flow had stopped, and tried not to feel incompetent just listening to the passenger.
“You’ve got an ETOPS-330 rating on this jet,” she reminded them as she finished her analysis. “Three hundred and thirty minutes of Extended Operations flying time on a single engine. All that right ripper ability won’t be doing you a spec of good if the wing comes a cropper first.”
“We’re eighty minutes past Hawaii,” Quint checked the charts. Then glanced back at the blonde.
She was staring at the Escape Rope cubby beside the overhead breaker panel. There was one on each side so that, in the event of a crash blocking the cockpit door, he and Dani could open a side window and descend safely.
It had always been an academic bit of knowledge from training—maybe not anymore.
After a long study, she turned back to him.
“I might just be chucking a wobbly,” she was perhaps the least berserk person he’d ever seen, “but I don’t think you have reaching-Hawaii kind of time. And eighty minutes past Hawaii means that Howland Island is the next nearest watering hole, two hours the other way—that’s if you want to be landing on a deserted sandy beach and curling up in a watery sleepout with Amelia Earhart. Howland’s the place she never reached in the end. Leaves you but one squat to plant your tush.” She stopped, not telling him where, of course.
Quint had to search around a bit until he found Johnston Atoll. The island was abandoned and the runway closed, which was why it hadn’t shown up right away as an alternate field. It was less than twenty minutes away. It would take them that long to descend seven miles—unless they lost the wing, then it would be much faster. More like ninety seconds, which wouldn’t end well.
Technically, Johnston wasn’t available for any kind of landing. But nine thousand feet of decommissioned US military-grade runway compared with crashing into the ocean when their wing fell off wasn’t a contest for him. He’d argue with the Yanks’ FAA after he’d survived. Better, he’d let Dani do it; she was the Captain after all.
“How sure are you?” Dani asked as Quint put Johnston on the center screen, then flipped the radio to the satellite frequency for their airline’s emergency mechanic.
“Personally, I’m surprised we’re still aloft.” The blonde recrossed her legs the other way as if she had nothing better to do. He did notice that despite her apparent ease, she’d put on the jump seat’s full five-point seat harness: lap belt, shoulders, and the crotch belt from the front edge of the cushion to the central clasp that any mere tourist would have missed.
“Who the hell are you?” Quint felt as if he should know. But even thinking about her being in a totally unexpected place, he couldn’t account for her.
“Sergeant Holly Harper, retired from the Oz Special Air Service Regiment. At your service, mate. Wondered when you were going to ask.”
Quint could only stare at her.
Couldn’t even blink.
SASR were the elite special operators of the entire Australian military. Which explained why she was so calm in a crisis.
What it didn’t explain was…Holly Harper?
“Christ. I thought you were dead.”
“Close a few times, maybe more than a few, but not yet. Why were you thinking that?”
It would take far too long to explain.
He turned to Captain Evers.
“We’re going down, Dani. We need to get on the ground fast.”
Because if there was anyone who knew about surviving, it was Holly Harper.