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Authors: Sandra Brown

Mirror Image

BOOK: Mirror Image
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MIRROR IMAGE

 

 
SANDRA BROWN

 

 

 

 

 

New York   Boston

PROLOGUE

The hell of it was that it couldn't have been a better day for flying. The January sky was cloudless and so blue it was almost painful to look at. Visibility was unlimited. There was a cool, harmless breeze out of the north.

Airport traffic was moderate to heavy at that time of day, but efficient ground crews were keeping to schedules. No planes were circling, awaiting permission to land, and there were only a couple of aircraft in line to take off.

It was an ordinary Friday morning at the San Antonio International Airport. The only thing the passengers of AireAmerica's Flight 398 had found troublesome was getting into the airport itself. Road construction on 4I0 West, the major freeway artery in front of the airport, had caused bumper-to-bumper traffic for nearly a mile.

Yet ninety-seven passengers had boarded on schedule, stowing carryon baggage in overhead compartments, buckling up, settling into their seats with books, magazines, newspapers. The cockpit crew routinely went through the pre flight check. Flight attendants joked among themselves as they loaded up drink dollies and brewed coffee that would never be poured. A final head count was taken and anxious standby passengers were allowed to board. The jetway was withdrawn. The plane taxied to the end of the runway.

The captain's friendly drawl came over the speakers and informed his passengers that they were next in line on the runway. After he reported that the current weather conditions in their destination city of Dallas were perfect, he instructed the attendants to prepare for takeoff.

Neither he nor anyone on board guessed that Flight 398 would be airborne less than thirty seconds.

"Irish!" "Hmm?"

"A plane just went down at the airport." Irish McCabe's head snapped up.

"Crashed?"

"And burning. It's a hell of a fire at the end of the runway."

The news director dropped the latest Nielsen ratings onto his messy desk. Moving with admirable agility for a man of his age and untended physical condition, Irish rounded the corner of his desk and barreled through the door of his private glass cubicle, almost mowing down the reporter who had brought him the bulletin from the newsroom.

"Taking off or landing?" he asked over his shoulder.

"Unconfirmed."

"Survivors?"

"Unconfirmed."

"Airline or private craft?"

"Unconfirmed."

"Hell, are you sure there's even been a crash?"

A somber group of reporters, photographers, secretaries, and gofers had already collected at the bank of police radios. Irish elbowed them aside and reached for a volume knob.

". . . runway. No sign of survivors at this time. Air-port firefighting equipment is rushing toward the site. Smoke and flames are evident. Choppers are airborne. Ambulances are—"

Irish began barking orders louder than the radios, which were squawking noisily. "You," he said, pointing toward the male reporter who had barged into his office only seconds earlier, "take a live remote unit and get the hell out there on the double." The reporter and a video cameraman peeled away from the group and raced for the exit. "Who called this in?" Irish wanted to know.

"Martinez. He was driving to work and got caught up in traffic on 4I0."

"Is he standing by?"

"He's still there, talking on his car phone."

"Tell him to get as close to the wreckage as he can, and shoot as much video as possible until the mobile unit arrives. Let's get a chopper in the air, too. Somebody get on the phone and chase down the pilot. Meet him at the heliport."

He scanned the faces, looking for one in particular. "Ike still around?" he asked, referring to the morning news anchorman.

"He's in the John taking a crap."

"Go get him. Tell him to get on the studio set. We'll do a break-in bulletin. I want a statement from somebody in the tower, from the airport officials, the airline, police—somethingto go on the air with before the NTSB boys put a gag on everybody. Get on it, Hal. Somebody else call Avery at home. Tell her—"

"Can't. She's going to Dallas today, remember?"

"Shit. I forgot. No, wait," Irish said, snapping his fingers and looking hopeful. "She might still be at the airport. If she is, she'll be there ahead of everyone else. If she can get into the Aire America terminal, she can cover the story from the human interest angle. When she calls in, I want to be notified immediately."

Eager for an update, he turned back to the radios. Adrenaline rushed through his system. This would mean he would have no weekend. It meant overtime and headaches, cold meals and stale coffee, but Irish was in his element. There was nothing like a good plane crash to round out a news week and boost ratings.

Tate Rutledge stopped his car in front of the house. He waved to the ranch foreman who was pulling out of the driveway in his pickup. A mongrel, mostly collie, bounded up and tackled him around the knees.

"Hey, Shep ." Tate reached down and petted the dog's shaggy head. The dog looked up at him with unabashed hero worship.

Tens of thousands of people regarded Tate Rutledge with that same kind of reverent devotion. There was a lot about the man to admire. From the crown of his tousled brown hair to the toes of his scuffed boots, he was a man's man and a woman's fantasy.

But for every ardent admirer, he had an equally ardent enemy.

Instructing Shep to stay outdoors, he entered the wide foyer of the house and peeled off his sunglasses. His boot heels echoed on the quarry tile flooring as he headed toward the kitchen, where he could smell coffee brewing. His stomach rumbled, reminding him that he hadn't eaten before making the early round trip to San Antonio. He fantasized about a breakfast steak, grilled to perfection; a pile of fluffy scrambled eggs; and a few slices of hot, buttered toast. His stomach growled more aggressively.

His parents were in the kitchen, seated at the round oak table that had been there for as long as Tate could remember. As he walked in, his mother turned toward him, a stricken expression on her face. She was alarmingly pale. Nelson Rutledge, his father, immediately left his place at the table and moved toward him, arms outstretched.

"Tate."

"What's going on?" he asked, puzzled. "To look at the two of you, you'd think somebody just died."

Nelson winced. "Weren't you listening to your car radio?"

"No. Tapes. Why?" The first stirring of panic seized his heart. "What the hell's happened?" His eyes flickered to the portable television on the tile countertop. It had been the focus of his parents' attention when he walked in.

"Tate," Nelson said in an emotionally ragged voice, "Channel Two just broke into 'Wheel of Fortune' with a news bulletin. A plane crashed on takeoff a few minutes ago at the airport." Tate's chest rose and fell on a quick, soundless gasp.

"It's still unconfirmed exactly which flight number it was, but they think—" Nelson stopped and shook his head mournfully. At the table, Zee crammed a damp Kleenex to her compressed lips.

"Carole's plane?" Tate asked hoarsely.

Nelson nodded.

ONE

 

She clawed her way up through the gray mist.

The clearing beyond it must exist, she reassured herself, even if she couldn't see it yet. For a minute, she thought that reaching it couldn't possibly be worth the struggle, but something behind her was so terrifying it propelled her ever forward.

She was steeped in pain. With increasing frequency she emerged from blessed oblivion into a glaring awareness that was accompanied by pain so intense, so encompassing, she couldn't localize it. It was everywhere—inside her, on the surface. It was a saturating pain. Then, just when she didn't think she could stand it an instant longer, she would be flooded with a warm rush of numbness—a magic elixir that washed through her veins. Soon after, the prayed-for oblivion would embrace her again.

Her conscious moments became extended, however. Muffled sounds reached her despite her muzziness . By concentrating very hard, she began to identify them: the incessant whooshing of a respirator, the constant bleeping of electronic machinery, rubber soles squeaking on tile floors, ringing telephones.

Once when she surfaced from unconsciousness, she overheard a hushed conversation taking place nearby.

". . .incredibly lucky. . . with that much fuel splashed on her... burns, but they're mostly superficial."

"How long . . .to respond?''

". . .patience . . . trauma like this injures more . . .the body.''

"What will. . . look like when . . .is finished''

". . .surgeon tomorrow. He'll. . .procedure with you."

"When?"

". . .no longer danger. . . infection."

"Will. . .effects on the fetus?"

"Fetus? Your wife wasn't pregnant."

The words were meaningless. They hurtled toward her like meteors out of a dark void. She wanted to dodge them, because they intruded on the peaceful nothingness. She craved the bliss of knowing and feeling absolutely nothing, so she tuned out the voices and sank once again into the cushiony pillows of forgetfulness.

"Mrs. Rutledge? Can you hear me?"

Refiexively, she responded, and a low moan escaped her sore chest. She tried to lift her eyelids, but she couldn't do it. One was prized open and a beam of light painfully pierced her skull. At last the hateful light was extinguished.

"She's coming out of it. Notify her husband immediately," the disembodied voice said. She tried turning her head in its direction, but found it impossible to move. "Have you got the number of their hotel handy?"

"Yes, Doctor. Mr. Rutledge gave it to all of us in case she came to while he wasn't here."

Lingering tendrils of the gray mist evaporated. Words she couldn't previously decipher now linked up with recognizable definitions in her brain. She understood the words, and yet they made no sense.

"I know you're experiencing a great deal of discomfort, Mrs. Rutledge. We're doing everything possible to alleviate that. You won't be able to speak, so don't try. Just relax. Your family will be here shortly."

Her rapid pulse reverberated through her head. She wanted to breathe, but she couldn't. A machine was breathing for her. Through a tube in her mouth, air was being pumped directly into her lungs.

Experimentally she tried opening her eyes again. One was coaxed into opening partially. Through the slit, she could see fuzzy light. It hurt to focus, but she concentrated on doing so until indistinct forms began to take shape.

Yes, she was in a hospital. That much she had known.

But how? Why? It had something to do with the nightmare she had left behind in the mist. She didn't want to remember it now, so she left it alone and dwelled on the present.

She was immobile. Her arms and legs wouldn't move no matter how hard she concentrated. Nor could she move her head. She felt like she was sealed inside a stiff cocoon. The paralysis terrified her. Was it permanent?

Her heart started beating more furiously. Almost immediately a presence materialized at her side. "Mrs. Rutledge, there's no need to be afraid. You're going to be fine."

"Her heart rate is too high," a second presence remarked from the other side of her bed.

"She's just scared, I think." She recognized the first voice. "She's disoriented—doesn't know what to make of all this."

A form clothed in white bent over her. "Everything's going to be all right. We've called Mr. Rudedge and he's on his way. You'll be glad to see him, won't you? He's so relieved that you've regained consciousness."

"Poor thing. Can you imagine waking up and having this to cope with?"

"I can't imagine living through a plane crash."

An unvoiced scream echoed loudly through her head.

She remembered!

Screaming metal. Screaming people. Smoke, dense and black. Then flames, and stark terror.

She had automatically performed the emergency instructions drilled into her by hundreds of flight attendants on as many flights.

Once she had escaped the burning fuselage, she began running blindly through a world bathed in red blood and black smoke. Even though it was agonizing to run, she did so, clutching—

Clutching what? She remembered it was something precious—something she had to carry to safety.

She remembered falling. As she had gone down, she had taken what she had then believed to be her last look at the world. She hadn't even felt the pain of colliding with the hard ground. By then she had been enveloped by oblivion, which until now had protected her from the agony of remembering.

"Doctor!"

"What is it?"

"Her heartbeat has escalated dramatically."

"Okay, let's take her down a bit. Mrs. Rutledge," the doctor said imperiously, "calm down. Everything is all right. There is nothing to worry about."

"Dr. Martin, Mr. Rutledge just arrived."

"Keep him outside until we've stabilized her."

"What's the matter?" The new voice seemed to come from miles away, but carried a ring of authority.

BOOK: Mirror Image
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