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Authors: Nichole Christoff

The Kill Shot (19 page)

BOOK: The Kill Shot
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With a click and a whine, the public address system snapped on.

“Ladies and gentlemen, this is your captain speaking. We've had a slight malfunction to one of our engines, but with our three remaining turbines, we'll reach Reykjavik safely and easily. From there—”

A second explosion drowned out the rest of what he said. And then a third. The plane pitched and dipped. Passengers screamed. My ears popped as we plunged. Overhead panels popped open. Oxygen masks dropped down to dangle in front of our faces on their clear plastic tubes.

I fumbled with mine, fighting to get the thing over my nose and mouth like every safety demonstration had shown me. Barrett's hands, quick and light, helped me adjust the elastic strap. Grateful, I flashed him a thumbs-up before turning to help Ikaat. Her face was as hard as a death mask. Her hands plucked at her seat belt.

The flight attendants gave up on the PA system. They moved through the cabin, bellowing instructions.

“Seats and trays in the upright position!”

“Brace your feet firmly on the floor.”

“Fold your arms across the seatback in front of you. Rest your forehead against them.”

Because we were going down.

They never said it.

But everybody knew it.

The wind screamed past the windows as if we were on a runaway freight train. My nails dug into the headrest in front of me as I braced for impact. The plane bounced as its belly struck an ocean wave. And then came the full body slam of the aircraft meeting the sea. The impact rattled every bone in my body.

After an eternity of bounding over the surf, the plane slowed. It settled at a funky angle—as if the nose and opposite wing were pointing to Davy Jones's locker buried beneath the waves. I made the mistake of glancing out the window.

Sky met water at an awkward horizon line.

For one endless second, there was deathly silence throughout the fuselage. Until everyone exhaled at once. Then no one could stop the wails and cries, sobs and laughter.

A flight attendant fought her way against the tilt of the aircraft to reach the emergency exit door a couple rows ahead of where we sat.

Barrett left his seat to help her. Levers thrown, he kicked the door open with the sole of his boot. Like a thirsty dog's tongue, the emergency slide unfurled from the plane to lap at the water below.

Some passengers scrambled for the door. Others cowered in their seats. The flight attendants spread out, trying to control the chaos.

“Remove your shoes. Leave your possessions behind.”

“Proceed in an orderly fashion.”

“Quickly, now. Step to the emergency exits.”

Over the detritus of lost magazines, crushed soda cups, stray footwear, and scattered shopping bags, I herded my party toward the yawning door where Barrett was helping frightened people onto the rubber slide.

His hand closed over my arm. “You and Katie go first. Get the Oujdads into the same raft as you.”

“I'm not leaving you here!”

“I'll be right behind you.”

But he wouldn't be. Not while there were people to help. I knew him well enough to recognize that.

I'd stay, too, but first I waved Katie to the threshold. At our feet, the slide swayed from side to side. Far below us, black rivulets of the coldest waters cut through the blue sea, and a yellow raft bobbed like a weather buoy.

Katie clutched my sleeve. “I have to tell you something—”

“You can tell me in Washington. Take care of Ikaat.”

Barrett and I grasped Katie's arms, physically persuaded her to drop to the slide.

Once she was safely in the raft, Ikaat urged her father to go next. It took all three of us to steady him as he stepped from the plane. His face was as gray as ash—like he was on his way to a massive coronary.

His daughter followed him willingly.

“Your turn,” Barrett said.

I began to protest, realized the last of the passengers had abandoned the plane on other evacuation chutes. That left me with only one thing to do. I crossed my arms over my chest and stepped out into the buffeting breeze.

My stomach dropped to my toes as I fell from the aircraft's emergency door. The slide met me at an oblique angle. It scooped me up, shot me down. I fought the urge to scream. Before I could plunge into the sea, the chute brought me up short. The hands of my fellow travelers—strangers before this moment—reached for me. They guided me to a seat in the raft.

The pilot might've planned an emergency landing in Reykjavik, but Iceland's shore was nowhere in sight. Everywhere I looked, I saw only the Boeing's rafts—bobbing on the open sea.

And there was a lot of sea to be seen.

Our raft rocked on the water like a hobbyhorse. To make matters worse, the North Atlantic wind stung my face, wormed its way under my life vest, and sliced through my cashmere sweater. I felt cold and I knew I'd feel colder.

Under these conditions, none of us would be able to live out here for long.

Not even a fit woman in the prime of her life like me.

For the others, it was worse. Armand Oujdad's gray face had gone pale. Ikaat's own fingers were blue where she clung to his hand. I slanted an arm around her. With chattering teeth, Katie huddled close to me.

Barrett, his cheeks red from the raw breeze, emerged from the slide. He crossed the bobbing raft like he'd done this kind of thing a dozen times before. As a highly trained military police officer, maybe he had.

He said, “Stay low, out of the wind.”

He shrugged out of his jacket, wrapped it around Armand while we all hunkered down in the bottom of the boat.

Katie blinked up at me with her sky-blue eyes. “This is all my fault.”

I didn't know how she could say that. She wasn't a saboteur—and sabotage had brought our plane down. I was certain of it. It was the only way to explain the multiple explosions and catastrophic fail of three of our four turbines.

“I just want you to know I'm sorry,” Katie said, fumbling with her cell phone.

Her apprehension was just this side of panic.

I tried to soothe her. “Katie, sweetie, I don't think you'll be able to get a signal out here.”

Katie wasn't looking for a signal, though. She was looking for a photo. She flashed me a picture of a capable-looking blonde in her early thirties with a wide smile, a dusting of freckles across her nose, and a familiar string of black pearls ringing her throat.

“This is my sister, Jamie. I swore I'd do anything for her.
You can understand that, can't you?” Her eyes burned, as with fever.

Well, I'd been fool enough to do anything for my father. Now, here I was, lost at sea and pretty darn convinced my life might end this way. I patted Katie's arm, tried to tune out her babbling.

She insisted, “Ikaat understands. Look what she's done for her father. She couldn't leave him in the hands of those people.”

Katie rattled on. I did my best to ignore her. I tried to occupy my mind by keeping watch over Ikaat and Armand.

Barrett, in the meantime, kept watch over the waves.

Two hours into our ordeal, he sat up straight. Then he stood, turning himself into a signal on the desolate sea. I followed his line of sight to the horizon—and saw a ship growing larger there.

“It's the Coast Guard!” someone shouted.

But the U.S. Coast Guard hadn't come to rescue us. We were too far from U.S. shores for that. Thankfully, though, we weren't beyond the reach of the U.S. Navy. The navy had sent a mammoth destroyer to find us. And her name was the USS

Chapter 24

Many of my fellow travelers burst into tears when they caught sight of the
Others sobbed once we were safely below her decks. Ikaat didn't shed a tear until early the next morning when we docked in Hampton Roads, Virginia.

After a hot breakfast that left me feeling like I could take on the world, Ikaat went up on deck, walked to the rail of the hulking ship with me.

There, with the Atlantic Fleet's less-than-picturesque shipyards spread in front of her, she said, “Jamie, is this America?”

“This is part of it.”

She silently surveyed the crusty concrete dry docks built by the hands of men, the salt marshes to the south that stank with the odors of low tide, and the mudflats where long-legged shorebirds picked out a living in the sludge.

“It is beautiful,” she said.

And she wept.

Not long after that, a State Department contingent came to meet us, just as Barrett had said they would. Only instead of meeting us in the hustle and bustle of an international airport terminal, a detachment of diplomats came aboard the
with all the ceremony of a visiting delegation. Roger was among the suits that were all too eager to smile and shake hands with everyone. He'd clearly arranged every aspect of Ikaat's official greeting, including the promise of continued care and a trip for Armand to the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Maryland, via a Life Flight helicopter.

Armand would be all right, the ship's doctor had assured us. But the doc had kept him in sick bay after the
true to her name, had quickly plucked us from the ocean. Fifty-nine of our fellow travelers had been treated and released for bumps, bruises, a sprained wrist, and whiplash—but it was exposure that had taken its toll on Ikaat's father. And I doubted the rough days and frightening nights he'd spent in England had helped.

After medics loaded him into the chopper, the State Department officials began to shake hands all over again. And Ikaat knew that was our cue to leave. Roger tucked her into the back of a Town Car with a door so thick, I was certain it had been reinforced with enough steel to withstand rocket-propelled grenades.

He held the door for Katie and me as well. The three of us would ride together to Washington. At the State Department complex near the National Mall, we would go our separate ways. Ikaat would meet more officials from State, the Department of Energy, and Homeland Security than she'd ever imagined existed—and she'd answer their tough questions again and again over the coming days. Katie, having served as Ikaat's friend and companion through this ordeal, would stay with her—and be the sugar that made the medicine go down.

I, on the other hand, would be free to go my merry way once we crossed the boundary marking the District of Columbia. Because bringing Katie safely back to Washington had been the deal I'd struck with my father. Nothing more, nothing less.

My father could continue to pretend he knew nothing about my travels to London. And I promised myself I wouldn't care. Because my obligation to him would be complete.

But then Roger said, “Jamie, the Senator will be meeting Doctor Oujdad this evening. The Senator wants to see you immediately afterward. At eight.”

I nodded.

And flicked a look at Barrett.

For all intents and purposes, he was supposed to be deep in conversation with the doctor and the
's skipper. But when I turned his way, the naval officer had to repeat whatever he'd said to Barrett. Because, with his eyes on me, Barrett paid the men no mind.

“Boy,” Katie said, “if Mr. Spencer-Dean could see Lieutenant Colonel Barrett look at you like that, he'd jump on the next flight over here.”

“It's really not like that.”

But that was a lie guilt made me tell. And it tasted sour on my tongue. After all, Philip had socked Barrett for less than looking at me, and Barrett didn't think much of Philip, either. Funnily enough, in spite of that, if I'd followed Philip's advice, if I'd delayed our return to America, if I'd taken him up on his offer to stash us all in a safe house, none of us—including Barrett—would've been on that plane when it crashed. At any rate, my fib didn't convince Katie.

She said, “You won't tell Lieutenant Colonel Barrett what I said in the raft, will you? I mean, about my sister?”

Katie had said she'd do anything to help her sibling. But to my mind, there was nothing wrong with that. In fact, I didn't think anyone could take exception to the sentiment, least of all Barrett, who had a sister of his own.

But Katie had also tried to take the blame for our plane going down. It hadn't made sense at the time, and it didn't make sense now. Of course, some people's notions about cause and effect get tangled up in a crisis. That's why survivors sometimes suffer guilt of their own. So, in the clear light of the new day, it was no wonder she didn't want me to mention her odd confession now.

I promised her I wouldn't.

Katie's relief was palpable. She thanked me and slipped into the Town Car. When she did, Barrett crossed the dock to me.

I peeled away from Roger, met Barrett midway.

He said, “I'm going to Washington, too. I'm riding in a chase car.”

“I figured as much.”

“I'll have to report in and face a long day of debriefings. After that, though, I'm done. I plan to take some leave.”

“You should. You deserve some time off.”

“I do.” He tucked a fingertip beneath my chin. “I know who I'd like to spend that time with.”

In my opinion, Barrett still had a lot of explaining to do. But I was more than willing to hear him do it. So I smiled. I couldn't help it. And Barrett smiled back.

Like a chaperone with the worst timing in the world, though, Roger broke into our conversation. He emphatically invited me to get in the car. I did, and our long line of vehicles hit the road.

We reached Washington in the early afternoon. And once we did, parting with Ikaat and Katie wasn't easy. In the inner courtyard of the State Department complex, beneath the finely wrought globe of verdigris and gold that was too big for even Atlas to hold, we said farewell.

Katie hugged me like she'd never let go. And with tears in her eyes, Ikaat kissed me on each cheek. She tried to speak, but her happiness wouldn't let her.

Considering the life she'd left behind—and the promise of the one that lay before her—I was more than okay with that.

Then they were on their way, escorted by all kinds of diplomats, across the flagstones and through the glass doors on the far side. They were headed to the seventh floor. Or, in other words, to meet the Secretary of State.

I, on the other hand, headed home.

And, boy, was that a good feeling.

In my living room, the empty champagne glasses Barrett and I had drunk from were on hand to greet me. So were the chocolates nestled in their crystal box. I popped one in my mouth, then emptied my pockets on the coffee table. My cell phone, in the fancy case Philip had bought me, clattered on the marquetry. My phone's battery was dead, but I was alive—and I was grateful.

By then, news of the plane crash had probably reached Philip in London. And he'd probably burned up a communications satellite trying to reach me. He deserved to know I was fine. But I didn't want to think about Philip just then. Instead, I plugged my phone into its charger and made a beeline for the shower.

I could've spent an eternity under its hot spray.

When I toweled off, the texture of the terry cloth felt so good. And it felt marvelous rubbing against the spot where Katie's pen had poked me. The place had been itchy ever since she'd stabbed me, but now it was hot and prickly. And I knew that couldn't be good. So I backed up to a mirror to take a look at it.

And discovered a welt, red and angry.

“Great. Katie's pen was dipped in bubonic plague.”

All joking aside, though, I slathered it with antibacterial cream and got ready to visit my father.

At ten minutes to eight, I found myself parked on a hard-backed chair, in the outer office of his suite in the Capitol Building, with the hem of my skirt smoothed primly over my knees and my hands knotted in my lap, just like a nervous college graduate on her first big job interview.

I could hear the natter of polite conversation going on behind the cherrywood double doors to my father's inner sanctum. Ikaat was in there, I figured, along with a bevy of State Department types. My father would be chatty and charming—and working out for himself whether the bargain he'd made to bring her here was worth it.

At five to eight, the doors swung open. Roger emerged. Ikaat, Katie, and a bunch of bureaucrats were right behind him. When she saw me, Ikaat smiled. And then Katie and her cronies whisked her away for a private tour of the building.

Roger said, “The Senator will see you now.”

The chief of staff looked worn out with work, and something more. Worry? His brows knitted at the sight of the cast on my arm.

“I sat in on a special debrief this afternoon.” He cleared his throat. “Sounds like we almost lost you. Several times. I wish…I wish I could've been more helpful to you.”

I thought. My father hadn't wasted any time calling him into his office. And knowing Adam, he hadn't fed my father some sugarcoated report.

I forced a false smile, tried to set Roger at his ease. After all, shutting me out in the cold probably hadn't been his idea. “You were just following orders. Besides, my father sent me in style to twenty-first-century England, not a bordello behind the Iron Curtain. How bad could it've been?”

“Bad enough,” Roger said.

He hugged me then. It seemed an odd gesture for him. And the genuine affection in it blasted me in the breastbone.

“What,” my father growled, darkening his own doorway, “is going on out here? Jamie, I sent Roger for you three minutes ago.”

“It's my fault, sir.” Roger let me go. “I was just telling Jamie it's good to have her back in Washington.”

“Yes,” my father agreed. “It surely is.”

And if that were a welcome home, I made up my mind to take it.

The three of us spent the next hour in my father's office going over my version of the trip to Britain. Though he appeared to relax behind his desk in his red, Moroccan leather swivel chair, my father listened carefully when I described the men who tried to snatch the snitch visas from Katie and me at Heathrow. He also made me recount everything I'd seen and heard in that Fen Country manor house as if there were some secret meaning in my words. He wanted to know about the Anonymous Men, Philip's conducting us to our plane, and his offering a safe house, too. I told him all he wanted to know and more.

But when it came time to talk about the plane's multiple engine failure and about its crash into the sea, my father sprang from his seat as if the thing had an ejector spring under it.

“Roger,” he said, “would you give me a moment with my daughter, please?”

Roger heard the command in the question and, without a word, withdrew.

When the cherry doors were firmly shut between him and us, my father said, “I set a difficult task before you.”

He had. And he'd cut me loose while I was in the middle of doing it. If Ikaat's defection had gone sour, I suppose he would've claimed Katie had hired me.

He slipped a hand into the breast pocket of his suit coat and said, “You did well, Jamie.”

These were words I'd rarely heard from my father. I felt the pleasure of his approval tremble through me like starlight. Which was ridiculous. I wasn't a little girl learning to ride her first bicycle. I was a grown woman with her own career, her own home, and her own life.

I didn't need my father's praise—especially after he'd withheld his help.

Still, my cheeks heated pink at the sound of it.

My father withdrew a small, slim box from his pocket. “This is a little token of my appreciation.”

He crossed to the tufted sofa where I sat as stiff and straight as a society hostess.

And he placed the box in my hands.

It was a cool blue box, sporting a skinny line of silver embossing on its top. It looked just like a box that would come from that lovely location where Holly Golightly had had breakfast. It looked like it had come from Tiffany's.

I lifted the box's lid and there, nestled in white velvet and caught in a platinum pendant, glowed a sapphire as blue as the cold waters of the North Atlantic.

It was beautiful.

And it blew my breath away.

“What do you think of it, Jamie?”

My father's gifts were few and far between. Except for a string of exceptional pearls he gave me the day I graduated from Princeton and a delicate diamond bracelet he gave me at my wedding, my father wasn't into presenting gifts to anyone, much less to me. And if he needed to buy a gift, he had staff members like Roger to select one for him.

I cleared my throat. “I think Roger has exquisite taste.”

My father chuckled. It was a warm sound, rich and round. I didn't hear it very often.

“Roger,” my father said, “doesn't do everything around here.”

His nimble fingers lifted the necklace from the box. He fastened the chain around my neck. I moved to the beveled mirror hanging over the barware on his credenza.

In the hollow of my throat, the sapphire shone like the Evening Star.

And there were stars in my eyes as well.

They felt a lot like tears.

My father appeared in the mirror behind me. “Thank you, Jamie.”

His hands closed over my shoulders. He pressed a kiss to the top of my head. His gesture seemed so strange, and yet so normal. For a second, I felt as if I'd stepped through Lewis Carroll's looking glass. But unlike Alice, I didn't want to come back to the real world.

BOOK: The Kill Shot
5.37Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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