A small private plane with falsified registration numbers flew due west toward the Bahamas. At four thousand feet, it was all but invisible to civilian radar. The skies were clear, the sea was calm, and the US Coast Guard vessels that normally patrolled this part of the North Atlantic were busy with hurricane recovery operations. Smugglers lived for days like this.
The plane’s left engine stumbled, and its pilot cursed. He’d flown enough Beechcraft Barons to recognize the problem. Bad fuel. The goddamn canister had probably been sitting on the beach since before the first hurricane. That was the hazard of avoiding real airports.
“Hang in there, Betty.” He reached out and patted the dashboard, as if physical reassurance could help it reach that unmarked runway in the Florida swamps. The cargo he carried—listed on the manifest as coffee beans—wouldn’t bring enough dough for a new plane, but it should clear his debts. Then he could get out of the drug-running game for good. Maybe buy a little place out in the Everglades.
The right engine coughed, stuttering. A sharp noise came next, followed by the most frightening sound you could hear in a small plane: silence. Shit.
He trimmed for best glide but it wouldn’t buy much time. He scanned the horizon with a growing sense of desperation. Nothing but water. The Beechcraft might float if he set her down gently enough. Maybe long enough for someone to find him. Of course, they’d also find several kilos of contraband inside.
Well, jail time beat being eaten by sharks. He’d already set the radio to the emergency frequency, so he grit his teeth and made the call. “Mayday, mayday, mayday. Single-occupant Beechcraft experiencing failure of both engines.”
He needed to give a location, but his GPS had died on a Costa Rica run last year. The damn compass was spinning like it was unhinged. “I’m about four hundred nautical miles northwest of Puerto Rico.” His words stuck in his throat.
A thin blanket of fog shrouded the horizon to the north. Emerging from the midst of it was a miracle: a small island. It was far off, but it might be reachable. He turned the plane gently in that direction, trying to save altitude. The engine sputtered back to life, startling him.
A tinny voice crackled on the radio. “Station calling unknown Beechcraft. Please repeat your location.”
He did so, while peering at the island through the fog. He’d almost swear he saw lights there, too. Golden lights.
“Unknown Beechcraft, search and rescue are on the way.”
The engines died simultaneously, choking on the contaminated fuel. The plane was falling fast. He fought to keep it up. “Not gonna make it,” he gasped into the radio. “There’s an island at my two o’clock. Glowing lights. I’m coming down.” Then the water rose up to meet him, and it all went black.
Tessa Dumont loved a good debris field, but she could have done without the mosquitoes. The private plane had crashed in a densely wooded conservation area along the Missouri River. It was ninety degrees here, even in late August, with humidity that turned the air into syrup. The trees were so thick, she’d had to trek the last quarter mile on foot. Every time she stopped moving, a small cloud of mosquitoes drifted down around her.
As the senior NTSB investigator on scene, Dumont could have remained at the base camp and let the junior staffers pick through the wreckage. No one suggested that, though. They knew how much she wanted to see the pieces of the puzzle as they’d fallen.
The single-engine Piper Saratoga was less than a year old but had crashed, inexplicably, on the final approach to Spirit of St. Louis Airport. Every debris field told a story. Sometimes it was a deep crater from a high-speed impact. Sometimes it was a wide dispersal that said the airplane had broken apart in the air. Today it was a narrow field, seven hundred meters long. No charring, but the air hung heavy with the fumes of airplane fuel. That ruled out one potential cause.
The crunch of heavy boots on timber announced the arrival of one of her fellow investigators. Jones, she thought his name was. The NTSB rotated junior investigators on and off her team every few months or so. The good ones kept their mouths shut and stayed out of her way.
Presumed-Jones hadn’t learned that yet. “What do you think?”
She sighed. “About what?”
“I’m guessing they lost engine power on the final approach. Maybe ran out of fuel.”
“Wrong,” Dumont said. “Use your nose.”
“I thought that was oil.”
He stared off in the direction of the river. “They could have hit a bird or something. There are blue herons down along the bank.”
“The debris field suggests a...