Burnt metal and bodies twisted in a macabre sculpture. “Christ almighty,” she groaned. It never got easier for her. The initial shock of a crash site never failed to shrivel her soul a touch.
“About time you got here.”
Uneasy, Sara Jane tromped toward the closest familiar face. “Cowboy right?”
“Girl, you’ve been with us three months and you still don’t know my name?”
She looked the lanky man over. He didn’t appear too brilliant but the NTSB did not hire morons. She glanced at the crowd beyond him. The busy swarm surrounding the site resembled a horde of ants devouring a picnic. Now and again a blue cap would dart into view, a teammate wearing the required uniform. “Am I the last one here?”
He chuckled. His long, weathered face contorted in ironic amusement. “You mean besides the FAA, ATC, every precinct of the Chicago Police and Fire Department, the pilots union, the flight attendants union, reps from TransCon Airlines, Red Cross, and the mayor?”
Sara Jane nodded.
“No, Tom’s still MIA, probably got lost or stuck in traffic. I hate this town. My idea of a traffic jam is trailing behind a tractor on a winding road. You’re from around here aren’t you?”
“Yes.” Sara Jane jerked her head in a quick nod and steered the conversation back to work. She did not want to talk about Chicago or why she left. “Looks like the media beat us all.” She cocked her head to the crowd of cameramen and reporters corralled like rabid dogs at the edge of the field.
“Cook County police got here soon enough and so did the guy from the Chicago field office. He’s been in the thick of that crowd since I got here.” Cowboy shrugged his bony shoulders up to his ears. “Guess he likes the media. Seeing’ as how you worked in that office up ‘til a few months ago you probably know him.”
Her stomach muscles clenched. She held her breath. “Who is it?”
“Shit,” she exhaled.
A mischievous toothy grin spread across his animated face. Jerk, he knew Mick was her ex. Their breakup had not been quiet. Sara Jane was not about to let him get a rise out of her. Tucking a strand of chin length blonde hair behind her ear, she changed the subject. “Plane crashed at what 3:15-3:20?”
“‘Bout that. Headed for D.C. from Vegas. Stopped over in Minneapolis for a refuel. Guess we can be grateful that the pilot chose to ditch here in this field rather than Lake Michigan. Wonder what crop he plowed?”
“You’re the hick.”
“Don’t know either huh?”
“Soybeans.” She swung her hiking boot and kicked a plant in front of her.
She nodded. “Have you been here long enough to guess what happened?”
“Nice work. We can go home then?”
“Cute. No, I haven’t a guess. That’s not my job. Operations is working on gathering the history of the flight. We’re looking into the crew but by all accounts this guy was an excellent pilot. Tom will begin the structure analysis when he arrives, can’t really get too close right now anyway, the plane’s still smoking’. Fred is talking to the Air Traffic Control guys right now. Powerplant is on hold until the thing cools as well.”
“Too soon to tell, but that’d be my guess.”
He nodded. “Probably. These guys don’t know how to fly a plane by sight anymore. Go ahead and make your calls and observations we’ll need them for the record, but I don’t think the weather played into it factor.”
The air was beginning to cool off as the sun launched its descent toward the horizon. Not a breeze stirred in the clear August sky. “You’re probably right,” she agreed. “Just to be sure I’ll put a call into the National Weather Service, have them send me the afternoon readouts and talk to the weather observer on duty at O’Hare. Maybe there were some unusual wind patterns or something. It’ll take some time. Might as well put me to work.”
He nodded and grinned. “Good girl,” he said slapping a firm hand on her shoulder. You got your ‘go to’ bag
His patronizing tone and gesture bristled her already weary nerves. Sara Jane sidestepped out from under his hand. “Don’t condescend to me Cowboy. I’ve been with the board for five years so, yes I have my bag and,” she paused for emphasis before continuing. “I’m not a good girl.”
“Don’t get your panties in a bunch,” he teased. “I didn’t mean nothing’ by it. I know your record. I’m the one that convinced them to hire you.”
Her eyes bugged. “I didn’t know that they needed any convincing.”
“They didn’t. I’m just messing’ with you. Nonetheless you have my respect and the respect of your team so don’t worry about it. We’re all friends here.”
Grateful, she nodded. His eyes, steely, intelligent eyes if you paused to look, scrutinized her over the top of his Ray Bans.
“How’s come you don’t have a nickname?”
More at ease now, it was her turn to grin. “I probably do, it’s just used behind my back.”
“No. What’s your last name?”
“Shit.” Tugging off his cap, he rubbed a large bony hand through his shaggy hair.
“How about we just call you Sara J?”
“Fine,” she said. Anything that did not ring of condescension was fine with her. The National Transportation Safety Board, affectionately called ‘the board’ by those within, was still a man’s club for the most part and she’d had to endure a lot over the past five years. Course it did not help that she had been sleeping with the boss. “What do you want me to do?”
“At this point just scan the perimeter. Start about two hundred yards out from the crash site and scour the ground for pieces, human or otherwise. Take pictures, flag and catalog anything you find. The usual. Got it?”
She nodded. “Got it.” Sara Jane watched as Cowboy stomped toward the scorched wreckage. Turning around she hiked back across the green field to the dirt road where she had parked her rental car. Though she would have done whatever he asked of her, she was glad to stay away from the bodies. They had a particular smell, especially the burnt ones, that stung your eyes and lingered on your skin for days.
She checked her watch. 7:30, a few hours of daylight left. Popping the trunk, she grabbed her duffle bag from inside. Every member of a ‘Go Team’ sent to investigate a major aircraft accident carried a ‘go to’ bag. It held the equipment necessary for their part of the investigation. In addition to the usual paraphernalia, Sara Jane carried a box of sugar laden snack cakes. She was eternally hungry. Stocked with healthy, cancer inducing preservatives, they never went bad.
Digging out a pair of latex gloves, her pen and notebook, assorted flags, flashlight, and a loaded camera, she headed for the farthest corner of the field. Away from the media, and Mick.
A quarter past midnight, lights illuminated the wreckage like a baseball stadium. Long NTSB trailers, topped with looming satellite dishes, were set up along the edge of an adjacent field. Temporary headquarters. The Red Cross and the others had set up their trailers beyond.
Tom, the structures specialist, had arrived two hours ago. The team was complete. He and the other six members, mostly aerospace engineers each with their own specialty, were scouring the cooling wreckage for clues. Alone in the darkness, at the other end of the field, Sara Jane trudged up and down the straight rows of bushy plants. A round orb of light guided her way, occasionally illuminating scraps of metal or plastic lying on the ground. Some had probably been there for years, having been dropped by children playing in the field or by farmers. Others were new. All had to be photographed, documented, and tagged. When she had been a rookie in Chicago five years ago they had told her a story about an investigative agent finding a bloody severed arm three hundred yards from a crash site. Tonight fortune seemed to be shining on her. No bits and pieces… yet.
Her light flashed on something shiny hiding in the shadow of a plant. Tugging her jeans up at the knees, she squatted down to have a closer look. As she brushed aside the thick leaves a smooth circle of glass reflected her light like a miniature full moon. It appeared to be the face of a watch. Holding the flashlight between her tired knees she picked it up.
“What’d you find?”
Sara Jane’s heart jumped at the sound of his voice. She moaned, “What happened Mick? Did the reporters go home?”
“Cute. What did you find?”
Teeth clenched, she stood up and faced him. Even in the dark she could see a thick growth of stubble on his wide jaw. He looked more handsome than she remembered and her instinctive physical reaction to him pissed her off. “A watch face. Antique, I think. Look it’s a chronograph.” She shone the light on it so he could see.
“Hmm,” he said admiring the watch. “Gallet. Nice, you’re right it is an antique. 1940’s I’d guess.” His finger traced the scratched glass.
She jerked it out of his reach. “Didn’t know you were a connoisseur.”
He shrugged. “I’m not. Is it engraved?”
“Hold this.” Sara Jane thrust her flashlight into his hands. Turning it over, she held the watch in the light. “Oh my,” she said sucking in her breath. “It is.” She read the inscription on the tarnished silver back. “Charles O’Brien. June 16, 1949. A passenger?”
“I’ll have someone take a look at the manifest. Did you record it?”
“Then give it to me. I’ll put it with the other personal effects that we collect.”
Sara Jane hesitated giving it to him.
“I’m sure the family would want it back,” Mick urged.
“You’re not wearing any gloves,” she protested. She did not care about the gloves. She just didn’t want to relinquish the watch.
Mick extended his hand. “Give me one of yours.”
“Hmmph. You never could share. Never mind, I have some in my pocket.” He reached into his pants pocket and pulled a pair out.
As Mick tugged them on, she studied the tarnished watch face. The time had stopped. Probably broke on impact, she thought. The snapping of rubber jerked her back to attention.
“There. Now give me the watch.” Mick held out his hand. The latex glove gave it a ghastly, bloated appearance.
She shuddered. Out of options, Sara Jane dropped it in his open palm. As she did she noticed a thick gold band on his left ring finger. Meeting his eyes with a glare, she waited for an explanation.
“I was going to tell you,” he whispered.
“When?” she snapped.
“When the time was right.” He swiped his hairy arm across his forehead wiping away tiny beads of sweat. “What are you doing here anyway? The weather didn’t play into it.”
“I’m doing my job,” she huffed. “Is it her? The brunette that I caught you with?”
“I don’t think we should be talking about this right now,” he growled, glancing over his shoulder.
Sara Jane ignored him. She didn’t care if others were listening. Let them. They had all heard worse in the days before she’d left. “You gave her my bed, did you give her my ring too or did you hock it for a new one?”
“I hocked it.”
“What, you’re not happy for me?” Mick asked, his deep voice thick with sarcasm.
Sara Jane had been gone three months and he was married. The news rubbed her pride raw. It had taken him four years to ask her to marry him and now this woman that he had cheated on her with, was his wife. Three months. She took a deep breath in an effort to calm her rage. All that wasted time burned. “I’d like you to leave now,” she said reigning in her fury. Mick just stood looking down on her. Standing at 6’1”, she hated that he towered over her. She had no right to ask him to leave. He wasn’t her boss anymore but he still had authority over her and he could damn well do what he pleased, including fire her. But she was too angry to care about that. “Do I need to kick you or are you going to leave?” Sara Jane spat, feeling the tenuous grip on her self-control slip away.
“What and have you make one of your famous scenes?” Mick sneered. “No, we wouldn’t want that.” He turned and left.
Sara Jane blew out a sigh of relief. “Asshole.”
“I heard that.”
Daylight broke the sky in a glorious golden display. Taking a much needed break from the field, Sara Jane leaned against her car and drank the lukewarm coffee someone had given her. She had just gotten off the phone with the National Weather Service. They were faxing over yesterday’s readouts but, based on her observations, weather was definitely not a factor in this crash. Zero precipitation, a cloudless sky and local wind shear detectors had come up negative. Wind from the west had been coming in at ten miles per hour. No sudden wind gusts had been recorded within a hundred mile radius.
“Hey Sara J. How’s it coming’?”
Squinting in the sun she looked up to see Cowboy ambling toward her.
“Find anything?” he asked.
Sara shook her head. Not much. I’m still about a hundred yards out. Just got off the phone with my local weather guy.”
“I should’ve told you not to bother. The Feds are being’ brought in. Scott found traces of an unusual chemical composite on what’s left of the right wing.”
“Composite? You mean a bomb?”
“Looks like. He’s thinking’ it’s homemade. We’ll know for sure after the test results get back but the guy knows his stuff. Based on the fragmentation of the wing he suspects that there was a mid air explosion. They’re already checking into all the people that came in contact with the plane both in Minneapolis and Las Vegas.”
“Anyone call in a threat?”
“And no one is taking credit?”
Cowboy shook his head.
“Hmmm. So the wing blows. Pilot loses control. Crashes there.” She pointed to the beginning of the scorched track at the edge of the field. “Plane explodes and skids to a fiery stop there,” she said swinging her arm in a large arc to the hollowed out jet.
“Well then. If it’s all wrapped up you probably won’t have me for much longer.”
“Cute. You know how this works. Everyone gets their own theory. We work for months compiling info to prove them right or wrong and the winner is the hero.”
“Yea. I know. What else can I do?”
“Just keep at the field if you don’t mind.”
“Good. We’re taking shifts. You and I are off tonight plus Fred and Mick. Could you drive me to my hotel? I came in with Scott and I want to leave him the car.”
“Thanks. Where’re you staying’?”
“At my mom’s in Park Ridge. It’s about an hour from here”
He put his gloved hand on her shoulder. “I heard about Mick gettin’ married. Sorry kiddo. That sucks.”
It did suck but at the moment it wasn’t what bothered her. “I hope that glove doesn’t have blood on it,” she said with a shudder.
He retracted his hand from her shoulder. It did. He’d been digging in bodies all night. “Someone sent for doughnuts. Get yourself one. You’re too skinny.”
She did get herself a doughnut. In fact she scarfed down three and chugged a warm coke before going back into the field.
It was 5:00. Her back hurt, her head hurt, sweat dripped down her back, her clothes clung to her skin, and she was tired of peeing in the turquoise blue port-a-johns. After a full day of photographing and tagging debris she was relieved to see Cowboy sauntering toward her.
“Hey honey you ready?”
“More than,” she sighed. Tucking her notebook under her arm, she walked across the field toward her car. Cowboy stepped in along side her. “Call me honey again,” she said. “And you’re walking.”
“Sara J, honey, you need a nap.”
“And a shower, and a meal and a good screw.”
“Is that an offer?”
“The meal or the screw?”
“Whichever you’re more in need of darling’”
“Which are you more in need of Sara J?”
She smiled for the first time in two days. “Get in the car Cowboy.”