DarknessBy: Karen Robards
Darkness is dedicated to my three sons,
Peter, Christopher, and Jack,
and my husband, Doug,
It was an ordinary flight, on an ordinary day, full of ordinary people.
Until it wasn’t.
“Eww, gross.” Nine-year-old Elijah Samuels jabbed an elbow into the ribs of his thirteen-year-old sister, Abigail, and pointed at the couple kissing in front of them. Blue-eyed, blond-haired Lije, as he was called, was sturdy and tan from three weeks spent hitting the beach with his accountant father, who’d moved to Burbank after his divorce from the children’s mother the previous summer. Abby was sturdy and tan, too, with sunny streaks in her long, brown braid and a pair of gold studs in her newly pierced ears, a dad-authorized act that she was afraid her mom was going to freak out over. The siblings were near the end of what had been a long line of passengers waiting to hand over their boarding passes and walk down the ramp to take their seats on the Airbus A320. Flight 155 was scheduled to carry them from LAX to Washington Dulles, where their mother would meet them. It was a Saturday, and a new school year would begin on Monday.
“Don’t point,” Abby hissed under her breath, smacking her brother on the shoulder.
“Don’t hit,” Lije retorted, jerking away and making a face at her.
The kissing couple, Mia and Nate Smolski, broke apart as they reached the turnstile. Nate handed over his boarding pass as Mia looked around to smile at Abby and Lije, having clearly overheard their exchange. A radiant smile lit up her thin face and made the slim brunette briefly beautiful. A long-distance runner who had attended UCLA on a scholarship, she was twenty-three years old and a newly minted nurse. Nate was twenty-six, a salesman for his uncle’s car dealership. They’d gotten married the previous afternoon, and this flight was the first leg of their honeymoon. Mia followed her new husband on board, and Lije and Abby, still exchanging evil looks, followed them.
In line behind Lije and Abby were two businessmen, Don Miller and Gary Henderson. Both worked in the marketing department of a research and development company. They’d spent the week in Southern California pitching their company’s services to various clients, and were glad to be going home. Both were in their forties, both married with children.
The Garcia family of Alexandria, Virginia, boarded next: grandmother Rita, mom Haylie, dad Jason, and their two-year-old twin daughters, Gracie and Helen. Grandmother and Mom were each lugging a child, and Dad was carrying two car seats and what looked like four or five backpacks. All looked tired and harassed, except the children, who were asleep on the women’s respective shoulders.
Edward Thomas Jorgensen was behind the Garcias. A tall, fit man of thirty-nine, he was neatly dressed in a polo shirt and khakis and carried a briefcase. He was unmarried, childless, currently unemployed.
Nine more people boarded after Jorgensen, for a total of 243 passengers on board. The plane also carried twelve crew members.
Flight 155 took off twenty-eight minutes late at 12:58 p.m. Blue skies, perfect flying weather.
One hour and fifty minutes later, still enjoying perfect flying weather, the Airbus A320 slammed into the side of a mountain just outside of Denver.
There were no survivors.
No cause for the crash could be determined.
NOVEMBER, ONE YEAR LATER, KAZAKHSTAN
The private jet bumped over a narrow strip of pavement as it touched down. At the end of the little-used runway in a cleared area of forest a few miles outside of Aktau, Kazakhstan, a trio of covered military-style trucks pointing their headlights toward the taxiing plane provided the only illumination. It was dark, it was snowing furiously, and those trucks held one wayward American citizen and a whole bunch of rifle-toting members of the Kazakh Armed Forces.
None of those things were designed to make James “Cal” Callahan feel all warm and fuzzy inside. The plane executed a neat one-eighty as it reached the end of the runway, turning its nose back the way they’d come so that takeoff could happen quickly.
“Keep the engines running,” Cal directed the pilot, Tim Hendricks. Easing the jet to a halt, Hendricks nodded. A wiry six-two, Hendricks was, like Cal and Ezra Brown, the third member of their party, former Air Force Special Operations Command, also known as AFSOCs or, more commonly, Air Commandos.