aimed the small plane up into the blue sky. He looked at his VOR and saw that he was to the left of his original course so he banked the Cessna to the right as he climbed. The desert scrub seemed to slide below him.

Sandra settled back in her seat, glad to be away from the men with the guns. She closed her eyes and rubbed them with the back of her hands. She heard the crack of splintering glass and she jumped as something wet splattered across her cheek. Her stomach lurched as the nose of the Cessna dipped down and when she looked across at her husband she saw that he’d slumped back in his seat, his head resting against the side window. Her first thought was that he’d had a heart attack or a stroke but then she saw that there was blood on his face and she screamed. His blood was all over her and there were bits of pink tissue and fragments of bone that looked like white wood shavings. She screamed and tugged on his shoulder, hoping that by shaking him she’d wake him up. His head lolled forward and she saw that the top of his skull had been blown away. His feet were drumming against the floor but she could see from the size of the wound that he was already dead, the kicking was just a nervous reaction. Something dripped down her face and she looked up to see thick globules of blood trickling down from the roof of the plane. She opened her mouth to scream again and blood ran between her lips, making her gag. Behind her, Jamie was screaming for his father.

Sandra wiped her hands across her face and felt the blood smear over her skin. Through the cockpit she saw nothing but the desert and she realised with a jolt that the plane was still diving. She reached for the control wheel and pulled back on it, feeling her stomach churn as the plane’s nose came up. She was gasping for breath and her arms were trembling. She looked towards the attitude indicator but her husband’s body obscured it, then suddenly his whole body swung away from the instruments as if he’d only been dozing, but she realised it was the deceleration forcing him back. The shaking in her hands intensified and she forced herself to keep her eyes on the instruments and not on her dead husband. The plane levelled off and she decided to accelerate away from the gunmen below rather than wasting time trying to climb. There was a loud crack from somewhere behind her and then another and she yelled at Jamie to lie down across the rear seats. The rudder pedals abruptly lost their resistance as if the cables had been cut and the Cessna began to slide to the right, with the wind. More bullets thudded into the rear of the plane and she felt the control wheel kick in her hands. “Oh God, the fuel,” she said, remembering the fuel tanks in the wings above her head. She began twisting the control wheel from side to side, jerking the plane around in the air. Mitchell’s body swayed grotesquely, held in place by the seat belt. His blood was dripping everywhere, though thankfully his feet had stopped drumming on the pedals.

Jamie had followed her instructions and was lying across the back seats, sobbing into his hands.

“It’s okay, honey, it’s going to be okay,” Sandra said, though there was no conviction in her trembling voice. Her mind was racing and she couldn’t remember what the emergency procedures were. She closed her eyes for a moment and tried to picture the emergency transponder code. Seven Seven Zero Zero. She took her left hand off the control wheel and fumbled with the dials on the transponder, turning them to the four figures which would set alarms ringing at all radar facilities within range. The wheel jerked in her hand and pulled forward as the plane began to dive again. The engine started to splutter and the whole plane bucked and reared like a runaway stallion. Her hands shook as she keyed in the emergency frequency on the radio: 121.50 MHz. The control wheel began to shudder, making her shoulders vibrate.

“Mom, what’s happening?” screamed her son.

“It’s okay, honey. Stay where you are.” The engine was coughing and the propeller blades became visible as a grey disc as they slowed. Black smoke was pouring from the left side of the engine cowling. According to the altimeter they were a little over a thousand feet above the ground and the vertical speed indicator showed they were dropping at five hundred feet a minute. She clicked on the radio microphone. “Mayday, mayday,” she said. “This is Five Nine Four, position unknown, crash landing.” She couldn’t remember what other information she was supposed to give in a distress call.

The headset crackled but there was no reply. The altimeter was spinning and they were probably too low for anyone to pick up their signal. “Mayday, mayday,” she repeated, then took her thumb off the microphone switch and concentrated on the emergency procedures. She pulled back hard on the control wheel to try to keep the nose up but it suddenly went slack and she knew she’d lost control of the elevators. The dive steepened and the airspeed indicator went above the red line. The plane was diving at its maximum speed but there was surprisingly little sense of movement. Sandra Mitchell became quite detached about her own imminent death. She kept pulling back on the control wheel, knowing that it was quite useless but wanting to do something. She took deep breaths. “It’s all right, honey,” she called to her son. “It’s all right.”

The ground seemed to get no closer until the last hundred feet and then it suddenly rushed up to meet her.

Cole Howard took the pack of cards out of his pocket and slid off the elastic band he’d used to keep them together. He scanned the first one. “Who was Barnum’s partner in The Greatest Show on Earth?” he read. He thought for a while before turning the card over. The answer was J. A. Bailey. Howard sighed. The next question was “What is known as The Englishman’s Wine?” Howard smiled. “Port,” he said to himself. He turned the card over and his smile widened as he saw that he was correct. The telephone on his desk rang, a single burble that let him know it was an internal call. He picked it up as he continued to read the Trivial Pursuit card. “Howard,” he said.

“Good morning, Cole. You busy?”

It was Jake Sheldon, Cole’s immediate superior in the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s office in Phoenix. “Nothing pressing, Jake,” said Howard.

“Can you come up and see me when you’ve got a moment?”

“Sure thing. Now okay?”

“Now would be just fine, Cole. Thanks.”

Howard knew that Jake Sheldon always relayed his orders as requests, often in a manner so abstruse as to cause confusion. A polite suggestion that an agent “come up and see me sometime” was as urgent a call as he’d ever make, even if his office was on fire. Agents new to the office had to be taken to one side and briefed on Sheldon’s management techniques lest they confuse his deferential manner with laziness or complacency. Howard studied one of his cards as he waited for the elevator. “How many notes are there in two adjacent octaves?” Howard frowned, decided the answer was sixteen and turned the card over. “Fifteen,” he read. He showed no annoyance at his mistake, he merely memorised the answer and went on to the next question.

Sheldon’s office was as neat and formal as the man himself, his desk uncluttered, his college degree and legal qualifications lined up on the wall behind him in identical rosewood frames, the blinds across his window as straight as razors. He was wearing a dark blue suit and crisp white shirt, a uniform which he never varied. Sheldon was rumoured to have more than a dozen suits, each exactly the same in colour and style, which he rotated religiously. He looked as if he’d just stepped out of a clothing catalogue, and even though he was sitting behind his desk he still had the jacket on. He had the look of an elder statesman, a senator perhaps, with white hair, a soft voice and fleshy jowls. He closed a file on his desk when Howard entered his office and asked him to sit. “So, Cole, how’s your lovely wife?”

“Fine, sir. Just fine.”

“And her parents?”

“Great. Just great.”

Sheldon nodded. “Give my regards to Mr Clayton when you see him.”

“I’ll do that, sir.”

The pleasantries over, Sheldon handed Howard a videocassette and the file he’d been reading. “I want you to look into this for me, Cole. It’s a strange one, a triple homicide, but there’s more to it than that. A family were flying about sixty miles south of Kingman when their plane was shot down. Normally we wouldn’t get involved in an incident of this nature, but it’s what they saw before they were shot down that involves us. Put that into the VCR, will you?”

Howard took the cassette over to the VCR in the corner of the office, slotted it home and pressed the ‘play’ button. He stood to the side and folded his arms across his chest. A woman’s face appeared on the screen, distorted because she was so close to the lens. She was laughing and Howard could hear a small boy shouting: “Go on, Mom, make a face.”

“Sandra Mitchell, a thirty-year-old homemaker. Her husband, Jim, is flying the plane. They were en route from Phoenix to Las Vegas.”

The camera moved jerkily so that the back of the pilot’s head was in frame. “Dad, Dad!” The pilot turned and

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