City's off to the northwest, Great Smoky Mountains National Park's beyond that. The Cherokee Indian Reservation lies to the north, the Nantahala Game Land and National Forest to the south.”

I swallowed to relieve the pressure inside my ears.

“What's the elevation here?”

“We're at forty-two hundred feet.”

“I don't want to tell you how to do your job, Sheriff, but there are a few folks you might want to keep ou —”

“The insurance man and the snake-bellied lawyer. Lucy Crowe may live on a mountain, but she's been off it once or twice.”

I didn't doubt that. I was also certain that no one gave lip to Lucy Crowe.

“Probably good to keep the press out, too.”


“You're right about the ME, Sheriff. He'll be here. But the North Carolina emergency plan calls for DMORT involvement for a major.”

I heard a muffled boom, followed by shouted orders. Crowe removed her hat and ran the back of her sleeve across her forehead.

“How many fires are still burning?”

“Four. We're getting them out, but it's dicey. The mountain's mighty dry this time of year.” She tapped the hat against a thigh as muscular as her shoulders.

“I'm sure your crews are doing their best. They've secured the area and they're dealing with the fires. If there are no survivors, there's nothing else to be done.”

“They're not really trained for this kind of thing.”

Over Crowe's shoulder an old man in a Cherokee Volunteer PD jacket poked through a pile of debris. I decided on tact.

“I'm sure you've told your people that crash scenes must be treated like crime scenes. Nothing should be disturbed.”

She gave her peculiar down-up nod.

“They're probably feeling frustrated, wanting to be useful but unsure what to do. A reminder never hurts.”

I indicated the poker.

Crowe swore softly, then crossed to the volunteer, her strides powerful as an Olympic runner's. The man moved off, and in a moment the sheriff was back.

“This is never easy,” I said. “When the NTSB arrives they'll assume responsibility for the whole operation.”


At that moment Crowe's cell phone rang. I waited as she spoke.

“Another precinct heard from,” she said, hooking the handset to her belt. “Charles Hanover, CEO of Air TransSouth.”

Though I'd never flown it, I'd heard of the airline, a small, regional carrier connecting about a dozen cities in the Carolinas, Georgia, and Tennessee with Washington, D.C.

“This is one of theirs?”

“Flight 228 was late leaving Atlanta for Washington, D.C. Sat on the runway forty minutes, took off at twelve forty-five P.M. The plane was at about twenty-five thousand feet when it disappeared from radar at one oh seven. My office got the 911 call around two.”

“How many on board?”

“The plane was a Fokker-100 carrying eighty-two passengers and six crew. But that's not the worst of it.”

Her next words foretold the horror of the coming days.


Crowe nodded. “Hanover said both the men and women were traveling to matches somewhere near Washington.”

“Jesus.” Images popped like flashbulbs. A severed leg. Teeth with braces. A young woman caught in a tree.

A sudden stab of fear.

My daughter, Katy, was a student in Virginia, but often visited her best friend in Athens, home of the University of Georgia. Lija was on athletic scholarship. Was it soccer?

Oh, God. My mind raced. Had Katy mentioned a trip? When was her semester break? I resisted the impulse to grab my cell phone.

“How many students?”

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