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One white wing weighed down the boughs of a thick spruce. Bits of plastic and cloth, chunks of smoldering metal freckled the brambles along a trail of devastation hundreds of yards long. Emergency workers in reflective vests and hard hats picked through the debris, one spreading a white sheet over a hunk of fuselage that looked as though it might once have been a cockpit.
Tears filled Macy’s eyes as a firefighter stabbed a red flag—the indicator for the location of human remains—into the ground at one corner of the sheet. A thin plume of smoke curled upward from the spot as if to mark the trail of a soul leaving its earthly existence. Overhead a half dozen buzzards circled, hoping for a chance at the body left behind.
Grief rolled heavily in Macy’s chest. God, how many dead? Two in the cockpit. Then there was Jeffries, the man who’d been hired to tend the cargo. Cory Holcomb, the lab tech. Timlen Zufria, the Malaysian doctor working with them.
A strand of long, brown hair broke free from Macy’s braid to lash against her cheek. She turned her head away from the open door of the chopper as it banked low over the remnants of the once-sleek aircraft, scattering the buzzards.
Closing her eyes, she choked back tears. She would not cry. Not in front of the others. Not when there was work to do.
How many times had David told her there was no room for emotion in medical research?
She’d never become as astute as him at separating her feelings from the job. Those feelings were the reason she’d become a doctor. She cared about people.
She’d cared about David.
“This is as close as I can get you,” the pilot’s voice crackled in her headset.
She opened her eyes, noting thankfully that they’d passed over the broken ruins of the jet. Below them now lay only a patchy gray-brown blanket of scrub mesquite west of the debris field. To the east the midmorning sun broke free of a cloud and flared brightly enough to burn Macy’s already-stinging eyes.
Squinting as she swept her gaze over the clearing, to the seemingly endless woods all around it, Macy gave the pilot a shaky thumbs-up. “It’ll do.”
At least the plane hadn’t crashed in a populated area. The souls aboard the chartered jet were gone, but there was still a chance a larger disaster could be averted.
As the Bell 429 descended, she hung her headset on the peg behind her seat and put on her helmet, careful to seal the double cuff between it and the neck of her environmental suit securely. The four other members of the team took her cue and donned their gear. She checked the airtight closure on each person’s wrists and ankles before they climbed out of the helicopter.
“Remember.” Her respirator muffled the words. She raised her voice to make sure no one missed her point. “These suits may be the only thing standing between life and death out there. Your life and your death. Make sure you take care of them.”
Maybe Macy was being overly cautious, but at least worrying about her people distracted her from thinking about what lay ahead. Twisted metal. Twisted bodies. Her and David’s research—work that might have saved so many lives—gone up in smoke. Or maybe down in flames was a better analogy.
The research was inconsequential now. There would be no laboratory-controlled experiments. No computer-modeled projections.
No containment, if her worst fears proved true.
Curtis Leahy, the logistics officer with surfer-dude good looks and the shaggy blond hair to match, nodded. “We all know the risks.”
Sweat trickled into Macy’s eye. Texas was still warm in early October, and her anxiety wasn’t helping. Unable to wipe the perspiration away because of her face shield, she blinked the droplets out of her eyes. “Then let’s none of us become statistics, okay?”
Noting that Susan and Christian Fargier, the twin brother and sister lab techs who’d brought excellent references to the CDC from the Mayo clinic in Minnesota, wore properly concerned expressions, Macy led her people toward the wreckage and prayed they weren’t too late to stop a tragedy from becoming a catastrophe.
One by one, the firefighters, sheriff’s deputies and forestry-service employees working around the wreck turned toward Macy and her team. They leaned on rakes and shovels, their faces smudged with ash, eyes watery and red. Sweat plastered their clothes to their bodies, rolled from beneath the headbands of their hard hats. They stared at the crew walking toward them as if Macy and her team were Martians emerging from a flying saucer.
Which is exactly what they looked like, Macy supposed, with their orange biohazard suits and respirator packs, carrying medical supplies in dimpled silver suitcases that caught the sunlight in bright flashes.
Macy fumbled with the pouch at her waist, pulled out her ID and held it up in a gloved hand. “I’m Dr. Macy Attois with the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta.”
The workers’ eyes turned wary. Several dropped the tools they’d been carrying. A few began to back away.
Macy’s heart rate kicked up a notch. She worked to keep her voice steady. Her panic would only feed theirs.
“This site is a biohazard,” she continued as unemotionally as she could manage. Some of them looked so young….
“Biohazard?” a Boy-Scout-faced young man in a brown forestry service shirt asked, the whites of his eyes standing out against flushed cheeks.
The crowd rumbled behind him. “What the—?”
“Did she say bio—”
Macy raised her voice to an officious tone. “For your own safety, it’s important that you move away from the wreckage. My team will set up a triage area and check everyone out.” She heard the latches on the portable suitcases snick open as Susan and Christian set up behind her.
“Triage, hell.” A wild-eyed young sheriff’s deputy with a mustache that looked like a horseshoe hung upside down on his upper lip edged away from the others. His hand gripped the butt of the pistol on his hip. “I’m getting out of here.”
“That’s the worst thing you could do,” Macy said. She didn’t add that the state troopers already setting up roadblocks outside the Sabine National Forest, where the jet had crashed, had been ordered to turn back anyone who tried to leave the area—with lethal force, if necessary. “If you’ve been exposed, you need specialized treatment.”
The deputy swayed as if unsure whether or not to make a run for it. A man in a sooty, blue-flannel shirt caught him by the epaulet.
“Exposed to what?” the man asked.
Macy’s first impression of him was rugged. He wore a tan that couldn’t be bought in a salon. His body was long and lean, not overly muscled, and yet exuding a sense of sinewy strength, like a high-tension steel cable. When he moved through the crowd, pulling the deputy with him, the workers parted like the waters before Moses to give him room.
Whoever he was, he commanded the respect of the locals.
She waited until he’d almost reached her before answering his question with one of her own. “Who am I speaking to?”
His hair was brown, tempered by shades of gray that might have been natural or might have been a dusting of ash from the fire. His cheeks were thin, not an ounce of extra flesh on them. His nose looked as if it might have been broken a time or two and his mouth slashed across his face in a stiff line that said he didn’t smile much. But most notable were his eyes, deep-set, with rims bloodshot from the smoke around irises so gray they appeared metallic. And completely unreadable.
And calm as the Dead Sea.
She shook herself mentally, ignoring the shiver his stare sent crawling down her spine. She would not be