Bryant pulled open the passenger door to the Expedition and sat next to the FBI agent. It was chilly enough for Bryant to feel the heater blowing on his feet. The man twisted to face him and folded his arms across his chest.
“You want to know what’s going on, don’t you?” the man said.
“What’s your name?” Bryant asked.
The man hesitated. It was a simple question, but Bryant understood the consequences of the request. Giving up even something as simple as your name was a dispersal of power. A loss of previously undisclosed information. It gave him an identity.
“Ron,” the man said tersely. Then he seemed to arrive at a conclusion. He reached into his coat pocket and came out with a gold shield. “Special Agent Ron Turkle.”
“All right, Ron,” Bryant said, not giving the man the satisfaction of acting intimidated. “Why don’t you tell me what I need to know.”
The FBI agent sat motionless while Bryant took in the interior of the vehicle. A GPS device sat in the middle of the dashboard. It was dark green, but for an orange dot blinking on the top portion of the screen. A few hundred yards ahead of the Expedition a car started. Bryant didn’t put the two things together until he noticed the blinking orange light on the GPS begin to move at the very same moment a small car pulled out onto Warner Road and drove away. It was too dark to tell, but it looked something like a Honda Civic.
“That’s her car you’re tracking isn’t it?” Bryant said.
Agent Turkle didn’t pay any attention to the GPS, or the car. He simply stared at Bryant with a serious expression, as if he were deciding exactly how much to say.
“She’s just a teenage girl for crying out loud,” Bryant said. “What are you so afraid of?”
Turkle didn’t seem in any rush to engage Bryant. He looked out his window to peek at the overcast sky.
“The meteorologists already have a name for this anomaly,” Turkle said. “They’ve labeled it some kind of stagnant air flow something or other.” He turned back to Bryant and added, “Is that what you figured it was?”
Bryant was beginning to wonder why this guy seemed so casual. He was using soft tones and innocuous conversation as if trying to keep Bryant curious enough to stay.
“You didn’t answer my question,” Bryant said.
“You already know the answer to the first question, but it’s the second question you want to ask that’s got you all geeked up with intrigue.”
Bryant wasn’t getting anywhere with this line of dialogue so he decided a different approach. “Aw, Agent Turkle,” Bryant moaned, a disgusted look on his face. “Don’t tell me you’re into young girls. Is that how you get your kicks?”
A slow, wicked smile crept across Turkle’s face. Bryant wasn’t sure if he’d just poked a sleeping lion.
“You know what I think?” Turkle said. “I think you’re innocent. I think you made those reservations to Jackson Hole just because you needed to get away. Not because you were running away like some of the guys in my office think.”
“Running away from what?”
“And I think you keep that bottle of Ativan in the top drawer of your desk just in case you get the nerve to commit suicide and not for emergency anxiety attacks like some of the other guys think.”
The heater seemed to blow hotter on Bryant’s legs. The FBI had better things to do than to search a civilian’s office unless there was good reason. Bryant’s life was getting more complicated by the minute.
Turkle glared at him. “Don’t antagonize me, Dr. Bryant. I don’t like shrinks to begin with, so don’t make matters worse.” He pulled a laptop computer from under his seat and rested it on his knees.
“I’m sitting here trying to help you,” Turkle added, plucking the keyboard with his index finger. “Maybe I should let you go on with your slow spiral into a deep depression, but it occurs to me that I could speed up the process for you.”
Bryant didn’t like the change in his voice. More businesslike. The computer screen glowed in the agent’s hands as he seemed to find what he was looking for.
Turkle turned the computer to face Bryant, then handed it to him. “You already know about the plane crash, right?”
Before Bryant could respond, an image appeared on the screen. An aerial view of a foggy, snowcapped mountain range. Turkle reached around the screen and pushed one of the “F” keys at the top of the keyboard. The picture slowly zoomed in to become different shades of white, the fog peeling away like layers of a veil. As the image zoomed closer, a dark spec came into view. At first Bryant thought it was a rock jutting out from the snow, but soon discovered something quite different. As the image became clearer and closer, Bryant could see that the spec was a smattering of debris. Metallic-gray particles interrupted the pristine pallor of the landscape. They seemed foreign, like slivers of a screw in a bowl of white rice.
Bryant’s stomach clenched as his eyes finally focused on the image. There was no indication that the foreign material in the photo had ever been part of a commercial aircraft. If Bryant hadn’t already suspected what he was seeing, he would never have come up with the right answer.
“The computer malfunctioned at the same time they were flying through an early-season snowstorm,” Turkle said. “The pilot was flying without instruments and flew into the side of Mt. McKinley at over four hundred miles an hour.”
The screen kept zooming in until Bryant could see the aircraft’s fuselage split open. Pieces of the seats were mingled in with luggage and body parts. As a medical doctor, Bryant had seen plenty of trauma during his residency, but this was violent. The charred debris really stood out against the snowy backdrop.
“The gas tanks were full at impact. We found parts of the fuselage over a hundred yards away from the site,” Turkle said.
The interior of the car had warmed up considerably. The heater seemed to be blowing fire onto Bryant’s legs.
“Margo?” Bryant uttered. “She was on this flight?”
“They couldn’t make a positive identification on her entire family, even with dental records,” Turkle said. “They found Margo sitting next to the crash site without a scratch on her.”
Bryant narrowed his eyes.
“And I’m not talking figuratively here,” Turkle continued. “She literally did not have a scratch. No broken bones, no internal bleeding. No swelling, nothing. Like she just happened to pass by the site on her way to school.”
“Maybe she was thrown from the plane?” Bryant said.
Turkle waited a beat, then said, “That’s your theory?”
Bryant rubbed the side of his face, thinking of a plausible way this could happen. “Maybe she was never on the flight to begin with,” Bryant said.
“Her boarding pass was scanned at the gate,” Turkle said. “She was onboard when the plane took off.”
“That’s just not possible,” Bryant said, stretching his imagination to its limit. When he looked up, he realized Turkle had been measuring his reaction. As if Bryant was somehow involved with the accident.
“Wait a second,” Bryant said. “What does any of this have to do with me?”
That’s when Turkle’s expression softened. For the first time, his eyes had the sympathetic look of a man about to announce the death of a relative. Only Bryant had no more relatives left to die. So why was his throat thick enough to make it hard to swallow?
“You okay?” Turkle asked.
Bryant needed water. “Yeah,” he said. “I’m fine.”
“Well, here’s the thing. . .” Turkle hesitated, then took a deep breath. “Margo’s plane crashed on March 19th.”
Bryant became lightheaded. It was too hot. His tongue was now permanently sealed to the roof of his mouth. He wanted to open the door, but didn’t have the strength. Then Turkle said something that would forever change the rest of his life.
“At 9:16 a.m.”
Bryant jerked forward and hurled tiny drops of acid from the pit of his stomach. He choked and gagged until acid ran up his nose and burned him.