Kira arrived back in the cockpit to find Gareth ending his conversation with the pilot.
“Oh good, you’re back, Agent Jackson. I spoke to Malachi, and he will meet us when we land. Undoubtedly, he has a sixth sense for trouble. He’s already en route.”
“That would not surprise me, sir. I spoke to him also by cell, and we need to get you buckled in.”
“Sir, Commander Bartlett will announce what is going on. Isn’t that right, Commander?” At Bartlett’s nod, she gently grasped Gareth’s arm. “We need to get back and make sure John is strapped in also.”
The president’s eyes opened wide for a second, allowing Kira a clear view of green. She also spotted anxiety riding the curve of his irises. The man certainly kept a cool air about him, not letting anyone see his inner thoughts. Gareth must be going nuts wondering if anyone else might get injured or even killed during the unavoidable crash landing.
“You’re right. John needs our help.”
Gareth walked with a steady but determined step as they descended the stairway and moved back to his suite. John lay sleeping on the small love seat. One of Dr. Shelton’s med techs sat with him.
She watched Gareth’s eyes touch on the tech’s scrub top. “Thank you, Private Waters, you are relieved of this duty. Please let Dr. Shelton know we are going to have a rough landing. He’ll apprise you about what to do next.”
Gareth accepted the private’s salute and returned one of his own as Kira bent over to check on John. His color looked good, but his breathing was a bit rapid for her liking. She hoped the ambulances would be standing by when they landed. John needed an X-ray and possible hospitalization.
“Sir, we might do better to move to your office. We can buckle up in there better.”
“All right, I’ll get—”
“Already got him, sir. You lead the way.” Kira boosted John onto her shoulder and followed Gareth. Once the president and John were strapped in, side by side on the sofa, Kira removed all objects that could turn into flying weapons. All possible projectiles went into desk drawers. She then punched in the number for the cockpit on the phone.
“Commander Bartlett, the president is secure. I will leave the intercom open for any instructions or information from you.”
“Thank you, Agent. Now, I suggest you strap in also. We are about five minutes from landing. I have already informed the rest of the crew and the press by the intercoms in those quarters.”
“Okay, and God bless us all, Commander.” She checked John’s pulse. “You okay?”
“I’ve been better, Kira. Thanks for doing what you did.”
“Like you wouldn’t have?”
“Sure, but you picked me up, and I’ve had grown men that couldn’t. I’d love to know how you did that.”
Kira resisted the urge to chuckle. If the man knew her trick, he’d probably run for the hills. Vampiric strength was a bonus for her, but something she preferred not to use around others unless she had no choice—like today.
“Plenty of exercise and vitamins, John. Now brace yourself.” Kira slipped into her seat and buckled her belt. Her acute hearing picked up the nauseating rate at which they were dropping.
“Assume crash positions, everyone.” The voice coming from the intercom was calm, but Kira picked up on more than a bit of hidden anxiety. She hated that her hands were tied by the fact that she couldn’t show any of her vampire traits. The only thing she could do was try to get Gareth and John off the plane as quickly as possible, in case of an explosion. The fuel streaming from the hole in the wing had soaked the left side of the plane, and the least bit of friction could cause a fireball.
Kira closed her eyes and sensed her surroundings. They were coming in at an unnatural angle. Probably due to the damaged wing. A vicious crack impacted her hearing. Her heart sped up. They had probably hit a tree near the edge of the landing strip. Not good, but it didn’t have to be fatal. A sudden dip, and the plane veered to the left before hitting the ground with an earthshaking thud. Kira was out of her seat before the plane stopped shaking, and was thrown immediately backward as it flipped onto its side.
Sirens sounded in the distance, and she could hear the shouts and screams coming from the press section. Located in the back of the plane, it should have been the safest place to sit, but at the moment, Kira wasn’t laying any bets that any of them were safe. The sickening smell of petroleum combined with the sweet scent of blood assaulted her nostrils. Someone was hurt, hopefully not badly.
The desk in the office careened forward, jerked loose from cement floor anchors, and slid toward the sofa. Gareth’s head jerked up, and his gaze met Kira’s before he glanced at what was coming toward him at an incredible speed.
Kira threw herself at Gareth and John, almost lying across their laps as she prepared to take the brunt of the desk.
The impact took her breath away, and one edge of the desk cut into her back with a sickening rip. As she held the desk back, the lights in the cabin blinked off, the sirens sounded louder, and smoke began to filter in through the vents.
Kira pushed back, and the desk reversed directions, gliding back to its original position. She eased to her feet. “Are you all right, Mr. President?”
“Are you crazy? What possessed you to fling yourself in front of that desk?”
So much for a thank-you. “It’s my job, Mr. President. Now, I have to check on John. We need to get off this thing before it explodes. And forget about making sure everyone else gets off. This is not a ship. You have to survive to lead the country.”
“We’ll discuss this later, but I agree we need to get off.”
Kira’s breath whooshed out in an exhalation of relief. Thank God, she didn’t have to pick Gareth up and tote him off, too. It would be stretching a mortal’s imagination that she had gotten that much strength from exercise.
“I’m ready. Please stay behind me, Mr. President.”
The corridor outside the president’s office was dark. Smoke filled the passageway with a thick gray fog. Kira inhaled. The gasoline smell was stronger. There was not a lot of time left to get off the plane before it blew.
She fought her way through the smoke. “Mr. President?”
“Right behind you, Kira.”
Good, the man was stubborn, but not stupid. The stairway to the cockpit wavered in a smoky haze. Maybe they should go up and hope the rescue team could get them out that way.
Kira used her free hand, the one not holding John, to feel for the iron banister. She should have been right at the spot where it should be. The cloud of smoke obscured her vision, even with her vampire senses. Her hand struck something hard and jagged. She followed the length and wanted to cry. The staircase was a twisted mass of metal.
* * * *
Gareth almost plowed right into Kira as his agent stopped so quickly. She must have eyes like a cat. He couldn’t see a foot in front of him. “What’s wrong, Kira?”
“Our closest escape is gone. The stairway took more than a hard hit when we landed. We have to keep moving if we’re going to get out. I just hope they can get the cockpit crew to safety. It’s quite a bit of a jump to the ground level.”
“Maybe I should—”
“There’s no way you can get up to the upper level. The metal is not only warped but beginning to warm up, which means we have a fire somewhere. So, for now, we have to keep going forward and try to get out by way of the stairs near the security and press section.”
Gareth ignored her snappish tone. For heaven’s sake, the woman was toting a two-hundred-pound man on her shoulder, and it was damn hot and uncomfortable.
“I just wanted to say thank you.”
Gareth came even with her, and Kira whispered. “I’m sorry.”
Her blue gaze glistened, probably due to the smoke, and the irises and the rims of her eyes were red. He expected his looked the same way. “It’s okay. Let’s just get the hell out of here.”
The smile she gave him made Gareth want to shout, but he’d save that emotion for another time—if there was one.
“Why don’t you let me take John for a bit? Give you a break.”
“I’m fine, sir. It shouldn’t be much farther.”
Kira moved forward once more, and he followed her—not a position he liked or was used to. Always, he’d taken point in battles and in his presidential campaign.
They passed by the staff section and other compartments. All were empty. Knowing Sheltie, he’d already ushered everyone to the next exit. They continued to the guest section of the plane, moving at a snail’s pace. Gareth’s shirt stuck to his back with sweat, and his eyes burned like the devil. He tried his best not to inhale by holding his dirty shirtsleeve close to his mouth and nose. Poor Kira didn’t have that luxury.
“It’s here, sir.” Kira stopped and waited on Gareth to close ranks with her. Members of the press were exiting down the stairway as fast as the smoke would allow. Some still spoke into their cell phones. A few helped others traverse the almost invisible steps, and one or two stopped to stare at Gareth, Kira, and John before exiting.
Before they could move forward, Commander Bartlett and the rest of the crew from up top came to a halt behind Gareth.
“How did you get down?”
“Well, to tell you the truth, sir, we took a fire extinguisher, slicked the rails, and then slid down until we hit bottom.”
Gareth’s chuckle was raspy as he slapped Bartlett on the back. “Okay, everyone, off the plane now.”
“Not until you go, Mr. President. We are pulling up the rear.”
“No, you’re not. What you can do is get John off and give Kira some rest, since she won’t allow me share the load. Get her off, and yourselves, and I’ll be right behind you. I assume the football is already off and safe?” Football was code for the satchel that the president always had with him, and which contained a nuclear war plan.
“Yes, it and its keeper were the first off. Just as you’ve always ordered in case of an emergency.”
“Good! Kira, give John to the commander, and get the hell off this plane.”
Kira handed John off to two of the cockpit crewmen who stepped forward. She smiled briefly at John before turning back to Gareth. “I believe I am still agent on watch, and if you don’t want me to pick you up like I did John, I suggest you move your butt, sir.”
Bartlett guffawed at her words, and Gareth saw red. No way in hell was he going to let his agent carry him anywhere. “Fine, have it your way, Agent Jackson. Commander, if you will lead the way, Kira and I will bring up the rear.”
Gareth kept pace with her as they moved quickly down the stairs to the open hatch door and the evacuation slide. He gave Kira a stern look, one she must have understood, for they both jumped at the same time. A moment later, they were being hauled to their feet by an almost ashen-faced Malachi and Commander Bartlett.
As a unit, all four of them moved away from the plane. They’d barely cleared the tarmac perimeter when a whooshing sound came from behind them. It was all the warning they had before the plane ignited and blew up, tossing Gareth, Kira, and the rest of their entourage fifty yards forward onto patchy brown grass.