Presumption of guilt, p.28
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       Presumption of Guilt, p.28

           Terri Blackstock
 
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  She couldn’t watch as it hit the ground, but she heard the deafening sound of another crash, felt the impact shake the building. Screams crescendoed . . .

  Shivering, Deni looked up. The plane was spinning and tumbling across the grass separating the runways.

  “Daddy!” She looked up at him, saw the tears on his face, the horror in his eyes. She followed his gaze to the sky. Was something shooting the planes down? Were there more to come? Deni slipped her hand into his and felt his trembling. For the first time in her life, she was aware of her father’s fear. And though his strong, protective grip held her tight, she knew everything had changed.

  Chapter 2

  Doug Branning’s mind raced to understand—planes falling out of the sky, crashing, burning, people dying . . .

  There was a power outage, but that wouldn’t have caused planes to crash. Maybe there was some kind of battle going on in the air that they couldn’t see. If someone was shooting the planes down, maybe they’d also knocked out the power on the ground. Was it some kind of terrorist attack?

  In all his uncertainty, he knew one thing. He had to get his daughter to safety. The airport felt like a target for whatever evil hovered above them. He put his arm around Deni and pulled her from the window. He hoped she couldn’t feel his trembling. “Come on, Deni, we’re getting out of here.”

  For once in her life she was compliant as he pulled her up the long, dark hall, past the empty gates. Several Delta ground clerks came running past them.

  “Excuse me,” he called out. “Can anyone tell me what’s going on?”

  “Power’s out,” one of them called back. “Nothing’s working.”

  “Did the planes crash because the tower’s electricity is down?”

  “May have. We can’t say for sure.”

  Doug frowned. That didn’t make sense. Didn’t pilots have emergency procedures for situations like this? Couldn’t they land the planes without an air traffic controller talking them through it?

  He walked Deni past another window and saw the ball of fire, still burning. The other plane hadn’t caught fire, and men rushed toward it, fighting to get the door open. Still no fire trucks had come.

  “Dad, what’s going on? What would make two planes crash?”

  He shook his head. “No power outage, that’s for sure. One of the planes must have hit a power line.”

  “No, the power shut down before the crashes. That’s why things went quiet. I heard our plane’s engine power off at the same time everything else stopped. The luggage belt, the maintenance cars . . .”

  Dozens of people were at the second plane now, but they couldn’t seem to get inside. He bit his bottom lip. The passengers had all probably died in the impact. How could anyone have survived? He didn’t want Deni to see them pulling the bodies out.

  “Let’s go to the car.” Still carrying Deni’s suitcase, he headed to the exit. “Maybe we can get a signal on our phones after we leave the airport and call your mother. She’s probably heard about it on the news and can tell us what’s happening.”

  Deni followed him at a trot, hiccupping sobs. He reached the front door, but it didn’t open.

  “Power’s out, Dad.” She wiped her nose.

  He turned and found a manual door. As they pushed through it, he was struck with the silence in the street. No cars moved through, and the security guards were probably helping the rescue effort. Doug and Deni hurried across the street into the big parking garage. They’d parked on the fourth level, so they found the stairs and trudged up.

  Doug was soaked with sweat by the time they reached their level and made their way to his new Mercedes. He used the remote on his key chain to pop the lock on the trunk, but when he got to the car, the trunk was still closed. He pressed the button again, but it still didn’t open. Frustrated, he jabbed the key into the lock, and opened it. He threw their two bags in, slammed the trunk, then tried to open his driver’s door. It hadn’t come unlocked with the trunk, so he manually unlocked it and got in, punching the power locks button to open Deni’s door.

  But Deni just stood there, knocking on the passenger window.

  He frowned at the door lock. The power locks weren’t working—how could that be? The power outage couldn’t extend to his car, could it? He leaned across the leather seat and opened the passenger door.

  As Deni got in, he put the key into the ignition and turned it . . . but nothing happened.

  Deni just looked at him. “The car’s dead too? Dad, this is like the Twilight Zone. What could cause this?”

  “Got me.”

  Doug looked around. Usually cars circled everywhere, looking for a parking spot. But not today. He got out and walked to the edge of the garage, looked over to the roads that took them out of the place. There were a few cars lined up at the pay booth, but they weren’t moving. No cars ran on the streets leading to the interstate, though several seemed stalled in the middle of the road. People stood outside their vehicles, opening the hoods . . .

  Doug went back to his car and tried turning the key again, to no avail. He tested the radio. Still nothing.

  Deni found a Kleenex and blew her nose. “This is just great! Are we going to have to stay in this creepy place with planes crashing all around us? I want to go home.”

  “I don’t believe this.” He turned to the backseat and saw a Walkman one of the kids had left there. He grabbed it, shoved the headphones on, and tried to get a station.

  All he got was silence.

  “Nothing?” Deni asked.

  “Nothing.”

  “Maybe it’s all the metal in the garage blocking the radio waves.”

  He got back out of the car, walked to the edge of the garage, and tried the Walkman again. Still nothing.

  Slowly, he took the headphones off as the stark realization took hold of him. Everything was dead. Electricity, phones, cars, radio waves . . . even planes in mid-flight.

  As he got back into his useless car, Doug Branning felt the world spinning out of control.

  And he was powerless to stop it.

  Chapter 3

  Oh, no! Tell me this isn’t happening.” A brand new car wasn’t supposed to die in rush hour traffic. But one minute Kay Branning was sitting in line at the red light, cranking up the air conditioner so her kids would stop complaining, and the next the engine had cut off and stubbornly refused to start.

  Panicked, she turned the key, but nothing happened. Soon the light would change, and people lined up for miles behind her would start honking their horns if she didn’t get out of the way.

  “Come on, Mom!” Jeff, her sixteen-year-old jock who’d just pitched a no-hitter, banged on the dashboard. “I’ve got a date tonight and I have to get a shower!”

  “Calm down.” Kay tried to think. Maybe the air conditioner and radio were putting too much strain on the battery. She cut them all off.

  The car still wouldn’t start.

  “I didn’t even want to come to this stupid game,” Beth, her twelve-year-old cried. “Dad and Deni are going to be home before we are. Why did you even make me come?”

  Kay ground her teeth. “Because it’s your brother’s game, and we support each other in this family!”

  “Don’t do me any favors,” Jeff said. “I didn’t need you there, pouting like a four-year-old.”

  “Why don’t you shut up?” Beth snapped.

  “Mom, I told you to buy the Tahoe,” Jeff went on, unscathed. “But no, you had to have the Expedition.”

  “I’m dying of thirst.” This whimper came from the backseat, as Kay’s nine-year-old stood up and leaned over the seat in front of him. “It’s hot.Can’t you turn the air conditioner on?”

  “No, Logan, I can’t.”

  “The car’s dead, idiot,” Beth said. “As in, no power.” As she spoke, the twelve-year-old grabbed the Game Boy that he’d laid on the seat.

  “Give that back!” he shouted. “Mom!”

  Kay gave up trying to start the car. She popped t
he hood and opened her door to get out.

  “What are you doing?” Jeff asked.

  “Looking under the hood.”

  He started to laugh. “For what? Do you even know what you’re looking for?”

  “No, but if you do, why don’t you get out and help me?”

  “That’s right, genius,” Beth snapped. “Go help her.”

  Kay looked at the line behind her, hoping they’d be patient with her. Maybe someone who knew cars would come to her aid.

  But no one was focused on her. Others were getting out of their own cars, popping their own hoods. An eerie silence hovered over them—no engines running, no horns beeping, no radios playing. Just the sound of the hot breeze sweeping across the road.

  And she smelled something burning, but there was no sign of a fire or smoke anywhere.

  “What is this?” Kay whispered.

  Jeff got out and looked around, his eyes as big as quarters. “Way cool. They’re all dead. Everybody’s car died at the same time.”

  Beth got out of the car, and Logan climbed up to the front. “Everybody’s? Why?”

  Kay shook her head. “I have no idea, but I’m calling your father.” She grabbed her cell phone out of the car, flipped it open . . .

  But it was dead too. “It’s not working, either.”

  “What?” Jeff took her phone. “Let me see.”

  Kay went to the man standing at the pickup in front of her. He, too, was trying his cell phone.

  “Excuse me, do you have any idea what’s going on?”

  “None,” he said. “The cars are dead, my cell phone doesn’t work, my PDA won’t come on, even my watch has stopped.”

  Kay looked down at her own watch. The second hand was still. “What in the world would knock out our cars and our watches?”

  Jeff came around the car. “There’s a store at the Exxon station on the next block. Why don’t we walk there and see what we can find out?”

  Kay turned back to her Expedition. “I can’t abandon the car here. I have to move it when it starts again.”

  “Then I’ll go by myself.”

  Kay couldn’t explain the feeling of uneasiness weighing on her. “Okay, but be careful.”

  “Why?” Jeff chuckled. “Not like I’m gonna get hit by a car.”

  “Use the pay phone to call your dad. He and Deni should have landed by now. Maybe he knows something.”

  She watched as Jeff trudged off in his baseball uniform and dirty cleats.

  “Mom, it’s hot!”

  “Then get out of the car, Logan.”

  “It’s hotter out there.”

  Kay was already starting to sweat. “What would you like me to do?”

  “I don’t know.”

  “Unless you have a solution, stop whining.” She looked down the street at all the cars stalled in rush hour traffic. Calm down, Kay. There was a perfectly reasonable explanation for this. Something had happened to cause this, and soon they would know what it was and how to fix it.

  People came out of the insurance office next to them, and a woman came toward her. “What’s going on with the cars?”

  “They’re all dead. No reason. They just stopped running at the same time.”

  “And all our power went out.”

  “Really?”

  “Has to be an electromagnetic pulse.” The man from in front of her seemed to be thinking aloud. “That would knock out everything electronic.” “But what would cause something like that?”

  “An e-bomb, maybe.”

  “A bomb?” Kay caught her breath and looked out over the sky. “Then we could be under attack?” She searched for a sign of smoke indicating a bomb had hit somewhere. The sky was a radiant blue, and there was no sign that anything catastrophic had happened. She looked back at her Expedition, saw Beth walking up the street to talk to a friend three cars up.

  “Beth, come back!”

  Her daughter turned around.

  “Don’t go anywhere. Stay right here with me.”

  “Why?”

  She couldn’t tell her that she feared something worse might be about to happen, that there could be radiation in the air, or toxins, or bombs about to drop. . . . “Just do what I tell you.”

  Logan picked that moment to come out of the car. She grabbed his arm and shoved him back in. “Get back in the car!”

  “But you said to get out! It’s hot in there!”

  “Do it!” she shouted. “Now!”

  Both kids muttered as they got back in. Kay stood there a moment, trying to get a grip on herself. Why was she yelling at them? It didn’t make any sense.

  None of this did. All she knew was that she was scared. She just didn’t know of what.

  Chapter 4

  Sweat trickled down Doug’s neck and soaked into the collar of his button-down shirt as he sat with Deni inside the airport. They’d gone back inside after realizing the car wasn’t taking them anywhere. As they’d come in, they’d seen firefighters running to the scene on foot. Through the glass, Doug saw the planes still on fire, caught the smell of burning metal and fuel working its way into the building. The firefighters worked at the wreckage with handheld fire extinguishers in a desperate attempt to quench the flames and pull survivors from the planes.

  Deni erupted out of her seat and rushed to the window. “Dad, look!

  Someone’s alive.”

  Doug joined her, watching as they carried out a man in uniform. “It’s one of the pilots.”

  They placed the man on a gurney, but where would they take him? They couldn’t put him in an ambulance and whisk him to the hospital. Doug watched, breath held, as a few others came out of the wreckage, some walking, others carried.

  Deni reached for his hand as she kept her gaze glued to the site. He didn’t know when she had last done that before today. Ten years? Twelve? At twenty-two, Deni was fiercely independent. He closed his hand around hers, offering shallow reassurance. The crew started bringing the survivors in the door near where Doug and Deni stood, and the cluster of people at the window moved to get a look.

  They waited until the pilot was carried in, and Doug tried to see if he was awake. A man ran alongside the gurney, keeping pressure on the pilot’s bleeding head wound. He saw the pilot bring a bloody hand to his face. The man was conscious.

  A passenger walked in behind him, smudges from smoke marring the skin around her nose and mouth. Coughing, she limped through the crowd.

  Deni let go of Doug’s hand and threw herself at the woman. “Ma’am, did your plane get shot down?”

  Doug grabbed Deni’s arm, wishing she had waited for someone who wasn’t injured.

  The woman coughed, then answered in a raspy voice. “I don’t know what happened. All I know is that the lights shut off in the plane, and we started dropping. No announcement, no nothing. Next thing we know we’re rolling across the runway.”

  Deni turned back to Doug. “That pilot is awake, Dad. I bet he knows what happened.”

  Doug nodded. “Let’s follow and see if we can find anybody who spoke to him.”

  They followed the gurney up the concourse and to the small Crown Room. Doug caught up with one of the disheveled crew members who’d helped get the pilot out.

  “Excuse me, did the pilot say what happened?”

  The man’s eyes darted from the victims to the window. “He’s as much in the dark as we are. Said his power just shut off, and nothing worked. Not even the radio. All four engines died. He had to glide the plane to the nearest airport and land it manually. If it had been a bigger, newer plane, they’d have fallen like a lawn dart—just like the first plane. It’s a miracle there were any survivors.”

  Doug stared after the man as he disappeared into the Crown Room, running the words through his mind. Plane engines dying midair, cars stalling, electricity failing . . .

  “Dad, I’m scared. Planes don’t just fall out of the sky.”

  He swallowed and rubbed his jaw. It was war. Had to be. Someone had at
tacked them, just like on 9/11. Maybe it was a nuclear attack in the atmosphere, powerful enough to knock out everything electronic, but not to destroy the buildings and cities . . . or people.

  “Dad, I want to go home.” Panic rippled in Deni’s voice.

  The same panic lodged itself in his throat. He took a deep breath, and tried to draw his thoughts back. Get a grip, man. Deni needs strength from you, not paranoia.

  He didn’t have enough information to form any solid conclusions . It wasn’t necessarily a nuclear or atomic attack. It could be just a weird weather front, like all those hurricanes in Florida last year, or the Tsunami that hit Sri Lanka. Some kind of unexpected electrical force that flashed through the sky. Or something else none of them had even thought of.

  He had to stay calm. “Yeah, I think we need to go home. Doesn’t look like the power’s coming back on in the next few hours.”

  Her lips quivered. “But how will we get there?”

  He sighed and crossed the floor to the other side of the building, looking out the window to the parking lot. People were hiking up the road that circled the terminals. “We’ll have to walk.” He looked down at the four-inch heels on his daughter’s feet. “Don’t you have some tennis shoes in your bag?”

  “No, I didn’t anticipate having to hoof it for forty miles.”

  He ignored the petulance in her tone. “It’s not forty. It’s more like sixteen. But you still won’t make it in heels.”

  “So what do we do? Just stay here?”

  No, that wasn’t an option. They had to get home. He wanted to be with his family, make sure everything was all right.

  “Tell you what,” he said. “There’s a Wal-Mart a few miles away. Let’s walk there and buy a bicycle and some more comfortable shoes.”

  She liked that idea. “Okay, let’s hurry before other people get the same idea.”

  They were both drenched with sweat by the time they reached the Wal-Mart parking lot. The parking lot was full of cars. They were clearly stalled, too, and their owners stood around them, some with their heads under the hoods, trying to make sense of things. As Doug and Deni reached the front door, they saw it was only partially opened. When the power had gone out, the door had apparently frozen.

 
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