2018 Colorado Book Awards finalist, Thriller category
When People’s Republic Flight 91 crashes in northeastern Ukraine with a U.S. diplomatic agent on board, U.S. Diplomatic Security Service Agent Raisa Jordan is sent to investigate. It quickly becomes apparent that the plane was intentionally downed. To avoid a diplomatic incident, Jordan must discover what the Americans knew that was worth killing hundreds to cover up.
Jordan stared out across the smoking debris, her gauze mask ineffective against the smell of burning flesh and jet fuel. Small fires still flared in the rubble of People’s Republic Airline Flight 91, and the stench and devastation were overwhelming. Bodies anchored the wreckage—some still strapped into seats, others flung like rag dolls onto the scorched earth, some in pieces. Fragments of the plane’s fuselage along with luggage, computers, phones, books, blankets, pillows and clothing littered the ground for miles.
She shifted her gaze. The mid-summer sun hung low on the horizon, partially obscured by clouds and smoke. Occasional rays of sunlight danced across the lush Ukrainian farm fields, touching the wreckage and highlighting colors in the otherwise scorched remains. To her left, an orange teddy bear sat propped against a tangle of twisted metal, as if set there by the hands of the child who had carried it onboard. Near the shell of the aircraft, a yellow hand bag waited on the ground to be retrieved.
Looking down, her gaze lit on a mangled Barbie doll clad in a bright red dress near her feet—a miniature, plastic version of the bodies strewn on the ground. Jordan’s vision blurred. Her tears streamed unchecked.
“Shcho ty tut robysh?”
The sound of the voice jarred her. She didn’t understand the words. Getting a hold of herself, she swiped away her tears and turned to find a Ukrainian soldier standing behind her, a captain by his insignia.
“I’m sorry, I don’t speak the language,” she said. “English?”
“Ni. Presa tut ne dopuskayet’sya.”
Jordan got the gist. He didn’t speak English and he thought she was a member of the press. She pulled down her mask, then lifting the card and lanyard hanging around her neck showed him her credentials. “Vy govorite po-russki?” Do you speak Russian? “Ya ne iz pressy. Ya zdes’ po gosudarstvennym delam.”I’m not press. I’m here on government business.
“Da,” he said, switching to Russian. He gestured with his rifle for her to move closer and squinted at the badge. “What business does the U.S. Diplomatic Security Service have out here?”
“We had a DSS agent on board this flight, escorting a fugitive from Guangzhou back to the U.S. I’ve been sent here to help identify and recover the bodies.”
Truth be told, she was still adjusting to the change of plans. Five hours ago when she’d arrived at Kyiv Boryspil International Airport, she’d been looking forward to a few days at the Intercontinental hotel. She’d escorted the Israeli Ambassador’s wife from Tel Aviv to Kiev to participate in a week-long International Women’s Leadership Alliance, held annually in some international city every year in July. Why they’d chosen Kiev in the middle of a war was anyone’s guess, but Jordan looked forward to using her off-hours to research her family history. Then, David Lory, the Regional Security Officer in Ukraine, had thrown a wrench in her plans. He’d sent agents to take charge of Mrs. Lindwood, along with orders for Jordan. Rent a car and set off immediately for Hoholeve.
In route she’d managed to wrangle a few more details on her assignment. There’d been a plane crash. PR Flight 91 had departed from Guangzhou on mainland China, headed for Krakow, just after 7:00 a.m. Halfway through the flight, without so much as a mayday, the plane had gone down. Wreckage was strewn across six miles near the small farming community of Hoholeve, roughly halfway between Kharkiv and Kiev.
George McClasky, sixty years-old and a forty-year veteran of the service, was on board. A DSS legend, he’d been forced to retire from active duty at age fifty-seven, but still contracted part-time with the agency helping with highly-classified missions. Lory had texted her McClasky’s picture. Tall, beefy, with thinning gray hair, he reminded her of Brian Dennehy.
The fugitive’s name was Kia Zhen, a thirty-two year-old Chinese-American from San Francisco, suspected of gang affiliation and charged with espionage. No photos were currently available. No more specifics forthcoming.
While the captain spoke to his supervisor, Jordan contemplated the debris field. It reminded her of pictures she’d seen of Malaysia Air Flight 17, with one obvious difference. That had been mayhem. This was organized chaos.
According to Lory, within an hour of the crash, the Ukraine Head of Air Accidents and Incidents Investigation had taken control, declaring himself the International Investigation Commander, or IIC. His job was to oversee the hundreds of people swarming the scene—everyone from the aviation specialists to the first responders to the military and media. On his watch, there would be no indelible photographs of dead bodies plastered on the internet, no looting and no destruction of evidence.
“Tak,” said the captain, signing off the radio. He waved, commanding her attention and nodding to her credentials. “DSS Special Agent Raisa Jordan, it says you are an Assistant Regional Security Officer-I. What does the I stand for?”
“Well it will have to wait until tomorrow.” He gestured toward the road. “We are closing this area for the night. It will be open again at dawn. Check-in with the IIC command center as you leave. You must have an official sticker for your credentials or you won’t be allowed back inside the barricade.”
“Thanks.” Jordan took back her credentials and headed toward her car, making a mental note to also give the IIC a picture of McClasky for ID purposes.
She cut south and walked the other side of the fuselage as she picked her way east. Heat from the smoldering wreckage kept the chill of the night air temporarily at bay. The setting sun colored the clouds a deep red and provided little light. The fires made walking treacherous and slow. She wished now that she’d remembered to put her duty belt with her flashlight on.
Studying the mangled remains, it was impossible to imagine what happened. While the Malaysia Air flight had been shot down by pro-Russian rebels, Hoholeve was hundreds of kilometers north and west of the war zone. The only logical conclusion she could draw was that PR Flight 91 had experienced some type of equipment failure that caused the plane to break apart mid-air.
Near the skeleton of the plane’s mid-section, she nearly stumbled over the bodies of a man and woman, their arms entangled as if holding tightly to each other as they fell from the sky. Near them lay the body of a young woman wearing an oxygen mask.
Jordan fought back another onslaught of tears. The idea that there had been time for passengers and crew to contemplate their fate horrified her. She remembered being in a car accident at the age of sixteen and the fear that had gripped her in the moments before the sedan had flipped. She could attest to the fact that in what you perceive to be your final moments your life flashes before your eyes. Anyone who tells you they are ready to die is lying.
She kept her eyes peeled as she neared the end of the mangled piece of fuselage. According to the airline, McClasky and Zhen had been seated in row 30, seats A and C. The seating chart placed them aft of the wings in a two-seat configuration. Based on her assessment of the aircraft, she should be near the right section of the plane. However, the odds of finding either man in the gathering darkness were slim.
When the end of the burned-out hull came into view, Jordan picked up her pace. All she wanted right now was to be clear of the devastation. In a few more yards, there should be a path to the left leading to the road. Then for the second time that day her plans were derailed.
Near the end of the fuselage, in a row of seats that had landed upright on the ground, sat George McClasky and Kia Zhen. McClasky’s neck was twisted at an unnatural angle, but otherwise he appeared relatively unscathed. She would have recognized him anywhere. His eyes were open, and he seemed watchful of the prisoner shackled into the seat beside him.
Zhen’s corpse was mangled, his face unrecognizable, the features sheared away leaving a bloody pulp and his body canted sharply to one side. One of his legs twisted behind the chair at an odd angle and his right arm dangled from tendons, his fingers brushing earth darkened by his own blood. Both men were dead.
“I found them,” she blurted out, her shout triggering an echo that traveled downline from person-to-person and back again. A flashlight flared at the edge of the road near the press barricade, and Jordan immediately wished she stayed quiet. If she wanted to insure the protection of any classified materials McClasky might be holding, the best thing to do was take them off his body. If she’d kept quiet she would have had more time to search. Now all she had were seconds.
She knew he would carry documents allowing for Zhen’s transport to the U.S., along with his and Zhen’s passports. But Lory had alluded to the fact that McClasky possessed some critical Intel pertaining to national security—information he had refused to share with his boots on the ground in mainland China. He told his supervisor he couldn’t trust the secured phones and internet at the station or his contacts in Guangzhou. With what she knew about the recent security breaches of U.S. corporations and government data by the Chinese, Jordan didn’t blame him. All anyone could hope for is that he’d written down what he’d heard rather than entrust it to his memory.
Jordan did a quick glance around. The closest people to her were several Ukrainian soldiers and the pack of journalists they were keeping at bay near the edge of the road. The nearest soldier was three, maybe four hundred yards away. She estimated she had sixty to seventy seconds before he could reach her.
Flipping open the agent’s jacket, she checked McClasky’s left inside chest pocket first and found two U.S. passports and the travel documents authorizing Zhen’s extradition to the U.S. In McClasky’s right inside pocket, she discovered a small top security envelope addressed to the Director of the Diplomatic Security Service.
“Schcho ty robysh?” a soldier yelled, running toward her from the road. He spoke in Ukrainian, but taken in context his meaning was clear. He wanted to know what she was doing.
Holding up her left hand, she shook the passports and travel documents, while using her right hand to stuff the envelope under her waistband at the small of her back.
“I can identify these men,” she explained in Russian.
The soldier started to reach for the papers, when the captain she’d spoken to earlier pushed him aside and snatched the documents out of her hand. “What are you yelling about? I thought I told you to leave?”
“These are the men I was searching for.” She pointed to McClasky. “He’s a diplomatic agent in possible possession of sensitive materials.”
The envelope burned against her spine.
“This area is closed,” the captain said. “You must come back tomorrow.”
Jordan shook her head. “I can’t leave this man’s body unguarded.”
A bit of an exaggeration given the area was under the protection of the IIC and Ukrainian military, but she preferred to arrange immediate transport if possible.
“There is no other alternative,” the captain insisted.
Jordan stood her ground. “According to the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations, the Ukraine may not detain a U.S. citizen protected by diplomatic immunity. Nor may it ever seize U.S. documents or property.”
The captain looked incredulous. “Your man is not being detained. He’s dead.”
“It doesn’t matter. Let me make a call and I can have a Marine detail here in one hour to transport him back to the U.S. Embassy in Kiev.”
She doubted she would win the battle, but she had to try. She hadn’t been able to check more than McClasky’s jacket pockets.
Crossing her arms, Jordan waited for the captain to determine the next course of action. Night had closed in around them, and she was struck by how it dark and chilly it had grown. A half-moon hung low in the western sky, its light weak behind heavy cloud cover. In the distance, warm light shone from the windows of a few farmhouses. There were no streetlamps or perimeter lights to illuminate the crash scene, only the glow from the fires burning in the wreckage.
The soldier who had first arrived leaned over and spoke to the captain. He in turn shook the paperwork in her face.
“Sergeant Hycha says when he arrived you were searching this man’s pockets. What were you looking for?”
“As I explained, he’s a DSS agent accompanying a fugitive. Any items in his possession are the property of the U.S. government.”
An argument could be made that the envelope tucked in her waistband should have been turned over to the Ukrainian soldiers to deliver to the U.S. State Department through official channels, but Jordan couldn’t see any reason to use a middleman when possession was nine tenths of the law. She resisted the urge to reach back and make sure the envelope was secure.
The captain looked at the paperwork in his hands, and then barked something to the sergeant in Ukrainian. As he trotted away, the captain turned back to Jordan. “I need to report to the IIC before we proceed further. And I need to find someone skilled in reading English.”
“I can read English,” she volunteered. “I’m happy to tell you what the paperwork says. It identifies that man as a fugitive of the United States.” She pointed at Zhen. “He was being returned to the U. S. for prosecution of crimes against the country.”
The captain stared at her for a moment, looked at the Chinese-American’s desecrated body, then stepped away and spoke into his radio. After what sounded like heated discussion, he turned and barked orders to the soldiers still standing around. The men jumped into action, spreading two body bags on the ground.
“What’s going on?” she asked. It looked like the captain might be preparing to release the bodies, which surprised her. Unless, of course, he was simply preparing to take them away.