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Fatal Voyage

Chapter OneI
stared at the woman flying through the trees. Her head was forward,
chin raised, arms flung backward like the tiny chrome goddess on
the hood of a Rolls Royce. But the tree lady was naked, and her
body ended at the waist. Blood-coated leaves and branches
imprisoned her lifeless torso.
Lowering my eyes, I looked around. Except for the narrow gravel
road on which I was parked, there was nothing but dense forest. The
trees were mostly pine, the few hardwoods like wreaths marking the
death of summer, their foliage every shade of red, orange, and
Though it was hot in Charlotte, at this elevation the early
October weather was pleasant. But it would soon grow cool. I took a
windbreaker from the backseat, stood still, and
Birdsong. Wind. The scurrying of a small animal. Then, in the
distance, one man calling to another. A muffled
Tying the jacket around my waist, I locked the car and set off
toward the voices, my feet swishing through dead leaves and pine
yards into the woods I passed a seated figure leaning against a
mossy stone, knees flexed to his chest, laptop computer at his
side. He was missing both arms, and a small china pitcher protruded
from his left temple.
the computer lay a face, teeth laced with orthodontic wiring, one
brow pierced by a delicate gold ring. The eyes were open, the
pupils dilated, giving the face an expression of alarm. I felt a
tremor beneath my tongue, and quickly moved on.
Within yards I saw a leg, the foot still bound in its hiking
boot. The limb had been torn off at the hip, and I wondered if it
belonged to the Rolls-Royce torso.
Beyond the leg, two men rested side by side, seat belts
fastened, necks mushrooming into red blossoms. One man sat with
legs crossed, as if reading a magazine.
picked my way deeper into the forest, now and then hearing
disconnected shouts, carried to me at the wind's whim. Brushing
back branches and climbing over rocks and fallen logs, I continued
Luggage and pieces of metal lay among the trees. Most suitcases
had burst, spewing their contents in random patterns. Clothing,
curling irons, and electric shavers were jumbled with containers of
hand lotion, shampoo, aftershave, and perfume. One small carry-on
had disgorged hundreds of pilfered hotel toiletries. The smell of
drugstore products and airplane fuel mingled with the scent of pine
and mountain air. And from far off, a hint of smoke.
was moving through a steep-walled gully whose thick canopy allowed
only mottled sunlight to reach the ground. It was cool in the
shadows, but sweat dampened my hairline and glued my clothing to my
skin. I caught my foot on a backpack and went hurtling forward,
tearing my sleeve on a jagged bough truncated by falling
lay a moment, hands trembling, breath coming in ragged gulps.
Though I'd trained myself to hide emotion, I could feel despair
rising in me. So much death. Dear God, how many would there
Closing my eyes, I centered mentally, then pushed to my
later, I stepped over a rotting log, circled a stand of
rhododendron, and, seeming no closer to the distant voices, stopped
to get my bearings. The muted wail of a siren told me the rescue
operation was gathering somewhere over a ridge to the
to get directions, Brennan.
there hadn't been time to ask questions. First responders to
airline crashes or other disasters are usually well-intentioned,
but woefully ill-prepared to deal with mass fatalities. I'd been on
my way from Charlotte to Knoxville, nearing the state line, when
I'd been asked to get to the scene as quickly as possible. Doubling
back on I-40, I'd cut south toward Waynesville, then west through
Bryson City, a North Carolina hamlet approximately 175 miles west
of Charlotte, 50 miles east of Tennessee, and 50 miles north of
Georgia. I'd followed county blacktop to the point where state
maintenance ended, then proceeded on gravel to a Forest Service
road that snaked up the mountain.
Though the instructions I'd been given had been accurate, I
suspected there was a better route, perhaps a small logging trail
that allowed a closer approach to the adjacent valley. I debated
returning to the car, decided to press on. Perhaps those already at
the site had trekked overland, as I was doing. The Forest Service
road had looked like it was going nowhere beyond where I'd left the
After an exhausting uphill scramble, I grabbed the trunk of a
Douglas fir, planted one foot, and heaved myself onto a ridge.
Straightening, I stared into the button eyes of Raggedy Ann. The
doll was dangling upside down, her dress entangled in the fir's
lower branches.
image of my daughter's Raggedy flashed to mind, and I reached
lowered my arm, knowing that every item must be mapped and recorded
before removal. Only then could someone claim the sad
my position on the ridge I had a clear view of what was probably
the main crash site. I could see an engine, half buried in dirt and
debris, and what looked like pieces of wing flap. A portion of
fuselage lay with the bottom peeled back, like a diagram in an
instructional manual for model planes. Through the windows I could
see seats, some occupied, most empty.
Wreckage and body parts covered the landscape like refuse
discarded at a dump. From where I stood, the skin-covered body
portions looked starkly pale against the backdrop of forest floor,
viscera, and airplane parts. Articles dangled from trees or lay
snarled in the leaves and branches. Fabric. Wiring. Sheet metal.
Insulation. Molded plastic.
locals had arrived and were securing the site and checking for
survivors. Figures searched among the trees, others stretched tape
around the perimeter of the debris field. They wore yellow jackets
with Swain County Sheriff's Department printed on back.
Still others just wandered or stood in clumps, smoking, talking, or
staring aimlessly.
off through the trees I noticed the flashing of red, blue, and
yellow lights, marking the location of the access route I'd failed
to find. In my mind I saw the police cruisers, fire engines, rescue
trucks, ambulances, and vehicles of citizen volunteers that would
clog that road by tomorrow morning.
wind shifted and the smell of smoke grew stronger. I turned and saw
a thin, black plume curling upward just beyond the next ridge. My
stomach tightened, for I was close enough now to detect another
odor mingling with the sharp, acrid scent.
Being a forensic anthropologist, it is my job to investigate
violent death. I have examined hundreds of fire victims for
coroners and medical examiners, and know the smell of charred
flesh. One gorge over, people were burning.
swallowed hard and refocused on the rescue operation. Some who had
been inactive were now moving across the site. I watched a
sheriff's deputy bend and inspect debris at his feet. He
straightened, and an object flashed in his left hand. Another
deputy had begun stacking debris.
started picking my way downward, clinging to underbrush and
zigzagging between trees and boulders to control my balance. The
gradient was steep, and a stumble could turn into a headlong
yards from the bottom I stepped on a sheet of metal that slid and
sent me into the air like a snowboarder on a major wipeout. I
landed hard and began to half roll, half slide down the slope,
bringing with me an avalanche of pebbles, branches, leaves, and
pine cones.
stop my fall, I grabbed for a handhold, skinning my palms and
tearing my nails before my left hand struck something solid and my
fingers closed around it. My wrist jerked painfully as it took the
weight of my body, breaking my downward momentum.
hung there a moment, then rolled onto my side, pulled with both
hands, and scooched myself to a sitting position. Never easing my
grasp, I looked up.
object I clutched was a long metal bar, angling skyward from a rock
at my hip to a truncated tree a yard upslope. I planted my feet,
tested for traction, and worked my way to a standing position.
Wiping bleeding hands on my pants, I retied my jacket and continued
downward to level ground.
the bottom, I quickened my pace. Though my terra felt far
from firma, at least gravity was now on my side. At the
cordoned-off area, I lifted the tape and ducked under.
"Whoa, lady. Not so fast."I
stopped and turned. The man who had spoken wore a Swain County
Sheriff's Department jacket.
with DMORT."
"What the hell is DMORT?" Gruff."Is
the sheriff on site?"
"Who's asking?" The deputy's face was rigid, his mouth
compressed into a hard, tight line. An orange hunting cap rested
low over his eyes.
Temperance Brennan."
ain't gonna need no doctor here."
"I'll be identifying the victims.""Got
mass disasters, each government agency has specific
responsibilities. The Office of Emergency Preparedness, OEP,
manages and directs the National Disaster Medical System, NDMS,
which provides medical response, and victim identification and
mortuary services in the event of a mass fatality
meet its mission, NDMS created the Disaster Mortuary Operational
Response Team, DMORT, and Disaster Medical Assistance Team, DMAT,
systems. In officially declared disasters, DMAT looks after the
needs of the living, while DMORT deals with the dead.
dug out and extended my NDMS identification.
deputy studied the card, then tipped his head in the direction of
the fuselage.
"Sheriff's with the fire chiefs." His voice cracked and he
wiped a hand across his mouth. Then he dropped his eyes and walked
away, embarrassed to have shown emotion.
was not surprised at the deputy's demeanor. The toughest and most
capable of cops and rescue workers, no matter how extensive their
training or experience, are never psychologically prepared for
their first major.
Majors. That's what the National Transportation Safety Board
dubbed these crashes. I wasn't sure what was required to qualify as
a major, but I'd worked several and knew one thing with certainty:
Each was a horror. I was never prepared, either, and shared his
anguish. I'd just learned not to show it.
Threading toward the fuselage, I passed a deputy covering a
"Take that off," I ordered."What?""Don't blanket them.""Who
showed ID again.
they're lying in the open." His voice sounded flat, like a computer
"Everything must remain in place.""We've got to do something. It's getting dark. Bears are gonna
scent on these..." he stumbled for a word, "...people."
seen what Ursus could do to a corpse and sympathized with
the man's concerns. Nevertheless, I had to stop him.
"Everything must be photographed and recorded before it can be
bunched the blanket with both hands, his face pinched with pain. I
knew exactly what he was feeling. The need to do something, the
uncertainty as to what. The sense of helplessness in the midst of
overwhelming tragedy.
"Please spread the word that everything has to stay put. Then
search for survivors."
"You've got to be kidding." His eyes swept the scene around us.
"No one could survive this."
anyone is alive they've got more to fear from bears than these
folks do." I indicated the body at his feet.
wolves," he added in a hollow voice.
"What's the sheriff's name?""Crowe.""Which one?"He
glanced toward a group near the fuselage.
"Tall one in the green jacket."I
left him and hurried toward Crowe.
sheriff was examining a map with a half dozen volunteer
firefighters whose gear suggested they'd come from several
jurisdictions. Even with head bent, Crowe was the tallest in the
group. Under the jacket his shoulders looked broad and hard,
suggesting regular workouts. I hoped I would not find myself at
cross purposes with Sheriff Mountain Macho.
I drew close the firemen stopped listening and looked in my
"Sheriff Crowe?"Crowe turned, and I realized that macho would not be an
cheeks were high and broad, her skin cinnamon. The hair escaping
her flat-brimmed hat was frizzy and carrot red. But what held my
attention were her eyes. The irises were the color of glass in old
Coke bottles. Highlighted by orange lashes and brows, and set
against the tawny skin, the pale green was extraordinary. I guessed
her age at around forty.
you are?" The voice was deep and gravelly, and suggested its owner
wanted no nonsense.
Temperance Brennan."
you have reason to be at this site?"
with DMORT."
Again the ID. She studied the card and handed it
heard a crash bulletin while driving from Charlotte to Knoxville.
When I phoned Earl Bliss, who's leader of the Region Four team, he
asked me to divert over, see if you need anything."
bit more diplomatic than Earl's actual comments.
a moment the woman did not reply. Then she turned back to the
firefighters, spoke a few words, and the men dispersed. Closing the
gap between us, she held out her hand. The grip could
"Lucy Crowe.""Please call me Tempe."She
spread her feet, crossed her arms, and regarded me with the
Coke-bottle eyes.
don't believe any of these poor souls will be needing medical
a forensic anthropologist, not a medical doctor. You've searched
for survivors?"
nodded with a single upward jerk of her head, the type gesture I'd
seen in India. "I thought something like this would be the ME's
"It's everybody's baby. Is the NTSB here yet?" I knew the
National Transportation Safety Board never took long to
"They're coming. I've heard from every agency on the planet.
NTSB, FBI, ATF, Red Cross, FAA, Forest Service, TVA, Department of
the Interior. I wouldn't be surprised if the pope himself came
riding over Wolf Knob there."
"Interior and TVA?""The
feds own most of this county; about eighty-five percent as national
forest, five percent as reservation." She extended a hand at
shoulder level, moved it in a clockwise circle. "We're on what's
called Big Laurel. Bryson City's off to the northwest, Great Smoky
Mountains National Park's beyond that. The Cherokee Indian
Reservation lies to the north, the Nantahala Game Land and National
Forest to the south."
swallowed to relieve the pressure inside my ears.
"What's the elevation here?""We're at forty-two hundred feet.""I
don't want to tell you how to do your job, Sheriff, but there are a
few folks you might want to keep ou -- "
insurance man and the snake-bellied lawyer. Lucy Crowe may live on
a mountain, but she's been off it once or twice."
didn't doubt that. I was also certain that no one gave lip to Lucy
"Probably good to keep the press out, too.""Probably.""You're right about the ME, Sheriff. He'll be here. But the
North Carolina emergency plan calls for DMORT involvement for a
heard a muffled boom, followed by shouted orders. Crowe removed her
hat and ran the back of her sleeve across her forehead.
many fires are still burning?"
"Four. We're getting them out, but it's dicey. The mountain's
mighty dry this time of year." She tapped the hat against a thigh
as muscular as her shoulders.
sure your crews are doing their best. They've secured the area and
they're dealing with the fires. If there are no survivors, there's
nothing else to be done."
"They're not really trained for this kind of thing."Over
Crowe's shoulder an old man in a Cherokee Volunteer PD jacket poked
through a pile of debris. I decided on tact.
sure you've told your people that crash scenes must be treated like
crime scenes. Nothing should be disturbed."
gave her peculiar down-up nod.
"They're probably feeling frustrated, wanting to be useful but
unsure what to do. A reminder never hurts."
indicated the poker.
Crowe swore softly, then crossed to the volunteer, her strides
powerful as an Olympic runner's. The man moved off, and in a moment
the sheriff was back.
"This is never easy," I said. "When the NTSB arrives they'll
assume responsibility for the whole operation."
that moment Crowe's cell phone rang. I waited as she
"Another precinct heard from," she said, hooking the handset to
her belt. "Charles Hanover, CEO of TransSouth Air."
Though I'd never flown it, I'd heard of the airline, a small,
regional carrier connecting about a dozen cities in the Carolinas,
Georgia, and Tennessee with Washington, D.C.
"This is one of theirs?""Flight 228 was late leaving Atlanta for Washington, D.C. Sat
on the runway forty minutes, took off at twelve forty-five P.M. The
plane was at about twenty-five thousand feet when it disappeared
from radar at 1:07. My office got the 911 call around
many on board?"
plane was a Fokker-100 carrying eighty-two passengers and six crew.
But that's not the worst of it."
next words foretold the horror of the coming days.

Excerpted from FATAL VOYAGE © Copyright 2001 by Kathy
Reichs. Reprinted with permission by Simon & Schuster. All
rights reserved.

Fatal Voyage
by by Kathy Reichs

  • Genres: Fiction, Thriller
  • hardcover: 368 pages
  • Publisher: Scribner
  • ISBN-10: 0684859726
  • ISBN-13: 9780684859729