Chapter One zdorovy,” muttered Les to himself while launching his query into legal cyberspace. His mind was on Byron, downing a vodka, spouting off some Russian salute.

The late day sun was slipping away though he barely noticed. A frown appeared as he considered the document flickering on his tablet: Wells vs. Wells—Wife’s Trial Brief. Beverly, Marcia’s best friend and his one-time college tease, was smack in the middle of a high-stakes, take-no-prisoners divorce. And it had fallen on him to break the grip of an ironclad prenuptial. If only she’d listened.

A decade earlier he’d urged her, “Bev, I’m telling you this as a friend, not as your lawyer. Don’t sign it. He’s still going to marry you, prenup or not.”

“Leslie,” she’d insisted, “I know what I’m doing. His parents are behind it. Trust me, as soon as it’s signed it’ll be forgotten.”

Her words, spoken during what seemed like some other life, now ran like fingernails across a distant chalkboard. He wondered, was it really the prenup or her marriage he’d hoped to stop? He glanced at his arsenal of income tax returns, bank statements, and deposition transcripts piled high on Marcia’s most recent acquisition, a handcrafted beech-wood deck table. It had been designed by pygmies, and at six feet four he was forced to play contortionist every time he squeezed onto the bench. He should have persuaded her to keep his ancient wicker rocker. But she’d sweetly insisted, and he now owned a houseful of chicly understated Hasaku furniture.In the course of an average week, Les McKee might experience enough greed and duplicity to fuel a third world coup. Broken and battered clients drifted in and out of his understated Park Place office in a sad parade that never seemed to end.

Their long-anticipated move to Queens Gate had landed them in debt, thanks to a housing market no longer on life support. But how could he complain? He had the house, the gift-wrapped wife, and a nine-year-old for whom he would gladly give his life.

To the amazement of his friends, he even loved his work, though at times he wondered why. In the course of an average week, Les McKee might experience enough greed and duplicity to fuel a third world coup. Broken and battered clients drifted in and out of his understated Park Place office in a sad parade that never seemed to end. Here it was a Sunday, but was he shooting hoops?

Occasionally it depressed him the way things fell apart. Even the smallest wave could sink a buoyant marriage—along with the helpless children left floundering in the wake. Not him, he vowed. An odd fringe benefit from his daily sorties into the minefields of the heart was the lessons he learned and used to strengthen his own time-tested marriage.

He wished he could say the same for Byron, the wormy little bastard. Just months before, with Beverly’s mental stability collapsing at the seams, Les had tried to reason with him at a Super Bowl party they both attended. While a crazed Seattle was in the midst of celebrating its first title, Les was busy pleading her case with Byron: would he at least consider counseling? He could still see the disgust in the pit of Byron’s black, steely eyes, staring back at him with utter incredulity. “Budem zdorovy” was all he said, as he tipped back his head, finished off his drink and walked away.

Les had to admit that by the end he was glad to see them split. At the trial he was going to make a spectacle of Byron Wells. With disconcerting satisfaction, Byron seemed to relish any chance to slice at his opponents with the sharp edge of his biting tongue. When it came to Les he employed particular spite, his wilting affect as razor thin as the touch-screen technology he’d perfected for Digitron during one of his week-long obsessive-compulsive benders.

Cheating spouses were commonplace for Les, though in the case of Beverly and Byron’s marriage it was not another woman, but the intoxicating power of an online world gone mad. Aware of the irony, he focused on his tablet, which happened to be chock-full of Digitron software, as his query brought up a dozen out-of-state-cases on the issue of debunking a prenuptial.

A strange, distant hissing made him stop. He looked out at the field behind his house but couldn’t find the source. The hissing burst again, this time more abruptly, then rumbled low like steam. He turned his head up sharply, shielding his eyes from the sun’s glare. The mammoth object passing overhead was so close it startled him at first—a hot-air balloon, descending gracefully toward the bright green field beyond his deck. Its giant torch fired on and off as it gently nudged its way toward earth.

“Marcia, check this out.” When she didn’t answer, he reached for his jacket, fumbled for his cell phone, and toggled it to video. By the time he’d framed his subject, the huge yellow sphere had drifted past him and dropped almost even with his deck, less than a quarter mile out. Its gondola dipped below the tree line as he started to record. He could faintly hear their voices.

Consumed-Chevrolet-CorvetteWhile directing his camera phone with two hands, his eye caught another splash of yellow moving slowly to his left. A sports car crept toward him down the narrow service road that wound past his house, through the trees and toward the massive turf farm below. He could see it was a newer anniversary Corvette, so he stopped recording and zoomed in on it for a still shot. It seemed to glow even brighter than the quarry it was tracking.

Turning back to the horizon, he framed the balloonists, toggled to wide-angle and snapped two more stills as they passed directly in front of Mount Rainier. “Perfect,” he said aloud. Pale pink and shining, the mountain silently agreed. They seemed close enough to touch. Zooming partway in on the six passengers staring out, he snapped a close-up.

The pilot appeared to be orchestrating a skillful descent toward their apparent landing site in the next field over. The tops of a poplar grove appeared in Les’s frame. He toggled back to video and began to record again. The approaching row of trees, rising like stout sentries, had been planted decades earlier to deflect the wind from structures long since demolished. Today they were the only remnants of an era when the valley had been dotted with working farms.

The green expanse was still a farm, more than five hundred acres of lawns-to-be, fertilized and harvested year-round. The landscapers would soon descend, roll up their crop, and cart it off to the far-flung outposts of King County’s suburban sprawl. Then it would begin again.

The road behind his house was rarely traveled, except by the flatbed crews that passed by every few days, toting the lush instant lawns that dominated the fertile floor of the Sammamish River Valley.

While tracing the balloon, his mind drifted to childhood summers in suburban Chicago where he and his brother would ride their bikes to the Cook County Fairgrounds in August, hoping to catch a glimpse of the great round wonders of flight as they came to rest. He would email this clip to his mom as she’d been pestering him to send her pictures of their brand-new house with its panoramic view.

The hot-air balloons had become a fixture of the Eastside skyline, home to Seattle’s high-tech corridor and luxury hybrids. But he’d never seen one come this close. He kept filming as one of the passengers drew a phone to his ear. Another was waving toward the chase car. He zoomed in all the way as one of them suddenly lost his balance and grabbed for the wicker railing. They’d clipped the top of a poplar tree.

Without warning a horrific flash, followed by an explosion, engulfed them in a cloud of fire. Time stood still as the fireball filled his frame and an abrupt concussion of heated air rushed past. He kept his camera steady as the raging ball of black and orange billowed skyward, then disappeared. Scorched debris fanned out like fireworks. He gaped in disbelief as the reverberation of the sickening blast echoed down the valley. The orphaned balloon, its gondola shorn free, floated and bobbed with its cables dangling helplessly. It too was burning.

He stopped recording. Clouds of smoke rose from a tall patch of dying weeds near the base of the trees. He could see their bodies lying motionless in the inferno of burning fuel and dry grass. God help them, he thought. The top of the tree they’d clipped was wrapped in flames. Nausea gripped him, then panic. The chase car had disappeared through the bordering grove of poplars. He looked at his phone and dialed 911.

“What was that?” exclaimed Marcia, running onto the deck. Confusion and fright spread across her delicate features.

“A hot-air balloon. They hit the treetops and exploded,” he said, pointing toward the crash site, his phone clamped to his ear. He looked over at her and thought he could see his own horror mirrored in her pale face. “Don’t let Bree out here,” he called to her.

The dispatcher finally answered. “This is 911 Police, Fire and Medical. What are you reporting?”

Marcia was clearly in fight or flight mode. “She’s in the van. Didn’t you hear me? We need to leave,” she said.

“I’ve got 911.” He tapped his lips to let her know he couldn’t talk.

“Sir?” The dispatcher seemed impatient. “What are you reporting?”

“I’m outside my house, about a mile east of Kirkland. A hot-air balloon was about to land on the turf farm by the slough when they hit a tree and exploded. Six men on board.”

He watched as Marcia stepped to the rail for a closer look and heard her gasp as even more color drained from her dusky complexion. Her face looked ghostly against her chestnut hair.

“Are there survivors, sir? Can you get to them?”

“Not really. The hill running down from here is steep thicket and there’s a grass fire where they crashed. They need firefighters and medics. You can’t miss the smoke.”

“Sir, what is your address?”

“One-three-five-seven-two Willows Road,” Les said as Breanna emerged from the kitchen. “Hold it, sweetie.”

“Pardon me?” the dispatcher asked.

“Sorry. My daughter—”
“Please hold, sir.” She didn’t wait for him to answer.

“Bree, come here,” he said. Carefree as ever, she slid into his arms as he walked her back inside, waiting for the dispatcher to return. She took notice of the smoke and turned a worried face to her parents.

“Bree, honey?” Marcia closed the sliding door to bar her daughter from the deck. “Get back in the van. We can’t be late for your recital.”

“We can’t leave now.”
“But Daddy, Tiff and I need to practice, remember?”

“Les, we are going,” Marcia said. Her eyes were telling him that home was the last place they needed to be just then. Minutes seemed like hours while he waited.

“Sir?” The dispatcher returned. “We’re receiving other calls on this and we have units responding. Can you remain on the line?” It was more of a command than a question.

He checked his phone’s display—5:42 p.m. The auditorium was a twenty-minute drive, but Bree’s performance didn’t start until 7:00. He looked at his wife and daughter. “You two go ahead.”
“Les,” Marcia pleaded. But he was back on the deck, his eyes glued to the scene, his phone pressed to an ear.

“Did you see it?” He looked up to find their new neighbor standing on the deck next to his. She’d come running out to see what it was that had rocked her plate glass windows.

“I’m calling it in,” he told her. “I filmed it.” He nodded toward the phone he held to his ear. “Is there a trail down, or just the road?”

“No trail—just thorns and fences. But look, here comes someone now.”

He decided to end the call. He set the phone down on his tablet, while scoping for a path through the underbrush, and spotted the Corvette. It had come to a halt on the side of the road. An irrigation ditch prevented the driver from getting any closer to the fire. The door flung open and a woman emerged. She ran across the field, extinguisher in hand, dashing from body to body, dousing the flames as best she could.

Les and his neighbor looked on in helpless shock as the woman’s small red canister emptied itself and went silent. Sirens wailed from a distance. A bright yellow van pulling a trailer was bouncing toward the crash site from the east. A small crowd of onlookers had gathered at the top of the ridge while a few brave neighbors started jogging down the road. The spent balloon was enshrouding a web of poplar branches half a mile away. The staffer at the scene was screaming hysterically.

When he heard Marcia honk the horn, he wondered how long it had been since he’d told them to go ahead. He was glad she’d stood her ground. “I have to leave,” he told his neighbor, who returned a curious glance.

As they pulled away, Marcia said, “Breanna, did you remember your slippers?”

“Yes, Mama.”

“Your headband. Where’s your headband?”

“I’m wearing it,” she said and giggled.

“Well, I know we’ve forgotten something. Les, call Bev and let her know we’re running late.”

“My phone,” he said, “I left it on the deck.” He was halfway into a U-turn.

“For God’s sake, use mine,” she sighed, rifling through her purse. “Don’t you dare turn back.”

He thought about his video, but decided to drop the subject and take her phone instead. He called Beverly and left her a voice mail, then slipped Marcia’s phone inside his jacket. As he resumed his course on Willows Road, an ambulance raced by them.

Breanna’s voice was almost a whisper as she surprised him with her next question. “Daddy, did all the people die?”

“Maybe not,” he answered. “Try not to worry, okay kiddo?”

“Turn on the radio,” said Marcia.

He complied but cranked down the volume. Straining to hear, he could just make out the words: “It apparently struck a tree or a power line while attempting to land and burst into flames. We have no word yet as to any casualties, but News Radio’s Dale Rodriguez is en route to the scene to bring us a live report.”

“Hurry,” Marcia murmured.

He wasn’t sure if she meant him or the reporter. Traffic was sluggish for a Sunday. In the back, Breanna nervously fingered the bows of her ballet slippers. Her lavender eyes—inherited from her mother—were dark with worry.

“It’s okay, sweetheart,” he told her. “We’ll get you there on time.” Through the rearview mirror he managed a smile that looked more like a grimace.

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