Infernal Gates by Michael J. Webb @mjwebbbooks

Posted on Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Chapter 6

Sam was seated in the front of one of the National Park Service’s two airboats, on the way for her second visit to the crash site. The wind blew her thick, black air off her oval-shaped face and caused tears to well up in her piercing blue eyes. The intense, August sun was in its full glory, and there wasn’t a cloud in the sky.

Sam was grateful she’d inherited her dad’s amber-colored skin tone, instead of her mom’s milky-white complexion. She’d never had to worry about getting burned in under fifteen minutes, as her Japanese mother had before she died.

Sitting next to her was Glenn Marshall, the overweight and slightly balding FAA representative from Miami. Immediately behind her—next to the Park Service ranger who was both their guide and the airboat driver—sat a tall, muscular black man. Special Agent Rodney Jefferson. He’d arrived from Charlotte just after lunch. From the time Frank had radioed her with his surprising discovery, and she in turn had called Mac, it had taken less than three hours for Agent Jefferson to show up.

The FBI Agent’s presence was a bad omen.

Sam almost wished she hadn’t been promoted to the IIC on this particular crash.


She pushed her concerns out of her mind and focused on the swamp water as it raced by, intrigued by its color. She raised her voice so she could be heard over the roar of the airplane engine and called out, “Hey, Ben, what’s with the iced tea-colored water?”

The deeply-tanned ranger with the handle-bar mustache and long dirty-brown hair tied back in a pony-tail replied, “The water is stained by the peat and decaying vegetation. The Okefenokee is the largest peat producing bog in the United StatesBseven hundred square miles worth. We’re lucky the fire from the crash wasn’t worse than it was.”

The airboat suddenly slowed.

“What’s up?” Agent Jefferson asked.

“We’re crossing a prairie,” their guide answered.

“This doesn’t look like any prairie I’ve ever been on,” said the FAA man from Miami, trying unsuccessfully to appear comfortable in the scorching heat.

“In the swamp, a prairie is defined as a shallow expanse of water covered with aquatic plants. I learned the hard way to take it easy in these tight quarters—I don’t want to flip this baby.”

“I’m with you,” Agent Jefferson said. “I don’t intend becoming alligator meat.”

“Alligator meat?” the rotund man from Miami echoed.

“Yeah. Like that one over there,” Ben said, a crooked smile on his face.

His three passengers turned as one.

“I don’t see anything,” Agent Jefferson said.

“I do,” Sam said. “See the pair of black eyes looking at us like we’re its next meal.”

Ben chuckled. “There are over thirteen thousand gators in this swamp. In the past twenty years, there have been less than a dozen attacks against humans. When gators do attack, they typically take things at the water’s edge. They’re ambush predators, adapted to sneak up on prey—like hogs, deer, possums, and raccoons.”

“But they do attack humans,” the FAA man pressed. “I read about a ten footer that ate a bag lady once.”

Their guide snickered. “Occasionally, incidents do occur. That’s why we don’t allow tourists to feed any of the wildlife. There was a documented account of an accident on Ossabaw Island, about twenty miles south of Savannah. A biologist, who made grunting calls similar to that of young gators while splashing his fingers in the water, was attacked by a large adult alligator submerged in the water directly in front of him.”

“What happened to him?” the FAA man asked, a pained look on his sweating face.

“He stuck his thumb into the gator’s eye and managed to escape with all of his body parts intact.” Ben paused, then added with a wink, “The moral of that story is, if you ever find yourself in a situation where gators might be present, don’t make noises like you’re one of them.”

No one laughed. They just stared at the huge, partially submerged gator.

The monstrous carnivore looked like a modern-day aquatic dinosaur to Sam. It had dragon-like skin, a long muscular tail, and powerful jaws. If she had to guess, based upon its length relative to the airboat, she would say the beast was at least twelve feet long. There was no way she wanted to be in the water anywhere near a beast like that.

The airboat picked up speed again and they left the prairie behind.

Before they’d gone far they saw a great egret, cool and reserved. Sam watched it as they passed by, intrigued by the huge bird’s lack of fear, and its skill. It stood perfectly still in the shallow water, almost as if it were meditating. Then, with blinding speed, its long neck snapped down, caught an unsuspecting fish, and ungracefully shook the hapless creature down its long throat.

The concept of ‘survival of the fittest’ had just been played out before her eyes, as it was likely done a hundred times a day here. The ongoing dance of life and death she’d just glimpsed reminded her of what often went on metaphorically inside the Board.

Mac’s words of warning about watching her back echoed inside her head.

They arrived at the crash site a few minutes later.

The sickly-sweet smell of death hung in the air, even though they had yet to find even a single body part.

As Sam pulled on her waders and stepped into the shallow water, she shuddered to think what the carnage would have been like had the plane crashed into a heavily populated residential area, instead of an isolated section of a National Wildlife Refuge.

“Keep your eyes peeled for snakes,” Ben yelled from the back of the airboat.


“Thirty-seven species of them call this place home. But you only have to worry about two of them—the cottonmouth and the diamondback rattlesnake.”

“They can swim!” Sam exclaimed.

“Only the cottonmouth. The diamondback prefers the dryer pinelands and palmetto flatwoods—like those at the edge of that small island you’re headed for.”

“Great,” she muttered.

Sam didn’t wait for Special Agent Jefferson, or the FAA representative, to get their waders on. She wanted to talk to her team face to face. She was learning that even though being the IIC meant she could pretty much run the investigation however she wanted, most of her time was eaten up by all of the administrative aspects she had to oversee; not to mention the press briefings. That meant she had to rely on the reports of her team for information.

She wasn’t used to that and didn’t like it at all.

The rest of her team, with the exception of Ted— who was doing his work back at the Inn via phone and a jazzed-up computer video connection—had been on site since the crack of dawn. Marissa was still trying to locate the plane’s two “black boxes,” a pair of rectangular, steel containers that looked like small tool boxes. They weren’t actually black, they were bright orange. The one that recorded data from the cockpit was called the cockpit voice recorder. The other one was the flight data recorder. Both were located in the tail of the plane and both were designed to withstand an impact of thirty-four hundred G’s and a thirty minute two thousand-degree Fahrenheit fire. Sam hoped they would provide answers to the difficult questions everyone was asking.

“Samantha—over here!”

She grimaced at the sound of Frank’s high-pitched, nasal voice. He was the only one on the Team who refused to call her Sam. It was a petty way for him to let her know that he regarded her as a woman trying to do what he believed was a man’s job. She’d dealt with worse, especially in the military, but there was something about Frank’s entire demeanor that really got to her. She wished she could let his arrogant sense of self-importance, and his childish insistence on always being the center of attention, roll off her back.

“Hold your horses, Frank, I’m coming,” she yelled as she glanced over her shoulder. Her two companions had wrestled their waders on and were just a few feet behind her. “And I’ve brought the Calvary with me.”

She reached the small patch of ground Frank and Tony were standing on, stepped out of the murky water. The foul-smelling mud sucked at her feet like quicksand. She was glad she’d brought the waders. They kept the lower half of her body dry, safe from pesky critters that might think her soft flesh was delectable.

Frank held up a piece of charred, twisted metal, approximately three feet by two feet. Tony had one of his many chemical kits sitting out on a makeshift table. As soon as she reached the two of them, Frank said, “We’ve just finished confirming my initial findings.”

“Which were?” Agent Jefferson asked as he and Marshall joined them.

Tony said, “We’re reasonably certain this is part of the door assembly from the baggage compartment. We’ve also determined the dark residue you see here, seared into the metal, is some sort of explosive material. Frank believes it is from a bomb.”

“What do you mean ‘some sort’?” Marshall slapped a mosquito feasting on his exposed forearm. He squashed the small insect with the palm of his hand, leaving a smear of blood on his pudgy, pallid flesh. “Can’t you be more specific?”

“Not without a complete chemical work-up back in D.C.. I don’t have the capability to do extensive testing on site. I want Dave Westerberg to take a look at this.” Westerberg was the Board’s bomb specialist.

“How long will that take?” Agent Jefferson asked.

Tony looked at Sam.

“Is there anything else you need to be doing here, Tony?” she asked.

“Not unless Frank thinks he can’t do without me. If I take the Citation and leave this afternoon, Westerberg can start working his magic this afternoon.”

“I’ve got another couple days work ahead of me to wrap things up, but I think I can manage without you,” Frank said, his tone condescending.

Sam fought her anger. She couldn’t decide whether or not to publicly rebuke Frank. As usual, he was behaving as if he’d found the golden BB, the NTSB nickname for a piece of evidence that instantly explained why a plane crashed. She knew there had been a few—like the latch on a DC-10 cargo door that caused a crash in Paris in seventy-four, and a jet engine part that had broken off and brought down a United Airlines flight in the late eighties. Typically, however, investigations were grueling, methodical, and plodding. Answers were usually arrived at by a process of elimination, not instant discoveries.

Always the cowboy, Frank thrived on beating everyone else to the punch, even if he missed the details.

Before she could make her decision, Agent Jefferson said, “So, let me get this straight. You’ve been out here, what, five, maybe six hours tops, and you believe a bomb brought this plane down?”

Frank looked like he’d been slapped in the face. “And you are?”

“Special Agent Jefferson, FBI.”

“Well, Special Agent Jefferson, I suppose you’ve had extensive training in investigating aircraft accidents.”

Sam wasn’t surprised by Frank’s reaction. She knew he didn’t like the FBI. In his wilder, younger days, he’d smoked pot. That behavior, uncovered by the Agency during his background check, kept him from getting the high-level security clearance he’d needed in the military to work in Intelligence. Frank once told her that when the FBI showed up on an investigation, it was like having a bad summer cold. You took two aspirin, drank lots of water, and went about your business, hoping things didn’t get any worse than they already were.

Jefferson glared at the NTSB investigator. “My specialty is anti-terrorism.”

“Agent Jefferson was the Agent-in-Charge of the 9-11 investigation,” Sam interjected. She was enjoying the look of consternation on Frank’s pugnacious face.

Jefferson finished with, “Seems to me that you’ve made a pretty big circumstantial leap in a very short period of time.”

Frank retorted, “I’m sure you are well aware that bombs leave calling cards, Agent Jefferson. If one exploded inside the plane, hot gas would have spread quickly and deformed everything it touched. The resulting wreckage, like this door for instance, would be pitted with tiny holes resembling craters in the moon. It would also have black streaks radiating outward from the origin of the blast—telltale residue that can’t be wiped off with your finger.”

His audience of three stared at the rectangular piece of disfigured metal as he turned it around. They could see he was describing exactly what the charred baggage compartment door looked like. Frank wiped a thick, gloved finger across the metal for dramatic effect, then held his hand up. There was no black discoloration on his glove.

“Okay, you, two, that’s enough,” Sam said. She knew something else about Frank. His father had worked in the Pentagon. He’d been horribly burned in the crash of American Airlines flight 77, the 757 used like a missile against the Pentagon by al Quida terrorists on 9-11. Not only did Frank dislike the FBI, and Airbus, he hated terrorists. He also believed the federal government didn’t do enough to prevent bomb attacks against civilian aircraft.

Sam looked at Tony. “Take the Citation—and let me know as soon as you find anything.”

Tony reached over and took the piece of evidence from Frank, then wrapped it gingerly in plastic, as if it were a precious piece of art.

“Sam—Tony—Frank!” Marissa called out from fifty yards away. “I’ve found the black boxes.”

Infernal Gates

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Genre – Christian Thriller, Fantasy, Adventure

Rating – PG-13

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