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Elizabeth's Secrets - SAMPLE PAGES




PROLOGUE



St. Louis to Fort Myers, Saturday Morning, April 1, 2000
I WAS 43 when the love of my life died at my hand.
The beginning of the end was a muggy Saturday night, August 14, 1999. It was late, an hour before midnight. Every thick breath lay upon my tongue like an invisible waft of crude salt.
It had all the earmarks of an accident. Everyone said it was, but in my heart, I know better. When I close my eyes, even if only for a second, I relive every morbid detail as vividly as if it was all happening again. It was murder.
His name was Ted. I hope by writing it here, I will one day again be able to get it past my lips—Ted, Ted, Ted.
I was sitting on his right. The Cessna’s engine exploded and caught fire 6,500 feet above the choppy black surface of the Gulf of Mexico. I grabbed the controls and declared myself Pilot in Command. He was a new pilot. We had agreed that if anything ever went wrong, we would depend upon my experience to save us. From the moment of the explosion until the nose of our single-engine airplane was upside down in the sand, everything that happened was on me.
I have no way of knowing how much Ted suffered in the crash or during the final month of his life. He never opened his eyes or made any intelligible sound. When he took his final breath, I believed with all my heart it was my fault.
My father tried to comfort me. He said no one could have prevented the crash. He theorized that there had been unseen forces at work, a series of unfortunate circumstances beyond my control.
My mother agreed. “You were in God’s hands. Ted is with Him now. You can’t blame yourself, Bette. It's all part of His plan.”
I respect my mother too much to disagree, so I kept my mouth shut. However, like my father, I believe there was something else at work, something evil that had nothing to do with God and everything to do with my secrets.
I think myself a writer. I've made my living writing commercial copy and always prided myself upon a sparse, effective use of the English language. Nonetheless, on these pages, I have no thought of sparing anything. I plan to pour out my heart and purge my soul of guilt. I desperately need this, but I’m fearful it’s an elusive dream. When I am free of the guilt, even for a moment, it feels like a parlor trick, a product of smoke and mirrors.
§

AMETHYST INK spilled from the golden nib of my pen as it scratched cotton parchment in measured strokes saturating the page with meandering thoughts. In the place of ink, I saw only the red of my lover’s blood. It stained every cathartic memory as I struggled to find redemption. Not an ounce of joy existed in my life. Awake or asleep, I found no relief from my nightmarish reality.
Like all of my family, I was without question, cursed. My existence became a lingering march to death. It was not the kind of agony I always feared, it was something much worse.
§

THIS IS MY FIRST ATTEMPT at an entry in this journal—a diary, which is at the same time old and new. It was a Christmas gift from Ted.
A rich intoxicating smell of new leather still clings to the dark brown buffalo hide cover. The hand-debossed images of enchanted mushroom shaped trees and a longhaired mystical being magically float across its surface. To their right, an ornate nickel button protrudes. A single binding cord hangs loosely against my leg. Near the spine, a spreading stain from the natural oils in my skin reminds me I have carried this book with me constantly since the funeral. Until today, the binding remained wound around the button.
We were like small children our first Christmas together. Unable to sleep, we were up before daylight. I ground the beans and made a pot of coffee. Ted kindled a fire in the fireplace. The week before, I tried to imagine the look on Ted’s face when he opened his gift. Mexico and Mexican culture fascinated him. When I found a two-peso gold coin, I was convinced every detail would be perfect. A jeweler fashioned a setting, and I hung it from a long gold chain. I put the coin and chain in a velvet box and wrapped it in tightly patterned gold paper with a matching ribbon.
He tore off the paper and opened the box. When he saw the chain, he stopped. My first thought was that he thought it too feminine. He hugged me, then went straight to the Christmas tree, and came back with a small crudely wrapped box. He must have hidden it there while I was in the kitchen. I had searched for some hint of a gift every day during the weeks before and found nothing. Roughly folded corners and too much tape convinced me he had wrapped it himself. Relishing the moment, I carefully cut away the gaudy paper.
Inside the box, I found this journal professionally wrapped in crisp white tissue sealed with the McKenna coat-of-arms in crimson wax poured and stamped on the triangular flap. I was careful to remove the seal intact. When I first touched it, it was as though the book was trying to communicate with me. Moreover, the idea of preserving my thoughts enchanted me. I have always wanted to discipline myself to record everything important and meaningful in my life. I must have told Ted my dream, and he remembered as he remembered everything that was important to me.
We were good together. Unlike O. Henry’s short story, “The Gift of the Magi,” that first Christmas we fulfilled each other’s dreams without sacrifice.
Several times that day, I told Ted how I would fill my journal’s pages with my thoughts. Like so many other hollow resolutions in my life, my good intentions lacked true determination. It took his dying to get this book out of the original box. Until today, not so much as a dot of ink has marked its pages.
§

AFTER A FULL WEEK in the hospital, the gut wrenching sights and sounds of the crash still played in a continuous slow-motion loop in my head. I sat helplessly by Ted’s bedside, physically and emotionally fractured, trapped in a hospital wheelchair, watching in agony as his life dripped away. Every muscle in my broken body ached. With my only unbroken limb, my right arm, I stretched to touch his bandaged face; my atrophied muscles throbbed. Ignoring the pain, I took his cold hand in mine.
“It was my fault,” I whispered. “The crash was my fault.” He didn’t react in any way to my words or touch. “I was Pilot in Command. I should have done a better job.
“Elizabeth McKenna,” I scolded myself, “it should be you lying in this bed, not this man.”
I squeezed my eyes tightly shut and tried to convince myself it was all a dream. The petrifying sound of ripping aluminum as our airplane flipped tail-over-nose on the rocky beach and burrowed into the coarse sand at the water’s edge destroyed my intended calm.
§

MY MOTHER named me Elizabeth after her grandmother. She invented my middle name, EraStella. When I was in high school, she told me she did it because from the first moment she laid eyes upon me she knew I was exceptional and of my own time. I have yet to see the truth in her premonition.
On the first day of first grade, halfway through an alphabetical roll call, the teacher read my full name aloud. I smiled proudly until I realized that the snickers, which fell like a cold rain, were at my expense. Tiny droplets of humiliation sharply stung my thin skin, and I buried my face in my desktop. At recess, I rode the merry-go-round. With each pass, the boys taunted me until I cried. After that, they spared no effort in discovering what else about me was laughable. Since then, I have believed that if anything was personal, private, or a secret for me, it was a joke to everyone else. Throughout my life, people have continually proven me right.
Ted Wilson was one of four people who I believed I could trust with my secrets; he never betrayed me. Of the other three, two are my parents. The fourth is my best friend, David.
All that has passed has brought me to an important time and place in my life. What others have done to me, and said about me, hurt. In the end, they made me stronger. They helped me to find myself, to see me for who I am.
§

THE WORDS I write in this journal are my promise to myself and to God. I will be strong and unwavering, persistent and resilient. Somehow, I will find my way. I will not rest until I know the truth about how Ted died.
The question is simple. Am I responsible?





ONE



IT WAS NOTHING MORE than an unfortunate series of intertwined, unrelated events—an innocent two-day business trip to Tampa, Florida, no big deal. I wasn’t even scheduled to go. However, a coworker had a conflict. It fell to me to fill in.
Since the day he earned his pilot’s license, Ted had talked about a celebratory weekend fishing trip with two of his friends. Almost every night for weeks, they drank beer and organized their gear in the garage. They planned to fly our Skylane down to the Arkansas border and fish the White River, a guy thing.
Wednesday morning, the two-year old son of one of the trio caught the flu. He cancelled. That same afternoon, my boss asked me to fill in at the meeting in Florida. Suddenly, I needed the airplane. Ted did not.
Ted insisted he accompany me. “My weekend is wide open,” he pleaded. “I can chauffeur you for a change. You can relax while I log some hours. This is a win-win.” He smiled sheepishly. It was obvious he didn’t want to stay home alone. “Besides, you’ve been hoggin’ the plane.”
We were airborne by 5:30 Thursday morning and immediately climbed through a thick overcast. I flew left seat, the pilot’s side. The weather demanded we follow Instrument Flight Rules, something that was beyond Ted’s capability and license. With only 33 hours on the Hobbs meter, which recorded elapsed time since the aircraft’s engine was overhauled, the Skylane performed like new.
I was delighted with my textbook perfect Instrument Landing System approach to Birmingham, Alabama. By the time I returned from the ladies room, a cute blonde attendant in a red tank top and skimpy white shorts with an enviable tan had finished the refueling.
A brief radio exchange with Birmingham tower reopened our IFR flight plan. We quickly climbed through billowy cumulus clouds into smooth air above. The mid-August sun illuminated the bright white cloudscape of delicate mountains and ever-shifting valleys. I relaxed and tuned the FM radio to an oldies station. Ted slid his hand in mine and squeezed.
Tampa tower accurately reported a left quartering 15-knot headwind and light rain. At 500 feet, we broke through the ceiling, and the wide runway ahead dwarfed our airplane.
§

POUNDING THUNDER and crashing waves shook me awake. Ted sat on the edge of the bed holding a steaming cup. Even his presence and the intoxicating aroma of black coffee couldn’t prevent a frown from creeping across my face. “Is it Saturday already?” I asked disappointed because I already knew the answer.
“’Fraid so.” Ted stroked my arm and handed me the cup. “From the looks of the weather, I’m not sure we’re leavin’.” He pointed to the window and shook his head. “Least not this mornin’.”
I pulled myself up and leaned against the headboard. Unlike the sunny day before, now our lavish ocean-view suite at the pink Don Cesar hotel felt more like an unwelcome rain shelter.
Hourly, throughout the morning, I checked the weather by telephone. The broad storm cell was intense and slow moving from the southwest. We checked out of the hotel before noon and spent a restless afternoon reading in the lobby. I prayed for a break in the weather. With every passing minute, I became more disconcerted.
In a deserted 24-hour cafe near the airport, I picked at my late dinner. The clock on the wall struggled to count the minutes as the hands slowly passed through 9:30 P.M. Ted devoured his hamburger as if it was his last meal.
Ignorance is bliss, I told myself, thinking that Ted’s limited experience kept him from completely understanding our plight. Once with my dad, similarly weathered in for three days at a small country airport, we slept on the floor, ate stale cupcakes, and drank weak coffee from a pair of stingy vending machines.
Across the table, Ted dragged a french fry through a puddle of catsup. A premonition of vertigo washed over me. I tensed and steadied myself on the arm of my chair. Nothing felt right. I had logged more than 7,000 hours in a dozen varieties of single-engine airplanes. There was nothing special about this night, except how I felt. I was awash in an inexplicable sense of impending doom.
In my twenties, I rented a 1940 Stearman military trainer, an open cockpit biplane piloted from the back seat. I wanted to surprise my dad and take him up in a plane he had never flown.
The first take-off of my checkout flight felt good. I was relaxed with an instructor in the front seat. One smooth circle around the grass field at 800 feet, I lined up for final approach. At 200 feet above the ground, I realized I was too low and slow in an approach that would have been perfect for nearly any aircraft, but not the Stearman.
The seasoned pilot never moved. “Flyin’ rock,” he calmly called out over the wind. The intercom crackled with his words. Heeding his warning, I dropped the nose in the last possible instant and greased the antique bird onto the grass in a perfect wheel landing.
Airplanes and flying have never frightened me. However, on this Saturday night in Florida, waiting for the weather to clear, plagued by a sense of disaster, I was afraid.
The minute hand dragged past ten o’clock. The sky grew lighter. I called weather again. The bored voice on the other end of the line told me the storm had pushed off to the east. Minimums were above the required ceiling of 1,000 feet with 3 miles visibility for Visual Flight Rules. Ted smiled; he would get his chance at the controls after all.
His words crisp and clear in my headset, a man somewhere behind the dark glass of the Tampa tower cleared us for departure and directed us out over the edge of the Gulf of Mexico. Ted made a smooth, climbing right turn to the northeast. He tuned both navigation radios and pushed a series of buttons on the long-range navigation device that established our direct track to Birmingham, Alabama. He filled me with pride as he skillfully handled every cockpit task. I folded my hands in my lap and wished my father could see the efficiency of his student.
Everything was perfect, yet the nagging fear stamped its feet in the back of my mind, and demanded I take note. Our route would keep us just west of the coast, a few miles out over the still unsettled water of the Gulf, and direct to our only necessary fuel stop. The engine ran flawlessly. I nervously checked my watch; it was straight-up eleven o’clock eastern time. One hour ’till midnight, I told myself. Thank God, this day is almost over.
Ted eased the nose down, leveled the Cessna at 6,500 feet, and in a professional voice, reported our altitude and heading. The yellow transponder light on the instrument panel blinked reassuringly with a code assigned by Jacksonville Center. I envisioned a man on the other side of the state hovered over a screen in a darkened room watching a dot and number that represented our two souls. Other assigned numbers also moved across the screen at varying speeds, altitudes, and headings. The vigilant controller would help keep us safe.
Through the red half-light of the cockpit, Ted looked over and smiled with pride-brightened eyes. I had seen this look once before, six months earlier on an overcast day in February when he slid from the cockpit of my father’s weary Cessna 152 having just finished his first solo flight. My dad congratulated his student, and told him he would make a great pilot.
Ted nodded as if he knew what I was thinking and then returned his attention to a thorough scan of the instrument panel. He twisted his head slightly to the left, pulled his headset away from one ear, and listened intently to the throaty hum of the Continental engine.
The unstable air bubbled in the aftermath of the storm. An almost imperceptible, undulating vibration seeped through the airframe surfing bumps hidden in the wind. I had felt something similar, thousands of times before, but this vibration wrapped its icy fingers around my lungs and squeezed until I gasped.
Unaware of what I was experiencing, Ted leaned forward and put his right hand between the seats. With one easy tug on the lever, he moved the cowl doors the last two notches to fully closed. The 20-year old airplane was sealed up and as aerodynamic as its design allowed.
With the final element of drag minimized, it was like letting go of a kite in a strong wind, a momentary burst of un-tethered freedom. Fear loosed its grip on my lungs. I sighed with relief. All in your imagina—
WHAM, as though thunder and lightning simultaneously struck the cockpit, the engine exploded and severed my thought. A ball of fire, 11 quarts of oil, and mangled engine parts ripped through the top of the aluminum cowling. In slow motion, the airplane rolled onto its right side, threw its nose straight down, and plummeted seaward. Blinded by the yellow-blue blast, I blinked. A black shroud of engine oil covered the expansive windshield.
Instinctively, I grabbed the yoke and wrested control from Ted. He jerked his hands away. I was the experienced pilot. We both knew it was up to me to fly the plane.
I pulled the yoke to my chest and with all my strength twisted it to the left. Nothing happened. For a moment, we floated weightlessly through space, and my actions yielded no results. A millisecond dragged by. The controls fought my efforts to correct our attitude. The Cessna seemed to want to die.
Finally, it acquiesced. I was able to begin a reluctant uncoordinated roll to the left and lift the nose. With a sharp mechanical bang and a shockwave that penetrated my soul, the propeller freed itself and began to spin. I thrust the red fuel/air mixture control all the way in, forcing gasoline into the carburetor. I double-checked the ignition and frantically pumped the throttle.
A glimpse of the altimeter showed the needles passing through 5,000 feet. Uncertainty clouded my judgment. We raced toward certain death.
Only able to see out of the unobstructed window on my right, moonlight danced gaily on the surface of our watery grave. Less than 30 seconds had passed since the explosion. We had already lost 1,500 feet. This won’t take long, my mind screamed in a macabre, experienced voice.
A second, smaller fireball belched from the torn cowling and rocketed out of sight. A hoarse combusted cough followed. A small surge of power telegraphed through the throttle and carried a wave of hope. I checked the fuel valve and moved it from right-tank-only to both. The engine restarted.
“Bette, you okay?” Ted’s frightened voice crackled in my ears.
I dared not face him. He would have seen the truth in my face. “Yeah, you?” I tried to sound calm, grateful that the continuous explosions and accompanying fireballs cloaked my fear.
“What can we do?” He shouted. “Will the engine run like this?”
“Odds are, no.” I answered, unable to hide the truth, still avoiding his gaze. “We’re 20 miles from the coast. There’s no oil left in the engine. It’s beatin’ itself to death. We’re feedin’ a gas fire, but without it, we can’t stay in the air.
“Call Jax center,” I commanded, “declare an emergency and ask for help. Tell ’em we need a place to land.” Ted didn’t answer. “Do it now!”
The sole push-to-talk switch was mounted on the pilot’s yoke, opening only the pilot’s microphone, which meant I couldn’t speak directly to the tower. Ted was our voice to the outside world. With that exception, I had total control of the airplane.
“Jax Center, this is Skylane 9er5-4-5-5 declaring an emergency. We need a place to land.”
“Skylane 4-5-5, Jax Center, acknowledge, say your emergency.”
“We have limited power. We’re on fire.”
My headset crackled. He’s probably too shocked to answer, I thought.
“We have you on radar.” The controller said in a strained voice. “Crystal River airport is 2-0 miles; turn right to 3-2-0 degrees.”
I pressed my cheek against the oil-streaked Plexiglas side window and searched for the lights of Crystal River. The coastline was far off, definitely on our right. The town should have been just beyond. We were flying northeast. A heading change to 320 degrees would take us out to sea.
I questioned my reasoning and wondered if vertigo had clouded my judgment. I distrusted my senses. “Believe your instruments,” my father’s voice resounded. Uncertain white letters danced in the liquid bath of the magnetic compass while the directional gyro spun out of control.
“Ted, that heading can’t be right.” I commenced a shallow right turn without waiting to find out if I was correct. “The airport’s gotta be east. Tell ’im—tell ’im now!”
“Jax Center, 4-5-5, 3-2-0 degrees can’t be right.” Ted spit the words into his headset’s boom mic. “Check heading, over?”
I held my breath. The static in my headset was deafening. I maintained the turn, waiting.
The nervous voice came back, “4-5-5, sorry—uhh—my error.” White noise blasted my inner ear. “Turn to 0-8-0 degrees. Airport is 1-9er miles. G-luck, stayin’ with you.”
The engine, a sledge pounding a steel plate, relentlessly thrashed the airframe. I pumped the throttle nonstop. Every few seconds, it rewarded me with a fresh fireball rocketing past the oily funeral shroud on our windscreen.
“Can we make the airport?” Ted asked. His ghostly face glowed in the dim red light.
I checked the counterclockwise swing of the altimeter’s white hands. “We’re losin’ altitude, but should be ’nough,” I answered with a quick calculation. “Need to keep the engine runnin’ and hope fire doesn’t get wor—”
“Four-five-five, Jax Center,” the familiar voice cut me off, “you’re one-four miles from airport. It’s closed. TWA captain has—uhh—activated runway lights. Emergency equipment’s standin’ by, over.”
Nearly 2,000 feet below, rocks protruded from the moonlit surface of the Gulf of Mexico. Options raced through my mind. Turnin’ the fuel off will put out the fire, I reasoned, but we’ll lose all power. Dad says there’s always more than one alternative. Can’t survive a landing in the rocks. With the engine, we might make the airport. I’ve gotta keep this thing in the air; I've gotta keep the engine runnin’. I visually swept the surface for another place to put her down.
§

I BLINKED. In the momentary blackness of my mind’s eye, I found myself in the pilot’s seat of my dad’s old Skylane staring at outdated Narco hand-tuned navcoms. He sat calmly in the right seat, his glowing pipe clinched tightly between his teeth. “Worry about what you control. Fly the airplane. Don’t second-guess your instincts. Feel your machine; don’t fight it.” I blinked again.
§

FIREBALLS, in short, irregular Roman candle bursts, continually lit the night sky. I ignored them. They were outside my control.
A soulless metal-on-metal screech resonated through the cockpit. Fear’s icy fingers plucked my heart from my chest. The propeller slammed to a stop—no fire, no banging, and no hope.
“TED, WE CAN’T MAKE IT!” I screamed. “TELL ’IM, TELL ’IM NOW!”
“Jax, 4-5-5, engine’s gone,” Ted shouted. “I repeat, we’re dead stick. Gonna try for the beach, over.”
I threw my headset over my shoulder. Ted did the same. “Sorry, hon,” I said. Calm came over me. The only sound was the rush of the wind as the needles of the altimeter spiraled down. “I’ll do my best.”
I lowered the nose, steadied our glide, and applied a slight backpressure to slow our descent. Following a mental checklist, I closed the fuel valve and set the flaps to 10 degrees for lift.
The radio popped. Something like a sinister laugh came from the cockpit’s external speakers, “ha-ha-ha,” a soul-shattering chill bore through me. “Ha-ha-bitch, ha—”
“…lane 4-5-5, Jax ’enter.” The controller’s voice severed the laugh. The broken voice was panicked. “Wind’s from 3…0 at 1… Goo’ luck, God spee... ”
I didn’t understand the wind speed or direction, but it no longer mattered. I only had one choice. I snapped off the master switch and steeled my nerve.
“Fly the airplane.” My dad’s voice steadied my hand on the yoke. I banked slightly to the right. A mile ahead, bathed in eerie moonlight, the rocky beach waited. Just a runway, I told myself, trying unemotionally to envision an approach. A slight forward pressure on the sluggish yoke dropped the elevators and increased our glide speed to a solid 80 miles per hour. Standard approach, keep the landing gear out of the sand as long as possible.
Ted sat stiffly with his palms buried beneath his thighs like a man on death row.
“Sorry, hon.” I felt compelled to apologize again.
He turned and smiled.
“Tighten your shoulder harness,” I ordered in a terse voice. “Beach’s our only hope—looks rough.”
Blindly, I gauged my final turn, took a shallow breath, and guessed at our height above the ground. I counted 90 degrees on the erratic magnetic compass and rolled out on final.
The invisible ground cushion cradled the airplane for an instant. I pulled back on the yoke and discovered too late that ground effect had fooled me; we were too high. We lost our lift, stalled, and fell nearly straight down. Frantically, I dropped the nose and salvaged too little lift, too late. In the span of a single heartbeat, our landing gear collided with the sand at 50 miles per hour.
The screech of ripping aluminum filled the air. We plowed through sand and rocks. Our momentum and the crush of our weight flipped us tail-over-nose. Nearly full fuel tanks spewed high-octane gasoline across the beach. Toxic fumes choked my final prayer. “God, save u—” My world went black.




 

Copyright© 2011 by Paul D. Alexander, all rights reserved