The last place Gus LeGarde expects to find his old friend Byron Cunningham is in a plane that crashes in a field near his farmhouse. But that’s just the first surprise in a series of shocking events beginning with the discovery of a Monet painting crammed into the plane’s fuselage. Is it real? Or fake? The trail leads Gus into a twisting trio of dangerous art world conspiracies.
Gus fends off some very pushy collectors and soon realizes he may have crossed paths with treacherous criminals, putting his family at risk. As if that isn’t enough, he must also contend with a problem that’s close to his heart: his daughter, Shelby, is growing up too fast. She’s determined to sing professionally and is now under the spell of a wolf in tenor’s clothing, handsome Greek student, Dmitri. When she vanishes with the family car, her frantic parents desperately chase the fading trail.
A slew of Facebook messages on Shelby’s computer lead them to The Eastman School of Music, where both Shelby’s new flame and Gus’s old friend have been hiding secrets linked to the art scandal. There’s a real Monet out there somewhere, and nothing—including murder—will stop the desperate man who wants it.
I’d been riding my horse on the trail for half an hour when a looping grapevine nearly strangled me. I hauled back on the reins, trying to untangle myself, then called back to my daughter. “Watch out, Freddie.”
“Okay, Dad. But remember, you’ve gotta pay attention.” Laughing, she parroted the same phrase I’d preached to her as a child. She guided Maggie around the swinging vine and urged her into a trot.
Hanging onto the pommel, my grandson Johnny squealed with pleasure. “Go fast!” he screeched. Freddie wrapped one arm tight around his middle.
I smiled at Johnny. “Not too fast, buddy.”
My words were drowned out by a small plane roaring overhead.
Freddie glanced up. “Whoa! Isn’t he flying a little low?”
The plane—now clearly visible ahead of us—spewed smoke and rocked from side to side.
A shiver of alarm ran up my spine. “Looks like he’s in trouble.” I spurred Diablo into a trot.
We jogged in the same direction as the plane, watching it dip even lower in the sky.
Johnny seemed oblivious to the potential danger. “Plane!” He screamed the word at least a dozen times, taking one hand off the saddle and pointing to the sky. “Plane!”
At three and a half, anything that went “vroom” was an immediate intoxicant. He wore the same black velvet hunt cap that had been his mother’s when she was a girl. It was a little too big for him and it kept falling over his eyes. I’d have to adjust it for him later.
“Plane!” he screamed again.
Freddie shushed him and moved Maggie closer to Diablo, shouting to be heard over the whine of the aircraft. “Dad? Is it going down?”
“Afraid so.” I watched the plane disappear over the tree line, in the direction of the Glassbrooks’ wheat field, waiting for the crash. When it didn’t happen, I pulled to a stop and listened. The plane still droned and sputtered with an erratic rhythm.
Seconds later, it wheeled in a circle overhead, trailing more thick smoke, then circled back toward the wheat field.
“Come on,” I said, urging Diablo into a canter.
We loped side by side beneath the canopy of maple and beech trees.
When the plane turned back again, its belly nearly touching the tops of the trees, we tightened the reins and stopped the horses. A yellow cloud of dust rose as the horses dug in their hooves. Maggie’s ears flattened. She snorted and backed up fast.
Freddie shouted, “Whoa, girl,” and tightened her grip on Johnny.
Diablo twisted, turned, and tried to bolt. I leapt to the ground and hung onto the reins of both animals, skidding after my mount until he finally stopped. He danced in a half-circle, nearly yanking my arm out of its socket.
“Settle down, Diablo.”
I exchanged a worried glance with my daughter and returned Maggie’s reins to her. She slid to the ground and looped the reins with one arm, helping Johnny down with the other.
A sudden screech preceded a loud crash. In the distance, a thick column of smoke billowed toward the clouds.
I swung back onto Diablo’s back. “I’m heading over there.”
“Dad?” Freddie’s face grew pale. “Are you sure you should—”
“Call 911.” I urged the gelding into a gallop in the direction of the accident.
Diablo thrust his nose forward, churning along the trail at full speed. I leaned forward like a jockey, my hands halfway up his neck. Gripping his sides, I plastered myself to him to avoid decapitation from sagging branches. For three minutes that seemed like an eternity, we thundered toward the site. When I spotted it through the tree line, I diverted my horse from the trail, down a narrow path, and into a field thick with stalks of wheat stubble.
The yellow aircraft had come to a stop at the far end of the field, close to the wooded perimeter. Tipped on its side, smoke poured from the nose, rolling skyward in an angry plume.
Diablo’s ears flattened, but he continued as if he sensed the need for speed. I steered him onto a tractor trail on the outside border of the field and urged him forward. “Come on, boy.”
He lunged into his fastest gallop, gobbling the ground in long, uniform strides. Sweat broke out along his neck and rippled his fur. His mane streamed straight back and we zoomed ahead, closing the gap between horse and plane.
We reached the wreck in less than a minute. Diablo stopped, pricked up his ears, and sidestepped. His sides heaved from exertion and he snorted explosively. I jumped off and sprinted toward the crash.
The emergency landing had almost been successful. The plane had skipped along the length of the field, but a lone black walnut tree clipped a wing. It spun the craft around and had flipped it onto its side.
I smelled gas as I approached. A burst of adrenaline shot through me and I pulled myself up to the pilot’s door.
I yanked on the handle, but it wouldn’t budge.
Sweat prickled my brow, and I pulled again, harder this time, trying to ignore the sound of crackling flames beneath the hood. I beat on the metal handle, and kicked the bottom of the door. I tried again, with no luck, whacking it some more.
On the fifth try, the door yawned open.
Inside, the pilot stared ahead with glazed eyes, his ebony skin streaked with blood that oozed from a gash on his forehead.
“Sir.” I shook him. “Sir! Come on. You’ve got to get out of here.”
The engine compartment sputtered and a tongue of flames licked beneath the hood.
Heart drumming wildly now, I launched forward and unclipped his seatbelt. “Hurry. Put your arm around me.”
He didn’t move but gazed at me with mild curiosity. “Huh?”
“Listen! You need to get out.”
Flames reached under the dash now, singeing the hairs on the back of my hands. I pushed down the panic, and threw the pilot’s arm over my shoulders, sliding my arm behind him. With one swift pull, I lifted him free of the seat.
Like a floppy rag doll, he fell back again.
The heat was intense. I reached past the fire and snagged him again, jerking him sideways and pulling him toward me.
It was no good. Unless I had help from him, in seconds we’d both become a very splintered part of the universe. The thing was going to blow. I felt it.
“Mister! Help me here.” I tried again, jerking him up from his captain’s seat. My face felt hot, the skin blazing like the world’s worst sunburn.
“What? I—” He shook his head as if to clear it and finally pushed with his legs. With his help, I dragged him up and out of the seat, but his jacket caught on the ragged metal near the door.
“Please, God.” I tore at the fabric, balancing on one foot and holding him with the other. It was stuck.
“Take off your jacket,” I yelled above the roar of the flames. They’d spread from his seat out the door and were now climbing the fuselage nearby.
When I thought I couldn’t stand the heat any more, he finally seemed to understand what I was saying and shrugged out of his coat and into my arms. I lost my footing and we tumbled the last few feet onto the ground. We landed sprawled beside each other with the breath knocked out of us and the smell of burned hair in the air.
My heart hitched as I watched the flames flickering outside the door from which we’d just escaped. Seconds to spare, that’s all we had.
The blistering heat was getting worse as we lay panting on the ground, powerless to get up.
I tried to prop myself up on one elbow, but fell back on the ground again.
Somehow, the jolt seemed to kick-start my lungs again and I sucked in a deep breath.
“Move it, man,” I choked. “We’ve got to get away from the plane.” I rose to my feet, but staggered and nearly fell. My arms felt heavy but I dragged the man by his legs a few feet toward Diablo.
I leaned closer to him, ready to shout again, and it was at that point I noticed he wasn’t breathing.
“No. No! Come on!” Without thinking, I kneed him in the back—hard. With a sputter, he started coughing.
“What?” he gasped, looking around with wild eyes.
The smell of fuel was overpowering and the smoke almost blinded me. The crackling grew louder.
“Mister, come on! I need your help.” I slapped his face and shook him.
With a start, he roused. His dark eyes widened, turning toward the plane. He whispered hoarsely with a British accent, “Bloody thing’s gonna blow.”
I half-carried the stumbling man toward Diablo, who’d thankfully stopped his panicked run a hundred yards away and now munched on a clump of grass instead of bolting for home. Horses and their stomachs were almost ridiculously predictable. Especially this horse.
Our progress was painfully slow, and there was no way he could move much further on foot. The fire roared, and a small explosion burst from the side panel.
“Hurry. Get on the horse.” I grabbed Diablo when he tried to run again and thrust the pilot onto the saddle, struggling to throw his leg over the top without tossing him completely over the prancing gelding. It wasn’t easy. The guy was tall and slim, but in his current stupor he felt like three hundred pounds.
“Hang on!” I shouted, trying to force his hands to hold onto the saddle. They fell to his sides, slack and useless. Diablo continued to skitter.
The pilot turned to me with an expression that asked why this annoying bug was still buzzing around him. Half-smiling, he started to say something, then flopped forward on Diablo’s neck with arms dangling on either side.
“Good enough. We’re out of here.” With one hand to steady him and the other on the reins, I urged Diablo into a trot and ran beside them toward the safety of the far woods.
We’d almost reached the edge of the field when the plane blew.
Flames leapt into the cobalt sky, and orange fireworks radiated in a display that would have been beautiful, if not so deadly. Sparks flew toward us, scorching my shirt and hair. The deafening noise caused Diablo to pivot and rear, dumping his rider. I reached and tried to catch him, but I was too late. The man thudded to the ground, landing on his back. He groaned and touched his head, eyes closed. The spooked gelding reared again, then bolted for the woods.
I swore, slumping to the ground beside the man. Soaked from exertion, I peeled off my flannel jacket and denim shirt, exposing my GOT OPERA? tee shirt. I flopped back on my elbows and welcomed the sensation of the cool fall air on my bare arms. Flakes of cinders floated on the air nearby before landing in the grass by our feet.
“God, that was so close,” I said.
He didn’t answer, but his chest moved up and down with a regular rhythm.
In the distance, I spotted Freddie and Johnny headed our way with Diablo in tow. I sat up and waved my arms in an arc above my head to be sure they saw us.
I crouched beside the man and dabbed at the sticky blood coagulating on his forehead with the corner of my denim shirt. After cleaning the wound as best I could, I realized it wasn’t as bad as I first thought.
Now that I could breathe, I studied him with a nagging sense of familiarity. Did I know him?
His eyes opened and he stared at the sky.
I pressed the cloth against the cut again. The bleeding had almost stopped. “Sir? Are you okay? Can you hear me?”
His dark eyes flitted toward the plane. When he spoke, his voice resonated in a clipped British accent. “Of course I can bloody well hear you, Gus. You needn’t shout.”
Startled, I studied him closer.
The man was blessed with a Michelangelo face reminiscent of the statue of David, but with more rounded features, including a strong nose and full lips. His black skin shone with vigorous health. A small silver earring pierced his right ear. On his left hand he wore an onyx and silver band. The ring sparked some distant memory, but I still couldn’t summon his identity.
He turned his eyes to mine, forced a weak smile, and took my hand. In that instant, recognition flooded through me.
Byron. Byron Cunningham.
“Byron.” I smiled. “You’ve changed a bit over the years. I didn’t recognize you without your granny glasses and bellbottoms.”
He squeezed my hand and pushed himself onto his elbows. “I have changed a mite, I guess. But you look the same.”
I chuckled. “Sure I do. Nice try.”
With a long and mournful sigh, he glanced toward the flaming plane wreck. “Oh, God. I really loved that plane.”