Echoes from the Deep
Echoes from the Deep by Cheryl Brooks
A plane crash survivor acquires the souls of three women. Armed with their knowledge, she must solve a murder that points toward a global conspiracy.
Jilted less than a week before her wedding, assistant bank manager Jillian Dulaine elects to go on her honeymoon to England alone. When the plane nose-dives into the sea off the coast of Ireland, she is one of only three survivors and is charged with delivering a message to the son of the woman seated beside her.
When his mother’s dying words send Jillian to him, London Times reporter Ranjiv Tenali suspects her of matchmaking even after her death. His attraction to the lovely American woman cannot be denied, but he is shaken by the suspicion that she carries his mother’s spirit.
The souls she acquired in the midst of the crash provide Jillian with talents and knowledge vital to her survival. But when she visits Stonehenge, her role as the one chosen to connect with Earth’s spirit is revealed, setting her on a path toward romance, conspiracy, and murder.
“Oceana Airways Flight 2324 to London’s Heathrow Airport is now boarding at gate A22.”
For the space of perhaps ten seconds, Jillian Dulaine debated the wisdom of ignoring the announcement. She didn’t have to leave Newark. She could stay there for the next three weeks and no one back home in Memphis would ever know she’d chickened out.
Her friends and family knew how much she hated flying, and they had all applauded her decision to bite the bullet and make this trip alone—a trip that should’ve been fun and exciting, not to mention romantic. But now, instead of leaping up with all the eagerness a new bride ought to feel on her honeymoon, Jillian gritted her teeth while mustering every ounce of willpower she possessed simply to rise from her seat.
An air of excited anticipation surrounded her, people chatting and laughing while she took her place in the queue like a mindless drone. No one else seemed to share her mood. No one else was only going through the motions, pretending their entire world hadn’t fallen completely apart.
After the gate official scanned her ticket, Jillian walked down the ramp to board the plane, the clack of her new sandals muted by the carpeted floor. Unlike many of the other passengers, all she carried was her purse, preferring to let the baggage handlers deal with the bulk of her belongings. Losing her luggage would be no great loss anyway. Clothes could easily be replaced, and she didn’t care what anyone thought of her fashion sense. Especially now, when she was just another body in the herd that moved inexorably toward the door of the huge jet.
A smiling flight attendant welcomed her aboard.
The smile Jillian gave her in return contained little in the way of genuine warmth. She wasn’t the least bit thrilled to be embarking on her honeymoon without a husband.
Why am I doing this?
Her sister had insisted she owed it to herself to enjoy the trip, if only to spite Seth Nolan for practically jilting her at the altar. “It wasn’t your fault, Jillian,” Nicola had said. “He led you on. You deserve better than him.”
“Do I?” Jillian asked. What was that old saying? Something about not getting what you deserve but deserving what you get? Or was it the other way around? “Even after being stupid enough to believe he would actually go through with a wedding?” Jillian didn’t think that belief was quite enough to recommend her for greater things.
“Even then,” Nicola replied. “You’re my big sister, and I love you. I want you to be happy.”
Jillian smiled to herself, this time with genuine warmth and affection. Nicola was such a sweet girl. If anyone deserved happiness, she did.
Following the directions from the flight attendants, she made her way past the first class section and all those lovely alcove-like seats that could actually be made into beds. Jillian’s last-minute request for an upgrade had been turned down, and she proceeded on through the belly of the 747 to the economy section. Reaching her assigned seat in the center row, she noted that someone was already seated at the opposite end.
When she and Seth had first booked the flight, the booking agency had said they wouldn’t get to choose their seats, but that families would be seated together whenever possible. Seth probably would have been placed on the aisle so he wouldn’t rub shoulders with another woman during the night. Perhaps this woman wouldn’t have even been on the plane if he hadn’t backed out.
Having canceled so late, he wouldn’t get a refund for that seat, which gave Jillian some satisfaction, even if she would be the one footing the entire bill for the hotel.
“Think of it, Jill,” he’d said. “Three weeks to explore Britain—London, Liverpool, the Cornish coast, Dover—anyplace we want to go.”
Now she was doing it alone, with no desire to see anything.
That wasn’t entirely true. She at least wanted to see Stonehenge. No doubt all of Britain would seem fascinating and enjoyable once she arrived. Everyone assured her this trip would be good for her, the perfect therapy for a broken heart. The idea had seemed plausible, if only in theory. At the moment, she wasn’t so sure.
However, when her gaze met the smiling face of the older woman seated on the aisle, she revised her opinion.
This might not be so bad after all.
The woman was obviously Indian, right down to her dark brown eyes, chignon hairstyle, and deep purple sari. The satiny folds surrounded her like rippling water, giving her an air of serenity. Simply looking at her calmed Jillian’s nerves.
Jillian removed the allotted pillow and blanket from her seat and sat down with a sigh. Already she felt closed in, trapped by the high seat back in front of her. Bile rose in her throat, and she took several deep breaths to force it back down.
“They don’t give us much room on these planes, do they?” the woman asked with an accent as native as her style of dress.
“No, they don’t.” Jillian forced out a laugh. “We’ll probably feel like old pals by the time we get to London.”
“Then we should introduce ourselves now. My name is Kavya.”
“I’m Jillian. Nice to meet you, Kavya. I hope my fidgeting doesn’t drive you crazy. I’m not used to sitting still for so long.”
“Nor am I. I try to think of other more pleasant things. It helps sometimes.”
Jillian knew that to be true. Unfortunately, finding a pleasant thought had been difficult for the past few days.
She should have known Seth would get cold feet. Anyone who’d resisted marriage for as long as he had was bound to be the type to call the whole thing off two days before the wedding.
Seth… It would have been different if she hadn’t loved him so much. She couldn’t even find it in her heart to hate him for breaking up with her the way he had—only a phone call saying he couldn’t go through with the wedding and wouldn’t be coming home.
Sleep had been elusive since then. Unaccustomed to sleeping alone, she kept turning over expecting to touch him while he slept, only to find nothing beside her but empty space.
As more passengers boarded, two women took their places to Jillian’s left in the four-seat row. She thought it odd that none of them were men.
Then again, perhaps seats were assigned according to gender on overnight flights. She had no idea. She was only thankful not to be seated next to a strange man during what would most likely be a futile attempt to sleep. She reminded herself that if this trip had gone as planned, she would’ve been sitting next to a very familiar man, one on whose shoulder she could’ve rested her head, perhaps even sharing a goodnight kiss.
Closing her eyes, she was vaguely aware when Kavya shifted slightly in her seat. Perhaps she was as uncomfortable as Jillian.
“First trip to London?”
Jillian glanced up as the woman on her left spoke.
Middle-aged and plump with curly, dark red hair, she held out a hand. “The name’s Anna. Figured we ought to get to know one another.”
Anna’s firm handshake seemed incongruous somehow. Given the woman’s appearance, she’d expected a softer grip.
Jillian introduced herself and Kavya before adding, “Yes, this will be my first trip.”
“My third,” Anna said. “It’s a long flight, but definitely worth it. Kate and I adore walking in the Pennines.”
Jillian darted a questioning glance at the woman seated next to Anna, a long, loose-limbed woman with short blond hair wearing capris and a sleeveless blouse that displayed her muscular arms.
“Oh, no,” Anna said with a chuckle. “Kate’s a miniature schnauzer.” Whipping out her smart phone, she tapped the screen and aimed it at Jillian. “Placed sixth at Westminster three years ago.”
A gray dog with perky ears and fluffy white whiskers stared back at her from the phone. “Very cute.” She paused, frowning. “Where is she?”
“Cargo hold,” Anna replied. “Rules, you know.”
Jillian wasn’t much of a dog enthusiast, but a cage in the hold seemed like cruel and unusual punishment for any animal. “How awful.”
“Kate doesn’t seem to mind, and they take good care of the dogs. Never had a problem.” Anna flapped a casual hand. “Great traveler. Very well-behaved and more easygoing than most schnauzers. Was a breeze to train.”
“You’re a trainer then?”
“Trainer, handler, groomer, breeder… I do it all.” As quickly as she’d retrieved her phone, Anna held out a business card. “If you’re in the market for a pup, I’ll be breeding Kate in the fall.”
Jillian scanned the card, which identified her new acquaintance as Anna Lyles, breeder of champion miniature schnauzers, located in Syracuse, New York. “Not in the market. Sorry.”
Anna shrugged. “Hang onto the card. You never know…”
Jillian was pretty sure she would never need a dog, especially one that would probably be priced in the thousands. No wonder Anna could afford multiple visits to England.
The woman at the end of the row leaned forward. “Got any more of those cards?” she asked with an accent that was decidedly British.
“Absolutely.” Anna produced another one so quickly Jillian wondered if she moonlighted as a magician.
“Thanks.” The blonde took the card and introduced herself as Shanda.
“Pleasure to meet you,” Anna said, then repeated the name as though something about it—or the woman herself—struck her as familiar. “Wait…you’re Shanda Smythe, aren’t you? The champion swimmer?”
That explains the arms.
“Former champion swimmer,” Shanda said. “Retired from competition. Been living in the States for several years now. I’m surprised you recognized me.”
“I’m something of an Anglophile,” Anna said with a shrug. “I follow all sorts of British sports. Soccer, rugby, cricket. I seem to recall reading something about—”
Shanda cleared her throat. “Yes, well, I’m in the process of moving back home. Might need a dog to keep me company.”
The way Shanda cut off Anna’s recollection made it fairly obvious that whatever Anna had read was something Shanda didn’t care to discuss.
Apparently Anna got the message. Without missing a beat, she resumed her sales pitch. “My schnauzers are great companion dogs. More like a member of the family than a pet.”
Jillian’s attention drifted. She and Seth had never had any pets during the five years they’d lived together, which was probably for the best. Dividing up furniture was easy compared to a custody battle over a dog or a cat.
At least we were spared that.
The hours ahead seemed interminable. That speech pilots always gave to the passengers was such a joke. Enjoy the flight? She’d never been on a flight yet that she actually enjoyed. Endured perhaps, but never enjoyed.
The safety instructions speech was already under way. Jillian barely heeded it except that it meant they might be taking off soon. Emergency exits. Life jackets under the seats. Oxygen masks. Place the mask over your nose and mouth and breathe normally.
An upward glance revealed that she didn’t even have her own reading light or air flow control. The air was stuffy, almost unbearably so. She could only hope it would improve after takeoff.
Following a difficult swallow, she inhaled deeply. I’m not afraid. I’m just… I don’t know. Perhaps it was because everyone else on board had reasons for taking the flight. She had lost hers.
Why am I here? I should’ve stayed home.
A moment of panic struck her. If she got up now, she could get off the plane. Again, she could stay in Newark. No one would ever know the difference until she returned home without any pictures of London to show her family or the crew at the bank. With no one there to remind her why taking this trip was such a wonderful idea, all the encouragement she’d received was fading fast. Was she the only one on the entire plane who was unhappy?
A baby crying across the aisle answered her question.
Too late. The plane was already moving, taxiing down the runway, picking up speed. The sky outside was dark. She couldn’t even see a window, yet she knew it was true. The roar increased, the acceleration pushing her back against her seat. The nose of the huge plane rose into the air.
These things are too damned big to fly. How many passengers? Hundreds, surely.
She clutched the pillow and blanket to her chest like a frightened child, squeezing her eyes shut. The baby wasn’t crying anymore—probably too stunned by the strange sensations to make a sound.
The air cooled as the plane gained altitude and speed. Blissful, cooling air. She swallowed around a strange lump in her throat.
I’m okay… I’m okay.
Opening her eyes, she stared at the seat back in front of her where a TV screen showed their location. She could watch a movie at some point—something engrossing and thrilling enough to provide some distraction. Would she be able to hear over the deafening engines? Anna still appeared to be chatting with Shanda, but Jillian could barely even hear her own thoughts, let alone a word of their conversation.
As the jet leveled off, she took stock of the contents of the pocket in front of her. Magazines filled with ridiculously expensive items that no one sitting in the economy section could possibly afford. A tiny bag with a set of ear buds. A large, stiff card printed with the safety instructions. She saw nothing of interest but forced herself to focus her attention on everything she found—anything to pass the time.
After she’d flipped through every magazine and knew everything there was to know about what to do in an emergency, she checked her watch. She’d actually killed an hour.
Only six or seven more to go.
Flying east into the sunrise might shorten the hours of darkness, but nothing would hurry the flight itself, except perhaps a stiff tail wind. Sitting for so long was bound to be bad for the circulation. People got blood clots in their legs on long flights, didn’t they? As wedged in as she was, getting up for a stroll seemed impossible and yet sitting still was just as difficult. Her fidgeting was bound to annoy everyone around her. She was used to moving or standing. Not this endless sitting.
A glance to her right revealed Kavya holding a faded, dog-eared photograph of a man standing beside a small boy.
Not quite as high-tech as a camera phone—or as crisp an image—and yet she held it reverently, like some sort of talisman or her most prized possession.
Glancing up, the woman smiled and gestured with the photo. “My husband and son.”
Jillian replied with a nod. “Very handsome.”
“Yes, he was,” Kavya said softly. “He died many years ago.”
Jillian’s curiosity got the better of her. “Your husband or your son?”
“My husband, Ramesh. I still miss him very much.” A sigh escaped her. “My son is grown now and is even more handsome than his father.”
“You’ve been visiting him?” Jillian prompted.
“No,” she replied. “I’ve been to see my sister in Chicago. My son lives in London, as do I.”
“You’re going home then?”
Kavya nodded. “Yes. I will be glad to get home. My son has had troubles lately.”
“Woman troubles. He will never listen to me.” She shook her head sadly. “Marriages should never be left to chance. Something so important should be planned and arranged many years in advance.”
Given her own recent brush with marriage, Jillian was beginning to wonder if the Indian culture didn’t have the right idea—knowing from childhood whom you would marry. She couldn’t decide if there would be comfort in that or dread.
Dread, probably. On the other hand, the whole dating thing would become a non-issue. She tried to imagine high school without constantly obsessing over her attractiveness to the opposite sex.
“My son, Ranjiv, does not believe in the old ways. Perhaps because the marriage his father and I had planned for him was such a mistake. But he hasn’t had much luck on his own.” She smiled. “Thirty years old, and so very, very British.”
Jillian stared at her.
I’m a complete stranger, and she’s telling me this?
“That doesn’t sound so bad.” Then again, Seth had been so very, very American.
“Ah, but my sister’s daughter already has two sons.”
“And Ranjiv—am I saying that right?—he’s your only child?”
“Yes, and he is very dear to me. A good son in so many ways.” She tucked the picture into the silken fabric wrapped around her waist. “I must be patient.”
Jillian knew all about being patient. She and Seth had been together for five years before becoming engaged, and even then, it had been more of a decision than a romantic episode.
I’d say I was patient in the extreme.
Having had the opportunity to mull it over for the past few days, she concluded that her ticking biological clock had scared Seth away. Still, being twenty-seven didn’t necessarily demand immediate conception. She had several more years before it became imperative.
Truth be told, Seth was an excellent boyfriend and fiancé. He adored a good time and seldom failed to cheer her up whenever she felt down—until now. He just wasn’t cut out to be a husband or a father. At least he’d realized it before it was too late.
Even so, five years was a long time to waste on a man.
Had that time truly been wasted? She wasn’t sure. She loved him so much. They’d had fun, and the sex was great. Something had obviously been missing—but what?
His love, perhaps?
Not that it mattered now.
“But enough about me and my troubles,” Kavya went on. “Do you have business in London, or are you on holiday?”
Jillian smiled grimly. “To be honest, this was supposed to be my honeymoon.”
“Oh my. What happened?”
Despite the whole “complete stranger” thing, Jillian suddenly found herself telling Kavya things she hadn’t even confided to her sister. In many ways it was cathartic, telling her story to someone so far removed from the events, similar to talking to a counselor or a shrink. Either way, she felt better afterward.
Kavya patted her hand. “Well, I am sure you will have a wonderful time in London. Perhaps I should introduce you to my son. He will, of course, accuse me of matchmaking.”
Jillian grinned. “Can’t help it, can you?”
Kavya chuckled. “It has become something of a habit.”
Time passed. Dinner was served. Kavya asked for the pasta. Jillian followed suit, suddenly stricken with an intense abhorrence for eating any part of a chicken.
Lowering her tray table, Jillian took the tray from the flight attendant. Tiny containers of food. So uniform, so precise, so impersonal.
“I’ll have the chicken,” Anna said. “It smells divine.”
Divine? Seriously? A dead bird could smell divine?
Jillian’s brain felt like a sponge—filled with holes and air—her thoughts escaping like water through a sieve.
She hadn’t shed a tear when Seth informed her of his decision not to marry. Perhaps because deep down, she had expected it. And now, thousands of feet above the Atlantic, her brain chose to go into meltdown mode.
Did they keep straightjackets on board for passengers who went nuts?
Picking up her fork, she was momentarily at a loss to explain its function.
Hours. She had to sit there for hours when another second was too much.
“You’re still upset, aren’t you?” Kavya’s voice sounded odd, like she had already said those words before and was having to repeat them.
Jillian finally found her own voice. “I’m not sure. I feel so strange. I’m not sick. I’m—I can’t explain it.”
“Perhaps you just need to eat something,” the older woman said. “The pasta isn’t bad, although it’s nothing like my own cooking.” She smiled. “I’ve never made anything remotely Italian in my life.”
And I’ve never made anything remotely Indian, unless you count curried rice.
She squeezed her eyes shut. Rice flavored with curry powder. That was Indian, surely. Opening her eyes again, she asked the only question she seemed capable of putting into words. “Are you a vegetarian?”
“For the most part,” Kavya replied. “Although not strictly. I sometimes eat seafood or chicken—never beef, of course—but I’m simply not in the mood for chicken.”
“Neither am I.” At least, not that chicken. Anna might think it smelled divine, but Jillian thought it smelled…wrong—yet another thing she couldn’t explain.
Peeling back the cover on the pasta, she inhaled the aromas of Parmesan, tomato, and basil… perhaps a touch of rosemary.
Nope. Nothing wrong with my nose.
Only her brain was messed up.
Jillian picked at her meal until someone finally took away the tray. Closing her eyes, she listened to the jet engines—the dull roar that would fill her ears for the next several hours.
She hitched in her seat, feeling more claustrophobic than ever. With nowhere else to put them except the floor, she held the blanket and pillow in her lap. She didn’t need them. The cabin temperature was much too hot. Even with so many sleepless nights behind her, sleep just wasn’t going to happen.
Her sidelong glance revealed Kavya sitting quietly, her eyes closed as though lost in thought, perhaps even meditating.
Wish I knew how to do that.
Somehow she didn’t think this would be the best time to learn the technique.
The lights dimmed. She could still see, but the idea was obviously to get everyone to go to sleep—or at least allow them to.
The cabin temperature rose even further. Did they seriously think that being hot would make everyone drowsy? Jillian was perfectly miserable. She stuffed her blanket under the seat in front of her and picked up the emergency instructions card to use as a fan.
Time crawled by. She tried to watch a movie but could scarcely hear the words over the drone of the engines, even with ear buds. Now and then, she glanced at the people sitting around her. Every one of them appeared to be asleep. She rang her call light and asked for ice water. She had already learned that among the Brits, one had to specify ice or receive a tepid beverage.
So civilized, and yet they ignore ice. It wasn’t that cold in Britain. Granted, their summers were nothing like those back home in Memphis, but the temps got up to eighty degrees or so now and then. She knew because she’d researched it.
Good thing I don’t mind drinking hot tea.
But not now.
After what seemed like an eternity, the lights slowly brightened. Jillian heaved a sigh of relief as the seat belt light came on and the announcement was made regarding their approach to the British Isles. Someone handed her another tray with juice and a muffin.
Ah, yes, a continental breakfast.
Odd, on a flight to London. Or maybe it wasn’t.
She had just taken a bite of the dry muffin when the plane shuddered, first rising and then falling through the air—straight down in a nose dive.
Plates and trays went flying. Screams sounded all around her. Her own tray flew up and hit her in the face. Oxygen masks deployed, but the rate of descent flung them against the ceiling rather than allowing them to dangle within reach. Overhead compartments exploded, their contents now deadly missiles. Blood splattered on the seat in front of her. She glanced at Anna, whose mouth was open in a frozen scream. Kavya clutched her chest, her eyes wide and staring in blank terror.
Were they over water or land? She had no idea. Either way, with such a steep, rapid descent, they were doomed.
I’m going to die. Right here. Right now.
Seth would read the headlines and know he’d made the right choice.
For some ungodly reason, that thought sent her off in a peal of hysterical laughter—laughing harder than she ever had in her life until tears flowed from her eyes.
She tried to lean forward and couldn’t. In fact, she could barely move at all. In a crash, you were supposed to lean forward and clasp your hands behind your head. That was the “crash position” wasn’t it? The best she could do was to clutch the top of her head with both hands. Not that it mattered. She was going to die anyway.
Someone shouted something about seat belts and life jackets. A flight attendant, perhaps. Due to her study of the emergency procedures card, Jillian knew precisely where her life jacket was. Not that she would ever be able to actually reach it. Not that it would make any difference.
This was no gentle glide to the surface, no floating freefall that suggested that anyone might survive. Her life didn’t pass before her eyes the way everyone claimed it would when death was imminent. All she could see was the bloodstained surface above her head. The plane shuddered again, the screaming engines and screeching metal joints drowning out the cries of the passengers—or perhaps no one had enough breath left in them to scream. She certainly didn’t. The air had been stripped from her lungs, as though a heavy weight on her stomach had forced her diaphragm into her throat.
She tried to think about her mother, her sister, and the sadness they and the loved ones of everyone aboard the plane would feel. Kavya’s son, Ranjiv, who would never see his mother’s face again, never hear her voice or feel her arms around him. So much loss. So much death.
Including my own.
The impact was so horrific it should have snapped her neck, or at the very least collapsed her spine. The crushing pressure from her seatbelt nearly cut her in half, making her heave up what little she had eaten. Seawater gushed in, quickly filling the fuselage, proving that they had indeed been flying over the ocean.
Too late. Now completely submerged, Jillian held her breath in a futile attempt to remain alive. People were dying all around her. She witnessed their death throes and tasted the blood and jet fuel mixed in with the seawater, still not quite believing she wasn’t dead.
For the moment, perhaps, but probably not for long.
Through the eerie underwater silence a voice that was strangely calm amid the chaos spoke to her. “Unbuckle your seatbelt, Jillian. You’re going to make it.”
With barely enough light to see, she turned toward Kavya. Her eyes were open and staring, but were now completely lifeless.
“Tell my son I love him. Now, go.”
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