The floor plunged. I hung suspended in space for a heartbeat, then dropped. The floor leapt, slammed my soles and jolted my spine. The shock threw me sideways and my shoulder struck metal. I thrust out a hand to steady myself, but I couldn’t find anything to hang on to. The air was thickening with smoke.
A hand closed over mine and guided it to a metal bar. Nearby, below me, someone had opened a door and warm air and smoke rushed in. A flash of light caught my eye. Across from me, my photographer, who was also my business partner, was lowering his camera, his mustache twitching with what I knew to be a smile of gratification. If I could have released my grip on the bar that held me upright, I would have lunged at him and shoved the goddamned camera down his throat. Leaning against his leg was a golden retriever hard pressed at this instant to live up to his name, which was Happy. The wind flattened the dog’s coat. He was wearing a harness and backpack, as well as an odd little helmet like a miner’s helmet, with a light like a flashlight surrounded by tiny lights that glittered in the smoky air. Surreal. Maybe I was having a nightmare.
My eyes stung and watered. In my ear, above the roar of the single remaining engine and the rushing air, a woman’s voice shouted, “Remember, count to ten and then pull.” A hand guided my free hand to a cord dangling from the harness that bound my heaving chest.
The floor dropped again. My arm was nearly jerked from its socket as I tightened my grip in panic. Everything tilted.
Firm hands at my waist were pushing me toward the open door. Smoke blinded me. I clung to the metal bar.
But it was a larger, firmer hand that shoved me out, a deeper voice vibrating in my ear, “Time to go, Cat!”
I plunged, and in the three-count before I yanked the cord, I had time for one thought: I need me a new partner.