Amanda Suanne Photography/HarperCollins/AARP
Looking for a great escape? Check out this captivating new novel from Beatriz Williams, the bestselling author of 2019's The Golden Hour and 2013's A Hundred Summers, among many others. Her Last Flight (not to be confused with The Last Flight, a thriller by Julie Clark that came out June 23) features the kind of lovely and bold female characters the author loves. It's set in 1947, when former war correspondent Janey Everett is in Hawaii to research a biography of a legendary pilot who mysteriously disappeared. Janey finds his former flying partner, Irene Foster, and begins to untangle her complicated, passionate story — which includes an unpredictable twist.
The tale was inspired by Amelia Earhart and her husband, publisher and explorer George P. Putnam; they were married when she disappeared in 1937.
Enjoy the first chapter of Williams’ intriguing new novel, where Janey finds some clues to the mystery that's captivated her.
Chapter One: Bardenas Reales, Spain (January 1947)
The airplane lies in the shadow of a plateau, half-buried in sand and scrub. It sits at an angle, so the right wing slants upward against the sky while the left wing sinks into the ground. The dull green fuselage is mostly intact but the tail has broken off. Only the ghost of its original paint — the red, yellow, and midnight purple of the Spanish Republic — has survived a decade of relentless white sun.
I dismount. The mule jerks his head. Possibly he senses my nerves; possibly he senses something else. When you come upon a wreckage like this, undisturbed for ten years, known only to God, you approach it like you might approach a graveyard.
The question is, what bones lie inside?
According to the map, my mule and I have traveled about eight miles west of the town of Valtierra in southern Navarre, in the middle of what they call the badlands. The landscape is dry and yellow-brown, a junk-yard of plateaus and gullies, lone hills and dry streambeds, carved by wind and by occasional, catastrophic water. In summer, the heat would singe the hairs from your neck, and the dry air would suck the sweat from your skin. On this January afternoon, the weather is equally arid but cold. I took care to bundle myself in a wool coat, in scarf and gloves and one of those caps with flaps that come down to cover your ears. I don't do well in the cold, you see; my blood requires sunshine to stay warm.
Not a single living creature exists around me. Only a few wisps of vegetation rise from the soil. It's the kind of loneliness that sinks into your bones, that makes you feel as if you're the only person left alive in the world. If I still harbored any hope that the pilot of this airplane might have survived this crash, might have escaped and made his way to safety — and maybe I did, because the human heart will go on nourishing these ideas, no matter how farfetched — that hope is now gone. This bleak territory could no more support life than could a tennis ball.
And it is a terrible place to die, isn't it? Out here in the badlands of northern Spain, not a soul to care or to comfort you. The airplane settles into the earth, bit by bit, and as the years turn, every trace of your existence is buried too. If my guess is correct, the man inside this French-built Potez bomber was once one of the most famous people on earth, and now he rests here in the Spanish desert, body left to rot in the sun, untended and unwept for. Sic transit gloria mundi.
I tether the mule to a withered juniper bush with a handful of oats. The wreckage is about fifty yards away, and the size of the airplane surprises me. For some reason I imagined it would be larger, but then I'm used to the behemoths of modern warfare. This airplane was obsolete almost as soon as it was built, a slow, clumsy ship nicknamed the Flying Coffin by the Spanish loyalist air force, and it seems to me that you would have to be crazy to trust your life to an airplane like that.
How whole it looks, though. How almost perfect, except for the stunted wing, the broken tail. If there's one thing I can't abide, it's the sight or sound or even idea of an airplane crash, but this one doesn't look like a crash at all. It just looks like it came here to rest, in the shadow of a giant plateau, and never got up again.
And the plateau hid it from human eyes passing above, and the desert made a fortress around it, and only my friend Velázquez remained to know that it was ever here at all.
I start forward. The cockpit windows are opaque, the blades of the propellers frozen in place. On the side of the fuselage, a door hangs ajar. The wind howls on my cheek. It's impossible to imagine that nobody has stood here before me, that I alone have discovered this wreckage — you! at last! — but that's what years of civil war and reprisal and misery will do. Things get left behind and forgotten, because nobody exists to remember them. The wind howls around you and covers you in drifts of sand until a single woman, bedeviled by the mystery of your fate, encounters some tiny clue, entirely by chance. Now here she stands. At last, you are remembered. You are found.
On the other side of the doorway, the world is dark. I fish the flashlight from my coat pocket and switch it on, but there isn't much to see. Every surface is coated in dust. A pile of sand spreads from the entrance and across the floor — deck, I suppose — according to the direction of the wind that carried it. Because of the slanting platform beneath me, I feel unbalanced, not quite sound. I sweep the beam around the cabin. The space is cramped and narrow and bare, as if someone cleared all the trappings to make room for things that are no longer there. I step toward the cockpit. My pulse thuds in my throat. But the seat is empty, the dials and switches blanketed by dirt and nothing else. I touch the wheel, which is not like the steering wheel of a car but open at the top, incomplete, a pie missing a wedge. When I examine my finger, the dirt is the same dun color as the landscape around me, as the dirt that covers the windows like a curtain, blocking the light.
On the deck next to the pilot's seat, a large, heavy book catches the flashlight's beam, face down, spine broken, pages splayed. Like everything else, it's covered in dirt, but I lift it anyway and brush away what dust I can.
I flip through the pages. A logbook.
I am not a pilot — this is the first time in my adult life that I've boarded any kind of airplane, intact or otherwise — and the entries, written in faded purple-black letters, might as well be Latin. Still I pass my fingers over them. Because whose hands touched this last? Whose pen wrote those letters and numbers? In one column, the farthest left, I recognize dates. The last one is 13 MAY 1937. To the right, in the next column, reads 0522. Five twenty-two a.m.?
I set the logbook on the seat and sweep the flashlight once more around the cabin, and as I do, an object catches my eye at the rear, near the tail, tucked in the seam between deck and wall.
It is a pile of something. A pile of clothes, attached to a boot.
Of course I've always understood that there should be a body inside the wreckage of this airplane. A desert climate like this one has the same effect as mummification, doesn't it? A set of bones might be preserved for years or decades. Still. It's one thing to tell yourself to expect this skeleton, to know that this airplane came down with a human being inside and that the remains of that person did not disappear into the air, that those remains are just that — remains — and not the actual person, the human being, the living soul. It's another thing to see a boot attached to some trousers, to run your flashlight beam along the outline of those trousers and see the whiteness of bone, or rather the yellowness of bone, covered in dirt like everything is covered in dirt.
But you can bear this, like you have borne all other things. You can bear this skeleton. You can pretend it belongs to anybody, it's just a skeleton like you find in an anatomy laboratory. The person who lived inside this skeleton, who animated these bones, is long dead. As for his eternal soul, if he had one, God knows it's moved on by now, out of sheer boredom.
So. Let's imagine I'm an archaeologist. Isn't that what they're called, these people who dig bones and artifacts out of the earth, who mine the soil for the secrets of the past? Say I've arrived in this morbid landscape to investigate the remains of a brand-new human species, a previously undiscovered branch of our ancestral tree. Mere scientific curiosity prompts me to step forward, to keep the beam of my flashlight trained on the boot of my subject, to observe its physical characteristics and note that it seems to be an army boot, a type of footwear with which I happen to be familiar. A large boot, sturdy, worn, desiccated, leather edges curled by the passage of time.
I drag the beam upward, from boot to trouser to tunic. The skeleton rests on its side, in an almost fetal position, except not quite so tightly curled as a fetus. Like a man who's gone to sleep in a cold place, without a blanket. A skeleton that has gone to sleep. I come to stand near its chest. The tunic isn't familiar to me, but then it wouldn't be. This man would have been an airman in the Republican Armed Forces of Spain at the time of his death, a Republic that no longer exists, a brutal war that has since been eclipsed by wars even more brutal. How quaint and idealistic the Spanish fight seems now. This fellow in his tunic, this American fighting for a foreign cause, curled up to die.
Some nerve returns to me, some guts. I've progressed from boot to trouser to tunic, I've braved the skeletal phalanges without a quiver. There's nothing left to do now but see its face. That is to say, its skull.
I move the beam, and it's not the grinning jaw that does it, or the tufts of hair still attached to the bone, or the cap that hangs over what once was an ear. It's the sockets of the eyes. They're black and empty, staring into nothing. I sink to my knees and gasp for enough air to cry with.
After I bury him in the soil next to the airplane, and mark the spot with a cross made out of some broken propeller blades — it's a shallow grave, because that's all I can do with my two hands and a makeshift spade, so someone must return with men and tools to bury him properly — I enter the cabin to sweep the interior a final time with the beam of my flashlight.
In the corner where the body lay, there sits a small leather book.
Because it's been sheltered all this time, and because the climate's so dry, this book is in perfect condition. Unlike everything else, it's not coated in dust. The leather is clean and unstained, and when I lift it and open the pages, I find that it's not a printed book but a journal of some kind, in which someone has written in a firm black hand, notes and sketches and scrappy thoughts, until he stopped, about two-thirds of the way through.
Even with the help of the flashlight, I can't read it well, and anyway it's awkward to hold flashlight and book at the same time. I move outside and stand near the turned earth, the crude metal cross, and open the book again.
Against the cold afternoon light, the words jump from the page in a hand so familiar, it's as if I wrote it myself. But I did not. This is a story I never knew, a man I never knew. The mule brays at me; I don't have time to sit and read this through. I'll slip it in my pocket and read it when I return to my room in the primitive pension in Pamplona.
But I won't wait that long to find out how the story ends. Of course not. No one alive has that kind of patience, and certainly not me. I turn to the final entry, 5/15/37 in black numbers. His last thoughts, this lone, forgotten man; the last words his fingers would form before annihilation. A single line that wobbles and slants across the page, so you must squint your eyes and pick out the letters and put them together again in your head.
GM to rescue at last thank God She will live
I set my thumb on the page and close the book.
Nearby, the metal cross glints in the sun. A skiff of sand whirls in spirals around it. What a mystery! I mean, how the devil do they do it, these tiny, individual grains? How do they swirl about in communion with each other? Create this thoughtless symmetry? Nothing is random in nature; it is all pattern, pattern, pattern.
I open the book again. The wind riffles the pages. I find my place and read the entry again. The mule brays, irritated. I place my finger under the line and trace the words while I read once more, now aloud. Still their pattern escapes me.
GM to rescue? She will live?
Rescue. Somebody came to his rescue? Then why is he dead?
And who is She? There was no she, just this single man in his airplane. No second body lies here, no female body. Besides, Velázquez said nothing about a She.
On the other hand, Velázquez never did reveal a single detail he was bound to keep quiet, did he? Velázquez would never have mentioned this woman if her presence here were a secret.
The wind dies briefly. The sand settles back to earth, as if it had never dared to leave, and I believe I can hear the sound of my blood as it wooshes down my veins.
Well, then. Suppose there was a woman on board, a She. A woman whose presence was a secret. A She who was rescued, as the line suggests, while the man who wrote the line was left behind to die. A woman who flew airplanes. A woman who meant so much to this man, this skeleton, that he would thank God for her survival, even in the face of his own annihilation. A woman, let's say, who had also disappeared during the spring of 1937 — famously so — less than a month before this airplane went down. Two grains of sand, moving in communion with each other.
My God, I think.
Why did I never see it before?
I slide the leather book into the pocket of my coat. My fingers are numb, even inside the gloves. Already the sun falls, the air turns, the wind grows colder against my cheek. The mule brays once more, like he means it, lady. It's time to go.
I untie the mule from the juniper bush, but before I climb aboard, I turn to the silent airplane, the cross, the dunes of sand, and fix the scene in my memory. This was supposed to be the end of the journey, and it seems it's only the beginning. The diary is like a hot coal in my pocket. She will live. I stick my foot in the stirrup and swing into the saddle. The book strikes my thigh. A new road stretches before me, toward some destination that is not a place but a person, a woman who's supposed to be dead but might instead be alive, be saved, according to the orisons of a dying man, preserved in this ink and leather that beats against my leg as the mule strikes off gratefully toward Pamplona.
Because here's what I know for certain about that pile of abandoned bones, which was once a pilot named Samuel Mallory. There was only one She.
Only one person in the world to make him invoke the name of God.
From Her Last Flight: A Novel by Beatriz Williams. Copyright © 2020 by Beatriz Williams. Reprinted by permission of William Morrow, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers.
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