Nikki took one last look at the man who'd sat two seats from her, knowing there was nothing she could do to help him now. She grabbed her small bag containing her badge and wallet, secured it across her shoulder, then paused. She picked up the silver diamond-studded watch from the seat where Erika must have dropped it during the crash. She looked toward the back exit where the emergency slide had been deployed, but there was no sign of Erika's red sweater in the crowded aisle. She shoved the watch into her pocket. Once she got off the plane, she'd find Erika to make sure she was okay and give her back her watch.
A man stood in the middle of the aisle, gripping an oversized carry-on tightly against his chest, blocking traffic.
One of the flight attendants, with a small gash above her eye, made her way through the crowd in front of him. "Sir...I need you to put your luggage down and walk to the exit."
He stared at her for a few seconds as if in a daze, then set the bag in an empty seat and started moving. There was no screaming or shouting from the packed aisle. Just a few quiet sobs as the passengers started again toward the exit.
Nikki grabbed the attention of the flight attendant as she passed and lowered her voice. "This man who was sitting in my row...he didn't make it."
The flight attendant pressed her hand against her mouth, clearly fighting to keep her emotions in check. She knew as well as Nikki that the last thing they needed was panic to erupt over a dead passenger.
Nikki touched the young woman's shoulder. "I'm a police officer. If there's anything I can do..."
A look of relief flooded her pale face. "There is something, actually. One of the carts has wedged against the other exit up front. I was just on my way to unblock it but found a woman two rows behind you who's trapped in her seat belt. I need to find something to cut off her belt."
Nikki didn't miss the fear mingled with determination in the young woman's eyes. She couldn't be more than twenty-five, trained to be able to open the door of an airplane in her sleep, while hoping to never experience something like this.
Nikki looped the strap of her small bag over her head and across her chest while the smell of smoke filled her nostrils. They were running out of time. "Go unblock the exit, then try and find a knife. We'll get her off the plane."
Nikki found the woman sitting in the aisle seat, frantically jerking on her seat belt. A little boy sat on the floor, crying.
"I can't get my seat belt off," the woman said, her voice breaking.
"Let me help, okay?" Nikki reached out and grasped the young woman's hand, pulling it gently away from the seat belt before trying to unbuckle it herself. The attendant had been right. The metal clasp wouldn't budge. "What's your name?"
The woman hesitated. "Paula."
"Paula, my name's Nikki. I'm going to help you get off the plane. I just need you to try and calm down."
"I've been trying, but it's stuck." The young woman was still frantically pulling on the buckle. "And my son...I never should have brought him with me."
She was crying harder now, her chest heaving with every breath.
"Paula, I need you to calm down. I'm going to help get you out of here, but it might take a minute. I'm going to make sure your son's okay. Can you tell me his name?"
Nikki glanced at the young boy clutching one of the airline pillows. He looked to be about three or four years old. There were no outward signs of bruising or injuries from what she could see, but at this point there was no way to be sure.
"Caden. ." Nikki reached across the mother's lap to try to coax him out of the corner. "How are you doing, bud? I know this is scary, but do you think you could get up?"
He shook his head.
Nikki looked back to where the aisle had now cleared of passengers. The smell of smoke was intensifying in the cabin. "Can you tell me if anything hurts?"
He stopped crying briefly and shook his head.
"I know this has been scary, but you and your mommy are going to be fine."
His lower lip quivered as he nodded.
Nikki turned to the flight attendant, who'd finally returned with a utility knife.
"Caden...I'm going to get your mommy out now."
Glancing out the window, Nikki caught sight of a fire-rescue truck. Foam was hitting the wing in front of them. If a jet-fuel blaze got out of control . . .
Nikki began using the knife to saw against the seat belt. Caden was crying again. Her own head pounded from the smoke and acid smell filling the plane.
(This excerpt is from the hardcover edition of Pursued by Lisa Harris.)