(See PART 1 for Disclaimer)
"Got any more chicken kievs up here, hon?" Cindy Walters brushed back a stray wisp of brunette hair from her forehead. "Theres a rush on it in coach."
"Well" Becky turned towards the mini-oven in the forward galley, her brow furrowed. "Ive got three or four more in this last batch, but thats it."
"Go figure, huh?" Alan Ross pressed his tall form into the galley space along-side the two women. Even on such a large aircraft as the 777-200, the galleys were little more than walk-in closets.
"Alan, what are you doing up here?" Becky spun towards a now-beeping oven.
"Chicken kiev hunting, what else?" his white teeth flashed from his tan face.
The young flight attendant shook her head. "And you left Trish back there all alone?"
Rebecca Hanson might not have been a senior flight attendant. Not yet, anyway. But she had a natural instinct for organization and leadership. Her peers recognized her ability and responded to it well. It was one of the reasons why shed moved up so quickly through the Orbis ranks in the first place.
"Hah. You dont think shed actually want to get off her butt and come up here herself, do you champ?"
"Shes not alone, Becky," Cindy starting picking through the wrapped dinners that Becky had begun extracting from the oven. "Nathan is with her." She paused, and then turned to her friends with a stricken look. "Oh God what did I just say?"
"Ow!" Becky accidentally touched a loose foil wrap oven hot. "Darn it!" She quickly whipped her index finger to her mouth.
"Here, let me do that for you," Alan volunteered, reaching for her hand instead of the dinners.
Thwack! Becky swatted his hand away. She shoved two chicken kievs in his chest and began propelling him backwards, out of the galley.
"Get back there. Now! Before Trish and Nathan kill each other!"
"No fair, Becky, I was here first!" Cindy cast an accusing eye at Alans retreating back.
"I know," Rebecca said, belatedly pulling on an oven mitt. "Let me make it up to you. I can give you one more chicken ." She retrieved the last of the dinners from the oven, and began arranging them on her roller cart. " and how about a couple of these filets from first class? And I wont even talk about the manicotti."
"Who loves ya, darlin?" Cindy reached for the proffered meals and twirled out of the galley with a wave.
The first class curtain parted and Joan Wetherill entered from the opposite side, just in time to see the southerner leaving.
"No," Becky grinned. "None at all."
"Im telling you, Nathan, it was A Bugs Life."
"A Bugs Life!"
"ANTZ!" the young mans closely cropped dark head was barely visible as he probed a low storage cabinet, virtually crawling into it on his hands and knees.
"Youre wrong." Trish slouched against the counter, crossing her arms in front of her chest.
"Whatever," Nathan Berbick swiveled his head around to glare balefully over his shoulder at his colleague. "I dont see you helping to find it!"
"Cmon you guys--" Alan rolled a food cart loaded with discarded dinner trays into the aft galley. "We cant watch CNN Highlights from here to the continent." He looked from Trish to Nathans half-hidden form, and back again. "Can we?"
"GOT it!" Nathan backed out of the darkened cubby, waving a video cassette case.
The blonde surfer plucked the tape from his hand. "YES" he crowed. "I LOVE this movie!"
"A Bugs Life?" Trishs skepticism was plain.
Nathan stood, brushing speckles of dirt from his knees. "Nah Antz right buddy?" and he clapped Alan on the back.
"What?" Alan looked up from the cassette, confusion written on his face. "No way. Star Trek: Insurrection!" and he handed the case to Trish. "Check this out!" He stepped away from the cart, and dropped his arms outward from his waist as if he were holding an invisible MAC-TEN automatic rifle. "Lock and load!" he intoned, in an overly dramatic voice that resembled more Jack Nicholson than Mr. Data.
The dark cloud of pique lifted from Nathan, and he laughed aloud at his friends attempt at humor.
Trish Dugan found not a thing funny about the matter. And if she thought for one minute that these two clowns might be ahead of her on Orbis promotion track well shed slit her wrists right here and now!
"Ugh!" she slapped the tape into the player, turning her back on the mens guffaws. "Load this!"
Joan Wetherill rolled a half-empty serving cart back into the fore galley and stepped on the toe break. "That covers us through 12," she said, indicating that all the first and business class passengers had been attended to. "Can you finish up here, Becky?" the senior flight attendant wiped her hands off on a towel. "Im going to help them clear back in coach. Shows about to start!"
"No problem," Becky replied.
"Oh," the older woman paused before heading out, "could you take care of the captain? Filet mignon. Ive already gotten a manicotti to Bill he should be finishing up now." Without waiting for a response, she whisked away.
"Ahh " Becky scanned the remaining entrees in the cart, dreading the worst. "Chicken chicken pasta " she spoke softly to herself as she searched. But it was no good. There was not a filet to be found.
Great, she thought, straightening. And it was her own damn fault, too, for giving up those extras. With a pasta and the infamous chicken kiev in hand, Becky took a deep breath and knocked firmly on the cockpit door.
"Hiya, Becky!" The smiling brown eyes of Bill Samuelson were instantly in front of her. "Hows my favorite daughter-in-law?" he stepped back and ushered her onto the roomy flight deck.
"I wonder what Jimmys wife would think of that?" Becky grinned, referring to Samuelsons other very married - grown son. She unfolded a tray on one of two seats at the rear of the cockpit, designed for extra pilots on longer, trans-pacific hauls. Many pilots preferred to relax over a meal there, rather than at the main control column. It helped to break up the monotony of an extended flight, where it was hard enough to dodge complacency on the new breed of highly automated jets. The captain still had her headphones on, intently looking out the front cockpit window into the nothingness of the dark.
Becky set the entrées down on top of the tray, and turned to clear the first officers dinner from the adjacent seat. Bill had obviously enjoyed his manicotti, Becky thought, looking at the empty plate. As she removed his platter, she could not resist sparing a quick glance towards flight 2240s pilot.
Catherine Phillips was just removing her headset, as her co-pilot slipped into the seat beside her. "Bon appetite," he said, scanning the flat panel displays of the flight director system, "I highly recommend the manicotti!"
Kate reached her arms above her head, stretching. "Not for me," she replied. "Filet all the way."
Kate turned and rested her eyes on Becky, as if noticing for the first time that the young flight attendant was even in the cockpit. "Hanson," she said noncommittally, moving towards the rear seat.
Oh God, here it comes, Becky worried. Shes gonna nail me. "Im sorry Captain, b-but "
The tall, slim pilot sat down, flicking her head slightly so that the plait of her luminous ebony hair rested on her back. She studied the two entrées on her tray, fingering them both.
"I said I wanted filet."
"I know but " Becky panicked, and it all came tumbling out in a nervous burst. "You see, they were short of chicken in the main cabin, and so Cindy came up to first class looking for more. I was going to give her some, but that Alan he needed a couple too ."
Becky could feel the flame of embarrassment on her cheeks as the captain lifted a pair of piercing blue eyes to her own, taking in her pointless story. But Rebecca Hanson felt herself continue to tumble off balance in the presence of this woman, as surely as if shed been tripped up once more by that kids luggage strap.
To her own uniquely painful horror, she heard her voice blathering on. "So even though Cindy had been there first, I gave the chicken to Alan, and made up for it by giving Cindy the filets I just wanted them to get back since we were so short-handed. "
"Yeesss ." The pilots eyes narrowed.
Becky gulped. This is it. I am doomed. "So, Im sorry, but theres no filet mignon left." Becky tried to muster some sense of professionalism in the face of the dark womans stare. She tilted her chin up, waiting for the ax to fall. "Would you like the chicken kiev, or the manicotti?" she concluded, using her best, brightest flight attendants voice.
"Id take the manicotti, if I were you!" Bill Samuelson laughed from the front of the flight deck.
"Are the passengers all taken care of?"
"What?" Becky was temporarily flummoxed by the captains question.
"The passengers have they all eaten? Been served what they wanted?"
"Uh YES!" Rebecca responded enthusiastically. At least the pilot could not fault her on that score. "Joan confirmed that the serving was completed."
"Good, thats all I care about," Kate Phillips eased back into her seat. "Ill take the chicken, Hanson."
"Dont say I didnt warn you!" Samuelson turned and winked at the two women over his shoulder, before returning his attention to the auto-pilot readings.
"Chicken it is," Becky said, relief flooding through her. Shed survived her first encounter with the notorious Captain Frosty. And it hadnt been so bad after all. Concerned only for her passengers, the captain had understood, and hadnt taken it out on her. Heck, maybe she could even grow to like this woman. Wouldnt that be a hoot, she thought.
"Here," the pilot reached for the rejected manicotti entrée.
Becky balanced Bill Samuelsons discarded tray on one arm, while she too rushed for the manicotti with her free hand. She intended on beating a hasty retreat while she was ahead of the game. Wait until she told Nathan how she thought the captain wasnt so terrible after all! "No, let me"
In an instant, disaster struck: Kate Phillips, reaching to lift the manicotti up, and Becky Hanson, bent at the knees and slightly off balance, reaching down to make a one-handed grab for the tray at the same time.
At the last minute, Becky tried to jerk her hand away, but she succeeded only in hitting the underside of the tray as if it were a seesaw. In slow motion, Becky saw the platter flip, executing a perfect 180 degree turn, coming in for landing face-down upon the pilots lap.
A strange, strangled cry issued from Beckys throat, and she felt herself going weak in the knees. She was frozen, unable to move, watching the red sauce and ricotta cheese ooze from the womans right knee and onto the deck.
At last, she forced herself to raise her eyes to the pilots face. How dark her features seemed now, and how high and fine her cheek bones were, Becky thought, as she took in the tight bunching and clenching of the jaw muscles. She was pissed, all right, Becky despaired, and it was all her fault.
Slowly, the pilot swiveled to face her. She picked up a segment of rolled pasta, and calmly deposited it on her plate, next to a piece of chicken. "This," her steel-blue eyes knifed through the young blonde, "is not good."
The opening credits to the in-flight movie had just begun to roll, when Stefan Bukoshi smoothly reached under the seat in front of him, tugging out his carry-on. In the darkened interior of the cabin, he could see Mishka seated several rows ahead, stock-still. They were on a timetable, and though Stefan trusted his KLA colleague, he knew that the young man was more nervous than he admitted to being.
Nerves were to be expected in an operation like this, Stefan thought, as he quickly glanced back towards the lavatories. He got out of his seat, careful not to disturb the passengers around him, and moved towards the rear. The challenge was in conquering those fears controlling them so as to successfully execute the mission.
Stay calm, keep your head, and youll do fine, Stefan had told his compatriots.
"Hello," he smiled at a heavyset flight attendant with mousy-brown hair. He hadnt seen much of this woman at all during the flight, and now she sat on a jump seat near the lavs. The woman looked tired, and it was all she could do to mount an effort to greet him in return. Good. The less alert these airline people were, the better.
He slipped inside a door marked unoccupied, carryon bag in tow. Stay calm, Stefan repeated the silent mantra to himself. He was just a tourist, freshening up during a long overseas flight. Quickly, he bolted the door shut behind him. The lights flashed on brightly, and the din of the air vent kicked in over the whine of the jet engines.
Now, it came down to training and practice. He had to move fast.
He fumbled with his bag, retrieving among other items a large 35mm camera, rolls of film, hair dryer, and brush. He spread the materials out, using the floor, sink, and the lid of the closed toilet. But he kept the small counter clear.
From a shaving kit, he produced a small screwdriver and several pin punches. Hed executed this process countless times in rehearsal, as had Alex and the others. It didnt matter how many times hed been successful. Now was when it mattered most.
Barely 90 seconds later, he was ready. The camera assembly yawed open like a gutted fish; the canisters of film were open and discarded; the hair dryer and shaving kit lay in utter disarray. Stefan paused, leaning his trembling hands on the sides of the metal sink, and he gazed at his reflection in the mirror.
Stay calm he thought, struggling to rein in his racing heart. Cool gray-blue eyes stared back at him - only slightly bloodshot - from an angular face whose paleness was accentuated even more so by the jet-black hair and the harsh, fluorescent lighting.
It was a face he knew well.
The face of a patriot.
Now then. Stefan turned his attention to the narrow counter. There lay the components of a semi-automatic pistol. Mishka and his technical engineering friends from university had been right so far: the composite material of the barrel, slide assembly, firing mechanism, and frame, had escaped the attention of the airport metal detectors.
Stefan had been insistent that the entire mission team carry the broken-down components with them. At best, they would have four semi-automatic .32 caliber firearms at their disposal. At worst well maybe one or two of them might get through. But with the arrival on-board of his three colleagues, Stefan knew theyd all been successful.
The Kosovar reached for the make-shift pistols grip; he still amazed at the lightness of its ultra high-impact polymer construction. The magazine was of the same non-metallic polymer, designed to hold 6+1 or a total of seven - cartridges.
He delicately touched the cartridge jackets, lined up like soldiers against the mirror. They were made of a similar composite to the barrel and frame, filled with a powder designed for clean burn and maximum flash suppression.
When fully assembled, the pistol would be barely 6 inches in total length; small and light, with a minimum of recoil. It would also be deadly accurate.
Stefan looked in the mirror one last time. Elsewhere on the aircraft, now, or in the next few moments, the others would be going through the same assembly process. It was all part of the plan. With one exception. Stefan would have an extra goodie in his pocket. Insurance, he called it, eyeing the disassembled travel alarm clock sitting on the counter next to the grip.
He put his head down and set to work.
"I am soooo sorry!" Rebecca Hanson fluttered around Catherine Phillips, occasionally daubing at the pilots dark blue slacks with a dampened cloth. The two women stood outside the forward lavatories both of which were occupied at the moment and Kate had her travel bag slung over her shoulder.
"Look just leave it, will you?" and she held up a palm in warning. "You are giving me one hell of a headache, Hanson!"
Something in the taller womans tone finally made the junior flight attendant stand down. She dropped her arms to her side, and Kate could not help but notice the dejected slump that suddenly appeared in the young girls shoulders.
What do you care, Phillips, Kate told herself, rubbing at her eyes with her thumb and forefinger. So shed hurt the girls feelings, so what? She wasnt the one whod had pasta spilled on her, now was she?
With a quaking sigh, Becky ducked her head sideways, but not before the observant pilot saw pools of frustrated tears brimming in the girls emerald eyes.
"Sorry," Becky said softly, and she began to move away.
Oh damn "Its no big deal," Kate muttered. "Ive got an extra pair of slacksIll just change, and itll be fine."
"Are you sure, Captain?" Becky swung a hesitant, hopeful gaze to Kate, and it was then that the pilot realized the girl had thought she was in serious trouble. Over some lousy marinara sauce? In that moment of clarity, Kate understood that she had the power to either crush or encourage the flight attendant right then and there. Which would it be?
"Im sure," Kate heard herself saying, "Really. It was an accident. Could have happened to anybody. Even Joan!" And she forced out what she hoped passed for a smile.
It must have, because she saw Beckys face light up in response.
"Thanks," came the grateful reply, and their eyes locked for a moment.
Kate and Becky stepped back as the door to one of the lavs opened. Out burst a tall, firmly-muscled Italian; he was well-dressed, and carried an expensive leather bag in one hand. He paused, and let his eyes roam frankly up and down the long, curvy figure of the captain.
Kate returned his leer with an amused, speculative stare of her own.
"Ill take another campari and soda when you get a chance," he said, winking, before returning to his first-class seat.
Becky was aghast. "Sir--" she started after him.
"Happens all the time," Kate cut in, reaching out and lightly grabbing the smaller womans shoulder. Instantly, Beckys forward progress stopped. "Just get him his drink, okay?"
"Okay," she shook her head and smiled, acceding to the captains wish.
Kate found herself returning the smile, more easily this time. "Now let me get changed out of dinner."
The two women chuckled and went their separate ways, neither one noticing the striking, blonde woman exiting from the second lavatory. She walked coolly, calmly, back to her first-class seat, a small carry-on bag gripped tightly in both hands.
Outside the big 777-200, darkness had descended like an inky-black blanket, enfolding the aircraft in its deep, silent embrace. The winking navigational lights were overwhelmed by the depth, the completeness of it. Inside, night had fallen too, with many passengers opting for sleep over the video.
So what was the harm? The Italian businessman chose to smile at the beauty as she passed by.
Alexandra Sadrio did not return it.
Catherine Phillips did have a splitting headache, that was for certain, and she squinted her eyes against the lavatory lights as they flickered on. Quickly, she unzipped her leather flight bag, pulling out a fresh pair of regulation Orbis slacks, and she began to change.
She didnt get headaches often, she considered, slipping out of her soiled uniform. Stress was something shed long since learned to deal with and put aside. It was a waste of her time. Not useful. Let others indulge themselves.
Kate could take the stress. The loud arguments late at night between her Irish mother and Greek father: money was tight, though the booze was never in short supply, fueling already strained tempers. It was all her fathers fault, shed heard her mother cry.
And then he had killed himself. Took the easy way out.
Oh, Kate Phillips had found a way to deal with it, all right. No time to make any friends, she was too busy studying and training her ass off in high school so shed be sure of securing that appointment to the Air Force Academy. It was jets that she wanted. To fly high and hard and fast. As if somehow she might find a way to outrun the demons that dwelled within her.
She never let up, not after shed made the academy, not during that blasted physics class her senior year, and not during fighter pilot school afterwards, at Randolph Air Force Base in San Antonio. For as quickly as she would achieve one goal and attain some small sense of satisfaction, she would start it all over again. Constantly increasing the level of the challenge. Testing the limits of the physical and mental demands she made upon herself.
What she hadnt counted on was her little brother, Brendan, wanting to follow in her footsteps. He, with the fair hair, blue eyes, and light spray of freckles upon his face. And she had encouraged him to follow where she led. Through school, into the Air Force, and into a career in the military.
Brendan had such a way about him, a joy for life and living, and at times Kate envied the way her brother could always be found at the center of any laughing crowd. He made friends easily. She did not. His temperament was mild and easy-going, while she was quiet and focused. Competitive as children, they were just as ambitious as adults.
Kate won her appointment to Colorado Springs, while Brendan had to settle for the ROTC program at Syracuse. Her little brother always ended up having to work harder and longer, pushing himself - taking risks - just to keep pace with his big sister. How they had delighted in teasing one another whether it was over who could run the fastest from the school bus-stop to their row-house in Queens, who could down more Coors at Martinis in San Antonio, or who would end up getting that plumb opening in the test pilot program at Edwards Air Force Base.
More often than not, Kate would win.
Except for that last race.
Hed won the job and ended up losing his life. It was an accident, the Air Force panel said at the hearing. Accidents happen. Pilot error. Sorry. In memoriam, Captain Brendan Thomas Phillips. Great guy, well all miss him; heres his posthumous commendation, fuck you and goodbye.
Something in Kate had snapped, then. A part of her felt as though she were to blame for what had happened. If only she hadnt encouraged him! She let Brendan down, like their father had failed their family, and though she wasnt certain whether a life outside the cocoon of the military was for her, she sure as hell knew that she couldnt bear another moment within a system that she felt had failed her, too. Play the blame game, that was something the Air Force excelled in, she found.
Well, no more. And so shed quit.
Just like that.
She couldnt bear going home again, not after the angry way shed left it those long years before, and so she was sitting on a beach on South Padre Island, sipping a Coors, some three weeks later when the call came from Cyrus Vandegrift.
Somehow, her instructor from Randolph had tracked her down. The old codger had friends at every level of the Air Force hierarchy, from the mail clerk at Randolph to the 4-stars sitting on their cans in the Pentagon. Equal parts taskmaster, friend, and mentor, Kate had allowed him into her life back at fighter pilot school, and theyd stayed in touch for years afterwards. Even after the veteran of 3 tours of duty in Vietnam had at last caved in and decided to go for the brass ring in the private sector, as head of flight operations at Orbis Airlines.
"Just give it a shot, Katie," her friend had said. "After all, its what you know!"
And so she had. Partly to please him, and partly because he was right: flying was all she knew. She was good at it, one of the best, and that was why Cyrus wanted her. She had loved it once, but Brendans death had killed the part of herself that held that joy. Maybe a proverbial change in direction would help her to find the thrill once again, shed thought. And for a time, it did.
The hum of the 777-200s engines escalated in pitch, as the aircrafts flight director system made a slight adjustment in airspeed, chasing away Kates ghosts. She finished dressing and turned on the cold water tap, splashing chilled water onto her face.
33,000 feet above the dark Atlantic was no place for a headache. She moistened a paper towel, and placed it on the back of her neck. Maybe she would have Bill handle the principal flying duties for a little while longer, until she could shake this thing off.
The plane dipped slightly in the sky, and Kate had to reach out and grab hold on the side of the sink. The motion was not overly severe - probably in response to a bit of a downdraft, the pilot guessed.
Over the muffled throb of the engines, she heard a second noise, closer: a clear, metallic clinking. She looked down, seeking its source. There, rolling in the bowl of the sink, was a small rod or pin, barely more than an inch or so long. Curious, she swiped it up before it could tumble into the drain, and swiftly she discarded her damp paper towel.
Turning her body slightly so she could examine the object better in the gray light of the lavatory, she twirled the pin between her fingers. It felt like metal, or something close to it. Machine tooled and crafted to specification, that was obvious to her trained eye. She swept her gaze around the interior of the restroom; nothing appeared amiss equipment-wise or otherwise. Where could it have come from?
She looked again at the small pin in her hand, and an uneasy sense of familiarity crept into her belly. She flashed back to those days in training school and afterwards, when she was on deployment. Her Beretta 92 FS, or the M9 as the Air Force called it. Shed yawned through the stories her instructors and superior officers had lectured her on, of how sometimes all that stood between a downed flyer and death or capture, was a trust in the pistol they wore at their side.
Catherine hadnt minded the firearms training she received, in fact she enjoyed the target-shooting aspects of it. But how she had hated the drills of keeping her weapon clean, of disassembling and reassembling it to exacting standards! Screw up on your own weapon, flunk the inspection, and youd end up having to break down and clean your entire squads. Shed ended up on the short end of that stick more than once, she smiled to herself. Even now, there were nights when she saw the components of the 9-millimeter pistol in her dreams. Some fun.
Maybe its nothing, she considered, bringing the object to her nose for a light sniff, feeling slightly ridiculous as she did so. There had to be a thousand different uses for such a thing, only one of which could spell trouble on her plane.
Kate sighed, and slipped the pin into her pants pocket. Shed have to think about this for a bit. If only her head would stop pounding! She grabbed her flight bag, swung open the door, and headed back towards the cockpit.
She cast a quick glance towards the galley and the jump seat area. Rebecca Hanson was nowhere in sight. It was just as well. Probably, if the young flight attendant saw her, shed want to make conversation or something. Small talk. As if they were friends.
Kate Phillips was quitting Orbis. The last thing she needed now, was to make a friend.
It was time. Stefan Bukoshi rose from his cramped coach seat, holding his small carryon ahead of him, so as not to jar it, and began to move to the front of the plane. All around him, passengers were in various stages of slumber: heads back or tilted to one side, mouths agape, huddled under the navy blue blankets of Orbis Airlines. It was well after midnight, according to these peoples internal clocks, and Rome was still at least three hours away.
But Stefan Bukoshi, one-time politician-turned KLA member, soon-to-be hijacker, was on a different schedule.
Hed been keeping track: four of the flight attendants were in the rear of the plane, chatting from time-to-time, or more often falling silent with the boredom. The other two had to be up ahead somewhere. Then, there was the cockpit. He moved past the family whod had the balky childrens stroller when theyd come aboard; fortunately, sleep had overtaken them all. Past his compatriot, Mishka Rhu. He took a chance, squeezing the mans shoulder as he walked by. Timing was everything, now.
Stefan slipped from coach into the business class section. Hed only had the briefest glimpse of it as he boarded the plane, but no matter. This was not his destination. Onward he moved, calmly, casually, through the murky interior of the plane, fully committed to a fundamental cause that the passengers who surrounded him probably knew very little about. And cared for even less, let alone be willing to sacrifice their lives for it, as Stefan and his team were. Well, they would all find out soon enough.
The tall, thin, dark-haired man silently pushed the first class curtain aside, and passed into the forward cabin. He was so close to the goal now, he could taste it. It spurred him on, and he trembled with the excitement of it all. He slowed by Alexandras seat, and she turned her head to him, sensing his presence. She was magnificent, with the blonde hair, the coal-black eyes, the passion for a cause that was exceeded only by his own.
Stefan turned his gaze several rows ahead, and there was Roberto, his first-class seat fully extended in lounge mode, nursing a drink. That buffoon better have his wits about him, Bukoshi thought, and he intentionally nudged his carryon into the Italians arm, startling him, as he passed by.
There! He arrived at the forward lavatories. Both were unoccupied, as he had hoped. Just off of them, the remaining two flight attendants, an attractive, older red-head and a young blonde, were standing, talking softly amongst themselves. They stopped speaking when they saw him, and raised their eyes to him in a silent question.
The Kosovar was not caught unawares. He had expected to be challenged at some point, since he was not a first class passenger.
He offered the women a thin smile. "Emergency," he said, and he noticed the blondes expression turn sympathetic. "And theyre all full in the back." He kept going, pushing into the bathroom. What would they do stop him? Of course not. Easy-going Americans! But before the door closed shut behind him, Stefan took a furtive look at the door to the cockpit, just a few meters away. Independence for his homeland lay just beyond it.
"So, how many days do you have in Rome, two?"
"Three!" Becky said. She swirled a sip of cranberry juice in her mouth.
"Wow," Joan Wetherill replied. "Way, to go, Champ!" She turned and sat down on a jump seat, sighing. "Youll really be able to get some good sight-seeing in." Off came her dark blue pumps, and she stretched her toes out. "But with Cindy and Nathan?" she looked up at Becky with a questioning, skeptical gaze. The older woman knew that Becky could get along with just about anyone. But being in close proximity to the southern belle from Charleston and the boy from D.C. when they were on the cusp of being an "on again" item, well, Joan could think of better places to be. Like her dentists chair.
"You know, Ive been thinking," Becky said, stepping aside as a tall, haughty blonde woman entered the lavatory. The flight attendant had noticed her before, in first class. Model thin, wearing tailored gray woolen slacks, a pale blue silk blouse, and charcoal blazer, Becky felt slightly intimidated by the woman, though she couldnt put her finger on why. The blonde ignored her as she slipped past.
Rebecca turned back to her crew chief. "I could stay at the Hilton...."
"With Cindy and Nathan," Joans eyes twinkled.
"Yeah," Becky laughed. "Or...."
"Well..." the words came tumbling out, "Theres this little pensione I heard about, on the Via du Macelli, near the Spanish Steps. I thought I might stay there a while - you know, go native - and explore Rome on my own!"
Joan raised her eyebrows. "You? By yourself?"
"Sure!" Becky replied, slightly chagrined. "Why, I can take care of--"
"HELP!" A womans voice, and a loud pounding on the inside of the lavatory door.
Joan leapt up from her seat, joining Becky outside the bathroom. "Are you okay?" the senior flight attendant rapped on the door.
"Help, me... please... I dont feel well..." and then a muffled groan.
"Open the door!" Becky tried pulling on the handle, without success.
"I caaaaant...." Another ominous thump from behind the door.
Joan motioned her aside. "Here, let me try. And give Nathan and Alan a call, would you? Maybe they can help."
Wide-eyed, Becky nodded. In three steps she was at the call system, ringing the aft galley area.
"Ross," came the sluggish voice.
"Alan, weve got a situation up here in the forward lavatories." Darn it, stay in control girl, will you? Becky thought, noticing that her voice sounded an octave higher than usual, "and bring Nathan, would you?"
"Im on it," he replied crisply, and severed the connection.
"Just slide back the bolt on the door above the latch..." Joan had pressed her head up against the door, talking to the unfortunate woman inside.
"I c- cant... I feel so bad... cant breathe...."
"Oh God," Joan said in a low voice, before adding, "hang in there, help is coming!"
Becky noticed that several passengers in first class were stirring at the commotion, and things werent helped any by Nathan and Alan rushing down the aisle towards the lavatories.
"Whats going on?" Nathans dark eyes flashed. He was all business now.
"We cant get this door open," Joan said tersely, "and the woman inside is very ill." She pulled once more on the latch.
"Huh? Alan was baffled. "Maam," he pounded on the door, "Have you tried the lock?"
"Alan!" Becky hissed, shoving him aside. "Of course she has. You and Nathan have to... to... I dont know--"
"Break it down," Nathan finished for her.
"Wait a minute," Joan held up her hands. Some passengers were standing now, and one, a large man, dark and well dressed, came forward.
"Can I help?"
"No sir, please," Becky said, recognizing the man as her Italian admirer, "go back to your seat." The man did step aside, but instead he moved out of the way towards the galley. And the cockpit. The flight attendants continued to concentrate on the trapped passenger.
"We cant just break down the door," Joan insisted. "Cant you guys find something to pry it open with?"
"With what? A fork?" Nathan started eyeing the doors hinges. "Get serious Joan, well have to bust it open."
Joan Wetherills face was grim, and she shook her head. "Maam?" she knocked again on the door. "Maam? How are you doing?"
"Maam?" Worried glances passed among the flight crew.
"God dammit!" Joan muttered under her breath. "Let me call the captain. Were gonna have to break this thing down."
From his seat in economy, Mishka Rhu could see the two male flight attendants rush up the aisle towards the front of the plane. He knew where they were going. Four minutes had gone by since Stefan had squeezed his shoulder. They were right on schedule.
Mishka wore a hip-length black coat that he hadnt bothered to take off, choosing to leave it on so as to ward off the chill of the overseas flight. But the garment served a second purpose. He plunged a hand inside his left pocket, and felt it grip the butt of his .32 caliber pistol. It had been simple, really, how easy it was for Mishka and his university friend, Ahmed Dushan, to design the components of a small but effective weapon that would escape security detection.
Ahmed was a good friend, and so he had asked no questions. Even if he had, Mishka would not have been able to answer him. For although Mishka was KLA and Ahmed was a KLA sympathizer, this was not a KLA sanctioned operation. Mishka didnt know who the money and the means were behind Stefan Bukoshis plan, and he didnt care. Hed had enough of the war. Of the atrocities. He wanted the Serbs out and independence for Kosovo. And the Americans had the firepower and the influence to make that dream a reality.
He held the gun nervously inside his pocket, and with a quick glance around the cabin, he started to move up. He hadnt gone far when the small brunette flight attendant pushed past him.
"Excuse me sir, would you mind returning to your seat, please?"
But the woman flew up the aisle and did not look back.
Mishka Rhu swallowed hard, thought of his sister, of his parents, the faces of thousands of others, and he followed the flight attendant forward.
"Sure you dont want me to check it out?"
"No, let me, Bill." Kate Phillips removed her headset and hung it on the side of her control column. "Itll give me a chance to grab a couple of aspirin."
"Still got that headache, eh?"
The pilot nodded.
"Okay. But let me know if you need any of my brute strength."
"You got it," Kate gave him a tired smile. "Back in a few."
Stefan had heard one of the flight attendants call for the captain. A critical part to their plan. He couldnt have hoped for greater success! Carefully, he cracked open the door to his lavatory. From his vantage point, he could see the bathroom opposite him, the crowd of flight attendants and to the right and back a bit the door to the cockpit. Stefan opened the door wider, and stepped out into the confusion.
"Maam, please, can you hear me?" More rapping and banging on the door.
Good. No-one noticed his re-appearance, as he had hoped. There was Roberto, standing further back, in the shadowed area of the galley. Stefan turned an eye to the cockpit door. If it didnt open soon, the mission would be more difficult, but not impossible. But they had planned for that too, he thought, fingering a small device in the pocket of his herringbone blazer. His carryon bag was over his shoulder now, and his other hand was behind his back. He swung his gray-blue eyes to Roberto, who dipped his dark, curly head in silent reply. They were ready.
The door to the cockpit swung open, and a tall, slim woman, her dark hair pulled back in a braid, exited. She wore navy blue slacks and a crisp, short-sleeved white blouse, complete with epaulets. Who was she? Stefan didnt care the door was open, however briefly, and it was time for action.
The tall womans eyes were upon the commotion at the far lavatory door. This was too perfect, Stefan gloated, and he began to move.
Aspirin first, or that door? Kate half-considered the former, before shaking her head and taking a step forward. The door to the cockpit started to swing shut behind her.
In that last instant, Kate was aware of someone behind her, someone who shouldnt have been. But she had no time to react, not before that awareness turned into a dark blur that viciously shoved her into the bulkhead, and bolted for the cockpit.
What the hell? Somehow, the pilot managed to keep her feet. But before she could even process what was happening, another shape loomed in front of her. A tall man, with narrow, hard features and a pale, barren gaze. The back of his hand connected with her face, hard, and Kate did go down then, with tears of pain springing to her eyes.
This isnt happening . But it was, she thought, feeling vaguely like a battered pinball.
She saw the dark loafers of the man move towards the cockpit, just as she became aware of the shouts and screams coming from the cabin.
"Everybody down on the floor NOW or Ill shoot!" A males accented voice, Kate could tell that much through her cobwebs.
"But the captain"
Is that Hanson talking?
"Move move NOW!"
More cries of terror from the passengers assaulted Kates ears. Not on my plane, dammit! She struggled to rise to her feet.
The door to the locked lavatory opened at last, and a blonde woman stepped out, with an unsmiling, hardened look marring her attractive features.
"You heard him, move!" Her voice was clipped, and she waved a pistol of her own.
"Who are you?" Joan Wetherill stepped forward, holding her arms back to keep Alan, Nathan, and Becky behind her.
"Move, or die," the blonde calmly pointed the weapon at Joans head.
"Do it Joan," Nathan put a hand on her shoulder. His voice was urgent, "These people are not messing around."
Joan gave the woman a withering glare, considering her options for a brief moment, before at last motioning her people to follow her.
Kate saw her chance, now, while goldilocks was distracted. If she could just get to the flight deck. The pilot lunged for the door, her head still spinning from the blow to her face. She tried to block out the gasps and screams of the passengers, tried not to listen to the struggle she now heard going on inside the cockpit, but it was too much. It was everywhere, all around her, the hellish roar of her worst nightmare come to life, blotting out the growl of the planes engines.
Another shriek God was that Hanson again? and then her skull exploded in a burst of shimmering stars. How pretty they looked, floating, drifting, peacefully to the ground, and Catherine Phillips soon followed, into a field of shimmering light that quickly faded to black.
Think Ill just rest here for a while, Kate thought, not realizing she was helpless to do otherwise. And as the darkness closed in and surrounded her, she was able to register one last sound, coming from the cockpit. A short, popping noise, that made her blood run cold. A sound she wouldve recognized anywhere.
Continued in Part 3
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