Disclaimer: Xena, Gabrielle and any other characters featured in the actual TV series are copyrighted to MCA/Universal and Renaissance Pictures while the rest of the story and other characters are my own.
"I dont care what the fuck you say, Catherine. I think this is a stinking, steaming load of horse shit, and you know it!"
Liz Furey jabbed a threatening finger across the conference table towards her perceived enemy, one patently unruffled Catherine Phillips.
"Fortunately," Kate replied, choosing that moment to closely examine the tips of her own fingernails, "what you think doesnt matter." She paused, and then lifted a biting, blue-eyed glare to the flushed airport manager. "Does it?"
"The hell it doesnt!" the administrator screeched, throwing her pen down violently onto the cherry wood table top. She shoved herself to her feet, her mid-length brunette hair swinging wildly, and stomped over to the large picture window that lined the far wall of the Orbis executive meeting room.
"Wha ah, Christ!"
Kate did her best to withhold a smirk when she saw Fureys young, sallow-faced assistant,
Michael Edwards, fail to dodge the spilled, half-consumed cup of coffee that the airport managers sudden move had set in motion.
"Here you go, son." Cyrus Vandegrift slid a paper napkin his way, and the hapless fellow began to dab frantically at his sodden lap.
Furey was oblivious to it all. She stood with her hands on her hips, staring out over the JFK tarmac without really seeing, her anger blinding her.
Jim MacArthur swung a sideways, questioning look towards Kate. He had worked with the pilot long enough now to pick up on her moods, most of them, anyway, and had a fairly good sense of how the tall woman liked to operate. And so he caught the barely perceptible nod of a dark head, meant for him alone.
Mac shuffled his papers and cleared his throat. "Liz, what Catherine meant to say, was that while we know that making all passengers de-plane between flights to re-identify and re-scan all carryon and checked baggage does pose somewhat of a hardship"
"Damn straight!" Fureys back was still to the room.
"It provides us with the best possible alternative at this time to better manage our security exposure. Particularly in light of what we now know happened to flight 180."
The airport manager shot her fingers through her hair before whirling around. "How can any of us forget?" she cried. "Its still in the papers every goddamned day. A bomb in the luggage compartment. With people like you still trying to figure out how the hell that happened."
Kate remained silent, but Mac could detect the stiffening of her posture with that last comment. Uh-oh.
"Meantime," Furey continued, "Im still waiting for somebody to tell me how x-raying and physically examining all checked and carryon baggage, with increased screening of passengers, after every touch-down - which far exceeds existing international standards, I might add - is gonna help me keep our flight schedule intact." She waved her hand back towards the window. "Have you people even seen the chaos youve thrown this airport into? Missed connections. Massive delays. Your partner airlines are up in arms!"
"We recognize that these measures may delay some flights up to an hour," Mac said, bravely plunging forward, "but we think the public will, in the long term, accept the inconvenience. Well simply have to allow for it when planning flight timetables."
"Nobody else is doing this," Liz growled, letting her dark eyes roam over the room.
"Nobody else has been targeted by terrorists in the way that Orbis Airlines seems to have been," Kate replied, struggling to keep her temper in check. To lose it now would be to let Furey win, she knew. And damned if she would let that happen.
"Well," the airport manager lifted her chin triumphantly, "thats your little problem, isnt it?"
For a brief moment, before Catherine fully regained control of her careering emotions, a vision of herself tossing a still-babbling Liz Furey into the path of an onrushing locomotive flitted before her eyes. The executive had struck a raw nerve. It had been weeks since the crash of flight 180; weeks of tracking down what amounted to a series of frustrating dead-ends that left them no closer to Abbado El-Yousef than they were that first terrible, gut-wrenching dawn outside of Pohassat. Hell, even Kate herself had realized that the new security measures might not have detected the plastique explosive that Gordon Ballard and his FBI technicians determined had brought down the doomed flight. After all, no security system was 100% effective, particularly with El-Yousef on the loose. But it was better than nothing.
A bomb in the luggage compartment the M.O. was the same as what had happened to Kates own plane, flight 2240, when Stefan Bukoshi and his terrorist band had attempted to commandeer the aircraft. The bad guys hadnt won, not that time. But the similarities, including the critical point that both devices had evaded detection, were too blatant to ignore.
And just why was Orbis being targeted? The pilot had no firm evidence or answer. However, she suspected it was possibly due to the fact that Orbis was the only major airline left flying direct Mideastern flights to nations that El-Yousef had labeled as being imprisoned by the infidels. Starve out the commerce, and the conquerors would leave, or so the logic went.
"Were keeping the new security protocols in place, Liz. For the good of our passengers," Kate said at last, feeling the first throbs of a pulsing sensation in the center of her forehead. Dammit! Not another headache. "Wed like to work with you on this." She folded her papers back into her black leather portfolio, signifying an end to the meeting. "Its your call."
Fureys dark eyes widened at first, and then narrowed. "You bet it is." She reached for the phone. "Im calling the FAA."
"They already know about it, Liz." Cyrus placed a tanned, weathered hand on top of hers, stilling the phone in its cradle. "We ran it by them prior to implementation. In fact, theyre reviewing our recommendations right now. Why, theyre even considering making them mandatory for all carriers!"
"Jesus Christ, Cy!" Furey turned with a vengeance upon Orbis director of flight operations. "Youre just going to sit back and let this this woman do this thing?"
"Its already done." Cyrus crossed his arms in front of his barrel of a chest. "That woman," he spared a quick glance at Kate, "is who I put in charge. What she says, goes. Sure, itll create some hassles for us all in the short term. But I think its a pretty nifty idea, myself." The retired Air Force Colonel leaned back in his chair, smiling brightly, feeling quite satisfied.
"Oh yeah? Well, fuck you, Cyrus!" Fureys face turned blood red. "Fuck the lot of you!" and she stormed towards the door. "Michael!" The thunder of her voice spurred her frozen assistant into action. He leapt to his feet, Adams Aapple bobbing, and gathered a pile of coffee-stained papers up into his arms. With a brusque nod to the Orbis people, he trailed after her, trying and failing to conceal the unfortunately located blotch on his trousers.
The door slammed shut behind them, reverberating through the conference room, rattling the expensive landscape prints on the walls. Seconds ticked by and the sound faded away, replaced by the window-glass muted engines of an Orbis jet, gunning for takeoff.
"Well, Katie," Cyrus turned twinkling blue eyes towards his one-time protégé, "I think that went fairly well, dont you?"
New York City was in the last dying throes of a hot, heated summer, and the air conditioning in the J.P. Fleet building, which housed the Orbis offices, labored strenuously to keep the temperature cooled to a tolerable level. But as Mac and Kate took the elevator the two floors down to the strategic operations offices, the chief investigator could tell his boss was steaming in a way that had little to do with the weather.
"I dont think Ive ever seen Furey so furi-ous," Mac chuckled, trying to lighten the mood. A pissed off Catherine Phillips could make for a long, trying afternoon in the strategic ops unit.
Kate shot a blistering glare towards the big Irishman. An instinctive, immediate response that she quickly sought to rein in, and not without some effort. Mac was not the enemy here. "Yeah," she agreed, relaxing her features into a wry smile. "But on the up side, this means shell probably stay the hell out of our way for the next few days, at least."
"God knows what her problem is," Mac ruffled his graying hair as the elevator doors slid open. "But Id like to think her hearts in the right place."
The pilot led the way down the hall to the ops offices. "I have yet to see evidence of that," she said dryly.
"What that its in the wrong place?"
"No." Kate paused outside the Orbis entrance. "That she has one."
"Ouch!" Mac shook his head, knowing that his boss had been more than a bit ticked off at the carnivorous Furey. "After you," he bowed, pulling open the door and shaking his head.
"Oh, Catherine, there you are!"
Kate lifted a hand to her temple as the sharp, piercing sound of Dottie Wests voice stabbed at her ears.
"That nice Mr. Greenfield just arrived. No one was here, and I didnt know what to do! He said he didnt mind waiting in your office so I showed him in. But I simply could not convince him to have a cup of coffee this time. And I just brewed a new pot, too! Anyway, I told him there were cookies in"
"Dottie!" Kate fought to keep the sharpness out of her voice, even as she struggled to keep the pounding drumbeat in her head from escalating its tempo. "Its its okay," she said, watching the tentative, harried expression on the secretarys face bloom into a smile. Kate would have preferred that the CIA liaison agent not be in her office, alone, but it was too late for that now. The tiny, gray haired woman in front of her had done her best, according to her well-intentioned, if somewhat short-sighted business code.
The pilot took a deep breath, fighting back a lurch of nausea as the scent of Dotties lethally strong brew wafted into her nostrils. "Just " Kate squeezed her eyes shut for a moment, just as Mac slipped by her. It was obvious that the former FBI man wanted no parts of this discussion. They all loved the motherly Dottie, despite her secretarial shortcomings. " in the future, if guests arrive and were not available, have them wait out here, will ya?" She dug into her energy reserves and produced a thin-lipped smile for the older woman, trying to put her at ease.
Funny. Back in the Air Force, shed had no trouble at all busting down any errant airman who happened to get caught in her disciplinary sights. But with Dottie god, shed rather stick a steel spike in her eye than hurt the kindly old womans feelings. Something told Kate that the woman had been on the receiving end of enough of that, from other employers in the past.
"Oh, of course, Catherine! Ill be sure to make a note of it!"
True to her word, Dottie plucked a yellow legal pad off her desk, and made an entry towards the bottom of an already long list. Kate was certain she could guess what some of the other items might be: get the phone numbers of all incoming callers, make sure to turn the coffee pot off at the end of the day. And, of course, dont turn off anyones computers. That one had to be right after the coffee pot notation. Dottie had taken it upon herself to turn off all things electrical when shed been warned about the coffee pot, after having inadvertently scorched the corner of the break room. And so, the next day, shed turned off not only the offending Brewmaster, but also all the lights, calculators and computers, including the one Rory had been working on before stepping outside for a smoke.
Data hed been playing with for the last two hours gone.
It was his own fault, Kate had told the howling young man then, for not backing up his work before walking away from it. If there had been a power surge a sudden storm he could just as easily have lost the data that way, as with hurricane Dottie. In the end, they all were able to agree that it was simply a lesson hard learned. And, true to her noting promise, Dottie had steered clear of their computers ever since.
Kate pushed open her office door in time to see her guest picking his head up from a file he was paging through one that she knew shed left closed on her desk. "Hi Josh," she said evenly. "Sorry Im running a bit late."
Greenfield did not look surprised to see her; showed no remorse at being caught with his hand in the cookie jar. "Catherine, how are you?" He stood to greet her, smoothly replacing the file on top of the neat stack at the corner of her desk. He let his eyes quickly take in the sight of her. She looked stunning, as always, if a bit flushed. Her attire was simple; just a mid-length black skirt and pumps, together with a black and white patterned short-sleeved blouse. But she brought an elegance to her clothes that spoke of taste and style. Truth be known, he found her damned attractive. Perhaps another time. Now, he was here on business.
"Im fine Josh," Kate briefly shook his hand before stepping behind her desk and sitting down. "What have you got for me?"
"Nice one, Catherine." Joshua Greenfield, he of the unremarkable looks and remarkable intelligence, turned the corner of his mouth up in a cold smile. "More to the point," he tapped his finger on the file hed been reading, "what have you got for me?"
"Why, whatever do you mean?" Kate steepled her fingers and stared into the deep brown pools of Greenfields eyes. Two could play at this game.
"Tickets. An itinerary for Saudi Arabia?" He leaned forward in his chair. "What are you up to?"
"Just visiting. You know I was stationed there during Desert Storm. Im seeing some people I know."
"And some you dont," Greenfield said, his eyes flashing. "Like Khaled Sadeks family and associates--"
"Youre jumping to conclusions, Josh," Kate clucked her tongue and swiped the file in question out of the CIA mans reach.
"With you, I can see that it pays to stay a step or two ahead."
Kate released a rumbling laugh at that, and grinned evilly. She did not dislike Greenfield. In fact, she admired his initiative. "Catch me, if you can."
"Watch yourself, Catherine." Greenfields face betrayed no emotion. His tone held no promise. No threat. "If you step on some peoples toes they might not like it."
Kate held onto his stare. "I know I dont like it... when someone steps on mine."
"Oookay," Josh let out a long burst of air, ending the moment. "Now that weve got the toe issue out of the way, I suppose youre up-to-date on how the bomb was transported into the plane, right?"
"Yes," she nodded. "Ballards been really good about keeping me in the forensic loop. A black, hard-sided Sky King suitcase, right? Clothing packed in the bomb suitcase has been tracked to a Riyadh clothing shop. Mens clothes. A Saudi man bought the items several weeks prior to the bombing. We " Kate caught herself, "Ballard is still trying to determine which of our passengers if any were in the Saudi capitol during that time."
"And was the bag processed out of Lisbon or Paris?"
"Ballards not sure," Kate sighed, "and he may never know. The force of the explosion just mixed up everything in that hold, like ping-pong balls in a steel cage."
"Well," Greenfield opened his briefcase and produced a thick manila envelope, "this might help."
Kate silently lifted an eyebrow.
"Its a report on the circuit board fragment that was recovered from the wreckage."
"Really," Kate took the envelope from him, surprised. "I thought Dr. Leber was still working on it."
"Dr. Leber may well still be. But our independent work is done."
"And?" Now it was Kates turn to lean closer to her visitor.
"It was part of a sophisticated electronic timer, similar to a type that Italian authorities discovered in the possession of an Albanian political activist last fall." He paused. "Any of this ringing a bell?"
The pilots pulse quickened, her headache momentarily forgotten. "What else?"
"Im saving the best for last," Greenfield smiled faintly, adjusting his thin, wire-framed glasses. "The timer was coded to a Swiss electronics firm located in Zurich. Possibly, and I do mean possibly, they could be one of El-Yousefs shadow corporations. A front for his bogus business dealings."
"You know the name of the firm?" Kate was already grabbing at the paperwork in the envelope.
"Its all there."
"Good," she said, her mouth forming a tense line. "I want to get Rory working on this."
"Speaking of Rory and the rest of your team, wheres my report?"
"On its way," Kate swept her eyes over her relatively clear desk. "It should be here any minute."
"Thanks," Greenfield said, relaxing back into his seat. He knew he was sharing more information with Catherine Phillips than he had any right to, but if he played his hunch correctly, there was a chance that she just might lead him to El-Yousef. Why, that computer whiz kid of hers alone was worth his weight in Microsoft stock options.
"On our end, were looking into reasons why Orbis has been targeted," Kate was saying. "I think we can all agree that its not just been luck of the draw. Were looking at all the destinations we service in what the State Department considers the hot zones. And," she frowned, "I hate to think that we have a security breach, but thats also a distinct possibility. Weve got to consider it. El-Yousef may have an inside contact."
Greenfield nodded. "And how is Rory making out with that encryption program?"
"No go, so far. But he hasnt given up on it. If youd just been able to intercept more of the message ." she eyed the operative carefully.
"You have all we have," he assured her. "El-Yousefs transmitters move so damned fast!" Greenfield shook his head. "Weve heard some rumors that hes got a new training camp setup in Northeastern Afghanistan, but its just that a rumor." He fell silent.
They eyed each other closely, well aware that the key to unlocking the damnable mystery of El-Yousef might lie within the sensitive information they forced themselves to share with one another.
"Well," Kate said, looking past Greenfield towards the door, "are you sure you dont want any coffee?"
Kate smiled at the way Greenfield blanched. She knew hed been subjected to Dotties super hi-test beverage in the past.
"N- no, thanks." He lifted a hand. "Really."
Kate shrugged her shoulders. "Suit yourself." She turned to watch a JAL 757 steam down the runway, gathering itself, preparing to leap into the air. Where is that report? Her fingers itched to press the intercom on her phone. She was through with Greenfield, and wanted him out the door so she could get back to work.
"I must say, Catherine, I had no idea you had such a nice office," the agent was smirking at her. "It looks as though a front-end-loader came through here since the last time I visited. What is it did you take some seminar on organization and time management or something? Because if I did want a cup of coffee," he pointed to her near spotless desk, "at least now thered be a place to put it down.
"Well, ah I ." Kate was saved by a knock at the door. "Come in!" she called out, relieved.
A blonde head poked through. "Sorry to disturb you, Kate. But I have that report you wanted."
"Cmon in," the pilot motioned to the new arrival. "Rebecca, Id like you to meet Josh Greenfield, the CIA liaison officer assigned to Orbis. Josh, this is Rebecca Hanson, our Strategic Operations Manager."
"A pleasure," Josh smartly got to his feet and extended a hand. "Sounds like youve got an important job here," his brown eyes glinted behind his glasses.
"No, not really," Becky dipped her head down a bit, blushing. "Its just a fancy way of saying that I try to keep things pulled together. You know take care of stuff."
"I can see that," Josh said, letting his eyes roam around the office one last time. He knew damn right well who Rebecca Hanson was. Knew the backgrounds of all the members of the strategic operations unit, in fact. It was his business to know. "Well, thanks for the report, Catherine," he slid the file Rebecca had given him into his briefcase. "Ill be in touch and remember what I said. Please."
"You too, Josh," Kate replied, lifting her chin slightly as Greenfield turned and left.
Becky watched him leave. "What was that all about?" She turned concerned green eyes towards Kate.
"Ah, nothing," the tall woman said, slipping back down into her chair with a sigh and closing her eyes.
"Dont you nothing me, Catherine Phillips," Beckys voice was firm. "Remember, its my business to know now!"
"Ill tell you later," Kate said, rubbing her eyes. Damn, but this had been a lousy day so far! And it was barely half over. She never heard Becky pad out of the office. She only felt the faint displacement of air as the younger woman returned, drawing close to her, placing a cool hand on her brow.
"Here. Take this."
"Hmnn?" Kate blinked open one glazed eye to see a hand before her, holding two white tablets.
"And this." Water. A big glass of it.
"Youve got a headache, right?"
"Yeah, but how did you"
"Its my business to know, remember?" Rebeccas voice was soft. "I take care of you, now."
Kate considered that fact for a moment, before reaching for the pills. Letting someone take care of her. It was new. It was different. And she was bound and determined to get used to it.
"Youre sure you dont want Mac to go along with you. Or even me, if you need me." Rebecca Hanson leaned against the bedroom doorjamb, watching Kate pack her bag for Saudi Arabia. Mostly light colored, lightweight clothing, appropriate for the intense, dry desert heat that awaited her. But the flight attendant noticed that Kate took care that her selections were as conservative as possible. Long sleeves, loose fitting, and no shorts.
"Oh, I need you, all right," the tall pilot grinned as she continued to fold her clothes into the bag, "but over the next few days the office will need you more."
"I mean it, Rebecca." She paused in her packing to capture the younger woman in a serious, blue-eyed gaze. "You know Rory is up to his ass in alligators, tracking down anyone even remotely affiliated with that Zurich electronics firm. You can help him with that."
"I know, but"
"And Mac is heading down to Washington to compare Joshs report on the circuit board fragment with what Gordy Ballard and Dr. Leber have been able to come up with.
"Youre right." Becky threw her hands into the air and began to pace. "I know that. Its just just " she flounced onto the bed next to the pilots bag, "I worry about you when youre out of my sight, thats all." Her voice softly trailed off. "I mean Saudi Arabia ."
"Listen Champ," Kate quirked the corner of her mouth into a smile, and ruffled the smaller womans short blonde hair. "The wars over, remember? And Ill only be gone for a few days."
"Oh, all right," Becky agreed, sighing. "Ill hold down the fort for you while youre gone, okay? As long as you promise not to take any chances." She reached out and gave a tanned hand a squeeze.
"Are you kidding?" Sensing the emotions warring within Rebecca, Kate sat down next to her and put an arm around her shoulder. "Look, the most dangerous thing Ill have to look out for is to make sure I dodge all those Mercedes and Rolls Royces when Im crossing the street in Riyadh!" She hesitated before continuing, but forced herself to ask the question. "Rebecca, you youre not sorry you took that leave from flight crew to work with me, are you?"
"No no!" the flight attendant responded quickly, firmly. "I wouldnt trade these last few weeks for anything being able to work with you and Mac and all. And Ill see this project of yours through to the end," Beckys green eyes glistened. "Thats the commitment I gave you."
"Okay then good!" Kate replied, finding herself more relieved than she had expected to hear it.
After they had returned from the nightmare in Pohassat, Rebecca had resumed flying, for a time, just to show to herself that she could. To exorcise any demons that remained. A couple of weeks later, unannounced, shed shown up at the strategic operations office with a sheepish grin on her face and an application in her hand.
Catherine had hired her on the spot.
It would be temporary, the young flight attendant had said. But they both knew, and hoped, that it would turn out to be more.
Well see, theyd agreed then. And it had been working out spectacularly ever since. Everyone in the office appreciated her organizational and business skills, not to mention her diligent work ethic. And of course Kate found herself relying on Becky more than she would ever admit to, with each passing day.
"Well, Ive got to get going here," Kate said, moving to resume her packing.
"Wait" a small hand on her arm. "Kate, you know you never talk much about your life when you were in the Air Force. I mean, I know in general what you did, at least I think I do," Beckys brow furrowed as she tried to work it all through, "but whenever you talk about it, if you do, its almost like youre talking about someone else. Theres no feeling no emotion there."
Oh, great. A feelings chat. The pilot stiffened. She was definitely not in the mood. "I had a job to do, and I did it," Kate unconsciously pulled her arm away, withdrawing into herself. No. This was a conversation she was not about to have. Not now.
"But you were in Desert Storm right?" Becky continued to probe. "What what did you do there, Kate? What was it like? What kind of people did you"
"Did I kill? Is that what youre asking?" The words tumbled out before she could retrieve them. They rode on the crest of a tidal wave of bitter memory that she was forced to expel, lest it choke her. She saw the hurt spring to Rebeccas eyes, felt the flinch of the body next to her as though shed been struck, and yet she was powerless to stem the tide.
"Oh yeah. The whole goddamned Republican Army. And some innocent women and children, too. Is that what you wanted to hear?" Kate pushed herself up from the bed, away from Rebecca, but she could not elude the past that still nipped at her heels. "And how about our own people? The friendly fire kills? But we did keep them within acceptable limits," she laughed harshly, "something to be proud of, I guess."
Fuck! The pilot stormed over to the window and pulled up the blinds, blinking sightlessly at the movement of the city so far below. Her breath came in hitching, ragged spurts. She could feel the blood rushing madly through her veins like a runaway freight train, threatening to jump the rails into oblivion.
Damn, she hadnt meant to snap out like that, but the way Hanson kept on pressing, pushing accusing? Memories that she thought shed neatly filed away forever had been dredged up in a heartbeat.
"Kate," warm arms encircled her waist. It was Hanson Rebecca, slipping behind her. "Youre wrong you know, you big idiot." Her voice was low, reassuring. "I was just curious about the kind of people you met while you were there. You know. What were they were like? And if youll see them again this trip?" The grip around her waist grew more snug. Secure. "Thats all."
Double fuck! Kate let her forehead thunk into the tinted plate glass of the window, and she kept it there. What the hell was wrong with her? And what had she ever done in her miserable life to deserve being loved by someone as patient and forgiving as Rebecca Hanson?"
"Ah, Rebecca," Kate deftly spun around in the smaller womans arms so that she was facing her. "Im so sorry," she said, finding herself getting lost in the bright green eyes that gazed up at her. "That freaking Persian Gulf War." She took in a deep breath and released it, feeling some of the tension leave her body. "It was called Operation Desert Shield, actually, before it ever became Desert Storm."
Becky silently bade her continue, knowing that it was important for the pilot to get this out of her system.
"Cmon," Kate said, wrapping an arm around the young blondes shoulders and leading her away from the window, "How about I make us a pot of coffee and Ill tell you about it."
She was going back. God, she never thought shed find her way across the seas and sky to the land of shifting sands and blinding sun ever again. Even when she was piloting for Orbis, shed made it a point never to fly legs that would take her to the Middle East. Too many memories; too few of them good.
New York to London to Riyadh. Over fifteen hours flight time. Plenty of time for the eight years that had gone by to blur away, like footprints in swirling desert winds. The people. The places. The faces she had tried like hell to forget, knowing deep in her gut she never would.
She had been deployed as a member of Colonel Cyrus Vandegrifts 67th Fighter Squadron, finding herself suddenly grounded in Dhahran Air Base at the outset of Desert Shield. And Captain Catherine Phillips, hotshot pilot, didnt like it one goddamned bit.
It wouldnt be until several years later that the government would officially open combat cockpits to women. And so, during the Persian Gulf initiative, Air Force women were deployed in tanker, transport, and medical evac craft. Where Kate had been an equal to her fellow pilots back in the states, on foreign land she had to take a step back and watch the F15s and F117 Stealth Fighters scream off the flight line without her.
If being a support jockey was what got her into the air, so be it. And Cyrus was happy to let her do it, just to get her off his back. Oh, shed tried to be more than helpful working as his adjutant: organizing strike packages, scheduling sorties. The mission of the 67th had been clear: kick Saddam Husseins butt out of Kuwait. And protect the coalition allies in the process.
Targets? Pretty much anything had been fair game in Iraq. Leadership and command facilities. Radar, telecommunications, and air defense systems. The railroads, bridges, and oil production facilities. Hell, even Baghdad itself. And if Saddam happened to get toasted in the bargain, so much the better. Focusing on the mission, on the objective, had helped to ease her pain of getting yanked out of the cockpit.
Until that one afternoon when shed been standing outside the command post. Shed watched the jet fighters taking off and landing one after the other with dizzying speed, lifting above the shimmering airfield and screeching toward Iraq, or coming home from a sortie. Shed quietly observed it all, trapped on the ground, a falcon with a broken wing, wishing for the thousandth time that she could be up there with them.
And then Cyrus had joined her there, in that oppressive desert heat, where every day was like the hottest she could ever remember back in the states, except that in Dhahran there was the additional effect of a hot hairdryer equivalent blowing in your face.
Did she know her way around Scout helicopters and Hueys, her commanding officer had asked?God, did she ever! In her sleep she could fly those lumbering birds.
And so Cyrus was able to get her out and about occasionally, doing some troop transport and life flights, as well as the odd bit of reconnaissance. It was that last area of operation that she enjoyed the most. And the one that had nearly gotten her killed.
"Can I get you something to drink?"
Kates eyes snapped open to see the cheerful face of a British Airways flight attendant standing before her. Shed opted to fly on a partner carrier, deciding that this was one trip she didnt necessarily want associated with Orbis Airlines.
"Im sorry I didnt mean to wake you!"
"I wasnt sleeping," Kate grumbled, sitting up in her first class seat and running a hand through her hair. She swallowed, aware of the dryness of her throat. "Ill take a bottled water, when you get a chance."
"I wont be a moment," the blue and red uniformed woman replied, heading towards the forward galley.
It was all the tall pilot could do to repress a yawn as she gazed out her window into the cold, blackened night outside. The throbbing of the big 747s engines had lulled her into something just short of sleep. That she would admit to, at least.
Checking her watch, she saw that they were just a couple of hours out of Riyadh. Good, she thought, stretching her long legs out before her. This was too damn long a flight to begin with, to not be in the cockpit.
"Here you go!"
The flight attendant had returned, and was efficiently placing a bottle of water, glass, and napkin on her armrest drinks tray.
"Thanks," Kate nodded, watching her move to service other passengers in the cabin. First class was only half filled, most likely due to the mid-week nature of the flight, and Kate herself would not have been on it if Cyrus hadnt pulled a few strings to get her visa rapidly approved. To travel to Saudi Arabia, if you were not in the military or directly associated with a business concern, was not an easy thing to do on short notice. And, if you were a woman, so much the worse.
That had been another, solid reason why Kate had not wanted Rebecca accompanying her. She had experienced first-hand the differences in the Saudi attitude towards women, as opposed to American culture. The two were dramatically opposed. And the fact that you might be a foreign woman on Saudi soil did not mean you were free from criticism.
The wearing of the veil, the not being permitted to drive or ride bicycles in public, the featuring of clothing that would be certain to cover the elbows and the knees the rule of Islamic law. Although the edicts made perfect sense to the traditional male Saudis, whose women were taught to focus on the value of the family and the nurturing of the home, Kate and her peers found it stifling, to stay the least.
Foreigners were tolerated rather than welcomed in Dhahran and, as a result, very few personnel on the base had ever ended up even seeing any of the locals. By design, they were taught and trained to stay away, the better to maintain the delicate balancing act that was the coalition forces relationship with its host. Only local contractors who supported the military effort - building additional barracks, providing free oil - were allowed on the base at all. That was how she had met Robert.
Robert Ahmad Yamani.
A half-breed, like herself, with two cultures as diverse as her own Irish and Greek heritage. Robert was born to a British mother and Saudi father, raised and schooled in England. Tall and dark, speaking with an impeccable British school-boy accent, it was hard not to give him a second look. And Kate had. Along with a third.
Robert had been a mild diversion, something to distract her from the deadly dull routine of her waking hours in-between chopper runs. It could never be anything more than that, never, and so shed been surprised when Robert confessed to her one night of his hope for a future. She had ended it right then, coldly, without a backwards glance. It was her way. No strings, not her.
But he owed her one, big time, and here she was, flying into Riyadhs King Khaled International Airport eight years later, hoping to collect. The American air operations had been moved two years ago from Dhahran to Prince Sultan Air Base, about 50 miles southeast of Riyadh. That had been in the aftermath of the terrorist bombing of the Khobar Towers, a residential building housing Americans stationed at the base. 19 Air Force personnel had been killed; over 400 wounded. At Prince Sultan, overall security and the facility itself were better suited to the Air Force brasss stepped-up requirements. And so when the U.S. operations had moved, Robert Yamani had moved with them.
And expanded his business into imports and exports, Kate had heard.
So she had treated him like shit back then. Time had passed, and she had changed. She needed him one last time.
Shed already contacted him prior to leaving New York; told him what she wanted and where she would be.
And in the rich, warm, cognac tones of his far-away voice, hed promised her he would be waiting.
Stepping out of the jetway into the King Khaled airport, Kate was struck by how merely that short journey from her comfortable airplane seat, down the ramp and into the terminal, made her feel like Alice-in-Wonderland tumbling down the rabbit hole. All traces of the prim and proper British flight attendants were left behind. And although a number of the passengers on board were apparently Saudis, during the flight Kate had heard them speaking in soft, accented English, and so the contrast had not been so apparent. But now, passing through the gate after being herded through customs, the pilot found herself being swept along towards the main concourse in a teeming mass of humanity that reminded her of 51st and 7th at rush hour.
The crowds were predominantly men, many wearing traditional light colored Arab dress, but there were quite a few featuring western-style business clothes along with the gutra, a head scarf anchored in place with the aghal, a circular cord of dark lambs wool. What few women there were walked in the company of men, and this did not surprise Kate in a land where a female could not stay in hotel or board a plane without written permission from a male relative.
The tall pilot allowed herself to be carried on by the crowd, already feeling their gazes upon her. She stood out among them, that was for certain, with her khaki pants and blouse, work shoes, and long dark hair gathered at the nape of her neck in a copper-colored clasp. A woman alone, not dressed in the required hijab. Most unusual.
Although her squadron had been based in Dhahran, Kate had had opportunity to travel to Riyadh several times with Cyrus, for the occasional briefing or two. But they had never landed at the commercial airport, and even then shed seen very little of the city itself. She would need someone like Robert to help find her way around, much as she hated to admit it.
Okay. The pilot paused and squinted at the directional signs looming ahead, ignoring the jostling she felt going on around her. The smallish signs featured both English and the distinctive Arabic script that shed never been able to make head nor tail of. A taxi to her hotel thats all she needed.
"Catherine! Over here!"
A feeling she could not put a name to clutched at her heart. She turned, slowly, and there he was, pushing through the crowds to get to her side. And suddenly, eight years ago was only yesterday.
"How marvelous to see you!" he cried, taking her flight bag unbidden and slinging it over his shoulder. He took her hand at first, and then gave her the traditional greeting of a light kiss on each of her cheeks, and she did the same.
"Robert, you shouldnt have come here! I thought we agreed Id meet you at the hotel!"
"Nonsense!" He took her by the elbow and began guiding her towards the exit. "Its more than 35 kilometers from here to the city, and I dont trust you with those taxi drivers, Catherine!" A gleaming white smile emerged from a deeply tanned face. "None of them have standard meters, and I fear by the time you would be through with them, there would be nothing left but skin and bones!"
"Ha!" Kate barked a laugh. "Ive mellowed Robert. That, and Ive already heard how entrepreneurial the local taxi drivers are!"
He waved his hand dismissively. "Still, I would imagine that the citizens of Riyadh are just a bit safer today with me as your escort!"
He led the way towards the exit and Kate followed, noting how although he was dressed like so many of his countrymen: black loafers, casual black slacks, open-necked long-sleeved white dress shirt, and white gutra, like her, his height set him apart. His aristocratic advantage, hed always laughed. Leaving the terminal, the doors whisked open and Kate found herself assaulted by a blast of hot, dry wind. The intensity of it seemed to suck the very air from her lungs, and she nearly staggered in the face of it.
"Christ!" she swore, "And I thought we were having one helluva summer in New York!"
"Dont tell me Catherine, you have forgotten our temperate climate?"
"Not bloody likely." Already, she could feel the perspiration breaking out on her forehead, on the small of her back. Her bodys natural response. To the weather, of course.
"This way!" Over the roar of a Lufthansa jet taking off, the tall Arab directed her towards a gleaming, coffee colored, late-model Mercedes sedan.
"Check it out!" Robert quickly tossed her bag in the trunk, and opened the door for her. "Mercedes S-500. Year 2000 model! Designo Espresso Edition. Not yet available!"
"Oh God," Kate groaned, sinking back into the buttery soft, light brown leather seat. "How did you get this, then? Or will you have to kill me if you tell me?"
Robert winked a hazel eye at her. "Connections, Captain Catherine, connections!"
Kate could not help herself, she smiled that. Captain Catherine. How long hed called her that, in his formal, British way, even after theyd become more than friends. She spared a glance at him as he tooled through the airport traffic and out onto the highway. He hadnt changed much. Just a few flecks of gray were visible in otherwise thick, dark hair, when the wind hand blown back his gutra. A strong face and jaw, with a proud, noble nose sitting just above a nicely trimmed mustache. A pair of designer sunglasses covered the eyes she remembered so well, and there was not an ounce of fat on him yet, that she could tell.
Looking around the luxurious German car, Kate recalled how well Robert had loved his toys, more-so than most of the other big boys shed known in her life. Somehow, his desire to play hard and fast had made him all the more appealing to her. Part of that playfulness had carried over into a desire to work out to keep himself in shape; a departure from many of his peers who were content as Catherine herself was to rely on nature taking its course to stay fit.
"Portable cellular, GPS navigation listen to this Bose sound system, will you!" Robert was running through the features of his vehicle as though he were some sort of manic car salesman.
Suddenly the unlikely, high-pitched sound of Michael Jackson streamed from the speakers.
Billie Jean is not my lovah
"Bass equalizer" The car swerved slightly as the Arab fiddled with the controls.
"Hey!" Kate tiredly lifted a hand to her head. "Keep your eyes on the road, will ya?"
Shes just a girl who claims that I am the one
"Even heated mirrors, Catherine, can you imagine that?"
"Like you need it in this bake-oven,"
Catherine reached out a hand to flick off the stereo. Shed had enough. "Please," she protested in the sudden air-conditioned silence that followed Im sold for Gods sake! Youre giving me a freaking headache, Yamani!"
"Aaah!" He grinned from ear-to-ear, minding her sharp words not at all. "Just like old times, yes, Captain?"
The Mercedes flew along the highway, wheels humming, stirring up a cloud of dust in its wake. Those damned desert sands. How well Kate remembered them. The winds were always blowing it, driving it into your machinery, your nose, your eyes. It was as relentless as it was inescapable. You breathed it, ate it, slept with it. Combine it with the heat sometimes it would reach 130 degrees Fahrenheit on the flight line and the overall effect was maddening. Sand crazy, theyd called it. It took its toll. But hell, there had been a war going on, and no one had said it would be a cake-walk, escorting Saddams Republican Guards back across the Iraqi border.
The television broadcasts and letters from home had relieved the stress for some, but not Kate. Television? Shed never had time for it. Letters? Who in gods name would write to her? Her work was her focus. Plain and simple. The more miserable she felt, the harder she would work. And it was through that work shed met Robert, one of the local fuel merchants supplying the base. In a goodwill gesture, the Saudis subsidized the cost of it. But Kate suspected that Robert was careful enough to make sure he got his fair share of the take, and then some.
Shed see him in the command post when his people were making deliveries, and observed him heading in and out of the officers canteen any number of times with some of the friends hed made on base. All for the sake of good business, hed say. Shed known him generally in passing, that was all. But there had been instances when shed spied him looking at her across the compound, and times when shed found herself doing the same.
When he would catch her looking at him, she would busy herself and turn away, content in the knowledge that he meant nothing to her.
Until that night when he made a late delivery, on her shift. Hed driven his tanker in personally, and shed been the one to sign him in and process his papers. It was chance, shed told herself then, although there were moments later on, after shed gotten to know him better, when she wasnt so sure.
In the darkened office, amidst the paperwork and signatures, there were hands touching, stroking; bodies pressing against each other, hard, and lips heatedly seeking out flesh. They met frequently after that, usually in the apartment Robert kept just outside the base, again, for business purposes.
It relieved some of the tension, the frustration shed felt at being kicked out of her F15. And, though she hated to admit it, there was something to be said for allowing herself to be held, to feel the physical pleasure that accompanied such intimacy. And, once in a great while, with Robert as she had with others before him, she would catch a brief, fleeting glimpse of the wonder, the joy that shed heard existed in a world where two people claimed to love each other. A world she hadnt dared to believe was real, until she met Rebecca Hanson.
She hadnt realized he was falling for her until it was too late. After all, what was there about her to love? And after hed made his heartfelt declaration, when he shared his dream with her, she had belittled him and turned him away.
Several weeks went by after that night and she hadnt seen him at all. His trucks rumbled in periodically, as scheduled, and that was fine with her. Shed nearly forgotten him, or so she told herself. The Republican Guards were on the move. Surface-to-air missiles and SCUDs filled the air, in retaliation to the massive number of sorties being launched from both Dhahran and the coalition carriers in the Gulf.
She could see what the damned bombs were targeting this particular night, they all could; the refinery about ten clicks away. Yamanis. She was only supposed to be out on recon that evening, maybe make a few pickups or transfers, if needed. But then she heard the report that it was a mobile SCUD launcher, on the move and heading her way. Closer than it ever should have gotten, unmolested. Hell, with her infrared night vision, it was nearly close enough to see!
Her chopper wasnt equipped to take out ground targets of that size. She wasnt authorized to fly into areas where there was action. Cyrus would have her head. But her heart told her there was only one thing for it. She was the closest asset to a highly dangerous, mobile target. They could lose the refinery or worse, if the SCUD fired off another round.
A quick conference with her co-pilot, a young lieutenant from Texas, Cowboy, and the decision was made. The Huey had been modified for the Persian Gulf initiative with two 7.62mm mini-guns. She hoped they would be enough.
Drawing closer to the last known coordinates of the SCUD launcher, there was one thing shed realized quickly: it was easier to move in on a target from 10,000 feet up than from 1,000. The anti-aircraft fire filled the air around them, a deadly barrage of fourth of July fireworks, pinging against the fuselage, pummeling them with invisible percussion waves that rocked the chopper crazily from side-to-side.
She kept the bird low, close to the desert floor, so close that she swore she could count the grains of sand. Barren, forbidding, and yet there was a beauty in it too, that shed never noticed before. Illuminated by sudden flashes of enemy fire, the ground below was all shadows and light, undulating like silent waves on an ancient ocean.
Shed come upon it so quickly, so unexpectedly, that it took a few seconds for her to regain her breath, to process what it was below her. There was the launcher, being towed along a non-existent desert road, surrounded by its support vehicles. She could see individual motion; at this level there were no invisible victims. But shed had a job to do, hadnt she?
"Lets make this once and out," shed told her co-pilot. Pushing forward on the control column shed swooped in, tracking along a line that brought her down as close as she dared behind the racing SCUD launcher. "Aim for his fuel tanks!" shed cried out, deafened by the sound of the choppers guns, the scream of the rotating blades, and the pounding of her own heart.
Closer! A transport truck behind the launcher went up in flames. Closer! She saw tiny stick figures leaping out of the rear of the truck pulling the SCUD. They scurried away into the night like desert rats, desperate to save their own skins. Just a little more!
Suddenly, the chopper jolted to one side, and she heard an ominous groan come from somewhere near the rear rotor compartment. Fuck! Not yet!
"Captain! I think were hit!"
"Shut up and keep firing!" Kate had sworn, willing the Huey back on course, nearly pushing the rudder pedals through the floor. And what was that acrid stench that had filled her nostrils? Christ, were they on fire? No no time for that bullshit. She was right on top of that fucking SCUD now. Could see the darkened, camouflaged faces looking up at her, slack-jawed. And then, in a bright flash as white and hot as the sun, it was gone.
"Fuck!" Her lieutenant had shrieked, "Did you fucking see that? Did you fucking see? Adios, motherfucker!"
"Good shooting, cowboy," Kate had said through gritted teeth, even as she desperately yanked on the collective pitch control lever. She needed altitude and speed, in that order. The force of the blast had thrown off her attitude, and by god if there wasnt something wrong with her rear rotor after all.
"Were losing oil, fast, Captain. Ooooh shit!"
Somehow, Kate had been able to get the bird to turn around, to nurse it and limp it back to the base. Well, almost. Over the whine of her laboring engine, there had been more warning sirens and flashing red lights than shed ever seen outside of a training run. Worse, shed felt the pull of gravity on her aircraft like some great godly hand, reaching up out of the dunes and trying to tug her out of the sky.
No! Shed fought it every goddamned step of the way. Cursing to the skies. Using every trick she knew, and a few she hadnt known she possessed. She always brought her ride home with her, in one piece. Always. So what if it was shot to hell? No matter.
Cowboy had let the tower know they were coming in hard and low. There! The lights of the base just ahead. Looming out of the darkness. If she could just hang on .
Having ones aircraft end up in two pieces wasnt so bad, not really. And, okay, so theyd hit just outside the airbases gates, so what? They were alive, albeit with Cowboy sporting a broken leg hed loved to show off afterwards, and Kate with a bump on her forehead the size of a large Easter egg. But, as Cowboy had proudly proclaimed, there was one dead motherfuckin SCUD out there in the desert, thanks to them.
They were lauded as wild-catting heroes for a time, a label Kate neither sought nor appreciated.
For when she closed her eyes, all she could see were those stark, terrorized faces right before she incinerated them.
Cyrus had pretended to be livid about the whole incident and did his best to keep it quiet. But not before word had gotten back to Robert about what had happened. She may have rejected him, but shed saved his livelihood and more, and hed promised her then that he would never forget it.
Now, as Riyadh rose up before them out of the desert like a shimmering mirage, Kate knew that the time had come to call in that promise.
Rebecca Hanson finally gave up the ghost. Cursing the glowing digits of an alarm clock that fuzzily displayed nearly 3AM, she hauled herself out of bed and stumbled down the hall, passing through the living room and into the kitchen, flipping on a trail of lights as she went.
Squinting at the unnatural brightness at this ungodly hour, by sense of touch she found the cupboard where she kept a box of herbal tea bags. Depositing one into a cup of water, she popped the whole works into the microwave and pulled up a stool to wait it out.
Certainly a hobby shed never thought belonged on her personal resume, but darn it, here she was, perched alone in Kates high-rise aerie, with nothing better to do.
Perhaps it was the excitement she still felt at the information shed gotten today. She had decided to wait until later to call the pilot, figuring she was probably sleeping it off after a tiring overseas flight.
The oven sounded with a piercing beep, and Becky removed the cup and pattered into the living room, deciding to let the tea steep a bit as she looked out over the city.
Sinking down into the oversized leather sofa, the flight attendant released a great sigh and let her head tilt back, thinking of how proud shed been earlier, when the call had come through. She was surprised that it had all fallen into place so quickly. It had only been a week or so earlier that shed quietly sent a request for a meeting with Mishka Rhu, through his attorney.
Why not do a little detective work of her own, shed thought? After all, Kate, Mac, and Rory were working so hard on their own leads why bother them with a long shot?
Shed read and re-read the reports of the flight 2240 hijacking countless times, and the one mystery that remained was who had financed the poor rebels from Kosovo to undertake their expensive, hi-tech sabotage mission. Of all the hijackers, Mishka Rhu was the one they owed their lives to. In the end, he hadnt been able to go through with it, and had helped Kate and the others to regain control of the plane.
Unlike Stefan, Roberto, and Alexandra, Mishka had pled guilty from the start, cooperated with the federal prosecutors, and received a reduced sentence for his efforts. Kate and Becky had even given testimony on his behalf. But even he had claimed to have no knowledge of where the financing came from. It was all Stefan, hed said, and Stefan Bukoshi wasnt talking.
Mishkas attorney had been all business on the phone, speaking briskly, cutting to the point. Mishka was being held at a Federal facility in Brooklyn, pending the completion of his accomplices trial in Federal Court. His testimony was still needed, but once the trials were completed, hed be shipped off to a maximum security prison out-of-state. If she could get to the facility by 2PM, Mishka would be willing to grant her exactly 30 minutes.
Her heart racing, Becky had flown out the door of the Orbis offices, replaying in her mind the questions about the hijacking shed already asked herself over and over again that she would pose to Mishka Rhu, if only given the chance. Shed felt a connection with him somehow, back on that plane, felt connected to his heart, his soul, and she knew that Kate had sensed it, too.
Mishka was a good man. He wanted to help them, she was sure of it. Perhaps he just needed to be shown how. Otherwise, why would he have granted her request for an interview?
And when at last shed sat down in front of him in that cold, bare room, his attorney listening to every syllable, she had known that this was her chance. Shed stared into the sad pools of his eyes, eyes that had witness so much suffering in his time, and felt that connection between them thrum to life once more.
Theyd begun to talk. Just two people. And oh, what Mishka Rhu had told her! Afterwards, in a cab ride she barely remembered back to the office, shed wondered if he realized just how much of a help he had been.
Wait till Kate hears about this! Beckys heart skipped a beat in anticipation of how pleased her boss would be. How she would praise her for her shrewd investigative skills, and thank her for producing results on her own that were bound to help the whole Orbis team. Now, if she could just get some sleep! Becky inhaled the sweet, comforting scent of her tea and took a sip, blinking her eyes at the twinkling lights of New York.
God, what a view! No wonder Kate had chosen this apartment. So high, so quiet, so alone.
With a start, Rebecca realized that this was the first time shed ever spent the night by herself here in the high rise. Without the fiery heat of the tall, dark pilot lying next to her, holding her close, soothing her to sleep.
Could it be that she missed Kate? Missed her more profoundly than ever before, here, in this place that shed come to think of as her their home? Her heart lurched as for the first time she got a taste of what it was that her partner had struggled to tell her so many times before. She would hear it every time she came home from an extended flight schedule.
Kate would fight to get the words out for a bit, and then finally give up with an awkward I missed you so much, leaving it at that. But Becky had always known that there was something more to it, she could see the storm that raged behind those jewel-like blue eyes of Kates, but it had simply been more convenient for her and for Kate, apparently to let it drop.
God, Becky thought, gasping at the gut-churning ache of it all. No wonder Kate never pressed the issue. It it hurts so much!
One last mouthful of her tea, and then she dimmed the lights in the living room. The cool leather crinkled beneath her as she eased down on the sofa, pulling a throw blanket over her body; it was one she knew Kate had used frequently, when she would sit in this very spot and gaze out at the night. God she could detect the distinctive scent of her lover on it even now, as she drew it up under her chin, snuggling into its thick weave.
She lay staring out at the skyline, feeling more alone than she had ever thought possible in a city of nearly eight million people.
It would be a long couple of days until Catherine Phillips returned.
"Asma Sadeks brother, Ibrahim al-Sayed has agreed to allow us into his sisters home to speak with her." Robert Ahmad Yamani cast a sidelong look towards Kate as he drove through downtown Riyadh. "You realize, this took some doing."
"Yes," Kate said, knowing that an Arab woman would never receive strangers in her home without a male present. She kept her eyes on the window, taking in the dizzying kaleidoscope of colors that blurred by; the lush gardens, the sacred mosques, the grand palaces of royalty past and present.
"And theres a business associate of mine in the Qatif Suq that I believe may have some useful information for you concerning that Swiss firm youre so interested in - Birktec Electronics, I believe?"
"Yes." A pause. "I appreciate all your help, Robert, really," Kate turned soft eyes to him. "It means a lot."
"You are most welcome, Captain Catherine!" He smiled at her then, "You are at the Inter-Continental, correct?"
Kate checked her watch. Late morning. "Yes. But if its all the same to you, Id like to get started." The sooner she obtained the information she needed, the sooner shed be out of this land of living memories.
"Are you sure?" Concern skipped across Roberts face, and with one hand he began to pantomime the application of face powder. "No need to freshen up?"
The pilot shot him a murderous glare. "Do I look like I need to freshen up?"
"No darling no! Not at all!" Flustered, the Arab quickly made an adjustment. "First stop, then, that clothing shop you mentioned. Its just ahead."
Uncaring of traffic maneuvering around them on the bustling street, Robert boldly parked the Mercedes directly in front of the storefront.
"Let me do the talking, please, Catherine!"
"Fine," the pilot replied, following her old friend into the establishment. It was a two-story, coral colored building, featuring a selection of mens clothing in both traditional and western styles. The air reeked of fine clothes and new money. Kate was struck by the contrast: Gucci and Armani lining one side of the shop, and gutras and dishdashas on the other. No intermingling, and yet the shop could cater to the best of both worlds.
She followed Robert across the tiled floor to where a worker stood behind a heavy oaken counter. Immediately, he and Robert began chattering away in Arabic.
"This is the shop owner," Robert finally explained. "He says hes already told the authorities everything he knows."
"Please," Kate ignored the rising volume of the merchants voice. "If he could just go over a description of the man how he paid for his purchases ."
Robert tried to get her questions in, speaking loudly himself to be heard over the stream of protest from the obviously agitated shop owner. Other patrons in the store, all male, also began to gather together, talking amongst themselves and pointing towards the counter.
"He he says he was an average looking man. Average height," Robert paused a moment, listening, "mustache, dark hair, wearing the hijab."
"Great," Kate muttered, frustrated. "That describes about 95% of the local male population."
"And he paid in Riyal," Robert added. "No check. No credit."
The rumblings behind them escalated into a bit of shouting and, along with that, the shop owner began gesturing wildly at Kate, the words flying out of his mouth in a fevered pitch.
"What the hell" Kate shook her head at the commotion. "Whats the problem?"
"He " Roberts face took on a faintly reddish tint, "He says you shouldnt be in here. Men only."
"What?" The pilot was getting annoyed. She needed information, and the proprietors attitude wasnt helping things any. "Tell him," she quickly looked at the counter and grabbed a leather wallet, "tell him Ill buy this, and ask him if there was any conversation they had that he can remember. And whether he had any scars or distinctive features?"
Looking as though he were venturing into the lions den, Robert returned his attention to the now-livid man behind the counter. More arguing, more shouts, and Kate was amused to hear all traces of her companions upper class British accent melt away.
"No conversation, no scars!" he turned to her, shouting above the bedlam. "Catherine, really, I think wed better leave!" The poor man looked desperate now, looking about the shop wildly as the other patrons pressed in close, speaking in clipped, Arabic tones.
If there was one thing Catherine Phillips hated, it was getting shoved around. Cultural differences or not. "I want my wallet." Her voice stubborn, she planted her feet at the counter.
"Please, Catherine." Robert was fairly begging now. "Dont you see? He wont sell it to you! If youd just--"
Suddenly, Catherine felt a sharp poke in her back. Her eyes widened, and she turned slowly around. Now, all the loud voices in the shop fell silent, save for a new one that had entered the fray. It belonged to a sharp-eyed, beaked-nosed older man, wearing the traditional uniform of the muttawwiun. Kate had heard tales of the Saudi morals police, but shed never had the occasion to see one from such a close perspective. The muttawwiun roamed the streets to ensure that businesses closed at prayer time and that the laws of Allah were honored. Armed with cattle prods, they shamed anyone who offended their sense of propriety.
The morals officer ran his eyes over her from head to toe, disdainfully taking in her western clothing, her defiant posture, her uncovered head and face. Scandalous.
"Lets leave now, Catherine!" Roberts low-pitched plea behind her.
The muttawwiun took a step closer to the tall pilot, and began chastising her in a stream of unintelligible Arabic.
Kate felt Roberts hand tugging on her arm. "Please!"
The shifting mob of onlookers pressed in around them, screaming threats in their native tongue. Catherines eyes narrowed as the wrinkled older officer raised the prod again, ready to give her another poke.
In a motion so swift that, later, the witnesses could not be sure of just how it had happened, the morals officer was relieved of his prod, and there it lay in two broken pieces on the cool, tiled floor of the shop.
"I am not a piece of beef."
The muttawwiun shrank back, nearly falling into the arms of the crowd, his gutra tilting askew. Clearly, he had never before been challenged in such a fashion, by so intimidating a female.
Kate swung her eyes around the shop, her cold blue eyes blistering the angry faces, challenging them.
Taking advantage of the momentary lull in the action, Robert moved. Knowing he was taking a risk, he increased the force the pressure on her arm. "For the love of Allah, Catherine," he spat into her ear, "Do you want to spark an international incident? If were leaving here in one piece, it must be now!"
Fury was bubbling in Kates veins like a lava flow, firing off her senses in overdrive. She sniffed at the air like an animal searching out its prey. She was ready to take the muttawwiun on, hell, take them all on for that matter.
Christ what was it with these people? Shed done nothing wrong! Not really.
Through the din of the rage pounding in her ears, deafening her, she heard Roberts voice, imploring her to leave. Struggling to re-route the adrenaline that was pumping through her muscles, she allowed herself to be dragged out of the darkened interior of the shop and into the bright glare of the Saudi sun.
"Step away there, please!"
A crowd had begun to gather around his Mercedes, but Robert quickly shooed them away, pulled open the passenger door, and shoved Kate inside.
"Bloody hell!" he swore, slamming his own door shut. He angrily turned over the ignition and stomped on the accelerator, and the vehicle leaped away from the curb and back into traffic.
Horns blared all around them, other drivers angry with his sudden cut in front of them.
Robert paid them no heed. Instead, he turned to Kate, a look of both exasperation and fear on his face. "I havent heard the last of this, you can be sure of that!" His eyes flickered to his rearview mirror. "Hes got my tag number. I know it!"
"So what?" The pilot grumpily replied, rubbing at the small of her back where the muttawwiun had prodded her. "We didnt do anything!"
"It was a mens only shop, Kate," Robert explained, taking a sharp corner on the fly. The Mercedes wheels screamed. "I was taking a risk even bringing you in there with me!"
"Oh." Kate released a sharp breath of air. "Well. You should have told me."
"Why dont we do this," Robert said, taking out a kerchief and wiping away the sweat that dotted his brow in spite of the cool blast powering from the air conditioning vents. "Were going to the suq next. Its men only, however women may enter if accompanied by a male relative."
"That would be you," Kate said flatly.
"Correct." Robert was pleased to see that his one-time lover was finally getting the idea. "For arguments sake, you will be my wife," he smirked. "And just assume, going forward, that all public places are restricted, unless I say otherwise."
"Meaning," Kate placed her tongue in the corner of her cheek, "Ive got to stick pretty close to you the entire time Im here."
"Precisely!" The Arab stabbed at the air with his index finger. "For safetys sake, of course."
Robert reached over and gave her hand a quick squeeze. "Ah, Captain Catherine," he said, winking. "Such a fiery temper. You havent changed a bit!"
The pilot slapped his hand away. "Neither have you."
The Qatif Suq was located at the edge of the primary shopping district. It was a riot of brightly colored kiosks, tents, and single story storefronts. There were any number of suqs in Riyadh, each one with a unique, specialized identity. Some dealt primarily in foodstuffs, others in furnishings, clothings, or crafts. One had even been designated women only, where the ladies of the capital city could shop to their hearts content, freed from the watchful stares of their men.
The bazaar in the Qatif section focused on fine leather goods, rich Arabian-weave carpets, and electronics. But all the suqs featured tea and coffee houses, as well as food stands, and the rich, delectable scents of roasting coffee beans, steaming stews and baking bread filtered through the air. Catching wind of it, Kate was reminded how long it had been since shed eaten.
Cautiously, keeping an edgy Catherine Phillips closely tethered to his side, Robert negotiated their way through the suq, pushing through beaded gates and past swinging cowbells until he arrived at the electronics emporium of his associate, Samir Khashoggi.
Boom boxes, televisions, radios, walkmans, VCRs every available square inch of space in the shop walls, floor, ceiling, were covered with electronics. A cacophony of sound emitted from the players; songs, music, and videos, in a United Nations soup of languages.
The tall pilot groaned and squeezed at the bridge of her nose. God! If she got another headache now .
"And greetings to you, Ahmad!"
Kate watched the two men embrace one another, and it did not escape her notice how the electronics merchant used Roberts Arabic middle name in salutation.
Wisely, after introductions were made, Robert was able to convince Samir to leave his shop in the hands of his assistant, and accept his invitation to join them for lunch in a nearby café. The rumblings in Kates own stomach told her not to object to her companions suggestion.
In no time, Samir, Robert, and his wife, were seated at an outdoor table, shielded from the sun by a colorful awning. They sipped on rich, strong glasses of dark Arabian coffee, and a side order of pita complemented their main course of marinated lamb and peppers, served on a skewer.
"You just missed the midday Salah," Samir said, referring to the prayers all Mulims were required to recite five times per day. "Otherwise," he munched happily on a nugget of lamb, "we would have had to wait to be seated and served."
"Our luck," Kate said dryly, and Samir released a deep, belly laugh. Kate had been pleased to find that, like Robert, Samir Khashoggi was not overly concerned with her western attitude and dress, and spoke to her as an equal.
"Bad for business, to do otherwise" hed said, his dark, impish features turning out in a smile when shed questioned him on it.
He too wore black pants, a white shirt, and the gutra; a man with one foot in the western world, and one foot firmly planted in the Middle East.
"Now," he said, burping and pushing his plate away. "Ahmad tells me you have some questions about Birktec Electronics, correct?"
"Yes," Kate admitted, getting down to business. "Im trying to ascertain if Birktec has any local connections, to a Khaled Sadek, in particular.
"He was killed in that plane crash you are investigating, correct?"
Kate glanced sideways at Robert, wondering just how much he had told the electronics merchant. "Yes. We think he may be involved."
"Birktec is an old company," Samir explained, sitting back in his chair and crossing his legs, clearly prepared to launch into storyteller mode. "Ive done business with them a number of times over the years. Good inventory. Prompt delivery. Excellent credit terms."
"Did you know Khaled Sadek?"
"Should I have? Was he an employee of Birktec?"
"No," Kate referred to her portfolio, "not that Im aware of."
"But you think he might be involved in what caused your Orbis plane to fall from the sky, yes?" He poured more tea into his glass from the silver pot that rested on the table.
"Yes," Kate said, looking him squarely in his dark, mysterious eyes. "I do."
"Abbado El-Yousef." He said the name aloud. "You think he is to blame as well."
The pilot ground her teeth. "Its why Im here. If he is involved, Ive got to find a way to prove it. Find a way to keep him from doing this again."
"I see," Samir took another sip of his tea, nodding his head. "El-Yousef is a bastard, I grant you that much," he said, chuckling. "There were not many Saudis who were sorry to see him expelled. Still, there are some," he said, "who perhaps fell under the spell of his money, his rhetoric. People who are looking for a savior in this life, and are only too happy to accept the nearest excuse for one that they can find."
"Meaning?" Kate was leaning forward now. It was apparent that Samir had something to say, something she could use.
"You do know that in ancient times, Riyadh was no more than an oasis in the desert."
"Yeess." Kate bit her tongue.
"Once outside of the shade of the palms, away from the sacred wells, ones future amounted to how many days worth of water you could carry on your back, or on your camel. Survival of the fittest. Neighbor fighting against neighbor, if it came down to it. A tribal land, sharply divided. But today " he waved his arms, "look around you! Beautiful trees, gardens, rising up out of the earth like magic, stopping the march of the desert sands! And great desalination stations draw more water in than we could ever possibly need from the Red Sea and the Gulf. A miracle!"
"Yes, it is." Kate looked to Robert for help, but he only smiled in return. He knew that Samir would get to the point eventually and, frankly, he enjoyed watching Catherine having to exercise patience for once. Hed seen it infrequently enough years ago when theyd been together.
"The oceans have brought my country together," Samir continued, "The waters of blue that embrace us on either side, and the black sea of oil that churns beneath us, giving us life. But this unity this, complacency comes at a price."
"How so?" Kates voice was low and hard.
"Today, all around us, the jackals walk with the lambs. Side by side. It is difficult to tell them apart, Miss Phillips. Sometimes, we never know, until its too late."
Kates heart was pounding in her chest. Here, even in the shade it was hot, and she could feel the perspiration trickling down the back of her neck. To steady herself, she took another drink of tea, feeling the heat of it slip down her throat, making her that much hotter.
She didnt give a damn.
"Whether Khaled Sadek is the man youre looking for or not, I cannot say. However," Samir tilted his head skyward, reflecting, "I knew a man a few years ago," who worked for Birktec. He doesnt any longer, from what I have heard. He lives primarily in Paris now, and still keeps an apartment here in Riyadh. I understand he was last in town in early March, on business, but I did not see him then."
"His name, can you give me his name?" Kate had her pen in her hand, ready to go.
"Hmnn," Kate quickly scribbled on her notepad. "It doesnt sound familiar."
"Really?" Samir turned his brown eyes to Kate. "The jackal and the lamb. They walk together, you know." He paused, and Kate thought that the pounding pulse in her head just might drown out the living, breathing sounds of the bazaar around them: the haggling, the laughter, the bells, the sizzling food.
"Once he had taken a young Frenchwoman as his bride, Izo Mufti found it easier to live in Paris most of the time. She did not convert to Islam, and so Izo and she did not feel welcome here. Whenever he returned to Riyadh, it would be alone.
Kate stared silently at the electronics merchant, her blue eyes begging him to continue.
"Perhaps her name will sound familiar: Isabelle Rouen."
A thunderbolt struck Catherine from above, and threatened to cleave her in two. Of course she knew the name. Shed memorized them all.
Isabelle Rouen had died along with 209 other souls when flight 180 went down.
It was a quiet drive from the suq to a more residential area of the city where the widow and family of Khaled Sadek lived. For once, Robert took a cue from Kates mood and remained silent, keeping the finer points of his Mercedes S500s maneuverability to himself.
Kate simply stared out the tinted windows of the car, watching the scenery change from suq to oil commerce to residential. She could see the faint layer of sand that covered the streets, the car windows, the sidewalks. It swirled through the air when the desert winds blew, or when traffic rushed down the narrow streets, and then it gently settled to the earth again, patient. Waiting. Timeless dust of the ages, an impartial witness to all that had come before, and of what was yet to be.
But Kate was not so willing to leave herself free of judgment. Dammit, how could she have been so blind? Jumping to the obvious conclusion, holding someone suspect simply because of a name on a passport, the home where he lived? God, thanks to that blunder, the party or parties potentially responsible had been given plenty of time to cover their tracks! Kate felt ashamed, and angry, too. Shed allowed herself to be blinded by the mental baggage shed been carrying around for so long, since that day eight years ago when she thought shed left Saudi Arabia, and Robert, far behind.
How wrong shed been! Well, she would carry on with her plan to speak to Asam Sadek, simply to bring that chapter to a close tie up any loose ends. That was it. Then, off to Paris.
If it wasnt already too late.
Robert smoothly directed the Mercedes down a street lined with palm trees and the occasional bristle cone pine. Children played in spacious front yards, under the watchful eyes of their veiled mothers or minders. The windows of the beige and putty colored stuccoed buildings were fully latticed, the better to shield the women inside from view. Modesty in all things, Kate thought wryly.
"Here we are," Robert said, cutting the ignition and leaping out to jog around and open the car door for her. Very British. "Remember, please Catherine," hazel eyes implored her, "follow my lead."
The tall pilot nodded.
A short walk up a cobbled path, a knock on the door, and a dour looking Ibrahim al-Sayed was ushering them past two shy toddlers peaking around a corner, through to an inner room where Asma, the widow of Khaled Sadek, stood ready to greet them. Tall, for an Arab woman, and beautiful, Kate noted, taking in her long, brunette hair, her fine olive complexion, and a pair of dark eyes told the story of the pain of loss that she bore. Here, in her own home, she kept a dupatta or shawl around her head and shoulders, but had removed the veil. She wore a shalwar-kameez, a roomy lavender colored pants set with a delicately embroidered black dress.
"May peace be upon you," she spoke in barely accented English. Stepping forward, she greeted Robert and Kate in turn, a light breath of a kiss on each of their cheeks.
"And upon you be peace," Robert replied, keeping a careful eye on the clearly unhappy Ibrahim. In a culture where a mans personal and family honor depended on the conduct of the females under his care, his recently widowed sister was now his responsibility. This meeting was highly irregular, and he never would have agreed to it had not Asma been so insistent. Anything that she could do to advance the cause of finding her husbands killer, she was willing to undertake.
"May we visit you?" Roberts voice was low. Respectful.
"Please, you are welcome in my home," the widow replied, motioning for them to have a seat on the plush blue and white carpet that covered the floor.
"Tea, or perhaps something to eat?" Her grief aside, as a Muslim woman with guests in her home, there were certain responsibilities.
"No, thank you," Robert replied as they settled themselves to the floor. "Another time, InshaAllah."
After more courtesies and pleasantries were exchanged, Robert at last nodded towards Kate.
The pilot opened her leather portfolio and, with a quick glance towards the taciturn Ibrahim, she began. "Mrs. Sadek, you know why we are here."
"Yes," she replied, her voice barely audible. "Youre trying to find out who killed my husband."
"Uh, yes." Kate cleared her throat. "Ive just a few questions here, if you dont mind."
"Please," Asma lifted her eyes to Kate. "I want to help you."
"Well," Kate referred to her list, "your husband worked for a Saudi industrial chemical detergent company, correct?"
"Yes. They manufactured disinfectants, lubricants, detergents, air fresheners and the like. He worked in marketing and distribution. He had business contacts all over the world. On this last trip, I know he had meetings scheduled in Lisbon, and in Canada as well, didnt he, Ibrahim?"
"So his employer has said," her brother replied, his voice a near-growl.
"Have you ever heard him speak of Birktec electronics?"
"Of Abbado El-Yousef?"
"We know he is a criminal," she answered quickly. "My husband had no tolerance for men of that nature." A pause. "Nor to I."
Kate shifted uncomfortably, but she knew she had to finish this. "Did he ever shop at Sicco in Riyahd? A mens clothier?"
"Possibly." She lowered her eyes. "I rarely accompanied my husband shopping."
"Did he own a black, hard-sided suitcase, manufactured by Sky King?"
The question brought a faint smile to the young womans lips. "No. Khaled was a Samsonite man."
The pilot softly closed her portfolio.
"Im sorry for your loss, Mrs. Sadek."
The widow daubed at her eyes with a handkerchief produced from a pocket in her shalwar. "Thank you. It is in submitting to Gods will that we gain peace in our lives, both in this world and the hereafter. I will be with Khaled again one day."
Solemnly, she and Robert rose and took their leave of the window Sadek. Clearly, Kate thought, as the ever-watchful Ibrahim escorted them to the door, although many marriages in Saudi Arabia were still of the arranged variety, Asma had truly loved her husband.
"Well?" Robert rested his hands on the Mercedes coffee-colored leathered wheel. "What next?"
Kate checked her watch. It was late, nearly 1800hrs, and shed been on the go for nearly a day and a half. She was exhausted, dirty, and hungry. If Rebecca could see her now, shed have her head. A heavy sigh. "Get me to the hotel."
The Riyadh Inter-Continental was located just 5 minutes from the heart of city. Its coral and rose-colored buildings jutted up from 100 lushly landscaped acres, and the hotel was a favorite among local and foreign travelers alike. Service was personal, top-shelf, and discrete. Its clients would demand no less.
With Robert, her husband by her side, Kate had little trouble with the check-in process, and she soon found herself standing inside a plushly appointed luxury hotel suite that she was too bone-tired to appreciate.
"Will you allow me to take you to dinner, at least, Catherine?" Robert carefully placed her travel bag on the king-sized bed that dominated the bedroom. He treated her to a dazzling smile. It had always worked in the past. "For old times sake?"
The pilot looked distastefully down at her dusty clothes. Moving across the room, she stripped off her shirt, glad to be rid of it, revealing a brief white tank top underneath. She could feel the grit of the day in her eyes and hair; taste it, in her mouth. "Ah " Kate debated with herself for a second or two, "Yeah, why not. For old times. Just let me take a quick shower."
She turned to unpack her bag, mentally reviewing her fairly productive day, made possible thanks to Robert. No wonder shed been attracted to the Arab all those years ago. He was a good sort, when it came down to it. And, hed certainly made a difference in how the day had turned out.
"Thanks for your help today, Robert." She grabbed her toiletries kit. "I really appreciate it."
From behind, warm, callused palms caressed her shoulders. A nuzzling in her neck.
Sure hands slowly spun her around, and then lips as hard as granite and as soft as a feather bed were pressed against her own.
Kate found herself whirling down a blinding, spinning tunnel of déjà vu.
Saudi Arabia, all over again. She was on her own. With larger powers of government and terror at play.
And here was Robert, working his magic on her body.
She thought about that, for a moment, as the oil broker continued to kiss her. About what it all meant to her then, what hed offered her, and what that meant to her now, if anything. The answer came to her easily, as the image of an emerald-eyed woman with corn silk hair took root in her minds eye.
Robert pulled himself away after offering his invitation, knowing that her body had not responded as it once had. Hazel eyes searched blue, hoping to see in them what he most desired: acceptance. Instead, he saw nothing.
Kate gently removed his hands from her shoulders. "What we had between us has been dead for a long time, Robert. And its going to stay that way."
"Why?" His eyes clouded over and he moved in again, refusing to accept defeat so easily. "No strings. I promise."
Kate laughed softly, not missing the irony at hearing those words for a change - from him. "Strings or otherwise," she insisted, "the answer is still no." God he looked so... well. So noble. So damned gorgeous, with those puppy dog eyes, those broad shoulders, the tapered waist. But those attributes would be for some other woman to appreciate, not her.
"Doesnt sound like the Catherine Phillips I remember," he said, chuckling.
She laid a hand upon his cheek. "That woman doesnt exist anymore."
Robert looked at her curiously, and then a flicker of understanding overspread his tanned features. "Bloody hell! Theres some other bloke, isnt there? Who would have thought after all this time, youd let your heart get stolen away?"
"She is not a bloke," Kate said, pointedly, throwing discretion to the wind.
Silence, save for the quiet hum whispering from the air vents.
And then, "Really?!"
Robert gazed upon her anew, folding his arms in front of his chest. "Damn it all!" He grinned at the woman hed loved so many years ago, and knew hed been beaten fair and square. "So, youve gone for something different, eh?"
Kate playfully shoved her soiled blouse into his middle, before brushing by him and strolling into the bath.
For the twentieth time that morning, a decidedly tired Rebecca Hanson, sporting gray smudges under her eyes, checked her watch. It was nearly 11:30AM. That would make it nearly 6:30PM in Riyadh. Plenty of time for Kate to have gotten a good sleep and a bite from room service.
The Orbis office was quiet. Rory had gone out for an early lunch, and Dottie was in the break room, cooking up something in the microwave. Releasing a breath she hadnt been aware shed been holding, her hand reached for the phone.
Kate would be so pleased! She was sure of it.
Several conversations with foreign operators later, and the Riyadh Inter-Continental was ringing her through to Kates room.
"Hello?" It was a good connection after all. Becky was pleased. Only the hotel had obviously put her through to someone elses room, for it was a British man at the other end of the line.
"Sorry," she said. "I mustve been connected to the wrong room"
His clipped, cheerful voice interrupted her. "You were you trying to reach?"
"Uh Catherine Phillips. If youd just put me back to the operator"
"No need. Shes here. Shes just in the shower at the moment."
"Oh." Rebecca Hanson felt weightless, adrift, and her stomach flip-flopped. The same feeling shed gotten when, as a young girl, her big brother Johnny had shoved her off the end of the high dive of the pool at club. Hed thought it would be funny. Shed only just learned how to swim at the time, and was terrified. Shed wondered then if shed ever hit the surface, and feared what would happen when she did.
Well, shed survived that, and she would survive this. She was a good swimmer.
"May I take a message, dear?" Across the miles, in the silence he heard on his end of the line, Robert could detect the panic, the uncertainty in the girls breathing. Shes the one!
"Ah no. I mean yes!" Becky slammed the heel of her palm against her forehead. "Um whom am I speaking with?"
"Robert Yamani, an old friend of Catherines." He smiled, shaking his head as the silence resumed.
"Hes just an old friend. Hes just an old friend," Becky chanted to herself, rocking in her chair.
"And?" The gentrified, British voice again.
"The message. Would you like to leave her one? Were just on our way out to dinner."
"Just..." A business dinner a business dinner hes just an old friend . " tell her," she swallowed hard, "tell her Becky called. And I have some information for her."
"Will do, Miss Becky!"
Oh, this was all too much, Robert chuckled silently to himself. He could feel the girls palpable angst on the other end of the line. Hell, hed been in her shoes himself, where Catherine Phillips was concerned. "She has your number?"
"Y-yes," Beckys voice came faintly. "Goodbye." She replaced the phone in its cradle, ending the connection, yes, but not her self-induced torture. She rolled her chair back from her desk and ran her hands through her short blonde hair, wondering what the heck had just happened.
Catherine Phillips emerged from the bathroom, dripping wet, a thirsty white towel wrapped around her torso. "Did I hear the phone?"
"Yes," Robert leaned back on the bed and grinned.
"Well?" Kate used another towel to dry off her long, dark hair that shone with flecks of obsidian in sunlight that filtered into the room through the blinds. "Who was it?"
"A young girl named Becky. Says she has got some information for you."
"Who?" Kate froze, staring.
"You heard me!" The tall Arab chuckled and fell back onto the comforter. "She sounds quite adorable, if I do say so myself!"
"You you are such an ass, Robert!" Kate stormed to the bedside phone, her eyes flashing. "What did you tell her?"
"Not to worry, Captain Catherine." His white teeth sparkled. "I told her you were in the shower."
"Tsk where are the morals police when you need them?"
Kate sat down on the bed while at the same time shoving him off of it. "Wait the fuck out there, please." She pointed to the sitting room.
"But well be late for dinner, darling!"
"Goddamit, Robert," she checked her watch and began to pound out numbers on the telephone, "will you just do as I ask, for once?"
Hands raised in surrender, Robert planted a quick kiss on the top of her damp head and backed out of the room.
Great. Just great, Kate thought, waiting for the connection to go through. She had nothing to feel guilty about, of course, but just the fact that Robert having answered the phone had put her in this position, made her feel decidedly uncomfortable.
"Hello! Strategic Operations!" Dottie Wests high-pitched voice yodeled through the miles.
"Dottie, its Catherine. Give me Rebecca, please."
"Oh, Catherine! How are you? Did you"
"Now, Dottie, please." Kate tried to keep the impatience she felt from turning into anger.
"Surely, dear. Just a moment."
Unexplained relief flooded through Kate, simply upon hearing the sound of her lovers voice. "Rebecca! Ah its me. Sorry I missed you earlier. Robert should have gotten me."
"In the shower?" Becky croaked.
"No! Well, I mean, knocked on the door, you know!" A pause. "Hes an old friend, Rebecca."
"So he said."
Becky felt as though shed hit the water at last and was trying to swim, but darn it, the side of the pool was so very far away. "Anyway, I have some information for you. Thats why I called." She plunged forward into her explanation of how shed contacted Miskha Rhu, and the results of her meeting with him.
Listening to Rebecca describe what shed been up to, Kate watched passively as droplets of water dribbled from her head onto the mahogany bedside table.
"So Mishka told me that ."
The pilot felt an uncontrollable flush rise to her cheeks. She was furious, and she wasnt sure precisely why. Hanson hadnt accused her of anything, but the tone that had been in her voice God! She could just imagine the reproving look that wouldve been on her face as she questioned her. And now what the hell did the kid think she was doing? Going off on her own to some prison, meeting with a convicted criminal, risking .
"Hanson!" Kate roared at last, stopping Rebecca in her tracks. "What the hell were you thinking of?" The pilot could hear the anger in her own voice, but she was on a roll now, powerless to stop it. "You couldve jeopardized the entire investigation! Tipped our hand!"
"What hand!" Kate was surprised to hear the flight attendant shout back, "We were stuck. Not getting anywhere, Kate. We had nothing to lose, and everything to gain."
"But going into a prison do you know how dangerous that sort of thing is?"
"Are you kidding? Where theyre holding Mishka?" Becky laughed harshly. "Its a freaking country club, Kate. I think I lowered my handicap two strokes just by walking through the place."
"Still," Kate grumbled, feeling some of the upset leave her system, "if something had happened to you"
"Im fine Kate," Becky snapped. "Now let me tell you what I have, and then you and Robert can go have your dinner."
Kate took a deep, steadying breath. God, her head was throbbing again! "Go."
"Okay," Becky said, mollified. "Mishka gave me the name of a friend of his from the University of Pristina. An Ahmed Dushan. He was a fellow technical engineering student, and they collaborated together on the design of the polymers that were able to evade security detection on flight 2240. They both worked on the design, but Ahmed seemed to be the one with the cash. Mishka wasnt sure where it came from, and they never questioned one another. Those were dangerous times."
"So, why didnt he bring any of this up at the sentencing hearing?" Kate was skeptical.
"Ahmed was a good friend. And Mishkas little sister had taken a shine to him."
"Oh," Kate breathed, remembering. "The one that was killed."
Kate could hear Rebecca shuffling papers on her end.
"Anyway," the flight attendant continued, "Mishka was worried that his life would be forfeit if he implicated him in any way, as long as he was still trapped in Pristina."
"But hes not there now. After the U.N. peacekeeping forces moved in, Ahmed was able to make a run for it with a group of refugees transported to France. Hes there now, working in Paris."
"Youre joking," Kate rubbed at her eyes.
Becky ignored her. "Mishka has given me a letter of introduction to Ahmed. He says he would be willing to help us now. He says hes sick over what happened, Kate. He had no idea what the devices would be used for. Mishka never told him. He though they would be part of the war effort against the Serbs. Not for a hijacking. Mishka himself thought the same thing, until the very end. He feels betrayed."
Kate still was speechless, a thousand thoughts streaking through her mind. Things were starting to fall in place, at last. Her own blunder had led to a piece of information she never could have counted on in advance Isabelle Rouens connection. And here Rebecca, through some independent investigative work that she really shouldnt have undertaken alone, was onto something, too.
"Kate?" Becky was still waiting. "How did you, ah, make out today?" The flight attendant knew she was pressing Kates buttons, and her own for that matter, but she didnt give a hoot. Swim, Becky, swim!
"Isabelle Rouen is our lead suspect now," Kate replied, focusing. "She was married to an Izo Mufti who used to work with Birktec electronics."
Kate heard a sharp intake of breath at the other end of the line. "Have Rory get working on that right away."
"Hes still in Washington, Kate. Why?"
"Im going to Paris to interview Mufti, and I want Mac to bring me that letter."
"I can do it, Kate," Beckys voice was firm. "Let me."
"No way," the pilot replied, in equally strong terms.
"Now you listen to me, Catherine Phillips!"
Uh-oh, Kate thought. I think I can hear her stomping her foot.
"This is my lead. I gained Mishkas confidence, and he gave me this letter for us to present to Ahmed. Youre over there, and you shouldnt be alone if you are," Becky muttered. "You didnt even bring your laptop, did you?"
"Damn," Kate snorted, "No wonder it seemed I was traveling light!" Leaving without the computer had been no loss to her.
"Kate, youre going to Paris next, right?"
"Yes," the tall pilot lowered her head into her hands. She knew where this was going. And dammit, the air conditioning in her room was blasting colder than an Arctic wind! She was freezing here, sitting in her damp towel.
"Well." Beckys voice was triumphant. "There you are. I speak French!"
"No. I cant allow it."
"Kate," a small voice. A plaintive plea. "Lets see this thing through together. Its only right. You know that it is. Please?"
Kate released a heavy sigh. She hated to put Rebecca in harms way. Not again. But hell, this was Paris they were talking about. What could happen?
In the meantime, if Mufti got word they were on to him, he might run. And here she was, in a hotel room in Riyadh, freezing her ass off. On both counts, she had to move fast. A plan began to formulate in her dark head.
"Okay," her eyes glittered. "Meet me in Paris."
Continued in Part 5
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