December 27, 9:43 p.m.
Two hours before the event
As the big airliner climbed past twenty-four thousand feet, the air pressure detonator worked exactly as planned. In retrospect, it was all too easy. A small metal box, about the size of a child’s shoebox, held the components of the bomb: a nine-volt battery, a small brick of C-4 plastic explosive, a sealed glass capsule, and a digital timer.
The box was attached to the forward bulkhead in the nonpressurized nose cone of the airliner. The reduction in air pressure as the airliner climbed in altitude caused the air inside the thimble-sized glass capsule to expand until it burst. The shattering of the capsule completed an electrical circuit and started the digital timer.
In two hours, the timer would reach zero, and the nine-volt battery would fire an electrical charge to the blasting cap in the C-4. The blasting cap would detonate the C-4, and the explosion would rip apart the big airliner, sending the three hundred plus holiday vacationers to their deaths.
Five hours before the event
Inside Terminal Six at Los Angeles International Airport, off-duty airline pilot Kevin McSorley rolled his carry-on luggage over the gray tiled floor towards the check-in station at his departure gate. Midevening on a Tuesday in the week between Christmas and New Year’s was a quiet time for the airlines, and he had the terminal mostly to himself. Off-key, he sang out loud, “Deck the halls with boughs of holly,” as he made his way through the terminal. He daydreamed about his upcoming flight to Hawaii and the six nights he would spend in a five-star hotel with a beautiful woman. His woman. “Tis the season to be jolly…”
His iPhone vibrated in his pocket, indicating a new text message. He retrieved it, and as if on cue to verify their strong mental connection, it was Margie.
Margie: Just got in, hotel rocks!
Kevin: cool, you naked yet?
Margie: Still in the lobby
Kevin: is that a yes or no?
Kevin: just at gate now
Margie: Wow, u r early. Can’t wait, eh?
Kevin: u bet, baby!
Margie: Hitting the gym and then the lounge for food
Kevin: don’t pick up any strangers
Margie: Define stranger??
Margie: Kisses. Hurry here!
Kevin: XOXO all over
Margie: Waiting up for u w cold beer
Kevin: nice! send photo
Margie: Of coors light?
Kevin: of u naked
Margie: No, use your imagination
Kevin: roger. gotta check in now, babe. Kisses
Margie: Luv u
Kevin: u 2 😉
Kevin smiled, pocketed his phone, and headed over towards the gate that had “Flight 2262 LAX–HNL: On Time” illuminated above the check-in counter. He looked around at the near-empty terminal and checked the time: 6:47 p.m. He had arrived early for his 9:15 p.m. flight and looked forward to putting on his headphones and relaxing to some classical music for the first time in a while.
Kevin recognized the slim brunette ticket agent at his gate as soon as he spotted her. Tess. Her dark skin and long, slightly wavy black hair that reached down to the middle of her back were a perfect complement to her bright smile and pretty features. Close to thirty, she still showed off the athletic remnants of being a collegiate swimmer in the form of a tight body, something every man within fifty feet took notice of.
“Hi, Tess,” he said.
Tess stopped what she was doing, looked up at him, and greeted him with a smile. “Well, hello, Captain.” She looked him up and down, and a look of snarkiness overtook her as she noticed his unusual attire: sneakers, jeans, and a button-down Hawaiian-style shirt along with an LA Dodgers baseball cap. “Wow, someone’s letting their hair down,” she said in reference to his normally streamlined and stoic captainly appearance. “Will you be joining us to Hawaii tonight?” she asked.
“Yes, I will.” Kevin smiled back at her, leaned on the counter, and handed her his buddy pass, the airline employee equivalent of a general admission ticket. Even if his flight was sold out, the buddy pass allowed him to sit on the fold-down jump seat in the cockpit. The jump seat was small, and the two-person cockpit was overly snug when a third person rode along, but it got the job done.
“Damn,” Tess said. An exaggerated pout appeared on her otherwise perfect face. “Wish I was going to Hawaii. I did my friend a favor and traded flights with her.” Her almond-shaped green eyes looked right at him. “Now I’m sorry I did that. Your flight crew has a three-day layover in Hawaii, and a three-day layover with you would have been fun.”
Gulp. Kevin’s heart skipped a beat. When she turned on the charm, she had the ability to make him feel like a nervous freshman, and despite his allegiance to Margie, his brain shut down and Margie was but a faint thought. Excitement churned in his stomach like a runaway freight train, and his mind was consumed for the moment by Tess.
“Yeah, that would have been fun.” Kevin felt guilty about his enticement and tried to be nonchalant. “But don’t worry, I have a feeling I’ll be passing through these parts again soon.”
“How long are you staying in Hawaii?”
“Wow, nice.” She smiled at him and leaned over the counter to get closer to him, her face just inches from his. “Hey, I’m on break in about twenty. Can I buy you a Coke before you leave on your little holiday vacay? Your flight’s not leaving for a while.”
“Uhm, not tonight. I, uh, have some work to do before we board,” he lied, and stepped back slightly to create some distance between them. He was on the verge of caving in and needed some space. “But I’ll take a rain check.” He followed up his rejection with a thousand-watt smile.
She leaned in closer. Some of her hair brushed against his face and feathered his nose as he inhaled. He closed his eyes and savored the moment. He thought of Margie. Guilt came, he inhaled, and the guilt disappeared. God, she smelled so good.
“You know,” she whispered in his ear, her breath warm and perfect, “we can go to the pilots’ lounge. I’ll show you my tattoos.”
Tattoos were a common thread between them, and they discussed them often. “All of them?” he replied, his nonexistent impulse control once again rearing its ugly head and sabotaging his potential relationship with a member of the opposite sex. What was he doing?
“Every. Single. One.” She punctuated each word, and Kevin felt his composure wavering.
Thinking of Margie, he sputtered, “Oh, man. I’d love to, but it’s just not a good time. Sorry.” And with a meek shoulder shrug, he waited and looked at her with a sheepish smile.
With a deep sigh, she looked down at the papers in front of her and finished her work. It was clear to Kevin that she wasn’t used to being rejected by the opposite sex and that she didn’t take it well. After a few seconds, she regained her happy demeanor and smiled at him as she handed him back his buddy pass with his seat assignment. “Have a great flight, sir.”
“Thanks.” He took his buddy pass, grabbed his bag, and rolled it away. He fought the urge to look at his seat assignment to see if she’d stuck him in the ass of the airliner, next to the bathroom.
After finding a seat far enough away from Tess so that he could focus on his work, he broke out his laptop. Since FAA regs mandated that airline pilots could only fly one hundred hours per month, they didn’t really work that much. Most wound up flying eighty-five to ninety hours per month. That left them with plenty of free time for a pilot’s two favorite pastimes—getting drunk, and chasing women. Plural.
Kevin had decided early in his career that it was in his best long-term financial interest to have just one wife rather than supporting a handful of women who would eventually collect alimony from him. So to keep himself busy and out of trouble, he’d opened an Internet store that sold pilots’ supplies: sunglasses, watches, and other miscellaneous items that pilots found appealing. That had worked out well up until a few months ago—the one wife part, anyway.
He attempted to check his sales numbers for the day, but he couldn’t focus on the spreadsheet. He was distracted by the encounter with Tess, and his mind drifted to his younger days. Days of opportunity.
But not now. There was too much going on in his life, and the last thing he needed was another emotional attachment. And make no mistake about it, intimacy with Tess would create an attachment that would make his personal situation look like World War III as opposed to a minor skirmish in the field.
Just the same, if she kept it up, he didn’t know how much longer he’d be able to resist her.
Two hours and forty-five minutes before the event
Kevin was so excited about his trip to Hawaii that he forgot to check and see who his pilots were. He usually reviewed the flight crew lineup a few days ahead of time, and if he liked the guys, he’d sit up front in the cockpit and ride jump seat with them instead of sitting with the flying public in coach. Although uncomfortable, the little fold-down seat behind the captain’s seat was tolerable for an average sized person like Kevin.
He boarded the plane and looked into the cockpit, where he saw the first officer, Tom Burns, sitting in the right seat. He was chatting with a fellow in a dark suit that was standing behind the captain’s seat. He didn’t recognize the visitor, but Kevin had flown with Tom many times and thought of him as a good pilot. Equally important, Tom was a good cockpit mate. Sometimes the younger guys that had just gotten promoted to the bigger airliners were a little nervous or hesitant in their actions or decision making, oftentimes deferring to the more experienced captain. Kevin tolerated that, figuring that it was all part of their learning and getting comfortable with the big aircraft, but he could never tolerate a bad cockpit mate. He had compiled a mental list, a personal “No Fly With Me” list, of guys who never shut up, ranted about politics or bad exes, or were all-around miserable beings who made five hours next to them in the cockpit intolerable. Tom wasn’t on that list.
The left seat, where the captain sat, was occupied by Captain Roy Peterson, a thirty-five-year veteran of the airlines. Roy turned in his seat and, with the agility of a man half his age, extricated himself from his chair. “Excuse me, gentlemen,” he said as he made his way out of the cockpit.
“Bathroom already? No more coffee for you, old man,” said Tom.
“You got that right,” Roy said. “The caffeine might interfere with my midflight nap. Can’t let that happen.”
Tom sighed, closed his eyes, and smacked his forehead in pretend anguish at his peer’s old joke. “Need new material, Captain.”
Roy stepped out of the cockpit, his always present smile lighting up his face, and recognized Kevin right away. “Hey, young man,” he said. “Nice to see you.” He held out his hand and Kevin took it—his shake was strong and firm, like a man twenty years younger than his real age.
“Hi, Captain,” Kevin said. “We going to have a smooth flight tonight? I need to catch up on some sleep.”
“What, you’re flying and you haven’t checked the en route weather forecast?” the captain ribbed. “Seems like they’ll hire anybody to drive these aluminum tubes these days.”
“Ha, no, I’ve been a little preoccupied,” said Kevin. Yeah, with Margie.
Roy paused, and a seriousness crept into his look, “Can I talk with you a second?” He waved Kevin away from the other passengers and over to a quiet spot in the galley.
“This might not be any of my business, but I heard about you and Patty, and I just wanted to tell you that I’m sorry.”
“Thanks, I appreciate that.”
“Don’t feel bad if you need to take some time off. Clear your head and all.”
“Yeah, I was thinking about that…but you know how it is. Work is good for the soul. Keeps your mind off your troubles.”
“True, just as long as your troubles don’t interfere with your work. But I trust that you’ll know if that happens. If you ever need anything, just let me know.”
“Thanks, I will.”
“So how long are you staying in Hawaii?” The smile came back and Roy put his hand on Kevin’s shoulder.
“Nice. Bringing in the New Year in Hawaii is a real treat. Elizabeth and I did that a few years ago. It was a great time. The Hawaiian people are just so friendly.”
“Yeah, I’m really looking forward to it.”
“Most of our crew will be laying over for three days at the Hilton. If you want to hang with us, we have some sightseeing planned for later in the day tomorrow, followed up with dinner and drinks at this awesome restaurant that I discovered a few months ago. You’re welcome to join us.”
“Thanks, Cap. I’m good, though. Just going to relax and hang poolside for a few days.”
“Roger that. If you change your mind, the offer is always open.”
“Okay, thanks again.” Kevin shook his hand and made his way back to the seat that Tess had assigned him. At the ass end of the aircraft. Right next to the bathroom.
He appreciated Roy’s gesture and he was going to miss him when he left. He hoped he’d get one more flight tour with Roy before he retired, but he kept getting shut out on his bids. The monthly bid schedule for pilot routes favored the guys with the most seniority, and most of the pilots with higher seniority than Kevin also wanted to fly with Roy one more time before he retired. Kevin had no way of knowing it, but he would never fly with Roy again.
He sat down in his aisle seat, loosely fastened his seat belt, and thought of Margie. Seven days of uninterrupted quality time spent with his soul mate. Margie’s uplifting energy was the perfect remedy to his marital woes.
His daydreaming was interrupted by his vibrating phone. He took it out and saw a text message from Margie.
Margie: Room is awesome
Kevin: not flying to HNW for the room
Margie: Me neither. Taking a bath.
Kevin: hot crew on board this flight
Margie: Bring 1 with u
Kevin: ur a perfect girlfriend!
Margie: Make sure he’s young AND fit
Kevin: uhm…meant SHE crew!!!
Margie: Oh! How silly of me. Just kidding…tee hee
Kevin: now Im bringing 2
Margie: Ha! Better take your Viagra!
Kevin: we’ll c
Margie: Might have 2 nap, wake me when u come
Kevin: I will w/ XOXO all over
Margie: Sleep on the flight, NO flirting! Bring energy. NO excuses!
Kevin: kisses baby
Kevin heard the solid thunk of the cabin door as it was closed and secured in place. A few minutes later, he felt the firm nudge as the tug connected with the nose gear of the big airliner and pushed it back from its gate. He heard the familiar soothing sound of the jet engines starting, and the aircraft started its taxi.
One of the ladies from the cabin crew came on the intercom and began her preflight announcements to the passengers, which included the locations of the emergency exits, the reminder that your seat cushion was a flotation device, and best of all, instructions on how a seat belt worked, just in case there was a Neanderthal on board. Captain Roy came on the mike and, with the authority that only a seasoned airline pilot possessed, advised the flight crew to take their seats: “We’re number one for takeoff.”
On the runway, the two engines spooled up smoothly and the familiar feeling of being pushed back in his seat as the airliner accelerated made Kevin feel at home. The tires bumped along the runway expansion strips, getting softer and softer as the wings started to rise and take on the weight of the big airliner, and then silence as the nose rose and the massive two hundred and fifty tons of machine defied the laws of physics and took flight. The landing gear was raised, completing its journey into the wheel wells with a solid thunk, and the flaps were retracted.
The symphony of events that culminated in flight helped Kevin shake off the negativity of the past, and he plugged his headset into his iPhone and relaxed to some music. He closed his eyes and thought of Margie, and his mood elevated even higher. He relished the feel of her breath on his cheek, the excited way she hugged him when she saw him, the tenderness in her touch. She was perfect for him in every way.
Except that she was married…