A Boeing/McDonnell-Douglas MD-11 jetliner crashes into the Gulf of Mexico a mile inside Cuban waters, killing all three hundred and twenty passengers onboard. The last three minutes on the plane’s cockpit voice and data recorders have been erased. Was this a massive mechanical failure or an act of terrorism?
At an air terrorism conference, FBI agent Kat Bronsky learns Washington Post reporter Robert McCabe has received frightening information about the MD-11 crash from a source that mysteriously disappeared. When another airliner goes down after its pilots are flash-blinded midflight, Bronsky and McCabe find themselves at the center of what might be a deadly government cover-up.
Unable to trust her colleagues at the FBI, Bronsky must rely on her own wits and piloting skills as she races from the jungles of Vietnam to the forests of the American Northwest to unmask the conspirators before the entire American airline industry comes crashing out of the sky.
John J. Nance is in top form with this suspense-charged, action-packed novel that solidifies his reputation as the king of the aviation thriller.
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By John J. Nance
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 2000 John J. Nance
All rights reserved.
HONG KONG, CHINA
TWO MONTHS LATER
NOVEMBER 12 — DAY ONE
7:12 P.M. LOCAL/1112 ZULU
FBI Special Agent Katherine Bronsky yelped as she fell backward across the far edge of the king-size bed and rolled out of sight behind it, landing on her hip with an unceremonious thud.
Wonderful! she thought, Another bruise the size of Cleveland.
The male voice coming from the speaker of her notebook computer wafted over the bed to compete with the vibrant roar of downtown Hong Kong's living wave of sound, which cascaded through the partially open balcony doors.
Kat lifted herself to a sitting position and peeked over the bed as she blew a wayward strand of hair away from her eyes, feeling like a klutz.
Now that was embarrassing! Thank goodness he can't see me.
Assistant Deputy Director Jake Rhoades's puzzled expression was clearly visible on her computer screen as he made a futile effort to see her from his end in Washington. There was a tiny camera built into the lid of her laptop computer, but she'd draped a pair of panties over it while dressing. The new secure video capability was fun, but there were limits to what she wanted Washington to see.
"I guess in the interest of full disclosure I should admit that the thud you heard was me hitting the floor. I tripped," she explained in a loud voice, leaving out the fact that she'd tangled her feet in her own panty hose and all but hog-tied herself. "Sorry to interrupt what you were saying. You were in the process of warning me not to embarrass the Bureau, but you hadn't said why."
He ignored the reference. "You sure everything's okay there? I still can't see you. My screen is just showing a gauzy white."
"I don't want you to see me." Kat laughed as she began hopping again on one foot across the plush rug toward the desk, trying once more to pull on the other leg of her panty hose as she glanced at the clock on the bedside table. "I'm not decent."
There was a pause and a wicked chuckle from Washington. "Well ... now that you mention it ... there are those in the Bureau who would agree with you, Kat."
She finished adjusting the panty hose as she shook her head in mock disgust, glad he couldn't see the gesture. "I meant, Sir, that I'm not appropriately attired to appear on your computer screen in front of my brother agents, some of whom may not be gender-blind."
"Ah. Then I'm technically glad you didn't, since I wouldn't want to be accused of sexual enjoyment."
"That's harassment, Jake. You wouldn't want to be accused of sexual harassment."
"That too. Look, let's get back to the Cuban crash, okay?"
Kat moved behind the desk to look at herself in the full-length mirror, listening carefully to what he was saying but substantially pleased by what she saw. Fifteen pounds lighter in the last six months, with a firm stomach at last, was something to be proud of. Solid evidence of the self-discipline she expected of herself.
"I thought that MD-eleven was an American airliner," she said, glancing at her handwritten notes while adjusting her bra and straightening a cascade of shoulder-length chestnut-brown hair. Jake Rhoades was an important official at FBI headquarters, while she was assigned to the D.C. field office, reporting to him on special assignments. Nevertheless, Jake was easy to talk to, and their relationship, while appropriately professional, was cordial. She could kid him without fear.
There was a mumbled reply from the Beltway and she glanced back at the screen to see if the signal was breaking up.
"I'm sorry, Jake. Say again, please."
"I said I probably ought to just give you a synopsis of the situation."
"Good idea," she replied, glancing at her watch and diverting her gaze toward the couch, where she'd laid out two blouses. She had to appear downstairs in thirty minutes, looking perfectly professional and perfectly feminine at the same time. The expensive charcoal-gray suit she'd bought especially for the speech was ready. But which blouse sent the right message?
"Okay," Jake continued. "You already know the basic fact situation, right?"
She walked quickly to the couch, holding her chin in her right hand as she looked at the two blouses and nodded unseen toward the computer screen. "I believe so," she said, smoothing the frilly one, aware that it still bore the scent of her favorite perfume. "An American MD-eleven crashed with no survivors a mile inside Cuban waters for unknown reasons, killing three hundred twenty-six, and the President ordered a naval blockade of the recovery area, which triggered a hysterical reaction from Castro, which in turn has triggered hysterical speculation that Cuba somehow shot it down for penetrating Cuban airspace, which would be bizarre given all the commercial air traffic flying daily over Cuba. The cockpit voice recorder and flight data recorder were missing for three weeks, then mysteriously showed up, pinging their little hearts out underwater, and the National Transportation Safety Board seriously suspects that someone recovered them earlier and tampered with the CVR tape since the last three minutes are gone, even though the aircraft never lost power." She straightened and glanced at the screen. "Is that about right?"
Jake's eyebrows had risen. "I'm impressed, Kat. You listen well."
She picked up the plain white blouse and held it at arm's length. It was spartan and uninteresting, but in keeping with the seriousness of a major address on airline terrorism. "Did I miss anything?" she asked.
"Not really, except we're sure Cuba has a small submarine, and there is some evidence that they could have snatched those black boxes and altered them to hide whatever really happened. And you know that the Bureau and the NTSB are working hand in hand on this, which means we get more than our share of media pressure."
"Don't worry. I won't talk to the media."
"Well, you may not have a choice. A major conference on air terrorism with you as the closing speaker is a magnet for media types looking for a quote. I'm not saying don't talk to them. What I'm saying is, don't speculate! The nuts are coming out of the woodwork with every conceivable conspiracy theory, trying to tie it in with Swissair, EgyptAir, TWA 800, and God knows what else. Before long, they'll have this connected to the Challenger accident and the loss of the Titanic."
"Such is the nature of conspiracy theorists," Kat replied, studying the extreme fatigue showing in Jake's eyes. He was only forty-six, but he looked a decade older.
"True. Look, Kat, the President and his people are pressing the hell out of NTSB, and us, to find a theory that doesn't include Cuba, conspiracies, space aliens, or terrorists. The Bureau isn't going to give in to that pressure, of course, nor is the NTSB, but I've gotta tell you, it's becoming excruciating. All I'm saying is, whatever you do, don't fan the flames by pointing in one direction or another."
"So, if they ask me whether this could have been an act of terrorism ...?"
"Then say we have insufficient information to point in any direction. Tell them that massive mechanical failure is just as possible as anything else. The NTSB's favorite phrase, I'm told, is that it's too early to rule anything in or anything out."
"I mean it, Kat. Be really careful. One slip with the media and your name goes up in lights. Again."
"And ... you're saying that this would be bad, right?"
She suppressed a chuckle. "I'm kidding, Boss. But what if it is Cuba?"
"Then after the inevitable invasion force lands, you can apply for a position as the Bureau's legal attaché in Havana. I almost pity Fidel if he's responsible for this."
"What's the chance this is terrorism, Jake? The real word, not the party line."
There was an ominous silence from the other end, broken at last by a sigh.
"If this is an act of terrorism — not a mechanical malfunction, and not something the Cubans did — then we're in deep trouble. We haven't got a clue how they did it, although a missile is a distinct possibility. That's why I doubt ..."
There was the sound of a telephone ringing in the background.
"Kat, can you hold a second?"
"You bet," she replied, looking at her watch again, her mind focused on the mystery of the MD-11 crash and the frustrating lack of evidence. Her eyes drifted back to the couch.
The frilly one. I enjoy looking feminine. If the boys have a problem with that, so be it! She snatched the blouse from the couch and began putting it on, smiling to herself, remembering the compliments and the glances she always got when she wore it. She buttoned it and removed her dark gray skirt from the hanger, pulling it on and adjusting it to let the hem fall just above her knees, wondering how much longer Jake would be. A touch up with the hair spray and a quick review of the script and she'd be ready.
Jake's voice returned. "You there, Kat?"
She began moving toward the computer as she finished fastening the skirt. "Right here, Jake."
"I've got to go. Break a leg."
Kat reached out and snapped the panties off the tiny camera, smiling broadly. "Thank you for your support, Sir! I'll report back tomorrow."
"Ah, may a senior officer be permitted to tell a subordinate agent that her appearance is, ah, in keeping with the highest traditions of the Bureau?"
She smiled and cocked her head slightly. "He certainly may."
"Then please be so advised."
She saluted smartly. "Yes, Sir. Highest traditions. I take it that's a reference to J. Edgar's alternate dress code?" She laughed, noting his momentary confusion, her blue eyes sparkling at the compliment. Jake was married and moral, but very male.
"Ah, I meant ..."
"I know what you meant, Jake," she said, "and I appreciate it very much."
Kat disconnected and closed the screen as her eyes darted again to the time. Twenty minutes!
She finished touching up her makeup to fit the harsh lights of the ballroom twenty floors below. Makeup, hair, earrings, the dark-gray pumps, and the suit coat. Then a quick run-through of the script.
Men have it so easy! she thought. Shirt, tie, pants, coat, and out the door.
The exotic aroma of sandalwood filled her consciousness again, and she stood for a moment with her eyes closed to breathe deeply. The cabinetry was made from it. Sandalwood and teak were set off by the fresh arrangement of fragrant tropical flowers sent to each speaker, along with a tray of fruit and cheese and champagne. A Bach concerto was playing softly in the background, adding a touch of panache.
She picked up a piece of aged Brie and sipped a wineglass of mineral water, trying not to look at the digital clock that nagged her from the bedside table. There was an incredible sunset of deep reds and oranges gathering beyond the balcony like a living palette, filling the harbor with reflected color. It was too much to ignore — like the sunsets her father used to point out at unexpected times and places, even in the middle of an angry lecture once when she was eight.
Or was it nine?
She smiled at the memory of how he could be so firm and forbidding one second — the epitome of untethered authority — and a wide-eyed, wondering disciple of nature's beauty the next. An iron-hard senior FBI agent with the soul of a poet.
She leaned over to the bedside controls to raise the volume of the concerto playing on the built-in audio system. The lyricism of Vivaldi had heralded her entry into the room two days ago, heightening the feeling of unbridled elegance with each sunrise and sunset in the exotic port whose very name evoked images of intrigue.
Kat slid the door open and stepped onto the balcony, hugging herself absently as she drank in the exotic beauty before her.
Here I am, Dad, a full-fledged FBI agent on assignment in paradise! she thought, the small wave of pride and delight metered by the reality that she could no longer pick up the phone and share moments like this with him.
Her smile faded as she studied the glow to the west.
I miss you, Daddy. But I'm making it.CHAPTER 2
HONG KONG, CHINA
NOVEMBER 12 — DAY ONE
9:05 P.M. LOCAL/1305 ZULU
Kat Bronsky stood behind the ornate rosewood podium in the cavernous auditorium and mentally counted to five, milking the dramatic pause. The audience was virtually silent now, hanging on her words and waiting, all 1,600 of them, their minds whirling with the graphic images she'd painted of the well-known international hijacking that had terminated in New York.
"Eighteen hours we held off a final assault with the SWAT teams," she continued, speaking the words with deliberate care, giving the various translators working in carrels behind the curtain time to do their job.
"Eighteen hours of continuous demands, continuous threats, countered by the only humane weapon we ever really have: the fine art of negotiator delay. But in that eighteenth hour ..."
Again she paused, relishing the sight of the huge chandeliers above the audience and memorizing all of it — even the slight aroma of cigarette smoke supposedly banned from the hall. They all knew the conclusion, but they were caught up in the art of her storytelling.
"... suddenly the left forward door of the seven-forty-seven opened, and instead of a firestorm and dead bodies, three weary, defeated hijackers emerged, hands in the air, leaving two hundred eighty-seven passengers alive and uninjured and free to go home to their families. That, you see, is the point. We're human. Even the worst among us. Not every hostage situation can be ended this successfully, of course, but the reactions of even the most hysterical and maniacal humans can be manipulated to some degree for the greater good, if we refuse to be stampeded. Thank you very much!"
Kat stepped back slightly and nodded to the audience, wondering what to expect. The conference had been fruitful, but she was the last act and most of the delegates were tired and ready to leave. Yet they were getting to their feet, clapping heartily for her. Some of the Asian delegates even bowed in her direction.
Good grief, a standing ovation! The noise was sustained and tumultuous. Kat was stunned. She was losing the effort to control her broad smile.
The host of the conference materialized beside her as the applause subsided, announcing that they had ten minutes for questions. A hand went up too far back to make out the owner and someone with a portable microphone moved toward the man.
Kat fielded questions about the AirBridge 737 hijacking that had made her famous in the Bureau, then answered several about tactics. Glowing with success and trying to hide it, she almost missed the name and position of the last questioner.
"Robert MacCabe, Agent Bronsky, from The Washington Post. We're all aware of the MD-eleven crash just inside Cuban waters several months ago. So far, no cause has been clearly indicated and Cuba claims they're not responsible. What is the likelihood that the flight was brought down not by the Cubans, but by an act of terrorism? And, if there is a possibility, what weapon could have been used?"
Robert MacCabe? she thought, trying not to look startled. Jake was right! What's one of the Post's star investigative reporters doing in Hong Kong?
Kat cleared her throat. "Are you asking for my personal opinion, Mr. MacCabe, or the Bureau's official reaction?"
"I'll take whatever I can get," he quipped, sending a ripple of laughter through the hall. "Please just give us your best assessment on cause."
"I can't speak for the Bureau on an active investigation," she replied with a forced smile, wishing he'd sit down and stop deflating the bubble of goodwill now threatening to drain away from the auditorium. "As you know, the FBI is deeply involved, which means it's out of bounds for me to talk about. Are there any other questions?" Kat asked, looking pointedly away from MacCabe.
"Yes," Robert MacCabe said into the microphone.
Kat's eyes shifted back to him.
"We're here," he continued, "for one of the most important conferences on terrorist hijackings in history, and you're here, Agent Bronsky, because, as a hostage negotiator, you're one of the FBI's experts in an area that has caused the FBI to project itself into worldwide involvement against airborne terrorist acts."
"And your question, Mr. MacCabe?" Kat interjected.
"I'm coming to it. On top of that, your excellent speech shows there probably isn't a delegate in this room who knows more about the subject than you. Yet, even though it didn't involve hostages, you want us to believe that you're not aware of the details of the Cuban crash investigation as a potential terrorist act?"
Excerpted from Blackout by John J. Nance. Copyright © 2000 John J. Nance. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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