|Publisher:||Tyndale House Publishers|
|Product dimensions:||5.40(w) x 8.00(h) x 1.10(d)|
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THE EZEKIEL OPTION
By JOEL C. ROSENBERG
Tyndale House Publishers, Inc.Copyright © 2005 Joel C. Rosenberg
All right reserved.
Chapter OneTUESDAY, JULY 29 - 3:16 P.M. - 52 MILES SOUTHEAST OF MANHATTAN
Boris Stuchenko would be dead in less than nineteen minutes.
And he had no idea why.
The fifty-three-year-old self-made billionaire had a long list of enemies; of this he had no doubt. Business competitors. Political rivals. Mistresses too numerous to count.
But this made no sense. Was it really a hit? Was he really the target? Or was the president and CEO of Lukoil-Russia's largest oil company-simply in the wrong place at the wrong time for the first time in his life?
Stuchenko gripped the leather armrests. He couldn't see the terrorists. At least one was behind him, back in business or economy class. But he didn't dare turn and look.
He wasn't even supposed to be on this flight. As the richest man in Russia, he never flew commercial. His fleet of private jets, including a gleaming new Gulfstream V, was the envy of the Russian oligarchs.
But over the past eighteen months, he'd become obsessed with buying Aeroflot, Russia's aging airline-her jets, her routes, her infrastructure-and turning the much-ridiculed "Aero-flop" into a world-class competitor. To seal the deal with the Wall Street crowd, his strategists were positioning him as a man of the people, willing to fly one of the most troubled airlines on the planet before turning her into a profit-making superpower.
Now all that was about to change.
Stuchenko tried to slow his breathing and focus his thoughts. Two hijackers were in the cockpit. He'd seen them go in. But now the door was shut, and the pilots' screams had long since been silenced.
Out of the corner of his eye he could see two badly beaten flight attendants, huddled and shivering on the floor in the forward galley. Their hands and mouths were bound with duct tape. Their swollen eyes darted from face to face, silently pleading for help from anyone in the first-class cabin.
No one moved.
They were so young and innocent, the kind of exquisite and courteous Russian women around which he could have rebuilt this airline. He'd flirted with one for half the flight. But now Stuchenko refused even to make eye contact. The women had the air of hunted animals, and he wanted nothing to do with them.
What kind of man was he? He couldn't sit here like a coward.
Stuchenko had served his time in the Red Army. He'd fought in Afghanistan in the eighties against bin Laden and his demons. He'd been trained in hand-to-hand combat. And he'd have the element of surprise. Especially if he could enlist the help of his two top aides, sitting in the row behind him.
The cockpit wasn't sealed shut. The terrorists had jammed the lock. He'd seen them do it. He'd seen them come in and out, and the door had swung easily every time.
A quick glance to his right confirmed that no one was coming up the aisle. He reached for his fountain pen and wrote quickly in German on the napkin beside him. His aides knew German, but it was unlikely the terrorists did.
"We must storm the cabin, like the Americans did on 9/11," he wrote. "We have no choice. We must retake the plane, or die. Cough if you're with me."
He set down the pen, crumpled the napkin in his right hand, then slipped it back between the seats, hoping one of them would see it and take it.
One did. The napkin slid from his fingers. He waited.
He could hear the muffled cries of children behind him, but mostly there was an eerie quiet, save for the roar of the jet engines. The acrid stench of gunpowder still hung in the air. For the life of him he couldn't imagine how they'd gotten weapons on board. But he could see the results. On the floor ahead of him lay his personal bodyguard, a pool of crimson growing around his head.
* * *
The young air-traffic controller tried to stay calm.
"Aeroflot six-six-one-seven heavy, once again, this is New York Center; acknowledge."
Still no response.
"Aeroflot six-six-one-seven, this is New York Center. Execute immediate course change to three-four-five-repeat, three-four-five-and acknowledge, over."
Again, no response.
The controller took a deep breath and scanned his instruments again. He'd only been on the job for a year, but he'd been well trained. The jumbo jet was inbound from Moscow and scheduled to land at JFK within the half hour. But instead of heading into a landing pattern, the plane had banked sharply to the southwest, bypassed New York City, and refused to acknowledge his radio instructions.
He picked up the phone and dialed his supervisor.
Seconds later, his call was relayed to the FAA's operations center in Virginia.
No, the transponder was still on, he told the watch officer.
Yes, it appeared to be transmitting properly.
No, the jet had not squawked 7500, the international hijacking code. Or 7600, for radio malfunction. Or 7700, for a general emergency.
No, the pilots had not flashed an HJK text message for a hijacking in progress.
No, there was no evidence of depressurization.
Or reports of a fire or shots on board.
But something was seriously wrong.
The FAA watch officer now speed-dialed NORAD. He was patched through to the North East Air Defense Sector at Griffiss Air Force Base in Rome, New York, and explained the situation. The NEADS commander didn't hesitate. He scrambled fighter jets out of the 119th Fighter Squadron in Atlantic City and the 121st out of Andrews Air Force Base in Maryland, then called the National Military Command Center at the Pentagon.
Moving at 550 miles an hour-with clear skies, unlimited visibility, and no headwinds-Aeroflot 6617 was now less than two hundred miles from Washington, D.C.
* * *
The briefing wasn't going well.
President James "Mac" MacPherson had just begun a meeting with his Council of Economic Advisors. The first-quarter growth numbers were dismal. The second-quarter estimates were worse. The recovery had stalled. Unemployment was climbing, and his approval ratings were slipping.
But the instant Secret Service Agent Jackie Sanchez burst into the Oval Office without warning, MacPherson knew the meeting was over.
Sanchez leaned in and whispered, "Mr. President, you need to come with me."
"Why? What's going on?"
"Right away, sir. I'm sorry. I'll brief you on the way."
MacPherson rose and apologized to his economic team. He started to gather his papers, but gave up as three more agents took up positions and rushed him toward the door.
"Gambit's moving," Sanchez said into her wrist-mounted radio.
"What's going on?" MacPherson demanded.
"Mr. President, NORAD is presently tracking a Russian passenger jet headed for D.C. Probable hijacking. Possible suicide mission. ETA about fourteen minutes. NMCC has initiated Noble Eagle, and they're waiting for you, sir."
MacPherson hurried through a set of steel blast doors and down three flights of stairs to the Presidential Emergency Operations Center, a nuclear-bomb-proof communications bunker deep underneath the White House.
"Julie and the girls?"
"They're being airlifted to Mount Weather, sir, along with the VP's wife."
"Where's the vice president?"
"Checkmate is inbound to the White House. Should be here in a few minutes."
"What about the Speaker?"
"En route to New York for a fund-raiser, Mr. President. We've rerouted his plane and are giving him a fighter escort out of the northeast corridor. House and Senate leadership are all being secured. The Hill is being evacuated as we speak, and the army is deploying triple-A batteries around the Capitol, the Pentagon, and Langley."
"And your guys?"
"We're good, sir. I've got Avengers and Stingers on the roof. We've got two F-16s scrambled out of Andrews flying CAP and four more about to go up."
The president entered the PEOC, where National Security Advisor Marsha Kirkpatrick and White House Chief of Staff Bob Corsetti were already working the phones along with another dozen military aides and Press Secretary Chuck Murray.
"Where are we?" asked MacPherson as he took a seat at the head of the conference table.
"Mr. President, NMCC just initiated the air threat conference," said Kirkpatrick. "We've got all the relevant agencies on secure audio and video. The VP is still a few minutes out. The SecDef is choppering to the Pentagon and should be in place shortly. Right now I need you to speak with General Charlie Briggs-four star, air force, commander at NORAD. He's on one of the secure feeds."
"What've we got, General?" asked MacPherson.
"Sir, on the far left screen you can see the radar track of the Russian jet."
"That's real time?"
"Yes, sir-they're 163 miles outside of D.C. In a moment we'll have live video feeds from the F-16s involved in the intercept."
"Who's up there?" MacPherson asked.
"Two F-16s out of the 119th in Atlantic City, Mr. President."
MacPherson watched another video screen flicker to life. He could now see the two F-16s roaring in behind the Russian jet, moving faster than the speed of sound, and could overhear the pilots as they communicated with their commanders.
"NEADS, this is Devil One-One, in half-mile trail behind the airliner," came the voice of the lead U.S. fighter pilot, thirty thousand feet above the coast of Delaware.
"Devil One-One, this is NEADS Command," replied the two-star general from NORAD's Continental Region at Tyndall Air Force Base in Panama City, Florida. "You are authorized to switch to Guard frequency and begin communications with the Russian jumbo."
"Roger that, sir."
MacPherson heard the F-16 pilot attempting to reach the Russian pilots on the standard frequency all aircraft were required to monitor. "Aeroflot six-six-one-seven, this is a United States Air Force F-16 off your left wing, transmitting on Guard."
There was no answer.
"Six-six-one-seven, again, this is a United States Air Force F-16 off your left wing. Acknowledge."
"Six-six-one-seven, this is Devil One-One, transmitting on Guard, two-four-three-point-zero, and one-two-one-point-five. If you can hear me, acknowledge with a wing rock, over."
There was nothing but the hiss of static.
"Devil One-One, this is CONR Command. Son, can you see into the cockpit?"
"Negative, CONR. No frost. No signs of depressurization. But the sun's pretty hot up here. We're getting a wicked glare off the Russian's windshield. Devil One-Two, this is Devil One-One. Do you have a line of sight into the cockpit from your side?"
The second F-16-positioned off the right wing of the Russian jet-tried to maneuver for a better look.
"Negative, Devil One-One. Can't really tell."
The two-star in Panama City came on again. "Devil One-One, what about the passenger windows? Any movement inside?"
"Negative, sir. All the shades are pulled down on this side. Can't see a thing."
His wingman fared no better.
"Roger that, Devil One-One," came the word from Panama City. "Try the flares."
"Copy that, CONR. Stand by one."
The lead F-16 now banked away from the Russian's left wing, then roared forward, pulling in front of the Russian by about half a mile.
Devil 12 banked right, slowed a bit, then pulled in behind the Russian jumbo.
Sixty seconds later, the lead fighter jet released a barrage of sizzling, red-hot flares. They were typically used as decoys to confuse heat-seeking missiles. Now they were trying to catch the attention of anyone who might be alive inside the Aeroflot cockpit.
Again the F-16s attempted radio contact.
Again there was nothing but hiss and static.
President MacPherson's stomach tightened. He caught the eye of his chief of staff, then looked back at the radar track. Aeroflot 6617 was now only 109 miles outside of the nation's capital and coming in at nearly the speed of sound.
* * *
The plan was almost set.
Stuchenko reached his hand back to receive one last crumpled note from his aides in the first-class seats behind him. His hands trembled. He glanced to his right, listened carefully, but saw and heard no one as he opened the napkin under the protection of his fold-out tray.
"We know there are two in the cockpit," it read. "But what about behind us? Where's #3? Is there a fourth? more? We must know before we move."
Stuchenko was furious. They wanted him to turn around? They wanted him to look back to find the other terrorists? Wasn't he their boss? Why didn't they turn around? But Stuchenko knew full well why not. They were as terrified as he was. Everyone on the plane had been ordered not to move, not to stand, not to go to the bathroom, not to turn around. To disobey was suicide. But what other choice did they have?
Stuchenko closed his eyes, straining to hear any sign of trouble. But aside from all the crying children, all he could hear now was his PR agent rubbing worry beads and mumbling some sort of prayer over and over again.
What a fool, thought Stuchenko. The idiot is going to get us all killed.
Stuchenko tried to breathe, tried to steel himself.
If he had to die, he would die like a man.
* * *
Marsha Kirkpatrick put the question directly.
"Mr. President, are you ready to order this plane shot down?"
MacPherson hesitated to say no out loud. Instead he began firing off questions.
"Are any U.S. marshals on board?"
"No," said Kirkpatrick. "There aren't enough marshals for every flight, and this route has never been a problem."
"What about Russian marshals?"
"We're not sure yet. Aeroflot is supposed to fax the flight manifest to the FBI's field office in Moscow, but nothing has come in yet."
"Is there any possibility that passengers on board might be able to overtake the hijackers?"
"Perhaps," Kirkpatrick conceded. "But there isn't much time, and if the flight gets within fifty miles of Washington, the situation will get infinitely more dangerous."
"Because the plane would have to be shot down over land, sir. That puts the lives of innocent people on the ground at risk."
MacPherson struggled to think clearly. "Is there any other way to stop the plane?"
"Unlikely," Kirkpatrick said. "Mr. President, you should be under no illusions. If Chechen rebels are in control of the aircraft, they are likely on a kamikaze mission, and there will be no negotiations."
MacPherson looked up at the radar track.
The jet was now less than one hundred miles from D.C.
The two F-16s took up flanking positions behind the jet. Each carried two AIM-120 air-to-air missiles, and two AIM-9 Sidewinder heat-seeking missiles.
Excerpted from THE EZEKIEL OPTION by JOEL C. ROSENBERG Copyright © 2005 by Joel C. Rosenberg. Excerpted by permission.
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