An Air Marshal struggles to save a doomed flight.
The Air Marshal
The pregnant belly of the sky hung gray and fat above the airfield. Even as its water broke to announce the birth of new rain, Gabe Harlow, Air Marshal, flipped up the collar of his leather jacket and shuddered from the damp and cold.
As much as he tried to ignore it, everything felt wrong about his next flight. He didn’t have the words to describe it, but recognized the feeling, the instinct. Something in the air that yearned for thunder and ached for lightning -- something he could sense rather than identify.
He stared up again at the swarm of clouds and listened to the beetle-voiced rain as it spoke at the window of the promenade, click-click-click-click. The thunderheads boiled like a witch’s cauldron over the air field, an ever-changing Rorschach blot that held a secret Gabe could not see—a riddle he could not answer. The feeling slipped and tugged at him like greasy fingers. The second hand was counting down. Something bad was coming, and time was running out.
Amid the flogged air of human voices that flailed up and down the terminal, Gabe ambled toward the bathroom to wash up before the flight. Pushing through the restroom door, he heard the faint buzz of fluorescent tubes overhead, and smelled a lingering odor that would have gagged a sword-swallower. Reluctantly, he approached the sink, ran the water, and then splashed his face. Ripping a coarse paper towel from the dispenser, he dried himself, and then caught a glimpse of his reflection in the mirror.
A thick, salt-and-pepper growth of hair framed his broad face, and miniature trench-like wrinkles ran at the corners of his eyes and down his cheeks like a gouged field plowed by a hard life. His large gray eyes, once splattered with flecks of green and brimming with life, now appeared dim and unfamiliar. “Where’d you go, Gabe,” he asked himself. “Where’d the time fly?”
Aside from being an Air Marshal, Gabe was a certified PSBT, a Public Safety Bomb Technician. During his twenty-year-stint with the army, he had attended the joint U.S. Army-FBI Hazardous Devices School at Redstone Arsenal, Alabama, where he hoped he would get the training needed to enter the FBI. But after applying and getting turned down because of his age, he decided he’d try his hand at being an Air Marshal for United Airlines. It was a plush job, with nothing more to do than sit back and enjoy the ride. But Gabe took it serious enough, like everything else he did. There'd be no terrorists on his plane, not after 9/11, not after his wife died in the second tower of the World Trade Center, not ever.
Throwing the paper towel in the trashcan, he rushed from the stink-filled restroom and continued down the hall to Gate 14B. He mingled with the crowd, and then sat inconspicuously on a bench near the admitting stewardess, Melody Anderson. He liked Melody, even though she was ten years younger than him; she was pretty and down-to-earth wholesome like the girls he grew up with in Texas. She sported no piercings or emotional tattoos, and he loved the music of her voice and the geometry of her smile. With a handheld microphone, she announced that Flight 613 from Seattle to New York was now open for all boarding passengers.
The throng of travelers formed a meandering line as they entered the embarking tunnel that led to the plane. Gabe scanned their faces one more time as Melody gave each of them an honest-to-goodness smile and a courteous welcome.
Of the eighty-seven passengers, he didn’t see anyone who fit the profile of an extremist. There were no Middle Eastern types, or anyone who appeared overly nervous, but at 30,000 feet things could change in an instant—now and forever.
As Gabe followed the passengers aboard, Melody came alongside and took him by the arm. “So, how ya doing, cowboy?” she teased. When you come from Texas, everyone thinks you’re a cowboy. When you’re tagged with the job description of Air Marshal, the nickname just sticks.
To Melody Anderson, Gabe Harlow was the type of man that she could naturally trust. There was something about him that felt right. When he came into a room, he was there. When he talked to you, you felt connected. Most of the time, when you work with people day after day, you soon cease to notice them, but not Gabe. He was rock-solid. Melody never knew anyone quite like him.
He patted her hand affectionately, his mouth cracking into a smile that he hoped looked less troubled than it felt. “I’m good, pretty lady, and how are you?”
“Fine, I suppose, if you like living with never-ending jet lag.” She noticed he seemed uptight, anxious. “Is everything all right, Gabe?”
By nature, he never was a good liar. “Sure, sure, just routine stuff. You know.” He wanted to tell her about the worm of unease gnawing at him, but thought better of it. “I’m good to go,” he lied, then motioned with his arm toward the plane. “Shall we?”
“Always the gentleman, aren‘t you,” she giggled. Gabe fell in behind her, his neck stiff with tension, his shoulders aching.
At the plane, they were met by another stewardess, Karen Sundstrom. “Sorry, folks," she joked, "but we’re all filled up."
If only it were true, Gabe thought.
“How you doing, Karen?” Melody asked as she stepped inside.
“Okay now that you two are here. We’re a little behind schedule because of the storm, but the Captain and co-pilot arrived early." She pulled the door closed and set the lock. Smiling with eyes as green as emeralds, she said, "So, whadduya say we get this show on the road. You ready to give your speech on Emergency Procedures?”
“Gee, I don’t know,” Melody said, rolling her eyes and speaking in a comic high-pitched voice. “I’ve never really done it before.” She maneuvered past her friend, laughing. “Come on, lemme at ‘em.”
While Melody and Karen prepared the passengers, Gabe checked out the restrooms, making sure there were no stowaways and that everyone was seated. Then he sat in the last row next to the aisle and buckled up. The plane began to taxi out to the main runway.
The movement set off his inner alarm system again.The plane accelerated, and then began to lift lightly off the ground. Gabe felt a gripping terror dart sharklike through the depths beneath him, rising. His heart made a hollow racket in his ears, like running footsteps descending stairs. He tipped his head back, closed his eyes, and let the tension shiver out of him.
Flight 613 climbed to an altitude of 32,000 feet, and then leveled off. It hit its cruising speed of 530 mph, and then the seatbelt indicator lamp turned off and Gabe unbuckled his belt. Behind him he could hear Melody talking to the pilot on the phone. “Right away,” she said. “I’ll send him up.”
Gabe sensed urgency in her voice, and immediately stood and moved toward her. She motioned for him to follow her into the kitchen area, her eyes as big as silver dollars.
“What’s the problem?” he asked, knowing that what he feared most had finally revealed itself.
“The Captain wants to see you immediately.”
Gabe furrowed his brow, the unasked question sitting on the tip of his tongue.
“That’s all he said, honest,” she added. “You better get up there.”
He turned and hurried toward the cockpit. Some passengers were standing in the aisle. Gabe had to resist the urge to shove them aside. His “Excuse me” had such a sharp edge that people bristled, but the expression on his face at once made them choke on their unvoiced reprimands.
The Captain waited for him at the door. His flight jacket was off and his sleeves were rolled to his elbows. Gabe briskly shook his hand and smiled big for the passengers who might be taking notice. The pilot ushered him into the cockpit and closed the door.
The co-pilot spun his seat around as they entered, his face drained of color.
“We have a situation,” the Captain said, the seriousness of his look told Gabe everything he already suspected. “We’ve just received word from Sea-Tac. A Syrian man, college student, was apprehended after one of the luggage workers failed to recognize him as an employee. They have reason to believe he did something to the plane.”
“Jesus, I knew something didn't feel right.” Gabe exhaled heavily, tried to relax his clenched throat.
“They’re interrogating the man even as we speak, but so far, that’s all we’ve got to go on. We‘ve been instructed to turn around and head back.”
Gabe swallowed, breathed, and then ran his hand through his hair. “All right, all right...I’ll get down there and start going through the bags. Since we don’t know how much time we have, or what we’re looking for, it’d be good to have one of the crew give me a hand.”
“I agree. Take Melody Anderson with you. She’s got ten years of experience, and a cool head. If things start to get bumpy, she won’t fall apart.”
“Okay then, I’m on it, Captain.”
“You got your two-way? We’ll need to keep in touch.”
“Yeah, I got it.” He pulled out his radio phone and checked it. “Switch over to Emergency Channel 8.”
The pilot checked his. “Got it.”
“Let's get this plane turned around, Captain, and back on the ground as fast as you can.” Gabe turned to leave.
“Good luck, Marshal,” the pilot called after him.
To Gabe, he may just as well have said, ‘Good luck, Marshal, the whole town’s depending on ya.’ Gabe nodded at him. “Yeah…you too.”
As he rushed out of the cockpit, a chill, damp as ice melt, seeped from his bones and flesh then down the curve of his spine. Hurrying the length of the plane, he was once again back in the galley. Then as quietly as possible, he told Melody and Karen what was going on.
“Oh, my God,” Karen said, clutching herself as if the act would keep her from falling apart.
Melody was more down-to-earth. “What's the plan?"
“I’m going below to check the luggage,” he said between clenched teeth. “And you’re coming with me.”
She trusted Gabe, knew that if he was in charge everything was going to be all right. Revealing a sincere smile and an eagerness to help, she said, “Let’s do it, cowboy.”
The baggage compartment lay in the belly of the aircraft, a good thirty feet below the passenger deck. Gabe clamored down the ladder through an array of access tunnels even as the plane banked sharply left and started its turn. Melody followed close behind, hanging on to the rail until the plane leveled out again.
The entire luggage section was bathed in buttery-yellow light. As Gabe stepped down to the floor, he waited until his eyes adjusted to the pale glow. He helped steady Melody as she came off the ladder and again, feeling the strength of his hands around her waist, she smiled.
A mountain of bags and suitcases stood before them. She sighed heavily, “Christ, where do we begin?”
Gabe didn’t bother to answer. He grabbed the first bag he came to, unzipped it, and shoved his hand inside. After quickly feeling around inside, he chucked the bag behind him and grabbed another. Melody followed his lead, and soon they had a growing pile of luggage strewn about.
In a small brown case no bigger than a bowling ball bag, Gabe found what he was looking for.
“Got it!” he called out, his heart knocking hard enough to shake him. He gingerly carried the bag to one of the recessed light ports, opened it as wide as he could and stared inside.
The green fluorescent dials of a clock stared back at him. Cautiously, the moment taking on all the solidity of quicksand, he reached into the bag and pulled it out. The clock was mounted into a black box and duct taped to a twelve-inch cube of plastic explosive. “Jesus, talk about overkill. There’s enough here to blow the plane in two.” Still gripping the bomb in both hands, he sat on a large suitcase and carefully examined it.
“Whadduya think? Can you disarm it?” Melody asked, her voice beginning to quake at being so close to death.
Gabe turned the devise over in his hands. “I don’t know…looks complicated.”
The timer was screwed into a metal black box so that none of its inner workings were visible or could be tampered with. On the side of the box was a gauge that he immediately recognized as a wireless pressure sensor module. “Oh, hell! Tell me it isn’t so.” Gently setting the package down, he hunched forward, arms on his thighs, hands clasped almost as if in prayer.
“What? What?” Melody asked urgently as she squatted beside him.
“I’ve seen this type of setup before. Not only is it programmed to detonate at a specific time, but the bomb is connected to a device that will automatically trigger it when the plane reaches a certain elevation. Even if I could disconnect the timer, the bomb would still explode when we lower our altitude.”
“What does that mean?”
“It means...we can’t land.”
“Can’t land? But we’re already coming into Sea-Tac!”
Gabe jumped up as if he‘d been electrocuted. “Shit! We’ve gotta warn the pilot!”
Within the tick of time that bridges ‘the now’ with the past and future, Gabe pulled out the two-way phone. “Captain? Captain, can you hear me? Do not land! Do you understand? Do not land this plane!”
A panicked voice broke through. “Why the hell not? What’s going on? We’re already in a holding pattern and waiting our turn to descend.”
Gabe took a deep breath. “Listen, we’ve found a bomb down here that is connected to an altimeter. I don’t know what altitude will set it off, but you’ve got to stay up until I can figure out how to disarm it.”
“Can’t we just jettison the package?”
“If we open the plane, it will depressurize. That could be enough to trigger it.”
“Christ Almighty, Marshal! Look, I’ve got about an hour of fuel left. After that, we’re coming down regardless. Understand?”
“I copy. One hour.” Gabe shoved the phone back into his pocket. Turning to Melody, he said, “I’m going to need a tool kit of some kind: screwdrivers, wire cutters, whatever you can find. Do you think you can do that?”
“Got it, cowboy,” she said, trying to sound in control of herself but was obviously fright-stricken and gripped in fear. In the faint light of the baggage compartment, her face appeared skull-like, her eyes lost in sockets of shadow.
Gabe felt sorry for her, responsible. “I’m sorry I got you into this,” he said, his voice dry and rasping, sympathetic. “I had a hunch it was going to happen, but didn’t want everybody to think I was nuts.”
She stood before him, cupped his face in her hands. “You don’t look nuts to me.”
He smiled at her. “I don’t seem nuts to me either. But then the nut is always the last to know.”
She kissed him then, thinking it might be the last chance she would ever have. Then she pulled away, studying his face, memorizing it as if she’d never see him again. “I’ll be right back with that tool kit. Don‘t go away.” Then she took off, and hurried up the ladder, leaving him shocked and bewildered, but with an unbending smile.
He thought then, how reality, so fragile and thin, was stretched like skin over the blood and tissue of the world. And how moments of time spent with loved ones were like ghosts whose substance was but a twist of mist dissipating even as the next instant arrived. He wished his wife had never died, that time had not been wasted, or moments lost forever. He bent down and picked up the explosive device, turned it over in his hands and studied it.
Such a small thing really, he thought. All I have to do is pull the C4 away from the timer, and then…BOOM…problem solved. He pictured himself doing just that: yanking the box away from the plastic explosive, smiling at his cleverness, and then becoming enveloped within the blinding white light of the explosion.
When his vision cleared, he was still holding the bomb, but his intuition hummed in his head like a jet engine. “That’s it!” he said aloud.
Melody returned with a flashlight and a first aid kit stuffed with every kind of tool she could find. “What’s it?” she asked, hesitantly handing him the satchel.
“The C4!” he said. “I can cut away as much of the explosive as possible, take away some of the force of the explosion.”
“If it still explodes, how is that going to help?”
He gave her a solemn stare. “Well, with any luck, we just might survive.”
Gabe carefully set the bomb down and unzipped the tool bag. He fished around inside until he found a pocketknife. “Maybe you should wait upstairs. If I’m wrong…things could get messy.”
“No, my orders are to assist you in anyway I can. Besides, I’d rather go quickly than screaming at the top of my lungs as we fall out of the sky in a burning ball of fire.”
Gabe smiled softly at her. “Thanks, I can always use the company.”
He lay down on the floor, placed the bomb in front of him and began to peel away the plastic packaging from around the furthest edge of the device. “Hold the flashlight. I don’t want to cut into the firing mechanism.”
Melody stood over the bomb and shined the light down on it. Gabe, with all the precision of a surgeon, began to shave away small chunks of the clay-like plastic. He then stored the pieces into the bag that he had originally found the bomb in.
Slathered in sweat, grunting, squinting, grimacing, cursing under his breath, he little-by-little, sliced away the destructive force of the bomb. The clock on the face of the detonator showed twenty minutes to eleven. Eleven o’clock was the ETA for Flight 613 to land in New York. If he were the bomber, that’d be the time he’d set the damn thing to go off.
After another ten minutes, he set the knife down and sat up stiffly. More than fifty percent of the explosive had been cut away. “All right,” he said. “We’re running out of time.” Standing awkwardly, he handed the bag to Melody. Take this upstairs and have the passengers buckle up. I’ll notify the Captain.”
“What are you going to do?”
“I’m going to get this damn thing off the plane before it explodes.”
“Manually open the cargo hatch, and then throw it out.”
“That’s suicide! You’ll be sucked right out with it!”
When he recognized how deeply his revelation disturbed her, his face softened. “Look, if you’ve got a better idea, now’s the time to bring it up. We're running out of time."
“The pilot could open the cargo bay automatically.”
“At this altitude? Are you crazy? Do you have any idea what that kind of massive decompression will do to the plane at this elevation?”
“We could take a chance and start our descent. The bomb doesn’t look big enough to cause too much damage.”
“Ha! Are you kidding?” He waved it in front of her face, pointing at it like it was his prized possession. “This baby is still plenty big enough to blow out the whole cargo bay. If I can get it out quickly, before we entirely decompress, it just might work.”
“I can’t let you do this.”
“It’s not your call, Melody! This is my job! It’s what they pay me to do! Now, get up there and do yours!”
Her lower lip quivered at his rage as though he had slapped her. She brusquely turned and started up the ladder.
Gabe fished the phone out of his pocket. “Captain?”
“Yeah, Marshal, how we looking?”
“Not good. I’ve cut away as much of the explosive as possible. I’m getting ready to open the cargo bay door and dump it.”
There was a long pause. “The decompression could kill ya. There’ll be no air until we reach 20,000 feet. That could take a couple of minutes. How good are you at holding your breath?”
“Hell, chances are I’ll get sucked out the door. Or better yet, the damn thing will just blow up in my hand. Just get ready to fight the drag when I pop the hatch. If the device explodes, most of the blast will be directed away from the plane. Either way, you’ll still have a good chance of making it.”
Another pause. “What’s your name, Marshal?”
“Gabe. Gabe Harlow.”
“Thanks Gabe, thanks for everything.”
He could feel the seconds ticking away. “I’ll be opening the door in two minutes. You can start your descent now.”
“Understood and out.”
Gabe hurried toward the hatch, carrying the bomb with an outstretched arm like a steaming pile of dog shit. He set the devise near the base of the door. Then, unhitching his belt, looped it around one of the struts nearest the hatch and buckled it up again. Once the pressure sensor registered the change in atmosphere it would probably blow. He figured he had a fifty-fifty chance.
When he flipped the safety latch, a red light overhead began to blink. He didn’t have much time. The door was on a roller that allowed the hatch to slide to the outside like the side door of a mini-van. He braced his foot against it, took several deep breaths, held the last one, and then with all his strength, pushed the door out and away.
The wind screamed and howled as if cursing in a brutal language. Gabe’s feet were immediately sucked out from under him, and his legs shot out the door. If it hadn’t been for the belt, he would have been plummeting to earth. His body flapped around like a kite in a hurricane. And there was no air. He couldn’t breathe. Looking down, he saw the bomb wedged in between the door and the fuselage.
Suspended in midair, Gabe reached for the black box. The green dials on the face of the clock read 10:59. Gabe’s blood thundered in his ears with each tick of the second hand. He had less than a minute to live.
He stretched and strained his fingertips toward it, but was still inches away. With his left hand he grabbed the hatch door, hung on for dear life, and pulled as hard as he could. The belt cut into his waist, forcing what little air he had left out of him, and then suddenly it tore free. Unbelievably, he now clasped the bomb in his hand. As he held it in front of him, he uncurled his fingers and released it to the sky just as it detonated.
Within a brilliant flash of light and a deafening roar, the concussive blast ripped through Gabe's body, and then he was flying.
At 11:22AM, Flight 613 landed at Sea-Tac Airport, its outer fuselage scored and blackened, its cargo bay door completely torn away. Blown into the side of the airliner was a jagged, gaping hole that resembled the entrance to a troll’s barrow.
Melody Anderson hastily climbed down the ladder to the luggage compartment, fear choking at her throat. The entire cargo bay had been turned upside down. What remained of the luggage had blown into a mountain of disarray against the back wall. “Gabe! Gabe!” There was no answer. “Gabe!” she screamed until her voice cracked and she coughed raggedly into her hand. When she saw the hole in the side of the plane, she fell to her knees and openly wept.
A large suitcase rolled unexpectedly toward her…and then another. Melody looked up and saw a leg sticking out of the mound of bags. Another bag was kicked away, but she was already on her feet and climbing the mountain of luggage. “Gabe?” She pulled at the bags; saw an arm, cut and bleeding, a tuft of salt-and-pepper hair. “Gabe!”
Gabe Harlow, body covered with first-degree burns, eardrums ruptured, and bleeding from a score of gashes and lacerations, sat up within a hill of leather. The force of the blast had miraculously blown him back inside the plane.
“You’re alive, cowboy!” Melody bawled, tears streaming down her cheeks. “You’re alive!”