Just before 9/11 Albert Fraadley arrives in USA seeking his love, Liza Vancyk, who vanished during a secret test in England. She got a message to Albert that she is OK. He is waylaid by Al Clinton, a man of immense influence, who hates terrorists. He brings Albert and Liza together for revenge. Through them he manages to find his target and hits back via drone strikes.
The point of no return.
I had to keep reminding myself it was still only August 2001.
The inexhorably progressing A380 had passed that point in mid-Atlantic some half an hour earlier. But I'd passed that point in my life some months ago when Liza crashed into my life.
The healing wound on my leg itched. It rekindled the horror of the explosion as the crushing concussion of the blast resurfaced. I mentally toyed with the scar, fascinated by the rawness it exposed, almost enjoying the exquisite agony of the end of my world. Was it possible for anyone to survive that hell, let alone my lovely Liza?
Shutting off the horrific scene I pictured again the beauty of her glossy hair, black and shimmering as a raven's wing, the creaminess of her high-boned cheeks. The remembered softness of her touch only served to heighten my misery.
It had been a shocking e-mail 'I'm OK' that sent me desperately winging to Florida. In the gloom of mental fatigue I saw it for what it was - a wild goose chase.
The events that had led me to this crazy position circled endlessly round my tired brain. They inevitably ended in the explosion that had seemingly destroyed any hopes for the future with Liza. Even just thinking about her brought the familiar longing. It had all happened so quickly, a mere matter of months to make me turn from a boring, thirty year old, electronics manufacturer into a hopeless, romantic, searching for something that I wasn't even sure still existed. My sensible, realistic partner, Bill Huddleston, was at home keeping the business going and giving me the money needed to chase my rainbow.
The stewardess's quiet, insistent voice stirred me from my depression. She called my name across the passenger on my right, 'Mr Fradley. Mr Fradley.'
Stirring slowly out of my mental pit, I raised my eyebrows, 'Yes?'
She stood there with the pasted-on smile and bland expression that goes with the uniform. I couldn't help wondering what the woman was like beneath the professional veil, the smooth make-up and anonymity of a smart, blue uniform.
'The Captain would like a word with you on the Flight Deck, please follow me.'
Mystified, I blinked with surprise, but wriggled past the long-haired youth in the aisle seat, deep in some rock music playing on his MP 3. He barely glanced at me as I followed the trim figure forward to the office as the crew call it. The Captain turned as I entered the cramped space and waved to the Third Officer, who passed me a headset, I spoke hesitantly, 'Hello, Bert Fradley here.'
Al Clinton's booming voice shook me to the core, 'Bert, you old son of a gun, what are you doing coming over without telling your old pal?'
I was totally speechless.
Al was quiet for all of two seconds before he boomed again, 'Still there?'
'Al! How the blazes did you know?' I spluttered
The whole 'plane must surely have heard his eruption of laughter, 'Ways and means Bert; ways and means.' Third Officer interrupted me with a nudge and inquisitive look, taking off the headset I said, 'Yes?'
He looked apologetic, 'Sorry to barge in, but, well, is your mobile switched on?' He rushed on, 'I know that you probably won't have, but something is affecting the Navstat.'
Patting my pockets to demonstrate that I didn't have one with me I shook my head. He waved his hand, but still looked worried and turned back to the console. I listened again to the headset and apologised to Al, 'Sorry about that, the crew had a query - all settled now!' Speaking seriously I said, 'Now come on and tell me what you're doing calling me in the middle of the Atlantic! And who told you anyway?' Aware of the intense interest of the crew, I determined to finish the conversation as soon as politely possible.
Al,as usual, was not wasting words, 'Tell you all about it when I see you!' His next words shook me again, 'I've arranged a car for you at Miami, he'll meet you at the dispersal pad, name of Joe!'
I interrupted his flow, 'Al! You can't; I don't even know myself.'
He interrupted in turn, 'Too late now, all arranged! And anyway I can't keep you tying up these guys' air time, see you in six hours! S'long!'
I started to protest, but the connection was broken.
Removing the headset automatically I absent-mindedly handed it back to the officer at the console. He did not say a word, but was eaten up with curiosity; it's unheard of for a passenger to be called up in the middle of a flight. I muttered thanks and left the Flight Deck.
The old bogey of Al's place in the FBI, NSA or the CIA or whatever agency he worked for rose again. I was still painfully aware of his part in the events leading up to that disastrous explosion and the death of the GRU assassin that had set me off on this hopeless chase.
My seat was in the middle of the outer three group of the wide bodied Airbus, an attractive woman about my age was in the window seat. At least she could have been attractive but for two things; the haunted, pinched look in her eyes and the strong, acrid odour of a heavy smoker that was not masked by her heavy, musky perfume.
I did not think then that I was psychic or anything, but I knew I was sometimes able to sense the things on a person's mind. In the Flight Deck I'd been only too aware of the fascination of the crew.
In her case, I was receiving waves of despair and anguish.
The haunted look made me sense her feelings, but her nervous movements proved it. She did not finish anything in the meals, but nibbled and rejected everything, leaving a mess on the tray. She turned to me with a pale smile, 'This non-smoking policy is hell!'
As a non-smoker it was heaven for me, I simply smiled wanly back, hoping that it didn't come out as a smirk. It didn't seem to, for she looked into my eyes and grimaced, 'Sorry I said that, I forget that there's a lot who don't. God, I'm dying for a drag!'
'Never have myself.' I tried to sound sympathetic, 'But I know it's hard.' I let my voice tail away, I didn't know what to say and still be sincere.
She must have realised that I was not just being flippant, she turned from the porthole and looked at me straight in the face. She could have been quite pretty, her bone structure was delicate, skin clear and without signs of aging or indulgence. The perfume was expensive and her light suit was well cut, subtle in a pale lilac, but it was all a parody when you looked deep into those suffering eyes. For want of something better to do I offered her one of my boiled sugar sweets. She shook her head, 'I have my own, but I can't stomach anything right now.' She shrugged her shoulders, small, delicate shoulders I noticed, 'I'll be more than glad when this flight's over, and not just for a smoke.' I said nothing. There was nothing to say, but wait for her to tell me more as she did or didn't feel inclined.
She spoke softly, 'Did you get whatever it was they sent for you for?'
The terrible construction of that sentence made me wince, 'It was simply a business contact from my home town.'
The Rock music devotee on my left was distracting as he beat time with his fingers. I decided to be nosy and to listen to what he found so wonderful.
I had brought the prototype of my latest invention. My 'hearing aid', is a device I make for MI 6. It is invaluable for clandestine listening on very narrow bands of frequencies. It had saved the life of one or two field operatives, 'spies' to you, as they'd detected footsteps or even the first trigger pressures of a gun. My newest one was in my pocket, updated to include a remote control. I guessed that the main level would be in the region of 25 Hz, so I tried it.
Surprisingly there was practically nothing.
I tried 500 Hz. Still nothing.
10 kHz and beyond Still nothing.
I went back to 25 Hz and left it there. He was listening avidly to nothing. What was he up to and why?
I coughed and stiffened, distinctly hearing myself cough in the 'hearing aid.' He was listening to me!
Then I recalled the Third Officer's worried enquiry about a mobile 'phone. I'd been secretly planted with a bug! AGAIN! My cold fury turned to a hot rage. I was once more being dragged into the quicksands of covert operations. Excusing myself I went to the toilet. I ran the tap and searched my lightweight jacket. There it was! An insignificant, grey blob under the collar like the one Al had planted on me three months ago in the Lichfield pub.
Cursing softly, I put the jacket on the floor and stamped on the collar. I hoped it gave him a headache.
As I returned to my seat, I looked him in the eye, 'There's no room in those things. Dropped my jacket and trod on it!'
His lip curled in a smile, or was it a grimace, he uttered one word in a Carolina drawl, 'Yeah!'
Neither of us was deceived.
The woman on my left looked at me again with her haunting eyes and asked, 'OK?'
I shrugged it off with an almost Gallic gesture, that I hoped was sincere, 'Just a chance to stretch my legs.' For some unaccountable reason I went on, 'What with all this "Long Haul Syndrome" it's more than just a euphemism. Did you know that there was even a rather silly suggestion that they install a treadmill for the really long flights. Can you imagine it?' Her opened eyes told the truth that she could.
She spoke in that husky voice of hers, 'Well, if they ever do, I won't be fighting to use one!' With her clear signs of heavy smoking, this did not surprise me. She murmured almost apologetically, 'I'm on my way to see my husband, he's been taken suddenly ill.' She drew in a breath as if to give her strength to continue, 'The worst part is that they won't say what's the trouble. I'm terrified that it's a heart attack, it was so quick. Harry sounded perfectly alright when I spoke to him on Sunday. Only two days ago. And then they sent for me. Paid my flight over.'
'That was generous, who does he work for?'
She hesitated momentarily, but then said, 'The medical facility at NASA.' At this my ears pricked up, my interest all at once intense, 'He's on the psychological side, the effects of isolation and the problems of long flights and all that.'
A deep chill hit me, I had been hoping to find Liza at NASA! The picture of Liza, my lovely Liza, started to flash before me. I recalled that heart-stopping moment when it all began, the time those few months ago, when I was struck dumb by her deep, dark eyes framed by that perfect face and the black, raven's wing hair.
The picture faded as I heard the woman go on about her husband's work, the way he really enjoyed getting to grips with the fears and phobias of those highly trained people who ventured into hostile space. There was a constant mental battle in their minds, the challenges they not just faced, but almost welcomed, and the deep fear of their dangerous environment.