Sample text for The last hostage / John J. Nance.

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Counter AirBridge Airlines Dispatch Center, Colorado Springs International Airport.  10:45 A.M.

Judy Smith heard something ceramic breaking and looked up to see Verne Garcia leap to his feet and gesture to her frantically, his eyes wide.  She moved quickly to his side as he covered the mouthpiece and turned to her, barely glancing at the broken cup on the floor, the blood draining from his face.

"Judy, we've got a big, big problem.  Flight Ninety's gone airborne and left the first officer behind!"

Judy stood in confusion for a few seconds, wondering how Garcia could have garbled his words badly enough to convey such a bizarre meaning.

"Ninety's airborne and the first officer left something behind?" she asked.

"No, no, no! The captain and the flight are airborne.  What they left behind was the copilot.  There was no maintenance signoff as far as we know, either.  I have him on the phone here.  He's on the ground in Durango and panicked."

"Which copilot? A deadheading copilot?"

"The copilot assigned to that flight.  He's on the ground in Durango and on line eight.  The plane is in the air without him."

"How in hell could that happen? The copilot? No way!"

"I'm not kidding, Judy.  Please pick up an extension."

She lunged for the telephone on the next desk and punched the appropriate line.

"This is the director of flight control.  Who's this?"

"First Officer David Gates, ma'am."

"Where are you?"

"Durango.  On the ground.  The flight's left without me.  As far as I know, the only pilot on that plane is the captain, and I don't have any idea why he'd leave unless he was forced to."

"Forced? You mean, hijacked?"

"I .  .  .  I can't figure out any other explanation." The voice on the other end was anguished and tinged with panic, the young pilot's breath coming in short bursts as he ran through an explanation of his fruitless trip to the south end of the field and the utter shock of finding the airplane poised for takeoff when he'd returned.

"Wait a minute.  There was no mechanic?"

"There was a mechanic; I mean, there is a maintenance facility there, but this Gus I was supposed to find died several years ago, so I wasn't able to get anyone to come look at the engine, and when I got back, Ken had left me and a passenger and was at the end of the runway.'

"You said a passenger was left behind, too?"

"Yes, ma'am.  I'll put him on in a minute.  His wife's still on the aircraft and he's very upset."

"How long ago did the airplane leave?"

"Five minutes max."

"Hold on!" Judy turned to Verne Garcia.  "Get Albuquerque Center on the horn.  Find out if they're working Ninety, and where he's going.  Get me the controller."

"Got it." Verne Garcia turned away and began punching numbers into his phone as Judy turned back to the conversation with a shaken David Gates.

"David, is it?"

"Yes.  David Gates."

"Okay, David.  Did you see any indication that someone might have slipped on board?"

"No.  The plane was beginning its takeoff roll when I spotted it.  But there was no security on the ramp.  Anyone could have boarded.  There were line boys around, but I haven't asked them."

"David, this is very important.  What, exactly, makes you think he was hijacked?"

"There's no other logical explanation.  No one in his right mind would fly a two person airliner without a copilot unless he was forced to do so, or it was a war and someone was shooting at him."

Judy felt her mind race through a variety of possibilities.  The copilot was right.  No other rational explanation existed.  If the flight was airborne without a copilot, then it had to have been hi jacked, and they had a major problem.

"What do you want me to do?" Gates was asking.

"Give me the number where you are, stay right there by that phone, and .  .  .  ah .  .  .  don't talk to anyone about this yet."

"Don't worry, I won't! You want me to put on the passenger who was left?"

"Tell him I'll call back.  Not now."

"Okay, but he's really, really worried.  His wife's on that aircraft."

Judy replaced the phone and glanced over at Verne Garcia, who was talking urgently into his handset.  Several off-duty dispatchers had begun to congregate in the area, each of them straining to hear what was happening.  She turned and surveyed who was available, and pointed to the nearest one.

"Jim, get the FBI on the phone and stand by for me to come on the line.  Jerry, will you go to my desk and get the emergency procedures manual and start going through the hijacking procedures? Rashid, are you working any flights?"

"No.  What do you need?"

"Call the chief pilot, the VP of operations, and corporate communications.  Fill them in."

"On what, Judy? I don't know what's happening."

"Oh, sorry.  Okay, everyone, gather around.  Here's what we've got so far."

Albuquerque Air Route Traffic Control Center.  10:50 A.M.  -

Air traffic controller Avis Bair took another sip of coffee and double-checked the altitude block on AirBridge 90.  As cleared, the pilot had leveled at flight level two-one-zero, twenty-one thousand feet above t he four corners area of northwestern New Mexico and northeastern Arizona and checked in with the usual expressionless, deep male voice.  It was curious, she thought, that his emergency diversion to Durango had ended so quickly.  At least 90 was taken care of now and on his way, leaving her free to deal with a developing conflict between an American jet and a United jet, with one overtaking the other at the same altitude, both bound for Los Angeles.  The guy in the lead was being a genuine slug and flying much too slowly.

Avis had poised her finger over the transmit button when an alarm suddenly sounded in her ear.  A small phosphorescent information block next to AirBridge 90's target began flashing simultaneously, displaying a transponder code she had never seen in actual practice.


Obviously a mistake, she thought, but just in case, there were specific procedures to follow.  She felt a sudden rush of adrenaline as she glanced to her left, curious as to whether the beeping alarm had attracted anyone else's attention.

It hadn't.  No one else was looking her way.

Avis leaned forward and studied the data block on the screen again, double-checking that it said what she thought it said.


She pushed the transmit button.  "AirBridge Ninety, Albuquerque Center.  I show you squawking seventy-five hundred on your transponder, sir.  Is that correct?"

She felt her heart beating loudly as she waited for the answer.

"Affirmative, Center.  I am purposefully squawking seventy-five hundred.  I have an uninvited guest in the cockpit."

Avis sat back, suddenly filled with adrenaline.  The real thing! This was the real thing! Seventy-five hundred meant a hijacking, and this was a commercial airliner.

She swiveled around and shouted at her supervisor, then turned back to her scope.

"Roger, AirBridge Ninety, I do copy that the seventy-five hundred squawk is valid.  Please maintain flight level two-one-zero and stand by."

Aboard AirBridge Flight 90.  10:55 A.M.

Her hands were shaking slightly, but Annette struggled to hide her apprehension as she did a quick drink service for her first class passengers.  She had returned to the galley to think when she heard the engines throttle back and Ken Wolfe's strained voice on the P.A.

"Folks, this is the captain.  We have a small treat for you today.  I know we're running late getting you to Phoenix, but since air traffic control is slowing us down for traffic flow into the Phoenix airport, and since they're taking us right over Monument Valley, Utah, we've gotten approval to go down for a closer look.  We'll get you into Phoenix just as soon as they let us, but in the meantime, enjoy the view which will be coming up in about five minutes."

Annette pulled the interphone handset from its cradle and punched the cockpit call button.  Ken answered rapidly.

"Ken, I need to talk to you."

"So talk, Annette."

"In person."


"As your lead flight attendant, I want to come into the cockpit and talk with you right now.  Ken, what's going on?"

"Annette, coming up right now could prove a bit difficult.  What, exactly, are you concerned about?"

She leaned against the forward door with the phone pressed to her ear, wondering if she was having some sort of paranoid delusion.  Maybe it was ridiculous to be worried, but the fact remained that refusing her entrance to the cockpit meant that he had something to hide, and she could feel herself panicking.  She knew Ken Wolfe to be changeable and distant, but he wasn't the type to shut out his flight attendants.  There could be several reasons for the refusal, none of them good.

What if he's got that other pilot flying in the right seat illegally, and he doesn't want me to know? We'd be at risk.  I'd have to do something.

"Captain, please let me speak to David."

There was a chilling pause.  If David was on the jumpseat instead of his copilot's seat, he might lie about it to protect the captain and himself.  It was illegal for any pilot from another company to occupy the captain's or copilot's seat in a commercial jet.

"He's busy, Annette.  He'll talk to you later."

"Now, please.  I want to talk to him now.  Or isn't he in the right seat? Ken, dammit, level with me!"

Another long pause, then the click of the push-to-talk button.  Ken Wolfe's voice was suddenly different, carrying a more authoritative tone.

"Okay, Annette.  You're right.  Listen carefully, because I'm under some tight constraints here.  David isn't here."

"Wh .  .  .  what?"

"Someone else is up here, and he's insisting on telling us where to go."

Annette closed her eyes, trying to find a better explanation than the one now looming in her mind.

But nothing else fit.  She had to ask, though the words threatened to choke her.  "Ken?"


"Are we .  .  .  are we hijacked?"

Another chilling pause that seemed to last forever.

"That's affirmative, Annette.  Back there in Durango.  He suddenly barged in and slammed the door and put a gun to my head.  Well you did, damn you!" Annette heard the volume of his voice diminish as he addressed the occupant of the right seat.

"Oh God, Ken.  One person?"

"Yep, and he's waving a gun at me right now to end this conversation.  He says that you must not tell the passengers.  He says he's not going to hurt anyone, but he demands to go where he demands to go."

"Where? Cuba?"

"I don't know, Annette, other than Monument Valley.  First he wants to see Monument Valley up close.  Then he'll let me know, and I'll let you know.  In the meantime, keep quiet about this."

"How about Bev and Kevin? They need to know what's happening."

"No.  I'll be listening to this channel, and so will he.  You can't tell them.  He says you can't tell them anything."

"Is it the guy in Eighteen-D, Ken? The guy you asked to come up? His name is Beck."

There was no response.

"Ken? Are you still there?"

There was a click, indicating the interphone had been disconnected.  She looked at the handset like it was a ticking bomb, then replaced it slowly in its cradle, trying to imagine the man in 18D as the hijacker.

The image didn't fit.  Not with such a young face and a pretty young wife back there in 18E.

Annette entered the galley feeling dizzy.  She pulled the curtain behind her, vaguely aware that the 737 was descending, her mind whirling.

She could see the desert floor getting closer outside the small window in the galley door as a feeling of helpless confusion paralyzed her, the same question running over and over in her mind:

What on earth do I do now?


Library of Congress subject headings for this publication: Hijacking of aircraft Fiction