Treasure Hunt, by J H. Bográn
James L. Thomas always kept his cool—one of the reasons he got the job as manager of the Miami International Airport in the first place—dealing with missing children, lost luggage, petty theft, maintenance issues, keeping airlines on time, scheduling flights in and out and coordinating runways was the exception rather than the rule. Overall, this monumental task influenced his predecessor into early retirement. The job was a bitch. Monday worst of all, at any time, but this one, immediately following a holiday, was set up to produce the biggest headache of them all. Jim flexed his muscles to prime himself and to get ready to pump.
Jim took a hearty gulp of his long-gone-cold coffee and squared his shoulders. He couldn’t let the stress get the best of him. During his tenure of four years, he’d only faced one major crisis when a twin-engine plane force-landed inbound from Cuba. The crew and two passengers received political asylum in the country and life went back to normal.
“Morning, Mr. Thomas.”
Jim swung around and grimaced at his assistant, Jessica Collins. Beautiful, blonde, and forever perky—even on a Monday. He scanned the radar blips on the massive console below the tower windows that held a view which stretched for miles just before breaking onto the hazy blue horizon of water and sky that melded together like a Dahli painting in the late summer heat. For a moment he even fumbled about in his pockets in search of an elusive cigarette. Regrettably he remembered he gave the nasty habit up in a fit of health consciousness that left him with a lean waist and a case of raw nerves on mornings like these. He took another sip of his coffee. Thank God he hadn’t given that up—completely anyway.
The movement in the tower indicated the hectic pace set for the day. Muscles in Jim’s neck tensed. He kept himself fit, and prepared for the pace of his job with two-mile runs every morning and vitamins for breakfast. Only one person could always match his pace—Jessica. She was always on top of things. When Thomas arrived at his desk, she was right be-hind, discussing the issues at hand.
“Here’s the updated copy of the flights for today, but we have a bump,” Jessica continued, ignoring her boss’s mid-morning fog.
“Wouldn’t be a Monday otherwise. What is it?”
“The sleeve 27-B is out of service. Maintenance is working on it, but they claim it will not work properly until noon, and there’s only one flight out to Panama this morning.”
“So what is the problem? Can’t we relocate one plane to another sleeve?”
“Not unless you delay other flights since runways are busy all day. We have a tight schedule with all of those flights and charters after the holiday. If a plane misses its window, it’ll be here until tomorrow. I suggest we take people out the back door on a bus and drive them to the plane where they can get in with the stair,” Jessica said.
“Who pays for the bus?”
“We do. Airline is not responsible for our problem with the sleeve.”
Jim frowned and considered the options. “Okay, go ahead with it. Anything else?”
“Not right now.” Jessica turned and walked out of the office.
“Hey, Jessica! It’s gonna look like a bunch of politicians climbing up that stairway, huh?” He grinned at the thought of that.
Jim settled in his chair and started going through the papers Jessica left for his review. One of them was a report from Maintenance explaining in detail the problem with the sleeve. The memo—really more of a note—simply said:
Can’t figure it out. Won’t be ready before lunch. Time consuming.
Jim grimaced. He despised ‘time consuming’.
* * * *
Mike Smith hated to stand in lines, especially long ones. After thirty-five minutes waiting to check in for his flight to Miami, he was too tired and upset to behave in his normally condescending way, so instead, he picked rude. That would work just fine for him that day, he thought as he approached the counter.
“Smoking section, sir?”
“Do you see me smoking? I know your next question. Make it a window seat.” Mike saw the expression on the face of the desk attendant and guessed that several things must have passed through her mind. He couldn’t care less if she thought him a sack of garbage; he was a paying customer at Inter State Airlines.
She finished tagging the luggage and returned the ticket along with the boarding pass to Smith. He grabbed it out of her hand and left without even thanking her.
Mike walked all the way to the gate and just barely made it on time. They were already boarding the plane. Damn lines. Smith was the last one to board the ISA Flight 912 from Dallas to Miami. The flight attendant directed him to seat 3B. It dawned on him that the counter lady had given him an up-grade. He placed his handbag in the overhead bin and chuck-led over his luck. The last of his remorse went away as he settled down on the big plush seat.
* * * *
Roger Simmons, seated in the back part of the 727 three-hundred-passenger plane, stretched in anxiety, already tired of waiting for takeoff. He wanted to be on the way. This vacation, taking his wife and two daughters to the various theme parks in Florida, took a lot of planning, and if it didn’t get underway quickly, he thought he might go crazy. The only reason for this layover was because he wanted to stop by Miami to spend a couple of days in the sun before driving a rental car to Orlando.
He planned the entire vacation well in advance. Six months before, he made the hotel reservations, and as in every other aspect of his life, all was working out perfectly. His only miscalculation came at having two daughters instead of the sons he’d wished for. That was the past, though, and the little girls quickly became the apples of his eyes. Besides, it was not too late. His wife Mary was only thirty-four, al-though she claimed to be only thirty. Either age was still acceptable to have another child.
It was Mary’s first trip to Orlando, and her excitement could be felt from where she sat beside him. She planned to take as many pictures of that lovely mouse as she possibly could. Her camera already hanging from her neck brought a momentary smile and relief from the anxiety of waiting. He closed his eyes and thought of the exact time they told the girls, Jill and Sandy. The look on their face had been priceless. Roger was not sure what thrilled them the most, making the trip or skipping classes.
As most parents did, he thought his girls were the prettiest of them all, and the smartest, too. He assumed they would be able to catch up quick enough to make decent grades for the finals. As a modern parent, he did not push his kids to make straight-A grades. He simply encouraged them to give it their best shot. If their best was a B+, well, he could live with that.
Finally, the engines rumbled and the captain switched on the seat belt and no-smoking signs. His voice filled the air with laconic announcements. “Welcome aboard ISA flight nine-one-two to Miami. We’re advised we have clear weather all the way to our destination. We’ll be taxiing out shortly. Please remain seated during take off and follow the attendants’ instructions.”
Three flight attendants took positions in the front, middle and the rear of the plane. They started their ritual about the safety regulations—how to put on the life vest and how to use the oxygen mask in case of lost air pressure. Although a law for quite some time now and boring to frequent flyers, it was exciting to the people flying for the first time. This procedure, however, made Roger edgy. As an accountant for a major insurance company and familiar with the statistics of crashed airplanes, highway accidents and so forth, it didn’t rate high on his list of fun things to do. He knew his numbers and believed it was safer in the air than on the ground. The statistics, however, did not completely quiet his fear of flying. He turned to see his wife and daughters, and took comfort in the excitement he saw in their faces.
* * * *
Bill Porter’s nerves sent frayed messages to his brain. His plan should work, yet being alone provided hazards. He caught himself again thinking about his chances. If it worked, it would be one of the major bluffs in history. A good bluff must seem realistic to be believable. The real part of his bluff—getting his handgun and the two grenades on board—was easy enough. One just had to know how to do it. Having authentic flying credentials was indeed a point in his favor. Bill used his pilot credentials to avoid security checks. As deference to him, the stewardess let him on with two handbags.
The plane taxied and started climbing up to thirty-five thousand feet before turning east to Miami. The flight went smoothly, with no air bumps at all. It would be a shame to ruin it, Bill thought. Then again, if his plan worked out there was a chance that the passengers would not notice a thing.
The Fasten Your Seat Belts sign went off, along with the No Smoking sign. Porter could hear the flight attendants busy in the galley. He lit a cigarette and decided to begin his job right after a good smoke. He stood up and opened the overhead compartment, grabbed one of his handbags and un-zipped it. Reaching inside, he pulled out a medium size manila envelope. He placed the envelope under his arm and managed to zip his bag and shut the compartment without dropping the package. He sat down and enjoyed his smoke.
The flight attendants served the front rows, moving slowly since the plane was full. Bill picked the flight carefully. He knew his business well. He was right and congratulated himself for it. After the flight attendant passed by his seat, he stood up and introduced himself to her as a pilot from another airline. He told her he wanted to pay a courtesy visit to the cockpit, if possible.
He endured her glance inspecting him from head to toe, then the flight attendant directed him to the front of the plane with a smile. “I think you know your way around this bird. When you reach the galley, ask Kelly to knock on the cockpit for you. Regulations, you understand.”
“No Problem. Thanks.” Bill walked towards the front. All he needed now was in the manila envelope in his right hand. While walking down the aisle, he switched the package to his left hand. He held it from the downside and placed it in a way that the opening flap was pointing to the front. The envelope was not sealed but the flap did not permit seeing in-side. Nobody was curious about a man walking with a letter sized manila envelope in his hand. That part of the plan worked, too. He finally reached the galley and asked for Kelly.
“That would be me,” a tall shorthaired blond girl in a tight uniform replied. She carried a tray with three cups of coffee. She could not be more than twenty-two.
“Hi. My name is Lance Harper,” Bill lied. “I’m a pilot from the Eagle and I want to say hello to Captain Cromwell in the cockpit. Do you think they’d mind?”
“I don’t see why not, but let me go ask them, okay?”
“Hmm. I’d prefer to surprise old Bob.” Bill winked at her.
The attendant frowned, made up her mind, and nodded in agreement. She took the two steps that separated the galley from the cockpit door.
Kelly knocked. “I have coffee for the crew.” She spoke loud enough to be heard. Security features made the door so that it could only open from the inside. Porter was sure she could not see him reaching inside the envelope.
When Kelly entered the cockpit there was a collective cheer. Porter knew they were welcoming the coffee more than the girl. Suddenly Bill pushed her forward and she lost balance of the tray, spilling the three coffee mugs on the floor. From that moment on, everything happened fast.
Porter forced himself into the crowded cockpit and closed the door behind him. As he raised his hand, the crew saw a revolver, but only for a brief second. Bill struck the flight engineer hard with the butt of the gun. He left his victim unconscious, limp in his seat.
“Now listen up!” he began. “I know you’re not gonna like this, but now I’m the captain of this fucking plane. Is that clear?” Bill pointed the gun directly at Kelly, but moved it slowly to the right and left to cover the pilot and co-pilot as well. Bill despised profanity but in certain circumstances it was useful as intimidation.
The expression on the captain’s face changed from surprise to worry. “Sir, I don’t know your intentions, but the people on the ground are not going—”
“Relax, we’re not going to Cuba,” shouted Bill, figuring that would be the pilot’s assumption.
“I hope Nicaragua isn’t your destination either,” said the co-pilot under his breath before he could restrain himself.
Bill heard him anyway. “Not really, but close.” He paused and looked the captain straight in the eye. “I’m only interested in the money I’ll get to let this plane land. I don’t like hurting people. Look, here’s the deal. I’m charging the Miami International Airport a fee to let you land this plane. Think of it as a one-time tax.” Bill spoke in a calm monotone voice. “Just sit tight and fly the plane. Maintain your course and speed. We don’t want to get in to Miami late, do we?”
Hesitating a moment, both the pilot and co-pilot turned to face the instruments. The pilot looked thoughtful to Bill. Cromwell ordered the autopilot off, but the co-pilot was too nervous to understand. Bill was carefully watching the whole exchange. He guessed it was the first time both men had met the business end of a firearm. He leaned over the console to turn one of the many switches off. Bill’s knowledge was re-warded when he felt the usual bump of the plane changing back to manual control; at the same time he heard Kelly scream.
Blood streamed down the engineer’s face. Bill hadn’t realized how hard he hit the poor bastard. His only goal was to knock him out. He didn’t expect blood. Bill heard a discreet sob behind him and as he turned, he no longer blocked Kelly’s view of the engineer. She screamed again.
“Shut up!” ordered Bill. “Stop crying like a baby and help him.”
Kelly resumed sobbing, but managed to move from be-tween the pilots’ seats to the unconscious man. The professional flight attendant took charge and moved to check the wound. The blood came from above the ear. Head wounds always looked worse than they really were.
Porter reached for the First-Aid box stored on the other side of the cabin and handed it to her. Kelly cleaned the wound, then bandaged it as best she could.
“You’re probably wondering what I’m carrying in this bag, right?” Silence told Bill they did not really want to know. “I’m telling you anyway. It’s a remote control detonator. You know what that is. You screw with me and your cargo area will be a lot more spacious. Got it?”
Bill smiled when he saw the light of understanding on all of the conscious faces in the cabin. They got it…loud and clear.
* * * *
The Fasten Seat Belts sign went on. Roger Simmons’s fear of planes kicked into high gear. There had been hardly any turbulence and there was still at least another hour to go before Miami. Why had the light gone on? He quietly wondered.
* * * *
“Why did you turn that on, captain?” Bill pointed the gun at the sign.
“Standard operational procedure in a hostage situation,” responded the captain calmly.
“You know, in all the years I’ve been flying I’ve never heard of that standard procedure. You’re lying. Don’t lie to me again! I can fly this thing without you.”
A drop of sweat ran down Captain Robert Cromwell’s back. He understood the meaning of the last sentence. The quiet pride that told him he was necessary, at least until the plane landed, crumbled in that simple statement. This guy did not need him to land or to fly the plane; he could do it by himself! That meant this terrorist was a pilot and not just some crazy bastard who managed to get a weapon aboard. Cromwell realized he could not fool this guy, so he told him the real reason why he turned on the light.
“I don’t want any accidents on my plane. I did it so the passengers do not stand in your way. Let’s keep it cool, okay?”
“You see? There’s no need to lie. What you did was thoughtful. You’re a good captain. Now stick to your main job and get me Miami on the radio.”
The captain played with his radio dials for a minute and transmitted: “This is Captain Robert Cromwell of ISA flight number nine-twelve. We have an emergency.”
Bill cut him off and shot two fast sentences into his ear. “Please get me the senior officer at the airport. We have a hostage situation. I repeat—this is for real. We have a hostage situation. Over!”
* * * *
Miami received the transmission and all hell broke loose. The air traffic controller hit the panic button and searched for the most senior officer in the tower.
“ISA 912, this is Miami approach. We copied your last transmission loud and clear. Please stand by. Over.”
The most senior person in the Miami tower at that moment was the head of security, performing a random inspection. Lt. Frank Cocker was new to this kind of situation. He looked shaken upon briefing. He went to the radio console and asked the operator to patch him through. In a second, he was on line with the plane.
“This is Lieutenant Frank Cocker of Miami International Airport Security. What seems to be the problem?” Lt. Cocker tried to keep a calm voice.
“Well, from up here it seems like a guy is pointing a fucking gun at my head. What kind of a stupid question is that?” asked the voice in the speaker.
“Please identify yourself.” Good. Keep it cool, Cocker. Don’t let him get to you. Show him that you are in control.
“Again? Goddamn it! I just did that a minute ago! This is Captain Robert Cromwell of ISA flight 912, inbound from Dallas!” The answer burst through the speaker again.
“I think this guy is losing it,” Cocker said to the person next to him, and then to the operator said, “Get me the FBI on the phone. But before that I want all the information we have on this plane—flight plan, passenger manifest, names of the crew, I mean everything!”
* * * *
“This is special agent Jason Hayes. How may I help you?”
“I’m Frank Cocker, head of security at Miami International. We have a plane reporting a hostage situation, and I think that’s your turf.”
Hayes jumped from his seat and blinked so hard tears ran down his cheek. Being alone in the room right then left him awkwardly relieved. After a full five seconds he said, “You’re right. That is a federal crime. Where’s the plane now?”
“In the air, flying from Dallas. Hey man, the pilot sounds like he’s losing it.”
“Okay. I’m sending a psychologist ahead of the rest. Have you confirmed the story?”
“I tried to, but as I told you, the guy is not good. He tried to bite my head off.”
Hayes closed his fist hard until the knuckles turned white. There were literally thousands of calls every year from people claiming they put bombs on planes or in buildings and saying that they had helped Lee Harvey Oswald kill Kennedy and so forth. Most of them were only prank calls.
“Hold on a minute. Are you sure it is for real?” he asked Cocker.
“I did some cross checking. The plane on my radar matches the one this guy claims to be on. The flight information checks out, name of pilot, and so on. I can’t be sure, but it feels real,” concluded Cocker.
“Yeah, okay, but can’t you get that info just looking at any board in the main lobby?”
“Not the name of the captain, you don’t. You can only see flight number, boarding gate and E.T.D. on the board. For security reasons we don’t advertise the name of the pi-lots. Only the traffic control and the airline management know in advance—and we use a scrambled radio freq,” said Frank.
* * * *
Within thirty minutes the control tower was packed. Jim Thomas, the airport manager, arrived, to the relief of Cocker.
The psychologist on call from the FBI was a good-looking woman named Rita Thomas—unrelated to James. Many of the people in the control room thought because of her looks, it was obvious there was no relation. It came as a surprise for both Thomases when they met each other.
“Okay, what do we have here?” Rita asked, after introductions.
“We have a plane coming from Dallas with the captain saying it’s been hijacked; no ransom demand yet. We think it might be an insider, or at least someone who knows his way around planes.”
Rita interrupted Jim. “In other words, the only thing you know for sure is that a voice is coming through the speaker claiming to be the captain of a plane, and you’re falling for it.”
Jim stood his ground. “Listen, lady, I thought you were here to help, not to criticize our work. We have our methods. We have radio frequencies that are not easy to break into. We have radar equipment that’s worth a thousand times what you make a year, and that equipment says that the plane is where he claims to be. I know the pilot myself. He’s not a joker; not with something like this.”
“Okay, I’m sorry. I only want to have a clear picture be-fore I talk to the guy. You said you know him. That might come in handy. Let me talk to him and you tell me what you think. Do we have a deal?”
Jim nodded in agreement. They walked over to the operator desk where Captain Cromwell made the first contact. The operator raised the volume on the radio. When the captain responded, the operator gave an extra headset to Ms. Thomas. Jim plugged in his headset and listened.
“Captain Cromwell, this is Rita Thomas from the FBI. I’m here to help you. You say someone aboard your plane has taken control of it. Is he listening to this conversation?”
“No,” was the reply.
“Good, so maybe we can have a little privacy. I’m only going to ask you Yes and No questions. Try to tell me as much as you can without making known what you are doing. Okay?”
“Now, is he armed?”
Another voice came through the speaker: “I have a 357 Magnum. I also have a couple of grenades in my pocket, and please, Captain, don’t forget the large amount of explosives in the luggage compartment. Yes, I’m armed and dangerous; but no, Rita, I don’t want to hurt anybody. This is a straight business deal. You want me to let the captain land his plane in Miami, and I will. But I’m charging you five million dollars for it.”
* * * *
Porter’s hands shook. He lowered the gun so the others would not see it. His mind raced now. Everything so far had worked out according to his plan. If only the flight engineer were not bleeding, everything would be perfect. His reason for hijacking the plane required complete secrecy. If he let these people know about it they would use it against him.
He would risk everything, or do anything, for his eight-year-old daughter. Enlisted in the Air Force at eighteen, Bill became a bomber pilot and completed his tour in Nam drop-ping Napalm everywhere they ordered him to drop it. After that, he tried life as a commercial pilot—a way better salary to start with.
By that time—1972—he already had a wife and child. His wife Teresa became sick after four years of civilian life. The doctors were honest from the beginning—terminal cancer. It took her one long painful year to die, leaving behind a financially ruined husband and a daughter named Jamie. Bill became restless, started to drink too often, failed his annual health test to renew his license and got fired. What good is a pilot without a license? Jamie went to live with Teresa’s oldest sister. He did not understand his life anymore. He had been a good soldier, served his country, but now he had nothing.
Porter came up with this little plane sham in a bar late one night. The next morning the plan still looked good in the sunlight. He made his decision. It would be a great scam—a harmless one. He procured the gun and grenades, and bought his ticket with the last of his life savings. He considered it an investment to make his daughter’s life a good one.
Bill took control of the aircraft over forty minutes ago, but the hard part was still ahead of him. After telling the ground his demands, he had nothing to do but to wait out the remaining hour. It would be the longest hour of his life, he was sure. Every minute, every second passing by, brought his goal closer, and he imagined added a few gray hairs to his head.
The plane shook and brought Bill’s mind back to the pre-sent. “What’s wrong, Captain?”
“Sorry. We are approaching the coast. It’s normal to have winds. No more easy ride from here on,” the captain in-formed him.
It was true. Bill nodded the acknowledgement to the frightened captain. A little glimmer of respect sparked in Bill’s chest. The captain was a good man. In other circumstances, they could have been friends.
Bill continued mentally going over his plan; he would take the money and Jamie, and go to his wife’s home country, Nueva España, in Central America. Once a part of the Spanish Main, it was located in a small mountain range on the Caribbean coast between Honduras and Nicaragua, and that little spot of the world always welcomed him. Would it be the same after this? There is only one way to find out.
The pilots were cooperating. Before their first contact with the tower, Bill told Cromwell to overdo his desperation. It would give him an additional edge if the people on the ground thought the pilot might be emotionally unstable. On the other hand, would one hour be enough to get five million dollars gathered? He knew the FBI, the airport, the airline, or a combination of the three could come up with the money. The afterthought that worried him now was that an hour might not be enough. They may ask him to wait on the ground for some time. That could be a problem. His original plan was so smooth that the passengers were not supposed to know anything at all had occurred. Keeping the passengers in the plane on the ground for longer than ten minutes would cause them to worry and would throw off his timetable. His window for escape was very small. Moreover, he was not foolish enough to let himself get suckered into a sitting duck position.
Bill leaned over the console to look at the fuel level. Hmm. Enough for two and a half hours. One to get there and the other one— a sly smile crossed his face as he suddenly realized what he needed to do. He instructed the pilot and listened in as he radioed the control tower.
* * * *
Rita Thomas sighed. Her mood fell, and her expression turned somber. Things did not look good. The airport man-ager did not authorize a general alert. He reasoned that a panic usually follows general alerts, and it was his job to avoid that at all cost. She heard the pilot say he was low on fuel and that he had received instructions from his captor to continue circling around Miami until the money was ready.
Thomas forwarded the new information to Hayes down at the FBI branch office.
Hayes told her he would inform his boss, Director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, a presidential appointee who was highly committed to his job.
Rita knew the director very well. He once told her what a patient said about her: “You feel like you’re talking to your mother or a favorite aunt.” A whisper away from thirty, Rita did not like the idea of being aunt to psychopaths. Only her bitchy demeanor with others tarnished her impeccable record with patients.
The hijacking of a plane on United States territory could be considered terrorism, so the director had little choice but to inform the White House. On the other hand, terrorists do not ask for ransom.
Ms. Thomas’s blood pressure rose with her stress level. She held quite a reputation for talking suicide jumpers into walking the stairs instead of taking the fast way down. It frustrated her that she could only talk to the pilot, not the kidnapper.
Rita did not like the sound of the hijacker, but she had to admit that he was clever. Of course, he was listening to the conversation. She had not considered that. She definitely screwed up trying to make an ally out of the pilot in the be-ginning. Now it would be harder, if not impossible, to gain this guy’s confidence after her first attempt to double-cross the perpetrator. Live and learn they say, except this was not a game, and real people were in danger. Could there be a worse time to screw up?
“Rita, you were trying to help. No need to dwell on that.” Jim Thomas was sitting next to her in the conference room.
“It seemed a good idea under the circumstances. You couldn’t possibly know he was listening. Hey, make the most out of it. Now we know he’s listening.”
“You’re right. We can say things to the captain that may induce the captor to come forward and talk directly to us.” She looked relieved. Her professionalism resurfaced and she sat straighter. It was indeed a brilliant idea. Why did she not think of it herself? Determined, she went directly to the tower, and summoned the controller to reach the captain on the radio again.
“Attention flight nine-twelve, this is Miami approach. Please acknowledge. Over,” the radio controller said, repeating the same phrase every few seconds. There was no response. “Sorry, ma’am; no answer.”
“Here, let me try,” she said, as she took the radio and donned a headset. “Captain Cromwell, this is Rita Thomas. Are you there?”
“Yes, I hear both of you fine. Our friend asked me to in-quire how the money is coming. He says it’s been awhile. Over.” The radio went dead again.
“Yes, the money is coming. We had to find a bank that was open so early. That’s kind of hard, you know. Over.”
“Well, I thank you for your effort, but better make it quick. We should have landed about five minutes ago. Over,” the voice on the radio said.
“We know, but you must understand that getting five million dollars means counting and stacking a hell of a lot of bills. That takes time. Over.” Good, she thought, now I’m talking to him. That’s my job.
After a minute of radio silence, which felt like an eternity, the captain’s voice came back. “He says you better get a bill counter machine or more tellers. You’ve got only twenty minutes left. After that, I’m afraid the money will be useless. The plane won’t have enough fuel to land. Over and out.”
“I didn’t know you were actually getting the money!” ex-claimed Jim.
“Let’s go back to the conference room.” Rita walked in that direction.
They found Hayes sitting at the conference table. It didn’t surprise her that much, and the little it did, she tried to not let show. She made the proper introductions and left it to Hayes to advise the airport manager of the plan. Before Hayes could speak, Rita made sure the door was closed and locked.
“Okay, here’s the deal. The FBI has a lot of money—marked money. We are planning to give this money to him and let him walk away. Give us a few months and we’ll trace this bastard.” Hayes seemed rather proud of the simple plan.
“That’s it? No ‘send in the Marines to the rescue’ or any crap like that? You’re just going to let the guy go?” said Jim, his eyebrows raised with surprise.
“You have a better idea? Please remember we’re trying to avoid a bloodbath here. We’ll trace the guy as soon as he spends his first dollar.”
“He’s on a plane. He could go way out of your jurisdiction. What happens then?”
“Good question. We can advise Interpol on the guy and give them serial numbers of all the bills. Anyway, letting him go is actually Plan B. He has to land to get the money, right? We’re placing snipers on the roof. We want him to come out and pick the money up. When he does, the sniper shoots the hell out of his kneecaps. You like that plan better?”
“It sounds gutsier. What if he doesn’t come out of the plane? He has over one hundred passengers that can pick up the package.” The frown on Jim’s forehead forced his eye-brows to meet and he set his jaw firmly in place.
“Well, there’s always plan B,” said Hayes.
“I wouldn’t be so smug. You’ve been outfoxed before.” The airport manager smirked.
* * * *
The captain looked at his watch. After seven minutes past landing time, he was worried about his passengers. “Can I talk to my passengers and tell them we’re running a little late—that the airport is crowded or something?”
“Good idea, Cromwell. Go ahead,” said the man with the gun.
Cromwell breathed a sigh of relief. Realizing the kidnap-per could fly a plane had scared the crap out of him. To the untrained eye, the board could be deceiving, but the guy had switched off the automatic pilot easily enough. Yes, concluded Cromwell, he is a pilot.
* * * *
Hearing the captain saying they were going to stay in the air longer was not acceptable to Mike Smith. Especially since he was afraid of flying, which made it downright unbearable. The rumble in his stomach began about a minute after the plane started shaking less than an hour ago. A flight attendant passed by and he grabbed her sleeve.
“Excuse me, ma’am, but I was wondering what’s wrong. Is the captain ever going to land this plane? Really, I need to get my feet on the ground soon, or I’ll get sick.” Mike’s face screwed into the look of a man about to toss his lunch. As a lawyer he could convince any jury.
“I’m sorry, but I’m sure the captain is doing his best.” The voice was convincing, but not enough.
“Look, lady, I’m a lawyer. I’m attentive to body language. Your eyes say something’s up. Is there a problem?”
“No, there’s nothing to worry about.”
Mike did not believe that for a second, but he figured it was useless to keep asking her. She either did not know or could not say. His stomach complained again. This time he could not contain it. He walked rapidly to the lavatory, only to find it occupied. Shit!
A woman came bustling out of the lavatory and blushed when she found herself nose to nose with him. She pushed past with a mumbled apology and hurried off to her seat. Smith went inside the small room and closed the door behind him. He was finally able to relieve his entire body. He always felt better after vomiting, and it comforted him to think that it was the worst that could happen to him that day.
* * * *
Porter could not afford to delay too much. It was imperative for the second part of his plan that he reached Miami within the next hour. He checked his clock again and the twenty minutes had expired.
“Captain, call your friends down there.”
“To tell them what?” the pilot inquired.
“Tell them you have to land the plane in the next five minutes. Tell them to have the money ready by the ramp.”
“Miami approach, Miami approach, this is ISA flight 912. Please come in. Over,” the captain said in his microphone.
“This is Miami approach. Over.”
"I need to land this plane in the next five minutes. Please give me a field and let me take care of business, okay? This guy here says you must have the money ready by the ramp when we get there. Over.”
“Noted, flight 912.” The radio went silent. After a few seconds it crackled again, but this time there was a female voice the captain recognized instantly.
“Captain Cromwell, please tell your host to get on the line.”
The captain and Porter traded looks. Bill picked up the line. “Yes, Rita; what is it?”
“The money will be on the ramp, but I want to know if you have any special requests. What are your plans to get out?”
“Why so helpful all of a sudden? Gee. You’re making me nervous. I would think you’re planning my execution as soon as I step out of the plane!”
“No, no, no, no! I only want to make sure everything goes smoothly. No need to worry the passengers, right? Over.”
“Okay. Have the money ready in a handbag, not a suit-case. Airlines always lose your luggage. I think I had better keep it close. Over.”
“All right then. I’m passing you back to the controller for the plane’s landing. Over.”
After a few seconds, the controller’s voice came back on the line. “Flight 912, you are clear to land.”
Bill did not have to hear the rest. He knew the procedure too well. Now, his plan was working. He just hoped he made it on time. Nevertheless, the cordiality in the voice of Rita Thomas was unusual. Last time she sounded businesslike—conciliatory, but businesslike. She was hiding something, but what? He pondered that for a moment. What kind of trap is this? Think, damn it! Think! They could have a man with a rifle aiming at my heart the moment I step out of the plane, but I’ve devised a plan to avoid that. Could that be it? Nah, far too simple. The money! Something that had to do with the money, but what? He thought he might be over-thinking the whole thing, but there had to be something else. What if the money was marked somehow? Yes, that could be it. Now an-other question: what could he do about it?
A plan formed in his mind. As a good chess player, he ran all the possible scenarios. His main problem was time. He felt a funny sensation. Yep, the plane was landing. He grabbed the seat of the flight engineer who still lay unconscious on the floor with Kelly by his side. Porter felt the thump of the landing gear making contact with the ground. The pilot taxied towards the ramp. In less than two minutes, the plane docked. Captain Cromwell ad-dressed the passengers with the usual message about personal belongings, but he told the people to remain in their seats for a little while longer. According to the tower, he advised, the ramp was out of service and the airport personnel were bringing the stairs to the plane.
Bill’s shoulders relaxed just a little. Things were going exactly as he had counted on. He grabbed the microphone and tried to contact Rita Thomas.
“Yes, I’m still here. Over,” Rita responded.
“Listen up. I changed my mind. I was being too nice and you guys have taken way too much time. Let’s make a deal. As a bonus, I’ll take all the money that is, as of this minute, in the duty-free stores and banks at the airport. I’ll give you thirty minutes to bring it out here. People won’t leave the plane until you do. Over and out.”
* * * *
The last transmission shocked the airport manager. His eyes met with those of the radio operator, his Chief of Security, and the two Feds. He concluded they shared a single un-spoken thought: This guy is nuts.
“How can he do that?” a very irritable Jim Thomas asked.
“Well, he just did. You are airport manager. You’re gonna have to do this— now!” said Jason Hayes. “On second thought, I better come with you. It will prevent a lot of questions and make the process easier.”
“Can you make that decision?”
“Consider it a loan. We’ll shoot the bastard the second he shows his ugly mug.”
Jason Hayes and Jim Thomas walked down to the terminal. On the way out, they grabbed a couple of black plastic garbage bags to collect the money.
“There will be no neat stacks or counting this time,” said the government officer through clenched teeth.
They reached the first store and talked to the manager in a hurry. The manager did not believe a word of it, but the badge from the FBI looked real and besides, there was insurance on the money. He ordered the three cashiers to empty the drawers into the bags. It took less than two minutes.
More FBI officials filled the building and they all got the word. They moved out in pairs to collect the money in plastic bags. They drained all the stores and banks in twenty minutes, collecting over fifteen bags full of money. At the designated spot they transferred all the money, including the marked bills, into only two larger bags.
Hayes seethed with anger when Jim squared his shoulders as he took the bags, his eyes daring anybody to stop him. Thomas watched him while waving to the cockpit as he approached the plane.
* * * *
Kelly trembled, sitting in a corner by the cockpit door. She tried several times to stop crying until she finally quieted down to a sob. When her captor introduced himself as a pilot trying to surprise Captain Cromwell, Kelly suspected another silly pilot joke. On her first day of work when a member of the ground crew asked her to take two cans of engine oil into the cockpit, claiming the pilot requested them. She would never forget the pilot’s face when she handed him the two cans of regular car engine oil. He could not control his laugh-ter and only managed to say, “Welcome to ISA, girl!” She blushed for about an hour afterwards.
The passenger looked handsome in his polo shirt and khakis, six feet tall, blue eyes. He could use a haircut though. She wondered how handsome he would look in his pilot uni-form. Kelly made up her mind to help him surprise Captain Cromwell. This time she would be the one laughing! After getting into the cockpit, she realized the guy had conned her. She felt used and unusually filthy.
The armed man shook her out of her reverie.
She looked up to meet his cold blue eyes.
“Go to the main cabin and bring another stewardess and two passengers.”
“I will not force any passengers to come with you!” she said, terrified at the prospect.
“Brave girl. I’ll make it easier for you.” Bill got quiet for a second, and then continued. “Take the mike and summon the passengers seated in 3B and 27A to go to the rear door of the plane. Those are random numbers. Do it!”
Kelly had no choice but to do as told. She stood up, pulled herself together, took the microphone from the console and called the numbers aloud. It was the most awful thing she had ever done, and she wanted it to end.
* * * *
Walking from 27A, Roger Simmons exchanged surprised looks with the person he guessed was seated in 3B. The other guy looked just as annoyed as he was. Probably tired of wait-ing for over twenty minutes after landing to get out of the plane. Was this some kind of promotion gig?
“Do you know what’s going on?” asked Simmons.
“No, but I have a terrible feeling. I swear I’ll sue them when this is over.”
Simmons looked at him appraisingly and concluded he must be a lawyer.
“Mike Smith,” the man said, holding out his hand. “Call me when this is over and we’ll sue them together.”
Simmons tried to smile as he took the offered business card.
* * * *
Porter grabbed Kelly by the arm as he left the cockpit and walked down the aisle. When they reached the galley, he saw the flight attendant who had let him board with the two bags. “You, come with us, too!” he commanded.
The attendant did not know what exactly was going on, but once she saw the gun pointed at Kelly’s back, it became quite clear. She walked in front of them.
On the way to the rear exit door, they passed by Bill’s seat. He retrieved his backpack and left behind the other carry-on bag. It was empty and clear of fingerprints. Porter donned the backpack and continued walking. The passengers were just looking at them. Bill Porter noticed only a couple saw the gun loosely concealed against Kelly’s back. They found the other two passengers waiting for them when they reached the back exit.
“Kelly, be a nice girl and open the door, please.” Polite-ness was never a waste.
Kelly disengaged the airlock. A little hiss went off, re-leasing the pressure, and the door was open.
“Tell me what you see,” he commanded.
“There’s a man standing at the bottom of the stairs with two large bags, one in each hand,” she informed him.
From behind, Bill yelled, “Drop the bags and get the hell out of here!”
“Okay, but don’t do anything rash. We’re cool, okay?” Hayes put the two bags down and walked about thirty yards away.
“Okay, ladies and gentlemen, here’s where you come in.” Bill put the bag on his back and the gun in his trousers be-fore he retrieved the grenades from the manila envelope. He turned to face all four of them. “Have you ever played pots? If not, it is very simple.”
Bill kneeled down and locked his hands together, closing his elbows to his sides.
“You two gentlemen lift me. Don’t worry. It’s only a hundred and eighty pounds. One of you ladies gets in the front and one in the back. Stay close to me or I’ll let go of the grenades. Okay?” All four people nodded. “After you reach the bottom, you ladies take one bag each and the whole group heads to that plane at the next ramp.”
After he gave the instructions, Bill pulled the pins from the grenades using his mouth. He positioned his arms resembling pot handles. The men lifted him and proceeded according to his instructions. Bill pulled his legs up, simulating a fetal position. Kelly led the front, followed by the three men and the other attendant in tow. They descended the steps one at a time. Bill resisted the urge to cringe. Holding a man with grenades in each hand was not a task to take lightly; one slip and they all might blow up. Thankfully the passengers looked fit enough. It was a good thing there hadn’t been two women occupying those seats.
* * * *
Dressed in black complete with armored vest and a concealing dark hood, a man perched atop a ledge overlooking the field while watching through a telescopic lens mounted on top of a high-powered rifle. Usually regarded as “Plan A,” the sniper aimed to put the cross hairs over the criminal’s heart but that task proved difficult. Not only was someone in the front, but the two guys on the side were blocking all possible shots. He might successfully hit an arm, but the bullet would go right through the target’s arm and into the flight attendant behind. She might get the bullet in the leg, or worse, maybe the hip. He could kill her and the assailant would still be alive. Smart bastard!
* * * *
Jason Hayes watched his plan crumble. His last hope was to shoot the bastard, but he had been outsmarted. He watched as five people came down the steps. First, the stewardess in the front picked up a bag, and then the whole group rotated, and the one in the back picked up the last bag. The whole group then moved to their left towards the next ramp.
They eased past the tail of the plane. The tall guy on the left crouched to avoid bumping his head. Jason started walking, moving sideways to his right, following the route of the small group, then he moved down the boarding ramp to the other side of the plane, where the doors were. The ramp was out of order so the group climbed the attached stairs to the waiting plane. Jason did not recognize the marks, so he radioed them to Rita who was still in the tower.
“Hayes, those markings belong to a Central American airline. It’s departing to Panama in five minutes. The people boarded before our plane landed and have been waiting for clearance ever since. Over.”
At that moment, Hayes saw the last flight attendant board the plane and someone closed the door behind her. Scarcely two minutes passed and Rita was on the radio again.
“Our friend now wants clearance for this plane. It’s your call. Over.”
“How many passengers on that plane? Over.” Hayes wanted to know.
“One hundred twenty-seven. Over.”
“Give them the clearance. I think we’ve lost this one. Over.” Jason Hayes surmised this would be the end of his career. His only defense was that he did not want to risk the lives of all those people inside the plane any more than necessary. The plane taxied off, took flight, and turned south out of reach, without a single shot fired.
Later, the FAA examined the ISA plane for explosives, but they found none. Porter had bluffed about that, but the grenades looked real enough to the flight crew they interviewed.
“The assailant’s psychological advantage was greater due to the idea of more explosives than they were able to see. Porter was smart. He had to know this plane would be leaving the country so close to the other flight,” summarized Hayes to the investigator.
Jason Hayes did not believe in coincidences and would not start today. How could this Porter have anticipated the ramps would be out of order?
All the banks and stores in the airport terminal had theft insurance. Thankfully, there was more than one insurance company involved. The total taken from the stores was almost a full million dollars. The airport banks reported over two million taken. In addition to the five million “donated” by the FBI, Bill Porter left the airport with over eight million dollars. To Hayes’ dismay that amount of money commanded headlines in the daily newspapers for a week. He felt some-what thankful the public got bored with the story and reporters soon moved on to more exciting breaking news.
End of Excerpt
TREASURE HUNT is available in Kindle, and Nook
End of Excerpt
TREASURE HUNT is available in Kindle, and Nook