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W. E. B. Griffin

By Order of the President

Chapter I


Quatro de Fevereiro Aeroporto Internacional

Luanda, Angola

1445 23 May 2005

As he climbed the somewhat unsteady roll-up stairs and ducked his head to get through the door of Lease-Aire LA-9021-a Boeing 727-Captain Alex MacIlhenny, who was fifty-two, ruddy-faced, had a full head of just starting to gray red hair, and was getting just a little jowly, had sort of a premonition that something was wrong-or that something bad was about to happen-but he wasn't prepared for the dark-skinned man standing inside the fuselage against the far wall. The man was holding an Uzi submachine gun in both hands, and it was aimed at MacIlhenny's stomach.

Oh, shit!

MacIlhenny stopped and held both hands up, palm outward, at shoulder level.

"Get out of the door, Captain," the man ordered, gesturing with the Uzi's muzzle that he wanted MacIlhenny to enter the flight deck.

That's not an American accent. Or Brit, either. And this guy's skin is dark, not black. What is he, Portuguese maybe?

Oh come on! Portuguese don't steal airplanes. This guy is some kind of an Arab.

The man holding the Uzi was dressed almost exactly like MacIlhenny, in dark trousers, black shoes, and an open-collared white shirt with epaulets. There were wings pinned above one breast pocket, and the epaulets held the four-gold-stripe shoulder boards of a captain. He even had, clipped to his other breast pocket, the local Transient Air Crew identification tag issued to flight crews who had passed through customs and would be around the airport for twenty-four hours or more.

MacIlhenny started to turn to go into the cockpit.

"Backwards," the man ordered. "And stand there."

MacIlhenny complied.

"We don't want anyone to see you with your hands up, do we?" the man asked, almost conversationally.

MacIlhenny nodded but didn't say anything.

Something like this, I suppose, was bound to happen. The thing to do is keep my cool, do exactly what they tell me to do and nothing stupid.

"Your aircraft has been requisitioned," the man said, "by the Jihad Legion."

What the hell is the "Jihad Legion"?

What does it matter?

Some nutcake, rag-head Arab outfit, English-speaking and clever enough to get dressed up in a pilot's uniform, is about to grab this airplane. Has grabbed this airplane. And me.

MacIlhenny nodded, didn't say anything for a moment, but then took a chance.

"I understand, but if you're a:"

Someone behind him grabbed his hair and pulled his head back. He started to struggle-a reflex action-but then saw out of the corner of his eye what looked like a fish-filleting knife, then felt it against his Adam's apple, and forced himself not to move.

Jesus Christ!

"You will speak only with permission, and you will seek that permission by raising your hand, as a child does in school. You understand?"

MacIlhenny tried to nod, but the way his head was being pulled back and with the knife at his throat he doubted the movement he was able to make was very visible. He thought a moment and then raised his right hand slightly higher.

"You may speak," the man with the Uzi said.

"Since you are a pilot, why do you need me?" he asked.

"The first answer should be self-evident: So that you cannot report the requisitioning of your aircraft immediately. Additionally, we would prefer that when the authorities start looking for the aircraft they first start looking for you and not us. Does that answer your question?"

MacIlhenny nodded as well as he could and said, "Yes, sir."

What the hell are they going to do with this airplane?

Are they going to fly it into the American embassy here?

With me in it?

In Angola? That doesn't make much sense. It's a small embassy, and most people have never heard of Angola much less know where it is.

What's within range?

South Africa, of course. It's about fifteen hundred miles to Johannesburg, and a little more to Capetown. Where's our embassy in South Africa?

"As you surmised, I am a pilot qualified to fly this model Boeing," the man said. "As is the officer behind you. Therefore, you are convenient for this operation but not essential. At any suspicion that you are not doing exactly as you are told, or are attempting in any way to interfere with this operation, you will be eliminated. Do you understand?"

MacIlhenny nodded again as well as he could and said, "Yes, sir."

The man said something in a foreign language that MacIlhenny did not understand. The hand grasping his hair opened and he could hold his head erect.

"You may lower your hands," the man said, and then, conversationally, added: "You seemed to be taking a long time in your preflight walk-around. What was that all about?"

MacIlhenny, despite the heat, felt a sudden chill and realized that he had been sweating profusely.

Why not? With an Uzi pointing at your stomach and a knife against your throat, what did you expect?

His mouth was dry, and he had to gather saliva and wet his lips before he tried to speak.

"I came here to make a test flight," MacIlhenny began. "This aircraft has not flown in over a year. I made what I call the 'MacIlhenny Final Test':"

"Is that not the business of mechanics?"

"I am a mechanic."

"You are a mechanic?" the man asked, dubiously.

"Yes, sir. I hold both air frame and engine licenses. I supervised getting this aircraft ready to fly, signed off on the repairs, and I was making the MacIlhenny Test:"

"What test is that?"

"It's not required; it's just something I do. The airplane has been sitting here for more than twenty-four hours, with a full load of fuel: at takeoff weight, you'll understand. I take a final look around. If anything was leaking, I would have seen it, found out where it was coming from, and fixed it before I tried to fly it."

The man with the Uzi considered that and nodded.

"It is unusual for a captain to also be a mechanic, is it not?"

"Yes, sir, I suppose it is."

"And did you find anything wrong on this final test?"

"No, sir, I did not."

"And what were you going to do next if your final test found nothing wrong?"

"I've arranged for a copilot, sir. As soon as he got here, I was going to run up the engines a final time and then make a test flight."

"Your copilot is here," the man said. "You may look into the passenger compartment."

MacIlhenny didn't move.

"Look into the fuselage, Captain," the man with the Uzi said, sternly, and something hard was rammed into the small of MacIlhenny's back.

He winced with the pain.

That wasn't a knife and it certainly wasn't a hand. Maybe the other guy's got an Uzi, too. A gun, anyway.

MacIlhenny stepped past the bulkhead and looked into the passenger compartment.

All but the first three rows of seats had been removed from the passenger compartment. MacIlhenny had no idea when or why but when LA-9021 had left Philadelphia on a sixty-day, cash-up-front dry charter, it had been in a full all-economy-class passenger configuration-the way it had come from Continental Airlines-with seats for 189 people.

Lease-Aire had been told it was to be used to haul people on everything-included excursions from Scandinavia to the coast of Spain and Morocco.

MacIlhenny knew all this because he was Lease-Aire's vice president for Maintenance and Flight Operations. The title sounded more grandiose-on purpose-than the size of the corporation really justified. Lease-Aire had only two other officers. The president and chief executive officer was MacIlhenny's brother-in-law, Terry Halloran; and the secretary-treasurer was Mary-Elizabeth MacIlhenny Halloran, Terry's wife and MacIlhenny's sister.

Lease-Aire was in the used aircraft business, dealing in aircraft the major airlines wanted to get rid of for any number of reasons, most often because they were near the end of their operational life. LA-9021, for example, had hauled passengers for Continental for twenty-two years.

When Lease-Aire acquired an airplane-their fleet had never exceeded four aircraft at one time; they now owned two: this 727, and a Lockheed 10-11 they'd just bought from Northwest-they stripped off the airline paint job, reregistered it, and painted on the new registration numbers.

Then the aircraft was offered for sale. If they couldn't find someone to buy it at a decent profit, the plane was offered for charter-"wet" (with fuel and crew and Lease-Aire took care of routine maintenance) or "dry" (the lessee provided the crew and fuel and paid for routine maintenance)-until it came close to either an annual or thousand-hour inspection, both of which were very expensive. Then the airplane was parked again at Philadelphia and offered for sale at a really bargain-basement price. If they couldn't sell it, then it made a final flight to a small airfield in the Arizona desert, where it was cannibalized of salable parts.

Lease-Aire had been in business five years. LA-9021 was their twenty-first airplane. Sometimes they made a ton of money on an airplane and sometimes they took a hell of a bath.

It seemed to Vice President MacIlhenny they were going to take a hell of a bath on this one. Surf amp; Sun Holidays Ltd. had telephoned ten days before their sixty-day charter contract was over, asking for another thirty days, check to follow immediately.

The check didn't come. A cable did, four days later, saying LA-9021 had had to make a "precautionary landing" at Luanda, Angola, where an inspection had revealed mechanical failures beyond those

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