The voice on the other end of the line fired questions impatiently at Richard Walker.
“Is the mission ready for execution?”
“It is. All of the parties are prepared and have their materials.”
“And I trust there will not be any unfortunate mistakes like last time?”
“No, sir. We’ve planned this out extensively. We corrected the mistakes from the last mission. We’ve made several dry runs at similar airports. I can assure you there won’t be a problem.”
“I certainly hope you are right. The Directory of the Agency has no patience for future failures. I don’t have to remind you of just how much is depending on this operation. The Presidency itself may be at stake.”
‘I understand, sir. Nothing, and I mean nothing, will stop us this time.”
“Very well. I’ll wait for news of your success.”
Walker stepped out of the white stretch-limousine onto the curb of Denver International Airport. He carried a simple blue carry-on bag in his left arm as he strolled into the terminal building. He paused to scan the overhead monitors for his flight to Chicago. He found flight 696 and moved toward the security checkpoint.
Walker joined the line behind an elderly woman carrying a small dog in a nylon pet carrier. The line advanced slowly as the little dog gazed out of its portable cage. The dog stared at Walker, and Walker stared back. Walker shifted his carry-on bag to his left hand and lowered his right hand to his waist where his smart phone was clipped to his belt.
The elderly lady finally reached the threshold of the metal detector and paused as she placed her purse on the conveyor belt, removed her shoes, and then tentatively passed through the detector. Walker placed his phone in the tray, placed his shoes next to his phone, added his carry-on to the conveyor belt, and then passed through the detector, holding his breath slightly.
The elderly lady in front of him shuffled around a bit and retrieved her purse from the conveyor belt. Walker stepped around her and headed briskly for the gate.
Walker stopped abruptly and turned to the TSA agent calling for him.
“Sir, your phone. You forgot your phone.”
“Thanks,” Walker said with a slight nod of his head and a congenial smile as he retrieved his phone from her. He turned back to his right and headed for Gate 31.
Susan was nervous. She shifted Thomas from her left arm to her right and deftly shifted the fold-up umbrella stroller from her right hand to her left hand. At twenty-one pounds, he was so much heavier than when she had last flown with him. The heat and humidity of the stifling Houston air made it all the more uncomfortable.
Susan laid the stroller on the conveyor belt and quickly passed through the metal detector.
“Wave at the nice man, honey,” Susan said, directing Thomas to wave at the young TSA agent sitting at the x-ray machine console.
Another agent spoke first. “Hi, little fella, and where are you heading today?” The young man gathered up empty security trays.
“Tell him we’re off to see Daddy in Chicago,” Susan suggested.
“Ma’am, I need to ask you to move ahead and claim your items,” a nearby TSA official urged in a polite but slightly annoyed tone, as the line of impatient passengers waited to pass through the metal detector.
“I’m sorry, sir, I didn’t mean to hold things up…”
Susan grabbed the stroller as it slid down the metal chute leading out of the x-ray machine. Holding Thomas close to her chest with her right arm, and the stroller in her left, she walked promptly to Gate 16 to catch her flight to Chicago.
“Sir, we need your laptop out of its bag, please.”
“I’m sorry, I got distracted and forgot,” William Fisher replied.
Fisher fished his laptop out of his bag and laid it in the plastic tray, alongside his Ziploc bag with various assorted toiletry items. On the other side of the x-ray machine, Fisher retrieved his laptop and slid it back into his bag. Fisher handed his empty tray to the TSA agent collecting and stacking them.
“Thank you, sir,” the guard replied. William checked his watch: 7:00 am. He found Gate D8 where he boarded flight 314, nonstop service from Los Angeles to Chicago.
Flight 696 departed Denver for Chicago at 10:15 a.m. Mountain time, twenty-five minutes late from its scheduled departure time. Flight 202 from Houston to Chicago left Houston Intercontinental at 11:30 a.m. Central time, for an on-time departure. Flight 314 from Los Angeles to Chicago departed at 7:50 a.m. Pacific time, ten minutes late, as usual.
Walker stepped into Concourse C in Terminal One at O’Hare International Airport at Gate C15. He turned right and walked halfway down the concourse to Gate C9. Susan was right on time.
“Hello, Susan, everything okay?”
“Just fine, thanks.”
“And how’s Mr. Thomas today? Doing okay, buddy?” Walker asked as he greeted her child.
“We’re just fine,” Susan said abruptly. “I believe I have something you want.”
“So be it.” Walker retrieved a small screwdriver from his shirt pocket and bent at his knees. He pried the plastic cap off the left front wheel of the stroller and gently removed the plastic wheel.
“Have you made the transfer?” Susan asked.
“Of course. Don’t I always? Same account as always.”
“Great. So where’s William?” Susan asked.
“Right here, Susan,” William whispered in her ear.
Susan jumped slightly and caught her breath.
“I hate it when you do that. You promised you wouldn’t do that anymore.”
“Oh well, it’s fun to scare you. Besides that was American, and this is United.”
“Fine, William, let’s just be done with it…”
“Enough chit chat, boys and girls. Until next time?”
“Fine, Mr. Walker. Until next time,” Susan said.
“See you next time, Mr. Walker,” William said as he handed the battery from his laptop to Richard Walker.
“Have a nice day, Susan, William,” Walker said with a nod and a smile. And with that, he turned and joined the moving sidewalk towards Gate C18 where a Boeing 777–200LR was boarding passengers for Sydney, Australia, with one stop in Los Angeles. He took his one-way ticket to Los Angeles out of his pocket, waited in the short line for a few minutes, and then stepped up to the gate counter.
“How are you today, sir?” the polite brunette at the counter asked. To Walker, she hardly looked more than twenty-three or so.
“Just fine. Is the flight on time?”
“Yes, sir, so far. I see you’ve got a request in for an upgrade. Looks like we won’t be able to accommodate you this time. Just too many ahead of you. But I can get you an aisle seat if you’d be more comfortable that way?”
“No, I think I’d actually prefer the window. I like to look outside. I guess I’m kind of strange that way.”
“No worries. Here you go. We should be boarding in about twenty minutes or so,” she said with a smile as she handed his new boarding pass over the counter. “Have a nice day. Can I help the next person in line?”
Walker dozed a bit on the flight after he finished some important work. He woke just before landing in Los Angeles. Walker shuffled out of his seat — 22A, just slightly aft of the midpoint of the wings — and left a small package affixed to the wall of the aircraft, underneath the seat in front of him. The package consisted of a small altimeter switch, a laptop battery, and a lethal amount of C4 explosives formed in the shape of the front wheel of a stroller. A wire ran from the battery to the negative terminal of an ignition fuse. The other wire ran to the altimeter switch and then onwards to the positive terminal of the fuse. The altimeter switch was set for a pressure altitude of 6000 feet. Walker did some quick math in his head. At a normal climb rate of 2000 feet per minute, and a normal departure from LAX westbound over the Pacific, the detonation would occur three minutes after departure, several miles off shore and without hope for survival.
Deplaning, Walker approached the young flight attendant as the last batch of Los Angeles-bound passengers exited.
“Does this plane really go all the way to Australia?” he asked in his nicest naive-passenger tone, with just a touch of an artificial southern accent.
“Of course, no problem, all the way there with no stops. It’s like 7500 miles or so. Gets a little boring after you’ve made the trip a few times, but you get used to it.”
“That’s amazing… And it can carry enough fuel to do that?”
She nodded, smiled politely at him, and then turned to help someone else.
Richard Walker caught a taxi to one of the cheap hotels along Century Boulevard close to LAX. He checked in with his forged passport and credit card. He settled down to today’s copy of USA Today and turned the TV on with the remote that had been bolted to the top of the worn night stand, turning it to CNN’s Headline News. He turned the TV down so the volume would be just enough to catch his attention. And then he waited for the news of the successful mission.
Flight 27 bound for Sydney, Australia slowly lumbered out toward the runway 25R at LAX. The Boeing 777 was fully loaded with fuel, passengers, and cargo, but the runway’s 12,091 feet was more than sufficient.
A middle-aged flight attendant making the last of her pre-departure checks caught sight of a little girl playing on the floor between her seat and the seat in front of her. She spoke to the girl’s mother.
“Ma’am, I’m sorry, but you need to keep her in her seat until we get up in the air just a bit. It’s not safe for her to be down, especially as we taxi out.”
“Yes, of course, I’m sorry,” Cynthia Cleveland offered. “Stephanie! I told you already you can’t get down yet. Get back up here and sit down,” Cynthia insisted. “Let’s get out from underneath that seat and sit down. If you don’t listen to mommy, I’m going to have to spank you,” Cynthia warned.
Stephanie looked up with her dark, wide, curious two-year-old eyes. Her mother was mad. With her newly discovered toy, a small plastic wheel clutched in her left hand, she hoisted herself into the seat by the window, and began to play with her new toy while mother settled back into her magazine.
Beneath the seat in front of Stephanie, a pair of loose wires hung harmlessly against the side of the cabin.
Cynthia looked up from her magazine. “Don’t you want to go to sleep, honey? We’ve got a long flight ahead of us, and then you’ll see Daddy and can give him a big hug.”
“Daddy. Hug. Stephie,” she said as she nodded excitedly and fidgeted with the small plastic wheel.
Outside, the engines throttled up toward their maximum one hundred thousand pounds of thrust each and the 777 accelerated down the runway. After 9,000 feet of runway, the fuel-laden jumbo clawed its way into the air.
After just a few more minutes, Stephanie grew drowsy from the gentle rocking of the airplane as it passed through 8,000 feet toward its cruising altitude and from the soft roar of the engines. She leaned forward as far as she could and pushed her new toy into the seat pocket in front of her.
Leaning back into the corner of her seat, she grew very sleepy as she thought about the big hug she would soon give her Daddy.