Ruben Herrera watched his breath leave his mouth and linger in the air at eye level. He inhaled the cold winter air and tasted the faint fumes of gasoline as he drove his golf cart past a 737 fueling up at Terminal B.
Other golf cart-like vehicles zoomed past him on their way to move luggage or escort elderly travelers across the tarmac to their prop planes. They zigged across the narrow area between the planes and the building with expert knowledge of the many different colored lines, which adorned the pavement like boundaries on a high School gymnasium floor.
Ruben didn’t take the cart too often. Anywhere he needed to go could be reached on foot with little effort or time and he enjoyed the exercise. But this was the dead of winter and he didn’t usually visit the cargo terminal next to the NetJets lobby. He had planned to oversee the operation at the NetJets terminal. He would whisk the subject from the plane to the custodian and see them off. But the reference to the B-Lock on the incoming cargo plane meant that the NetJets flight would be the decoy instead and the cargo plane would be the subject of the operation.
Greyson grabbed his sweatshirt and shuffled by Henry and Olivia. He gave a cursory nod to the little girl and wandered off to see if the plane carrying his guest had arrived.
Behind him, Henry quickly packed his carry on with Olivia’s snack bags, coloring books and toys. He maneuvered himself and his daughter into the end of the line. Ahead of him, two dozen suits nudged forward. Above the shuffle, Greyson could still hear Olivia’s hiccups.
To the left and back behind him at the entryway, Ruben conferred with the tall NetJets employee who had first spoken with Greyson. The two began pointing in his direction. Only when the commotion moved from his peripheral vision to his open field of view did Greyson look to investigate what was going on.
“Greyson Holliday?” he asked in a commanding voice, as if one of those police detectives on television about to secure a collar.
Greyson looked at him in disbelief. People around him cast furtive glances wondering if he was some sort of terrorist. Despite their apparent detachment from life around them, American travelers had developed acute awareness and sensitivity to suspicious behavior in airports. Just the sight of an official pulling a passenger from a line raised everyone’s 911-feuled danger radar.
“There is nobody on that flight for you,” Ruben said in flat monotone.
“How do you know?” Greyson said feebly reaching for his iPhone and still looking around as if the incident were all a case of mistaken identity. “A package? Who sent me a package?”
“We got the message through special channels … a Military channel.” Ruben chose his words carefully, but Greyson failed to notice any wordsmithing on his part. “Come take a ride with me and I will explain.”
Greyson pulled away, but Ruben’s grip held him firmly. The NetJets employees scuttled about, oblivious to the scene or effectively appearing not to take notice. The passengers kept to themselves. Greyson could see no way out, short of screaming or running. Even so, resistance of an Airport employee in the post-911-world would only lead to more security guards and harsher treatment.
“Why would I get a package from the military?” He asked.
Greyson gauged the large man gripping his triceps just above his elbow and leading him out the door into the cold. He looked honest enough. He had a stern face with dark skin and deep lines across his brow. His neck muscles filled the cavity at the top of his shirt and caused the collar to stretch wide across the top of his chest. Greyson would have pegged him as a head of security before he would guess that he was a Supervisor. His identification badge listed him as Airport Operations Director.
As if in reaction to Greyson’s doubt, Ruben softened.
“Melanie is aware of this change in plans.”
“You know my sister?”
Greyson felt dizzy at the exchange and wondered if his hangover contributed to his foggy understanding of the situation. But something in Ruben’s tone and urgent manner convinced him to cooperate. He decided that Ruben’s intentions were non-negotiable but non-threatening at the same time. He eased slightly and worked to clear his head. He replayed the information Ruben had provided to sort it out and make sense of it.
“I served in the Middle East with your cousin Cael. I know your uncle Roger. I know members of your family in Minnesota. I don’t know your sister, but I know of her and her friend. The package is from her.”
In the distance, just barely visible to the naked eye, NetJets Flight 42 from Iowa sliced through the sky. Soon it would start the descent over the hedged yards and oversized pool houses of the residential area around the Westchester Airport. Just before the seatbelt light beaconed passengers to return to their seats, Abud Terhani cast aside his restraint and walked deliberately up and down the aisles for a third time. During his initial entrance, he did not locate his target. At 30,000 feet, he again trolled the aisle, but to no avail. This time, as he scanned the faces in each row, the flight attendant politely, but firmly asked him to return to his seat. As he walked, slowly and deliberately back, he scowled to himself. He had yet to spot his enemy.
He wondered if he had missed him or if he had misremembered the facial features of his intended victim. He rechecked the image on his phone. The Americans had remained a step ahead of him. He would have to abort his mission. He imagined the communication he would receive from Al Khomeni Massaad and the order to return to Pakistan to take accountability for his failure.
As he pondered his torturous fate, an encrypted instant message caught his attention. His source within the US Army intelligence community had tracked the target to a military plane just ahead of him. They had identified one of several different possible drivers who could infiltrate the American operation. When he landed, he could still seek out the target and enact a secondary protocol.
“I may yet die today a martyr,” Abud thought to himself. “The Mosque in Jamaica Queens will provide what I need to complete my mission.”
Henry Lucas looked back at Greyson curiously. Usually quick to sense danger, he had thought nothing of Greyson’s innocent banter with his daughter. His instinct reassured him that Greyson was little more than a clueless actor-type, probably confused as to which flight to take.
Now closer to the television, he tuned in to the breaking story of a bombing at an American University. Footage of smoke billowing from a heap of brick and cement rubble looped as the voiceover described a scene where a school auditorium exploded only hours earlier causing the roof to collapse and several students to be trapped inside. The story went on to describe an unknown, tall, slender savior that had heroically rescued several of the students by helping them escape through some sort of opening in the demolished structure.
Only three passengers left between them and the gate, Olivia cried out.
Henry hushed her as the attractive woman with the iPad moved through the doorway to the hangar. Greyson disappeared around a corner and Henry could see him step into Ruben’s miniature vehicle through the plate glass window facing the parking lot.
The winter breeze leapt over the plastic windshield of Ruben’s golf cart and pierced Greyson’s body like a million daggers of ice slicing through his flimsy T-shirt. Clouds obscured the sun and the temperature dropped 20 degrees between the time he left his apartment and the moment Ruben applied the gas to move across the parking lot toward a hanger about 500 yards away. As Ruben spoke, condensed air expressed from his mouth and blew away in the wind generated by the vehicle’s forward motion.
“The call came in through a classified military channel,” he explained. “I exchanged intel with an agent aboard the plane and received a debrief on you and your family. I was instructed to deliver you to receive the package. It’s not exactly a package. But it has been sent here to your attention by a member of your family with instructions for you to take extreme care of it. We call it ‘Precious Cargo’, a person of importance. Someone in your family trusts you explicitly.”
The wiseass in Greyson thought to quip; “Then you must have the wrong family…”, but Ruben, with his bulging arms, neck tattoos peeking up from the collar of his Khaki shirt and his serious warrior face scared him enough to stay straight. He wavered between intimidation and indignant. Part of him wanted to jump out of the cart. Part of him was too scared to move. And the third part clung to a growing sense of responsibility to follow through on the commitment he made to Cael.
“I was supposed to pick someone up at the NetJets terminal.” said Greyson.
“Change of plans,” Ruben replied.
“How come?” Greyson asked.
Henry Lucas strode quickly out of the lobby of the NetJets terminal with his laptop slung haphazardly across his back and dangling over his shoulder, his roller board in tow attached to his right hand and Olivia attached to his left. Olivia bawled with her tears interrupted every 20 seconds by a loud bellowing hiccup sound. The attendant had agreed to give him 10 minutes to track down Greyson Holliday and retrieve Olivia’s stuffed Rabbit, which she had hid in his duffel bag as a part of her “Hide and Seek” game.
He saw the vehicle cross the parking lot and round a small quartet of trees outside a terminal next to the NetJets building. They bolted across the parking lot, weaving between parked cars in pursuit.
Henry saw a small charter flight oozing slowly past the NetJets hangar toward the one that Greyson had entered. He wondered if Greyson would fly off with his daughter’s favorite security toy, leaving him with a broken-hearted little girl with no outlet for her pain. He cursed himself for taking the call from work and allowing his attention to waver from her.
The Jet eased into a slow bend and started to move into the hangar ahead of him as they reached the unlocked door. Olivia’s anguish tortured her father as he gently pulled her along. Ahead, he could see the golf cart with Greyson and Ruben standing in front of the plane. He paused for a split second at the sight of the man with his sculpted arms and protruding chest. Even Olivia stopped short and changed her expression.
He called out to Greyson and Ruben, but they couldn’t hear him beyond the churn of the airplane engines and the swirl of the propellers.
Greyson watched the cargo plane skirt down the shared runway by the NetJets hangar. Just behind it, maybe 200 yards away, he saw another plane, the NetJets flight, grow from a small dot to a recognizable birdlike shape emerging from behind the tail of the cargo plane.
The nose of the cargo plane rotated around the opening of the non-descript metal hangar and pointed into the cavernous space before them. In the background, the clouds parted, and the sun started to peak through. The chill in Greyson’s arms thawed slightly as the cool air refreshed his lungs.
The door to the plane opened, downward from the front. A set of stairs pealed gracefully from the side of the craft to a spot just above the ground. A burly soldier in beige fatigues bound down the stairs and shook hands with Ruben, the handshake morphed into a hug, like an ocean wave crashing against a rock embankment. Two solid forces met and for a moment blended to one.
Above the scene, a head emerged from the plane. The glow of the sun, now fully shining through the clouds obscured his view, but Greyson made out the outline of a tall, slender figure with a beautiful head of long, wavy dark hair. As he moved down the stairway, the beams of the sun illuminated the one-piece robe that the man wore draped down his body. He moved off the last step and turned to face Greyson straight on.
Greyson’s chill left him. He stared across the way as the man moved toward him. He had a unique face, international in its look. He seemed to resemble a wide myriad of ethnic backgrounds ranging from European to Middle Eastern and even a touch of Asian. His smile lit the hangar as he reached out his hand to Greyson.
Greyson shook his hand, noting the firm grip and the formal two-handed handshake. He may have had an accent although Greyson couldn’t place it. In fact, it was subtle enough that he only heard traces of it. Perhaps he used to have a stronger accent and lost it, or maybe he spoke other languages. In any case, his speech was clear, concise and commanding.
“I thank you for your assistance. I am in need of shelter and your sister informed me that you graciously offered me lodging with you.”
Greyson had trouble moving his gaze off of the figure before him. He glanced at the two hulking men to his left and right and then returned his eyes ahead.
A tiny noise caught everyone’s attention. It echoed across the ceiling of the hangar and broke the concentration of the three men facing the mysterious Jai.