Welcome to the First Chapter of Dangerous Past by A.F.Ebbers.
Airline Captain Frank Braden and his wife Nicole are suddenly stalked by professional assassins who have a deadline to make their deaths look like an accident or a suicide. And the couple doesn't know why they are being targeted. They don't realize that they stand in the way of a deadly conspiracy. Little by little they are pulled into a dangerous web of intrigue by a murderous criminal network that deceptively offers the pilot his wife's life if he will concede to their demands. This is a thriller that rocks the highest levels of Washington.
Dangerous Past is a story of a man who must choose between doing what ought to be done or keeping his family alive by allowing a murderous and powerful VIP to escape his past.
A. F. Ebbers, a journalism graduate of Ohio University was a reporter/writer for major newspapers, ad agencies, and in public relations for Cessna Aircraft Company. He also graduated from Army Flight School and flew for the Ohio and Kansas Army National Guards. Later he was called to active duty and served two flying tours in Vietnam. After retirement from the military, he flew for corporations and for regional airlines. A dual rated ATP pilot, he has written for numerous national magazines, Sunday supplements and trade and travel magazines and has written screenplays and short stories. Today he lives with his wife in the Austin, Texas area and, when not writing, enjoys tennis, flying and piano. Dangerous Past is his debut novel.
About writing. I write realistically about what I have experienced. Most of the places in this novel are real because I’ve been there: from Vietnam to Europe to Asia to Washington to Texas and most places in-between. I create characters using a combination of real and imaginary personalities. My motto for writing fiction is always write what you know.
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The air was smooth as the Boeing 737-200 airliner sliced gracefully east through the night autumn sky over southern Tennessee. Letters scripted in dark blue printed out the name WestSky across the sides of its white fuselage
On the flight deck, Captain Frank Braden, 50, a fellow with inquisitive brown eyes, salt-and-pepper hair and easy-going mannerisms, occupied the left seat.
First Officer John Tate, 30, an eager-to-please copilot is in the right seat. Tate had been delighted to see that he was scheduled to fly with Braden. Frank was known as a less demanding captain on his co-pilots and was easy to get along with, unlike a few captains who turned into hard-to-please tyrants in the cockpit. But he also knew that Braden was nobody’s fool and insisted on professionalism in the cockpit at all times.
“Heard you flew in ‘Nam?” Tate said.
Frank eyed his younger flight companion before answering, “For a short while.”
“Not a full year?”
“Got shot and sent back to the States.”
“Bummer. Viet Cong?”
Again, Frank hesitated before answering. “No. American.”
The First Officer’s interest visually perked up. “Wow, that’s cool. I mean, not you getting shot, but an American shooting you. Never heard of that happening.”
And, thankfully, my life has been mundane even since, Frank reflected.
“You know, I was just starting grade school when ‘Nam was going on.”
Tate paused and anxiously waited for his captain to follow-up the shooting episode with an explanation. But only silence penetrated the cockpit. Out of the corner of his eye the First Officer saw his Captain staring blankly at the dark outside world beyond the windshield.
Frank knew he had little to complain about, even with his recent stock losses. Everything he had worked hard for he had achieved. As a senior captain with a major airline and married to a prominent and attractive surgeon, he figured they could get out of bankruptcy within two years. But then what? His two kids were in college and ready to leave home, and his wife recently starting spending more time at medical conventions and hospitals than at home. Sometimes they rarely talked when they were home together. Basically, he was worried that his brainy wife might be bored with him for not paying more attention to her. Was she thinking of splitting?
“Everything okay, skipper?” Tate asked.
Frank, momentarily distracted from his isolated thoughts, turned to his copilot. “In the end, everything works out for the best, doesn’t it?”
Not sure how to answer, Tate ventured, “I guess it does.” John Tate was not one to disagree with any captain he was flying with even though he may not have completely understood the question. But he was not one to be able to contain his curiosity, either. He again abruptly broke the captain’s solitude, “Why’d he shoot you?”
Frank looked down and picked up an approach plate booklet and examined it. The copilot finally got the hint and, although disappointed, wisely didn’t pursue the questioning any further.
About a dozen feet behind and on the other side of the flight deck door in the First Class section, senior flight attendant Beth Jordan, mid-30s, smiled as she handed a cup of coffee to a rotund businessman. Beth, slim, with a pleasant personality, had been with WestSky for ten years. She had planned to leave the airline five years ago, but her husband’s real estate business had its own recession and they needed the extra income.
“Cream or sugar?” She asked in a very polite but professional voice.
Suddenly, a terrific loud BANG shook the airliner like dynamite, tearing a ten by twelve-foot hole into the bottom right side of the aircraft fuselage. A deafening tornado-like wind rushed through the interior of the passenger cabin like a giant vacuum cleaner, sucking up anything not nailed or strapped down. Simultaneously, a brief, chilled mist swept through the cabin amid the screaming passengers whose voices could not be heard above the shrieking wind. Paper and debris floated everywhere. Speechless, the rotund businessman’s body instantly became caught in the suction towards the hole. His body jerked upwards but was held by his seat belt. Stunned and scared, his eyes widened as they involuntarily followed the stewardess, coffee cups, papers and other debris, down and out of the aircraft through a gaping hole in the bottom right front fuselage of the plane.
It had all happened so fast, even Beth didn’t have a chance to scream, just wore a shocked expression on her face as she disappeared into the night.
Seconds later, the power of the giant vacuum dissipated as the cabin pressure equalized with the outside atmosphere. But dangling oxygen masks waved back and forth and a ceaseless, deafening, howling wind from the hole in the fuselage continued.
In the economy class, women continued to mouth unheard screams. A pair of flight attendants knocked to the aisle by the explosive decompression, grabbed the bottom supports of the seats and held on until suction towards the cavity ceased. Then they scrambled to their feet, motioning for everyone to put the masks on their faces. As if to demonstrate, they snatched two hanging masks from nearby empty seats and put them on.
Simultaneously, the same wind shrieked through the cockpit making normal conversation impossible. Debris, papers, checklists, and pieces of gray insulation floated everywhere.
“Shit,” Tate yelled. But nobody heard him. The sound of the wind drowned him out.
Frank quickly donned his oxygen mask, disconnected the autopilot, retarded the power levers, held the control yoke slightly backwards and banked the aircraft to descend. He squinted at his copilot since the swirling debris made opening the eyes fully very dangerous. After seeing Tate put on his mask, he pointed to the intercom switch. Both men turned the switch on. Now they could hear each other through their oxygen mask mikes and headsets.
“Explosive decompression, emergency descent, I have the controls, extend the speed brakes,” Frank said quickly.
Tate extended the speed brakes and put on the cabin seat belt sign.
The First Officer switched from intercom to air traffic control and in an unsettled voice, yelled into his oxygen mike, “Mayday. Mayday.Mayday. WestSky Flight two-five-three. Explosive decompression. One hundred ten souls on board. Thirty- thousand pounds of fuel.Leaving flight level three-three zero for ten thousand now.”
Frank pointed at the transponder. Tate nodded and put in the numbers, 7700, the emergency code.
“Can you see what’s going on back there?” Frank said.
The copilot turned toward the rear and gasped. The cockpit door had been blown off its hinges and he saw the gaping hole in the aisle of the First Class passenger compartment.
“There’s a hole in the bottom of the aircraft in First Class. I can see lights on the ground through it.”
“See the attendants? How are the passengers?” Frank rapidly.
“Beth’s missing. The other attendants are getting off the floor in the rear cabin but they look okay.”
“Scared. But they’re in their seats sniffing oxygen.” Tate looked for the emergency checklist couldn’t find it in the debris. So he did it by memory, mumbling to himself while he glanced at the control and instrument panels. “Captain -- airspeed.”
Frank looked at the rapidly unwinding clock-like altimeter and the increasing needle on the airspeed indicator and nodded. He pulled the yoke back a little further to decrease the airspeed a bit while still maintaining a rapid descent to breathable outside air. “Any reply from Memphis Center?”
Tate shook his head, “Can’t hear a thing. Still too much noise.”
“Keep transmitting in the blind. Tell ‘em it’s structural failure, vibrating badly. We’re diverting to Memphis.”
The airframe vibrations were quite noticeable as the airliner continued its descent. Tate, on a second look, reported that the interior of the fuselage near the tail section seems to be moving slightly up and down on its own.
A dozen thoughts were racing through Frank’s mind. God, I hope the structure of this old bird holds together at this speed. Once the integrity of an airframe has been compromised, all bets are off. Dammit, there’s no way to dump fuel from this 737 and we got a lot of it. At least we’re still flying. So the worst is probably over. Hope we got good weather at Memphis.
Out of the sight of the pilots, a small hanging piece of aluminum sheeting on the side bottom of the airline fuselage tore loose in the slipstream and slammed into the right engine inlet. Sparks flew out and a fire warning light ignited on the instrument panel.
Frank spotted the red light almost immediately. “God! What’s next,” Frank said to himself. He then yelled to Tate. “Check number two engine.”
Tate didn’t have to look hard. His eyes widened. An orange-reddish flame from the jet engine lit up the right side of the wing. Black heavy smoke trailed behind the engine.
“She’s on fire.”
“Damn.” Frank quickly shut down the right engine and yelled to Tate. “Number two’s down. Push the fire button.”
Tate reached to the instrument panel. He pushed a big red button marked No.2.
“If it doesn’t go out give her another fire bottle in thirty seconds.” Tate waited the out the seconds and eagerly pushed the fire button again. He then switched on the right wing spotlight which he didn’t need. His eyes widened. In a grim voice he said, “Still see flames. Smoking like hell, too.”
“Tell Memphis we got one turning and one burning,” Frank replied. He didn’t want to even think about the possibility of the fire melting the engine support struts. He knew that a departing engine and pod would likely take a portion of the wing with it.
“Approaching ten thousand.”
“Roger. Leveling off,” Frank said. “Retract speed brakes.”
As the aircraft slowed, the cockpit wind noise lessened. Tate slipped off his oxygen mask. Frank ripped his off with his one free hand.
The copilot looked uneasily at Frank. “I’m feeling more vibrations.”
“Roger. Can’t control her below 170 knots.” Frank held the control yoke with both hands now, struggling to keep the aircraft from rolling either to the port or starboard sides. He nodded toward the power lever. “Reach over and give me a little more power on number one.” Tate reached over and pushed the lever forward a little and the airspeed indicator increased to one hundred and eighty knots, dissipating the aircraft’s tendency to roll but causing the vibrations to increase.
“That’ll be our approach speed,” Frank said.
A ground controller voice was heard in their headsets. “WestSky two-five-three. Do you read?”
“Got you five-by-five now. Get our transmissions?” Tate eagerly replied.
“Roger, flight two-five three. Air traffic at Memphis has been diverted. You’re clear for a straight-in ILS approach to runway three six left. Ceiling 200. Fog. Visibility, quarter mile. Wind calm. Altimeter 2996.”
Tate alternated between looking at the smoking engine, at the instrument panel and glancing out the front windshield. He didn’t like anything he saw. Underneath them was a blanketing white sea of mist that they must descend their wobbling, burning, airliner into at high speed to reach safety. He felt himself getting nauseous thinking about their odds. Taking a deep breath, he looked for the approach plate manual and couldn’t find it in the mess. He radioed their predicament to ATC. The controller answered in a minute giving frequencies and headings and altitudes required.
“Glideslope alive. You can start your descent,” Tate said.
“Got it.” Frank replied.
“I can still see flames coming from the engine,” Tate said quietly.
“Roger,” Frank said.
The controller voice was again heard over the headsets. “Emergency equipment is in position by the runway. Switch now to final controller on one two-four point one-five. Good luck.”
Before Tate could acknowledge a reply, Frank quickly injected an afterthought into the mike. “Keep the emergency vehicles away from the runway. With the structural damage we have we’re not too sure how aerodynamic we might be on touchdown. Could cartwheel.”
“I’ll pass it on,” the controller said.
While Tate changed radio frequencies, Frank gently pulled back the single power lever with his right hand and held a slight back pressure on the control yoke with his left hand as the crippled airliner descended into the murky fogbank seeking the safety of the runway two thousand feet below.
The vibrations lessened somewhat as the airspeed decreased but the wing alternately dipped and rose to one side or the other while Frank tried desperately to wrestle it back to the level position. He knew if the wing dropped just above the ground, the aircraft could cartwheel wing over wing, tearing itself into fractured pieces of metal in which only a lucky few would survive, if that many.
Flames and smoke continued pouring from the starboard engine, baggage occasionally dropping out from the gaping hole in its fuselage, as the Boeing 737 started the last approach its badly damaged airframe would ever make.
Frank glued his eyes to instruments on the panel, struggling to keep the wings level in the fog. Tate sat forward in his seat, beads of sweat on his forehead, his hand on the landing gear lever, his eyes trying to penetrate through the mist to see the runway.
“Vibrations increasing again,” Tate warned.
As Boeing 737 sped downward, Frank, eyeing the ILS indicator, kept the localizer and glide slope needles immobile.
“Descending thru 300 feet,” Tate called out. “Runway not in sight.”
We’re coming in too hot. “Flaps 15,” Frank yelled.
Tate moved the flap level. Nothing happen. “Flaps inop,” Tate quickly warned.
Frank nodded. Had the fog thickened and dropped lower?
Suddenly Tate yelled. “I see the approach lights.”
“Gear,” Frank ordered.
The copilot quickly pushed the lever down. “Gear handle down.” He glanced at the instrument panel again and his face muscles tightened.
“Starboard and nose gears not down and locked,” Tate shouted.
Frank quickly glanced at the gear panel indicators. “Gear up. Tell the attendants to assume crash position. Can’t go around.”
“Roger.” Tate pulled the lever up and spoke the warning instructions into the cabin microphone which probably nobody could hear. But the attendants could tell that the touchdown was near and showed the passengers that they should fold their arms on their knees and bend forward.
Frank brought back the power lever and raised the aircraft nose slightly.
This gave the appearance of the fast moving aircraft floating just above the ground. When the aircraft nose rose and the airspeed slowed, the whole plane shuddered and a wing dipped dangerously closed to touching the ground but was quickly leveled by Frank as he plopped the airliner down on the runway. It skidded on its belly in excess of one hundred fifty miles an hour. Sliding, the airliner fuselage scraped along the top of the asphalt runway sounding like fingernails grating across a blackboard magnified a thousand times. Sparks from the friction erupted under the airliner making it look like a giant sparkler.
It was now out of Frank’s control and he and the crew and passengers sweated the seemingly endless minute as the aircraft slowly turned sideways before grinding to a stop.
Emergency vehicles, lights flashing, quickly surrounded the fuselage. Firemen shot foam into the smoking starboard engine as passengers evacuated their aluminum tube by sliding down emergency chutes. Surprisingly, a few of them appeared hardly fazed by their ordeal. Others, shaking, sobbed tears of joy, just happy to be on the ground in one piece. An elderly couple, traumatized and paled, was put into an ambulance.
Frank and the copilot jumped down to the runway from the food service door aft of the cockpit. They walked a short distance, then turned and looked back.
Now that it was over, Frank started to fully realize the implication of what could’ve happened and he suddenly felt exhausted. The pilots, deep in their own thoughts, remained silent for several seconds, gazing blankly at the remains of the airliner.
Tate broke the silent first. “My ears hurt.”
“As they say, any landing you can walk away from is a good landing. Cool touchdown, Captain.”
“Thanks. But when the company sees their aircraft, they’re going to question that.”
“Hah, as if those desk nerds could do better,” Tate said.
Frank smiled and gripped the copilot on the shoulder. “Couldn’t have done without you, good job.” His voice then cracked. “We lost Beth.”
Tate nodded silently.
Frank turned and headed toward a side door in the terminal. “See you later. I’m going to catch a hop back to Austin after I complete about a thousand pounds of paperwork.”
* * * *
It was midnight at the Austin–Bergstrom International Airport when Frank, still in his WestSky uniform and carrying his flight briefcase, exited with other passengers through the arrival gate. Nicole Braden, Frank’s wife, a slender small-breasted woman in her mid-40s, ran out from a group of onlookers into his arms and held him tightly.
The walked down the terminal passageway arm-in-arm. “Nice going. Were you afraid?” She said.
“Too busy to get scared.” A frown crossed his face. “Almost lost it. Don’t know how it stayed together.”
“TV anchors elevated you from a mere mortal into a Greek God.”
“Couldn’t have done it without my crew.” Frank shook his head. “Our lead stewardess, Beth, was sucked out the hole.”
“Oh my God, that’s terrible.” Nicole’s face turned chalky white. “The newscasts hinted about a casualty but they didn’t have any details.”
“I phoned her family. I guess I should’ve allowed the company to do that but they drag their feet about things like that. I felt I owed that to her. That was the toughest thing I had to do tonight.” Frank stopped her in the middle of the terminal walkway and hugged Nicole again.
Their English Tudor style home sat just off Lake Austin, amid a scattering of upper middle class homes on the hilly shoreline terrain.
Frank followed Nicole through the doorway, stopped and looked around. “Where’s Badger?”
“She must’ve wandered off again. I’ve been looking in the neighborhood for her all day. Nobody’s seen her.”
She hasn’t done that in a long time, Frank thought. He really missed her leaping, friendly greeting he got every time he entered the house. “I guess she’ll come home when she gets hungry.” Frank sat down in an easy chair, twirled his cap through the air onto the sofa, and yawned. Nicole went into the kitchen and returned. She handed him a cup of coffee.
“I phoned Susan and Richard in their dorms to let them know their dad’s okay,” Nicole said as she sat down, looking proudly at her husband on the couch.
Frank sighed as he acknowledged her warm admiration. I guess she’ll stick around for a while. Nothing like a near death experience to rekindle the passion, he told himself.
Frank yawned. “God. It’s been a long day.”
“Do they know what happened to your plane?”
“Metal fatigue is my guess. It ripped away in the slipstream and left a large hole underneath the first class compartment.”
“Oh, my God,” Nicole gasped.
“The FBI started questioning passengers as I left last night. I’m going to meet with them next week in Washington.” Frank tried to stifle a yawn but failed. “I’m also temporarily grounded until the company completes their investigation, too. That’s standard procedure.” He handed Nicole his cup and she took it into the kitchen. When she returned, Frank was asleep.
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