CHAPTER ONE OF SKYJACK
Thea Paris felt like she was trapped inside a giant cocktail shaker. Up, down, side-to-side – the turbulence delivered a walloping to the 737. A sheen of sweat dampened her forehead, her vision was blurred, and the world felt slightly off-kilter. Was her blood sugar out of whack? A quick glance at the app on her phone: 110. All under control. Her nerves, not so much. Modern airliners were resilient enough to ride out severe turbulence without coming apart or falling out of the sky, but that knowledge didn’t help her feel any better.
She just hated flying.
Maybe it was the lack of control that drove her crazy? Rif Asker – her colleague and long-time friend – was an ace pilot, and he gently chided her about how she was able to remain calm under enormous duress in her job, while the sound of those jet engines firing up rattled her to the core. Well, Rif wasn’t here today, and air travel was an essential part of being a response consultant, the industry term for kidnap negotiator.
Most of the time, she was able to distract herself by focusing on her current case, but it didn’t always work. She gritted her teeth and tried to present a brave front to the two boys beside her, both first-time flyers. The African charity her late brother Nikos had founded to help recovering child soldiers had started an adoption program, and these two brothers were headed to their new home in London. Jabari was twelve, Ayan nine. After witnessing their parents’ beheadings by Boko Haram, they were forced to invade neighbouring villages to abduct other children, soldiers in a war they didn’t understand.
The plane dropped suddenly, leaving them weightless for what felt like an endless moment. Then their butts slammed back into their seats as the bird hit an updraft. Thea’s stomach protested. If the seat belt light hadn’t been on, she’d have been tempted to grab an Ativan from her SINK (survival insurance nightmare kit). The tote contained everything but the kitchen sink, including a silver compass, a flashlight, a booster, first aid supplies, her diabetes medications, and other items hidden in plain sight, things that, if spotted, would cause an airport security officer to escort her to a windowless room for further questioning. As a freedom broker, she traveled undercover to global hot spots and never knew what might be needed. The SINK came with her everywhere.
Jabari smiled and poked her arm. ‘This is more fun than riding an ostrich.’
Only a kid could think of this shaken-not-stirred flight as a good time. Her fingers strangled the armrests. She checked the boys’ seatbelts for the fourth time. ‘It sure is.’ She forced a smile. ‘And every flight is different. Sometimes there’s no shaking at all.’
She shouldn’t complain about the rocky skies. Getting the boys to their adoptive home was what counted. They’d missed their connection in Nairobi, but with Rif’s help, they had been able to secure three seats on a chartered Boeing Business Jet, flying to London in style. Papa planned to pick them up at Heathrow, bringing the family dog to meet the boys and help put them at ease. The last time they’d been together, Thea and her father had argued about Nikos’ memorial – she’d wanted to place it next to her mother’s tomb at their house in Martha’s Vineyard, but Papa had refused. Yet more fallout from her brother’s death. Maybe when she reached London, the two of them could find some time to work on healing their fractured relationship.
Ayan was curled up in his window seat, pointing outside. ‘Why aren’t the wings flapping?’
‘It’s not a bird, silly. It’s a plane, a jet.’ Jabari enjoyed lording his superior knowledge over his little brother, but if anyone tried to bully Ayan, Jabari would be the first to defend him. Knowing the hell they’d gone through, she hoped this would be a fresh start, a chance to reclaim their childhoods. The boys’ situation struck a very personal chord with her, as Nikos had also been kidnapped by an African warlord at twelve and forced to do unspeakable things. He’d never fully recovered from the trauma. And the orphanage was his legacy – now their legacy, as she’d assumed responsibility for the charity with Nikos gone.
Ayan’s index finger kept hammering at the TV screen. ‘Look, Jabari, it’s a story about a lion.’
A smile managed to surface through her unease. The Lion King was one of the inflight movies.
‘What if I want to watch something else?’ Jabari’s lower lip jutted forward.
‘Then you can play another movie on your own screen. Pick whatever you like. We’re very lucky – we can choose anything.’
Thea scanned the plane, cataloguing the other twelve passengers, an occupational reflex. Several businessmen engrossed in their laptops, a stunning middle-aged Asian woman dressed in black, an old man wearing a fedora, a fair-haired beanpole with wire-rimmed glasses and a bow tie who was clutching his computer bag, a slickster dressed in Versace, a strapping guy with a handlebar moustache, a dandy wearing seersucker pants and a panama hat, and a collection of other characters. She couldn’t fight an unsettled mood that had nothing to do with the turbulence.
The plane shook again, rattling the overhead bins. An older, barrel-chested gentleman seated near the emergency exit turned and looked in her direction. Sweat drenched his forehead, and he kept crossing and uncrossing his legs. Maybe he felt nauseous from the turbulence, but couldn’t use the lavatory because the seat-belt lights were on.
She could relate.
‘Tell me more about London. Do they have many animals?’ Jabari asked.
‘I’ll take you to see some, but the U.K. is quite different than Africa.’ She guessed the city zoo would either be their favorite outing or a thoroughly depressing spectacle. The boys would definitely experience culture shock in the U.K., but they were smart, capable – and the family adopting them would provide opportunities they never would have had at the orphanage.
Another sudden drop.
‘Wheee!’ Ayan laughed and raised his slender arms in the air.
She swore under her breath, not wanting to challenge the boys’ opinion that this aeronautical roller-coaster ride was brilliant fun. Although it felt like they’d plummeted 3,000 feet in two seconds, the plane’s altitude had probably only dropped ten or twenty feet. But the turbulence caused the 737 to pitch and roll like a rowboat in a typhoon.
She’d learned everything she could about planes and safety, hoping the knowledge would ease her anxiety. It didn’t.
She checked her blood sugar levels again. A little low. Hopefully the pummeling would stop soon so the flight attendants could offer a food and beverage service. She needed to eat, and she knew the two boys would gobble the food the second it appeared – a habit learned during their captivity and no doubt reinforced at the orphanage.
A few minutes later, the turbulence settled a touch. Had they reached calmer skies or was it like an earthquake, where aftershocks came rippling in just when you thought it was safe?
Movement at the front caught her attention. The cockpit door opened, and the co-pilot stepped out into the cabin. Didn’t the seat-belt sign apply to him? Two pilots on the flight deck were better than one, especially in these conditions.
A quick word with the male flight attendant, and the co-pilot slipped into the bathroom. Was he in desperate need of relief, ill or what?
Her gaze locked on the lavatory door, waiting for him to re-emerge.
One thousand, two thousand, three thousand…
A solid thump startled her. The heavyset older man who’d been sweating a couple of rows ahead had slumped over the edge of his seat and was hanging into the aisle. She waited a couple of seconds for him to move.
She held out her little finger to Jabari and Ayan. ‘Promise you’ll stay here, buckled up. Pinky swear.’ She’d taught them this ritual during one of her visits to the orphanage.
The plane jolted to the left and dipped.
The boys entwined their pinkies with hers.
‘Thanks, guys.’ She released her seat belt and stood. Bracing herself on the overhead compartment, she clambered forward to where the man had collapsed in his seat. The male flight attendant met her there.
She checked the stocky man’s neck for a pulse, but it was hard to keep two fingers on him because the plane had started shaking again. ‘Nothing.’
The attendant held his wrist. ‘I’m not getting anything either.’
She snapped open the man’s seatbelt, looped her arms underneath his shoulders, and pulled him out of the seat. The plane dropped abruptly, and she almost lost her hold on him. She stabilized her footing, yanked him into the aisle and lowered him to the floor. Not easy. The man was built like a fully loaded washing machine.
The flight attendant knelt down beside her, brushing his red hair off his forehead. His name tag read ‘Bernard’.
‘You a doctor?’ he asked.
‘More like a combat medic.’ Gunshots, puncture wounds, and other side effects of extreme violence were her specialty. Given the man’s age, pallor, and physical condition, her first thought was that he’d suffered a heart attack. He needed oxygen. Four to five minutes without it, and he’d be brain dead. ‘Defibrillator,’ Thea said.
Bernard hurried off to get it.
She placed the heel of her left hand on the center of his chest, rested her right hand directly on top. Linking her fingers together, she kept her elbows straight and pushed down hard. Queen’s ‘Another One Bites the Dust’ ran through her head. During training, they’d played the familiar tune over and over, as it had one hundred beats per minute, the ideal rhythm for compressions. She delivered a quick thirty thrusts to keep his circulation going.
She reached under his neck to ease open his airway and listened for any sign of breathing. He smelled strongly of onions, but there was no hint of air movement from his lungs. Another bout of turbulence thrust her against the nearby seats. She steadied herself, pinched his nostrils shut while pulling his head slightly back, and puffed a breath into the man’s mouth, initiating artificial respiration. His chest rose. Okay, no obstruction. She gave him another big lungful, then completed thirty more compressions.
Bernard returned with the defibrillator, the co-pilot at his heels. ‘Keep going while I get it ready.’
‘Not looking good?’ the co-pilot asked, concern in his eyes.
‘I’d recommend an emergency landing.’
‘Roger.’ He sped towards the cockpit.
After finishing five rounds of thirty compressions and two breaths, sweat dripped down her back. In the distance, someone was banging at the front of the cabin, but she couldn’t worry about that now. A quick glance at the boys. They were in their seats, as promised, but like the rest of the passengers they were craning their necks so they could see what she was doing. She gave Ayan and Jabari a reassuring smile. They certainly wouldn’t forget their first flight.
Bernard had started the AED. He ripped the man’s shirt open and applied the electrode pads to the upper right and lower left chest.
‘Analyzing rhythm, clear,’ Bernard warned.
She moved aside, letting the AED complete its analysis.
‘Shock advised. Remain clear.’
Bernard pressed the shock button.
The AED advised him to shock again.
Dammit. The man’s heart wasn’t responding. She started the compressions again, replaying the throbbing beats of ‘Another One Bites the Dust’ in her mind.
Come on, Freddie, help me out here.
Bernard felt for a pulse. He shook his head.
She wouldn’t give up.
Thea completed another round of compressions and looked up to see the co-pilot, who had returned from the front of the plane. ‘Are we landing somewhere soon? This man needs immediate medical intervention.’
The co-pilot lowered his voice. ‘Bit of an issue. The pilot has locked the door and won’t let me back in.’