Authors: Robert K. Tanenbaum
Robert K. Tanenbaum
For the memory and exemplary life of courage and compassion of Ruth Hitzig Tanenbaum, my mother, and as always for Patti.
Special thanks to my friend, confidant, soulmate, scribe, and cousin, Michael Gruber, without whom this manuscript could not have been completed.
HEY DIDN'T FIT
the profiles. That's why they breezed through security at LaGuardia, past the two guards, the X-ray machines, and the metal detectors. The guards were looking for Arabs or Cubans, single, nervous men, or groups of nervous young people. Fanatics. Not an old guy who had to be over sixty-five. Not a couple of averages, both middle-aged and medium height. The fourth guy was young but an obvious lunkhead, muscles all over, with a big goofy smile. And not the woman, either: pale skin, blue eyes, blond, a straight little nose. A toothpaste ad.
Besides, it was a flight to Milwaukee, not one of your usual terrorist destinations, and not watched like the Miami flights and the internationals. The five of them were clean on the electronics, too; well, maybe not squeaky clean, because they could have had anything in that gift box they were carrying in the Macy's bag. But it was the end of the shift (they thought of that too, it turned out) and the guards were bleary from deciphering dim shapes on the scope.
The five sat together in the rearmost row of the 727, the old man and the woman sitting together and the three other men across the aisle. The group had stowed their packages in the overhead compartments or under their seats, as required by federal law.
The flight attendant doing her seatbelt and oxygen mask routine in the rear section noticed nothing remarkable about the group, except that the three men sitting together were looking at her with unusual interest. Maybe they were on their first flight, she thought. Or maybe they were the kind of passenger who regarded stews as high-altitude geishas. As the plane began to roll toward its runway, the flight attendant finished her demo and walked crisply up the aisle. As she did, the old man said something in a foreign languageâRussian?âto the three other men. Whatever it was, it cracked them up. Rough laughter joined the sound of the accelerating engines. Flight 501 took off on schedule and headed west. It was 10:05 on September 10, 1976.
Milo Rukovina had laughed along with the others, as he always did, although the joke was on him. “Milo,” Djordje had said, “if you want to pee, use the little bag behind the seat, not your pants.” Yes, he had wet his pants when they planted the bomb in the train station locker, but he had told Macek that he had to go before they left the shop. He was dying by the time they got to the station. When they were leaving and he saw the two cops trotting toward them from the subway entrance, he thought they had been betrayed and he had disgraced himself.
But the police had rushed right by, en route to some other emergency, and for the next few months Djordje Karavitch had added Milo's wet pants to his store of needling remarks, along with swipes at Vlatko Raditch's slowness of wit and Pavle Macek's parade of women. Which Milo did not really mind, because it showed that the leader had noticed him, that he was part of the group, of the Party.
The plane was leveling off. Milo Rukovina pushed his seat all the way back, sighed, removed his thick glasses, and rubbed his face. It was a rabbity face with thin blond hair and myopic gray eyes. He replaced his glasses and glanced around at his companions. To his left, Vlatko Raditch was staring out the window, fascinated, like a child. He turned and smiled at Milo. “Ah, Milo, look, we're high up,” he said inanely. He was a beautiful man, with glossy chestnut curls and a panther's tight body. The noble young head was as empty as a kettle, except for soccer. Milo could not help liking the fellow, but could not see why Djordje had made him a part of the Party's inner circle, since he was quite useless as a conspirator. Perhaps it was his name.
On the other hand, there was no question why his companion on the right was a member. Pavle Macek seemed hardly contained inside his skin. He had the look of the wolfâintense, deep-set yellowish eyes, hunter eyes that darted in all directions, and a vulpine face with a strong nose curving above a black mustache and thin red lips. His long, powerful fingers were always flexing, tapping his legs, clenching into fists. Although Milo worked with Macek every day at the electrician's shop Macek owned, he was still not comfortable in the other man's presence. Every political movement needed a Macek, Milo knew, at least in its early days, but when power was theirs and their nation was free again, men such as Milo Rukovinaâcalm, judicious, well organizedâwould be needed more than wolves like Macek.
A chime sounded and the seatbelt light went off. A voice came over the speaker, welcoming them to the flight and telling them that they were free to move around the cabin. Macek looked over at the old man, who nodded. Slipping out of his seatbelt, Macek rose and removed the Macy's shopping bag from the overhead compartment. He carried it to the rear lavatory and locked himself in.
In the pantry at the center of the plane, Daphne West and Alice Springer were preparing to serve juice, coffee, and sweet rolls to the forty-four people in coach. The third flight attendant, Jerry Silver, was already pampering the first class. West had been a flight attendant for ten years, Springer for two. West's smiling muscles were wearing out. She had just about decided to chuck the job for something with more of a future. Also, she was having trouble keeping her weight under the airline's strict limits. She regarded Alice Springer with amusement, mixed with a little envy.
Springer was born to stewardess. Petite, golden-haired, with a naturally sunny disposition shining from her pretty blue eyes, she believed devoutly that being a waitress in an aluminum tube thirty thousand feet in the air was a nobler calling than the same job in a restaurant back home in Hibbing, Minnesota. And she ate like a horse and never gained an ounce.
Alice pulled the cart into the aisle. First row left was occupied by a mother and two children under five, a party only slightly less grueling for flight attendants than a clutch of drunken Elks. Alice beamed at them and distributed sweet rolls and juice, napkins, and Handi-wipes. She looked back at Daphne. “Aren't they precious?” Another sunlamp grin. Later Daphne would reflect that it was the last time she saw that smile on Alice Springer's face.
The two men were waiting for her, the old one and the one with the yellow eyes, standing in the aisle as she dragged her cart to the last row. The old man touched her shoulder and spoke in a soft, slightly accented voice. “Miss, if you would, we have an emergency.”
“Yes. Listen carefully to what I am saying and do not make a disturbance. There is a bomb on this planeâ”
Alice gasped. “A bomb! That's impossible. There are children â¦” She turned toward the front of the plane, toward the captain, but she was blocked by her cart. The old man moved closer to her, and she caught his odor, like old leather. His blue eyes were remarkably clear, young-seeming despite the dark bags beneath them. Once caught in their gaze she found she could not pull away.
“Listen, I said! Now. There is a bomb on this plane. It is our bomb. Pavle! Show her!”
The other man held up a six-quart white enameled cooking pot by its lid handle. The top was held on with many turns of black electrician's tape. From a square six-volt dry cell taped to its side rose red wires that passed through a red-buttoned switch taped near the handle and then disappeared into the pot.
Djordje Karavitch observed the effect this had on the young woman. He liked what he saw; she would give them no trouble.
“You see, we are serious men,” he continued, “and we wish to strike a blow for freedom in our country. And so we must borrow your plane for a little while.”
Alice gaped like a fish and trembled. “B-b-borrow â¦ ?” She was struggling to remember what she had been taught in flight-attendant school about such emergencies, but her brain was frozen, not so much by the thought of what a bomb could do to an aircraft full of people, but by the eyes of the two men who confronted her. The older man had a gaze as cold and pitiless as the thin air outside the jet. The other man's yellow stare was a nasty parody of the lecherous glances she encountered every day in her job. The look said, I not only want you, I want to consume you and make you nothing.
The older man gripped her arm, hard. He had been talking and Alice had not been paying attention.
“Listen to me! Are you listening now?” She nodded meekly. “Good. We do not wish to hurt you or anyone on this plane. So you and I will take a walk up to the cockpit. You will push your wagon and do as you do always. My friend will sit back here with his finger on the detonator. If things do not go precisely as we wish, he will destroy the plane. Do you believe me?”
Alice tore her gaze away from his, struggling to control herself. She wanted the bathroom. She wanted to cry. She looked around at the other people in the last row. The handsome one was smiling meaninglessly, like a dog watching his master play checkers. The little man with the glasses was watching with neutral interest, a student at a biology demonstration. Alice looked at the woman in the aisle seat. Her face was a blank, the eyes hidden by large sunglasses.
In a small voice Alice replied, “Yes. I believe you.”
Daphne West was about to ask Alice to take over the coffee service when she saw the look on her face and took in the big man looming over her. “What's wrong, Alice? Uh-ohâ”
“Daph, this man needs to, uh, see Captain Gunn, on the flight deck,” she explained the situation in a tight whisper.
Daphne West had never been hijacked, but in ten years as air crew she had known a number of people who had. She pulled Alice's cart into its slot and patted the younger woman on the shoulder. “OK, kid, just do what you have to do and stay cool. I'll take care of things out here.” She looked at the big man as they advanced past her. A monster for sure, she thought, and calmly gave him her best phony smile.
The third flight attendant, Jerry Silver, was serving drinks to the first-class passengers when Alice and Karavitch strode past. He looked on in amazement as they entered the flight deck. The prosperous first-class passenger to whom he was serving a bourbon and water caught his expression. “Any trouble?” he asked calmly. Jerry cranked up his reassuring grin. “No sir. Not so far as I know.” He turned away and quickly slipped inside the curtain of the forward galley.
“Daphneee! What the hell â¦ !” Daphne regarded her crewmate with an appraising eye. Jerry was a gorgeous blonde, like Alice. He was delighted to be a stewardess (for so he regarded himself, “flight attendant” being a term he never used), the realization of his life's ambition, and did what he could to compensate for nature not having made him like Alice in every single particular.
“Keep it down, Jerry,” said Daphne in a low, controlled voice. “We're being hijacked.”
“You're putting me on. Uh-oh, I guess you're not. Who, the big bozo with Springer?”
“Yes, and he's no bozo.”
“What, guns, knives?”
“A bomb, they say. The party in the back row. Don't look. We're supposed to keep it close until they make an announcement. Look, how are you on CPR? There's a couple of old biddies and a guy in 20C looks like a corpse already.”