With his aircraft parked at the Schiphol Airport terminal under cloudy Amsterdam skies with a refueling truck pumping Jet A-1 and a food service vendor loading dinner meals in the galley, the captain of Delta Flight 1227 bound for Baltimore-Washington Airport left his seat in the cockpit and entered the first class cabin. A retired Navy pilot, Captain Michael Rainey had flown hundreds of sorties in Vietnam, honing his flight skills in a combat environment before transitioning to the monotonous grind of civilian aviation. “We got any fresh coffee back there,” he asked the tall, blonde flight attendant with red highlights and brilliant eyes the color of her blue topaz pendant.
“As a matter of fact, we do,” the flight attendant acknowledged the captain with her Dutch accent and a genuine smile. “Long flight?”
“No longer than usual,” said the captain. He took the paper cup of black coffee from his attractive crewmate. “I let my first officer do all the heavy lifting.” He sipped the coffee. Strong but not bitter; the way he liked it.
The flight attendant observed the captain’s hands. Masculine and strong like the man himself and void of any wedding band on his ring finger. She imagined what the handsome captain might look like under his uniform. “The flight was bumpy.”
“Turbulence. Bad weather’s been hovering on radar all night. When are we scheduled for departure?”
Captain Rainey smiled back. Divorced with no kids, he’d spent the last five years alone with the same flight schedules and the same three-bedroom ranch in Forth Worth, Texas. Over the years, longer hours and deeper pay cuts had dampened his enthusiasm for a civilian career he’d enjoyed for twenty years. Despite his loyalty to the airline and his length of service, he’d been treated like an artifact more than the veteran commercial pilot he’d become, a pilot with impeccable credentials and a spotless safety record.
On his sixtieth birthday, he’d eaten dinner alone at his favorite steakhouse, shared a bottle of French wine with a stranger he’d met at the bar, and ventured home with a full stomach and a nice buzz to catch the Late Show with Letterman. He had his career and his health, but nothing special to occupy his spare time aside from the occasional round of golf with his buddies who mocked him for spending too much time with his head in the clouds.
In the best shape of his life, he maintained a youthful appearance, despite his battlefield scars and a bitter ex who’d taken years off his life with her petty mind games. His doctor had given him a clean bill of health, with a caution about the dangers of smoking cigars. An eternal optimist, he looked back without regrets—except for one. Twenty-three years of marriage brought him a lot of things but never the one he wanted most—a son. And now, as he found himself staring into the beautiful eyes of a stewardess he’d flown with on multiple occasions, he couldn’t help but wonder how his life would change if given a second chance at love with a younger woman, a woman who adored him as much as he adored her, and who maybe, God willing, would bear him the son he never had.
“Would you like more coffee?” the flight attendant asked quietly, removing the metal thermos from its holder.
Captain Rainey stared through a portal at the fuel truck parked beneath the wing and thought, flowers are the key to a woman’s heart.
The flight attendant dipped her head and raised her eyebrows at the tall, distinguished gentleman with gold lapels. “Captain?”
The Delta Captain glided back down from the clouds. “Sorry…”
“No thank you.” He checked his watch and stepped through the first class aisle toward the main cabin door. “I’ll be right back.”
“Where are you going?”
“To stretch my legs. Don’t take off without me.”
* * *
Three miles east of the airport, a two-door Peugeot with a broken tail light and layers of diesel exhaust soot caked on the rear hatch sat with the engine running in a vacant space outside the three-story apartment complex in a quiet Amsterdam neighborhood. A steady rain tapped the roof of the car and blanketed the frozen ground.
The driver, Marcus Noland, wore a zippered airport jumpsuit over his thermal long johns. Two pairs of extra-thick socks kept his toes warm. He slid the seat back and crushed out a cigarette in the dashboard ashtray. He revved the engine and gave the horn another blast. When the effort failed to prompt his colleague from the building, he checked his look in the rear view mirror, toying with a fake mustache and goatee. He wore thick glasses with non-prescription lenses and a synthetic mole on his upper cheek. Special makeup concealed the scar above his right eye, a permanent mark from a rugby tackle that had sent him to the ER for ten stitches sewn by an intern with a hangover.
This isn’t happening, he thought, checking the clock again. He took his badge from the parking brake console and clipped the photo ID to his jumpsuit front pocket. Hot air roasted his ankles from the floorboard vents while his upper body still felt cold.
He laid on the horn, holding the button down for several seconds to underscore his frustration. His vision obscured through the foggy windshield, he wiped the cold glass with the back of his hand for a better view of the apartment building. For the first time in weeks, his colleague was late.
He dialed his cell phone and waited. When the voice mail prompt came on, he cleared his throat and spoke loudly. “This is Marcus. Where the fuck are you? We’re late. I’m freezing my ass out here.” He ended the call and inspected his facial features up close in the vanity mirror. Content with his appearance, he snatched the travel umbrella from the passenger floorboard and opened the driver’s door.
He sloshed across the lawn leading up to the stairwell entrance and climbed to the second floor. He knocked on apartment 2D. “Armand?”
He shook the wet umbrella at the ground and knocked again.
“Armand? Open up. Let’s go.”
He looked over the iron balcony at the idling Peugeot; its headlights pointed at the curb. This time he pounded his fist against the door. “Armand!”
He touched the door knob, and was surprised to find Armand’s apartment unlocked.
Inside the sparse living quarters he found a low-pile rug in the center of the hardwood floor beside a rumpled Koran. “Armand?” he called out, listening to the sound of running water from the bathroom down the hall. “We’re late.”
He noticed the thin plastic lining on the walls and on the floor beneath his feet. More plastic covered the chandelier above the small dining table.
He crept around the hallway corner, afraid he’d entered the wrong apartment by mistake when he heard a reciprocating saw engage its teeth in something hard.
At the end of the hall, he found empty containers of sulfuric acid. The air stank with the fetor of rotten corpse.
He reached inside his jumpsuit for his weapon. Then he turned about-face to find a shorter and somewhat thinner, version of himself—an almost ethereal Marcus Noland clone with identical facial features and a pistol with a flash suppressor.
Two bullets punctured his heart at more than twelve hundred feet per second before his brain could register the magnitude of the trauma inflicted. He collapsed on the floor with his eyes wide open, his killer standing over him to retrieve the airport ID badge spackled in blood on the front of his airline jumpsuit.
* * *
The new Marcus Noland gripped the Peugeot’s steering wheel with gloved hands and drove away from the apartment complex. He stayed close to the speed limit but not below it, adjusting his prosthetic chin and human hair wig while he drove to Schiphol Airport.
Outside the employee parking lot, he pressed the badge against the RF reader and waited for the gate to open.
He proceeded through the employee entrance and stopped at the guard desk to present his badge for inspection. Shielded behind a one-way mirror, a video camera captured his facial image and compared his features to the previously enrolled high resolution photo stored in the security system’s central database.
“Have a nice evening,” the guard offered Marcus, convinced the man in front of him matched the face on the photo ID.
Once inside the employee entrance, Marcus took his time card from the rack on the wall and punched in.
“We’re getting new ones,” said a young woman with short, red hair and leather work gloves, in a matching blue jumpsuit. The female baggage handler pointed to the time clock. “They’re getting rid of the old ones,” she said, smiling coyly, her attention focused on the new boyfriend she hadn’t seen in days. “Management wants to install hand readers to keep us from stealing overtime.” She smacked his ass. “Why haven’t you called?”
“You look like you lost weight.”
“Have you been on a diet?”
“Are you high or something? You don’t seem like yourself. Like you’re happy to see me.”
Marcus stared at the badge clipped above the girlfriend’s chest. The green background on her picture signified her clearance for the secure inspection area.
“Stop staring at my tits,” the girl insisted halfheartedly while other workers congregated near the vending machines before the start of their shift. “We don’t have a lot of time.” She bit down gently on her bottom lip and took her boyfriend’s hand. “Come on… But you have to be quiet this time.”
Inside the farthest stall of the women’s restroom, she pulled off her gloves and French-kissed the man she’d only known a few weeks.
She unzipped her jumpsuit to reveal her naked breasts, her nipples hard and erect. She slid her hand along the front of his crotch and felt the small bulge in his pants. Then she reached inside and whispered, “I missed you last week. Where have you been hiding?” She slid her hand toward his pelvis in anticipation of the package she’d find. “Marcus?”
She withdrew her hand abruptly, bumping her arm against something hard inside his jumpsuit. She stared inquisitively at the face of the man she knew as Marcus—but with one eye that now appeared almost stationary.
“Who are you?”
She tried to move when Marcus brought a hand toward her face. A pin prick to her neck sent a powerful toxin to her central nervous system and left her paralyzed as if someone flipped a switch in her brain and cut the circuit to every muscle in her body. Her heart raced. Her blood pressure rose with an increase in perspiration to regulate her body temperature. Her stomach constricted to regulate the blood flow from her lower extremities and conserve her vital organs. She could see her arms and legs, but she couldn’t move them.
Marcus dropped the small injection needle in the toilet, where the tiny shard of chemically treated plastic dissolved in water.
Helpless, the woman watched her lover push her onto the toilet seat and prop her head to face toward him, chin up and slightly titled to the left. She could see, hear, and smell, but she couldn’t move a pinky finger or lift her tongue to the roof of her mouth. She moaned when she saw her assailant retrieve an eyeglass case from a zipper pocket.
“Shhhhhh,” he whispered as he opened the clam shell case and removed a pair of wires attached to a nine-pin connector and a miniature, ultraviolet optical scanner mounted inside a rubber eyepiece. He held the woman’s chin, positioning her head to inspect her eyes. Then he brought his hand to his own eye socket and pried his prosthetic eye from its orbital cavity.
He inserted the electrical connector in the back of the sophisticated device and pressed a small button on the optical scanner. A green light came on.
He cupped the eyepiece over the woman’s right eye, scanning her iris image for striations, pits, filaments and other distinguishable characteristics in the colored ring of textured tissue surrounding her pupil. When he heard someone enter the restroom, he peeked through the stall to see a baggage handler with a toothbrush in front of the mirror. He watched the woman spy the stall where his victim moaned louder for attention.
“Do it on your own time, Carla,” the woman scolded her friend, rinsing her toothbrush in the sink before she pushed the bristles in her mouth.
Marcus released the scanner from the front of Carla’s eye and removed the wiring harness. He waited for the other woman to leave, then he reinserted his synthetic eye and concealed the stolen biometric apparatus in his jumpsuit. He lifted Carla off the toilet seat and bent her forward at the hips, dipping her head in the water until her last air bubbles surfaced.
Outside the restroom, he proceeded directly toward the secure screening area and applied his badge to the card reader on the wall. A synthesized voice prompted him to position his face several inches from the mirrored iris reader beside a plaque that read, No Unauthorized Personnel Beyond This Point.
A beam of low-intensity infrared light scanned the colored image in his artificial eye, matching the gray-scale image stored in memory with the newly acquired image he’d copied from the donor iris.
A green light signified a positive identification. A server command disengaged the door with a mechanical crunch of gears.
Inside the secure work space, he hustled toward the conveyor belt assemblies routing luggage from the X-ray scanners to their final destinations on board Delta Flight 1227 bound for Baltimore-Washington International Airport.
Authorized ground crew wandered through the processing center.
“Marcus!” a shift supervisor called out. “We need you on the flight line.”
Marcus searched the packages until he spotted the blue hard shell suitcase with yellow smiley stickers arranged in a coded pattern.
“Let’s hustle!” the supervisor prodded, herding everyone but Marcus from the room. “Your shift started twenty minutes ago.”
Marcus seized the supervisor’s hand and twisted the wrist abruptly in a joint lock, sending the larger, heavier man to his knees in excruciating pain. He stabbed the base of the man’s skull with a ceramic pen-knife, and pierced the back of the brain through the opening in the occipital bone.
With the threat neutralized, he glanced around the luggage processing center and opened the suitcase to insert a metallic cylinder in the shape of a small coffee thermos between a stack of folded shirts and underwear. With the package secured, he closed the luggage and returned it to the conveyor belt before the remaining cases arrived from the scanner in the other room. Alone and unimpeded, he swiped his badge at the exit door leading back to the employee locker room facility. When a red light signaled access denied, he swiped his badge a second time without success and moved away from his primary egress point to an alternate exit that opened to a service depot for luggage cars and fuel delivery trucks. He put on his customized ear protection and pressed a tiny button on the side to activate a concealed communications device designed to scan short range radio frequencies and intercept two-way communications between airport security staff.
He climbed a flight of stairs and followed an employee entrance opening to the ticket area on the second level, where a portion of the building was under renovation. His immediate path blocked by armed guards patrolling the area with dogs, he swiped his badge to reopen the door he came through and inadvertently activated an alarm. A red dome light flashed on the wall above his head as passengers focused their attention on the spectacle unfolding in front of them.
He sprinted for the passenger departure gate, shoving travelers out of his way as he ran along the empty corridor and pushed through an emergency exit. He interpreted the angry Dutch dialogue in his headset and navigated on foot through the maze of hallways and secure screening areas funneling him back to the flight deck area by the cargo distribution center. Cut off from his primary egress points, he swiped his badge at another door while PTZ cameras in the ceiling relayed his movements to the central command center.
“Can I help you?” a voice boomed from the opposite end of the restricted corridor.
Marcus lowered his ear protection to rest the steel headband on the back of his neck. He turned to face Captain Rainey who held a dozen roses in a plastic wrapper.
Captain Rainey examined the crewman’s badge and compared the photo to the face of the harried baggage attendant. “What are you doing back here?”
“This area is restricted to flight personnel only.”
Marcus pulled an airport map from his pocket and pointed to a specific location. “How do I get back to employee parking?”
“Who are you?”
Marcus reached inside his jumpsuit for the single shot weapon concealed inside a snapshot camera housing. The device housed a ceramic projectile with a powerful accelerant undetectable by conventional security means.
He offered the map to Captain Rainey as he pressed the camera’s shutter button to shoot him between the eyes.
The captain fell with a startled expression on his face.
Marcus tucked the camera in his pocket. Then he stole the captain’s badge and slipped through the flight crew hallway.