McLeary and Burns joined Kriegel and several FBI agents gathered in the radar room of the high-rise control tower overlooking Orlando International Airport. A somber mood resonated with the personnel in the room. “What do we know?” McLeary asked Kriegel.
Kriegel leaned over the air traffic controller seated at the tower’s main console and pointed to the blip on the radar screen. “We identified your son Brian in a video tape we recovered from an abandoned airplane hangar with suspicious ties to a foreign investment firm. We believe Abdullah left the tape behind to send a message.” Kriegel rubbed his temples. “The voiceprint from the pilot we’ve been tracking matches Brian’s voice from the tape. And as far as we know, he’s flying solo.”
“I want to see the tape.”
“It’s in evidence.”
McLeary watched the blip on the radar screen advance. “What is he doing up there?”
“He’s flying towards restricted airspace and won’t follow instructions from the controllers to change his heading. He’s been demanding to speak with you.”
“You get anything useful from the tape?”
“Nothing more than terrorist rhetoric about America’s pending doom.”
“Tell him to land the plane,” said Burns.
“It’s not that simple,” Kriegel answered. “They strapped him in a suicide vest. He was warned it will detonate if he deviates from his present heading or attempts to land. The Air National Guard scrambled an F-16 out of Patrick to intercept him.”
“Under whose authority?”
“Let me speak to him,” said McLeary.
Kriegel pointed at the air traffic controller. “Call him.”
Kriegel handed McLeary a radio headset.
McLeary turned his back to the agents gathered in the room. “Brian, this is Dad. Come in, over.”
“Dad? I’m sorry. I screwed up bad this time.”
“Brian listen to me. I need you to focus. Look around the plane and tell me what you see.”
“Not much. The plane’s stripped.”
“Is there a package, a canister, or a payload of any kind?”
“Not that I can see.”
“There’s nothing here!”
“Is there anything attached to the wings?”
“Nothing underneath them. I can’t tell if there’s anything on top of the wings. Don’t think so.”
Static crackled through McLeary’s headset speakers. “Brian… Brian do you copy?”
“His signal cut out,” said the traffic controller. “We’re diverting all air traffic to alternate sites.”
Kriegel glanced at the radar screen. “If he gets within ten miles of the no-fly zone, the F16 will intercept him.”
“He’s a decoy,” McLeary blurted. “Why else would they send him up there? They want us to track him, to divert our attention away from the real target.”
“We don’t know that,” said Kriegel, “not for certain.”
“Then give him a chance to divert.”
“It’s not an option.”
“What’s he heading toward?”
“Downtown Orlando, hotels, convention center, residential neighborhoods, you name it.”
Kriegel read an incoming text message on his phone. “If this plane drops an anthrax load on a residential population—”
“I don’t buy it,” said McLeary. “Why would Abdullah send him here?”
“Because it’s a densely-packed civilian population.”
“So is Miami.”
“We’re dealing with a madman, McLeary. There’s not always a logical connection to everything he does or doesn’t do.”
“It still doesn’t feel right.”
“I don’t care what you feel. For all we know, this plane could be a modified crop duster with an anthrax dispersion device mounted under the wings or the fuselage or the tail.”
McLeary stared at Kriegel. “What if he were yours?”
“What’s relevant is the way we’re standing here with our thumbs up our ass instead of finding the real target.”
“Which is?” asked Burns.
McLeary shook his head. “I don’t know.”
Kriegel signaled for the other agents to leave. “Then you can’t know for certain this plane isn’t carrying a hundred pounds of weaponized anthrax.”
“We don’t know that it is.”
Kriegel put his hand out. “That’s a chance we can’t afford to take.”
“What if the plane is destroyed?” asked Burns. “Would that neutralize the threat completely?”
Kriegel looked at Burns. “What are you getting at?”
“He’s less than fifteen miles out,” the controller warned the group.
McLeary estimated Brian’s speed and time. “He’s four minutes to the no-fly zone.” He touched the headset microphone. “Brian?”
“Dad… can barely… hear you. Winds—”
McLeary covered the microphone and turned to Kriegel. “Can the F-16 pilot use his electronic countermeasures to jam transmissions in the air space? If he could block the signal to the vest’s transmitter, Brian could toss the vest and alter course.”
“Assuming it’s not triggered to detonate when he takes it off,” Kriegel cautioned him. “We don’t know how it’s rigged.”
McLeary watched the blips continue on the radar screen, one representing Brian’s plane; the other, the F-16 flying shotgun. “Brian can you hear me, over?”
“Can barely hear you…”
“Take off the vest. Wait one minute. Then toss it out of the plane.”
“Take off the fucking vest and throw it out of the plane!”
“What frequencies?” the controller interrupted. “The fighter pilot’s asking what band you want him to jam.”
“Sweep the whole fucking spectrum!” McLeary shouted. “Just jam the signal!”
“There’s other traffic in the air,” the controller argued. “They’ll lose communication with the tower.”
“Any traffic on final approach?”
“Negative. We diverted all flights to—”
“They’ll survive a few seconds without an RF transmission. My son won’t.”
Kriegel looked directly at the air traffic controller. “Do it.”
The controller sent the message to the pilot. “It’s a go.”
McLeary glanced at the clock on the wall. Burns put her hand on his shoulder. The room fell silent.
Kriegel opened a cigar case from his jacket pocket and picked on the wrapper of a fresh stogie. He looked at McLeary. Then he glanced at the digital clock on the wall.
“There’s been an explosion,” the controller said.
McLeary studied the radar screen. “What happened?”
The controller looked away. “We lost the Cessna’s signal.”
McLeary watched the second blip disappear from the screen. “Brian!” He slammed his headset on the traffic controller’s station. “Get him back on screen. NOW! Bring him back, GOD DAMMIT! You bring him back on screen!”