On a snowy road in a German forest, Ernest Helms sees a man trying to break into his car. After a scuffle, Helms escapes with only a cut on his hand. Hours later, he collapses aboard a flight from Frankfurt to New York. The pilot, Capt. James Holland, radios London to plan an emergency landing to save Helms—and then the nightmare begins.
Heathrow denies Holland permission to land: Helms has been stricken with an ultracontagious pathogen that threatens the entire planet. When Germany also refuses to let him land, Holland and his passengers are prisoners of the sky, caught between a deadly disease and a world that would rather shoot them down than risk contamination.
Written by a former aviator known as the master of mile-high suspense, this is a pulse-pounding thriller about infectious disease in the tradition of Outbreak and The Andromeda Strain. Threatened by hostile governments on the ground and disease in the sky, Captain Holland is in for the flight of his life.
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By John J. Nance
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1995 John J. Nance
All rights reserved.
MAINZ, GERMANY — FRIDAY, DECEMBER 22 — 1:50 P.M. (1250Z)
Captain James Holland shifted the telephone receiver nervously to his other ear and glanced at the clock by the bed. There wasn't much time left. Irritation at being left on transatlantic hold was growing — almost as much as his anxiety at receiving the fax from Crew Scheduling.
In ten minutes ten flight attendants in a holiday mood would be waiting in the lobby for the short walk across the street to the train station for the brief rail trip to the Frankfurt airport. They knew the way on their own, of course, but protocol demanded the captain show up on time and lead the parade.
A series of clicks coursed through the line, but no voice. Where was the doctor anyway? The message had been urgent.
Holland unfolded the fax and read it again, looking for clues:
To: Capt. J. Holland, c/o MAINZ HILTON. Dr. David Wilingham contacted us this morning requesting you call ASAP
re: recent exam.#214-361-1076/CrewSked/DFW.
A distant and disinterested voice finally drawled through the static. "Dr. Wilingham is not available right now. Do you wish to leave a message?"
Dammit! An answering service! "Tell him Captain James Holland returned his call. Tell him I'm in Germany, and I'll call back within an hour. I'm ... I really need to talk to him." He started to hang up, then pulled the phone back to his ear. "Uh, can you reach him by beeper?"
But the line was already dead.
Holland replaced the receiver, feeling his apprehension build. The exam three days ago was supposed to have been routine — a simple prostate sonogram — a checkup. He had no symptoms, no indication of cancer or any other problems, but if the doctor was calling like this ...
He checked his watch again: 1:54 P.M. Six minutes left.
Holland folded and pocketed the note as he straightened his tie and closed the overnight bag. He pulled his uniform coat with its four gold command stripes over his white uniform shirt and placed the two bags on the folding handcart. There was a full-length mirror by the door, and he hesitated for a moment to check his appearance, all too aware of the dark circles under his eyes and how they telegraphed the weight of his forty-six years.
It had been Sandra who first noticed his face melting into bags and creases. Sandra, his wife — his former wife, he reminded himself — had wanted him to have plastic surgery. She didn't want to be married, she said, only half in jest, to a man who resembled Lyndon Johnson more each day.
But then she'd left him, for reasons that had nothing to do with appearance.
He opened the heavy door to the hallway, feeling old, tired, and defeated. Christmas was going to be a lonely agony. The flight attendants had been gift shopping all morning. They'd be excited and ebullient all the way to New York. The phrase "Bah, humbug!" replayed in his mind, but he was determined not to crush anyone else's mood.
Yet with the worry about the doctor's message, a six-hour flight over the Atlantic was going to be brutal — made even worse by the presence of Dick Robb as his copilot.
Holland glanced down the hall, relieved that Robb wasn't in sight. He would already be waiting in the lobby, of course, arrogant as ever, flirting with the younger flight attendants and monitoring his watch like a trainmaster. Robb, a young check captain from the training department assigned to give Senior Captain Holland an initial qualifying check ride in the Boeing 747-400, had spent the past two days energetically criticizing everything James Holland had done — and Holland had all but reached the breaking point.
Yet, as usual, he would say nothing.
He remembered trying to explain check captains once to Sandra. "They're training department pilots," he had told her, "some of whom are upgraded to captain years ahead of their seniority. They give check rides; they fly with and evaluate the competency of the rest of us who fly the daily schedules, the line pilots."
"And you don't like them?" she had asked.
"Most of them are gentlemen, but some of them become arrogant — little Caesars drunk with their own righteousness and power, more given to judging than instructing. An arrogant young check captain is the worst."
Robb fit the description perfectly.
Holland stepped on the elevator and checked his watch, noting with grim satisfaction that he'd be arriving with two minutes to spare.
As the captain left the elevator, Dick Robb moved toward him, pointedly looked at his watch, and asked if the flight was on time.
"As far as I know, Dick," Holland replied, realizing instantly he'd stepped into a trap.
"Wrong. It's delayed!" Robb said with barely disguised glee. "I called Operations a half hour ago to check on things. I figured you'd already called, but I was surprised when they said they hadn't heard from you."
A sticky fuel valve had to be replaced, Robb told him, and Flight 66 would now depart for New York thirty minutes late at 4:30 P.M. with a moderate load of two hundred forty-five passengers.
It was snowing very lightly in a beautiful wintry scene, but Robb was oblivious to it. He spent the train ride to Frankfurt importantly reminding Holland that his responsibilities as captain included staying in touch with Operations at overseas airports. Holland remained polite, nodding in all the right places, but his lips were white from the effort and Robb had noticed. As they neared the airport, Robb sighed to himself in resignation, regarding Holland as burned-out and lazy.
Holland, in turn, regarded Robb as a self-righteous jerk.
They parted at Operations, Holland leaving Robb to do the ground checks normally expected of first officers, while Holland himself headed for the departure gate, passing through the busy terminal without seeing it, oblivious to anything but the gnawing worry about the doctor's call. All his career he had envied those few pilots who could seem to put their troubles on a shelf in some mental closet when they went flying, but he could never achieve such detachment. When Sandra had stormed out, shattering what was left of a fragile marriage, she had left behind an aching hollowness that had become his constant companion. He'd flown with that emptiness for many months, and now this.
The immense image of the 747-400 loomed ahead outside the windows of Gate 34. There was a dusting of snow on the wings, but the deicing trucks were parked nearby. As he located an empty phone booth and slid inside, fumbling to find the number of AT&T Direct, he thought of the Air Florida crash in Washington back in 1982 and the effects of ice on an airplane. He made a mental note to double-check that Robb did the correct post-deicing inspection.
Standing near Gate 34, Rachael Sherwood brushed back her shoulder-length auburn hair and realized she was staring at the stranger just as hard as some men stared at her. Poor manners for an ambassador's assistant, she told herself. She adjusted her skirt self-consciously and glanced back down the concourse, slightly irritated that U.S. Ambassador-at-Large Lee Lancaster was so late. She'd already spent ten minutes standing in a pair of torturous pumps, scanning the onrushing Christmas crowd, when she'd noticed the big American pilot. He was leaning against an open phone booth near the gate, apparently in some distress, one arm draped along the top edge of the partition, his large hand beating a nervous tattoo on the smoked glass. She knew the four-stripe epaulets on his shoulders were the mark of a captain, but it was his deep-blue eyes that had captivated her. It was obvious he wasn't noticing her or anyone else at the moment. She quietly maneuvered in to get a closer look, slipping into another phone booth several yards away to watch. Rachael felt an odd rush of excitement, mixed with some embarrassment. She'd never done such a thing before.
I must be bored! she thought as she continued to stare openly at him.
He was at least six feet three, with thick eyebrows over heavy eyelids, a square-jawed, clean-shaven face framed by dark brown hair on its way to salt-and-pepper gray. She let her eyes linger on his broad shoulders and stray to his chest. Obviously a man who kept himself fit, she concluded. And obviously a man worried about something. The deep frown on his face was punctuated suddenly by a sigh she could almost hear across the concourse, and Rachael felt an illogical, empathetic urge to go comfort him — unaware that James Holland had been triggering such responses in women all his life.
Whatever was bothering him had apparently been resolved by the phone call. She could see that. She watched him square those magnificent shoulders as he replaced the receiver and stood up. He was even smiling slightly as he put on his hat with its gold-braided bill.
Rachael looked away at the moment he walked past, hoping he hadn't noticed her staring, then dared to turn and look again. A hint of cologne followed in his wake, a pleasant, woody fragrance she didn't recognize, but one that quietly urged her little fantasy along. She wondered which flight he was there to command — and hoped it was hers.
Where on earth is Lee? She reached for the cellular phone in her oversized handbag, then replaced it quickly as she saw Lancaster hurrying toward her down the long concourse.
Fifteen minutes later, alone in the cockpit of Flight 66, Captain James Holland began his preflight procedures with his mind on the phone call he'd just finished.
He'd finally reached the doctor back in New York.
"There was a shadow on your sonogram," the physician had said, "and at first I thought you should come in for another one, but I didn't mean to create a crisis."
"I ... wasn't sure, Doctor. I'm in Germany, on a trip, and Crew Scheduling got hold of me over here saying you'd called. Frankly, it's scared me to death."
"I'm sorry, Captain."
"You say there's a shadow? As in tumor?"
He had been spring-loaded to the worst-case scenario: prostate cancer. He'd all but diagnosed himself out of fear, figuring he'd need surgery. But what happened after surgery? Would he be a sexual cripple? He'd heard terrible stories about the effects, and he couldn't imagine life without sex, without being able to satisfy a woman. The fact that he'd been all but celibate since Sandra had left was immaterial.
That was temporary.
This could be for life!
"Captain, I'm happy to report it was a mistake. You're perfectly okay!" the doctor was saying. "I went back in and looked at the sonogram tape again, and realized I'd misidentified it."
"I'm okay?" Holland asked.
"Completely. I'm truly sorry to have worried you."
"I don't need another one?"
"Not for at least a year. Stop worrying, and have a Merry Christmas!"
Holland had breathed a long sigh of relief and thanked the doctor. He smiled to himself now as he adjusted the rudder pedals and ran his hand down the center console, checking switch positions. With the exception of having to deal with Robb, he felt like a prisoner with a pardon — back from the dead.
I should grab the next pretty woman I see! he thought with a chuckle, feeling himself relax a bit.
As he put the radar into the test mode, he reached a long-postponed decision. He would start dating again. He was tired of being alone. For that matter, he was tired of sleeping alone.
One story below at door 2L, a small man with thinning hair and a battered briefcase left the line of passengers filtering in the door and leaned against the wall of the jetway, breathing hard. A tall redheaded flight attendant materialized at his side, holding his arm and inquiring urgently what was wrong.
Professor Ernest Helms looked up at Brenda Hopkins for a second before speaking.
"I'm ... okay. Thank you. I ... just felt very weak all of a sudden."
"What's your seat number, sir? I'll help you in."
" ... don't want to expose you to a ... cold ..."
She had taken his arm firmly, he realized, and his feet were obeying. He felt her take his briefcase as well.
Brenda winked at the senior flight attendant as she guided the man through the door and gently turned him to the right toward his seat. He was sweating profusely, though it was cool in the cabin and cold outside. She could feel a rapid pulse in his arm as well. Probably the flu. It would be a good idea, she told herself, to wash her hands as soon as she strapped him in.
At the same moment, on the snowy ramp some forty feet below, Dick Robb stuck his hands in the pockets of his overcoat and stood for a minute lost in the sight of the magnificent Boeing 747, its gleaming aluminum skin reflecting the filtered sunlight trying to break through the snow clouds above Frankfurt. Quantum had purchased four of the whales — as pilots called the 747s — for a total of over seven hundred million dollars, with interiors designed for three hundred sixty-five passengers in three classes. The big bird stood there like a mirage, he thought — an impossibly huge machine capable of lifting more than three quarters of a million pounds of metal and people and fuel with little more than a tug from his wrist at the appropriate moment.
And he was in charge! At age 32, with no military flying background, it was, nevertheless, his name that appeared on the dispatch release.
A baggage tug came roaring by, pushing a bow wave of slush. He stepped back quickly.
Holland would be nearly forty-five feet above the ramp in the cockpit by now. He was a competent pilot, Robb had decided grudgingly, but obviously from another generation and slowing down.
Of course, I'm hard to keep up with. I'm Dick Robb, hardass check captain.
Robb smiled to himself. He liked having a scary reputation. It brought respect, and being in the training department kept him from having to fly as a line captain, where there lurked the day-to-day danger that his lack of experience might lead to a serious mistake. He loved finding ways to one-up line captains, especially the older ones with thousands of hours of experience. Old pelicans like Holland were okay, but only marginally so when they relied too much on their experience, and he enjoyed cutting them down a notch. After all, he had his reputation to maintain. It pleased him no end to know the line pilots called him the "Bustmaster." He'd earned the name.
Technically, of course, he had to let Holland give the commands and make the decisions on what was, after all, a training ride — a passenger-carrying trip used to complete a line captain's qualifications for a new type of aircraft he hadn't commanded before. But until he signed the last line in James Holland's training folder and ended the check ride by declaring Holland fit to serve as captain by himself on the 747-400, Captain Richard Robb would remain legally the captain in charge — the "master" of the aircraft.
Robb smiled to himself. It was confusing for the flight attendants to have two captains aboard, but a necessary evil. A captain had to be evaluated performing as a captain before he could be released to fly the public around in a new airplane, and the only way to do that was actually to put him in the left seat under the watchful eye of a check captain.
But who was really calling the shots was always a problem.
Robb looked at his watch and realized he'd been daydreaming. There would be twenty minutes of cockpit setups to go through before pushback, and five hours ahead in which he could grill Holland and make him sweat before signing him off as fully qualified. Such power was a real turn-on, as was the act of controlling a beast as huge as the 747.
The roaring whine of four powerful engines caught his attention, and Dick Robb paused at the foot of the stairway, entranced by the sight of another 747 rumbling down the runway and lifting its mammoth bulk into the air.
Better than sex! he thought.
The intricate choreography of a major airline departure reached a crescendo just before 4:30 P.M., when the last of the package-laden passengers were ushered aboard by gate agents wearing Santa hats and large smiles. The flight attendants were in the holiday mood as well. Heading home on a wintry afternoon, most of them were senior enough to have Christmas off. Husbands, boyfriends, family, warm fires, and Christmas trees beckoned across the Atlantic.
With the doors closed, and the deicing completed and checked by the first officer-check captain, Flight 66 rumbled toward the end of Frankfurt's southern east-west runway and lifted majestically into the darkening sky.CHAPTER 2
ABOARD FLIGHT 66 — FRIDAY, DECEMBER 22 — 5:10 P.M. (1610Z)
As the English coastline passed beneath the nose of Quantum's westbound Flight 66, the flight attendant call chime began ringing in the cockpit — not once, but five times in rapid succession.
There was no procedure for such a signal.
James Holland toggled the interphone as he glanced at Dick Robb, who seemed equally alarmed.
"Flight deck," Holland said.
A tense feminine voice flooded his ear.
"Captain, this is Linda at door two B. I think we've got a heart attack back here!"
"Okay, how bad is it?"
Excerpted from Pandora's Clock by John J. Nance. Copyright © 1995 John J. Nance. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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What People are Saying About This
Combines exquisite suspense and cardiac arrest action.