INTERNATIONAL AIRSPACE. MAY 5.
At 30,000 feet, American Airlines Flight #147 from Paris to Boston flew according to routine. Airline food wasn't what it used to be, but in first class at least, the drinks were good. The crew had just finished a meal specially prepared by a Parisian eatery catering to airline personnel. Captain Jack Kelly switched autopilot on, and leaned back. "Did you see that new girl?" he asked his co-pilot, "the one with tits out to here?" He gestured with his hands toward the instrument panel.
At that moment, he felt a shock in the belly of his Boeing 767. He hurriedly scanned the instrument gauges, but before he had a chance to understand the readings, another explosion severed the cockpit from the cabin and Jack Kelly was hurtling through space, memories of the pretty girl lost to black sky and the flames of exploding fuselage.
Michelle Polito stood in the mid-cabin bathroom of British Airways’ smart new Boeing 777. She hung over the sink, knees as weak as a baby’s. Mother of God, she hated flying! The turbulence alone was enough to kill her, that awful sensation of the ground falling out from under her. But what was she going to do, tell thirty kids in her Queens Spanish class that they couldn’t go on a once-in-a-lifetime exchange program to Madrid because their teacher was afraid to fly? She checked her ashen face in the mirror and noticed the turbulence had stopped. She waited another few seconds to make sure the calm was holding before she turned on the faucet and splashed cold water on her face. She dried her hands, gave her cheeks a few pinches to bring some color back, and stepped out of the bathroom.
Seeing the kids jumping and playing made her smile. She felt that everything was going to be fine when she heard a bang and then a dreadful thumping as a seam opened up in the cabin floor before her. The scream roared out of her as she watched Maryann Angelides and her American Girl doll get sucked through the hole. Right behind her went Ishmael Cordoba, seat and all, who was playing cards with his best friend Anthony Apt.
Chang Lee, a flight attendant on Cathay Pacific’s medium hop from Hong Kong to Singapore, had just begun his beverage service when a businessman in row three asked for a Fresca. Finding none on his cart, Lee headed to the galley. He noticed a wisp of smoke curling from one of the forward overhead compartments. As Lee reached up to unclip the latch, a tremendous blast flung him backward and then he was floating, slipping, as if down a water slide. Cold and wet and dark. He thought of the Fresca, then drifted away, his arms and legs buffeted by the wind. His face was burning hot but he was cold as ice, and before he could think about what had happened, he could no longer take a breath.
Julian Granot cut a U-turn with his jet ski, churning the water into a tall fan of spray, then accelerated back toward his sons. The boys’ parallel wakes converged toward the horizon, and the sun sparkled off the waters of the Mediterranean Sea at the Granot family’s Turquoise Coast vacation spot. Lore held that the ancient peoples of this land had fashioned the word turquoise to describe the ravishing shade of the water, eventually deciding the country itself could be no better named: Turkuaz.
While Julian and his boys turned their games into sea-land strategy drills, his wife Gabi painted watercolors at water’s edge. Her large kilim bag muffled the ring of her cell phone, as if trying to bar the outside world. She answered it. General David Ben-Ami grunted hello. He was head of Shabaq, Israel’s internal security service, the Israelis’ equivalent of the FBI, and Gabi knew the voice well. She and Ben-Ami had grown up together, and Julian had worked with Ben-Ami in the service for the last quarter century. She recognized the clipped syllables in his speech as a sign of controlled anger.
Gabi told him Julian was on the water, far from shore. He asked how long it would take to get her husband’s attention and wave him in. Maybe five minutes, she said. Ben-Ami added ten minutes: Julian would continue skiing after he saw his wife gesticulating with a telephone in her hand. A call at the beach invariably meant he’d be kissing his vacation paradise good-bye. Ben-Ami knew Julian well, had commanded him and run missions with him. The man was a fine and loyal soldier, but also a stubborn son of a bitch. He needed latitude.
After attracting Julian’s eye, Gabi returned to her work. The faded pastel hues she was trying to coax from the paint were slipping away from her into the bright sky, the shimmering silver of the mountains and coves. She blotted and dabbed while trying to block out the telephone call and what it meant. After a few more brush strokes, she saw
Julian pull up to shore. He was red-haired and strong, a fit 49 year-old with thick legs and a muscular chest. As he dragged the jet-ski onto the sand, Gabi told him that Ben-Ami had called and would ring back. It wasn’t thirty seconds before the telephone sounded again. The still-soaked Julian held the device away from his head. When Ben-Ami complained he couldn’t hear him, Julian joked there might be something more affecting in the phone than a good friend’s voice. A few years back the two of them had caused a rather unhappy morning for a terrorist leader by planting a miniature bomb in his telephone earpiece.
Ben-Ami let out a short laugh. It was no time for jokes, he said, and explained: three commercial jets down within the last hour. Julian flushed deeply as he listened. He took these crashes personally and though he was no longer directly responsible for the safety of airline passengers, he felt the familiar stomach-clenching reaction. His mind raced as if he were still on the job. Had he overlooked something, failed to make a crucial connection in the never-ending loop of intelligence clues? Habits of mind, forged through training, hard work or even a long marriage, were hard to break. They never disappeared completely.
“I’ll have a plane pick you up in ninety minutes,” Ben-Ami was saying. “You’ll be met at the airport in Tel Aviv and driven here.” A fleet of private planes was available to the State of Israel on request, and the government had emergency landing rights for those planes at most of the world’s major airports. Julian had negotiated many of those rights himself. He checked his watch. Ben-Ami hadn’t asked whether he could make it. And Julian hadn’t answered.
His sons splashed and shouted in the waves. They were getting big now, and muscular. The oldest one was almost a man. When Julian turned to his wife, he saw a shadow cross her face. Their life together had been full of interruptions and surprises. There were ten years in an active unit that was routinely mobilized at any time of night or day, and ten more years of foreign postings. But who ever got used to the silence, the waiting for loved ones to come home. Who could?
“Three commercial jets have disappeared and are believed to have crashed.” Julian spoke to Gabi in the combination of Hebrew and English that had developed into a family patois after years of living in the States. “David wants me to head a Ministry task force to investigate.”
Gabi winced, saddened at the thought of the planes and the deaths, the families left to their shock and pain, at night and alone with nothing for comfort but the official papers in their hands. She thought especially of the new orphans. Like most Israelis, Gabi was all too familiar with the nearness of death.
The worst of it, which came much later, was that the survivors would never find any sense in the deaths. Understanding brought no relief. There was nothing to understand. The terrorists didn’t know their victims, didn’t care about their particularities. To their killers, the dead weren’t people, only statistics, body counts. Those who loved them didn’t matter at all. The survivors were then left with an unbearable choice: to live choked with rage and hatred, or fight their way back to life through some form of forgiveness, bitter as it might be.
“When will it end?” she muttered, standing and pulling on her sweater. She wore a blue bandeau around her shapely hips and a wide-brimmed straw hat with a sage green ribbon. Her light-colored hair hung straight to her shoulders. She was two years younger than her husband and her face was still youthful and vibrant, not yet marked by the anxiety that prematurely aged the faces of many of her countrywomen. She looked out at the boys, playing so happily, and felt in her chest a familiar flutter. Soon these beautiful children would be in the Army themselves. So would all their friends, girls and boys alike.
She stuck out her lower lip in a girlish way she usually didn’t allow herself. She’d run missions for Mossad for fifteen years before leaving to teach college and she’d earned her comrades’ respect several times over. But these last few weeks of Julian’s retirement had softened her, allowed her to imagine that life might return to normality, whatever that was. And she wanted him to be here. Julian put his arms around her waist and pulled her to him. “I’ll let you know in a couple days how you can return. Everything will be OK,” he said. “Kiss the boys for me, will you?” he asked, stepping back.
She nodded and he embraced her again, smelling the vanilla scent of her skin. “Be good,” he said, his deep voice dropping off. Fatigue. Or was it sadness, she wondered, as he disappeared across the beach, his feet digging petal shapes in the fine white sand.
The door of the Greenwich Village restaurant was unexpectedly heavy, so Marie Peterssen propped it open with the heel of her suede shoe, and promptly dropped her umbrella. Bending over to retrieve it, she dropped her handbag on the floor. A waiter hurried to help, but Marie had already scooped up everything. She was a graceful, athletic woman, but prone to embarrassing pratfalls.
She saw the man who had called from Switzerland two nights before seated as promised. He’d chosen a small table, with his back to the wall so he had a full view of the room as well as the door. She knew it was him. He was using a handheld wireless device. A drink she presumed was some kind of whiskey sat in front of him. That is exactly what Julian had told her about himself --- no description about his appearance, only that he’d be holding a PDA and drinking Wild Turkey. She was ten minutes early, but he was already quite settled. He was tall and muscular with tousled red hair and looked solid as a bull. Military, she figured right away. And although he hadn’t yet looked up, she was sure he was aware of her presence.
“Marie Peterssen,” she said steadily. He stood and offered his hand, which was large and warm. His face was friendly but inscrutable. She found in it no expression other than patience. He watched, taking in everything but giving little back. She thought he looked vaguely Irish or Scottish.
Marie slipped off her rain jacket and hung it over the back of her chair. She wore black bell-bottom slacks and a filmy V-neck top. She was tall with a lovely figure, Julian noticed. Chic, but unmannered. Her face was oval and framed by straight dark hair that hung to her shoulders. Her blue eyes were shaded by long black lashes. As she leaned forward to pull out her chair, her hair swung in front of her face and she pushed it back with a delicate movement of her left hand. Her appearance had changed since the last time he’d seen a photo of her. Her face had become more exotic. She’d grown up. She had an alluring beauty that stemmed, Julian saw, from a mysterious inner quiet. The waiter arrived and she ordered a glass of wine.
Female journalists on occasion tried to be tougher than their male counterparts, who, for their part, tended to make fools of themselves, particularly with military men, trying to act macho. Julian was glad she wasn’t one of them. Not too long ago he had met with an American journalist, who after two years in Russia wanted to show off his vodka-drinking skills to his new Israeli military contacts. Julian had been obliged to deliver him to his hotel in a less than battle-ready state.
The restaurant Julian had chosen was a comfortable Spanish joint, old-fashioned and slightly worn around the edges. The walls were exposed brick hung with dusty old paintings of Seville and Madrid. The long tables were rustic, made of heavy dark wood, and the drinking glasses were plain and straight. The place was loud and small, and the clientele was largely from the neighborhood. The general low-scale din was interrupted by a passel of children at a table in the back, when they broke out in a rendition of “Happy Birthday” as a waiter carried a cake to their table. Marie turned and saw a young-looking man accepting the cake with an expression of surprise and delight from what appeared to be his four children.
“Big happy family,” she said, turning back to Julian. She was moved by the sight of a father with his young children. And then she blushed. And she blushed deeper when she realized how corny that sounded.
“That was kind of apropos of nothing,” she said quickly, suddenly self-conscious, and determined to hide what she was really feeling. “I guess I noticed because they were so boisterous. Life goes on, doesn’t it? Even after plane crashes.” That was a lucky segue she grabbed on to, she thought, pausing to gather herself. “So, how did you get here?”
“I flew over on a private plane,” said Julian slowly, watching her, moved by her sudden discomfort. “I caught a ride with a businessman who was kind enough to give me a lift. I had a few meetings here in the States, and thought it might be easier to answer your questions in person rather than over the phone.”
Excerpted from RED SEA © Copyright 2011 by Emily Benedek. Reprinted with permission by St. Martin's Paperbacks. All rights reserved.