An excerpt from
The Thin Black Line
Seated near Gate 17, in a manner that allowed him to observe most of the passengers who would shortly be boarding his flight, Mike glanced at his partner, Staff Sergeant Paul Robichaud, who was sitting close to the Air Canada ticket desk.
Robichaud was a twenty-three-year veteran of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police and former member of the Emergency Response Unit of the Integrated National Security Enforcement Team, or INSET, the semi-covert unit of the RCMP tasked with acquiring and analyzing intelligence regarding terrorist threats. He was more than just Mike’s partner. He was his mentor.
As Robichaud had said several times before, he had seen a younger version of himself in Mike the moment they’d met at the high-pressure INSET selection training four years ago. Mike, with Robichaud’s support, had been recommended to the INSET unit after only five years of service with the RCMP. His previous service spent as an infantry officer within the elite Canadian Special Operations Regiment had helped. Plus, the experience he’d earned leading combat operations in Afghanistan had given him an edge that none of the other candidates possessed. On average, less than fifty percent made it through the training, but Mike had excelled in all quadrants and had even broken all the shooting scores—including the ones held by Robichaud.
As Mike’s gaze rove among the passengers, his Blackberry started to vibrate. After entering his twelve-digit password, he opened his most recent e-mail:
To Mike and Paul: Please be advised I sent Agent Zima Bernbaum to back you up. She’s our new liaison officer from the Canadian Security Intelligence Service.2 Her instructions are to remain covert and to act as an extra pair of eyes. You’ve never met her, so I’ve attached her photograph.
Mike gasped when he saw the picture. I know her! His wife, Lisa, had met her in Toronto while taking jujitsu classes. They’d quickly become best friends and salsa dancing buddies. Mike, who’d be working long hours, never had the chance to really know her except for the occasional dinner. He knew his wife had kept in touch with Zima after their move to Ottawa and had even spent a girls-only weekend getaway in Las Vegas a few years back. Mike vaguely remembered his wife telling him Zima had accepted a position as an auditor of cultural content at a museum.
Great cover for a CSIS agent, thought Mike. I’m wondering what Lisa will say when I tell her Zima’s CSIS.
Mike stood up and slowly started to walk across the waiting area, scanning the section around Gate 17 to spot any of the six Arabic passengers. He saw no sign of them. He entered the men’s restroom to check if anyone was hiding. Remaining anonymous, he strolled to the sinks and glanced at the stalls behind him in the mirror. He had let his black hair grow a little longer since he had left ERT. His hair was now in a controlled freestyle that required nothing but a little hair gel and a good shake in the morning. At five foot ten inches, Mike was not tall, but he carried his 190-pound frame easily. He was proud to say that at thirty-eight years old, he was in the best shape of his life.
He smoothed his navy herringbone suit and blue dress shirt from Savile Row. Mike looked the part of the rich executive he was using as a cover for today’s flight. But if anyone were to look closely at him, they would see that amid his tanned skin and slightly crooked nose, his piercing green eyes did not miss anything. His movements were light but precise, and a contagious energy surrounded him.
Mike spied no sign of movement after thirty seconds. He purposely dropped his Montblanc pen on the tiled floor, and the sound echoed through the space. As he bent to pick it up, he quickly scanned every stall. Nobody. He was in the process of exiting the restroom when his Blackberry vibrated twice.
“Mike, it’s Paul here. Anything suspicious your way?”
“I just checked the restrooms. They’re not in there.”
“They still haven’t shown at the gate either.”
“That’s strange,” said Mike. “Their flight boards in two minutes. What should we do?”
“I’ll board first and get to my seat to get a good view of every single passenger getting on that plane. You board last. That way we won’t miss them if they are, in fact, on this flight. And why don’t you call Zima? Use her to cover more ground,” instructed Robichaud.
“Sounds good,” said Mike before ending the call. He refocused on the crowd milling about the gate as he dialed Zima’s number. He wanted to know if she was in the area in case he and Robichaud needed assistance.
“Yes? This is Zima.” Her voice was soft and gentle.
“Hey, Zima, it’s Mike Powell.”
“Hi, Mike. It seems like we’ll be working together on this one.”
“The museum knows you’re here?” he asked, a big smile on his lips.
He heard Zima’s laughter across the line. “C’mon, Mike, you know how these gigs work.”
“Just pulling your leg, Zima. How are you?”
“Living the dream,” she replied. “How’s Lisa?”
“She’s doing great. I’ll see her later this afternoon. You should call her. I know she’d love to speak with you,” Mike said before getting back to business. “Are you at the airport yet?”
“I’m here now,” said Zima.
“At the airport?”
“That’s correct, Sergeant. I’m watching you as we speak.”
Mike twitched in surprise. He hadn’t made her. He closely examined his surroundings but to no avail.
“I can’t see you, Zima. Where are you?”
“You just looked at me, but you didn’t see me,” answered Zima, clearly enjoying herself.
Mike took another careful look. He was about to surrender when he noticed a flight attendant seated by herself next to the duty-free shop. She smiled at him.
“Clever,” Mike said over the phone.
“Thank you, Sergeant.”
“Were you briefed on the situation?”
“Yes. What can I do to help?”
“My partner will be boarding first—” started Mike before the gate’s PA system interrupted him.
“Welcome to Air Canada Flight 7662, soon to be departing Ottawa for Washington. We will now preboard passengers traveling with young children, or any other passengers that may require more time or assistance. We invite our executive-class passengers to board at their leisure…”
“Oh, shit,” muttered Mike.
“What’s going on?” asked Zima.
“I think I know where some of our suspects are,” Mike said and hung up.
Mike punched in Robichaud’s number.
“What’s up?” answered Robichaud.
“Is it possible that some of our friends have business-class tickets?”
Robichaud let out a breath. “Damn, you’re right. And, if that’s the case, they might be sitting in Air Canada’s executive lounge right now, sipping coffee and waiting for the last possible moment to board.”
“Okay. Board the plane as planned. I’ll go check the lounge. Call Zima to task her with monitoring the gate area and the terminal hall,” Mike said.
“Sounds good. I’ll send you and Zima a text message if I see one of them board,” said Robichaud.
“Roger that,” Mike replied already on the move.
The Maple Leaf Lounge was still a good three-minute walk from the gate, and Mike was doing his best to get there with enough time to visually check the lounge and make it back to the gate in time for departure.
Mike entered the executive lounge and showed his business-class ticket to the Air Canada employee at the reception desk. With a nod from the agent, he stepped into the lounge and scanned the area.
Twenty people were scattered at tables throughout, enjoying the buffet breakfast that had been laid out on the bar. Sleek computers lined the back wall, and a fireplace with cozy sofas and armchairs occupied the center of the space.
Mike could not locate the faces of Hassan or Fadl. On the other hand, he noted four Arabic males sitting in the farthermost corner of the lounge. One of them, completely bald, was talking into a cell phone.
When the call was finished, Mike saw them all stand up at the same time. He confirmed that none was Hassan or Fadl. They are getting ready to leave, thought Mike. He hung back, seeing no point in getting too close now. He would follow them at a distance and see if they were going to board the flight to Washington.
Mike exited the lounge ahead of the group and stopped at a nearby book kiosk, pretending to study the cover of a paperback. Soon the four men passed in front of him. He started following them once they were about thirty feet past his position.
Were they looking at someone in particular? Would any of them make a subtle gesture that would mean something to someone watching for it? Was anyone else watching them? These were all questions that Mike asked himself while they walked toward Gate 17.
Grabbing his Blackberry from his jacket pocket, Mike hit autodial.
“Yes?” answered Robichaud promptly.
“I’m following four possible matches. They were sitting together in the lounge.”
“Copy that. Fadl and Hassan just boarded the plane separately. They each stowed a medium-size carry-on in their overhead compartments. They’re doing everything they can not to look at each other, but I’m definitely picking up a weird feeling. I don’t like this at all.”
“Do you want to call it in, Paul?”
“Let’s advise the captain to have the passengers rescreened. And I want it done by Canada customs this time, not by those rent-a-cops who usually man the lanes. I wouldn’t trust half of them to find a rocket launcher on my grandma.”
Mike chuckled. “Good idea. My little group is about a minute from the gate. All of them are wearing long coats, and they could be carrying weapons. I’ll call the Ottawa police’s airport division to provide some uniformed officers to back up the customs guys. I’ll let Zima know what’s going on as well.”
“Understood,” Robichaud said. “I’ll talk to the captain. See you at the gate.”
Mumbling that he had to go to the bathroom to the fat man seated next to him, Robichaud stood up and approached the flight attendant.
“My name is Paul Robichaud,” he told her quietly. “I’m one of the air marshals aboard this fight, and I need to talk to the captain immediately.”
“Oh, I…hmmm…okay. Just one moment please,” said the young blonde flight attendant, picking up the intra-plane phone.
“Captain? It’s Nadine,” Robichaud heard the flight attendant say into the receiver. “I have an air marshal here who is requesting to speak to you. Ah, okay,” she said before turning to Robichaud. “The captain is on the line.”
Robichaud took the receiver and smiled his thanks to the flight attendant. “Captain? I’m Paul Robichaud from the RCMP Aircraft Protection Unit,” he began, keeping his voice low. “I believe we may have a situation aboard this aircraft. I recommend that we rescreen every passenger aboard this flight.”
“Is that really necessary? We’re already on a tight schedule, and the airline will have to pay a hefty fee for departing late.”
“I feel it’s very necessary, Captain.”
A sigh came over the line. “Okay, but I don’t want any mayhem aboard my aircraft.”
“My suggestion to you, sir, is that you make an announcement saying that there is a mechanical failure with the ventilation system and that a maintenance crew will have to come onboard to fix it. Tell the passengers to remove all their luggage from the overhead bins.”
“All right,” said the captain after a long pause. “I’ll contact flight control, then I’ll shut down the system. I hope you’re sure about this.” Then the line went dead.
Robichaud noticed how tense his jaw was as he hung up the phone. For the first time in his life, he prayed he was wrong.
As the four men approached the boarding gate, Mike realized they would probably be the last ones to board the airplane. With Zima already briefed by Robichaud, Mike had just completed the calls to Canada customs and the airport division of the Ottawa Police Services when he decided to close the gap. The four men had stopped at the gate and were now waiting to present their boarding passes and photo identification to the gate agent, who was presently on the phone.
“Oh, I’m sorry, gentlemen. You’ll have to wait for a few moments before boarding,” Mike heard the gate attendant say as she hung up the phone. “It seems like everyone will be deplaning shortly due to a mechanical problem with the ventilation system onboard the aircraft.”
“Do you know how long we’ll have to wait?” asked the bald man standing in front of the attendant.
“I have absolutely no idea, sir. Please have a seat, gentlemen, and I apologize for the delay.”
With his back facing the flight deck door, Paul Robichaud positioned himself to better watch Fadl and Hassan. He’d just started to engage Nadine, the young flight attendant, in a casual conversation about her favorite local restaurant when all the lights in the cabin suddenly shut down and the whirring of the ventilation system stilled.
There is my signal, thought Robichaud, watching the two terror suspects in his peripheral vision. They just looked at each other for the first time.
“Ladies and gentlemen, this is your captain speaking,” came the commandant’s baritone voice over the intercom. “I’m sorry to inform you that we seem to have a problem with our ventilation system’s electricity supply. I just contacted a maintenance crew, and they advised me that they have to come onboard to fix it. Unfortunately, that means that all passengers will have to deplane with all their personal belongings, including luggage stored in the overhead compartments. The flight attendants will direct you in deplaning. I apologize for the delay, and we thank you for your patience and understanding.”
Following the captain’s announcement, before anyone could even unbuckle his or her seat belt, Fadl stood up and pulled a micro Uzi submachine gun from the inside of his jacket. He aimed it toward the flight deck and started firing.
Damn it! thought Robichaud as he dove for cover. At only 9.84 inches long, the micro Uzi was the smallest version of the Uzi submachine gun available. Due to its short length, it lacked a forward grip and, hence, accuracy. But the micro Uzi could fire more than twelve hundred rounds per minute, allowing Fadl to unload his twenty-round magazine in less than the second it took for Robichaud to reach his own gun.
The first six of those twenty bullets hit the pretty blonde flight attendant in the back. A seventh entered Robichaud’s right shoulder, and the remaining thirteen lost themselves in the ceiling of the aircraft. As Robichaud was thrown back by the impact, he saw Hassan stand up and take the pin out of an M67 fragmentation hand grenade while Fadl inserted a fresh clip into his Uzi.
The other passengers on the airplane began to scream and tried to take cover in any way possible. Unable to use his right arm, Robichaud used his left hand to cross-draw his pistol. But by the time he was ready to fire, Fadl was once again spraying the first-class cabin with 9mm Parabellum bullets. Robichaud, now on his knees using one of the front galley walls as partial concealment, was hit one more time in the chest as he fired his first shot. Consequently, his round went high, but his second shot, fired less than half a second later, hit its target between the eyes. Fadl collapsed on the elderly man cowering in the next seat.
Coughing up blood, Robichaud saw that Hassan was about to throw his grenade into the rear of the plane. With a one-handed left grip, he fired two more rounds into the back of Hassan’s skull. In slow motion, Robichaud saw the grenade slip from the dead terrorist’s hand and fall in between two seats before rolling toward a crying mother and her young son.
Knowing he was fatally wounded, Robichaud willed himself to get up but couldn’t muster the force. The excruciating pain in his chest prevented him to yell a warning. Only a gurgle and a fresh spray of blood came out of his mouth. Using his good arm, he tried to alert the passengers of the impending disaster, but chaos and panic had overtaken them. Everybody was running toward the exit, oblivious to the grenade lying only a few meters away. With his eyes fixed on the grenade, Robichaud used all of his remaining strength to crawl toward it. But in doing so, he felt the passengers running over him, stomping him with their feet.
Robichaud died from his wounds less than one second before the M67 exploded.