Enjoy this opening chapter from Prestwick.
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Dougie Nyle peered through the heavy rain pebbling against the 747’s front screen and wondered again what it was about flying that made him come back for more. He tried to reassure himself that the delayed take-off to Sinclair International flight 984 was not a portent of something worse. They were already three hours late starting engines at Kennedy. The cabin crew had distributed free drinks and forced smiles, but the passengers were restless and growing more so by the minute.
Dougie had thought the police might insist on a complete crew change. Detectives from the New York Police Department questioned everyone, compared notes and then questioned many of them again. The second time round, a fat lieutenant confronted Dougie in a grimy office at the heart of the terminal
“Did you ever fly with this girl?” As he spoke he shifted a wad of gum from one side of his mouth to the other and then back again. His gaze never wavered from Dougie’s face.
Dougie drew back his shoulders and held himself upright in the hard wooden chair. He tried to present an air of calm maturity. He was the first officer, but he was only twenty-nine years old. “I really don’t know. I don’t remember her.”
“Did you ever meet her outside of work?”
“I don’t make a point of meeting stewardesses in my own time. I’m a happily married man.” He immediately regretted the word ‘happily’. He conjured an image of Jenny back home in Ayrshire, sobbing over her knitting.
The lieutenant paused, mouth half open, revealing the pink gum. “Do you know anything about the girl’s background?”
“I told you, I don’t remember her.” He flexed his fingers, unsure which was the more annoying, the questioning or the gum-chewing.
The policeman poked a finger at a head-and-shoulders photograph of the dead girl, the stewardess found stabbed in a New York subway. “You sure?”
“We must have come here on different flights.”
“But you’ve flown with her at some time?”
“Maybe I did, maybe I didn’t. How many times must I tell you? I don’t remember her. Do you know how many cabin crew the company employs, Lieutenant?”
The policeman’s voice turned acid. “This girl had been in deep trouble before she died. Her body was covered with bruises.”
“I don’t beat up women. Do you want a signed statement from my wife?”
“Don’t get smart with me, buddy. We’ve got a dead Brit on our patch and we could make things awkward for you if you don’t co-operate.” He swallowed his gum and rubbed a chubby wrist across his lips.
Fergus MacNabb was interviewed for much longer than the others. Maybe because he was the captain and the dead girl was one of his crew. Dougie
felt uneasy about every long minute the older pilot spent in the interview room. MacNabb had a quick Celtic temper. But the interview ended abruptly and a senior officer gave permission for the crew to board the aircraft. Whoever killed stewardess Sally Scrimgeour didn’t appear to be on flight 984 bound for Scotland. Now Dougie could go home to Jenny and get down to the talk they should have had weeks ago.
“Bloody cops!” MacNabb wriggled into his seat at the left hand side of the flight deck. He was a giant of a man with a broad Glaswegian accent, a wide craggy face and a shock of grey hair that refused to lie flat. He set his huge hands on the yoke at the top of the control column and stared ahead, his teeth gritted together.
Dougie held back from replying. The captain was a good flier but a poor communicator.
MacNabb swung his gaze round. “This place stinks. Be glad to get home again.”
“We could be in for a rough ride, Captain. More turbulence reports are coming in.”
"I’ve flown in worse. You’d better get us our start-up clearance.”
Dougie contacted the control tower while the captain switched on the inertial navigation system. Once it was running, laser gyros and accelerometers would detect every movement of the aircraft in flight and give a constant read-out of their location.
“Damn!” MacNabb swore loudly.
“Finger trouble.” MacNabb cleared down the panel and started again, inputting the vital co-ordinates. When he was done, he grabbed his flight bag, pulled out a wad of documents and thrust a copy of the flight log across the console. Dougie took it as he acknowledged a call from the tower.
He removed his headphones and hung them about his neck. “We’re cleared to start engines.”
“About time. The police give you a grilling, did they?” MacNabb kept his eyes focussed on the instruments.
“They were very thorough.”
“No clues as to what they thought?”
“No, Captain. None at all.” As he spoke, Dougie ran his gaze over the technical log sheets. “There’s a problem with the drinking water supply in one of the economy cabin galleys. It should have been fixed.”
MacNabb shook his head fiercely. “It’s not important. Ignore it.”
“But the company rules—”
“Stuff the company rules. We’re not going to get tied up in paperwork because of the bloody drinking water in cattle class. Let them drink beer.”
That Friday evening, they should have started engines at six o’clock, Eastern Standard Time. The seven hours’ flight across the Atlantic, together with the five hours difference between New York and Europe meant they were scheduled to land at around six o’clock GMT: Saturday morning breakfast time in Scotland. A fresh crew would be waiting to take the 747 on to London, but that crew would likely have a long wait after the delays at New York.
Dougie pulled his flight bag onto his lap and flicked through the documentation. The weather reports made grim reading. Anticyclones over Greenland and Scandinavia had caused a cold front to move south. In Scotland the temperature had dropped to minus twenty-seven degrees Fahrenheit at Braemar. Even in England the blizzards were the most severe of the century. Prestwick airport was still open, but the weather was deteriorating. Conditions at Glasgow and Edinburgh airports were already below limits for landing, with no improvement expected.
Dougie read the reports again. His father’s love of aviation had rubbed off on both his sons, but Dougie had a healthy respect for the inherent dangers. Bad weather had contributed to the mid air collision that killed his brother in a military accident. With the pre-flight checks complete, he eased himself into a more comfortable position while waiting for clearance for the aircraft to push back from the stand.
Sinclair International Airways had bought the Boeing 747, Tartan Arrow, second-hand from another European airline. The airframe was fitted with RB211 engines, the engine whose birth had bankrupted Rolls Royce. They were a fine combination, Dougie thought, the 747 and the RB211.
“Got your fuel flight plan completed, Sammy?” He turned to the flight engineer seated at right angles behind the two pilots.
"Aye.” Kovak’s father had escaped wartime Poland to fly with the RAF, but Sammy’s accent carried no trace of Eastern Europe. It was pure fishing coast Fife.
“Things could get a bit awkward if we run into headwinds.”
The flight engineer shrugged. “We’re late anyway, Dougie. And I had a lunch date tomorrow.”
“She’ll just have to wait.” Dougie turned his attention back to the captain who sat, ramrod straight, staring at the rain-splattered screen.
There was something puzzling about Fergus MacNabb this evening, puzzling and disturbing. It wasn’t just the delay caused by the police questioning, although that had undoubtedly not helped, it was something deeper. It had bugged Dougie earlier in the evening while the crew packed away their documents in the flight briefing office.
Before they boarded the aircraft, he had quietly asked the flight engineer: “D’you think the captain looks troubled, Sammy?”
Kovak had whispered back: “Sure. It’s this business with the stewardess. There’s rumours about him screwing her.”
Dougie shook his head. MacNabb had a reputation for playing the field, but it was none of his business.
“Sinclair 984, this is Sinclair Operations.” Dougie pulled his headphones over his ears and adjusted his microphone boom.
“Go ahead, ops.”
“Sinclair 984, we’ve got a message here from the police. They want to talk to Captain MacNabb. You’re to shut down engines and ask him to return to the ops office.”
Dougie looked across the flight deck at the senior pilot who was staring ahead into the cold night, his face set hard. “I think you’re mistaken. The captain has already been interviewed by the police.”
MacNabb looked up suddenly. “What’s that? What’s going on?”
“They say they want you to go back to the operations office, Captain. The police want to speak to you again.”
The radio buzzed once more in Dougie’s headset. “No mistake, guys. Tell Captain MacNabb to get his ass over here as quick as he can.”
MacNabb’s eyebrows rose as he picked up his headphones and caught the tail end of the message. Dougie waited for the famous temper to flare. It didn’t.
“You have control, Mr Nyle. Shut down the engines.” MacNabb looked pale as he climbed out of his seat and vacated the flight deck.
“Maybe they know all about him and Sally Scrimgeour.” Sammy Kovak raised his voice once MacNabb was out of earshot.
“That’s none of our business.”
“Sally’s husband’s an air traffic controller at Prestwick Centre,” Kovak said. “They say MacNabb wanted her to get a divorce and marry him, but she was
“Who told you that?”
“One of the stews. The brunette, Trudy Bodenstadt. The German girl. Boy, I could do things with her!”
“How does she know about it?”
“The usual rumour machine.” With the engines winding down, Kovak leaned back and put his hands behind his head. “It’s the same in every airline. The stews know everything there is to know about everyone. The company grapevine wouldn’t work without them. I tell you, if the chairman picks up a woman tonight, it’ll be common knowledge by breakfast. Especially if the woman works for Sinclair International.”
“You don’t seem to have a very high opinion of the company’s female
“High opinion?” Kovak laughed. “I’ve had a high opinion of every stew I’ve ever slept with.”
“Including Trudy Bodenstadt?”
The flight engineer grinned. “I’m working on it.”
Dougie didn’t reply.
To pass the time at his flight engineer station, Kovak pulled out a copy of Playboy. He whistled loudly. “Jeez, Dougie, would you get a load of these!”
Half an hour later, MacNabb barged onto the flight deck, roughly elbowing his way past the flight engineer.
“Everything all right, Captain?” Dougie asked.
“Let’s get this ship airborne.”
“We’re cleared to depart?”
“That’s what I said, dammit!”
The climb out from Kennedy Airport was rough. Heavy clouds and gusting winds buffeted the aircraft as it clawed its way into the marginally
calmer upper airspace. Most other eastbound transatlantic flights had departed their Stateside airports on time and an armada of long-range jets was already winging its way across the ocean, well ahead of Sinclair flight 984.
“Would you like me to get the oceanic clearance, Captain?” Dougie gently reminded MacNabb that they had yet to be cleared into the vast spread of airspace beyond the North American coast. It was normal to ask for the oceanic clearance after take-off, but not to leave it too late.
“Ask for a clearance on track Victor at flight level three three zero.” MacNabb’s curtness was not lost on Dougie.
Victor was one of the six parallel flight tracks for aircraft crossing the North Atlantic that night. Dougie selected the clearance delivery frequency and
transmitted the request. When the reply came, he noted it on his log.
“We’re cleared on track Victor, Captain. Flight level three three zero.” The Canadian oceanic control centre at Gander had allocated the exact flight profile they requested; a northerly route at thirty-three thousand feet.
MacNabb’s affirmative was a grunt.
Dougie waited a few seconds before asking: “Shall I update the navigation?”
“I’ll do it.”
“Very well, Captain.”
Passing twenty-two thousand feet, the Boeing climbed out of the tops of the thick, turbulent clouds into clearer air. Then the crew saw the lights of another
aircraft five or six miles ahead and about two thousand feet below.
“A KC135 tanker, heading into Gander, according to his ATC reports,” Dougie said.
The flight engineer took up the comment. “Ever been into Gander, Dougie? It’s a hole, like the back of beyond. And as for the women—”
The young pilot turned in his seat. “Concentrate on your instruments, Sammy.”
Kovak sat back in his seat, melting into the dimness behind the two pilots. “I prefer to spend my time with women in warmer places. They wear less.”
Across the flight deck, MacNabb moved uncomfortably in his seat.
Dougie glanced out at the lights of the other aircraft. It was going to be a long night.
The passenger in the front business class section sank another large, neat whisky in one. It burned his throat, but it made him feel better. Too many meetings had lasted into the early hours. Perspiration glistened on his bald, clammy scalp. His light grey suit was crumpled as if he had been wearing it day and night. A black leather briefcase was spread open on his lap and he fiddled with bundles of papers; reading, checking and comparing information, occasionally adding small pencil marks in a rough, hurried hand.
One of the cabin crew had made a public address warning about turbulence during the flight, but he ignored it and left his seat belt loose, one half spread out on the empty seat beside him. He had too many air miles under his belt to worry about rough weather. When one of the smiling stewardesses leaned over and politely asked him to fasten up, he snapped an order for another Scotch and waited for her smile to fade and the girl to leave before he complied.
He stared down at the documents on his lap. Within an hour of landing he would have to brief the board on the possibility of an American offer for a major interest in his company. It irked him that some of the board members were in favour of their main British rivals taking a stake in the company. That would almost certainly mean the bidders taking a controlling interest, undermining his position. The Americans wanted him to remain at the helm.
“Miss! Where’s that Scotch?”
He grabbed at his new drink and quickly downed it. The tightness in his chest started to loosen, though the perspiration was heavier now and he unknotted his tie. The stewardess paused and took in the flush on his heavy cheeks.
“Bring me another,” he told her.
“Sir, are you—?”
“Another one, lassie. Now!”
That damned tightness in his chest gripped him again. He fumbled among the papers inside the briefcase where his wife said she had packed his pills. They weren’t there. So what? He could do without them anyway.
Maggie Loughlin also needed a drink. Her father had taught her to drink heavily whenever trouble loomed — may he rest in hell. She glanced down the length of the economy class cabin before she slipped into the forward galley and poured herself a stiff whisky. Then she poured another. Finally she slipped a peppermint sweet into her mouth.
Maggie had heard Fergus MacNabb called back for a second police interrogation. He wouldn’t talk, she told herself. He was too clever to give anything away. He had too much to lose. The mint cracked between her teeth. She put the heel of her hand to her chin and breathed into her palm. The whisky smell was masked. As senior stewardess on this flight, she had to set an example.
She jumped as one of the other girls came up suddenly behind her. “Oh God, Trudy, you gave me a shock.”
The girl spoke softly, with just the hint of German accent. “What’s the matter with you, Maggie? You look like a ghost.”
“Just a bit under the weather. It’s coming up to that time of the month, I guess.”She turned towards the galley trays.
The younger stewardess took a step closer, too close for comfort. “We’ve got a problem in business class. There’s a funny looking old guy. He’s had a number of stiff drinks and he wants more. I think he’s had enough, but he’s turning nasty.”
Maggie wiped a hand across her damp brow before turning to face the other girl. “All right, Trudy. I’ll handle it.”
At thirty-five, she was one of the most experienced stewardesses aboard the aircraft and she had seen them all at one time or another; the drunk, the
frightened, the downright rude. She had a formula for dealing with each. She strode into the business class section and approached the passenger from behind. His head was slumped sideways across his seat, his arms were spread wide, one into the aisle and the other into empty seat beside him.
Coming alongside him, she looked into his staring eyes. His mouth was gaping