The novel features British protagonist Rudger Hewlitt, a former Beefeater turned MI5 operative, as well as several Americans, including Obama liaison Veronica Strong.
Ash Wednesday copyright 2010 Nate Fitzgerald - all rights reserved.
Rudger Hewlitt took his black military-style satchel from the overhead compartment, his well-defined bicep bulging beneath the wool of his coal grey jumper. He always packed his own snacks for flights, the lifelong habit of a man cursed with a potentially lethal nut allergy. He noted the sleek woman in the beige business suit look up for a split second from her Time magazine. He removed a plain Yorkie bar and packet of Quavers from his satchel as if he didn’t see – as if he didn’t recognise her from the television as Veronica Strong, Obama’s tough and sharp-tongued liaison to Downing Street.
Rudger smiled and sat back down beside the snoring Asian man to his right. They had conducted a good chat upon take-off during which Rudger had shown him a photo of his trusted beagle Bernard, making the man snort with the classic line, “but he’s certainly no saint. Not after what he did to my tennis shoes.” Rudger had that effect on people, an easy charm to go with a physique that could have been chiselled by Michelangelo himself. Rudger had seen the master’s David outside Uffizi gallery in Florence and had feigned awe for the benefit of the tourists despite knowing that the statue was in fact a replica. Of course, he had been in Italy on business, not pleasure.
“So what do you do?”
Rudger looked up, startled. Not many people could sneak up on him. Veronica Strong’s face was angled on his, her body close enough that he could smell her Chanel perfume and feel the faintest touch of body heat.
“Pardon me?” he said.
“Consider yourself pardoned, buster. You do have a job, right?”
He both admired and loathed American abruptness.
“Care for a drink?” he replied.
“You expect me to stand here and drink alcohol with you?”
“No, I expect to convince your seat mate to exchange places so that we can have a civilised conversation.”
She sighed, but he could tell she liked his strategic mind.
“That seat mate happens to be my body guard,” Veronica said. “I doubt you can convince him to leave my side.”
Rudger undid his security belt and moved to get up. “You’d be very surprised at what I’m capable of, my dear lady.”
Pilot Dirk Gilloly of the New Jersey Gillolys rubbed his raw eyes. He had been a professional pilot for a little over three years and had moved up the ranks through balls, bravado and the influence of certain members of his mafia family who wanted to see one of its own reach the starry heights of legitimate command. He wanted to think he had earned his stripes, but always had a seed of doubt in his mind. This was the cause of his constant shakes and extreme sweats. And his symptoms were getting worse, not what you wanted when flying with a green co-pilot and a navigator with a bad reputation.
And now he had these strange lights on the windscreen.
“I’m sure it’s simply the effect of Aurora Borealis,” his Welsh co-pilot Reg said again.
“It’s the wrong season,” Dirk snapped. “That there is a winter-based phenomenon.”
“We are flying near Iceland. Maybe their seasons are different.”
Dirk rolled his eyes and cursed BA’s cost cutting. When you paid peanuts, you got monkeys. They were flying the red-eye from New York to London Heathrow, the flight called thusly because of the false idea that rising early caused puffy, red eyes. In fact, the irritation of the eyes and sinuses had more to do with dryness than the time of morning. Often a poorly maintained air-conditioning unit was to blame – and since so many commuters stayed in inexpensive hotels…
“Anything on radar, buddy?” Dirk asked again.
His co-pilot Serge La Crisp blew air from his nostrils in the typical French style. “No, like I say to you before, it is nothing on the little mechanism for looking.”
So what was this mysterious full-spectrum light illuminating the windscreen? It looked like a prism and Dirk had to repeatedly push the ridiculous notion of extraterrestrial contact from his mind. The idea was preposterous. Yet there was nothing on the radar and no visible causes of the phenomenon. Could this be some new invention from the US military?
“Well, it doesn’t appear to be a matter of concern,” Reg chipped in.
Dirk frowned. He was a believer in luck, and knew you didn’t tempt fate. Oh how he wished he was in a sports bar in Manhattan watching his favourite professional basketball team, the New Jersey Nets, and eating a plate of Mexican-style nacho chips.
As if on cue, a red button lit up and a pulsating alarm chimed.
“What is dis dreadful noise?” Serge inquired.
Dirk frowned. “Engine One appears to be overheating.”
"Zut alors,” Serge replied. "Dis is bad news."
Even Dirk knew this was an understatement, though he conceded the comment could have been caused by the language barrier. He had told BA more than once that navigators with suspect English skills were potentially lethal. Now his theory would be put to the test.