Stealing Gulfstreams, страница 1
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Table of Contents
Letter from James Patterson
About the Authors
“Gentlemen, find your formation.”
The pace pilot’s voice crackles over the radio, but John Flynn can barely hear it.
The retired Navy lieutenant can barely hear anything. Including his own thoughts.
He’s strapped inside a T-2 Buckeye warbird, hurtling through the air at more than two hundred miles per hour. Its four-ton steel-alloy fuselage is rattling like a million tin cans. Its engine, a modified GE J85 turbojet, is churning out three thousand pounds of thrust, rumbling louder than thunder.
Below him, the scrubby Nevada desert whips by in a blur of green and brown.
Above, the clear blue sky stretches on forever.
And on either side, eight other high-speed performance aircraft are positioning themselves, wing to wing, in a flying starting line.
Each is being flown by one of the top sport pilots in the world.
And today John plans to smoke them all.
Or die trying.
“Gentlemen, prepare to engage.”
Welcome to the National Championship Air Races, the fastest and deadliest motorsport competition on earth.
Make that “above” the earth.
Since it started here at Reno Stead Airport in 1964, twenty-one pilots have lost their lives along with ten unlucky spectators. Tragic, but not hard to understand why. Circling the eight-mile oval race course at more than five hundred miles per hour, aviators train a lifetime for an event that’s over in minutes—with precisely zero room for error. One tiny false move, one minuscule miscalculation, one accidental nudge of the yoke a millimeter in the wrong direction, and it could mean the difference between finishing in second place and finishing in a ball of flames.
But right now, John isn’t thinking about any of that. After so many years of hard work, after all the crazy shit he’s done to get here, there’s only one thing on his mind.
At any cost.
John tightens his grip on the thrust lever. He scans his instrument panel: all systems go. He lets out a long exhale, trying to clear his mind.…
And thinks about his two sons, one nearly a man, the other still a boy.
John knows both are somewhere in the crowd below, watching him, cheering him on. Jack and Cole. His “little wingmen,” he calls them. The lights of his life. It’s a small miracle they turned out the way they did, what with their mother—
John pushes those thoughts aside. He has to focus. It’s almost time.
His opponents are nearly settled into their cruising aerial “lanes.”
The pace pilot will soon speak his famous starting command.
And the contest of John’s life will commence.
“Gentlemen, you have a race!”
John slams the throttle, and his T-2 surges forward like a rocket.
He’s thrown back against his seat as his airspeed, in mere seconds, shoots past three hundred miles per hour. Then three hundred twenty. Three hundred forty. The g-force is so intense it feels like an elephant is standing on his chest.
John quickly pulls toward the front of the pack, but three other jets edge him out. He banks hard to the left, cutting off one of them on his flank, which forces that pilot to ascend and sacrifice speed.
Then John does something insane.
He tilts his T-2 into a four-hundred-mile-per-hour nosedive.
John’s adrenaline surges. He can feel the blood rushing from his head. His vision starts to tunnel. He could black out at any moment.
But he pulls up and evens out just in time, whizzing past another plane and moving into second place.
John is barreling along now at four hundred thirty miles per hour—and flying less than eighty feet above the ground.
His lips curl into a little grin. The race has barely started, and he’s already neck and neck for first place.
Best of all, he knows that Jack and Cole must be down there cheering their little hearts out. He wants to make his boys as proud of him as he is of them.
John rides the tail of the first-place jet for a whole lap. He can’t quite find a way to pass the guy, so he decides to slingshot around him at the next turn.
John rolls horizontal, pulls away, a
Hitting a pocket of choppy air, his plane starts to tremble and sputter.
The yoke rattles like a woodpecker as John frantically tries to regain control. He knows he could just decrease his speed, pitch up, and coast out of it, a textbook emergency procedure he could pull off in his sleep.
But there’s no question it would cost him precious time. And maybe the race.
Everything he’s been working for.
So instead, John takes a major risk. He steadies the trembling control column with all his strength and jams the throttle to the max.
The afterburners kick in, and the T-2 shudders horribly, then finally starts to straighten out.
It worked! With the wobbling subsiding, John refocuses on the race.…
Then he smells it. A pilot’s absolute worst fear.
And in an instant, he’s surrounded on both sides by searing-hot flames.
John’s control panel beeps and blinks like mad, but he can scarcely see a thing inside the cockpit. It’s starting to fill rapidly with black exhaust.
Coughing and gagging, John fumbles to yank the lever that releases the windshield. The glass hatch goes flying away—and he’s blasted in the face with four-hundred-mile-per-hour winds.
Smoke still billowing, John looks down at his instrument panel. He’s desperate to learn his speed, pitch, and altitude, hoping to regain some semblance of control.
Because he knows he’s going down.
The fire is really spreading now. John feels his flame-retardant flight suit engulfed in white-hot heat. Behind his flight mask, his eyes are stinging. His skin is cooking.
He’s too low to eject safely, so he jerks the yoke hard to try to level out as best he can. It’s a last-ditch attempt to make his crash landing just slightly less horrific—for his sons, not himself. He knows his own life is as good as lost. The only question now is, how awful will it look? How terribly will it scar his precious boys?
The ground is coming up faster and faster. John can start to make out rock formations, scraggly desert trees, little shrubs.
He shuts his eyes. He says a prayer, asking God to watch over Jack and Cole, begging the Holy Father to be a better one than he was. John braces for impact.
And I wake up with a gasp.
I open my eyes and look around. I’m in a dark motel room, sitting up in bed, dripping with sweat and panting like a dog. My heart is thudding behind my ribs.
It was all just a goddamn nightmare.
The same one I’ve been having for nearly half my life, ever since my little brother and I watched that fiery crash in Reno some fifteen years ago.
I was only seventeen at the time. Cole had just turned twelve.
The man who lost his life that day—our father—was a legend in the air-racing community. A successful commercial pilot and decorated naval aviator. Driven, dedicated, determined. A truly brilliant flier who loved excitement and lived for danger.
Just like we do.
I guess madness runs in the family.
I check the clock on the nightstand: 3:48 a.m. I’m too amped to go back to sleep, so I might as well get up. I have to head to work soon anyway.
My name is Jack Flynn. I’m a pilot.
What else would I be?
“Brother,” I say, “you look like deep-fried shit on a stick.”
I’m standing near the entrance to Easton State Airport, a sleepy single runway tucked away in the lush Cascade Range foothills, seventy miles southeast of Seattle.
Cole has just parked his Harley on the shoulder and yanked off his helmet, revealing bloodshot eyes, a greasy nest of brown hair, and a few days’ worth of scruff. He looks older than his twenty-seven years, thanks to plenty of hard living. Still, the kid is handsome. He gets his good looks from our old man. We both do.
“And you, Jackie,” Cole says, staggering toward me, “look like a goddamn Boy Scout. But what else is new?”
He means that as an insult, but I take it as a compliment. I’m already wearing my dark-blue pilot’s uniform, freshly pressed. My shoes are spit-shined. My face is cleanly shaven. My hair meticulously combed.
Cole, meanwhile, has on shredded black jeans and a stained gray T-shirt. His pilot’s uniform is slung over his shoulder in a wrinkled heap. He looks like he closed down a local watering hole last night and hasn’t slept a wink since.
As I catch a whiff of bourbon on his breath, I worry that I’m right.
“Jesus,” I say, wrinkling my nose. “Pop an Altoid or something.” Then I add, with real seriousness, “Cole, are you fit to fly? Be straight with me.”
My brother smirks and stabs a Marlboro between his lips. “I might look drunk. I might smell drunk. I might even still be a little drunk.” He holds out his hands to show me how steady they are. “But I could still pull a perfect double wingover at six hundred knots right now with my eyes closed. And you know it.”
That’s my little brother for you. Never short on confidence. But he’s such an ace pilot, the son of a bitch is probably right. I wouldn’t be surprised if he actually tried that crazy maneuver during our flight this morning, if only to prove a point.
And just in case he screws it up? Well, I’m such a damn good pilot I could get us out of it with my hands tied.
We start to walk together along the tarmac. It’s the crack of dawn and still mostly dark out, but in the glow of Cole’s cigarette I notice some red smudges on his chin.
“For God’s sake, wipe off that lipstick. Can you at least try to look professional?”
Cole claps me on the back. “Don’t be jealous, man, just ’cause some of us like to get a little action more than once a decade.”
This time, I don’t take it as a compliment.
We finally reach the twinjet Gulfstream IV parked at the end of the runway. Damn, is she a beauty. Only a few years old, perfectly maintained. The early-morning sunlight sparkles off her polished white fuselage like a diamond necklace.
“Get changed,” I say as I unlock the side cabin door, twist open the hatch, and pull down the retractable stairway. “And clean yourself up. I mean it, Cole. Then look over our flight plan one last time. I’m going to do a walk-around.”
Cole offers an ironic salute and heads up the stairs. I flip on a flashlight and start to give the exterior of the aircraft a final visual safety inspection.
And that’s when I notice something.
Pulling into the airport’s entrance is a black Cadillac Escalade.
“Jesus Christ,” I mutter. “The Malones are here.”
“Those jackasses are early,” Cole says, even more annoyed than I am.
“Okay, baby bro. Big smiles. Show those pearly whites. Let’s do this.”
The massive SUV comes to a stop near the plane, then out step four of the most obnoxious “one-percenters” I’ve ever met. I’ve done homework on the family members on the passenger list, just so I know who I’m dealing with. But in person they’re even worse than I imagined.
Rick Malone exits first. A hedge-fund bajillionaire from nearby Seattle, he’s got the brain of Warren Buffett and the body of Danny DeVito—with none of the charm. He’s wearing a leather jacket that I’m sure cost at least five thousand dollars, in a desperate, obviously midlife-crisis-inspired attempt to look cool. Unfortunately, it’s two sizes too small, and all it does is accentuate his bulging gut and lack of style.
“Let’s go, already!” he yells at the rest of his family climbing out of the car. “I want to be in the air in two minutes, do you all hear me?”
“Actually, Mr. Malone,” I gently interject, “we may need a bit more time than that to finish our safety check and—”
“Listen,” he barks right in my face, “I’m paying a goddamn fortune for this jaunt to Aspen. When I say we’re taking off in two minutes, we’re taking off in two minutes. Hear me?”
Rick ignores my extended hand and stomps up the steps into the Gulfstream.
Next, RJ Malone and his sister, Emily, exit the Escalade. Ten and seven, they’re cute kids. Too bad they’re cut from the same annoying cloth as their father.
“It’s my iPad, give it back!” whines RJ, yanking the device from his little sister and giving her a shove for good measure. “You suck at this game anyway.”
Emily’s little lip starts to quiver.
I get an idea and kneel down beside her. “Hey, your name is Emily, right?” I ask. She nods, surprised I already know it. “Well, I’m the captain. Can I trust you with a secret, something very important?”
I remove the golden wings pin affixed to my lapel and hold it out to her.
“Think you can keep this safe for me during the flight? And help be my navigator?”
Emily’s frown turns into a big, bright smile. “Cool!” she says.
“Excuse me,” comes a shrill female voice. It belongs to Cynthia Malone, Rick’s bleached-blond second wife. Though she can’t be more than forty, her face is already heavily Botoxed.
She’s gesturing to two gigantic Louis Vuitton suitcases that their driver has set down on the ground, each one about the size of a washing machine.
“Are either of you going to take care of these?” she snarls.
I’m about to reply when Cole jumps in first, his voice thick with irritation. “We’re pilots, ma’am. Not skycaps. If you’ve got a problem with that—”
“We’d be more than happy to help,” I interrupt, trying to play peacemaker.
“Hold on,” says RJ, finally glancing up from his iPad and looking at me, then at Cole, then back to me, then back to my brother. “Are you guys, like, related or something? Weird.”
“Nothing weird about sticking by your family,” I say, unlatching the Gulfstream’s rear luggage compartment and heaving Cynthia’s enormous bags inside. “Family’s the most important thing in the world, actually. Don’t ever forget that.”
RJ’s eyes are already on his screen again. “Whatever.”