Chapter 26: Flying home

The sun coming around the drapes woke Nancy again on Saturday morning. She lay there, reveling in the feel of Jack behind her.

“Alarm in less than one minute,” he whispered. He reached over her and hit the alarm clock before it could go off. Nancy rolled over and kissed him fiercely on the mouth, lying on top of him.

“Now that will wake me up!” he said as he rolled her over. They clung to each other for a moment, then rolled out of opposite sides of the bed.

“We should have a full breakfast this morning,” he said, as Nancy went to her room and tore back the bed sheets.

“I get airsick, remember.”

“I know about that, but we won’t be in the air until late in the morning, and you’ll actually be able to control your nausea better if you’re not also empty.”

“OK, as long as you hold my hand like you did on the way here.”

“But, of course, milady.”

Nancy closed the door.

Forty-five minutes later, they were both in the coffee shop having steak and eggs for breakfast. The bell captain had sent a porter for their luggage.

At nine o’clock the hotel limousine pulled into traffic and a half-hour later, stopped in front of the international terminal at the airport. Jack held the door for Nancy, while the driver got the luggage.

“You know, I can get out of the car by myself, Jack.”

“But then I’d feel useless – or have to carry the luggage.” She gave him a playful punch as they approached the counter. Ten minutes later, they were waiting at the gate with the other passengers. The Cologne airport did not share space with the Luftwaffe, so the terminal effectively dampened the noise of the civilian aircraft outside. After waiting about ten minutes, the passengers filed out to the Lufthansa jet waiting by the gate.

As soon as they sat down, Nancy took Jack’s doggy bag and put it in the pouch in front of her.

“Oh, woman of little faith.” Jack put his hand over hers. “You’ll be fine.”

“First, I’ll be prepared – then I’ll be fine.”

The stewardess called for attention and went through the safety briefing as the aircraft taxied to its position for takeoff. She finished just as the pilot called for the cabin crew to prepare for takeoff.

Nancy squeezed Jack hand and leaned back in the chair.

“Don’t press so hard. Let the plane push you back. No more pressure than that.”

Nancy looked at him with wide eyes. “You’re kidding.”

“Come on. Try it. I’m still holding your hand. You can close your eyes if you want. Pretend that you’re flying the plane yourself.”

Nancy took some deep, slow breaths as the engines revved up for the bolt down the runway. When the brakes came off, she forced her legs to relax. She opened her eyes wide and looked at Jack. His head was turned toward her. He was smiling warmly. She smiled back, then forced herself not to tense as the g-forces continued to pin her to the seat. She closed her eyes, but she opened them immediately. She preferred to look at Jack.

Suddenly, the pressure came off as the jet leveled in flight.

“We can’t already be at altitude,” she said, relaxing her grip. “That wasn’t long enough.”

“Time flies when you’re having fun.”

“Wise guy.”

“Really. You were so busy forcing yourself to relax that you were concentrating on your own body, not on the aircraft or the acceleration itself.”

“Did you just make that up?”

“Kind of. At least that’s how I explain it. It works, doesn’t it?”

“Yes. Thanks.”

“You’re welcome.” He squeezed her hand but left his resting easily over hers.

“What happens if we hit another storm, like my flight back from London last month?”

“I have some ideas for that, too, but this will be a smooth trip.”

“What makes you so sure?”

“I called the airport weather office from the room. No thunderheads or verticals today, even over the Alps.”

“That’s amazing.”

“I was a pilot, you know. Aviation English is my only fluent foreign language.” They laughed.

The cabin crew came through with the snacks and drinks. They both had orange juice.

As she opened her little tray of German rye bread, cheese and fruit, Nancy said, “Jack, back in the office, it’s back to normal again. Agreed?”

“I know. You don’t do office romance.” He smiled, but his eyes betrayed his feelings.

“Something like that. Plus, I’m the mother of a very observant teenager.”

“Although he’s probably cheering for you in this regard, I would say.”

“Why do you say that?”

“Because I think that he’d like to see you happy, as would I.”

Nancy pondered that for a while. She cut and ate her apple with the steel knife and fork but did not go so far as to peel it. She knew about the nutrients in the peel. Jack cut his in half but picked up each half with his hands after that.

Jack had touched a deep issue for her. She had avoided social involvement ever since Jason died. Jack was the first man to break through the walls that she had built, she knew that. Joe had rightly called her on the way she used her work as a shield.

She looked over at him. He was still looking at her.

“What would a teenager know about my happiness?”

“He’s your closest relative. He loves you more than anyone on earth. He’s also, as you said, extremely observant. He’s also a young man now. I’ve watched him growing, not having the long view that you have.”

“I don’t know. He’s still my son. I can’t suddenly bring you into our life.”

“It doesn’t have to be sudden. I’m already there every other weekend on the tennis court.”

“That’s true,” she admitted.

Jack swiveled to face her better. He gave a quick look to the nearby seats, to make sure that the conversation was still private.

“Let me ask you this. Has he asked about going on a date yet?”

“He goes to Le Klub sometimes.”

“But that’s with his gang, isn’t it?”

“Yes.”

“Not the same thing as a date.”

“So?”

“So why not? He’ll be a senior next year. Did he take anyone to the Junior Prom?”

“Now that you mention it, no, he didn’t.”

“Why was that?”

“Because Betty Walker, the girl he would have taken, went back to the States.”

“When did she leave?”

“Last summer. Her father was reassigned suddenly.”

“Last summer? Don’t you think a handsome guy like that could find a willing date for the prom in the next nine months? How big a deal is the prom to young girls nowadays?”

“Still pretty big, I gather. What’s your point, Jack?”

“The point is, how does he ask his single mother about going on a date when she never dates? Maybe he hasn’t figured that out yet.” Jack squeezed her hand quickly to punctuate his comment. Nancy sighed.

“Good point. I think I missed some signals there.”

“I gather that you two have a pretty open relationship. He seems comfortable talking to you about almost anything, from what I see.”

“That’s true. Sometimes I don’t appreciate his maturity. I keep seeing the little boy I miss.”

“Normal for a mother, I would say.”

“So, any ideas, Doctor Arland?”

“As a matter of fact, I have a couple.” He grinned. “Let’s not do anything.”

“What?”

“Like you said, back in Rome it’s back to normal – at first. We still meet for tennis, maybe picking it up to every week. I enjoy our three-way matches.”

“What about after the ‘at first’?”

“Go out to dinner once in a while. Date again. You must know some men who want to take you out. I certainly would line up for the chance, if you would let me.”

“You’re already more than a date, Jack.”

“Granted. But remember what I said about my problem with women. I don’t have that problem with you. I could spend all night just talking or dancing with you. I could even get you home by curfew if Joe needs that.”

Nancy laughed. “That’s a strange thought.”

“I think that he would welcome the sight of his mother having a life outside the office. It would make him feel free maybe to date, too. You’re both single; it’s a different relationship than a young man normally gets with his mother.”

Nancy tried to picture the scene as they silently let the stewardess collect their snack trays and drink cups. The image of Joe staying up late and meeting her in his bathrobe as she tried to sneak in after curfew made her laugh again.

“Thanks, Jack. I didn’t expect to use your people skills on my personal life, but I’m glad for it. You’re a real friend.”

“Thank you – I want to be your friend, in any way you need.” The look in their eyes as they stared silently at each other said so much more than that.

The lights flickered in the panels above the seats. “The captain has turned on the seat belt sign. Please return to your seats and prepare for landing.”

“Already?” Nancy was astonished. She felt the plane turn ever so gently in its landing pattern.

“Time flies when you’re having fun.” Jack grinned and took her hand. “Now don’t lean back so hard.”

“Is this another Luftwaffe bomber pilot?” she asked. “I have to admit it’s smoother than usual.”

“Might even be the same guy. The flying style feels the same to me.”

“I should get his name and book my flights when he’s on.”

Nancy looked past Jack to the window. She had never dared do that before. She squeezed his hand hard as she suddenly saw trees and fences flying by. As before, she was not sure just when they touched down.

“Backing engines – now!” Jack warned her.

She held on to his hand and let the deceleration pull her sideways over him. Face to face, she almost kissed him.

“That was fun.” She laughed. Jack seemed as pleased as a teacher watching a struggling child suddenly get it right.

“We’ll make a jet setter out of you yet,” he said.

When they came out of the terminal with their suitcases, Adriano was waiting. He quickly relieved them of their bags and went to the company car to load them. The car was flanked by a pair of four-door Alfa Romeo pantere, doors open, engines idling quietly, the drivers inside. One car had a Police major and a large corporal standing by it. The other had a commissario and Agent Redwood.

Nancy and Jack stopped on the curb. So did most of the passengers behind them. A family struggled to rein in their young boy when he saw the Squadra Volante chase cars.

“Hello, Jim. What brings you to Ciampino?” Nancy asked.

“You do, actually. If you’ll please come with us, we’ll explain it on the way.” He pointed to the pantera. “Hello, Jack, we’re here for you, too. Major Giannini will explain on the way.”

“Where are we going?” Nancy asked. Jack closed his mouth, having been about to ask the same thing.

“Let’s not discuss it out here. You’re not in trouble, but it’s confidential and very urgent.”

Nancy and Jack got into their respective cars. As soon as the doors closed, the pair of high-powered police cars moved swiftly out of the parking lot, light flashing. In the rear-view mirror, Nancy saw that the other passengers were still standing in stunned silence.

“OK, Jim, what is this? That was quite a scene back there. Where are we going?”

“The Quirinale. Sorry, but I could hardly announce it in front of that crowd, could I?”

“The Quirinale? That’s the President’s Palace. What for?”

“Because that’s where Joe is.”

“Joe? My God, is he OK?”

“Yes, Nancy, he’s fine. In fact, he’s something of a hero.”

“Explain, please.” Nancy was still angry but tried to control herself.

“Do you know anything about me besides the fact that I’m Doug’s father?”

“Just that you work in the Embassy Annex, which means you’re government, but not Foreign Service.”

“Right.” He pulled out his credential pack. “FBI.”

“What has this got to do with Joe?” Her eyes were wide as she saw the trees on the Via Tuscolana flying by faster than they had during the approach of the Lufthansa flight.

“I’m getting there, please. Joe has been translating letters and files for Jack Arland. Did you know that?”

“He told me about a couple of letters back around Christmas.”

“It turned out to be more than that. He’s been turning around an unbelievable amount of material. Jack told him that it was the stuff in the files that Jack couldn’t read and that everyone else had already read. He didn’t want it known how poor his reading ability was.”

“He could have asked me.” Nancy felt doubly betrayed by the two most important men in her world.

“According to Joe, Jack said that he couldn’t. He said that you were already working harder than anyone else in the office, and, from what Joe thought, he was especially embarrassed to ask you.”

“I’m supposed to be supervising Joe. What the hell was this material?”

“Apparently, Jack has to send material to the major investors in New York, right?”

“Yes. It comes in every week from all our offices throughout Italy.”

“It was that stuff. It’s in Italian, so Jack couldn’t read it. He was expected to simply forward it along with his regular reports. Everyone else in the office had already seen it, he thought.”

“He thought? What’s going on here?”

“It’s complicated, but somehow coded messages were going to New York in the material. We’ll show you when we get to the Quirinale. Joe noticed that a system of color-coded circles was used to link words in the letters with items in the enclosures to the letters. It turns out that some of your ‘major investors’ are financing a right-wing coup, which is being dismantled as we speak. When Joe realized that a coup was scheduled for 7 August, he came to my office, and we’ve taken it from there.”

“You mean Jack is a spy?” Nancy felt the anger rise again, and resolutely pushed it down.

“Actually, no. As best we can tell, he didn’t know about the coded markings. Of course, they were not in the English translations that Joe was giving him, so he only noticed them last week, when he started to try to read more of the Italian himself to improve his skill. He called our New York office from Cologne, because our Special Agent in Charge there is a friend of his. Our man in New York told him to continue as normal so as not to tip our hand. Then the SAC called me, but we were already on the case, thanks to Joe. We’ve been checking him out while you were in Cologne, and apparently, he really was an unwitting participant. The conspirators never expected him to notice the coded circles, and they used him as a channel specifically because he couldn’t read Italian.”

“So, Jack isn’t under arrest or anything.”

“Nope. We’re taking him to the Quirinale, too. We need to keep all three of you off the streets while we arrest the leaders and break up the units involved.”

“Why? What have Joe and I done?”

“It’s not what you’ve done. It’s what Joe knows. By extension, you’re in danger, too, and so is Jack, now.”

“How dangerous?”

“Very. Now that you know that he’s safe, can I tell you what’s been happening to Joe?”

Nancy nodded. Her heart was racing.

“Just yesterday, he was abducted twice, and escaped both times. He made his way to my secretary’s apartment – we had set up three places he could go to after hours if he needed us. She called me, and I picked him up and brought him here. We’ve had a crisis command center working in the Quirinale since yesterday.”

“Abducted?! By whom? Was he hurt?” She struggled to keep control.

“Some highly placed retired and active Carabinieri officers directing the coup. He’s OK, really. Some bruises from one of the thugs in the first snatch, and some glass cuts when the kidnap vehicle sideswiped a bus. The men holding him down actually took the brunt of the crash and were knocked unconscious. Joe got out and ran.”

Nancy sat back, too stunned for words. The pantere had switched to sirens and lights because of the traffic. They were flying around the Coliseum and down the Viale dei Fori Imperiali.

She sat in silence as they sped up the Via Nazionale and into the gates of the Quirinale.

As they pulled up inside, she asked, “How long will we be here?”

“Probably until tonight.”

“And our luggage?”

“Your driver is bringing it. We’ll see you home when we know that you’ll be safe.”

A liveried footman opened the door for her. She saw the second pantera stop at a different door, farther down. Jack looked back at her and shrugged his shoulders as he accompanied the Police major into the building.

A Corazziere lieutenant was waiting at the door for her. “This way, dottoressa, if you please.” Agent Redwood fell in behind her. The lieutenant led them to the top of a very long staircase, then down a long hallway. Nancy breathed as slowly and deliberately as the stair-climbing and the Corazziere’s stride would allow. She alternated between wanting to kill Jack, worry about Joe, spank her son, and just run screaming from the place. She was boiling under her best acting face.

Nancy had never been in this part of the Presidential Palace. The Pauline Chapel, where classical concerts were held, was an impressive exhibition of Renaissance architecture and art. She was not surprised that the rest of the complex was just as grand.

Enlisted men, officers, and civilians were coming and going through the doors at the end of the hall. Two Corazzieri were stationed at the door, occasionally stopping someone that they did not recognize, to check ID against a clipboard on the small table next to the door.

The lieutenant said, “Dottoressa Mather” to the two, then held the door for her.

Inside, she saw a vast room with an enormous hardwood table in the middle, covered with maps. She recognized the President, the Prime Minister and some of the Cabinet. At other tables, men were engaged in various activities that she could not make out.

The room went silent as she stepped in and the men turned toward her. Suddenly she regretted not having had a look in a mirror before coming here.

Joe stepped out from a group around a far table.

“Hi, Mom.”

They walked toward each other, both wanting to run, but aware of the crowd around them. It felt surreal, like a part in a fantastic play.

Slowly, the President started applauding, the clapping taken up by the rest of the room. Nancy and Joe hugged about halfway across the room. She gave up fighting the tears. Joe was safe. She did not even mind the scratches.

When the applause died down, Nancy looked up. The President was standing there with the Prime Minister.

Signora Mather, I hope that you are proud of you son. He has saved our democracy from its greatest threat since Fascism. We are all grateful to him – and to you.”

Grazie, Eccellenza.” She did not know what to say. This was not a speech-making moment.

“And let me apologize for not notifying you sooner. It was harder than we expected to try to do so in Cologne. All this came up since Wednesday, you see.”

“Accepted. I’m just glad that he’s OK.”

“For that you must thank Agent Redwood and your son himself. He is a remarkably tough man to capture.” He smiled and extended his hand. She shook it and stepped back.

Nancy looked around at the men staring at her. She faced Agent Redwood. “Jim, do you think we could find a corner, so you can finish explaining all this to me?”

The President interrupted, in English. “We can do better than that. Lieutenant del Piave, would you please show the Americans to the guest suite. They should have some privacy now.”

“This way please.” The tall Corazziere led them to a door in another corner of the room. He led them down a short hall to an apartment and held the door for them.

“Laura will come shortly to see if you need anything.”

“Thank you, Lieutenant,” Nancy said as del Piave closed the door behind them.

========

(to be continued)

JT

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