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Authors: Julie Clark

The Last Flight (4 page)

BOOK: The Last Flight
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I won't miss any of this.

I flip off the light and make my way back into the bedroom, where I slip into bed next to my husband for the very last time.

Twenty-two hours.

Claire

Tuesday, February 22

The Day of the Crash

I must have slept, because the next thing I know, my alarm is yanking me awake. I blink the sleep from my eyes, taking in the room around me. The sun is up, and Rory's side of the bed is empty. The clock reads seven thirty.

I sit up, letting my nerves settle and excitement take over, before moving into the bathroom where I turn on the shower, letting steam obscure my face in the mirror. On the counter, I check again for the thumb drive, reassured that it seems to be undisturbed.

Then I step into the shower, letting the hot water pound on my back, exhilaration flooding through me. After more than a year of careful planning, constant terror that the smallest error might lead to the discovery of what I'm about to do, the moment is finally here. I'm packed. I have everything I need. Rory is gone—to the office, to a meeting, it hardly matters. All I have to do is get dressed and walk out the door one last time.

I finish quickly and wrap myself in my favorite robe, my mind already hours ahead. A quiet flight to Detroit, a school tour, and a banquet to keep me busy until everyone is asleep. A series of boxes I can check off, one at a time, until I'm free.

But I pull up short when I enter my bedroom to find Constance, the upstairs maid, lifting my suitcase onto the bed and unzipping it. She begins to remove the heavy winter clothes that are packed on top of my undergarments.

I grip my robe tight around my neck. “What are you doing?” My eyes are glued on the suitcase, tracking her hands as she pulls things out, bracing myself for what she'll find at the bottom—a nylon backpack slipped under the lining. Blue jeans that don't belong anywhere near the Detroit event. Several long-sleeved shirts and a down jacket no one has ever seen before.

But she only carries the cold-weather items back to the closet, returning with lighter things—dresses and slacks in linen, setting my bright pink cashmere sweater on the bed, a flash of color that seems out of place and much too thin for this cold February morning. She smiles at me over her shoulder as she repacks everything and says, “Mr. Corcoran would like to speak with you.”

He must have been lurking in the hall, because at the mention of his name, Bruce steps into the doorway and halts, clearly uncomfortable to find me just out of the shower. “Change of plans,” he says. “Mr. Cook is going to do the Detroit event himself. He wants you to go to Puerto Rico. There's an organization down there—a humanitarian group that's working on the hurricane relief effort—and he thinks it's a cause the foundation should take on.”

I feel as if my entire world has shifted on its axis, gravity yanking me hard toward the center of the earth. “What did you say?”

“Mr. Cook is going to Detroit. He and Danielle left early this morning,” he repeats. “He didn't want to wake you.”

Constance zips my bag closed again and slips past Bruce, disappearing into the hallway.

“Your flight leaves from JFK at eleven.”

“JFK?” I whisper, unable to keep up.

“Mr. Cook has taken the plane, so we had to book you on Vista Air. There's some kind of weather event brewing over the Caribbean, and it's the last flight out before they close everything down. We were lucky to get you on it.” He glances at his watch. “I'll wait out here while you get dressed. We'll need to get you to the airport by nine.”

He closes the door, and I sit down hard on the bed, my thoughts careening. All my plans, vanished in the few hours I slept. Everything I'd assembled, the forty thousand dollars, the fake ID from Nico, my letter, and all of Petra's help. Waiting in Detroit, where Rory will open the package and know.

* * *

Somehow, I manage to get dressed, and soon we're in the back of a hired town car, heading toward the airport. Bruce runs through the itinerary, his tone just a shade less respectful than when Rory's around, but I'm barely listening, trying to grab on to something that will somehow turn this around.

My phone buzzes with a text from Rory.

Sorry about the last-minute change of plans. We're about five minutes from the hotel. Call me when you get there and enjoy the warm weather. It's 35 degrees here.

So he doesn't know yet. Maybe there's still time to fix this. I grip my phone tight in my hand and urge the car to go faster, to get me to the airport where I can figure out what to do next.

“You'll be staying in San Juan,” Bruce says, reading off a document on his phone. “You're booked for two nights at the Caribe, but Danielle says it could be three, so she'll cancel the meeting you have on Friday.”

He looks up at me, so I nod, not trusting my voice to respond. Every inch of me is frantic to call Petra, to figure out how to fix this, but I'll have to wait until I'm at the airport, until the only people who might overhear my conversation are strangers.

* * *

They drop me at the curb, Bruce giving me final instructions. “Vista Air, Flight 477,” he tells me as I exit the car. “The boarding pass is on your phone, and someone will be on the other end to meet you. Call Danielle if you have any questions.”

I head toward the sliding glass doors that lead into the large departure terminal for Vista Airlines, aware of the car, still idling at the curb.
Keep walking
, I instruct myself.
Be normal.
I fall into the security line that winds through several rows of travelers, unlocking my phone and scrolling through my email, looking for the Detroit itinerary Danielle sent me the other day, and dial the hotel there.

“Excelsior Hotel,” the woman on the other end answers.

“Good morning,” I say, trying to keep my voice calm and warm. “I was scheduled to stay at your hotel this evening, but had a change of plans. Unfortunately, I was expecting a package to arrive for me this morning, and I'd love it if you could forward it.”

“Of course,” says the woman. “What's your name?”

Something loosens in my chest, and I take a deep breath. I can make this right. Have her send it to the Caribe and leave from there. “Claire Cook.”

“Oh, right, Mrs. Cook! Yes, the package was delivered this morning. I gave it to your husband not ten minutes ago,” she chirps, no doubt still thrilled by the encounter.

I grip my phone, my vision growing spotty, and I fight hard to stay upright. I picture Rory, arriving in a swirl of activity, making his way straight to the hotel room, where he'll catch up on emails, phone calls, and review his speech. At some point, he'll remember the FedEx package. It won't matter that it's addressed to me. I can see him opening it, peering inside at the tightly bound packets of cash. Reaching in and pulling out the plain envelope that holds my new driver's license, passport, credit cards, and other forged documents. His eyes scanning the name—
Amanda Burns
—then landing on the picture of me. And a letter, stamped and addressed to him in New York, explaining everything.

“Mrs. Cook?” The woman's voice jerks me back into the present. “Can I help you with anything else?”

“No,” I say, my voice no more than a whisper. “That will be all.” I disconnect, letting my mind sort through the other possibilities. I could go somewhere else. Simply walk up to the counter and purchase a ticket to Miami or Nashville. But that would leave an electronic trail. All the cash I'd planned on using to erase my tracks is in Detroit. With Rory.

I scroll through my contacts until I find it. Nina's Nail Salon on Park Avenue, with Petra's number linked to it.

She answers on the third ring.

“It's me. Claire.” Suddenly aware of the people around me, I lower my voice and explain what happened. “Rory changed the plans. He's sending me to Puerto Rico. And, Petra.” I can barely say the words. “He's in Detroit.” I'm desperately trying—and failing—to control my mounting hysteria.

“Oh my god,” Petra breathes.

“I called the hotel there. They already gave the package to Rory.” I swallow hard. “What am I going to do?”

The security line inches forward, and I move with it. On the phone, Petra's quiet as she thinks. “Get back outside and catch a cab here. You can stay with me until we figure something else out.”

I'm just a few people away from the front of the line, my options shrinking with every minute that passes. Once Rory discovers what I was planning, he will lock down all of our accounts until he has me home again. My thoughts fly back in time, to the last time I tried to leave. I imagine the two of us at home, the evidence of what I was about to do spread before me, and what will surely happen next. Perhaps he might even follow the instructions I gave him in my letter, releasing a statement announcing our split and requesting the world respect my privacy, flipping my own plan against me. It's possible I've written my own suicide note.

“It's too close,” I tell her. “Someone will see me and tell him.”

“I live at the fucking Dakota. No one comes up if I don't want them to.”

“So do at least three of Rory's friends,” I remind her. “He is going to pull my entire life apart and study it. My bank cards. Credit cards. And cell phone records, which will now lead him straight to you. To Nico. And me, if I try to hide there.” My gaze slides over the uniformed TSA agents directing people left and right toward X-ray machines. There are only three people ahead of me in line. “I think my chances of disappearing are better in Puerto Rico,” I say. “So much is still off the grid after the hurricane. People will be more receptive to cash and won't ask a lot of questions.” But what I don't say is how hard that will be with almost no money, on an island with limited exit points. I can't do it without some kind of help. I know I promised I wouldn't, but I have to ask. “Does Nico know anyone down there?”

Petra blows out hard, thinking. “I think so,” she finally says. “I don't know much. Nico keeps me pretty far removed from the guys he does business with. But they're not nice people, Claire. And once they have you, Nico might not be able to get you out right away. Are you sure you want to do that?”

A cold sliver of dread inserts itself beneath my ribs as I imagine a dark car. A nameless face. Perhaps a cold room full of women, bound and chained. Scattered mattresses, stained and lumpy, across a concrete floor. Then I think about what rage looks like when it slips across Rory's face, of what he will do to me once he gets me alone again. The level of humiliation and outrage he will feel about what almost happened. “Call him,” I say.

“Where are you staying?”

I give her the details, and I can hear her digging around in a drawer for a pen.

“Okay. Someone will contact you there. Be ready to go as soon as you hear from us.”

A tremor of fear passes through me as I wonder if Nico will be able to help me. And whether I want him to.

But Petra's still giving directions. “Find an ATM and take out as much cash as possible…just in case.”

I've reached the front of the line, and people are waiting for me to end my call and put everything onto the conveyor belt. “I have to go,” I tell her.

“Try to stay calm,” she says. “I'll be in touch as soon as I can.”

And then I end the call, doubt tumbling around inside of me, feeling as if I have just slipped into a nightmare—spinning, turning, three hundred sixty degrees of danger.

Eva

John F. Kennedy Airport, New York

Tuesday, February 22

The Day of the Crash

The desperation in the woman's voice was unmistakable.
It's me. Claire
. The way the words cracked when she said them, as if she were fighting back tears. Eva stood, riveted, as she listened to the hysterical unraveling of a woman in danger. A woman on the run. A woman like herself.

Eva glanced around at the travelers that surrounded them, pressing in on all sides as they wound their way through security. The family with several large suitcases that surely would have to be gate-checked. The couple behind her, whisper-arguing about not leaving for the airport on time. Eva looked to see if anyone else was paying attention. If anyone might remember the distressed woman on the phone and the quiet stranger in front of her, listening.

Claire.
Her name, a single syllable, seemed to echo in Eva's mind. Eva shuffled closer, pretending to be absorbed in her phone, the prepaid one she'd bought less than twenty-four hours earlier in a different airport, and took in the details of the woman. The expensive Birkin bag. Trendy sneakers paired with tailored slacks and a bright pink cashmere sweater draped elegantly over her narrow frame. Dark hair neatly brushing her shoulders.

“I think my chances of disappearing are better in Puerto Rico,” Claire said. Eva leaned closer, so as not to miss anything. “So much is still off the grid. People will be more receptive to cash and won't ask a lot of questions.”

Eva felt her pulse quicken at the phrase
off the grid
, because that's exactly what Eva needed. Puerto Rico was the answer, and Claire would be how she got there.

When they reached the front of the line, a TSA agent directed Eva to an X-ray machine on the left, while pointing Claire several rows over to the right. Eva tried to follow, but the TSA agent blocked her from hopping lines. She kept her eye on Claire, tracking the bright pink sweater as she passed through the X-ray machine, gathered her things on the other side, and disappeared into the crowd.

Eva fought the urge to push her way through. She hadn't waited all morning just to lose Claire now. But she was stuck behind an old man who needed several passes through the scanner. Each time the red light flashed, Eva felt pressure building inside of her, anxious to get to the other side.

Finally, the man removed a handful of change from his pocket, counting it carefully before dropping it into a tray, and successfully passed through.

Eva shoved her coat and shoes into a tray and tossed her bag onto the conveyor belt, holding her breath as she took her turn. On the other side, she scurried to put everything back together again and grabbed her phone and duffel bag, searching the concourse for the pink sweater. But Claire had vanished.

Eva felt the loss like a swift kick. Anything else she might try—buy another plane ticket, a bus ticket, a rental car—could be traced. It would lead the people tracking her straight to wherever she went.

Eva scanned the crowds, slowing down in front of every restaurant, looking into every corner of every newsstand. Up ahead was a bank of monitors. She'd find the departing flight to San Juan and locate Claire at her gate. She couldn't have gone far.

But as Eva passed a bar, she saw the pink sweater, sharp against the gray window behind her. Claire, seated alone, nursing a drink, her eyes scanning the crowded terminal, alert, the way an animal scans the horizon for predators.

Eva let her eyes slide past and kept walking. Claire wasn't going to open up to a stranger asking if she could help. Eva planned to come at this sideways. She wandered into a bookstore and grabbed a magazine, flipping through it until Claire had time to settle.

Across the way, she saw Claire lift the drink to her lips.

Eva replaced the magazine, exited the shop, and walked toward the large plate glass windows overlooking the tarmac before veering left and heading toward Claire. When she was close enough, she lifted her silent phone to her ear and infused her voice with a touch of panic and fear, making sure to let her duffel bump against Claire's stool as she sat.

“Why do they want to talk to me?” Eva asked, lowering herself next to Claire, who shifted sideways, irritation rolling off her in waves.

“But I only did what he asked me to,” Eva continued. “As soon as we learned it was terminal, we discussed it.” Eva covered her eyes with her hand and allowed the last six months to come crashing back. How much she'd risked. How much she'd lost. She needed all of that emotion now, to craft her story and pass it off as the truth. “He was my husband and I loved him,” she said, grabbing a napkin across the bar and pressing it against her eyes before Claire could notice there were no tears. “He was suffering, and I did what anyone would have done.” Eva paused, as if someone on the other end was talking, before finally saying, “Tell them I have nothing to say.” She yanked the phone away from her ear and stabbed at it, disconnecting her fake call and taking a deep, shuddering breath.

Eva signaled the bartender and said, “Vodka tonic.” Then, more to herself than to Claire, she said, “I knew this would catch up to me. I just had no idea how quickly.” She took a sip of the drink the bartender deposited in front of her, while next to her, Claire shifted on her stool, away from Eva, the rigid set of her shoulders enough to silence most people. But Eva pinched her eyes closed and worked her hysteria a notch higher, letting her breath grow ragged and uneven. She tried to grab another napkin from a stack just beyond her reach, bumping her shoulder into Claire again, forcing Claire to hand her one.

“Thanks,” Eva said. “I'm sorry I'm such a mess, bursting into your quiet corner. It's just…” She trailed off, as if gathering courage to say the words. “My husband recently passed away. Cancer.”

Claire hesitated, still not looking at Eva, before finally saying, “I'm sorry.”

“We were together eighteen years. Since high school.” Eva blew her nose and stared into her drink. “His name was David.” She took another sip, letting a piece of ice slip into her mouth and pressing it against the inside of her cheek, willing her heart rate to slow, for the story she was spinning to slow. Too fast and it would sound hollow and false. Lies needed to be doled out carefully. Planted and tended before the next one could be given. “He was wasting away to almost nothing, in excruciating pain. I couldn't watch it anymore.” She let the image of a dying man shimmer in Claire's imagination before continuing. “And so, I told the nurse to go home, that I'd take the night shift. I wasn't very smart about it, but it's impossible to think clearly when the man you spent your whole life loving is suffering.” Eva looked blankly across the terminal. “Now it seems they have questions. There might be consequences.”

What Eva needed was a compelling reason why she, too, might want to disappear and never go home. Something other than the truth.

She felt the shift in Claire's body language, a slight turning toward her, no more than an inch, but it was enough. “Who is ‘they'?” Claire asked.

Eva shrugged. “The coroner. The police.” She gestured toward her phone. “That was my husband's oncologist. He told me they're asking everyone to go downtown in a week to answer questions.” She looked out the windows toward the tarmac. “Nothing good ever happens downtown.”

“Are you from New York?”

Eva looked back at her and shook her head. “California.”
Pause. Breathe.
“He's only been gone twenty-one days, and every day I wake up and relive it. I thought a trip to New York would help. A change of scenery, the opposite of home.”

“Did it?”

“Yes. No.” She looked at Claire with a wry smile. “Can both be true?”

“I suppose.”

“I've already lost everything that mattered to me. My husband is gone. I quit my job to take care of him. It was just the two of us—neither of us had any family.” Eva took a deep breath and said the truest thing she'd said so far. “I'm alone in the world, and I don't want to go back. My flight leaves in an hour, and I don't want to be on it.”

Eva dug around in her purse and pulled out her boarding pass to Oakland, laying it on the bar in front of them. A prop. A temptation. A silent suggestion. “Maybe I'll go somewhere else. I have savings. I'll buy a new ticket to some place I've never been and start over.” Eva sat up straighter on her stool, as if the decision she'd just made had released something heavy inside of her. “Where do you think I should go?”

Claire's voice was quiet next to her. “It won't take them long to find you. You'd be traceable no matter where you went.”

Eva took a few moments to think about that before saying, “Do you think it's possible for someone to disappear? Vanish without a trace?”

Claire didn't answer. The two of them sat in silence, watching people make their way toward their gates or toward baggage claim. Hurried travelers, giving each other wide berth as they avoided eye contact with everyone around them, too absorbed in where they were headed to notice two women sitting side by side at the bar.

In the distance, a child's wail grew louder as a frustrated mother passed them, pulling her sobbing daughter behind her, saying, “I'm not letting you watch
Parent Trap
for the hundredth time when you haven't done your reading for Mrs. Hutchins.”

Eva watched Claire's eyes track them up the concourse until they were gone. Then she said, “Nice to know a new generation is still appreciating the work of Lindsay Lohan.” She took a sip of her drink. “What was that other one she made? Where the mother and daughter trade bodies and live a day as each other. Do you know it?”


Freaky Friday
. My sister loved that movie,” Claire said, staring down into her drink.

Eva counted to ten inside her head. She'd reached the very edge of where she needed this conversation to go. Then she said, “Who would you trade with? Who would you want to be?”

Claire's head turned slowly toward Eva and their eyes locked, but Claire didn't answer.


Freaky Friday
would sure help me right now,” Eva continued, her voice growing distant. “Slipping into someone else's skin, being able to inhabit a totally different life. I'd still be me, but no one would know it.”

Next to her, Claire lifted her glass to drink, and Eva noticed the slight tremor. “I'm supposed to go to Puerto Rico,” she said.

Eva felt the alcohol finally hit her bloodstream, warm and low in her belly, easing the knot that had been steadily growing for the past forty-eight hours. “Nice time of year for it.”

Claire shook her head. “I'd do anything to not be on that plane,” she said.

Eva let the words hang in the air, waiting to see if Claire would offer more details. Because what Eva had in mind was risky, and she needed to be sure Claire was desperate enough. She swirled the ice in her glass, vodka and tonic melting into a clear liquid, the lime crushed and wilted around the edges. “Sounds like we both need a
Freaky Friday
.”

Eva knew two things. First, Claire needed to believe this was her idea. And second, Eva didn't want to be a person who lied and deceived anymore. This was the last time.

Claire lifted Eva's boarding pass off the bar top and studied it. “What's Oakland like?” she asked.

Eva shrugged. “Nothing special,” she said. “I live in Berkeley, though. People there are kind of nuts. If you rode down Telegraph Avenue on a unicycle blowing a trumpet, no one would look twice at you. It's just that kind of place. Easy to blend in because everybody's a little weirder than you are.”

Just then, the bartender approached and said, “Can I get you ladies anything else?”

For the first time, Claire smiled. “I think we're good, thanks.” To Eva she said, “Follow me.”

* * *

They left the bar and walked shoulder to shoulder, forcing people to move around them, falling into a line of weary travelers in the women's room without saying more. Several stalls opened up, and Claire let people behind them go ahead, until the handicapped stall was available. She pulled Eva in after her and locked the door behind them.

Claire kept her voice low. “What you said back there, about whether I thought it was possible to disappear. I think there's a way to do it.”

Toilets flushed, water ran, flights were announced over the loudspeaker, as Claire dug around in her purse and fished out her phone, pulling up her e-ticket and handing it to Eva. “If we trade tickets, flight records will show each of us boarding our respective airplanes,” Claire said. “But in Puerto Rico, there will be no trace of me. And in Oakland, there will be no trace of you.”

Eva tried to look skeptical. It wouldn't work if she agreed too quickly. “Are you crazy? Why would you want to do something like that for me?”

“You'd be doing it for me,” Claire said. “I can't go home. And I'm a fool if I think I have the skills to disappear in Puerto Rico.”

Eva's eyes shot up to Claire's face. “What do you mean?”

Claire said, “You don't need to worry.”

Eva shook her head. “If I'm going to do this, the least you can do is tell me what I'm stepping into.”

Claire looked toward the stall door and said, “I had a plan to leave my husband. It fell apart, and he found out about it. I have to disappear before…”

“Before what? Is he dangerous?”

“Only to me.”

Eva studied the e-ticket on Claire's phone, as if she were thinking. “How can we trade tickets if we don't even look alike?”

“It won't matter. We're already through security. You'll have my phone, with my boarding pass. No one will question you.” She stared at Eva, her eyes bright and desperate. “Please,” she whispered. “This is my only chance.”

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