Read The Last Flight Online

Authors: Julie Clark

The Last Flight (12 page)

Every now and then, she ran into her clients in the real world, and it always caused them to stumble in some way. Jeremy was no different. When he saw her, his face paled, his eyes darting for the nearest exit. His mother studied her menu while his father scrolled through his phone. Eva smiled, hoping to put him at ease. “Hi there. Let me tell you about the specials.” She launched into her recitation, all the while Jeremy refusing to look at her. She understood his panic. It had taken her years to figure out that people couldn't see through her act, that they wouldn't know what she was doing when she met someone in the park or on the corner by the grocery store. The world was filled with people who carried secrets. No one was who they seemed to be.

Jeremy cornered her by the bathrooms before dessert. “What are you doing here?” he hissed.

“I work here.”

He looked over her shoulder toward the dining room.

She followed his glance and said, “Look, Jeremy. You can relax. Take some advice: people will believe whatever you want them to, as long as you don't hesitate. You don't know me, and I don't know you.” She walked away, leaving him standing between the men's room and the emergency exit.

When her shift was over, she walked by Agent Castro's car in the lot, letting her gaze meet his for a split second before sliding away. Whatever game he was playing, she could play it too.


Wednesday, February 23

I stare at the frozen image on the computer screen until my eyes begin to water, until I see nothing more than an accumulation of pixels—shades of pink, dark shadows, platinum-blond hair where a face should be.

It was Rory's Aunt Mary who had given me that pink cashmere sweater for Christmas one year. “Something to keep you warm while living in the stone-cold center of the Cook family.” She'd laughed, loud and wet, jiggling the ice in her nearly empty glass, as if to loosen whatever gin might remain on the bottom.

I'd held the sweater, soft and luxurious, on my lap, waiting for someone to jump in, to explain away Aunt Mary's words. But they'd just rolled past it, Rory giving me a tiny wink, as if I was now in on the family secret.

Later that same Christmas, Aunt Mary sidled up to me, drunk, and said, “The whole world loves Rory Cook.” The oldest sister of Rory's father, Mary was unmarried and considered a family liability. Her voice lowered, the smell of gin heavy on her breath. “But you be careful not to cross him, or you'll go the way of poor Maggie Moretti.”

“That was an accident,” I said, my eyes glued on Rory, across the room from us, joking around with some younger cousins. I was still trying to believe I'd gotten the life I always wanted, with three generations of the Cook family gathered to celebrate the holidays. I wanted to embrace their traditions. The caroling at the children's hospital, the candlelight church service followed by a midnight supper, the family life I'd always craved as a girl, such a vibrant contrast to the quiet holidays of my childhood.

But my instincts pinged, forcing me to stay and listen to what she had to say, because my idea of Rory had begun to shift, the shine of his attention had begun to chafe. I was beginning to see the price I'd paid, missing the simple things I used to take for granted. The freedom to pick my own friends. To grab my car keys and go somewhere on a whim without having to clear it with at least two assistants and a driver first.

Aunt Mary cackled. “Oh, so you're in the
poor Rory
camp, alongside the rest of the world.” She took a sip of her drink and said, “Let me tell you something. It's a poorly kept family secret that my brother paid off everyone involved. Why would he do that if there was nothing to hide?” She gave me a sly smile, and I could see her pink lipstick oozing into the crevices around her mouth. “The Cook men are dolls, as long as you do what they want. But step out of line and watch your back.”

Across the room, Rory threw his head back and laughed at something one of the cousins said. Aunt Mary followed my gaze and shook her head. “You remind me a little bit of Maggie—a nice girl from a simple background. Like you, Maggie seemed to have integrity, which is something this family is sorely lacking. But she and Rory fought like dogs, about every little thing.” She looked at me, her smirk somewhat blurred by alcohol. “She couldn't control him. I'm guessing you can't either.”

“Why are you telling me this?” I asked.

Aunt Mary's watery eyes held mine, the years etched into the deep lines around them. “This family is like a Venus flytrap—shiny on the surface, but dangerous underneath. And once you know their secrets, they will never let you leave.”

She was drunk. Bitter. A resentful old woman spreading poison. And yet, what she said haunted me through the years as Rory grew silent. Then angry. And eventually violent. I wanted to believe the version Rory meticulously fed to the world, but he beat that desire out of me, one bruise and broken bone at a time.

Aunt Mary died a few years later, the last of that generation of Cooks to pass. But her words trailed after me every time I wore that sweater, a whisper—or a warning—that Maggie Moretti's fate might also be mine.

* * *

Somewhere outside, a dog barks, pulling my attention back to the room and to my computer. I drag the cursor backward to replay the video from the beginning, staring so hard at that blurred figure in pink, my eyes begin to burn. No matter how I try, I can't see anything else. Just some blond hair—long or short, I can't tell. Just a flash of pink—there and then gone—and I try to remind myself that plenty of people wear pink sweaters, in all kinds of weather, and that Eva was scanned onto the flight. You can't fake that.

* * *

“One drip coffee, room for cream please,” I tell the barista early Thursday morning. I keep my eyes averted, and I still wear my NYU cap, too nervous to show my entire face. Will it always be like this, terrified to look anyone in the eye and smile?

I tossed and turned all night, my mind replaying the flash of pink at the news conference, but no matter how many ways I imagined an alternative for Eva, I kept coming up against the fact that my ticket was scanned onto the flight. It's unlikely she had enough time to talk someone else into switching with her, and the flight crew would have noticed when they did the headcount if she'd gotten off the plane before takeoff. I woke this morning convinced it was just a coincidence, that it was only guilt, wishing it had turned out different for Eva.

I pay for my coffee and settle into a soft leather armchair with a clear view of the door and the street outside.

Last night, wanting to try calling Petra again, I'd Googled how to reset the password on a prepaid phone and was able to unlock Eva's. As I expected, it didn't reveal much. No photographs, no emails. She used an app called Whispr, and the texts that arrived my first night were gone, vanished into the ether. If any others had been received since then, they were gone as well.

Once I was in, I dialed Petra's number again, imagining the relief I'd feel to hear her voice. To see her standing on Eva's front porch, hired car idling at the curb, ready to lift me out of this nightmare and deposit me somewhere safe. A fancy hotel in San Francisco where we'd order room service and wait for Nico's guy to make a new set of documents for me.

But the call ended again with the three tones. No longer in service. I tried a few variations, transposing numbers, swapping different ones in. I reached a deli, an older woman who spoke only Spanish, and a preschool before I gave up. Nico's words floated back to me:
You can never go back. Not once. Not in any way, ever.

I look out the coffee shop window and watch Berkeley come to life. A small trickle of people enter, order, and leave again, the morning rush aligned with a college town's later start. By six thirty, it's empty again, my coffee nearly gone.

The barista comes out from behind the counter and begins wiping down the table next to me. “You from out of town?” she asks.

I freeze, unsure how to answer, afraid that I've somehow been recognized. But she keeps talking a steady stream, giving me time to catch up. “I know just about everyone who comes in here—if not by name, then by face. But you're new.”

“I'm just passing through,” I say, gathering my things and preparing to leave.

She gives the table one last swipe and looks at me. “No need to go,” she says. “Take your time.” Then she moves behind the counter and starts a fresh batch of coffee. I lean back in my chair and watch the light at the intersection blink from red to green and back again.

Around seven thirty, the shop grows crowded and I leave. The girl behind the counter gives me a wave and a smile as I exit, and I return it, feeling a tiny tendril of pleasure wrap around me.

* * *

I decide to push myself out into the world and go for a walk, knowing I can't hide forever. So instead of heading back to Eva's, I turn west on Hearst Avenue and trace the northernmost perimeter of campus, marveling at the giant redwood trees that stand, thick among the buildings and grassy expanses. When I hit the western edge of campus, I turn south, and circle back east again, this time on the south side. This is the Berkeley you see on television and read about in books. A drum circle has positioned themselves outside the student union, and people swarm past them, on their way to class or their offices, heads down in the brisk morning air. As I make my way up the hill toward the old stone stadium, I turn and look west, a sharp wind cutting through my thin sleeves. I shiver, staring at the white expanse of San Francisco, the gray water contrasting with the deep greens and golds of the hills to the north, the Golden Gate Bridge a dusty-orange silhouette. Somewhere out there is the convent where Eva grew up. An entire childhood lived and lost among the buildings that seem to shimmer in the distance.

As I cut across campus, I imagine what it would be like to be a student here, one of the many people hurrying to class, and try to picture Eva among them. I slow down as I approach a bridge that traverses a small stream and lean against the railing, looking down into the swirling water making its way downhill toward the ocean. Above me, the breeze whispers through the tall trees, a quiet rush that makes my thoughts slow. I can't imagine ever wanting to leave a place like this.

I push off the railing and continue my walk back to Eva's, past the coffee shop, where the barista is still working the morning shift, and past several other closed businesses—a used bookstore, a hair salon—until I'm back in Eva's neighborhood again. My breath comes faster as I make my way up the winding hill, past apartment buildings and small houses and duplexes similar to Eva's. I peer into them as I pass—a woman sitting at her dining room table, feeding a baby in a high chair. A messy-haired college student, eyes puffy and barely awake, staring out his kitchen window.

As I round the corner onto Eva's street, I collide with a man walking toward me. He grabs my arm to keep me from falling. “Sorry,” he says. “Are you okay?”

He has dark hair, with a few flecks of early gray, but he doesn't look much older than me. Sunglasses cover his eyes, and he wears a long coat, with a flash of color under it. Dark pants, dark shoes.

“I'm fine,” I say, and I look beyond him, up Eva's street, wondering where he came from, whether he's a neighbor of Eva's.

“Beautiful morning for a coffee and a walk,” he says.

I give him a tight smile and step around him, feeling his gaze press against my back until the street curves and I'm out from under it.

It isn't until I've closed and locked the door behind me that it registers. How would he know I'd just been for a coffee and a walk? I feel a heavy thump of apprehension pass through me, a low tremor that leaves me even more unsettled and on edge.

* * *

Back in front of my computer, I check Rory's email and see a new one from the NTSB that he forwarded to Danielle. A request for a DNA sample and my dental records. His directions are short and to the point:
Handle this.

I look toward the window, bright morning light flooding through it. If they're recovering bodies, it's only a matter of time before they figure out I'm not there. And that someone who isn't supposed to be is.

I toggle over to the Doc in time to catch the tail end of a conversation between Rory and Bruce, and I have to scroll up to find the beginning. But it's not about the body recovery like I expected. It's about an email that arrived late last night from someone named Charlie.

I can practically hear Rory's sharp tone, the clipped words of his directions.

Rory Cook:

This was dealt with years ago, with cash. You need to remind Charlie what coming forward will cost.

The only Charlie I can think of is Charlie Flanagan, a senior accountant with the foundation who retired two years ago. I read the rest of their conversation, noticing Rory's words agitating upward, Bruce's becoming placating and conciliatory. But it's Rory's final comment that puzzles me the most, because buried inside his usual bullying tone is a flash of vulnerability.

Rory Cook:

I cannot afford for this to come out now. I don't care how you deal with it. Or how much it'll cost me. Just fix it.

I do a search of Rory's inbox for any emails from Charlie. There are many, but not the one Rory and Bruce are discussing, and nothing recent. And as far as I can tell, every one of Charlie's emails have at least two other foundation personnel cc'd on them.

I plug in the thumb drive and search there, but all that comes up is the standard nondisclosure agreement all employees sign. So I organize the folder containing the thousands of documents I copied from his computer alphabetically, focusing on the C's and F's. The only thing that would have Rory scrambling like this is if Charlie knows about some kind of financial misstep or fabrication that might derail Rory's run for office. Information showing that the golden child of Marjorie Cook isn't so golden after all. It's why I copied the hard drive in the first place. Like a bear in the woods, you don't have to see one to know it's there.

But most of what I'm reading is unrelated. Memos about new tax laws. Quarterly reports. Occasionally, my name crops up in strategy notes.
Claire might be better here
, one says, in reference to an opening of a downtown art gallery. I click through documents, one by one, but it's all junk, useless noise, like looking through someone's garbage.

After an hour, I give up. Whatever Charlie knows that has Rory spooked, I'm not going to find the answers so easily. For now, I have to be satisfied with watching. Waiting for them to say more.

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