Read The Last Flight Online

Authors: Julie Clark

The Last Flight (22 page)

Claire

Sunday, February 27

Mrs. Cook, it's Danielle. I know you didn't get on that plane. You need to call me.

A deep, thumping fear passes through me as I set the phone down and back away from it, as if Danielle might be able to reach through it and grab me, pulling me back to New York, where Rory waits.

My mind swirls, cloudy with panic. How did she find me so fast? The video has been up for less than twenty-four hours. And then, a terrible realization. Could all of this have been a setup? How else would Danielle know how to reach me—on a burner phone belonging to a stranger all the way across the country? My breathing comes out sharp and rasping, and I fight the urge to vomit.

If Rory and Eva were connected… I try to grab on to the second half of that idea. Of how they might have met, how they could have hatched a plan to send me to Puerto Rico, swapping tickets at the last minute and leading me somewhere with no friends. No resources, isolated and alone. A perfect target. Because if something happened to me here, no one would know.

But I can't fit it together. The plane wasn't supposed to crash. And I never intended to end up at Eva's. I was going to call Petra. Slip into and out of Eva's life within a few hours. Rory couldn't have known I would end up here. He certainly couldn't have orchestrated it.

I let the silence of the house wash over me, willing myself to calm down and look at events as they really happened, not through the lens of an abused woman, paranoid and seeing threats where there are none. My mind works backward. Somewhere, somehow, there's a link. I pick up the phone again, tracing the edges with my fingers, staring at the black screen, my faint shadow reflected back at me.

Me.
Bruce told Rory he was looking into the number I'd called the day of the crash. I think back to the evening I unlocked Eva's phone and dialed Petra's number again, hoping somehow the call would connect. If they can access the records for Petra's number, it's possible they can also see who else tried to call her.

I'm the one who led Danielle here. If they know the number, what else do they know? Could they somehow use the phone to track me? I look toward the kitchen window, the back door, tempted to open it and toss the phone into the bushes.

“Think, Claire.” My voice sounds scratchy in the empty room. This isn't television or a bad movie. Rory has a lot of money, and Bruce has connections that might give him some information, but I don't think they'd have the capabilities to track the phone. To follow me the way law enforcement could.

I take a deep breath and let it out slowly. I do it again, and then once more, allowing the most important question to surface.

Why is Danielle calling and not Rory? It doesn't fit with how Rory likes to operate. And if they knew where I was, they wouldn't have called at all. Rory would have just shown up, slipping up next to me when I least expected it.
Hello, Claire.

With shaking fingers, I listen to the message again, Danielle's voice still sending a jolt of fear through me, even though I'm expecting it.
I know you didn't get on that plane. You need to call me.
This time, I notice her voice, low and urgent, as if she's delivering a warning, not a threat.

One thing is certain—I need to go. The oven clock reads just past ten. Late enough that I can ease out of town without anyone noticing, but early enough that I won't be the only one on the road. I leave my bags by the door and grab Eva's key ring, heading toward the garage. Time to see if Eva's car works.

* * *

The garage is locked with a padlock. I strain my eyes in the dark, flipping through the keys until I find the right one, and pop the lock open, praying the car will start. That it has gas. That it's in enough working order to get me out of here.

The door lifts easily on well-oiled springs, and I enter the even darker space, letting my eyes adjust, making out the edges of dusty shelves with paint cans, a cobwebbed ladder leaning against a wall. But no car. Just the shadow of tire marks to show where it should be, a large tray in the center, spattered with dried oil. I feel the loss like a blow, crushing what little hope I had. No matter which way I turn, opportunities and openings slam closed again, forcing me into a tighter and tighter corner.

I walk all the way to the back, my gaze scanning the bare walls, as if I might find a clue if I just look hard enough. When I turn around to face the darkened street beyond, my mind fights to rearrange my plans into a new configuration. One more night at Eva's. An early morning BART train to San Francisco. Precious money spent on a bus ticket north. Gone before the sun comes up.

I relock the garage and start to head back inside. But when I step around the tree and into view of the front porch, I pull up short, nearly dropping Eva's keys. Peering into the uncovered windows of the apartment next door is the man who bumped into me the other day. The one who seemed to be watching me through the window of the coffee shop.

I shrink back into the shadows, glancing over my shoulder and down the street, wondering if I should slip away. But I've left Eva's door unlocked, with my bag, computer, and purse sitting just inside.

I take a deep breath and approach. “Can I help you?”

He turns and gives me a warm smile, as if we're old friends. “Hello again.” The light coming from my living room window illuminates his face enough for me to see his eyes—a startling gray color that looks like a stormy ocean. “Can you tell me who I might call to inquire about renting this apartment?”

I take a few more steps onto the porch and put myself between him and Eva's unlocked front door and say, “Seems a little late to be apartment hunting.”

He opens his hands wide. “I was just passing by and I wondered about the empty unit.”

“I wouldn't know. I'm just staying here while my friend travels.”

“Ah. When will she return?” He holds perfectly still, his face a mask revealing nothing. But I feel a shift as he waits for my answer, as if whatever I tell him is of the utmost importance.

When will she return.

“She's out of the country,” I finally say, wanting to put as much space as possible between Eva and this man.

He nods as if this explains something, a smirk curling the corners of his mouth. He steps closer to me, reaching out to pluck something from my shoulder. “Spiderweb,” he says. But he maintains his proximity, and I feel the heat of him, the smell of cigarettes and cologne enveloping me, and I shrink back toward Eva's door, wondering suddenly if he might follow me inside.

He gestures toward Eva's front door and says, “I know this looks like a good neighborhood, but you really shouldn't leave that unlocked for any length of time, especially at this time of night. Berkeley isn't as safe as it seems.”

I feel as if he's punched me, my chest constricting into a tight ball that makes it hard to breathe. Without responding, I grab the knob and twist, slipping inside, locking the door behind me.

I hear him say, “Thank you for your help,” before descending the stairs again. I scour the room, searching for any hint that he's been inside.

But everything is as I left it. My bags, undisturbed by the wall, nothing amiss. I sniff the air, but there's no trace of his cologne. He couldn't have been inside. I was in the garage for less than five minutes. I press my fingers against my eyes, trying to hold myself together, trying to think rationally amidst the panic racing through me.

I enter the kitchen and nearly step in the puddle of Diet Coke, which has spread out from the tipped-over can, traveling all the way toward the shelves and under it. My eyes follow the path, catching on the cast wheels of the shelving unit. I bend farther down, being careful not to kneel in the brown liquid, and peer underneath, where the Coke has pooled up against the bottom edge of a doorframe.

I circle around to the end of the unit, pushing it forward until I'm looking at a door with a padlock looped through a steel hinge. “What the hell, Eva,” I mutter.

I grab her keys again and find the one that pops the lock, and when the door opens, I feel around on the wall for a light switch, turning it on. A fan below me begins to whir, and I creep down a small set of stairs that leads into a tiny basement that might have been a laundry room at one point.

But it's not a laundry room anymore. Counters and shelves line the walls, with a small sink and portable dishwasher in the corner. Ingredients are arranged on the shelves—large containers of calcium chloride, at least thirty bottles of various cold and cough medicines. A camping stove sits in the corner, several silicone pill molds upturned next to the sink, as if to dry. High above me in the wall is a boarded up window, the fan centered in it, spinning.

To the left of the stairs is a counter strewn with papers and a voice recorder next to them. I lean over, reluctant to touch anything, and begin reading what appears to be a notarized letter to someone named Agent Castro.

My name is Eva James and this is a sworn statement of events beginning twelve years ago all the way through the present, January 15 of this calendar year.
I read quickly, the pages turning faster, the story of a college student who just wanted to fit in. Who took the only option she believed was available at the time, latching on to a man named Dex, who promised her things he had no intention of ever giving her. A life. Happiness. Freedom. It's the story of a woman who was tired of the corner she'd been forced into, a woman ready to burn it all down on her way out.

Eva wasn't a con artist or an identity thief. She was a woman like me, for whom the world will never bend, trying to set her path straight.

I pick up the voice recorder and press Play. The sound of a sports arena fills the small space, chants and cheers, an announcer's voice, a marching band of some kind.

“Seems kind of dangerous to get rid of the guy who was Brittany's contact.” Eva's voice, just as I remember it. “Won't that draw the attention of the police again?”

A familiar voice, one I heard not ten minutes ago on the porch, warning me not to leave my front door unlocked, answers her. “They'll never find him. Fish has a warehouse in Oakland. Some kind of import/export bullshit. There's an incinerator in the basement.”

I stop the recording, unable to listen to any more. Like scenes flipping, faster and faster, images appear in my mind. The cash purchase of her home. Eva's desperation at the airport. The way she shoved her purse into my arms, without even looking through it to see if there was something she wanted to keep. The phone she had with her, and the black one she left behind. No wonder Eva didn't tell me the truth. This is why she couldn't return to Berkeley.

And why I need to get out of here. Now.

I leave the lab untouched, but I gather the paperwork and the voice recorder, pressing them close to my chest as I sprint up the stairs.

Eva

Berkeley, California

February

Two Days before the Crash

Eva was meeting Agent Castro at the Round House, a diner that sat at the entrance to the Golden Gate Bridge on the San Francisco side. She parked down by Crissy Field and walked up, checking over her shoulder several times as she made her way along the shaded paths of the Presidio. She'd taken the long way into the city, through San Rafael and Mill Valley, instead of crossing over on the Bay Bridge, hoping she wasn't followed.

A letter had arrived from Liz the day before. Eva touched the folded edges of it, like a talisman, pulling it from her pocket again to read.

Eva,

I'm so sorry we didn't get a chance to say goodbye. I had really hoped we could talk one more time before I left. I feel like I owe you an apology. I made some assumptions that I shouldn't have, so I'm going to spell it out for you, just so we're clear. There are no conditions on my friendship. I don't expect you to be anyone other than who you are. Whatever your past is, I accept it. Whoever you want to be, I will still love you.

When you share your problems with someone else, your load gets lighter. And so, I'm here, whenever you're willing to share what's troubling you. Just because I'm no longer next door doesn't mean I won't be there when you need me. Call me anytime.

And then she'd scribbled a phone number at the bottom. Eva tucked the note back into her pocket where she'd been carrying it since its arrival, wishing she'd met Liz all those years ago instead of Dex, wondering how different her life would have been if all she'd had to confess was one bad mistake in the chemistry lab. She could see how that might have been something Liz could forgive. Eva had been young and stupid. She certainly wasn't the first person to do something dumb for a guy.

But it was too late now. Liz was gone, and soon, Eva would be too. Maybe it was better this way.

* * *

She found Castro sitting in the back, near the kitchen, away from the giant windows that overlooked the bridge. “I ordered you a burger and fries,” he said by way of a greeting.

She dropped her bag on the seat and slid across from him. The red vinyl booths were filled with tourists taking selfies with their cell phones. In the parking lot outside, a tour bus unloaded and a crowd of people made their way toward the walking side of the bridge.

Nerves slipped through her, like long ribbons twirling and twisting into a tangle as she imagined leaving from there. Exiting the restaurant and climbing into an anonymous sedan and disappearing. Her fingers tapped the table, her leg jiggling beneath her. “Thanks,” she said. “But I'm not really interested in a meal and small talk, if that's okay with you.”

Agent Castro nodded. “My supervisor denied the request for witness protection,” he said.

Eva felt the air rush out of her, the sounds around them growing sharper. The clatter of plates and cutlery, the steady drone of conversations. All of her plans dissolved and vanished, as if they'd never existed. “Why?” she managed to ask. “You told me yourself you'd been after Fish for years.”

Agent Castro took a packet of sugar from the small cup at the edge of their table and traced the edges of it with his fingers, unable to meet her eyes. “I happen to agree with you. But like I said, witness protection is expensive, and we don't do it very often.”

“When
do
you do it, then?”

He looked up at her, and she saw genuine regret in his eyes. “We use it mostly for big targets. Organized crime. Major networks. I know Fish feels like a big target to you. And he certainly is for me. I've been close to him more times than I care to admit. And every time, he slips away. My contact goes dark, and I'm back at square one.”

“All the more reason to make this happen,” she said, working hard to keep her voice low. To not let the desperation she felt break through.

“I can offer you twenty-four-hour protection at an undisclosed location. All the way through the trial. I promise you'll be safe. If you have an attorney, now would be the time to call them.”

Eva sat with his words. Let them assemble into a picture. Her, alone in a hotel room, two guards at the door. An armed escort to and from the trial that would surely result in a not-guilty verdict. Or a mistrial. And then what? She'd be free to go back home? To unlock her front door and do what? Wherever she went, Fish's people would find her. Dex would probably do the job himself. After a betrayal like this one, he wouldn't rest until he'd found her.

When she was a child, the girls in the group home would go to Sister Bernadette for advice with a problem—a friendship gone bad, an unfair teacher, a foster home that hadn't worked out. Eva never had, but she'd listened all the same, sliding herself along the edges of their conversations, absorbing whatever wisdom Sister Bernadette had to offer. She would often tell them
The only way out is through
, that no matter the situation, one step would lead to the next, and the next one after that. And so Eva leaned into this new development. Wrapped her mind around it and got to work thinking through to the other side. She found it ironic that both Sister Bernadette and Dex offered her such similar advice.
Play through.

“Then I guess we move forward and hope for the best,” she said. “What do you need?”

Castro tucked the sugar back into its cup as the server brought their food, the smell of the burger and fries turning her stomach sour. “Ideally, we'd like to put a wire on you and have you meet with Fish.”

“That's impossible,” she said. “I've never met him. It would be a huge red flag if I asked to now.”

Castro's eyes narrowed. “This whole deal goes away if you start lying to me.” Gone was the apologetic tone, the regret he felt at not being able to do more for her.

“I'm not lying to you,” she said. “That's not how things work. I've been trying to find out more—how the drugs are moved, about Fish himself. But I don't know much more than my small corner of it.”

Castro sat back in his seat, both hands flat on the table. Finally, he said, “We have proof, Eva. Photographs of the two of you together.”

Eva shook her head, confused. “That's not possible,” she said. “I swear I've never met him.”

Castro reached into his coat for his phone and flipped through photos until he found what he was looking for. Then he held it up so she could see the screen.

It had been taken at Haas, the night she was supposed to meet Jeremy. She recognized the people around them, the sad accountant in his frayed sweatshirt at the end of the row. And there, in the middle of the frame, were Eva and Dex, their heads bent toward each other, deep in conversation. The quality was incredible—the shot must have been taken with a high-powered lens.

She shook her head again, unable to process what she was seeing. “That's not Fish, that's Dex.”

Castro pulled the phone back and stared at her, squinting as if he didn't quite believe her. “I don't know who Dex is. But that man is Felix Argyros. Fish.”

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