Read The Last Flight Online

Authors: Julie Clark

The Last Flight (25 page)

Claire

Monday, February 28

While I wait for a reply from Kate Lane, I flip through the notes I took from Eva's lab, sinking again into the story of a chemistry prodigy, an outcast, and a drug dealer. When I'm done, I stare at the curtained window, the sound of distant traffic just beyond the door, and picture her out there, moving silently through crowds of students, shoulders hunched, hands shoved into the pockets of her green coat, head tucked into her chest. Invisible. Her solitary life always holding her apart. Never safe, never known.

And I know why she decided to do what she did.

I drink the rest of my cold coffee and eat the last cinnamon bun, wishing I could check the Doc. I imagine Rory, packing a bag and assembling a small team. Coordinating with Bruce. A short trip to California for personal business, Danielle quiet and watchful, taking notes. Waiting for another opening to tell me what she knows.

Just then, my email pings with a response from Kate Lane's production assistant.

Ms. Lane is definitely interested in this story. We will need to verify your claim before moving forward. Please send a number where we can reach you so we can confirm you are who you say you are.

I toggle over to the settings on Eva's phone, find her number, then type it directly into my email reply. Ten minutes later, the cell phone rings and I leap for it. “Hello?”

“Mrs. Cook, it's Kate Lane.”

The sound of my own name sounds odd to my ear, making me feel exposed. “Thank you for talking with me,” I say.

“Well, you tell an interesting story. But I first need you to explain how it is you aren't dead, when the NTSB says you got on that plane.”

The years of silence pile up in me, the secrets I've guarded for so long, the belief that no one would want to know the truth. I start slowly, describing Rory's abuse and how desperate I was to leave him, how my plans to disappear in Detroit fell apart, and how Rory had discovered them. “And then I met a woman at JFK. Her name was Eva James, and she agreed to trade flights with me,” I say. “When I landed, I found out the Puerto Rico flight had crashed. I've been stuck here, with no money and no way to disappear, so I took a job with a catering company.” I tell her about the
TMZ
video and how Rory was now on his way to California because of it.

“So Eva James died in the crash instead?”

I close my eyes, knowing I need to be careful. The best way I can protect Eva is to let the people who are after her believe she's dead. “She did.”

“Jesus,” Kate breathes out. Then she seems to regroup. “I guess we'd better move on to Maggie Moretti.”

“I have a recording of my husband and his assistant, Bruce Corcoran. In it, they're discussing a woman named Charlotte Price, who has direct knowledge of my husband's involvement in Maggie Moretti's death.”

There's a pause as Kate Lane absorbs this information. “When was this recording made?”

“I'm not sure,” I admit. “In the last few days. My assistant made it and sent it to me sometime last night. She's willing to verify its legitimacy.”

Kate seems to think about this. “Before we do anything, I'll need to listen to it. Can you text it to my producer?” She rattles off a number, and I send it off.

Soon, I hear it playing across the phone line. The knocking, Danielle's voice, then Rory and Bruce's. When it's done, Kate lets out a sigh, her voice gentle. “Mrs. Cook, I'm sorry. But I don't think we can put that on the air.”

“What do you mean?” This was my last shot. I'd laid everything on the table—revealed where I was and what I'd done—and the outcome is still the same. “He all but admits he was responsible.”

“It's not enough,” Kate says. “His assistant outlines the accusation, and while your husband doesn't deny it, it's not an admission.”

“He's on his way to California,” I tell her. “He knows what I've done. This is the only thing that might stop him.”

“I want to help you,” she says. “What you've told me is huge in its own right. An abused wife, a man about to run for Senate, two women meeting in an airport and switching tickets. Let me put you on the air to tell that story.”

I swipe a hand across my eyes and say, “And like all the other women who have come out against powerful men, I'll be the one ostracized, while he sails on to Congress.”

“Your concern is valid,” she says. “But this might buy you time. While you tell your story, others can be working on the link between your husband and Maggie Moretti. Have your assistant send the recording to the New York district attorney. We'll look for Charlotte Price and see if she wants to go on the record. If there's anything there, we'll find it.” I hear her shuffling more papers in the background, and the sound of someone's muffled voice. “Let's get you over to our San Francisco studio while we work the phones on this end. Tell me where you are, and I'll have a car sent over.”

I tell her the name of the motel, feeling unsettled and agitated. Coming forward to talk about what Rory did to me was exactly what I wanted to avoid.

“I'll be in touch if anything comes up,” Kate says. “The car should be there in about an hour. Be ready.”

“I will. Thank you.”

I begin packing my things, shoving them into my bag haphazardly. By this time tomorrow, I'll be Claire Cook again, shouldering all the baggage that comes along with it, facing the circus my accusations will create. I think about Eva, out there somewhere, and hope that at least this might set her free.

A knock on the door startles me, and I worry that Rory might have bumped his trip up, slipped out of New York without Danielle knowing, and somehow located me here. That by the time the CNN car arrives, there will be nothing but an empty room.

I peek through the curtains and see a man, his arms folded across his chest, revealing a brief glimpse of a gun holster under his coat.

I call through the door. “Can I help you?”

He smiles and flashes a badge. “My name is Agent Castro,” he says. “And I'd like to talk to you about Eva James.”

Eva

New Jersey

February

One Day before the Crash

The plane bumped down at two o'clock in Newark, after flying all night and an interminable layover in Chicago. After taxiing to the gate, Eva hurried up the Jetway, stopping only to buy a new prepaid phone at a kiosk, tossing the packaging in the trash, and dialing the number Liz had written at the bottom of her letter. “It's Eva,” she said, relieved to find Liz at home. “I'm actually in New Jersey. Is it possible I can stop by?”

“You're here? How? Why?” Liz's surprised voice floated through the line.

“It's a long story,” Eva said, passing through baggage claim and out into the frigid February air. “Can I tell you in person?”

* * *

Just a little over fifty miles from Manhattan, Liz's New Jersey street looked like it belonged in the Midwest, with small, well-cared-for houses, a mix of brick and painted stucco. When Liz opened her door, she pulled Eva into a tight hug. “This is such a surprise,” she said. “Come in.”

She followed Liz through the house to a large room off the kitchen that overlooked a snowy backyard. An afternoon talk show was on the TV in the corner, and Liz switched it off, gesturing for Eva to sit on the couch. Liz perched next to her and said, “I've missed you. Tell me everything.”

Eva froze. The whole flight, she'd rehearsed in the dark while people slept around her. Tried to find the right place to begin unraveling it all. But now that she was looking into Liz's questioning eyes, waiting for Eva to say something, she couldn't make her mouth work at all.

Her gaze traveled around the room, to the bookshelves crammed with books, a messy desk covered in papers, and a couple half-emptied packing boxes in the corner.

She took a deep breath and gave Liz a wobbly smile. “I don't know where to start,” she told her.

Liz took Eva's hands, warm and dry against Eva's sweaty ones, and she felt a little calmer, Liz's energy passing through her, making her heart rate slow. “Just pick a place and begin.”

“I'm in trouble,” Eva said, her voice low and tentative. And then she began. She told Liz about Wade. How he made her feel special. Eva looked into her lap and shrugged. “It was the first time anyone had made me feel that way. Interesting. Attractive. Like a normal person living a normal life.”

She described the meeting in the dean's office, how no one showed up for her, and how she'd felt she had to accept their terms. “They had all the power. All the leverage. I was just a kid. It was easy for them to kick me out and pretend none of it happened.”

“Didn't the university appoint an advocate for you?”

Eva had never even considered such a thing. She shook her head, and Liz looked disgusted. “You could have appealed. There are procedures that should have been followed.” But then Liz seemed to catch herself, because she said, “You couldn't have known, and that doesn't help you now. Go on.”

Eva thought about what came next, a decision so significant, her entire life cleaved in two. She let out a slow breath, dragging out the moment, knowing she'd have to step forward and tell the rest, but not wanting to. Terrified Liz wouldn't understand. That what she'd said in her letter, about accepting Eva as she was, wouldn't apply to what she was about to confess.

Eva was tempted to end the story there. Tell Liz she was on her way to Europe, had a layover, and wanted to stop by and say hi. But she knew Liz wouldn't buy it. And eventually, Castro would show up at Liz's door and tell her the truth. Eva needed to be the one to tell Liz. To make sure Liz understood why she'd done what she did. She prayed some of Liz's forgiveness would come her way.

“That guy you saw me arguing with is named Dex. Or at least, that's the name I know him by. Apparently, he has others.” Eva told her about Dex's offer, about how she had no money. Nowhere to go, and how it seemed like a lifeline at the time.

As she spoke, Liz's eyes grew wider, her expression more and more shocked. Eva knew what Liz expected to hear. Typical problems such as a lost job. An unwanted pregnancy. Maybe stolen money or property. But Eva could tell Liz didn't expect this. She couldn't bear the weight of Liz's eyes, and she leaned forward, resting her head in her hands, covering her face, elbows on her knees.

Next to her, she felt Liz rise from the couch and move away from her. Eva held her breath, waiting for the sound of Liz opening her front door, a quiet voice asking Eva to leave. Or the sound of her picking up the phone to call the police. But instead she heard Liz move into the kitchen and open the refrigerator, the sound of ice, and she returned with a bottle of vodka and two glasses. She poured generously and took a drink. “Continue,” she said.

Eva sipped her vodka and told her the rest. Brittany. Agent Castro. The evidence she'd assembled, Castro's news that she didn't qualify for witness protection. And finally, that Dex was Fish. “I'm sure he knows by now that something is up. I was supposed to meet him yesterday, but I never showed.”

“You have to cooperate,” Liz said when Eva had finished telling her everything. “It's the only thing you
can
do.” She finished her vodka and poured another glass, topping off Eva's as well. “My God, Eva.”

“I can't.”

“You have to,” Liz insisted. “This is how you get your life back.”

Eva tried not to lose her temper. “It doesn't work like it does on TV. Even if Dex goes to jail, I'm still at risk. No matter where I go, his people will find me. I tried to make Agent Castro understand this, but he said his hands were tied.” Eva began to cry, great hiccupping sobs, and Liz wrapped her arms around her, holding her tight.

“You have to stop running,” she said into the top of Eva's head. “Stop covering up lies with more lies.”

“It's not that simple,” Eva said, pulling back and wiping her eyes. “Castro thinks I can testify and then somehow go back to my regular life. As if Dex would ever let me get that far. The only thing I can do is leave. Disappear and let Castro figure it out without me.”

She waited for Liz to argue with her, to threaten to turn her in. But Liz just said, “Okay. Let's follow this line of thinking. Where will you go?”

Eva shrugged. “I'll stay in New York for a while. Find a way to get a fake passport. I have money.”

Liz nodded. “A fake passport. And then you'll leave the country?”

Eva knew what Liz was doing. She'd had a professor at Berkeley use this kind of Socratic method to help students reason out an argument. But she went along with it. “Yes.”

Liz rolled her glass between her hands, the ice settling toward the bottom. “You'll be someone new. Someone without a past. What will you do with your time? Will you work? Buy some property? Rent? How will you explain yourself to others?”

“I'll figure it out. Make something up.”

“And constantly be afraid, looking over your shoulder, waiting for someone to discover the truth.” Liz's quiet voice landed hard in Eva's ears. “You need to make a deal, and you need to do it now.” Liz set her glass down and put her finger under Eva's chin, forcing Eva to look at her. “What happened to you was shitty and unfair. But you have to go back and own your part of it. Either Dex is going to jail for a long time, or you are. Who's it going to be?”

“And what if Dex's people get to me first? He has to know by now.” Panic began to swirl around inside of Eva, and she started to cry again.

Liz handed her a tissue and said, “You have to fly back before Castro knows you've left. Call him the minute you land, and wait for him at the airport. Do not leave until he comes in to get you. Understand?”

“Why can't I just disappear?” Eva whispered. “Pretend I've never been here?”

Liz's eyes softened. “You know they'll come here eventually and ask me questions. I can't lie for you.”

Maybe this was why Eva came. To be forced to do the right thing. To be held accountable by someone who loved her enough to not let her make any more mistakes. For Liz to be the mother she'd never had.

Relief melted through her, to be able to set everything down and let someone else—someone who cared about her—tell her what to do. “Okay,” she said.

They sat together, with only the faint ticking of a clock somewhere deep inside the house, the silence between them heavy with all that Eva still wanted to say.

All her life, she'd craved connection. Family. Friendship. Then Liz came along and gave it to her, without asking for anything in return. Eva wanted to ask
Why me?
But she wouldn't, because there could never be enough words to fill the hole Eva had inside of her, the deepest part of the heart, where the most precious love and the truest friendships are stored.

She knew that walking out the door tomorrow would require an act of courage Eva wasn't sure she possessed. To turn her back and leave this life, with all its sharp edges and hard knots, and trust that there would be something on the other side for her.

“Do you remember the day we met?” Liz's voice was the same low tenor Eva remembered from their first meeting, and it passed through her like warm honey. “I was crumpled in a heap on the ground, and you walked over and lifted me up.” Eva started to speak, but Liz silenced her with an upheld hand. “Do not ever forget who you are and what you mean to me. In a world crowded with noise and selfishness, you are a brilliant flash of kindness.” Liz turned Eva so she was facing her and held her by the shoulders. “No matter where you go, no matter what happens, know I will be out here, loving you.”

Eva let her tears fall, the last of her walls crumbling beneath Liz's words. Every regret, every disappointment, every heartache that Eva had ever endured seeped out of her, a slow leak of sadness, until she was empty.

* * *

After she'd booked her flight back to Oakland, they sat together on the couch, Eva trying to soak up every last moment with Liz, knowing it would never be enough. From the front of the house came the sound of a key in the lock, then the door opening and closing. “Mom?” a voice called. “Are you home?”

“Back here, honey.”

A young woman came through the kitchen, tossing her keys on the counter and dropping her heavy bag on the floor. She stopped suddenly when she saw Eva and Liz on the couch. “Sorry,” she said. “I didn't know you had company.”

“Eva, this is my daughter, Ellie.”

Ellie rolled her eyes and stepped forward to shake Eva's hand. “I go by Danielle now. It's nice to finally meet you.”

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