Read The Last Flight Online

Authors: Julie Clark

The Last Flight (27 page)


Monday, February 28

I press my back into the seat, my gaze leaping from Danielle's text to the driver's right hand, resting casually on the steering wheel.
A tattoo sleeve on his right arm.

My mind flies back to the motel lot, and I realize he hadn't said anything about CNN. He'd said
Claire Cook,
and like an idiot, I got in the car.

Vehicles press in on us, all the way to the edge of the bridge. Steel cables rise into the sky above a small strip of sidewalk, and then a two-hundred-foot drop to the cold water below.

Castro's advice, to get to the studio as soon as possible, taunts me now. This man will take me somewhere else—a deserted beach perhaps, or north to somewhere even more remote, and finish this.

A green Jetta slides up next to us, with a woman behind the wheel, her lips moving in silent conversation with someone I can't see. I'm no more than three feet away from her, so close I can see her pink nail polish and the delicate silver hoops in her ears. I fight back tears, trying to think. If I screamed, would she hear me?

Our car moves several feet forward before stopping again, and now I'm looking at a white panel van with no windows. My eyes trace the tiny openings between the cars, an ever-shifting maze as vehicles inch forward. I'm going to have to jump out and run.

The lane next to us begins to move, and again I'm looking at the woman in the green Jetta. She throws her head back and laughs, unaware that I'm watching her from behind tinted glass.

About thirty yards ahead, a dark tunnel looms with signs for Treasure Island. The driver's eyes find mine again in the rearview mirror. “Traffic will clear up once we get through the tunnel,” he says.

If I'm going to get out, a dark tunnel might be a good place to do it.

I rest my arm on the windowsill, my palms sweaty and slick against the door, and carefully lift the lock, watching him in the mirror, making sure his eyes remain on the road.

I'm only going to get one chance.

Jazz music swirls around the back seat, the rhythm fast and erratic, matching my pulse, and I hug my purse close, making sure it's secure over my shoulder. I have one hand resting on the latch of my seat belt and my other hand lowering to the door handle, ready to yank it open and leap out. If I scream for help, surely someone will step up.

I regulate my breathing, counting down the feet until the car is plunged into the darkness of the tunnel.

Twenty feet.



The driver looks at me again in the mirror. “You okay?” he asks. “You look a little pale. I have some water up here if you need it. The CNN studio is just a few blocks once we get off the bridge. Not much farther now.”

I feel the air rush out of me and collapse against the seat, clasping my shaking hands in my lap.
CNN. Not Rory.
Dizzy relief floods through me, and I squeeze my eyes shut, trying not to fall apart.

This is the price of abuse. It has twisted my thinking into such a tangle I can't tell what's real and what's not. Logically, I can see how impossible it would have been for them to find me so easily. And yet, years of being under Rory's influence has made it so that I've given him nearly superhuman power. To see where I'm hiding, to know my every thought and fear, and to then exploit them.

Finally, the car picks up speed, and we enter the tunnel. The darkness is a brief blink, and then we're out the other side. As if by magic, the entire city rises up before us, bright white buildings shining in the early afternoon sun.

“Mrs. Cook?” he asks again, holding up a small bottle of water.

“I'm okay,” I tell him, as much for myself as for him.

* * *

Breaking news: We interrupt our regularly scheduled program to bring you Kate Lane, live from Washington, DC, with a story that is just emerging from California. Kate?

The voices talk in my ear, though I sit alone on a stool placed in front of a green screen. Several producers and assistants are clustered around the single camera, zoomed in on me, but the red light indicating that I'm on-air remains dark. Next to it, a television screen shows Kate Lane in her DC studio, the feed piped directly into my earpiece. My head is still fuzzy from the adrenaline, but the freezing temperature of the studio clears it a little. On the far wall of the studio is a large digital clock with a bright-blue background that reads 1:22, and I watch the seconds tick down, trying to align my heart rate with them.

Shortly after I'd arrived at the CNN studio, weak and shaking, a producer had handed me an iPad with Kate Lane calling via video chat. They'd been able to talk with Danielle, who had agreed to send the recording to the New York State Attorney General. Kate's sources inside the department told her they should have some news about next steps very soon. Charlotte Price had also been located and was willing to go on the record as soon as her attorney could file to void the NDA she'd signed so long ago.

“So now it's up to you to tell your story,” Kate had said. “Paint a picture of your marriage for us. Tell us what your husband was like, and what you were running from.” Her expression softened. “I have to prepare you for what will likely happen once you come forward. People are going to dig into your life. Your past. Say hateful things about you and to you, in a very public way. It won't matter whose side people are on—yours or your husband's—your life will be put under a microscope regardless. Every choice you ever made. Every person you ever talked to. Your family. Your friends. I have an obligation to make sure you're clear, before we proceed.”

Hearing Kate spell out exactly what I'd feared for so many years made me hesitate, and I considered stepping back. Letting Danielle and Charlie's evidence do all the work. No one needed to hear the details of my abuse in order to lay Maggie Moretti's death at Rory's feet.

And yet, I knew that if I didn't, I'd be destined to live and relive moments like the one on the bridge. I would never be truly free if I scurried away to hide under another rock. I'd be complicit in Rory's abuse as long as I continued to protect him. The world didn't need to hear my story, but I needed to tell it. “I understand,” I told her.

“Live in five seconds,” someone says.

“Good evening.” Kate's voice fills my earpiece, as if she's sitting right next to me. “In the last hour, attorneys for Rory Cook, head of the Cook Family Foundation and son of the late Senator Marjorie Cook, have been fielding requests for questioning related to the death of Maggie Moretti, who died twenty-seven years ago on a Cook family property. But even more extraordinary is the fact that authorities received this information via Mr. Cook's wife, previously believed to have perished on Flight 477. CNN has discovered that she is alive and living in California. We have her here now, via satellite, to discuss the accusations against her husband and why she felt she had to hide. Mrs. Cook, so good to see you.”

The light on the camera in front of me illuminates, and the director points at me. I fight the urge to reach up and touch my hair, aware of how different I look. “Thank you, Kate. It's good to be here.” My voice sounds lonely in the empty space, and I try to stay focused on the television monitor that shows a background of the San Francisco skyline behind me.

“Mrs. Cook, tell us what happened and how you came to be here today.”

Now that I'm here, I can see that it was always going to come to this. For too long, I believed my voice alone wouldn't be enough. That nobody would want to hear the truth and step in to help. But when I needed it most, three women showed up. First Eva, then Danielle, and finally, Charlie. If we don't tell our own stories, we'll never take control of the narrative.

I square my shoulders and look directly into the camera, feeling the terror of the last hour, the stress of the past week, and the fear of the past ten years slipping off me, now nothing more than the faint whisper of a shadow.

“As you know, my husband comes from a very powerful family, with unlimited resources. But what you don't know is that our marriage was a difficult one. For the cameras, he was charming and dynamic, but behind closed doors, he became violent, triggered without warning. The world saw us as a happy and committed team, but beneath the veneer, I was in crisis. Guarding my secrets. Trying to do better, to be better. Desperate to live up to the impossible standards my husband set for me, terrified when I couldn't.

“Like many women in this situation, I was stuck in a cycle of abuse for years. Afraid to anger him, afraid to speak up, afraid that if I did, no one would believe me. Living like that breaks a person down, one tiny piece at a time, until you can't see the truth in anything or anyone. He'd isolated me from anyone I might have gone to for help. I'd tried before to leave him. To tell the truth of my marriage. But powerful men make powerful enemies, and no one wanted Rory Cook as an enemy. The only way out that I could see, that didn't involve public scandal or a prolonged court battle, was to simply disappear.”

“But a plane crash?”

“That was a tragic coincidence. I wasn't supposed to be on that plane to Puerto Rico. I planned to disappear in Canada. A last-minute scheduling change derailed everything. But then I met a woman at the airport willing to trade tickets with me.” I think about the people still looking for Eva and deliver my line. “Unfortunately, she perished instead of me, and I will forever be grateful to her, for giving me the chance to escape.”

“Tell us what you were escaping from.”

I imagine Rory somewhere, called to the television to watch the resurrection of his dead wife, rage pounding through him as he stands, helpless, while I snatch his precious reputation and tear it to shreds. “Almost from the beginning,” I say, “he would berate me for laughing too loud, for eating too much, or too little. For missing his calls. For spending too long talking to one person at an event, or not enough time talking to another. If I was lucky, that's all it would be. Yelling and insults, followed by days of silence and icy glares. But about two years into the marriage, the yelling progressed to shoving. And shortly after that, to hitting.”

A photograph fills the screen behind me, an image of Rory and me walking on the beach in the Hamptons. It had first appeared in
magazine, then quickly became one of several stock images news outlets used when reporting on Rory's private life. “This picture was taken last summer. You can only see what's in the frame—a couple walking on the beach, holding hands. What you can't see is everything beneath it. How angry my husband was with me, how tightly he gripped my hand, so hard my ring cut the inside of the finger next to it. My long sleeves hide bruises from the night before, after I'd forgotten the first name of an old friend of Rory's. You can't see the lump on the back of my head from where it slammed into the wall, or the pounding headache I had. You can't see how lost I felt. How alone.”

I look down at my hands, the fear and desperation I felt in that one captured moment cascading over me once again. And how much I didn't want to do this, to have to recount every blow, every indignity, as a way to justify myself.

Kate's voice is quiet in my ear. “Why come forward now? You'd gotten away. You were set up in California. You were free.”

“I was never free. First of all, I had no identity, and no way of getting one. I had no money. No job. I was able to get temporary work with a catering company, which led to my image being posted on
, forcing me to come forward.”

I look into the camera, keeping my gaze steady, and imagine I'm speaking directly to Eva. For a short time, we inhabited the same skin. The same life. I know things about her no one else will know, and that binds you to a person, a gossamer-thin thread crossing time and space. Wherever I am, she will be too. And wherever she is…I hope it's far from here.

“But I also felt that I needed to honor the woman who died in my stead,” I say. “There are people out there who loved her. Who might want to know what happened to her. They deserve to have closure as well.” I pause for a moment, thinking about the scrap of paper I found at Eva's, still shoved in my pocket. “I'm ready to step beyond the fear,” I tell Kate. “I want my life back.
. The one that belongs to me. My husband has stolen a lot from me. He's stolen my confidence. He's stolen my self-worth. And I don't think he deserves to steal any more. From anyone.”

Across the studio, the digital clock flips from 1:59 to 2:00.

Zero hours left.

I'm free.


New York City

One Month after the Crash

I've never been in the townhouse on Fifth Avenue when it was this empty. There was always someone here, cooking or cleaning, scheduling appointments, standing guard outside Rory's office. But in the wake of my CNN interview and the subsequent grand jury investigation into Rory's involvement in Maggie's death, everyone has been dismissed. The rooms are silent, and I feel like a ghost, walking the same route I used to take in my middle-of-the-night wanderings. Perhaps I am one, returning to haunt the life I left behind, and finding everything changed.

At first the story was slow to take shape, while Rory's attorneys battled to uphold the nondisclosure agreement. But once he lost, a crash of information flooded the media, with something new released almost every day—the fight Rory and Maggie had the night she died, how it had ended with her unconscious at the bottom of the stairs and Rory scrambling to save himself from what he believed he'd done. How Rory had driven straight to Charlie's apartment, only a few blocks away from his on the West Side. At the time, she'd tried to help him. She believed the story he'd told, a deer in the road on his way back to the city, the car on the verge of going into a ditch, a close call that had him severely rattled. Until news of Maggie's death started to emerge. Charlie, who was young and in love with Rory, and had once hoped Rory would leave Maggie for her, began to grow alarmed. When she started asking questions, Rory's father paid her to keep quiet and then slammed her with a nondisclosure agreement so steep it guaranteed she'd stay that way.

For years, she'd tried to leave it behind her, until the rumors of Rory's run for Senate surfaced. Charlie was no longer a scared twenty-year-old. Like many, she'd grown tired of watching powerful men never being held accountable,
boys will be boys
evolving into an impenetrable armor, shielding them from blame.

The media had a field day. Revisiting the summer Maggie Moretti died, reprinting old articles with updated information, interviewing her friends again, this time adding in Charlie and her relationship with Rory, which overlapped the one he had with Maggie by several months. Everyone wanting to know more about the love triangle, to look into every corner and see something new. To be the outlet that got the newest morsel to dish out via Twitter.

I've tried to stay out of the spotlight, but Kate Lane was right. My first week back, I'd made the cover of
, my face turned in three-quarter profile, my hair returned to its original shade, and the headline “Resurrected.”

While most people were sympathetic, having harbored doubts about Rory's involvement in Maggie's death for years, there were others who attacked me viciously, questioning my character, calling me a gold digger, a vindictive wife bent on destroying all the Cook family had built. Blaming me for the fact that the Cook Family Foundation was now under investigation by the New York Attorney General for allegations of misuse of charitable assets and improper self-dealing.

Through the LLC documents, my attorneys have been able to shield me from legal jeopardy, and I'm free to leave the state. New York isn't home anymore. I can't wait to get back to California and away from this circus.

I enter my office, where stacks of boxes line the walls. Armed with a very specific list and a limited window of time fiercely negotiated by my attorneys, I'm here to get what belongs to me. My clothes. My jewelry. My personal items. My gaze falls on the photograph of my mother and Violet on the wall, and this time I lift it off its hook and place it with the other things I'm taking with me. I let my eyes linger on my sister's smile, the way the dimple creases her left cheek, the way the sun shines through her hair as it blows in the wind, making it look like spun gold. The memories feel sweet when they come, instead of the sharp ache I've been running from for so many years.

I pick up a small statue, six inches tall, an original Rodin that Rory bought last year, and think of how much money I could get if I sold it. But it's not on my list. Aside from my own things, all our joint assets are locked down, though really there's very little I want or need in my new life in Berkeley.

Kelly had helped me find an apartment. I'd called her a few days after my CNN interview, after I'd met with my attorneys and begun the long process of unraveling everything I'd done.

By that time, I was leading the news on every network and cable news show. “Holy shit, Eva,” she'd said, and then caught herself. “Sorry. I guess I should call you Claire.”

I smiled and sat down on the bed in the hotel room my attorneys were paying for, exhausted from hours of depositions. We were only going to be there for a few more days, and then I'd have to return to New York to finish up. I imagined her on campus somewhere, her backpack heavy with books, pausing on one of the shady paths that crisscrossed campus to take my call. “I'm sorry I misled you.”

“No, I'm sorry the job I got you started this mess.”

“It would have happened eventually, one way or another. The life I was trying to live would have been unsustainable.” I cleared my throat. “Listen, you mentioned you could help me find a place to live? After all of this is finished, I'd really like to stay in Berkeley.”

“Let me make a few phone calls and get back to you,” she said.

The apartment was located on a narrow street that wound up the hill behind the football stadium, the top floor of a narrow wooden structure nestled in between the towering trees of Strawberry Canyon. The landlady, Mrs. Crespi, was a friend of Kelly's mother and was more than happy to rent it to me. She warned us that parking could be troublesome on game days and that the sound of the cannon they fired after touchdowns could be startling at first. It had about forty wooden stairs, and when we reached the top, Mrs. Crespi opened the door and stepped aside so I could enter first. Not even eight hundred square feet, it was like a tree house. Kelly huffed next to me and said, “You might want to think about grocery delivery. I can't imagine carrying anything heavier than a purse all the way up here.”

“I have three tenants, professional women like yourself,” Mrs. Crespi said. “I charge fifteen hundred dollars a month, but that includes all utilities. If you decide to take it, I'll need first and last for security deposit. And the furniture can stay since it's difficult to move things in and out of here. I can have it professionally cleaned if you like.”

My attorneys had negotiated a monthly stipend, although it wasn't much. I'd have to sell all my jewelry and find a job, but I was looking forward to the chance to be on my own. To earn my own way. “That should work,” I said, stepping into the living room and kitchen space.

Even though I knew it was going to be small, the fact that nearly the entire west side of the room was glass made the apartment seem bigger. A sage-green couch faced the window, with a small TV mounted on a stand next to the front door. Behind us, a tiny kitchen with a patch of counter space for food prep, a stove, and a refrigerator took up the back of the room. Beyond that was a short hallway leading toward a bathroom and tiny bedroom.

I walked to the window. A blanket of green treetops swooped down the hill, with the university buildings tucked in between them, glowing like half-buried treasures in the late afternoon light. Beyond that, San Francisco Bay shimmered, the sun casting the city skyline and bridge in the distance as a silhouette. “I love it,” I said, turning to face Kelly and Mrs. Crespi.

A smile illuminated Mrs. Crespi's wrinkled face. “I'm so glad.” She opened the file she was holding and handed me a lease agreement. “You can move in whenever you're ready.”

I took the paperwork from her and grinned. “I'm ready now,” I said, and turned back to the view again.

* * *

“Do you want me to pack up everything in the bathroom, or do you want to go through the drawers yourself?” Petra stands in the doorway to my office, and I turn from the box I've been sorting through to face her. When I'd returned to New York, she had been the one to pick me up from the airport. She'd waited until we were safely in the back of the town car she'd hired before falling apart.

“This feels like a dream,” she said through her tears. “When I saw that the plane had crashed…” She trailed off and pressed her fingers to her eyes, taking a deep breath. “And then you show up on CNN and eviscerate that motherfucker.”

It turned out, I hadn't copied her phone number down wrong. “I had it disconnected,” Petra had explained when I'd asked why it didn't work. “After I talked to you at the airport, I worried Rory might do some kind of reverse directory assistance and figure out who it belonged to. So I got a new one. But then the news…” She'd shrugged, unable to continue, tears tumbling down her cheeks again.

I close the lid on one box and slide another one toward me. “Pack it all,” I tell her now. “The lotions and makeup are expensive. It'd be stupid to throw them away.”

“I still think you should stay here,” Petra says. “This is your home and you're entitled to it. Maybe not all the contents.” She glances at the Rodin statue. “But you should fight for what's yours.”

“I don't want it,” I say, turning back to the box and sealing it closed. “I don't need all this space.”

“It's not about the space,” Petra argues. “It's about what belongs to you.”

“Then we'll sell it and I'll get half.”

“I want you to stay in New York.”

I walk toward her and give her a hug. “I know,” I say, pulling back. “But you know why I can't. I need to start over somewhere new. You should come to California. The light, the air…they're different there. You'd love it.”

Petra looks skeptical. “I'd better finish that bathroom. We're almost out of time.”

She leaves and I open the last box, sorting through it quickly, discarding most of it. The money from my jewelry will allow me time to explore my options in California. Maybe I'll keep working events with Kelly. Or I'll go back to school. I imagine myself taking the BART into San Francisco, perhaps working at the museum there, going out to dinner with the friends I hope to finally make.

After I'd finished the CNN interview, Agent Castro had taken me back to Eva's house to walk him through my time there. I wasn't sure what more I could tell him that he didn't already know. They'd submitted Eva's DNA to the NTSB and were waiting to see if it matched any of the remains they'd recovered so far.

“It's possible we'll never know,” he says. “They tell me there are any number of reasons why she might not have been in your seat. Maybe she traded with someone, or perhaps the impact of the crash caused her to get thrown from the wreckage and carried away with the current. If that's the case, we may never recover her body.” He shrugged and looked out the window, as if the answer to what happened to Eva might be out there somewhere, visible only to him.

“What about the drug dealer?”

“Dex,” Agent Castro said. “Also known as Felix Argyros, or Fish. We have a lead on him up in Sacramento.”

An agent passed through the living room, carrying Eva's camping stove bagged in a clear plastic evidence bag. “She must have been so desperate, to have chosen a life like this.”

“I think Eva would argue that this life chose her.” Agent Castro sighed. “She was a hard person to know. I'm not really sure I ever had a good handle on her. But even though she ran, she still tried to do the right thing. What she left behind will be critical in indicting Fish.”

“She sounds complicated,” I said.

“She was. But I liked her. I wish I could have done more for her.”

I didn't say what I was thinking, that Eva didn't need anyone. She'd done just fine on her own.

* * *

I pick up a pile of clothes and carry it into the living room, setting it alongside the rest of the things I'll be taking with me. I check the time. We only have about thirty more minutes. I hear Petra closing drawers in the bathroom upstairs, muttering something to herself, and I smile.

My work mostly done, I walk down the hallway that leads to Rory's office and peek inside. It's been completely cleared out. His desk, Bruce's, even the books on the shelves are gone, all of it confiscated by the attorney general. I cross over to the empty bookshelves, reaching up and engaging the button, and the drawer below opens. As I suspected, it's empty.

I hear someone unlocking the front door, and I straighten up, feeling guilty because I'm not supposed to be in here. But it's only Danielle. She stops in the doorway when she sees me. “Looking for ghosts?” she asks.

I smile. “Something like that.”

Danielle had been waiting for me when I first returned to the townhouse. She'd led me into the kitchen and made me a cup of tea. When we'd settled across from each other at the center island, I finally asked the question that had been nagging at me since her first message. “How did you know where to find me?”

She gave a small, sad smile. “Eva was a friend of my mom's.” She took a tentative sip of her tea and told me a story of an unlikely friendship between two women—one who'd believed she didn't deserve to be loved, and the other who'd tried so hard to love her anyways. “Although I only met her briefly, there was something furtive about her. She had an edge that felt dangerous.” Danielle set her cup down on the island and traced a swirl of marble with her finger. “But my mother was devoted to her. Swore that Eva was a good person who needed to know someone believed in her.” Danielle shrugged.

“But that still doesn't explain how you knew to call me on her phone.”

“She was at my mother's house in New Jersey the night before the Detroit trip. She must have eavesdropped on a conversation I had with my mom, because afterward, I caught her Googling photos of you. I was worried she'd try to target you somehow.” Danielle shook her head, as though the thought embarrassed her.

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