Read The Last Flight Online

Authors: Julie Clark

The Last Flight (9 page)

* * *

We'd met at an off Broadway play two years after I'd graduated from college. He sat in the seat next to mine and struck up a conversation before the curtain rose. I'd recognized him immediately, but nothing prepared me for how charismatic and funny he was in person. Thirteen years my senior and well over six feet, Rory had light brown hair streaked with gold, and blue eyes that seemed to pierce straight through me. And when I was under his gaze, the whole world faded away.

At intermission, he bought me a drink and told me about an art program the Cook Family Foundation was bringing to inner-city schools. These are the things that made him three-dimensional and more than just a face I recognized from the pages of magazines. His passion for education. The fire he had to make the world a better place. At the end of the show, he asked for my number.

I'd kept my distance at first. Older men like Rory—with their money, privilege, and connections—were not my speed. I didn't have the cultural knowledge or the wardrobe. But he'd been subtly persistent, calling to ask my advice when the foundation hit a wall with an organization they wanted for their arts education initiative, or inviting me to a show at one of their project schools. I was lured in by his vision of philanthropy, of how he wanted to use his family's money to better the lives of others.

All of that impressed me, but I fell in love with Rory's vulnerability, the way he'd strived and failed to hold his mother's attention. “As a young boy, it was hard not to resent her long absences, the months she spent in DC,” he'd told me once. “The constant campaigning—for herself, or for others—and the causes that would consume her. But now I can see why it was so important. The impact she had on people's lives. I still get stopped in the street by people wanting to tell me how much they loved her. How something she did years ago still affects them now.”

But that kind of legacy always has a price. Whether he liked it or not, Rory was defined by his mother. When you Googled Rory Cook, she always popped up too. Images of her with a young Rory, on vacation or the campaign trail. Rory at age thirteen, scowling in the background at one of his mother's political rallies, all elbows and pimples and one eye squinted shut.

And hundreds of images of Rory doing the bidding of the Cook Family Foundation, his mother's dying gift to the world. People loved Rory because of who he almost was. And he'd spent his entire adult life trying to step out from behind her long shadow.

* * *

I click off the CNN home page and toggle over to take a look at Rory's inbox, careful not to open anything that isn't already read. He has at least fifty folders on the left-hand side, one for each of the organizations the foundation contributes to
Buried in that long list is one labeled
. I click on it and scan the condolence emails. Hundreds of them, page after page, from family friends, Senate colleagues of his mother's. People who have worked with the foundation, quick to offer their sympathy.
Let us know if there's anything you need

I open an email Bruce sent to Danielle several hours after the initial reports emerged about the crash, but before I'd been publicly named as one of the victims. He'd cc'd Rory. The subject line reads

I'm already drafting the statement and should have it ready well before any scheduled press conferences. Danielle, please handle the staff in New York. They are not to speak to anyone. Remind them that they all have active non-disclosure agreements.

Another folder,
Google Alerts
, is filled with mostly unread notifications. Every time Rory's name appears online, he gets an email about it. Danielle also gets them in her inbox, because it's her job to sort through them and brief Rory on anything important he might have missed. My mind leaps back to last week, Danielle and I on our way home from a Friends of the Library event, me staring out the window at the slushy streets of Manhattan while Danielle flipped through that day's alerts. “A fluff piece in
,” she said, almost to herself. “Trash.” I turned to see her deleting the alerts, one after the other, only opening the ones from major media outlets. She caught my eye and said, “We're going to need to hire an intern for this once the campaign starts. Hundreds a day are going to turn into thousands.”

Now I scan the long list of unread notifications in the wake of the crash and smirk. Too bad, Danielle.

I click over to the Doc. Blank. At the top it now reads
Last edit made by Bruce Corcoran 36 hours ago

I take a sip of Diet Coke, the carbonation tickling my nose. No one would ever imagine I wasn't on that plane.

The sun is fully up now, and I study the room. The hardwood floor is covered with a deep red area rug, which contrasts beautifully with walls painted a warm shade of yellow that reminds me of the color of my mother's living room, and in this moment, I feel protected, like a hibernating bear. While the world races on without me, I'm tucked up here, invisible, waiting until it's safe to emerge again.

I ease open the top drawer of Eva's desk, curious. I'm living in her house. Wearing her clothes. I'm going to have to use her name—at least for a little while. It would help to know who she was.

I start tentatively at first, as if I'm afraid if I move things around too much, someone will know I was here. Most of what I find is generic—faded receipts I can't read. A few dried-out pens, a couple pads of paper from local real estate agents. As I begin to grow more comfortable, I reach my hand to the back, sliding the jumble of pushpins, paper clips, and a tiny blue flashlight to the front, trying to peer beneath the mess to the person who threw these items into the drawer, believing she'd have time to sort them out.

* * *

Two hours later, I sit on the floor of the office, papers strewn around me. I've emptied the desk and gone through everything in it. Bank statements. Paid utility and cable bills. All of them in Eva's name. I'd found a box in the closet containing files with more important documents. Her car registration. Her social security card. But I'm struck by what's missing. No marriage license. No insurance paperwork you'd expect after a long illness and a death. What had been nagging me about Eva's house yesterday returns, this time in sharp focus. There aren't any personal touches. No photographs or sentimental pieces anywhere. There is absolutely no evidence that anyone other than Eva lived here. For someone who couldn't bear to face all the belongings of a deceased and beloved husband, there are zero reminders of him to have left behind.

I work hard to find explanations for what's missing. Maybe her husband had bad credit and all the bills had to be in her name. Maybe everything related to him is boxed up in the garage, too painful to even have inside the house. But these feel flimsy, half-color fabrications that are simply not true.

I pull out the last file in the box and open it. It's escrow paperwork for an all-cash purchase of this side of the duplex, dated two years ago. At the top, her name only.
Eva Marie James
. And underneath it, the box next to
is checked.

I can still hear her voice in my mind, the way she spoke of her husband. High school sweethearts. Together for eighteen years. The emotion in her voice when she described her decision to help him die, the way it broke, the tears in her eyes.

She lied. She fucking
. About all of it.


Berkeley, California


Six Months before the Crash

Ten minutes before her scheduled meeting with Brittany, Eva parked her car in a lot at the outer edge of Tilden Park, rather than driving into the interior. She preferred to walk in and out, arrive and leave silently. Tucking the package into her coat pocket, she turned toward a path that would take her to a tiny clearing where she used to come and study, a lifetime ago.

The full trees cast a dappled shade on the path, yet a cool wind kicked up from the bay, despite it being the last month of summer. Even though the sky above was clear, Eva caught glimpses of San Francisco Bay in the distance, of the marine layer gathering over the Pacific, and knew in a few hours that would change. She shoved her hands deep into the pockets of her favorite coat—army green with several zippered pockets—and felt the outline of the pills through their wrapping paper.

The trees that surrounded Eva were old friends. She recognized them individually, the shape of their trunks and the reach of their branches. She tried to place herself back in time, coming here after classes were over, spreading her books across the picnic table or on the grass if the weather was warm. Sometimes Eva caught flashes of that girl, like images from a passing train. Glimpses into a different life, with a regular job and friends, and she'd feel unsettled for days.

When she arrived at the clearing, she was relieved to see she was alone. The scarred wooden picnic table still stood beneath a giant oak tree, a concrete trash can chained to it. She wandered over to the table and sat on it, checking the time again, the familiar location drawing her mind back in time.

* * *

Fish ran the drug underworld in Berkeley and Oakland, and Dex worked for him. “Most drug dealers get picked up quickly,” Dex had warned her at the very beginning. He'd taken her to lunch at a waterfront restaurant in Sausalito, so he could explain what she'd be doing. Across the bay, San Francisco had been swathed in a deep fog, only the tops of the tallest buildings visible. She'd thought of St. Joseph's and the nuns who'd raised her, buried under the fog and the assumption that Eva was still enrolled in school, still on track to graduate with full honors in chemistry, instead of where she was—three days post expulsion, sleeping in Dex's spare bedroom and getting a crash course on drug selling and distribution. Eva tore her eyes away and focused back on Dex.

“What you make has a very specific market,” Dex continued. “You will only sell to people referred to you by me. This is how you'll stay safe.”

“I'm confused,” Eva had said. “Am I making or selling?”

Dex folded his hands on top of the table. They'd finished eating, and the server had tucked the check next to Dex's water glass and then disappeared. “Historically, Fish has struggled to keep good chemists for long. They always think they can do better on their own and then things get complicated. So we're going to try something different with you,” he'd said. “You will produce three hundred pills a week. As compensation for this work, you will keep half and Fish will let you sell them yourself, keeping one hundred percent of those profits.”

“Who will I sell them to?” she'd asked, suddenly uncomfortable, imagining herself face-to-face with strung-out addicts. People who might grow violent. People like her mother.

Dex smiled. “You will provide an important service to a very specific clientele—students, professors, and athletes. Five pills should sell for about two hundred dollars,” Dex had told her. “You can clear $300,000 per year, easy.” He smiled at her stunned expression. “This only works if you follow the rules,” he'd warned. “If we hear you're branching out, or selling to addicts, you put everything and everyone at risk. Understand?”

She'd nodded and cast an anxious glance toward the entrance. “What about Fish? I thought he'd be here today.”

Dex laughed and shook his head. “God, you're green. I forget you don't know how any of this works. If you do your job well, you'll never meet Fish.” She must have looked confused, because he clarified. “Fish keeps things compartmentalized. It's how he protects himself. If any one person knew too much, they'd become a target—of either a competitor or the police. I'll be your handler, and I'll make sure you stay safe.” Dex dropped several twenty-dollar bills onto the table and stood. Their meal was over. “If you do as I tell you, you'll have a nice life. It's safe as long as you follow the rules.”

“Don't you worry about getting caught?”

“Despite what you might see on TV, the police only know the ones they catch, and they only catch the dumb ones. But Fish isn't dumb. He's not in this for power. He's a businessman who thinks about long-term gains. And that means growing slowly, being selective about his clients as well as the people who work for him.”

She'd been eager to get started. It had sounded so simple. And the system worked. The only hard part was being on campus among her peers, having to live alongside the life she'd just lost. Walking past her dorm where the same people still lived. The chemistry building where her classes went on without her. The stadium where Wade continued to shine, and one year later, the graduation ceremony that should have been hers. It was as if she'd stepped through some kind of barrier, where she could watch her old life still unfold, unseen. But as the years passed, the students grew younger and soon campus was populated by all new people. The loss had faded, as all losses did, replaced by something harder. Stronger. She could see now what she couldn't see then. All choices had consequences. It was what you did with those consequences that mattered.

* * *

Eva's gaze tracked down the small service road that wound its way through the hundreds of acres that comprised Tilden Park. Something about this meeting felt off, and her instincts, finely tuned after so many years, were pinging. She'd give Brittany ten more minutes and then leave. Return to her car and drive home, closing the door and forgetting about this woman. Eva worked hard to stay sharp. To not grow complacent and careless. Despite how mundane the work could sometimes feel—the endless hours in the lab, the quick handoffs with Dex or a client—this job was dangerous.

Early on—it must have been some time in her first year—Dex had woken her, just before dawn, a quiet knocking on her door. “Come with me,” he'd said, and she'd pulled her coat from the hook, following him across the deserted campus, the pathways still lit by lamps.

They'd walked west without talking, past the track stadium, restaurants and bars closed and shuttered at that predawn hour. She'd seen the flashing emergency lights from a block away. Police, ambulance, yellow crime-scene tape cordoning off the sidewalk outside a cheap motor court motel, forcing them to cross the street.

Dex had put his arm around her and pulled her close, as if they were a couple making their way home after a late night out. They'd slowed as they drew near, and Eva could make out a body, a puddle of blood seeping out from under it, a shoeless foot, the white sock practically glowing.

“Why are we here? Do you know that guy?”

“Yeah,” he'd said, his voice rough. “Danny. He supplied Fish with harder stuff. Coke. Heroin.”

Dex pulled her along, and they rounded the corner, the flashing red and blue lights still staining the backs of her eyelids. “What happened to him?”

“I don't know,” Dex had told her. “Like you, I only see what I'm allowed to see. But if I had to guess, he was either double-dealing—working for one of Fish's competitors—or he fucked up somehow, got snagged by police.” He paused. “That's the thing about Fish. He's not going to spend a lot of time asking questions. He's just going to fix the problem.”

Eva couldn't erase the image from her mind, the twisted form of the body, the sheer volume of blood, more than she'd ever imagined, a black-red shade that only appeared in nightmares.

Dex had dropped his arm from around her, and cold morning air chilled the place where it had rested. “Fish is a strong ally, but a ruthless enemy. He will not hesitate to eliminate anyone who betrays him. Maybe it was a mistake to have brought you here, but I needed you to see for yourself what will happen if you cross him.”

Eva had swallowed hard. Up until that point, she'd fooled herself into believing this job had been no different from any other—mostly routine, maybe a little dangerous in some abstract way. But Dex had insulated her from the worst of it. Until that morning.

“Full transparency,” Dex had warned, as they walked back up her street, the night sky finally shifting to a pale gray. He deposited her on the porch and disappeared, making her wonder if she'd dreamt it all.

* * *

Eva was just about to hop off the picnic table and head back to her car when a Mercedes SUV pulled up at the curb, a polished woman behind the wheel. In the back, Eva could make out a child's car seat, thankfully empty. The license plate read
. Her lingering unease intensified, and she took a deep breath, reminding herself she was in control of the situation and could walk away at any time.

She watched as the woman got out of the car. “Thanks for meeting me!” she called. Her clothes were expensive casual. Chanel sunglasses tipped up on her head. Knee-high UGG boots, worn over designer jeans. This was not Eva's typical ramen-fed student.

Up close, Eva could see the woman's red-rimmed eyes, how her skin looked tired and stretched, though her makeup was flawless, and another tingle of apprehension zipped through her.

“Sorry I'm late. I had to wait for the sitter to show up.” She held out her hand for Eva to shake. “I'm Brittany.”

Eva let it hang there, keeping her own hands in her pockets, and Brittany finally let it fall to her side as she began digging through her purse as if she'd just remembered why she'd come. “I was hoping I could buy more than what we'd talked about. I know I asked for five pills, but I really need ten.” She pulled a wad of cash out of her purse and held it out to Eva. “That's four hundred instead of two.”

“I only brought five with me,” Eva said, not taking the money.

Brittany shook her head, as if that were a minor detail. “I'd be happy to meet you again tomorrow. Same place, if that suits you.”

The marine layer from over the bay finally rolled in, skirting over the sun, casting gray shadows and dimming the light. Wind kicked up, causing Eva to pull her coat tighter. Brittany looked over her shoulder and then lowered her voice, although they were the only ones around. “We're leaving on Saturday for a trip,” she continued. “We won't be back until next month. I just want to make sure I'm not caught short.”

Eva's body tensed. This woman drove a fancy car, wore expensive clothes, and had a big diamond on her finger. It was one thing to need the pills to push through a difficult task. This woman seemed to need pharmaceutical help to navigate her daily life. But Eva's resistance felt more personal, bubbling up from her darkest corners, surprising her with its heat. This was a woman like her mother.

“I don't think I can help you,” Eva said.

“At least let me buy what you brought,” Brittany said, her words loud, tearing through the empty clearing. “Please.”

Eva's gaze snagged on several scabs dotting the backs of Brittany's hands, picked red and raw by nervous fingers. Brittany thrummed with manic energy, and Eva only wanted to leave.

“We're done here,” Eva said.

“Wait,” Brittany said, reaching out for Eva's arm. “Tell me what I can do to change your mind.”

Eva yanked her arm back and turned to walk away.

“Come on,” Brittany cajoled from behind her. “It's why we're here. You make the sale and get your money. I get what I need, and we both win.”

“I don't know what you're talking about,” Eva called over her shoulder. “You must have me confused with someone else.” Then she strode toward the hiking trail that wound through the trees and down the hill to the lot where she parked her car.

 As she passed the SUV, she looked in the window. The back seat was littered with Cheerios, an empty sippy cup, and a pink hair ribbon. Eva slowed for a moment, wondering what that child's life was like, living with a mother who begged for enough pills to be strung out for weeks. She wondered if her own mother had been like Brittany, buying drugs in a deserted park while Eva was stuck at home with a sitter. Beneath it all, she hated herself for the fleeting whisper of jealousy that this little girl still got to know her mother while Eva had not.

As she moved into the woods, Eva heard Brittany yelling obscenities after her. Then she heard the slam of a car door and the engine rev, before tires squealed away from the curb. She looked over her shoulder and saw the car swerve, skidding against the curb as it careened around a bend in the road. Eva held her breath, bracing for the sound of impact that didn't come, then hurried back to her own car.

* * *

Eva saw her again, at the gas station directly across from the park exit, as she waited at a red light. That same SUV, and Brittany leaning out of her open window, talking to a man who stood next to a low sedan with tinted windows and government plates. Brittany handed the man a slip of paper, which he tucked into the pocket of his sport coat.

The light turned green, and still Eva stared, her unease from earlier crashing back into her, quickly morphing into a dark panic. Behind her, someone honked, jolting her attention back to the road, forcing her to drive forward. As she drew nearer, she tried to capture as many details as she could. The man's short brown hair and mirrored sunglasses. The outline of a holster beneath his sport coat. And as she drove away, she wondered what Brittany had just put into play.

* * *

At home, Eva pulled her car into the small garage at the side of the house and closed the door, locking it with the padlock. She was desperate to get inside and call Dex, but her new neighbor was sitting on the front step, as if she was waiting for her. “Shit,” she muttered under her breath.

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