CHAPTER 1

San Francisco 12:30 P.M.

 

            He traveled light: his best suit, shirt, a silk tie, and shined lace-ups for the meeting; jeans, a light jacket, and trainers for comfort during his flight.

            He did not check a bag.

            He flew coach.

             He had booked a room at a mid-level hotel.  

             He had learned discipline at his frugal mother’s knee, and priorities from his father who believed a man should be the last to benefit from his own hard work. The community mattered. The whole should thrive. His father was a smart man. He had raised a smart son. As much as he hated the extra cost of all this, in the end it was money and time well spent. Everything had been accomplished so professionally, so neatly, and that pleased him.

              He zipped up his carry-on and checked the room again, just to make sure he hadn’t forgotten anything. That done, he put one key card on the bureau next to the sign that informed him Suzanne had been happy to clean his room. He hadn’t been there long enough for Suzanne to clean the room, and if she had, he doubted she would have been happy to do so.  Even if he had extended his stay, he would not have left a tip. Management could afford a living wage and if the hotel chose not to give it to Suzanne, and she chose to work for miserable wages, then that was on her.

              He texted the home office to check on deliveries and received confirmation that everything was complete. There was a post script; the vendor was waiting for a check to be cut. He gave his permission. He then clicked on a link in another text that had come in the middle of the night. He double-checked the information, and saw everything was on schedule.  The man appreciated the efficiency of the provider and regretted the need for it.

              Putting on his suit jacket, he confirmed the boarding pass in his pocket, and then looked at his watch. It was time to go.

***

            Suzanne was just coming out of room 207 when the man walked down the hall. She had seen him early that morning checking into room 220. He did not acknowledge her then; there was no indication he saw her now. He was an in-and-out. No smile. No humor. No tip.

She had long ago suspected that people who stayed in hotels like this were the stingiest ever. In the cheap places folks gave to insure they got fresh sheets; in the fancy places rich people left ridiculous tips as a way to prove their superiority. She needed to find a job at a fancy place. Suzanne had no problem being inferior.

            Still, stingy or not, that man was easy on the eyes. Too bad he had a stick up his ass. The elevator door opened. When he was gone Suzanne took a couple of towels off her cart with one hand and grabbed the vacuum with the other. She went into room 211.

***

             Downstairs, the man from room 220 put his carry-on on a bench in the communal dining room.  On the far end of the room was a long counter upon which stood gleaming silver bins. They were all empty despite the fact that the hour was early and breakfast wouldn’t end for another four hours. At one time, those bins held breads and pastries, clumps of something akin to scrambled eggs, and strips of bacon. Now happy little signs pointed to the brown bags lined up neatly on the counter. A sign with an elf pointing toward them read: For Your Convenience, Grab and Go! Brilliant management: save on service, hot food, and labor and still make it sound like a perk.

            He filled a cup with coffee. Next to the urn there was a basket and on the basket was a handwritten sign begging for tips: Karma insurance. In the basket were assorted coins. The man dug in his pocket and came up with a few dollars and a plastic card. He put the folding money back in his pocket, and picked up one of the bags. He put his hand inside and then, as if deciding a banana and a bagel were not to his liking, refolded the top of the brown paper bag and set it near the coffee urn.

             A woman walked in, saw what he was doing, and thought he must be a very nice man to set aside a bag he had touched. Before she could tell him how much she appreciated his concern for his fellow man, her ride came and she went out the door.

            The man turned around in time to see her get into a cab. A black car pulled up behind. He left his coffee, picked up his carry-on, and went out the door taking no notice of the man who held it open for him. He did not watch the man walk inside, enter the dining area, and go directly to the breakfast bags. He did not see this man pause as if he was trying to decide which one to choose. Instead, he went to the black car and leaned down to look at the driver.

           “Mr. Cain?” the driver said.

             He nodded and got in the back seat. He was long gone by the time the man who had passed him at the door picked up the brown paper bag near the coffee urn, and went on his way.

***

             Suzanne was gathering shampoo, conditioner, and two tiny bars of soap when the elevator dinged. She wandered back to the hall, and saw a man studying the plaque that would direct him to his room. He was tall but not handsome like the other one. He looked a little like her cousin George who still lived at home and swore he would be wealthy when his app hit the market. The man in the hall was a little nerdy, a little not. His hair was definitely weird. It almost looked like it belonged on someone else’s head.

           She went back into the room she was working on, and gave the mini-bar one last look. As she straightened up, Suzanne saw the guy pass out of the corner of her eye.  When she looked out the door, she saw him stop at room 220 and wave a key card at the reader.  When he did it again and nothing happened, Suzanne went to help.

            “’Scuse me,” she said.  

            “What?”

The man nearly jumped out his skin. He didn’t seem angry, but he sure wasn’t happy she was talking to him.

            “What room are you looking for?”

            He looked at the room number, he looked at her.

 “220. This room. Right here. 220.”

            “I haven’t cleaned it yet,” she said. “The guest who was in there just left. Check in isn’t until noon. I mean, it’s not freshened up.”

            “That’s okay.” He turned his back on her and swiped again. “Don’t worry about it.”

            “Okay.”

            Suzanne lingered. Something didn’t feel right, but then again what was right with the world these days?  When she heard a click and the door opened, he looked at her, irked that she was still staring at him. He raised a brow. She shrugged and went back work.

            Inside room 220, the man threw the deadbolt. He put his back against the door, blew out a deep breath, put a hand to his head, and scratched hard. His head was damn hot. He pushed off the door, walked into the bathroom, checked himself out in the mirror, and decided he looked like an idiot.  The wig seemed like a good idea but he couldn’t stand the itching, so he tossed it into the trashcan. His own hair wasn’t much more attractive, but at least it was his.  He was still giving his head a good rub as he looked around the bedroom.

            It took him a minute to find what he was looking for. When he had it in hand, he smiled. This was a good one. Heavy. Very cool. He was already having a ton of fun and the next part was going to be even better. Everyone would get their money’s worth.

Before the man left, he took a napkin from the little tray on the bureau, patted his forehead with it, and put it in his pocket. There must have been something in the wig because he was still itching and sweating. He glanced at the clock. There was no time to mess around anymore. Hitching the case, he let himself out of the room and headed for the elevator.

            Not more than five minutes had passed between the time he went into the room and the time he left it. Suzanne was doing the origami of hospital corners on the sheets in 213, so she didn’t see him go. It took her fifteen more minutes to get to room 220.  Receiving no answer to her knock, Suzanne opened the door. She called ‘housekeeping’ until it was clear the room was empty.

            There wasn’t any luggage. The bed covers were drawn up neatly. Bothered, Suzanne called down to the front desk where her friend was working. She asked if the new guest in 220 had left luggage with her. The woman at the front desk was busy and said no one was expected in that room until three that afternoon. She implied that Suzanne was dumb for not knowing that. Suzanne started to object, but her friend hung up. Sometimes her friend pulled rank and that sucked.

             Since she wasn’t paid enough to go the extra mile, Suzanne set about her chores.  She changed the sheets, cleaned the bathroom, and vacuumed. When she was done with the big stuff, Suzanne swept up the two key cards on the bureau and put them in her pocket. She looked in the brown paper bag that had been left near the TV. Suzanne took out the banana and bagel to keep for lunch before crumpling the bag.

              There was nothing in the trashcan in the bedroom, but the bathroom can was another matter.  For a minute she thought there was a dead animal inside. She picked it up with two fingers, but it was only a wig. A stupid, ugly wig. That explained the weird guy’s hair, but it did nothing to explain why he had been in this room. She hoped he wouldn’t come back if this was the kind of stuff she was going to have to deal with.

               Suzanne took the thing and tossed it in the big garbage bag hanging from the side of her trolley. She closed the door to room 220, and thought no more about the man who had gone into the room, the wig in the trashcan, or anything else. When they paid her to think, she would —if she could remember how.

 

 

CHAPTER 2

Flight 4236 on approach to San Francisco

12:35 P.M.

            Dawn Berry opened the door to the cockpit just wide enough so she could slip through. She closed it behind her, leaned down, and gave the pilot a kiss on the head before collapsing into the co-pilot’s seat.

            “Tired?” she asked.

            “I’m fine. You?”

            “I’ll be ready to hop in bed when we get where we’re going.” She extended one long leg and nudged his knee with the toe of her shoe.

            “Sounds good to me.” He flipped a switch; he checked the log.

            “Well, don’t get too excited.” Dawn’s smile faded.

            She turned in the seat, eyes forward, leaving Jimmy Mustafa to chores he could have done with one hand tied behind his back.

             It was a beautiful day: the sky was clear and blue, the clouds fluffy. There wouldn’t even be a shudder when the plane started its descent into San Francisco. Forty-five minutes later they would be fueled and on their way to L.A.  After that, she and Jimmy were free for four days before they had to pick up the German charter. That one was going to be tough. A year ago, she had serviced a rock band that booked that route. Not only were they a disgusting group of human beings, they were cheap.

              Dawn closed her eyes, leaned her head back, and smiled. It didn’t matter if she had some annoying flights. This gig with Platinum Wings had set her up for life: she’d made some serious money, traveled, and enjoyed more adventures than she could count. Wild times. Dawn opened her eyes and swiveled her head. She started to speak, thinking to share all this with Jimmy, but he was not looking happy.

               “Anything wrong?” she asked.

                “No.”

                Dawn took a deep breath. He could be such a child. She was beginning to think she’d made a huge mistake hooking up with him. Jimmy made a great first impression: smooth talker, quick on his feet, tall, dark, and handsome. She knew he wasn’t exactly divorced, but that was fine with her. What wasn’t fine was the fact that Jimmy’s ex popped into his brain at the weirdest times. When that happened it sent him on a rant that ruined everything, including a romp between the sheets. There were the occasional temper tantrums too. Those were tedious, sometimes scary, but mostly just stupid.  Not that Dawn thought he would hurt her, but he had broken a lamp and punched a hole in the wall in the hotel in Germany. It took some fast talking to convince the management that it had been an accident. They were dark folk, those Germans. Good for business, but hard nuts to crack. As for Jimmy, he was proving to just be a nut. Still, he had introduced her to the right people, the kind who threw money at her and asked little in return.

                “What are you looking at?”  he snapped.

                “Nothing,” Dawn said, surprised to find she had been staring at him.

                 “Thirty-seven minutes,” he said.

                 “Then I guess it’s time to get back to work. See you on the ground.” She started to get up, but he clamped a hand on her arm.

                  “We’re okay, right? I mean everything is in order. Right? I want this all to go like clockwork when we land in L. A.”

                  “For God’s sake.” Dawn pulled her arm away and stood up. “Everything is fine. I know what I’m doing. You’re the one with the problems. Get it together, because this paranoid act is getting a little boring.”

Dawn left the cockpit. Despite Jimmy’s snit, this had been one of the easiest flights ever. There were only two passengers, both grateful for her minimal effort and unaware they could ask for the world.  She smiled and gently shook the old man awake. 

             “Time to buckle up, Mr. Murphy.”

             He woke slowly, blinking, a bit confused, but happy when he finally focused on the beautiful woman speaking so nicely to him.

            “We’re there then, are we?” he said.

            “Not quite, but I need you to fasten your seat belt. We’ll land in San Francisco to refuel and then on to Los Angeles. Only a little while longer.”

             “Yes,” the old man said. “I’ll be glad when it’s over.”

Dawn gave him a pat. When she moved on, he closed his eyes and fell back asleep. It really didn’t matter if he was buckled in. Not really.

              The other passenger, a silent, brooding woman who hadn’t said more than ten words during the entire flight, was next. Dawn had tried to engage her. The old man had given it his best shot. Jimmy had even greeted her, but lost interest when the woman’s eyes didn’t light up at the sight of him.

              “We’re going to be landing in San Francisco soon,” Dawn said.

              “Thank you,” the woman answered.

               Dawn didn’t linger. The woman took out her phone. She texted:

L.A. two-thirty. Platinum Wings.

              She put her phone away, and looked out the window, thinking of nothing except the challenge ahead of her. It was not going to be pretty, but she had made up her mind. It had to be done.

***

               He glanced in his rearview mirror to see if anyone had followed him off the freeway. You never knew who was watching, who had signed on as back-up, who had gone rogue. That was the thrill of it all, the cat and mouse, the cloak and dagger.

              But today it was just a straight shot, business as usual. No one followed him off the freeway and onto the auxiliary road that would take him to the airfield. He was a little disappointed that the job was so easy. Then again, he had to get back to the city before three, so it was probably a good thing this contract wasn’t more challenging.

He drove past the first building, and the second, and parked near the hangar.

              He got out of the car, walked around to the trunk, and opened it.  There were only two things inside: his tennis bag and the briefcase. He took the briefcase. He paused before entering the hangar so he wouldn’t make the same mistake he had made at the hotel. The maid had flustered him. This time he had to be on his A game.

              Make it real.

              Make it believable.

              He put a smile on his face, went inside, and found hog heaven.  It was like a movie set: big space, big machinery, big plane. There was a ladder laid up against the side of the plane just beyond the wing

            “Hey. Anybody home?”

            “Yo,” came an answer.

 A man climbed down the ladder, revealing himself slowly: big boots, big legs, big guy.

            “There you are,” the man with the briefcase said. “Hey, my man.”

            “What can I do for you?”

            “Are you the one in charge?”

            “I am right now. James is going to be back in a minute. Walt’s over at the terminal.”

            “Well, then, I guess I’ll be talking to you. I have a favor to ask. My partner is on a plane that’s coming in and ….”

             The man with the briefcase told the man in the coveralls what he wanted to do. A prank on his partner. A lesson his partner needed to be taught. The big man started to shake his head, and the man with the briefcase was beginning to sweat. If he didn’t pull this off, he would be out a shit-load of money not to mention the damage to his pride. There was only one thing left to do.

              “Of course, I’d be happy to pay you for your trouble…” he said.

              The man picked up a rag and started to wipe his hands.  His lips were twitching. His mind was working. His greed was showing.

             “What do you have in mind, Mr.…”

             “Stuart,” he said. “Just call me Stuart.”

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