At quarter past nine Doug was settling into seat 22A of Delta Flight 942 with a scheduled stop in Boston, continuing on to Portland. With his jacket off and draped across his lap, Doug leaned back, closed his eyes and tried not to think about Annie. But it wasn’t possible. His heart ached with her absence.
He opened his eyes and watched his fellow passengers board: a tall dark man with a briefcase; a big blond woman in Bermuda shorts verbally abusing a short bald man wearing a flowery Florida shirt; two children being escorted by a flight attendant; a young, pretty brunette in a beige skirt and white blouse who smiled at him before settling into the seat directly across the aisle.
Two men in uniform came on board and ducked into the forward cabin. Doug identified them as crew. He checked his watch. It was nine twenty-eight. Only two minutes to go before the door would be sealed shut. Then takeoff. Then . . . what? Was he doing the right thing?
He suddenly began to perspire. He had never experienced such agonizing indecision. He looked at his watch again. It was twenty-nine after the hour.
A fat businessman smelling strongly of sweat brushed in front of him and plunked himself—all out of breath—down in the seat nearest the window. Doug looked over at the man with disdain.
The cabin attendants were busy slamming overhead compartments, and the noise suddenly seemed heightened, distorted somehow, threatening to drive him mad. The door to the outside was closed with a dull thud that caused the sensation of pressure in his ears. Doug wondered again what in hell he was doing, leaving Annie here. Something didn’t feel right. His whole life suddenly seemed amplified out of proportion. He was perspiring profusely.
Doug’s body convulsed as a brilliant flash of white light exploded behind his eyes, and the Collector was suddenly there inside his head.
Go away, Doug said. I don’t want you here.
But you must see what I came here to show you.
I don’t want anything from you. You’re a murderer. You steal children.
You misunderstand me, Doug. I only want what’s best for you. I allow you to see things others cannot.
I don’t want to see your atrocities!
For your own good you must see this.
Doug’s head nearly burst with sudden and intense pain. In the vision he was inside the plane’s cockpit. There was a shimmering bubble of terrible energy building inside the cockpit, or inside Doug’s head. He wasn’t sure which, and it didn’t matter. What did matter was what he suddenly knew, what the Collector wanted him to see. Both crew members were simultaneously struggling to bring an out-of-control aircraft back under their control, to no avail, it seemed. The captain was barking into his headset microphone as sweat poured down his face, and although the communication was eerily silent, Doug knew what he was saying: Mayday! Mayday! Mayday! Through the windshield the ground was approaching with insane speed. The vision ended in a blur of dazzling white light and a final burst of intense pain.
Doug came awake with a strong jolt, feeling wetness on his upper lip and tasting blood in his mouth.
“Are you all right?” someone asked. It was the young woman across the aisle from him. Doug could not reply. He closed his eyes and groaned, nearly puking. His head thrummed vividly.
There will be a great test.
“Hey, mister, what’s the matter?” A kid had turned around in his seat and was staring down at Doug. “You were talking loud and screaming and you’ve got a bloody nose.”
“Shush,” the child’s mother said, pulling the kid back into his seat. “You leave that man alone.”
“He’s right,” the young woman across the aisle said. “You were talking in your sleep, and you do have a bloody nose. Here.” She handed him a Kleenex. Doug wiped his nose on it.
“What did I say?”
The woman leaned across the aisle and whispered, “Something about a murderer, and stealing children. Care to elaborate?”
“It was a dream,” Doug said. “I have bad dreams all the time. Sometimes they come true.”
The woman frowned. “Listen, you sure you’re all right?”
Oh, Christ, Doug thought, suddenly remembering what he’d seen. This plane is in trouble. I can’t let it leave the ground.
He left his seat and moved swiftly down the aisle. The flight attendants were immediately on guard. They’d heard the commotion coming from seat 22A and were watchful. When the guy with wild eyes and blood on his chin bolted for the flight deck they were ready for him. A male and a female approached from forward and a muscular-looking male closed in from behind. They intercepted him halfway down the aisle.
“Sir,” one of the men said politely. “You must take your seat.”
Doug’s hands were pressed to the sides of his head. Slowly he removed them. “No,” he said. “Please? You can’t let this plane take off.”
“Sir, the plane is preparing to move out onto the taxiway.”
“Then you’d better stop it.”
“You’re bleeding from the nose, sir,” another attendant, this one a tall, thin young woman, said. “Here.” she handed him a wad of tissues. Wipe it off and please take your seat.”
Doug shook his head in utter disbelief. “You can’t let this plane take off,” he said again.
“And why is that?” asked the muscular man who was inching his way closer to Doug from behind. He opened his coat, showing Doug a sidearm. He produced a badge. “I’m an air marshal, sir and my advice to you is return to your seat.”
Doug hesitated. Was he really going to stand here and tell these people who were eyeing him warily—eyeing him as if he might be a lunatic, or worse, a terrorist—that he’d seen a vision of some terrible catastrophe? The plane was going to crash because he was on it, damn it. If he left the plane perhaps it wouldn’t happen. But that wasn’t necessarily so, he knew from experience. Could he take that chance with all of these innocent lives on board? His mind was spinning with contingencies and he knew that he had only a split second to make his decision before it would be too late. What should he do? Jesus, what should he do? The headache was receding now in cold, radiating waves.
“I’ve changed my mind,” he said, hoping he wasn’t making a terrible error.
“Changed your mind about what?” asked the confused-looking air marshal.
“I’ve changed my mind about this plane leaving the ground. It’s okay. I’ll go back to my seat. Sorry if I caused a disturbance.” A slight jolt and the feeling of motion told him that the plane had started to taxi. His heart rate accelerated. All three attendants were staring confusedly at him now, and some of the passengers were glaring at him in alarm.
“I don’t think you should let this plane leave the ground,” one of the passengers said; she was an older woman with a curled nimbus of blue hair and she looked terrified. “I heard what he was saying. He was talking about murder.”
“Yeah,” echoed another voice. “I don’t like the look in that man’s eyes.”
Doug exhaled his pent-up breath in relief.
Several of the passengers had taken off their seatbelts and were now standing, staring at Doug and the attendants. The attendant closest to the flight deck, the young woman who’d handed Doug the tissues, wore a worried frown. She turned and knocked on the cockpit door. It opened and she went inside. The plane abruptly halted and presently the captain appeared in the doorway. He had the manifest in his hand.
“Everyone just sit down and stay calm,” he said. He motioned for the attendants to let Doug pass. In the distance, even above the sound of the idling engines, Doug heard sirens. The authorities had been alerted. Doug felt a strange mixture of dread and relief.
Again the pilot glanced at the manifest. “Now,” he said in a mildly condescending voice. “Mr. McArthur, is it? What seems to be the problem?”
“May I talk to you in private?” Doug said. He could see that the plane’s door was in the process of being opened and he pretty much figured there’d be a small army of trigger-happy federal agents on the other side itching to take someone down.
“And what is it that you wish to talk about?” asked the condescending pilot.
Doug leaned forward and whispered, “Not here. I don’t want to alarm the passengers.”
The pilot frowned. “Mr. McArthur, you have caused a disturbance. I’m quite sure that you will be removed from this aircraft and taken for questioning.”
“Then what?” Doug said.
“Then what?” the captain repeated, obviously stymied.
“The plane,” Doug said. “Will it be grounded?”
The captain raised an eyebrow. “Should it be grounded, Mr. McArthur?”
Doug knew he was digging a hole for himself that he might never be able to crawl out of, but there was no way he could allow this plane to leave the ground after what he’d seen. “Sometimes I sense things,” he said in a voice low enough that he hoped the passengers hadn’t heard.
The captain smiled tentatively. “Sense things?” he echoed.
The door opened with a whoosh of compressed air and two security types in plain clothes stepped inside. “Yes,” Doug said. “Sometimes I sense things. Bad things. And I sense bad things about this flight.”
The security guys had made their way up the aisle and were now standing behind the captain. The air marshal continued to hold his position behind Doug. “Is this the man?” one of the new guys asked.
“Yes,” the pilot said, stepping aside. “He claims he . . . senses things.” The pilot was totally incapable of concealing the condescension in his voice.
The two plainclothesmen stepped up to Doug and each took hold of one of his arms. “Now we’re going to escort you off the plane, sir. Please don’t resist or make a scene.”
“I don’t intend to make a scene,” Doug said. “I just don’t think it’s wise for this plane to take off.”
“And why is that?” the security guy said. “Because you . . . sense things?” They were moving down the aisle now toward the exit. Doug was hardly walking of his own accord. The security guys were practically dragging him. “We’ve dealt with these kinds of threats before and you know what usually happens?”
“This isn’t a threat.”
“No? Then what is it?”
“Same difference,” one of the security guys said.
“And you’re going to take the chance that I’m wrong?” Doug said.
“Yes, unless you give us a good and concrete reason why this plane shouldn’t take off. Something a little less vague than . . . you sense things.”
Jesus Christ, Doug thought. They’re just going to ignore me and let this plane go. He tried to put himself in their place and wondered what he’d do. Some nut case claims he senses something bad about the flight—nothing concrete (obviously if he told the truth they’d strap a white canvas jacket around him and drag him off to the funny farm)—and they’re just supposed to believe him and stop the fucking plane from taking off. He supposed he’d react in pretty much the same way.
They escorted him down the stairs to a waiting car. He was cuffed and patted down. The security guys removed his wallet along with the scrap of cloth that contained the artifact. “Be careful with that.” Doug wished now that he’d put it around his neck.
“What is it?” the cop asked. He had unwrapped it and was staring blankly.
“A necklace,” Doug said.
“Stupid looking necklace if you ask me.”
“Like something a kid would wear.”
“Yeah, well, we’ll see what the chief has to say about it.”
They put him in the back seat and drove the car to an area of the airport that said Security above the door. The two flunkies took him inside where they were met by an older heavy-set man who breathed asthmatically through his nose. He had bushy gray eyebrows and a florid face. Even though the air conditioning was cranked, the man’s shirt was stuck to his thick trunk with sweat. He was already dead from a heart attack. He just didn’t know it yet.
The flunkies—one on each side of him—sat Doug down in a chair facing the heart attack guy and then stationed themselves on either side of him like good soldiers. “So this is the clown?” Heart Attack said.
“Yeah.” the first flunky handed his boss Doug’s personal effects, taking his time going through Doug’s wallet.
He laid the wallet aside and opened the folded piece of soft fabric. “What’s this?” he asked, picking the object up by its chain. He was squinting at it.
“It is. It’s also personal.”
Heart attack glared at him and laid the object on his desk. “So, what’s your story?”
“Says he gets these . . . feelings,” answered one of the security guys.
“That so?” Heart Attack said, looking very unimpressed. “How often do you get these . . . feelings?”
“Hasn’t happened in a long time,” Doug said. “But when it does, look out.” Somewhere far away a big jet roared into the sky.
“You mean is there someone you can call on the phone who would back me up? Like a shrink or something?”
“Yeah. A shrink or something.”
Doug shrugged his shoulders, frowning. “I used to see one a long time ago when I was a kid. He believed me. And there’s this police lieutenant.”
“And I’m just supposed to believe you and fuck up half the scheduling of this airport?”
“Don’t.” Doug shrugged.
“Tell me why I should.”
“Look, if you let that plane fly don’t say I didn’t warn you.”
“The plane ain’t flying yet, mister. Because of you they took all the passengers off and they’re searching for a bomb.”
“Bomb!” Doug said. “You think there’s a bomb on board?”
“You think that’s what this is about?”
“Well, you’re not carrying any box cutters.”
“Listen, I don’t have any luggage. How do you think I got a bomb on board?”
“What exactly, Mr. McArthur do you think you’re doing here?” Heart Attack was sweating rivers now and his florid face was covered in white blotches. Doug could see the pulse pounding at his temples.
“I told you, once in a while I get these feelings.”
“Sort of like a . . . vision, huh?”
“And what happened in this . . . vision?”
“The plane went into a dive.”
“Did you see it crash?”
“What makes you think it will?”
“I can’t explain it. I just . . . have this feeling.”
“All right, Mr. McArthur, we’re going to hold you here until the aircraft has been thoroughly searched. If nothing is found then the bird flies, and so do you. As far away from here as possible.”
“Pleasure,” Doug said, “but you’re making a mistake.”
“By letting you go?”
Doug shot Heart Attack a severe frown. “You just don’t get it, do you?”
“What I get, asshole,” Heart Attack said, his face purple now and looking like it might explode any second, “is that you have seen fit to fuck up the scheduling at this airport and put a lot of people to a lot of trouble. If I had my way you’d serve time just for that.”
“You stupid bureaucratic idiot,” Doug said trying to stand up. The flunkies pushed him back down into his seat.
“Now we’re gonna sit real peaceful-like,” one of the flunkies said, “until we get word that things are copasetic.”
The phone on the desk rang. Heart Attack picked it up. He didn’t talk for a long time, just listened, his face blanching. Finally he said, “Yes, sir. A wallet. No, sir, nothing else. I’m sure.” Heart attack hung up and looked at Doug, his face slightly slack. The two flunkies were looking at him like he’d lost his mind, but they stayed silent.
“You know who that was?” Heart attack asked.
“I look like a mind reader to you?”
Heart Attack’s face went suddenly red with rage. “It was the FBI,” he said.
Doug stiffened. “What did they want?”
“They’ve been doing a little checking into your background while we’ve been sitting here twiddling our thumbs. And you know what they found out?”
Doug shrugged. “Let me see now,” he said, feigning interest. “They found out that I live up in the sticks of Maine; that I’m a carpenter who goes to work every day carrying a lunch pail. That I’ve been married ten years to the same woman—”
“That your father-in-law is Edmund De Roché.”
One of the flunkies whistled.
Doug didn’t say a word, just stared at the man. He wondered why Heart Attack suddenly look like he was about to have a heart attack?
“Against my better judgment I have been instructed to let you go, Mr. McArthur.” He placed the object back in the soft piece of cloth, carefully wrapped it, and slid it, along with Doug’s wallet, back across the desk. Doug picked the objects up and put them back in his pocket. “You are to be given a one-way first-class seat on the next flight to Boston. You hang tight here for another minute or so and they’re going to personally hand-deliver your ticket and escort you back to the terminal.” He smiled but it was more a grimace. “Sorry we bothered you, Mr. McArthur.” He glared angrily at one of the flunkies. “Un-cuff him!”
The original flight was cleared and took off without Doug aboard and without further incident, as far as he knew. More than a little bit ragged-out by the morning’s events he wandered aimlessly through the terminal while waiting for his flight, which was scheduled to leave Tampa for Boston at 1:45. He found a phone kiosk and tried calling Jennings, but got his voice mail. He left a message saying he’d been put on a later flight, gave Jennings the particulars and hung up. Unable to relax, he finally ducked into an airport café, took a table and ordered a cup of coffee.
Airport security had talked to the FBI, which meant they knew where he was. So, if what Jennings had said about the FBI looking for him was true then why had he been let go? Something didn’t add up.
He put his hand in his jacket pocket, feeling the solidness of the artifact through the softness of the fabric. It felt warm to his touch, almost to the point of being uncomfortable. He remembered when the dying old priest had passed it to him, how it had glowed with heat and changed its shape. Had he just imagined that?
There are those who believe it is the path to God.
Suddenly Doug began to imagine things. The man standing over by the door of the café was one of De Roché’s henchmen, paid to follow him, perhaps to kill him when the opportunity arose. The two men in suits sitting two tables down were FBI agents waiting to nab him. The pretty woman in the short beige skirt and white blouse sitting at the bar who kept giving Doug sidelong glances was a conspirator as well. Was she an assassin? FBI? CIA? NSA? She looked familiar, but Doug did not know why. He did know that bad things sometimes come in unlikely packages.
His coffee gone, he stood to leave when the woman slid off her stool and approached him.
“You look lost,” she said.
“It’s that obvious, huh?” Doug said, suddenly recognizing her. She was the woman in the seat across from him on the plane.
“That was quite a stunt.”
“No stunt,” Doug said, sizing her up. “Why’d you get off?”
“I had a feeling.”
“You believed me?”
“Well . . . I’m here.”
“That wasn’t an answer.”
“How many others got off?”
“A handful. Most just wrote you off as . . .”
“A nut case?” Doug finished for her.
She averted her eyes. “I guess.”
“What do you think?”
“Let’s just say I’m intrigued.” She smiled. Her teeth were good and she had nice dimples. Doug’s face felt warm and flushed.
“Listen,” she said. “Can I buy you a cup of coffee?”
He felt awkward, but she was absolutely right about him being lost. He needed friendly company and he guessed she was okay. “Sure.”
“You want to tell me what that was about?”
“You mean on the plane? I don’t know. Something just snapped and it was there, the whole thing.”
The woman stared at him, impossible for him to read her expression. “Lucy,” she said, offering her hand. “Lucy Ferguson.
Doug McArthur,” he said taking it. “You don’t look like a Lucy.”
“You don’t look like a famous world war two military hero.”
“My grandfather served under him in Korea.”
“Yeah, a lot of people don’t know he was in the Korean War. They associate him with WW II. Anyway, granddad said he was a great man. When my father came along he named him for the general and I was named for dad. But it’s spelled differently. Mine’s Mc, without an A. His was MacArthur.” Doug shrugged. “What about Lucy?”
“My mother died in child birth. My father gave me her name.”
“Sorry,” Doug said feeling awkward.
“Don’t be. Obviously I never knew her. But I . . . feel her sometimes, you know, like she’s still around.” Lucy blushed. “I know it sounds stupid.”
“Do you believe in that sort of thing?”
“I don’t know. Maybe.”
Lucy smiled. “Maybe?”
Doug shrugged. “You believe, right? That’s all that counts.”
“Tell me what you saw on the airplane.”
“Why do you care?”
“I missed my flight because of you. Don’t you think you owe me that much?”
He held his hands up in mock defense, smiling. “Okay, sure.” Doug felt that there was more to her inquiry than just curiosity, but he couldn’t yet read its intent, and the truth was, at the moment he didn’t care. He found himself enjoying this woman’s company.
Follow your heart.
There it was again, a simple mantra spoken by a dead priest. Had he followed his heart by getting off that airplane, or was his every move some clumsy miscalculation? Was he following his heart now by being friendly with this woman, or was his heart following him?
“Well, it was like I was viewing everything from the cockpit and the plane was plummeting toward the ground. I know what you’re thinking but I learned long ago to trust my instincts.”
“For a long time I was able to see certain things that hadn’t yet occurred. Mostly terrible things.”
“You mean like visions? Tragedies? Things like that?”
“Yeah, stuff most people wouldn’t want to see. Murders, accidents, disasters.”
“Did these things come true?”
Doug suddenly felt uncomfortable. “Some of them.”
“So you don’t see them now?”
“No till today. It’s been a long time. More than ten years. Since before I met . . . Annie.” The revelation struck Doug like ice water. He had never consciously made the connection until now. It was so obvious. Why hadn’t he seen it?
“And Annie is . . . ?”
“You don’t wear a ring.”
“Neither of us does. I’m not sure why. I love her more than anything.”
Something in Lucy’s demeanor changed. It was a subtle adjustment, but Doug’s keen intuition picked up on it. She was an attractive woman; no doubt about that. She had red-brown hair that hung in long, thick waves to her shoulders, large ice-blue eyes and full, generous lips. She carried an air of sophistication, her diction was learned and professional, and her manner spoke of breeding and education. He couldn’t pigeonhole which part of the country she was from because there was no discernable accent. Doug liked the way she looked and the way she carried herself, confident without being pushy. Self assured in her womanhood. A small pang of guilt seized his heart. Here he was, not four hours away from Annie, the love of his life, and he was sizing up another woman. But it wasn’t really like that, not sexual anyway. After the events of the past several days he was simply enjoying the saneness of normal company and conversation.
“Have you seen things that did not directly affect your own life?” Lucy asked.
“Oh, say an earthquake in Pakistan or a hurricane in the Gulf of Mexico.”
Doug thought about it for a moment, wondering where this line of questioning was leading. This woman was more than just curious. He was suddenly sure of it. She’d purposely gotten off the plane and had waited in the terminal until he’d emerged from the security office. Then she’d followed him into the cafe. Hell, the more he thought about it, the more he began to believe she’d been watching him since boarding the first plane. This conclusion was both tantalizing and a little unsettling.
“Yeah, I’ve seen a few things. Why are you so interested in this?”
“A gift like yours is rare.”
Doug gave a short laugh. “I wouldn’t call it a gift exactly.”
“No? What would you call it then?”
“How about a curse?”
Lucy could not mask the inquiry in her eyes. She was definitely specifically interested in him. Doug suddenly felt on edge.
There will be a great test.
“Listen,” he said, looking up at the clock above the bar. “My plane’s taking off in an hour and I need to get rid of some of this coffee.” He stood. “Pleasure,” he said.
Lucy stood up with him. “I hope I didn’t offend you.”
“No. Actually I’ve enjoyed your company.” He took her hand.
“What’s your flight number?” Lucy asked.
He pulled his boarding pass out and told her.
“What a coincidence,” she said. “Same as mine.”
Doug surveyed Lucy for a long contemplative moment before saying, “Well, maybe I’ll see you on the plane. Nice talking to you.” He walked away leaving Lucy standing in the café watching him go.
He wasn’t kidding about the coffee. He found a restroom across the hall.
There was one other guy standing at the urinals. Doug unzipped and began pissing into the porcelain bowl. The guy next to him finished, quickly washed his hands and left the room. Now Doug was alone. The place was eerily silent. He felt a little claustrophobic; something was wrong. He needed to move quickly. The walls were closing in on him. He zipped and went to the lavatory. He was washing his hands when a stall door burst open behind him. He saw it in the mirror.
Too late, he realized his error.
Doug whirled. He could not see the man’s face. There was something over it. Something shimmering and weird. The man held a gun with an attached silencer sleeve. Doug lunged toward him. He heard the weapon cough as the round left the barrel. The bullet punched a hole in his upper abdomen. It was like being struck by a truck. The wind went out of him and his knees buckled. The weapon coughed again. The second round entered his chest and went straight through, spraying blood on the lavatory and mirror behind him. He pitched forward, still conscious and completely aware of the fact that he’d just been murdered by a man with no face.
The outer door slammed open and for just a moment he saw Lucy Ferguson’s face. So pretty, he thought. But what is she doing in the men’s toilet? He closed his eyes.
“Christ, what a mess,” somebody said. The voice belonged to a man. The man who’d just murdered him? No, he didn’t think so.
Doug opened his eyes a fraction but he could not see who the talker was.
“He’s still with us,” Lucy said.
“Thank God,” said the voice he did not recognize.
“Hold on, Doug,” Lucy said. “We’ve got you. We’re not going to let you die.”
What the hell was she talking about? He was dying. Probably already dead, actually. He let his eyes close again. By degrees the pain retreated and the voices retreated, and as he died he dreamed of times long ago.