The Assignation

Disclaimer: This is a work of fiction, set against a factual background.

THE ASSIGNATION

Susan leaned forward to pluck the stray grey hair off her eyebrow. She winced as she pulled out a few good ones alongside.

“What time is it?”, John growled into her hair, nuzzling her neck.

“3 am. Go back to bed.”

He shuffled out. She found him snoring, spreadeagled on the bed.

She slipped into the guest bathroom for a quick shower. Mentally she inventoried the contents of her case. Toiletries-check. Underwear-check. Passport-check. Cash and cards-check. ID-check. Damn! She needed to put in a cardigan. The hotel lobby was always freezing, a little like being in the Arctic.

At 4:30am, her watch beeped, and she slipped into the kids room. She kissed them goodbye, gently ensuring that neither awoke. She replaced Chloe’s covers, and cuddled her lightly. Leo threw his arm around her, and pulled her towards him momentarily, then promptly fell back asleep.

The drive to the airport was smooth. She shivered in anticipation.  Not long to go.

***

Alex sprayed on his favourite cologne. Denise sniffed appreciatively.

“Mmmm. You smell so good! Do you have to go again? Can’t Dieter handle it for you this time? I was so hoping we could go to that new Italian place for my birthday.”

“Babe, you know I have to. I’ll be back by Friday, and I promise we’ll try the Italian then. Anything for my girl.”

He kissed her hard, and she moved her body up against him.

“We have to keep trying”, she whispered, “the doctor said there’s no reason why not. We are both young and healthy.”

He looked at her quizzically.

“Is that what you want? Really? After the last time?”

She nodded and hugged him tight. They stood like that, and then she pushed him away with a laugh.

“Go, or you’ll be late for your flight.”

He drove, his mind spinning. He needed to make a decision. Soon.  For now, however, his apprehension melted away, replaced by a familiar hunger that grew in the pit of his stomach, and spread rapidly through his limbs. Susan.

***

Susan yawned and reached out for her coffee. There had been a slight delay, and they were waiting at the gate. The man’s elbow jogged hers as he sat down next to her.

“Sorry”, she muttered out of habit, glancing at him in annoyance.

He ignored her. He held his briefcase tightly to his chest, and rocked back and forth, muttering unintelligibly.

Another looney, she thought to herself, turning back to her book. Her attention kept straying to their last encounter. How long had it been? Three weeks.

“Alex?”

“Mmmm?”

“You know we can’t carry on like this. Two years, and you haven’t said a word to Denise. I am so close to telling John. At any rate, I think he knows….or suspects… We need to talk, Alex. Stop ignoring me. No, don’t do that….you naughty boy….stop it! Listen to me….”

This time she intended to get things sorted before he started on her.

The man next to her was sweating profusely and chanting. Chanting? She looked at him carefully.

“Are you ok? Sir? Yes, you. Are you alright?”

His eyes met hers, wild and unfocussed. All at once, he seemed to come to, and his mouth twisted into a semblance of a smile.

“Yes”, he nodded, “yes”. Reassuring himself, as much as her.

Uneasy, she grabbed the handle of her case and walked to the aircraft door with her colleagues. She glanced back at him once before boarding. He was sat upright, staring straight at her. She shivered and turned away.

***

The lounge was comfortable. A dozen odd people snoozed in various corners. Alex grabbed his coffee and news paper and positioned himself near the monitor. There was still an hour and a half to the flight. The attendant walked past him, smiling. He returned her smile, admiring her retreating back, her strong calf muscles, and the swing to her hips. Attractive. Very attractive. A headline caught his attention, and he allowed himself to be swallowed up by the day’s news again.

He sensed her standing next to him, and looked up immediately.

“You might want to proceed to the gate”, she said politely. “We are about to start boarding your flight.”

“Why, thank you…er, Maria”, he peered at her name badge, “You are most kind. Can I take you out for a coffee next time?”

She looked pointedly at his ring finger and then back at him.

“I’m sorry, Mr Cross, we are not allowed to socialise with our passengers.”

Duly snubbed, he walked to his gate grinning. Nothing ventured, nothing gained.

He swung his case into the overhead bin, nearly hitting his seat partner.

“Sorry, man, I didn’t see you there.”

Although, how he could’ve missed him was a mystery. The man overflowed into the seats beside him, and Alex sat down a little put out.

“Peter”, the man grunted, wanting to chat. Alex nodded in acknowledgement, but didn’t proffer his name. Instead, he put in his earplugs and shut his eyes.

Ah! Susan. Lovely Susan that he’d kept bumping into on his TransCon flights. So different from Denise. Was that what had attracted him? It would get messy. He had no doubts about that. Didn’t it always? He should have ended it sooner. Before things got serious. Before she started to talk about the future, and all that jazz. He had a future, and he knew who it was with.

The safety demonstration started. He watched, mentally zoning out.

“They aren’t spring chickens anymore, are they?”, Peter muttered next to him.

Alex looked at the portly middle aged flight attendant, pointing to the exits and smiled.

“Time was, you’d get onboard and be served by a pretty young thing. Now it’s all old ladies in a bad mood.”

“Not to mention, queens with an attitude”, Alex replied cheerfully pulling out his ear plugs. They laughed together, falling into an easy camaraderie.

“Business or pleasure?”, asked Peter.

“Pleasure, man….all pleasure”

***

Susan rolled up the demo vest tightly, putting it together with the rest of the demo equipment in the cubbyhole.

“Really, Nancy. I don’t know why we bother. No one ever watches.”

“Yeah, wait till there’s a real emergency. Then they won’t know what to do or where to go. All they they think we’re good for is serving them their teas and coffees. We are safety professionals. I am so sick of the disrespect. Seriously!”

Susan rushed off to do her checks. She’d forgotten how passionately vociferous Nancy could get.

She moved through the cabin, quickly checking seat belts and seat backs, gently reminding them to stow their items. It wasn’t until she was nearly till the end of the cabin, did her sense of unease return. Her eyes fell upon the strange passenger seated by himself in the last but one row. She smiled at him uncertainly. He looked at her blankly, as though they had never met.

“Are you feeling better now?”, she enquired.

He jumped, and then registered her.

“What? Yes, I am okay”, he spluttered, “Why….why are you asking me?” He glared at her, and she backed off hastily, trying to place his strange guttural accent.

***

“Uhhhh….ladies and gentlemen, we’re just stopping here for a while…uhhh….There’s a bit of a traffic back up. We are still on an active taxi way, so please remain seated with your seat belts fastened”

The Captain’s voice seemed tinny and far away. Peter’s voice was too close for comfort.

“That’s the other thing. Never bloody get anywhere on time. Always late. These big airlines. How they get away with it, I do not know. If I had a dollar for every such announcement I’d heard, I would be a very rich man…” On and on he droned, and Alex wished he had followed his instincts and not allowed himself to get drawn into an interminable conversation.

It seemed an age before they moved again. Alex shut his eyes, and Peter, bored with his unresponsiveness, finally shut his mouth.

***

The cart felt heavier than usual as she pulled it up the aisle. Her calf muscles protested, and she made a mental note to put in more time at the gym.

Something sharp at her neck only mildly surprised her at the start. It was so unexpected, so incongruous at that time of the morning that it simply did not register. The hoarse threat that followed did.

“Scream, and I will slit your throat.” She knew it was him. The crazy man.

Nancy screamed up front and Susan wondered if she’d spotted her. Panicked, she tried turning her head, but he held her in a firm grasp. There was pandemonium in the cabin. She could hear people wailing, yelling, sobbing. Someone cried, “Oh my God! She’s dead. He’s killed her….Oh Noooo.”

He spoke into her ear, softly this time. “There’s more of us. Co operate, and you will be unharmed. Your friend up there didn’t. Stupid bitch. Now, you listen to me. You need to tell these people to shut up. We have to speak to the Captain.”

Hijackers! Years of training came rushing back to her. Keep calm. Co operate. Keep your head down. Slowly she nodded her assent. She tried controlling the tremor in her voice as she called out,

“Ladies and Gentlemen, we are in a hijack situation. I have been informed that we will be unharmed if we listen to them and stay quiet. I…I need to speak to the cockpit. Please stay calm…”, her voice broke as she looked at the scared and bewildered faces of the passengers around her.

Nearer to the front, Nancy’s body lay still on the floor of the galley. Someone had thrown a blanket over her, and she seemed almost to be taking a nap, if it weren’t for the red that was soaking through the material. She caught sight of James, her other flying partner who was retching quietly into the corner. For a brief moment their eyes met, and she could see pure unadulterated terror in his. Two hijackers stood on either side of the cockpit door. The tall handsome one smiled encouragingly at her. He motioned to the door, and hesitatingly she knocked.

The door swung open, and the First Officer grinned at her, ” Ah Susan! I was just about to call. I needed a toilet break and was wondering if you could throw my meal in….”

He barely had a chance to finish, before they knocked her to a side and rushed in. The door slammed shut behind them and she backed away as she heard the shouts. Then a thud. She was swung violently as the plane seemed to tilt heavily to the left. Then, just as suddenly, they regained control.

“Where do you think they are taking us?”, James asked materialising by her side.

“I have no idea. They could be political refugees. It could be anywhere…I don’t know… Oh James, these poor people….We need to tell them something….”

She turned to look at terror stricken faces of her passengers, and put on her best professional smile.

***

He must have dropped off because he woke with a start. Peter was snoring next to him, his mouth open. Alex reached out for the inflight magazine. The plane was just starting to level out, and he couldn’t wait to get a black coffee. He hoped they’d hurry up. He flicked through the magazine disinterestedly. His mind was on Denise. Another round of IVF? It wasn’t the expense that bothered him. It was what it did to her. The mood swings, the rigorous timetable of sex, the crushing disappointments. He wasn’t sure he could put up with it again either. So many decisions. When had life gotten so complicated?

Peter snorted in his sleep and Alex glanced at him disgustedly. Someday, he promised himself. Someday I will fly First Class. Or better still, a private jet. He smiled to himself and shook his head. Yeah, yeah! One could dream.

The granny with the trolley approached him. She handed him a small tray with a croissant, a bowl of fruit and a plastic container of orange juice. Bemused, he took it and asked for his coffee. He nudged Peter awake, and offered his tray to him.

” Boy, I need that. Haven’t eaten since dinner last night. You sure you don’t want it? Hey! What does one have to do to get a coffee around here?”

***

They seemed to be flying low. Susan couldn’t understand it. The pilots had made no announcements.  Her colleagues down the back had been trying to contact them with no success. She had tried reassuring the passengers in their immediate vicinity, under the watchful eyes of two of the hijackers. She could see her flying partners handing out water and blankets in economy. Something felt off. She had never been in a hijacking situation before, but years of watching videos, and doing recurrent training had taught them that in most situations there was some sort of a demand. Maybe they were hacking out some agreement in the cockpit? Something that was being transmitted to the Air Traffic Control. Something that they were not privy to? She wondered which country they would be diverting to. Did they have enough fuel? Maybe there would be a fuelling stop. Maybe that was the angle the Captain would play. It would be the ideal opportunity for a rescue mission. Hadn’t they been taught that if there was a rescue to stay down as they would all be treated as hostiles till their identities were verified?

Her eyes wandered to the window again. Her jumpseat afforded her a limited view. Buildings. Buildings? Skyscrapers that seemed to be getting closer.  This was no flight path they were on. Her mind grappled with what she was seeing. James sat next to her white knuckled. His mind seemed to be processing the same facts. She could hear cries from the cabin.

“We are going to crash….” , “What the bloody Hell!”, “Where are we? Why are we flying so low?”  Prayers. “Oh God….Oh God…Oh God….”

She turned to look at the Hijackers. They stood there unperturbed. Calm, with beatific smiles on their faces.

NO! The scream caught in her throat. She thought of Leo….of Chloe….Of a thousand unsaid things…..

A deafening bang.  Fire. Heat. Intense Heat.  Pain. Searing pain.  Moans. Cries.  Burning flesh.  Acrid smoke.

Darkness.

***

A faint trilling distracted Peter from his breakfast. He grinned shamefacedly. “Damn! Forgot to switch the phone off. Shh! Don’t say anything. I’ll just take this call.”

Alex did not have time to register his annoyance. The bedlam upfront was distracting him. There were raised voices. Screams. He couldn’t understand what was happening. He made to stand up, but Peter grabbed his arm and shook his head, panic in his eyes.

“No”, he whispered. “There were three others”

“Three what?”, Alex asked, confused.

“Planes. Planes.” Peter garbled. “My wife…she rang…worried….”

They had no time as the plane bucked. Trays flew to the ground. People screamed. Alex felt his blood turn cold.

“Planes hitting buildings….Suicide…..terrorists….”, Peter kept going, in a trance.

People seemed to know. Alex could hear voices around him, calling home. Calling loved ones. Leaving messages.

He groped for his phone. Denise!

He heard a shout from the back. A man rushed forward with an extinguisher in his hands. A crowd followed. They were trying to break into the cockpit. Regain control of the aircraft. The old flight attendant ran with a coffee pot in her hands. Distractedly he wondered what kind of a weapon hot coffee made.

The plane was gathering momentum. There were further shouts and screams. They had managed to get in! The plane was swinging turbulently. Peter had thrown up all over himself. Alex tried getting out of his seat but kept getting thrown back.  He looked out, and could make out a field. Ground that seemed to be getting closer. He was not a religious man, but a prayer crossed his lips.

A deafening bang. Fire.  Heat. Intense Heat.  Pain. Searing pain.  Moans. Cries.  Burning flesh.  Acrid smoke.

Darkness.

***

Somewhere a phone rang and rang and rang. The answering machine finally clicked in. A voice sobbed,

“I love you. I love you so much……”

THE END

This story was a runner up in the Writers’ Village short story competition.

http://www.writers-village.org/12-4-manco.php

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