“Sir, I’m very sorry, but all of our storage bins are full. You’ll have to gate-check this so we can safely—”
“I certainly shall not! Do you have any idea who I am? Where on earth is your supervisor?”
Even from the first row of economy class, Lane could still hear St. John shouting at one of the flight attendants. Once the man got in a snit about something, there was usually no stopping him until he had his way. They were probably going to have to cram Powell’s suitcase into the bin with all the first-aid supplies, based on the way this conversation had spiraled.
“—don’t worry. I understand your concern, but I assure you, we’ll take excellent care of it.”
Lane peered through the open first-class curtain that hung directly in front of his aisle seat. Standing in the middle of the first class aisle was a ginger woman in a black coatdress, smiling at St. John in a way that didn’t quite reach her eyes. The tone of her voice was as polite as you please, even as she essentially wrenched the giant black bag from Powell’s grasp and passed it off to another member of the crew, who tagged the handle and gave her the corresponding claim ticket.
She handed this to Powell. “Your bag will be waiting in the skybridge once we touch down at Kennedy.”
Well done, Lane thought, hiding a smile as St. John sat down in a pout.
In his jacket, his phone kept buzzing, and he checked it to see a flurry of texts from John Hooker, each more panicked than the last. Overground delayed; stuck on train indefinitely. Evacuating us to station now, will fetch cab to airport. Good lord, why on earth is the security terminal so crowded? Has no one ever heard of—?
Poor chap was probably going to miss the flight, Lane thought as he turned his phone off, and glanced at the empty window seat with a slash of envy. As a flight attendant passed – the same woman who’d wrestled St. John’s suitcase away from him – Lane got her attention with a raised hand.
“Sorry. Any idea when we’ll close the cabin doors?”
“As soon as we can.” Her pointed tone was just this side of annoyed.
Lane grimaced. The question he’d meant to ask (I think my colleague may miss the flight, what should he do?) suddenly seemed very callous.
“Sorry about row two,” he said instead, jerking a thumb toward the outline of seats beyond the economy curtain. “St. John’s very demanding. If he causes you too much trouble, just let me know, and I’ll try to help.”
Her mouth tightened. One hand was still poised on the closed storage bin directly above his seat. “I know how to take care of my passengers.”
Had he offended her? “No, of course. I should clarify—I work for Powell. His secretary will probably miss the plane, which is why they’re all in a mood. But he’ll be nicer to you if you compliment his tie. They’re handmade in Italy, or something equally snobbish.”
She blinked at Lane as if she had seen him for the first time, and the tension dropped away from her face.
“Powell’s his last name?” she asked finally. “Mr. Suitcase.”
“Oh. Yes. St. John Powell.”
“Thank you.” Her expression had softened; she gave him a small smile before walking into the first class cabin and getting St. John’s attention.
“Mr. Powell, if you’d like, you can place a drink order in advance of the beverage service. My name is Joan. I’ll take care of it personally.” A pause, no more than a second. “Oh, what a beautiful tie. I love that color.”
Lane caught the words thank you and Italian silk and couldn’t help biting back a laugh. She was selling this beautifully.
A bell dinged; the pilot’s voice rang out through the cabin, and drowned out the rest of their conversation.
Hello from the cockpit, folks; this is Captain Sterling and First Officer Olson. We’ve got about nine hours to our destination tonight, but we’ll try to shave off some time once we’re in the air…
As the pilot continued talking, Lane leaned his head back against his seat and closed his eyes, hoping for a little doze before takeoff.
By the time dinner service started, Lane had woken up and moved to the window seat; currently, he was lost in thought, staring out across the wing of the plane. He couldn’t even find it in his heart to think poor John; selfishly, he was glad to have a little space to himself. International flights were always such a strain, especially right before a big client meeting.
“Mr. Pryce? Anything to drink?”
Lane turned; surprised to be referred to by name, and saw the attendant from before – Joan – standing next to his row. The rectangular silver beverage cart was poised directly in front of her. Somewhere behind it, further down the aisle, a flight attendant with a scarf in her long blonde hair laughed with other passengers as she passed out drinks and snacks.
“Well.” He decided to make a little joke. “Would love a gin and tonic, but water will do in a pinch.”
She handed him a small plastic cup, complete with a generous pour of water, but before he could put the drink down and turn back to the window, she held up a finger, indicating he ought to wait. With practiced ease, she plucked a nipper of gin and a can of club soda from her cart, deposited a small amount of ice into the cup, and made the drink in seconds, complete with a spear of fresh lime.
“Oh.” Lane fumbled for his wallet, thinking she’d misheard him, but before he could pay, she shook her head no and placed the gin in his free hand.
“It’s on the house. So don’t tell.”
Lane had no idea what to say. “Oh?”
“You helped me.” She smiled at him again before shutting the drawer on her side of the cart. “I appreciate that.”
Oh. Lane stared at the fizzing drink in surprise for a couple of seconds. Happy anticipation bubbled in his stomach. Well, that’s kind of her.
As they were cleaning up the galley kitchen from dinner, Kate picked up the intercom and immediately heard Stan’s voice.
“Hey, we’re low on coffee filters back here.”
Phone presssed to her ear, she yanked open the upper compartment, labeled Oven No. 2. “Sure thing. Grabbing a pack.”
“Anything happening up there?”
“Eh, the usual.” Some hipster guy in a tank top had asked for six sugars with his coffee, and then poured a Red Bull straight into it. Three old ladies had complained about the A/C and needed extra blankets. An ugly guy in business class had tried to put his hand on her ass; she’d accidentally hit his knee with the drink cart in revenge. “Red’s flirting with a three-piece suit.”
Suit: a businessman, usually American. Three-piece: one of the English persuasion.
Stan snorted out loud. “Who, suitcase guy?”
“Nah, six bee,” Kate glanced down the aisle. The craggy-faced man in tweed sipped his gin and tonic as he stared out the window, a pleased smile curling around his lips. “Keeps checking on him. If you find out his first name, you have to tell her.”
“Ooh la la.”
A clanking noise.
“Shit. Joyce! You didn’t close the top hatch—”
Dial tone. Kate rolled her eyes and hung up the phone.
After the waifish brunette came through with the bin bag and collected the cabin trash, Lane was happy to see Joan appear in the aisle next, pausing just beside the curtain in front of his row and writing something on a slip of paper. This time, she had a pair of square black glasses perched on her nose; they gave her an air of studious authority, like a tenured professor.
Everyone around him seemed to be asleep, based on how quiet it had got after dinner. The only true lights came from individual seats and the large monitor mounted on the paneled wall, so he could only see Joan dimly, lit up from behind by an ethereal blue glow.
“How was your drink?” she asked after a minute.
After a meal, the gin, and the catnap he’d had before, he felt very refreshed. Certainly not ready to settle in for the night. All the earlier rushing around now felt like a bad dream.
“Wonderful. Erm. Thank you again.”
“Good.” She scrawled down a few more words on her notepad. "I love how relaxed the plane gets this time of night."
“How is it up front?” Lane asked in a low voice. When she glanced up, he motioned her closer. “Powell treating you any better?”
“Well, as I said, John missed the flight, so we’re down a secretary in New York. Hopefully they didn't take it out on you.”
“No, they haven’t.” Based on her noncommital tone, Lane worried he was being a dreadful bore, but after a moment, she tucked her pencil and paper into her skirt pocket, and walked one step to her right, so she was standing more or less in front of John’s empty seat. “No wonder you wanted that gin.”
He laughed before he could help it.
“Yes, well. What about you? When do you get your drink?”
She let out a snort, and leaned back slightly against the wall. “Not soon enough.”
Lane’s next remark fell out of his mouth so easily it was almost shocking. “Well, I’d offer to buy you one, but I’m not sure if that’s allowed.”
He expected that he’d need to cut out his tongue for being so stupid, but Joan did not sock him in the nose, which was encouraging. When she glanced at him again, he could swear her eyes gleamed bright behind her dark glasses.
“Give me another hour, and I just might take you up on that.”
His mouth opened and closed soundlessly, but before he could say anything, she made a tiny oh! of surprise, and walked quickly past him. Answering a summons, probably. Lane glanced back to see what was the matter, but couldn’t make out anything beyond the third row. Damned small lights.
About an hour later, when the cabin was quiet and so dark that even the illuminated screens showing their progress over the Atlantic were turned off, Lane felt a small tap on his shoulder and turned to see Joan in the aisle.
“Mind if I sit next to you?” she asked, and gestured toward the aisle seat with the end of a battered paperback. “I’m finally on a break.”
“Please.” Lane wasn’t sure why she didn’t want to sit up front with the rest of the crew, but perhaps it was a last resort of some kind.
“Hopefully your seat isn’t broken, or anything,” he offered lamely.
“Oh, no.” She fastened her seat belt, and settled back in her chair with a sigh. “Nothing like that.”
He stayed quiet, as there didn’t seem to be an end to that particular thought.
“On longer flights, especially the empty ones, we take shifts when everyone’s asleep.” One shoulder lifted in a shrug. “My turn to tap out for a couple of hours.”
“Guessing someone else drew the short straw this time.”
“That and our last flight this way was awful.” Joan let out a low huff of a laugh. “I spent forty minutes pretending to comfort a corpse, so. Stan owes me.”
“What.” He was aghast. “You’re kidding.”
She shook her head no.
One of the male flight attendants – the bearded one, possibly Stan – passed through the curtain and handed a bright double-walled coffee mug to Joan without a word as he walked toward the back of the plane. Shift drink, if Lane guessed correctly.
She took it in both hands, drank deeply, and let out a satisfied sigh.
“Oh, I needed that.”
“Cheers.” Lane held out his plastic cup of water; they toasted. “Now. Tell me this chap was at least alive when you took off?”
She smiled again around the rim of her cup. “He was. I wish it had been more like Weekend at Bernie’s. Instead I felt like I was in a dinner theater production of The Walking Dead.”
“Weekend at Bernie’s?”
He couldn’t help grinning; Joan let out a low little laugh.
“It’s my favorite movie. Embarrassing, right?”
God, he’d never have guessed that in a hundred years.
“Well, the costume wasn’t a bad idea. You know, you should have dressed the dead chap up a bit before you landed. Sunglasses, trenchcoat, whole thing. Would have taken the nerves right off.”
“Exactly! You know, I even thought about tipping his hat over his face.”
Lane was surprised at how natural it felt to talk to a perfect stranger, and after awhile, he just stopped thinking about it altogether. They went from chatting about the weather and their work to swapping tales about their families. He learned that Joan was divorced, living with her mother and four-year-old son, Kevin; he told her a little about himself and many stories about Nigel’s school adventures in return. By the time the dotted yellow line signaled that they were somewhere over Greenland, Lane felt as if they’d known each other for ages, instead of for a few hours.
Eventually, they stopped chatting, and just sat in companionable silence under the soft glow of dual reading lights. Joan got through a chapter or two in her paperback before she started leafing through the new issue of their in-flight magazine, occasionally directing his attention to a funny word or picture.
Lane paged through the rest of his newspaper and the battered issue of The Economist he’d picked up in the terminal, then started the crossword, which caught Joan’s attention.
Thirty minutes later, they were deep in concentration.
“Hm.” Lane tapped his pen against the open page, trying not to jostle the tray table they were currently sharing. “Forty down. Eleven letters. Vintage cigarette brand.”
“It’s not Virginia Slims.” Joan leaned forward, counting under her breath; Lane caught a whiff of sweet perfume, and had to concentrate to keep from turning his head into the crook of her neck. “Oh! Lucky Strike.”
She wrote it in; that fit, and seemed to complement fifty-nine across.
He started to read off the next clue – popular television series set in historic Highclere Castle – when one of the other flight attendants popped up next to their row—the bescarved blonde woman who was working first class with Joan.
“Three dee,” was all she said, grimacing. “Sorry, girl.”
Joan groaned under her breath, shot Lane a plaintive look, and unbuckled her seat belt. And just like that, once she was standing, all traces of annoyance vanished; she squared her shoulders, strode through the curtain, and began talking to 3D and the rest of her passengers as if it were the only thing she wanted to do in the world.
Lane was in awe of her.
And then he realized that because of John’s absence, he’d have to bear up the immense secretarial duties until someone could contact Andrea or find a replacement, and sank back into his seat with an unhappy whimper.
Sadly, once dawn broke and the other passengers began to stir, there wasn’t any more time for Joan to visit with him; she was trying to manage first class breakfast and juggle the whims of Powell and everyone like him.
Rationally, Lane understood that she was doing her job – a very difficult job – and that he really ought to leave her alone, but he also had a sort of vain hope that perhaps they could get to know each other a bit more, since Joan lived in New York, and he was here for business more often than not anyway. He didn’t have any real friends in the city apart from some cordial work contacts, and based on how well they’d got along earlier, it seemed as if a genuine friendship – nothing else, he told himself sternly – was possible.
Once Powell woke up and had his breakfast, he began to issue his usual unending stream of orders, and came back to economy so many times to give Lane instructions that eventually, Joan stepped through the curtain and turned on the seat belt sign, instructing all passengers to stay in their seats.
“Who normally does all of this?” she asked after she hung up the receiver, giving him a sympathetic look. "Not exactly financial work."
“Oh – well no. John takes care of it.” Lane let out a sigh. “Wish we could get up with Andrea. She’s the executive secretary in New York. Works out of a staffing firm.”
“You have their number?”
Probably trying to mitigate the collateral damage up front, Lane assumed. “Erm. Yeah.” He rummaged around through the papers in his carry-on, found a scrap piece of paper, and wrote down the only telephone number he could remember for the service. It was probably ten years out of date, but at least it was something. “Here.”
“Thanks.” Their fingers brushed as she took the scrap of paper from his hand. “Let me see what I can do.”
And she winked at him before passing back through the curtain.
Lane turned scarlet-red. Awash with the excitement of possibilities as he leaned back in his seat, he snuck a surreptitious look to his right. Apparently no one else had seen this happen, which was slightly disappointing, as he really felt like making an announcement to the plane at large. Joan – that beautiful woman, just there, the adorable ginger in the black dress – winked at me. No, really. Can someone please confirm we haven’t died in a fiery crash, or something?
Winked at him.
God, he wanted to see her do that again.
Ask her out, Lane’s traitorous mind insisted as he slowly packed up his things to depart. Two or three attendants were busy picking through the first class lounge as the stragglers collected their luggage and deplaned, but he hadn’t seen Joan pass by yet. And he really wanted to; even if all they could do was exchange a nice goodbye.
Powell again, voice more impatient than ever as he strode into economy class, blocking Lane’s path to the exit. “My suitcase is missing. Call the airline at once, then phone our driver and—”
“Mister Powell, there you are.”
Oh, god, Lane had never been happier to see Joan come through that curtain.
Placing a hand on St. John’s arm, she gave the man a sunny smile, as if he hadn’t spent the last ten hours annoying the daylights out of everyone around them. “Andrea is waiting for you at the end of the jet bridge. She’s collected your gate-checked bag and made arrangements for the rest of your day. You and Mister Ford are ready to go.”
Frankly, Lane relished the witless shock that passed over Powell’s face. The man’s mouth almost dropped open, but he tried to rally himself as if he’d known these things all along.
“My—oh. Oh. Yes. Good.”
“Let’s not keep her waiting,” Joan prompted, indicating that Powell could lead the way back through the first class section.
Clearly too stunned to argue, Powell did as he was told.
Lane mimed a low whistle as he and Joan locked eyes, and she raised a knowing eyebrow. There were seasoned executives who couldn’t get that man to do their bidding, and here Joan was, making it look as easy as breathing.
But how the hell had Andrea managed to get in touch in the first place? Had Joan arranged some part of this?
“Whatever you’re getting paid,” he murmured to her, hoping to make her laugh one more time before he left, “it isn’t enough. That was genius.”
Joan’s smile brightened, and her blue eyes lit up so prettily that Lane nearly forgot his own name. Quickly, he steeled his nerves.
“Do you—want to have breakfast with me?”
Her mouth pursed in surprise.
“I mean, I only thought – not sure if you have plans, or something, but—”
“Breakfast sounds great.”
Lane let out a relieved sigh, and shifted his satchel to his right shoulder. “Oh. Well, good. I’m, er, not up on my New York restaurant knowledge these days, so do let me know if you’ve got a spot in mind.”
“Don’t worry. There are a few fun places near my apartment.”
Ah. Well, she probably knew all the best ones, anyway.
“Unless you just want to have sex.”
He did a double-take, nearly dropping his phone as a hot flush shot through his chest. Before he could blurt out anything phenomenally stupid, he caught the sly upward twitch of Joan’s mouth, and the other shoe dropped.
“Oh.” He blew out a shaky breath, and tried to laugh, although his heart was racing. “Oh. You—you’re just teasing me.”
“Sort of.” Joan patted his bicep with an amused noise; Lane’s eyebrows nearly shot into his hair. What the hell did that mean? “Give me ten minutes, and I should be ready to go. I’ll meet you by the gate, okay?”
“Right.” Lane’s brain was still stuck on sort of. “Okay. See you soon.”
As he walked down the jet bridge and emerged into the terminal, he saw Andrea far in the distance, patiently shepherding Powell, Ford, an airline employee with a luggage trolley, and someone else he didn’t recognize toward baggage claim.
Quickly, he checked his phone to make sure there were no outstanding messages. Only text that was showing on-screen was from John, time-stamped very early this morning.
Andrea’s just phoned me for the full itinerary. Everything ought to be on schedule once you get to JFK.
And, because John could never resist sticking the needle in: You seem to have things well in hand this time.
Yes, Lane thought cheerfully, not a bit bothered by John’s passive-aggressive tone. For once in his life, something had gone exactly as it was meant to.