Chapter 1: Act 1
Hey, you! Yes, you in row three with your head lolling against the window. If you don't mind my saying so—you look a little bored. Well, most people are, don't worry; I don't take it personally. I was just wondering... Maybe you'd like to hear a story to while away the time? I've lived through uncounted adventures during my time, but being an admirer of Shakespeare myself, I especially enjoy narrating how the crew of MJN unwittingly staged an impromptu performance of 'Much Ado About Nothing'. Oh, don't look at me like that! Is it so impossible to imagine I might like Shakespeare? Or that I love to tell stories?
I have to admit I haven't been present for all the scenes in person. After all, although I consider myself free as a bird, there are quite a lot of places it's impossible for me to go. But trust me, I have my sources. Besides, people always underestimate how much I notice, and as a consequence, I learn many a thing they never would have let anyone else hear or see.
So, are you ready? Do you sit comfortably?
The story I'm going to tell took place during one of MJN's bigger jobs, the kind of job that makes Carolyn very happy: A client had booked MJN for a month to fly to various places and to be on stand-by for the rest of the time. Unfortunately, that is also the kind of job which makes Martin unhappy because it's bad for his van business, so don't judge him too hard if he seems a little ill-humoured.
Let us begin on the first day of said job, when Martin and Carolyn were sitting in the portacabin, waiting for their client to arrive. Carolyn was resolutely typing away on her laptop, while Martin shuffled through paperwork, looking pointedly at his watch every few minutes. Don't assume, though, that Martin was impatient with the client, because he wasn't. He was eager to get up in the air as always, but most of all he was annoyed with Douglas, who hadn't shown up yet, for being late once again.
Before Martin had worked up enough anger to complain, however, Arthur burst into the little office, waving his mobile phone.
"Mum, Skip! Douglas just called! He says he'll be here in twenty minutes!"
"Hear, hear," Martin said sourly. "Is the great sky god finally condescending to grace us with his presence?"
Arthur's forehead wrinkled in confusion. "What do you mean, Skip?"
"I guess we can consider ourselves lucky that the client wasn't here on time, can't we, now?" Martin continued, his pent-up annoyance finally finding an outlet. "Seriously, Carolyn, I can't believe that you let Douglas get away with this. Even his luck is bound to fail him one day."
Carolyn looked up from her laptop and focused Martin over the brim of her reading glasses. "The client couldn't have been here before Douglas because it's Douglas who's picking her up," she replied.
"What?!" Martin exclaimed. "Douglas is driving? Do you want her to be travel-sick before we even take off? You know how Douglas drives!"
"Martin," Carolyn said with a sigh. "It is very nice of you be concerned about the well-being of our client, but trust me, I'm not shy asking your opinion should I need it. Not that I expect that I will ever need it. But as it happens, she insisted on Douglas driving."
"Well, she can't know what she's asking for, then," Martin said stubbornly.
Carolyn smirked. "Actually, I believe she knows him rather well."
"Oh God, please tell me she's not one of his girlfriends," Martin groaned. "It's bad enough having to listen to him bragging about all his alleged flings; I really don't need to witness any of that in person. Besides, this client has hired us for a month, hasn't she? Do Douglas's relationships even last that long?"
"What, do you think they might break up?" Arthur piped in. "That really could be a bit not brilliant. I still remember when I was a kid and Mum and Dad..."
"Yes, there is no need to remind me of that," Carolyn interjected testily. "And leave the worrying to me, will you? I'm sure nothing of the sort will happen. Go do the walk-around, Martin, we want to be ready when they get here."
As Arthur had predicted, Douglas arrived twenty minutes later with the passengers—three passengers, to be precise. Obviously in charge of the small group was a woman in her fifties who whirled into the portacabin in a flurry of elegant dark red and expensive perfume. Going by the stories Douglas loved to tell, Martin had always assumed that Douglas preferred his girlfriends to be much younger, but otherwise he wasn't surprised by the stunning figure in front of him. This woman looked as if she could hold her ground against Douglas perfectly well and would be enjoying it, too. In short, she was the perfect match for Douglas, which irked Martin although he couldn't quite explain why.
After the lady in red, a girl in her early twenties slouched in. She looked fragile in a too large, dark hoodie and a mob of black, unkempt hair, awkwardly hauling a big rucksack with her. Last, and easily overlooked, a young, nondescript man in a plain business suit followed.
"Welcome to MJN Air, Mrs Richardson!" Carolyn greeted the woman, sporting her most friendly smile, the one that delicate natures still tend to find intimidating. "I hope your trip to the airfield was agreeable."
"Very much, thank you, Mrs Knapp-Shappey."
"Mrs Richardson?" Martin scoffed and looked at Douglas, brow furrowed disapprovingly. "I didn't know you got married again, so soon after Helena."
"Helena?" Mrs Richardson enquired with an amused smile.
"Yes, didn't he tell you? His third wife," Martin said. "Douglas, this is quite fast even for your standards."
"Jealous, are we, Martin?" Douglas quipped. "But no, I am not married. Not saying that I couldn't have been, as opposed to some other people who can't even get a date despite wearing a captain's uniform and a hat that—"
"Douglas, Martin," Carolyn interrupted. "Please can we try to take off this very day? Messina isn't waiting for us. Well, Messina probably is waiting, it's not that it can go anywhere, but the airfield closes over night."
"I'm sure we can," Douglas agreed. "Martin, meet my first wife Catherine, her daughter Missy, and her junior partner, Nathan Clarke."
"Oh." Martin blushed. "Oooh! I... I am so sorry! I didn't... Well, anyway, welcome, Mrs Richardson. I'm Martin. I mean, Captain Martin Crieff."
"Thank you," Catherine answered. "Nice to meet you."
When Martin didn't move and instead kept staring awkwardly at Catherine, Douglas cleared his throat. "Now that the introductions are made, might we want to move to the plane? Otherwise the whole flying thing could prove a tad difficult."
"Oh, yes, yes, of course," Martin said hastily and stalked off, not without ungracefully catching the sleeve of his uniform in the door handle and stumbling out of the portacabin.
Much to Carolyn's relief, however, after that small incident it didn't take very long until both passengers and crew were settled into their respective seats, the pre-takeoff checks had been completed and clearance for take-off acquired. There was one question, though, that kept nagging at Martin throughout the whole routine, and as soon as he felt confident that the flight was well on its way and the autopilot was doing its job, he asked:
"Douglas, is Mrs Richardson's daughter...?" He let the sentence trail off.
"Well, is she your daughter?"
"No. Why, is she your type?" Douglas asked.
"What?" Martin ejaculated. "I... what? Where would you even get such an idea?"
"Well, how am I supposed to know?" Douglas raised his palms in an exaggeratedly innocent gesture. "It's not that I have ever met any of your dates to get an idea of Sir's tastes. Hmm, why is that, I wonder... Oh, might it be because you don't have dates?"
"You'd be the last person to who I'd introduce my dates," Martin said. "And for your information, no, she's not my type, definitely not. I was just worried about how many of your genes the world would have to deal with. God knows one of your sort is more than enough."
"Luckily enough, we don't have to worry about your genes being passed on," Douglas replied. "What with the lack of dates and all."
Martin shot a dark look at Douglas, but didn't reply. A long pause followed in which Martin pretended to be busy with the console and Douglas sported that predatory gleam that meant he was either making plans to chat up a pretty woman or scheming his next ploy to pick on Martin. It's hard to tell the difference sometimes.
It was Martin who finally broke the silence. "Is this the Mrs Richardson who you are paying such a large alimony?" he asked.
"No," Douglas replied. "If anything, this Mrs Richardson should pay me alimony. She's leading a very successful clothing company and makes more money than Carolyn can ever dream of, and take it from me, Carolyn can imagine a lot of money. As far as I can tell, Catherine could easily afford her own jet."
"Then why has she chosen MJN?"
Douglas smiled self-congratulatory. "Because she knows me."
"That's exactly my point," Martin said dryly.
"Well, certainly not because she has heard so much about MJN's great captain. While the story about how you landed with the brakes on is indeed worth telling, it's not the kind of thing that tends to attract customers."
"That was ages ago! Besides, I don't suppose most passengers would take kindly to the idea of the first officer smuggling live tarantulas in the galley cupboard."
"Perhaps not," Douglas admitted. "But they never found out, did they? Whereas the screeching noises from the landing gear and the bumpy touch-down were very hard to miss. You even managed to wake the drunk gentleman in the last row, which, if nothing else, at least saved us the trouble of having to drag his unconscious form from the plane."
"Douglas, just because people don't know what you're doing doesn't make it alright!"
"No? I'll tell you what, Captain We-Do-Everything-By-The-Book: If I hadn't told you about the tarantulas, we wouldn't even have this conversation, seeing that you wouldn't know."
"If you hadn't told me, at least it wouldn't have been my responsibility if something had gone wrong," Martin countered. "But I guess it's not fun for you and your oversized ego if you can't boast about it, is it?"
Douglas narrowed his eyes. "If that's how you feel, Sir, I won't bother to tell you anything anymore in the future."
"Fine." Martin crossed his arms in front of his chest and stared out of the window.
"Fine," said Douglas.
Promises, promises. But our dear pilots can never refrain for long from bantering with each other, whatever they might say. If you know your Shakespeare, you can probably guess where this is heading, can't you? Funny how people can be so ignorant about what is so obvious to outsiders. But if you know your Shakespeare, then you'll also wonder who else is going to suffer from busybodies and gossip. Let me tell you what Arthur had been up to on that flight. Luckily for him, Carolyn had allowed him to help with the stewarding instead of forcing him to hide in the locker as was her wont when flying important customers, and thus, cheerily as ever, Arthur went around with the drinks trolley: first to Catherine, then to Nathan, and last to Missy, who had chosen a spot in the back row where she'd set up a stack of books and a laptop.
"Good day, Madame. Would you like anything to drink? We've got tea or— Oh, is that the Lady of the Lake?"
Missy looked up at Arthur, then down on her tee shirt that was partly visible under the open front of her hoodie.
"Yes, it is," she admitted warily.
"That's brilliant! I always wanted to get one of these, but Mum didn't let me use her credit card. I got the special edition DVD for Christmas though! It's one of my favourite movies ever. Well, beside Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure. And movies with aeroplanes. Or polar bears."
"Oh, is it? Awesome!" Missy flashed a shy smile at Arthur and closed the lid of her laptop. "Most of my friends find it trashy and stupid. But I think it's much smarter than they give it credit for."
"Wow, I have to remember that for next time when anyone says something funny about it," Arthur said. "Did you know that Hester Macaulay flew with us once?"
"You're kidding me! Really?" Missy asked with wide eyes.
"Really!" Arthur nodded emphatically, almost shaking off his self-made hat. "You can ask Mum."
"Did you talk to Hester? Did you get her autograph?"
"I did talk to her," Arthur said. "Sort of. Until I said something about her cat and she wanted me to get out of her sight. I didn't get around to asking her for an autograph. She was rather ... a bit tired of the fans."
"Yeah, I suppose she would be," Missy said thoughtfully. "I don't believe she was ever at any of the conventions." Then she grinned at Arthur. "So, what do you reckon, when Griselda asked Arthur to bring her Excalibur—did she already know that he was a vampire?"
"Oh wow! I never thought about that!" Arthur exclaimed. "But now that you mention it... that's a really interesting question! Did she know he was a vampire?"
"You know, I have a theory," Missy answered and re-opened her laptop, shuffling in her seat so that Arthur could look over her shoulder. "What if in this scene..."
Soon the drinks were forgotten, as were any other of Arthur's duties. Please excuse an old lady if she can't reproduce in more detail what else Arthur and Missy talked about—I can hardly keep up with all the films and music, computer games and social networks young people spend so much time with. Suffices to say, they got on very well, Arthur smitten with Missy's knowledge and unusual ideas about various movies, and Missy warming up to Arthur's enthusiasm and open-mindedness. At some point, Carolyn retrieved the drinks trolley from Arthur, rolling her eyes at the two but keeping any remarks to herself, and magnanimously decided to take over the catering.
All in all, that flight to Messina was a rather uneventful one. The sky was clear, there was only little wind, and the landing was as smooth as Martin is capable of. I'd like to point out that, against all odds, even the seat belt signs were working flawlessly.
By the time MJN and their passengers had landed, Carolyn was pleased about a job well done, Martin and Douglas were caught in one of their perpetual quarrels, and Arthur was practically brimming with happiness and the overwhelming feeling of having met a soul mate. As everyone scattered to the winds once they reached the small airfield, the only person who happened to be around when Arthur finally couldn't hold back his words any longer was poor Douglas.
"Hi Douglas!" Arthur beamed. "That was a great flight, wasn't it?!"
"Was it? You seem rather down," Douglas replied, not yet knowing what it was that Arthur was about to share, but already suspecting he wouldn't be interested in the least.
"Oh, do I?" Arthur asked in earnest.
"No, not really," Douglas sighed. As always, Arthur failed to notice his sarcasm, and as a consequence, wasn't put off by it.
"Ah," Arthur just said, and his face lit up again. "Well, I'm just so happy I met Missy! She's brilliant! And very smart and very pretty!"
"Oh, is she now. Obviously that's in the eye of the beholder. If you ask me, her rabbit teeth..."
Arthur, too busy gushing over his crush, wasn't listening. "She knows all the names of all the actors in Quest of Camelot! And Star Wars! And..."
"Yes, that sounds very smart indeed," Douglas quipped.
"She also reads maths at University," Arthur added.
Douglas's eyebrows rose. "Now that is smart, I have to admit."
"It is, isn't it? It's great!"
"Is it really. Last time we were playing Monopoly and you had three of the stations, your enthusiasm for maths was much less pronounced," Douglas remarked.
"It isn't fun if I have to do it, but if Missy talks about it, it's brilliant! She even knows why planes can fly upside down. It's because... the wings... err... the wings... I forgot. Something about an angle of attack or something?"
"You two seem like a perfect match."
"You think?" Arthur asked hopefully. "She's the sweetest girl I've ever met. I believe I'm in love! It feels amazing!"
"Love?" Douglas asked and furrowed his brows in disdain. "You should be careful with words as portentous as that."
"Portentous. I'm sure Missy would love to explain it to you. So you believe you are in love?"
Arthur nodded. "You know that feeling when you have eaten too much fizzy powder and your stomach feels all funny? That's how I feel."
"Is it like having eaten Surprising Rice?" Douglas enquired.
"Naaah, you can't compare that at all! When you eat fizzy powder, it feels funny the good way! Like being in love!"
"Ah," Douglas said. "Well, I have to admit it does ring a faint bell, though I have no intentions to live through any of that ever again. In my experience, it's not worth the trouble."
"Aww, Douglas!" Arthur said. "You are probably just saying that because of your divorce. Mum says you are bitter and that it serves you ri— uh. Well, she didn't mean it like that. I'm sure you'll find someone soon!"
Douglas opened his mouth, but was spared from coming up with a witty comeback by the arrival of Catherine Richardson.
"Who will find someone?" she asked.
"Hello Catherine," Douglas said smoothly. "It seems our dear Arthur has found someone—namely your daughter."
"Oh, has he?" Catherine smiled. "How lovely to hear!"
"You say that now because you haven't known Arthur for very long," Douglas remarked. "He's not quite the dream of prospective mothers in-law, as you'll soon find out."
"I'm sure he's a nice guy," Catherine said. "Besides, Missy seems to like him. That's all that counts, isn't it?"
"Good Lord, I am caught in a Harlequin novel," Douglas replied, dramatically rolling his eyes for emphasis.
Arthur ignored him, probably because he didn't understand what Douglas was getting at, and looked at Catherine with big eyes. "Does she really? Like me? What a nice thing to say. Oh! I totally forgot to get her email. Do you know where she is, Mrs Richardson?"
"Probably in the next bookstore," Catherine said with a smile that was half long-suffering, half fond. "But you know, I have an idea: Missy and I are throwing a Halloween party in our holiday home on Saturday. What if I invite you and the rest of MJN to join the fun?"
"You would do that?" Arthur practically bounced. "That would be great! I love Halloween! Is it with costumes and everything?"
"I insist on costumes."
"Brilliant! I get to see Missy! In costumes! That's like Christmas and birthday and Birling day together!"
"Look what you've done," Douglas said to Catherine. "He's like a bunny rabbit on crack!"
"But a cute bunny rabbit," Catherine replied, then she laid a familiar hand on Douglas's arm. "Douglas, might you be a little envious?"
"Envious? Me? What on earth would I be envious about?"
"The blossoming of a young love..." Catherine said wistfully.
"I really am caught in a Harlequin novel," Douglas scoffed.
"Don't be so grumpy, Douglas." Catherine nudged him in the side. "You might fall in love sooner than you imagine."
"I'll do my very best to avoid it. And as you well know, if I set my mind to something, I usually achieve it."
"I take it your last marriage didn't go well, then? Ah, Douglas, don't worry, you'll get over her, and knowing you, it'll be sooner rather than later. Helena, was it?"
"Please spare me your advice. My love life doesn't need help from Forrest Gump, and it certainly doesn't need help from my ex-wife, emphasis on ex. In fact, I'm very happy with its current state. I flirt, I have sex, I have fun... whatever would I miss?"
"What about..." Catherine began, but Douglas didn't let her finish.
"That was a rhetoric question, Catherine. I am sure you've heard of the concept. Keep plotting your romance novel, if you must, but do leave me out of it. I have to go anyway; lots of stewardesses are waiting for an exciting evening with a dashing pilot. Bye!"
"I expect you at the Halloween party!" Catherine called after him. "Costumes are mandatory!"
The only answer was a non-committal wave of Douglas's hand.
When Douglas was out of ear-shot, Catherine turned around towards Arthur. "Is it me or is he unusually moody?"
Arthur chewed thoughtfully on his bottom lip. "He is always very sarcastic, but he does seem a bit stroppy, doesn't he? Maybe it's because you are his ex-wife? Mum always gets very cranky around dad."
Catherine laughed. "Maybe."
"Do you really think Missy likes me, Mrs Richardson?"
"Oh, yes, indeed."
"Wow," Arthur said. "Thank you for doing this—inviting us, I mean. Now I just need to get a costume. Hmmm... What would Missy like?"
"I'm sure she'd like it best if it were your idea," Catherine replied.
"Right-o. Hmmm, let's see... My last Halloween costume was great! I was a cucumber!"
"Really?" Catherine said, suppressing a laugh.
"Yes! That was fun! Anyway, thanks again for the invitation! I need to go now! Find costume shops! Bye, Mrs Richardson!"
Arthur turned around and ran off, almost bouncing into Martin who had been lurking behind an artificial plant nearby.
Being an earnest man, Martin probably hadn't planned to hide and eavesdrop, especially since he knows he's never lucky enough to not get caught if he wants to spy, but as it happens, Martin had overheard most part of the conversation between Douglas, Catherine and Arthur. Now that the others had vanished into various directions, he was left pondering what he'd heard.
"Martin, have you put down roots?" Carolyn asked when she found him where he was standing around undecidedly. "God knows you are small enough to be a seedling."
"Very funny, Carolyn," Martin replied.
"Thank you. Now, are you coming? Because I am not paying for more than one taxi to the hotel."
"You might have to rethink your plans," Martin said. "Maybe a little shopping tour is in order. Or at least I reckon that's what Arthur's doing right now."
"Don't tell me he's looking for Toblerones," Carolyn sighed.
"No. I mean, maybe he is, but he's also looking for a costume. We have been invited to a Halloween party."
"What?" Carolyn barked. "By whom?"
"Well... did you know that Arthur has a little crush on Missy?"
"That is hard to overlook. I don't believe Arthur even knows the meaning of subtle. What surprises me most is that she's his type, apart from her name."
"She is, obviously," Martin said with a grin. "And she likes him back."
"That would be even more surprising, if it were true. But as you surely know, Martin, you are neither a good psychologist, nor skilled in the matters of love. And anyway, why this sudden interest in my son's love live?"
"I overheard Mrs Richardson talking to Douglas and Arthur," Martin replied. "Mrs Richardson invited us all to her Halloween party on Saturday so that Arthur can see Missy again."
"Did she, now?" Carolyn asked slowly, her expression becoming speculative. "Halloween party as in free dinner?"
Martin shrugged. "Probably."
"Well, Mrs Richardson can't know Arthur very well, but then, Arthur spent his whole flight pestering Missy, so it's not that she had a chance. Otherwise she'd probably want to keep him away from her daughter instead of inviting him. I know I would. But she'll find out soon enough; until then, let us not look a gift horse in the mouth, shall we?"
Martin hadn't been the only one who had overheard the conversation between Douglas, Catherine and Arthur: Nathan had listened unobserved, too. If this were a tale of fiction, you had all rights to accuse me of constructing a very coincidental plot, but I assure you this is exactly how it happened.
In any case, Nathan knew, but where Carolyn and Martin were mildly surprised, Nathan was positively unhappy with the latest development. You see, he was having an eye on Missy himself and didn't like the idea of having a rival. Pacing anxiously up and down, he dialled—shall we say an acquaintance?—to deliberate on the situation.
"Yes, Nathan?" the man on the other end of the connection said.
"You know that bloody air charter that flew us to Messina today?" Nathan practically spat into the phone; gone was all the calm and polite demeanour he had shown so far.
"What about them? Did they forget your luggage? Did they screw up the landing?"
"No, the flight was okay," Nathan admitted.
"Yes...? What is it, then?"
"You won't believe it." Nathan ran a hand through his hair. "Their so-called steward is making eyes at Missy!"
"A steward? You mean one of these gay pretty boys?"
"He's neither gay nor pretty. He's an idiot, but for some reason Missy seems to like him. At least I've never before seen her talking to anyone for such a long time," Nathan said bitterly.
"So you have competition, eh?"
"Under normal circumstances I wouldn't call him competition. I mean, it's almost ridiculous. As if Missy were mocking me. But she isn't, of course. She's always been a bit of a weirdo, so in a way, it figures."
"What are you going to do about it?"
"What can I do about it?" Nathan asked.
"Well, if you still believe that Missy's the best way to enhance your career..."
"Then there are several possibilities. Have you talked to her mother yet?"
"That's the worst about it: Catherine approves," Nathan said sourly. "She has invited that sorry excuse for a crew to the Halloween party so that the idiot and Missy can be together."
"Hm. That makes it harder, but not impossible..."
Chapter 2: Act 2
The next few days were marked by Arthur's continued excitement. He devoted most of his time to planning his costume, shopping for the necessary supplies, and informing everyone who didn't get away fast enough in lengthy detail about his progress. Martin spent nearly as much time fretting about his costume as Arthur did, but alas he didn't enjoy the process nearly as much. He was particularly concerned about what would be appropriate for an airline captain without being too stand-offish or putting a dent in his small budget. Carolyn, feeling unusually carefree due to having a secure income for another couple of weeks, was looking forward to the party in her own way. Of course, she mostly appreciated the opportunity to talk to potential new clients. And Douglas—Douglas made himself scarce and, much to Arthur's disappointment, wouldn't give away anything about his plans for his costume.
So the time passed and finally Carolyn, Martin and Arthur prepared to leave for the Richardson's holiday home. Douglas, who had been on mysterious errands all day, was nowhere to be seen, but in view of Arthur's ever-growing impatience, the remainder of MJN decided leave without their resourceful first officer. They arrived too early, but Nathan let them in and showed them into the empty living room, then he excused himself, murmuring something about last minute preparations. Carolyn, Arthur and Martin settled awkwardly into a corner of the festively-decorated room which was uncomfortably large and quiet and waiting for other guests to fill the space.
"Is it just me or is Mr Clarke a bit stroppy?" Martin asked in an attempt to break the silence.
"Yeah, he is, isn't he?" Arthur mused. "You know, he didn't say a single word to me the during whole flight, even when I was serving dessert."
"A wise man," Carolyn said.
Still lost in thought, Arthur didn't seem to notice her comment. "His costume looks really creepy with that black cape and the white mask and the strange hair."
"That's the Phantom of the Opera, Arthur," Martin explained.
"Oh," Arthur said.
"It's Halloween. It's supposed to be creepy," Carolyn added, looking pointedly at Arthur's and Martin's costumes. She had a point there: Arthur had dressed up as Bugs Bunny, complete with whiskers, big ears, false teeth, and a fluffy tail. Martin had turned a bed sheet into a toga, and his head was adorned by a cheap roman-style helmet. Carolyn herself had opted for a classical witch costume with pointy hat, fake hook nose and a black garb with spider imprints, which Douglas had commented on as being very fitting for the CEO of MJN Air.
"You know, I imagine a cross between Mr Clarke and Douglas would make an excellent bloke, actually," Martin said out of the blue. "One is silent as a post, the other likes to talk his head off..."
Carolyn raised an eyebrow at him. "God help me, but I think I do see the appeal. A man with Mr Clarke's sobriety and Douglas's charm would be quite something."
Martin nodded eagerly. "And if he'd be romantic and decent and sensitive..." He trailed off, suddenly aware of what he was saying, and to whom.
"Wow, Skip!" Arthur said. "But if you don't mind my saying so... you are never going to find someone if you have such a detailed list of expectations!"
Arthur may be an idiot, but once in a while he tends to hit the nail on the head, even if it's just by recalling something he's read in Cosmo.
Martin blushed. "What? Who said I was trying to find someone?"
"You were! Well, not just now, but I remember how you talked to Douglas about it!"
"I was just making ... general remarks about ... general things. Back then. And now! I wasn't implying... I mean I'm not..." Martin stuttered to a halt.
"Yes?" Carolyn prodded, not necessarily out of interest in Martin's love life, but more likely because there wasn't much else to talk about.
"What I meant to say: I'm not interested in a relationship. I am not trying to find someone," Martin clarified with emphasis.
"Oh, good." Carolyn said. "What is that sound I hear, I wonder. Might it be a sigh of relief from the bars and dating sites around the world?"
Martin shot her a sullen look.
"But Skip," Arthur said, eyes wide in disbelief. "Everyone wants someone in their life! Even Mum!"
"Arthur!" Carolyn warned.
Martin shook his head, trying his best to look determined. "I assure you, Arthur, I don't. I have a job I like which involves flying an aeroplane around the globe, and I have another job which earns me money. I certainly don't have time for a relationship."
"Aww, you are just saying that because you've had a bit of bad luck in the past. You can't give up like that, Skip!"
"A little more than a bit of bad luck," Carolyn murmured. "Along with a natural talent to screw things up."
"The whole romance and relationship thing is much more trouble than it's worth, in my opinion," Martin said with almost-believable conviction. Usually, he wasn't a very apt liar, but he had almost managed to convince himself that, despite previous statements to the contrary, he was happy as a single man.
"It's not! Romance is brilliant!" Arthur said with his trademark enthusiasm. "And it's totally worth it!"
"Martin," Carolyn interjected, a sudden and unexpected trace of warmth lacing her voice. "There's a nut for every bolt. See, even Arthur seems to have found someone."
"Oh yeah!" Arthur nodded, causing his rabbit ears to bounce. "Me!"
"You can't tell that after only three days in which you've barely seen each other," Martin protested.
"Of course I can! I love Missy!"
"Yes, well," Carolyn said. "Try not to do anything too stupid, will you? For some incomprehensible reason she seems to like you, and despite her name she's definitely much more likeable than any of your other girlfriends. And that's not even counting the potential future jobs such a connection might entail."
Someone had put some music on, and other guests were arriving now, gradually filling the room with bright colours and joyful chatter. Suddenly, it looked like a party. Carolyn glanced at the now-open buffet and stood up.
"I don't know about you two, but I'm not letting a perfectly fine dinner that looks like it cost quite a bit go to waste." She walked off, elbowing her way through the little crowd that had formed before the buffet.
Martin, not keen on throwing himself into the first rush for food, looked around and studied the costumes of the other guests. "I wonder if Douglas is here yet. He's always late. Why must he always be late?"
"I wouldn't worry, Skip. He might be that ghost over there! Or that— wow! What is that? That's brilliant!"
"I'm not worrying! And how can it be brilliant when you don't even know what it is?"
"That's just what makes it so brilliant!" Arthur said cheerfully. "Oh, do you reckon Missy could be the pirate with the big beard?"
Martin and Arthur kept discussing costumes, trying to guess whether Douglas or Missy were hidden beneath them. They weren't alone for long, though, before they were joined by a woman in an elaborate baroque dress who was covering her face with a golden vintage mask.
"Hello, boys," she purred, then she turned towards Arthur. "Care for a dance, young man?"
"I ... uh, thank you, I suppose," Arthur answered while Martin rolled his eyes, wondering how Arthur of all people managed to have such a luck with women lately.
"That's really nice of you to ask, but I'm waiting for someone," Arthur said. "And I'm not terribly good at dancing anyway. I tend to step on people's feet."
"What a pity," the woman replied and lowered her mask. "Might that someone you're waiting for be by any chance my daughter Missy?"
"Oh, hello Mrs Richardson! I didn't recognise you! Yes, I was waiting for Missy. Is she here yet?"
"She had a little last minute trouble with her costume. Let's go find her, shall we?"
Catherine linked her arm with Arthur's and steered him away. Martin was left behind, and not knowing what to do with himself, he looked around for Carolyn. He spotted her very easily in the arms of a Grim Reaper, swaying to the slow rhythm of Are you lonesome tonight. When Carolyn leaned in and whispered something in the ear of her partner with a flirtatious look, Martin groaned.
"What is this, a high school ball?" he muttered. "I'm surrounded by lovesick romantics..."
"I take it you are feeling a bit lonely?" a voice behind him said.
Martin turned around and found himself crowded by a man in a Zorro costume. His face was hidden by a hat, the traditional black mask, and a false moustache, but beneath all there was something that Martin found immediately attractive. Was it the charming smile, the careless stance, the sultry voice, or was it perhaps that Zorro unconsciously reminded him of someone?
Poor Martin, not realising who the stranger might be! Oh yes, Martin can be a little dense at times, but don't think too bad of him; he was, after all, being deceived by a very skilled actor.
"Uh, I..." Martin began, not quite sure how to answer. Deep down, he was indeed feeling lonely, but he wasn't going to admit that to himself, much less to a stranger. (And if he had known who he was talking to, he'd be even less inclined to admit, well, anything at all.)
"I'll take that as a yes then," Zorro smirked. "As it happens, I know an excellent remedy for that."
"Really?" Despite himself, Martin got curious. "What is it?"
"Dancing," Zorro said simply and held out an inviting hand towards Martin.
"You aren't seriously suggesting..." Martin trailed off.
"I assure you that I am. Why would that be so hard to believe?"
Martin hesitatingly took the offered hand and let himself be dragged to what served as a makeshift dance floor. "According to a certain Douglas Richardson, it is very hard to believe that anyone would ask me for a dance."
"Douglas who?" Zorro asked nonchalantly.
"I'm sure you must have met him by now," Martin said. "He's probably busy gallivanting around the party, making eyes at everything wearing a skirt, and trying to be funny with the rest."
"No," Zorro replied. "I don't think I have met such a person."
"Oh, good for you. Savour your luck while it lasts."
"Why?" Zorro asked. "What's so bad about him?"
"He thinks he's always so funny and charming, when in fact he's bordering on pathetic and nasty most of the time. It's incredible what people let him get away with. And he, in his arrogance, believes he's making an impression with his wit and good luck..."
"Really? I'll tell him what you said, should I meet him."
Martin snorted. "Do that. He'll probably make a quip or two about me."
"Hmm." Zorro pulled Martin close and whispered into his ear, "Maybe you are envious."
"What? No! Of course not!" Martin exclaimed. "I'm not envious. Why would I be envious? I..."
Martin trailed off as he discovered that he rather liked the proximity of his dancing partner. He moved even closer, almost resting his head on the other man's shoulder. Then, finally, it seemed to dawn on him that he'd been talking about no-one else than Douglas, and he asked awkwardly, "So... uh... What about you? Do you... I mean... are you going to tell me who you are?"
"Not now, no," Zorro smiled beneath his mask. "I rather enjoy the masquerade, don't you?"
Martin shrugged. Knowing his bad luck, he wasn't expecting anything from this dance anyway. The anonymity had at least something adventurous, and it allowed him to fantasise...
Thus, while the crew of MJN were more or less enjoying themselves, Nathan stared sourly into the crowd. Luckily enough, his mask spared the rest of the guests the morose sight. Nathan had noticed how well Missy and Arthur were getting along and how supportive Catherine was of their feelings. If he'd had any hopes that Arthur's and Missy's interest in each other would cool soon, Nathan was thoroughly disappointed. In fact, he was now beginning to make plans about actively, but secretively, influencing the latest developments in his favour. And so, when he spotted Arthur alone at the buffet at some point, he seized his chance.
"You are Captain Crieff, aren't you?" he said, pretending he didn't recognise Arthur in his Bugs Bunny costume.
"Wow! I mean, no, I'm..." Arthur began. He was, of course, too honest to let such a misapprehension slip, but Nathan cut him off.
"I've noticed that your Arthur is rather fond of Missy," he continued. "For his own sake, do try to get that idea out of his head. If you don't mind my saying so, Arthur doesn't strike me as the smartest of people, whereas Missy is a very intelligent young lady. She reads maths at Cambridge; she's way out if his league."
"Oh no," Arthur exclaimed. "I didn't know she went to Cambridge. That's really far away!"
Nathan suppressed the urge to roll his eyes; the distance was not what he was trying to get at. He tried a different approach. "She was on the British team for the International Mathematical Olympiad when she was doing her A-levels."
"Wow, really?" Arthur asked. Then he frowned. "Maths and sports? At the same time? How does that work?"
"No, only Maths," Nathan replied curtly. "It means she was among Britain's six smartest students."
"Oh," Arthur said, crestfallen. He reconsidered everything Nathan had told him, finally piecing the information together. "I really thought she liked me, though."
Nathan pretended to still believe he was talking to Martin, hoping Arthur wouldn't notice how blatantly he'd given himself away. "Maybe she likes having a companion to while away the boredom of all the upcoming flights. Maybe she befriends him because she has taken interest in your first officer. At any rate, I wouldn't hold out too much hope for that whim of hers to survive a long distance relationship."
"Douglas?!" Arthur cried, scandalised. "But he's twice her age!"
"Oh, young women these days are quite liberal, I gather," Nathan replied. "And Douglas seems to be a charming and witty man, as far as I can tell."
"Yeah," Arthur said quietly. "He is."
"Well, anyhow, I suppose I should see to getting the punch refilled." Nathan turned away, hiding a smug grin. His plan with poor Arthur had seemed to work out better than he'd expected.
Arthur stayed behind, looking more than a little lost. He had even forgotten that he'd come for another helping of green jelly. "I supposed he's right," he murmured to himself. "Missy is way too smart for me. She probably thinks I'm a stupid idiot."
Absent-mindedly, he tugged at his bunny whiskers, almost tearing them off. For once, Arthur didn't care about his costume and almost considered to leave the party. It was in this maudlin state that Martin found him.
"Hey Arthur," Martin said. "Here you are. Missy's been searching for you."
"Hi Martin," Arthur replied unhappily. "I don't think she did."
Martin searched his face, noticing Arthur's uncharacteristically quiet and listless demeanour. "Arthur? What happened?"
"Nothing," Arthur said in a low voice. "I'm an idiot and Missy's smart. Really, really smart. She can't actually want to be with me. It's probably just a whim of hers."
Without any further explanation, Arthur turned and left the room, ignoring Martin's attempts to hold him back. Martin stayed behind, non-plussed and a little helpless.
"Oh terrific," Martin muttered. "Definitely not a happy bunny. What on earth happened to him?"
Before Martin could get as far as blaming Douglas—because in Martin's opinion, if something was wrong and it wasn't his own fault, it was always somehow Douglas's doing—Catherine's melodic voice interrupted his train of thought.
"Where is Arthur?" she asked. "Didn't you find him?"
"I did find him, but he ran away," Martin replied. "He seemed... well, if it weren't Arthur, I'd say sad."
Catherine shook her head in confusion. "Why?"
"I'm not quite sure," Martin admitted. "I've never seen him like that before. He said something about him being stupid and Missy being too intelligent for him."
"Where did he get that idea from?" Catherine enquired.
Martin shrugged. "I have no idea. But... this is probably a horrible thing to say, and I don't mean it like that, really; I just want him to be happy... Well, the point is, he isn't exactly wrong, is he?"
"Maybe not," Catherine said. "But love doesn't work that way. I'm sure that Missy genuinely likes Arthur, as he'll find out soon enough if he lets her. Sometimes, it's the opposites that attract, isn't it?"
Martin laughed bitterly. "How would I know?"
"Hmmm." Catherine lifted her mask to cover her face and eyed Martin coquettishly through it. After a while, she remarked, "I've heard you are entertaining my guests with saying rude things about Douglas."
"What?" Martin asked with a hint of panic in his voice. It wasn't his habit to bad-mouth people, not even Douglas, and the idea that his little rant had spread across the whole party made him feel bad. "I... Who told you?"
"The very man you danced with," Catherine replied with a smirk.
"Oh," Martin said. "Who was he?"
Catherine mouth widened into an outright smile and she playfully twirled her mask in he fingers. "Well, who would pull off disguising himself well enough that a friend wouldn't recognise him?"
"Douglas!" Martin groaned, all remorse suddenly gone. "I can't believe it! Why does he always pick on me?"
"Did he pick on you, though?"
"Of course he did!" Martin exclaimed. "Disguising himself, making me dance with him and tricking me into talking about him, what else would it be? God, and I thought there was someone, just one person, who'd be interested in me. I wasn't expecting anything, really, I just wanted to enjoy one dance..." Martin broke off as he realised he was giving much more away than he'd wanted to. Taking a deep breath, he continued, "He's probably laughing behind my back right now, congratulating himself on a job well done. And I had hoped that with a whole party full of people, he'd find someone else to play his stupid games with. Surely there must be enough women around who'd succumb to his dubious charm?"
"There probably are," Catherine agreed, watching Martin intently.
"Honestly, I don't know what they see in him," Martin scoffed. "He's a Lothario who likes to show off, and he's the most unprofessional pilot I've ever met."
"Careful," Catherine murmured. "Here he comes."
Douglas joined them, dragging a still depressed-looking Arthur along. Almost simultaneously, Carolyn and Missy appeared from the opposite direction.
"I really don't know why I put up with him any longer," Martin said to Catherine. Then louder to all, "I should pick up reading job advertisements again. Maybe easyJet is still hiring."
With these words, Martin stalked off.
Carolyn threw Douglas a sullen look. "What have you done now? I'm warning you, if I have to hire a new pilot, any penny that I have to pay them more than I currently pay Martin, I'll cut from your salary."
"Me?" Douglas asked. "What have I done now?"
"Stop that idiotic act, it's not working on me," Carolyn warned. "There are very few people beside me who can wind Martin up like that."
"Come on, you did pull Martin's leg just then, didn't you?" Catherine asked.
"Maybe a little bit," Douglas admitted. "But I wasn't the one talking badly about my colleague."
Catherine snickered. "Douglas, you've been known for having your wicked way with the ladies, but since when are you charming the gentlemen, too? Or for that matter, let yourself be charmed?"
"What are you playing at, Catherine?" Douglas enquired, voice dangerously low.
Catherine swatted Douglas with her mask. "Oh Douglas, I know the looks the two of you have been directing at each other."
"I have no idea what you mean," Douglas said. "Anyway, you asked me to find Arthur, and here he is. Is there anything else you wanted?"
"Hmm, not right now, no," Catherine replied, then she turned towards Arthur who had been feigning interest in the tips of his shoes. "Now, Arthur, why the sad face?"
"I'm not sad," Arthur said, not very convincingly, without looking up.
"That's interesting," Catherine said. "Given how I've heard rumours about you doubting your values as a boyfriend."
"What?" Missy asked, frowning. "Arthur, what's up?"
"Missy... if you'd rather be with someone else, you can tell me," Arthur told his shoes. "I'd understand."
Missy stepped closer. "Why would you say that?"
"Well, you are smart and beautiful and nice, and I'm an idiot who can't remember how many men it takes to screw in a light bulb, and who heats up food in the microwave twice. I always forget whether I've already heated it up yet or not, and sometimes I even heat it up three times and then it tastes really bad. And I'm not even a proper steward because I've failed the exam."
"Arthur, dear child," Carolyn sighed. "Of all the days to start getting self-conscious, you have chosen today? Are you trying to trump Martin's legendary bad timing?"
"Oh, Arthur," Missy said. "I don't want anyone else. I've never met anyone who'd play charades with me, or who doesn't mind that I spend so much time on the internet, or who makes me laugh so much, or who thinks I'm beautiful."
"Really?" Arthur asked hopefully.
Missy nodded and took Arthur's hand. "Really."
"Wow! That's the nicest thing anyone has ever said to me!"
"Excellent," Douglas said. "And after you are quite done exchanging gushing sentimentalities, please do remember to brush your teeth. Otherwise, with all the sweetness, you might risk getting cavities."
"Never mind the grumpy old man," Catherine said. "He's just jealous."
"He most definitely isn't. He's just waiting for the happy couple to kiss already."
"Aww, so you are a romantic after all," Catherine teased. "Since you have made it clear you're not chasing after your captain, and you don't seem to have picked up anyone else this evening—want to give me a second chance?"
"Catherine, as beautiful and charming as you are—I flatter myself of not making the same mistake twice," Douglas replied smoothly.
Catherine arched a perfectly-painted eyebrow at him. "Funny you should say that, with your three divorces."
"Keeping track, are we?"
"Touché." Catherine smiled. "Well, seeing how little you have changed, this probably wasn't my brightest idea."
"Probably not," Douglas agreed and looked about. Spying a couple of scantily clad witches nearby, he swaggered off.
"Not much into romance these days, is he?" Catherine remarked.
"Not unless you count a continuous stream of one-night-stands romance," Carolyn said.
"And Captain Crieff, I understand, isn't doing much better..."
"Definitely not," Carolyn agreed. "He drives anyone who isn't scared off by his perpetual bad luck away by ... being Martin. Which in this regard, unbelievable as it sounds, is even worse than being Arthur."
Catherine pursed her lips thoughtfully. "I'm beginning to wonder if Douglas and Martin might be a good match. They get along, Douglas has enough luck and charm for the both of them, and they do seem to be quite fixated on each other..."
"Oh dear, spare me the thought," Carolyn groaned. "The banter would never end. Maybe during sex, but that's a really weak maybe. And I most definitely do not want them to have sex on my plane. Or in my portacabin. And why am I even thinking about this?"
"Anyway," Carolyn added hastily. "So that flight on Tuesday morning to Prague—any changes or are we sticking to the plan?"
"No changes so far, no," Catherine replied. "But I can never be sure these days. That's going to be a few days of stand-by for you, I fear."
"We will manage," Carolyn assured her.
"That's good. Douglas mentioned you like to play games at MJN to while away the time?"
"What did he tell you?" Carolyn asked, scandalised. "If he said anything about potatoes, parrots, or pineapple juice—it's not true!"
"Oh, something about various bets, lemons and passenger derby, I believe?"
Carolyn sighed in relief. "Well, yes, those are true. But it's not as quirky as Douglas probably makes it out to be. He does love to exaggerate."
"Don't worry, I don't mind particularly," Catherine said. "After all, I spent four years of my life being married to Douglas. But I was about to suggest a little game myself—how about playing matchmaker? Getting Douglas and Martin together?"
"Oh, that's brilliant!" a forgotten-about Arthur cried.
Carolyn jumped. "Arthur, for goodness's sake, don't scare your mother to death like that! What on earth are you still doing here?"
Catherine turned towards Arthur. "You are in then? Would you help me if I gave you instructions?"
"I'd love to!" Arthur exclaimed. "Are we going to have a secret plan and everything? Like with Christmas presents, only all of us together?"
Catherine smiled. "We'd better, hadn't we?"
"Well, you have no way of knowing this," Carolyn said to Catherine, "but any secret Arthur keeps is as safe as the weather forecast in April."
"Aw, Mum!" Arthur protested. "Missy's going to help me, aren't you, Missy?"
Missy nodded eagerly. "Sure!"
Catherine's smile widened. "Good. Carolyn, are you in, too?"
Carolyn sighed dramatically. "All right, all right. If anything, it will pass the time. And I'd love to get the better of Douglas for once."
"That's great, Mum! Douglas and Skip deserve someone nice, too! And it's going to be really fun!"
"That remains to be seen," Carolyn said. "And while we are on the topic of romance: Arthur, why are you still here? Take Missy and go find a dark corner or something. You do realise there are some things that work better without my presence, don't you? Though to be fair, it doesn't happen very often."
"Right-o," Arthur said. He exchanged a happy look with Missy, then dragged her off.
And thus, a delightful game of matchmaking was started. Not everyone was in a merry mood, though, and wanted to give Cupid a nudge. Some people were rather trying for the opposite...
Nathan had observed the whole scene from nearby. He wasn't close enough to understand the conversation, but still he could deduce enough information by simply watching.
"They foiled my little plan," he said gloomily to the vampire standing next to him. "Worse yet, now Missy and Arthur seem to be officially an item, if that snogging is anything to go by."
The vampire shrugged. "Not all is lost yet."
"Missy didn't take much interest in me before, and now she has only eyes for that idiot. How is that not a lost cause?"
"Getting rid of that Arthur guy isn't too hard," the vampire said. "A few ideas spring to mind. And if you get a chance to comfort the heart-broken lady, who knows what it will entail?"
"What do you mean?" Nathan asked.
The vampire leaned in and lowered his voice. "Well, as you said, Arthur seems to be an idiot. How surprising would it be if on one of your next flights he, say, forgot to turn the hot water boiler off? Causing a nice little fire, a bit of excitement and a possibility for you to show off as a hero?"
"I don't think anyone would have problems blaming such a thing on him," Nathan said. "But how would one go about something like that, exactly? I don't want to get into real trouble."
"If you could arrange to sit in the first row alone, you could then sneak into the galley when no-one's paying attention, turn the hot water boiler on and hope that it'll catch fire sooner or later," the vampire explained. "Maybe you could even dump some paper napkins in it to be on the safe side. Just keep an eye on the galley so that you can extinguish the fire before it does any serious harm. No-one will suspect you."
Nathan nodded. "That actually does sound quite doable. But is it worth the effort?"
"Fire on board a plane is a huge issue," the vampire replied. "MJN will have to deal with CAA investigations, Mrs Richardson will hopefully break with MJN which will put some distance between Missy and Arthur, and Missy might re-evaluate her fondness of Arthur."
"You are right," Nathan agreed. "I might try that. As you said, fire on board a plane is a serious issue, but with some research, it might work out."
The vampire patted Nathan on the back. "You have a month of flights ahead of you, surely some opportunity will come up."
Nathan nodded, and a plan began to form in his mind. He fished inside his pocket for his phone.
Only few people know that when Douglas is alone, he can be quite a different man from who he likes to pose as when others are around. He can be very thoughtful and philosophical then, and not even all of his wives have found out. I, however, often observe people when they assume no-one watches—ah, don't look at me like that, it's not that I want to be in that position. It just comes with the job, I suppose, that people rarely notice my presence the way they notice other people.
So Douglas, considering himself alone, had put up a deck chair (yes, Carolyn's deck chair, if you must know) in the shadow of a forlorn-looking de-icing truck on Messina airfield, waiting for everyone else to finish their various affairs so that they could finally take off. Idly, he was watching the comings and goings of aeroplanes, baggage trucks, buses and service cars, but it wasn't long until his mind started to wander. After a while he found himself musing about Arthur, and more specifically, about Arthur's blossoming relationship with Missy.
"How does Arthur always manage that?" he wondered. "Getting girlfriends without even trying... Well, admittedly his girlfriends aren't exactly foxy ladies, but still, he seems happy enough. I know people who'd be very envious. Probably are. Not me, obviously; I can pick up a woman any time if I want to."
Douglas shifted in his chair.
"What for, though? After three marriages, I'm quite done with love and romance..."
Without Douglas noticing, a van had stopped at the other side of the de-icing truck, dispensing Carolyn, Catherine and Missy.
"So," Carolyn was just saying, "You'll pick up a colleague in Prague, hence we'll be flying to London with four passengers."
"And a bike," Catherine added
"And a bike," Carolyn confirmed.
Douglas recognised the voices at once and silently retreated farther around the corner of the truck, hoping that, if he didn't get seen, he would be able to avoid work a little longer.
"Where for God's sake is Arthur with the luggage?" Carolyn asked impatiently. "Can't the boy get something done on his own for once?"
"Ah, be forgiving with a young man who has just fallen in love," Catherine smiled.
Carolyn put her hands on her hips. "Well, if one third of my crew can't work properly because they are happily in love, and another third can't work because they are unhappily in love, I don't have much left to go with."
"What do you mean?" Catherine enquired curiously.
Carolyn sighed. "Martin, who, with his uncanny pull on hopeless situations, has apparently managed to lose his heart to Douglas."
Behind the de-icing truck, Douglas choked.
"Really?" Catherine asked. "Martin seemed to abhor the idea of romance when I talked to him the other day."
"He's probably just frustrated," Carolyn said. "Who wouldn't be—falling in love with Douglas, of all people!"
"Hmm," Catherine said. "Martin does seem a little stiff around Douglas, that's true."
"Well, last night, he obviously got quite drunk and maudlin and the opposite of stiff and bared his soul to Arthur."
"Aw, yes, Arthur told me," Missy piped in. "Martin seems to have it really bad."
Douglas, still hidden from view, muttered, "And we all know how Arthur can't lie to save his life. Really, one could get the idea that this was a joke otherwise."
Carolyn continued. "He apparently writes diary entries and decorates them with little hearts, like a—" Carolyn chuckled. "Like a schoolgirl."
Missy nodded. "He destroys them immediately after he's written them, though. He thinks he doesn't have a chance, and he's terrified of Douglas finding out."
"Oh boy," Catherine said, concerned. "If Douglas were to find out..."
"He'd tease Martin forever about it," Carolyn finished the sentence. "Douglas would have a field day. Well, more like a field month, probably."
"Oh yes," Catherine agreed. "I know from personal experience how cruel he can be. And how proud. He probably believes Martin is beneath him—not a match for his wit and charm, and nothing to brag about. Even if he did love Martin, he'd never admit it."
"Poor Martin," Missy said. "He seems such a nice guy. And very cute, too!"
Catherine nodded. "Yes, quite good-looking, I'd say. You know, if I were a few years younger... But, coming to think of it, Douglas doesn't deserve a man like him anyway. This might sound cruel, but it's probably best for Martin if he gets over it and keeps his feelings to himself."
"Well, unfortunately, Arthur knows, and what Arthur knows, everyone knows," Carolyn said. "But maybe we can keep Arthur out of Douglas's way until he has forgotten, bless his simple brain. Speaking of Arthur—where is the clot?"
Carolyn flipped her mobile open and pressed the speed dial button. "Why don't you get into the plane?" she said to Missy and Catherine while lifting the phone to her ear. "Arthur can't be long."
Missy and her mother complied, and after a curt talk with Arthur, Carolyn followed. Douglas, still in his deck chair behind the de-icing truck, was left in wonder.
"This could almost be a game set up by me to play tricks on me," Douglas mused. "Only that I obviously didn't set it up—where would be the fun in that? So the question is: can the information be trusted? Surely Carolyn would know better than to include Arthur if she were trying to pull my leg?"
Douglas spent a while in deep thought, replaying the conversation he'd just overheard in his head.
"Am I really such a bastard? Do they really believe that I, Douglas Richardson, doesn't deserve Martin? That's ludicrous."
He stayed silent for another moment, rubbing his chin absently.
"Well, maybe I should review my tactics. After all, I'm not getting any younger. Thinking about it, Martin probably isn't such a bad catch. If you don't care for money. Or savoir-vivre. Or charm. Or anything that I used to care about. He does have something endearing about him, that I'll admit. And he has become a friend, I suppose, which are rare these days."
Douglas stopped his monologue as he saw Martin approaching, a little aimless as if searching for something.
"Here you are, Douglas," Martin said when he spotted Douglas. "I've been looking for you."
"Have you now?" Douglas said and gave Martin a thorough once-over. It had never occurred to him before that Martin was actually quite handsome. But then, even Martin wasn't aware of the fact and managed to hide his good looks quite well behind uniforms, hats and his perpetual insecurity.
Martin, noticing Douglas's scrutiny, began to fidget. "What is it now?" he asked. "Do I have something on my face? Or is it my tie? Or my hat?"
Martin fingered his tie, his hat, and finally straightened his jacket.
"No, no," Douglas said smoothly. "Everything's fine." After a brief pause, he added with a low drawl and a wink, "More than fine."
Martin's eyes widened, and he blushed. "What? I... what? Douglas, if this is a new way to make fun of me, just stop it, okay?"
"It's not," Douglas said. "But now that you mention it—may I suggest a new game?"
"No, you may not." Martin glowered at Douglas, then turned around and made his way to the plane. When he realised Douglas wasn't following, he stopped and asked, "Well, then, are you coming? We have a plane to fly."
"With pleasure," Douglas replied and folded his deck chair. "Let me just put this in the hold."
Martin nodded and rushed up the passenger stairway, stumbling slightly on the topmost stair. Douglas followed him with his eyes.
"Indeed, he seemed very awkward around me," Douglas mused. "And remarkably defensive about such a tiny flirtation. Who'd have thought?"
True to his word, Douglas stowed the deck chair away, his mind still on Martin. "The poor chap does deserve a bit of luck, for once. When was the last time he got laid? And who better to help than Douglas Richardson? And contrary to what Carolyn or Catherine might think, I am able to commit to a relationship if I set my mind to it."
Oh Douglas! For once, the master of scheming had been properly tricked himself, hadn't he? I'm pretty sure there's a point to be made here about seeing what one wants to see, but I don't suppose Douglas would appreciate it.
Now, are you curious too see how the game played out with Martin? Let's fast-forward a trip...
Chapter 3: Act 3
Now in Prague and about to head to Vilnius, Arthur and Missy were waiting in the plane for the rest of crew and passengers to arrive. They had settled into seats 1A (the one with the flickering non-smoking sign) and 1B (the one with the faded coffee stain) and were chatting excitedly.
"This is going to be brilliant!" Arthur exclaimed. "I love games!"
Missy chuckled. "Okay, Arthur, remember what we talked about?"
"Yeah. I've written it all down." Arthur unfolded a piece of paper that was filled with tiny, scrawly handwriting. "And I learned it all by heart, like a real actor!" A little less enthusiastic, he added, "I'm still not very good with lying, though."
"It's not really lying," Missy said. "You only have to exaggerate a little. After all, Douglas does care for Martin, doesn't he?"
Arthur nodded. "He does. Most of the time. Sometimes. He..."
Missy, who had the seat with the window overlooking the left wing and the passenger staircase, suddenly nudged Arthur in the side. "Shush," she whispered. "Here he comes! So, imagine you've just told me that Douglas is in love with Martin, okay? Wait for my sign... Now!"
Arthur nodded once more, and when Missy squeezed his hand, he cleared his throat dramatically and said loudly, "Skip is really a great chap, but sometimes he can be a little mean towards Douglas."
Unsuspecting Martin had approached the plane and was making his way up the short flight of stairs when he heard his name mentioned.
"But are you sure? That Douglas is in love with Martin?" Missy asked. "From what I gathered, Martin doesn't seem to be his type."
Martin stopped in the door, uncertain about what to do. He didn't like the idea of eavesdropping, but was obviously and understandably intrigued by the topic.
"Oh yes!" Arthur said. "Douglas meets all the criteria of that test I found on the internet. And your mum noticed, too! And she knows Douglas!"
"Hmmm," Missy said. "And now? Are you going to tell Martin?"
"Well, we thought we—ouch!" Arthur rubbed his side where Missy had poked him with her elbow. "Err... no way I'm going to tell him!" he corrected himself. "Not deliberately, at least. I'm a bit bad with keeping secrets, you know. But Martin would only tease Douglas about it."
"He seems quite desperate to have something against Douglas," Missy agreed.
"Yeah, he does, doesn't he? And Douglas is very careful now with love and relationships, after his three divorces and everything."
"He looks like such a tough guy," Missy mused. "As if nothing can hurt him."
"Yeah. It's mostly... uh..." Arthur rustled through his notes. "Bra-va-do. That's what your mum said. Wow, that sounds really clever!"
Missy had to suppress a smile, and it took a few seconds until she was able to go on with the act. "Well, maybe beneath all the carefully-maintained sky god appearance, he's actually quite a sensitive guy. That's rather cute, if you think of it, and add to that his good looks..."
"What?!" Arthur cried in earnest now, suddenly reminded of what Nathan had told him.
"Aww, don't worry, Arthur!" Missy said. "You're the best. Besides, Douglas is too old for me. Really, he could be my father!"
Arthur considered that, then his smile lit up again. "Right-o. Do you know what mum says? My mum, I mean? That with Martin's bad luck with relationships, or dating even, it's probably for the better that he has given up on love."
"Hmm," Missy mused. "At least Douglas deserves something better, after all he's been through with his wife. Poor guy."
"Yeah," Arthur agreed.
Missy and Arthur fell silent after that, Arthur reluctantly so because he was so excited that he wanted to go on, never knowing when to stop. Missy, however, resolutely put a hand over his mouth, then thought the better of it and kissed Arthur instead.
Arthur's performance hadn't been the most convincing, as you might have guessed, but luckily Martin wasn't expecting anything other than the truth out of his mouth; besides, maybe he was a little too eager to accept what he'd heard. When he was sure the conversation was over, he retreated carefully down the steps and towards the back of the plane, seeking some time in private to ponder the new-found knowledge.
"That's... Really? It can't be true, can it? And yet..."
Martin walked up and down, his forehead in wrinkles.
"Do they really believe I'd seriously hurt Douglas? Fight back a little, yes, I'd do that, but not hurt him!"
Still pacing, Martin almost hit his head on the fuselage.
"He isn't such a bad guy most of the time," he continued. "And quite attractive, actually. Definitely attractive. I just wouldn't have thought that he might be... I mean, me? I always assumed he preferred the tall, pretty, confident and female type... Maybe that's what's rattling him so? Maybe he needs some help for once."
Martin stopped suddenly.
"My luck isn't that bad. Even I can't screw up with someone who's already in love with me. ... Can I?" Martin took a deep breath. "No, this might be my chance. Our chance."
And with that, Arthur's, Missy's, Catherine's and Carolyn's work was done. Or was it? Alas, it wasn't that easy, and this time, Martin's perpetual bad luck had nothing to do with it.
A few days later, somewhere over the English Channel, Arthur popped into the galley with the intention to prepare coffee and tea. He hummed an unrecognisable tune, but stopped all of a sudden when he almost bumped into Douglas.
"Oh, hey Douglas!" Arthur said. "What are you doing here?"
"Making tea," Douglas said, rummaging around in the cupboard.
"Oh, you know, you just could have said something!" Arthur chided. "I love to make tea! It's very relaxing! Not as good as juggling apples, of course, but..."
"Relaxing is exactly what I need," Douglas interrupted him. "I could use a break."
Arthur regarded him curiously. "What, from flying?"
"No." Douglas started the water boiler, then counted spoonfuls of tea into a filter. "From him." He nodded vaguely in the direction of the flight deck.
Arthur's eyes widened. "Skipper?"
"From Mr Clarke," Douglas corrected impatiently. "Who is in the flight-deck during a flight."
"Oh," Arthur said. "But that doesn't bother you, does it? That it's against the regulations, I mean?"
"As a matter of fact, it does," Douglas said.
"Nah, but you aren't a stickler, Douglas," Arthur replied cheerily. "Skip is!"
Douglas stared at the water boiler, hoping it would save him from answering. It didn't. "Things change, obviously," he finally said.
"Ah," Arthur said, worrying his lip with his teeth. "Wait, does that mean Mr Clarke is giving tips? Like Mr Birling?"
"I dearly hope he doesn't," Douglas growled.
"Why not?" Arthur asked. "He seems much nicer than Mr Birling! He probably wouldn't want to wear your hat in exchange for the money. Or Skip's."
Douglas handled the water boiler with more force than necessary, almost spilling hot water over his hands when he filled the tea pot. "I don't care about his money."
"Oh. You don't?" Arthur scratched his head. Then he shuffled a little closer to Douglas to get a better view of the tea. He liked watching the tea steep, so much, in fact, that he often forgot to check the time. Then, all of a sudden, he ejaculated, "Intercourse!"
Douglas jerked his head, looking slightly and uncharacteristically flushed. "I beg your pardon?"
"In Pennsylvania! Missy came up with it!" And when Douglas just blinked, Arthur added, "You know, for the game? Places that sound naughty?"
"Ah," Douglas said smoothly and turned his attention back to the tea. "Do pass my congratulations to Missy."
Arthur grinned. "She's great, isn't she? So what have you got?"
"About as much as you."
"But I haven't got anything!" Arthur said.
"But even Skipper has three! That means he's winning! Of course he's going to love that, but I thought you'd be quite good at this! I mean, obviously you are good at everything, but this one especially."
"I'm not in the mood," Douglas said curtly.
Arthur's jaw dropped. "Right." After a few seconds, though, his face lit up again. "Oh, I know. Because you're too busy worrying about Skip and Mr Clarke. But I'm sure there's no reason to be jeal—" Arthur stopped, eyes wide. "Oooh! Wow! It's working!" Then he clapped his hand over his mouth and dashed out of the galley. "Sorry, Douglas, gotta go!"
Arthur closed the curtain to the galley and bounced down the plane's short aisle. Full of excitement, he planted himself in front of Carolyn's seat.
"Mum!" Arthur called, and without waiting for Carolyn to look up from her magazine, he continued, "Have you noticed anything about Douglas lately?"
"Let's see." Carolyn pretended to think hard. "He seems to be refreshingly serious today. No unprofessional allusions in the cabin addresses, no suggestions of risky manoeuvres..."
"Yeah!" Arthur agreed. "And he's losing a game against Martin! He hasn't got a single place that sounds naughty."
"Goodness!" Carolyn said. "It's worse than I'd imagined."
Arthur nodded. "He seems rather... what do you call it? When people are lost in serious thoughts and stuff and a bit down?"
"Melancholic?" Missy suggested.
"Yes, that's it! Melancholic. Like, you know, when you are in love but are not sure if it's going to work out?"
"Dear boy, you begin to frighten me," Carolyn said. "Where did you get the sudden insight from?"
"Well, you remember that course you sent me to in Ipswich? About understanding people?"
"Yes, how could I forget," Carolyn sighed. "But even in my most audacious dreams I never expected it to generate so good results. Or any results at all. You might actually be right."
"That's brilliant, isn't it? Douglas is in love!" Arthur looked as he if was about to start a little jig, but Carolyn held him back.
"Arthur, I know you are very enthusiastic about all of this, but please do try to calm down. If Douglas smells the rat the game is off faster than you can say brilliant. Plus, it's easier on my nerves."
"Right-o," Arthur said, still grinning from ear to ear.
But even Carolyn couldn't quite manage to keep the latest news to herself. She liked to play a risky game once in a while, she liked to needle people, and most of all, she liked to needle Douglas. At the airport in Warsaw, she found the perfect opportunity to satisfy her inner devil.
"What's up, Douglas, no flirting with the customs officer today?" she asked. "Did she reject you last time you tried?"
"Certainly not," Douglas huffed. "I'm simply not interested."
"Are you not?" Carolyn asked. "That's a new one. Well, maybe not new, but certainly unexpected. After all, last time you were that disinterested in beautiful young women was when you were happily married."
"I might have missed the memo," Douglas replied, "but since when is being faithful in a marriage wrong?"
Carolyn smiled a predatory smile. "Nice try, but I'm not so easily distracted. I can't help but wonder: to whom are you faithful now? Since you are not the type to keep your affairs secret, I'm not going to suggest your lack of flirting is caused by you being in a relationship. But might you have your eye on someone, perhaps?"
"Don't be ridiculous, Carolyn," Douglas scoffed.
"Am I ridiculous, though? You strike me as awfully brooding these days. Remarkably devoid of all your usual silly sky god antics. You know—rather like someone who's unhappily in love."
Douglas narrowed his eyes dangerously, but failed to come up with any of his usual witty retorts. "Can't a man just change?" he asked instead.
"A man—yes," Carolyn agreed. "You—hardly."
"Sorry to disappoint you, Carolyn, but your nice little theory is wrong."
"Aw," Carolyn cooed with fake pity. "If I didn't know how good you are with lying, I might actually believe you. I wonder who the person is who holds the key to Douglas Richardson's heart..."
Without a further word, Douglas fled, or, as he liked to think of it, beat a strategic retreat. Carolyn stayed behind, arms crossed in front of her chest and smiling triumphantly. "That game wasn't such a bad idea after all," she murmured.
A little later, Nathan found Carolyn and Missy alone, and now it was his turn to spot an opportune moment to advance his own, if more sinister, kind of game.
"Mrs Knapp-Shappey," he began. "About that over-heated lunch during the flight..."
"I'm really sorry, Mr Clarke," Carolyn said with a friendly, if a little forced, smile. "As I have already explained, Arthur had forgotten to time the microwave correctly. I hope you enjoyed your replacement?"
Nathan smiled gently. "Oh, yes, it was fine, and quite fast, thank you. I was just wondering... is it safe to keep someone like Arthur as a steward?"
Carolyn narrowed her eyes dangerously. "What do you mean?"
Nathan set up a concerned face. "Well, he seems quite forgetful in general. It makes me wonder what else he might forget. Seeing that flying can be very risky if the safety procedures aren't complied with, I wonder if he's such a wise choice."
Carolyn's voice turned to ice. "Thank you for your concerns, Mr Clarke, but I can assure you that Arthur doesn't constitute a risk. He's flown with MJN since the very beginning, and nothing dangerous has ever happened." As an afterthought, she added, "We don't let him near the important stuff anyway."
"That's a relief to hear," Nathan replied. "Though might you not want to keep him away from the galley, too?"
"The galley is as foolproof as can be, Mr Clarke," Carolyn said sternly.
Nathan nodded. "Very well. Fair enough. My apologies for being such a busybody, but I'm just very concerned about safety in general."
"Very understandably so," Carolyn said in a sweet tone. As soon as Nathan was out of earshot, she added a passionate, "Twat!"
When I first told you about Nathan's plan to frame Arthur by causing the hot water boiler to catch fire, were you a little concerned about the safety of all involved? I certainly was. Whatever one might think about Nathan and his scheme, however, one can't blame him for taking any risks. He did meticulous research. He took photos of the galley, its layout, the hot water boiler, the fire extinguisher, and the smoke detectors. He studied articles on the internet about fires on board planes, their particular hazards and how to extinguish them. He read about the technical specifications of the hot water boiler. He convinced Martin to let him into the flight deck, where he asked questions about aircraft safety, fire alarms and fire extinguishers, questions which Martin was only too happy to answer in great detail.
Only after Nathan was sure he knew what he was letting himself into did he try to set his plan into action. Ever since that Halloween party, he had claimed the first row of seats for himself, and given that there were only three passengers total plus Carolyn and Arthur, but sixteen seats, there was a reasonable chance that he'd make it into the galley unobserved at some point. He would just have to lie low and wait for his chance, like a predator on the hunt...
I have to admit that I was quite nervous those days. Although assured that Nathan didn't want any actual harm to happen to anyone and that he was extremely well prepared, the prospect of his plan made me feel uneasy. You probably wouldn't like the idea of your insides being tampered with either, would you? And now you are probably wondering why I didn't do anything to prevent Nathan's scheme, but what do you imagine I could have done? I'm just a plane, after all. I could have refused to take off, as I might have done a few times in the past—but to what avail? Losing MJN a good job? I wasn't in a position to prove anything, anyway.
You see my dilemma?
Still at Warsaw airport, a few days later, MJN were preparing for their next trip. Martin and Arthur were waiting in the plane—Martin in the captain's chair, talking to ATC, and Arthur in the co-pilot's chair, pretending to be a pilot flying over Africa and looking for giraffes.
"ATC just informed me we'll have to wait another forty minutes before we can take off," Martin said and switched off the radio. "Carolyn will be here with the passengers in twenty."
"Wow!" Arthur exclaimed. "That gives us plenty of time to search for lions, too!" When he realised Martin wasn't joining his game, he stopped pressing imaginary buttons and sank back into the chair. "So what do we do until then?"
Martin shrugged and stared unfocusedly out of the flight-deck's window.
Arthur, however, wasn't able to stay quiet for long. "Hey Skip, I have a brilliant idea! We could go through some of the emergency procedures! I love those!"
Martin didn't even turn his face away from the window. "I'm not interested. Besides, what's the point, it's not that you actually remember anything."
"Aw, but it's still fun!" Arthur insisted. "And you are always interested in emergency procedures!"
"Not now, Arthur."
They fell quiet for a while.
"What about plane spotting, then?" Arthur finally asked.
"Not interested," Martin replied.
"What are you interested in, then?"
Martin sighed. "Arthur, can't we just sit here in silence?"
"Okay," Arthur said. "I suppose we can. Seems a bit boring, though, if you don't mind my saying so." He mirrored Martin and looked out of the window, observing the tarmac in front of them. After a while, he burst out, "Wow, Skip, that's a huge thunderstorm! Look how dark it is outside!"
He got up to have a better look, his nose almost touching the glass. Martin ignored him.
"Oooh, look Skip, is that a Douglas?" Arthur bounced up and down and pointed a finger into the rain.
"What? Where?" Martin turned around so quickly that he bumped his elbow into the dashboard. "Ouch!"
"There! That plane!" Arthur said.
Martin exhaled and slouched back into his chair, rubbing his elbow. "Arthur, that's a 747."
"A Douglas 747?"
"No, a Boeing 747," Martin explained. "There is no such thing as a Douglas 747."
"Oh," Arthur said. "Well, there should be. It sounds great, doesn't it? Douglas 747." Arthur tried the name a few times with different voices.
Martin rolled his eyes. "Can you stop that, please? It's not that I need any more reminding of... uh. Not to say that I am thinking about... Well. Where is Douglas, anyway?"
Arthur shrugged. "I don't know. Late?"
Martin turned towards the window again.
"Aren't you going to say anything, Skip? About Douglas being late?" Arthur asked.
"Why should I?"
Arthur shrugged. "I don't know. You always do."
"And now I don't," Martin said peevishly.
As you can see, Douglas wasn't the only one in an unusual mood these days. If you'll allow me to hazard a guess, I'd say that both of MJN's pilots were just realising their true feelings for one another and unsure what to do about them. Does that sound horribly romantic? Probably, but I freely admit to being romantic.
Before I recount the events of Nathan setting fire to the galley on that legendary flight from Warsaw to London, let me tell you two little facts about Nathan's BlackBerry: First, it had all the material on it he had downloaded for his research on fires on board aeroplanes, all the photos he had taken of the galley, his complete browser history and the notes he had taken. How I know this? Let's just say I have an affinity for electronic devices, and I had enough time to observe Nathan and his BlackBerry. Second, he had lost it on an earlier trip. Well, when I say 'lost,' I should perhaps explain that I had a big part in that. A conveniently wedged safety belt, a bit of exaggerating during turbulences—one of my favourites—and the BlackBerry had slipped out of Nathan's pocket. I managed to hide it in the fold of the safety jacket beneath seat 1B.
All of this didn't prevent Nathan from executing his plan, of course, but as you'll see later, it will play a big part in helping this story to a happy ending. I have to admit I'm quite proud of that.
Chapter 4: Act 4
To my dismay, the events played out exactly as Nathan had planned. He had once again seated himself in the front row, while the others had spaced out towards the back. Patiently he waited until after Arthur had prepared and served coffee and tea and until everyone else in the cabin was napping, reading or otherwise not paying attention to him. Silently he stood up and slipped into the galley. He found the hot water boiler, turned it on and dropped the kitchen roll into it to make a fire more likely to happen.
How I wished for a turbulence to throw Nathan off his feet! Even a little one would have sufficed, but unfortunately the sky was clear. Even I can't magic up the momentum for a little bump out of nowhere, especially not when Douglas is in control.
Nathan sneaked back to his seat unwitnessed. Having left the curtain that divides the cabin from the galley a little apart, he settled to observe the hot water boiler while feigning to sleep. When he saw smoke emanating from the galley after a little while, he grinned.
By the time the smoke detector in the galley went off, there were flames lapping about. By the time Douglas and Martin actually believed that there was something amiss as opposed to the smoke detector doing its usual spiel of false alarms, Nathan was almost considering to spring into action to extinguish the fire himself. As it was, though, Carolyn, who was informed via the intercom, rushed into the galley and defeated the flames heroically.
"Arthur, you berk, you forgot to turn off the hot water boiler!" she yelled after she had examined the mayhem.
"No, I didn't!" Arthur cried.
Carolyn put the fire extinguisher down with a sigh. "Who else would it be?"
"I don't know!" Arthur said. "I don't!"
"One thing we agree about," Carolyn replied dryly. "God knows it happens rarely enough."
An emergency landing later, the crew and their passengers found themselves stranded in Berlin, facing an investigation by the German Federal Bureau of Aircraft Accidents Investigation.
"Great," Catherine said tersely. "I need to be in London by seven!"
"Please don't worry, Mrs Richardson," Carolyn replied, as appeasingly as she was able to, which wasn't all that much. "I'll get you on another plane, and of course I'll refund the money."
"Even without the BFU wanting to take all our statements, I won't ever be able to make it in time." Catherine was almost shouting now. "I mean, I knew beforehand that MJN probably isn't the most professional airline around, but this is just ... I'd say ridiculous if the situation weren't so severe!"
"I beg your pardon?" There was only so much Carolyn was willing to take from a customer.
"Letting your idiot of a son set fire to the galley? Surely I don't have to tell you how dangerous a fire in an aircraft in the air can be?"
Carolyn put her hands on her hips and glowered dangerously at Catherine. "No-one talks about my son like that except me."
"Pah," Catherine sneered. "I had the impression he was a nice and endearing guy, but it stops being endearing when lives are at stake! Missy? Nathan? Let's go find a hotel. I don't feel like flying any more today. I'll send you the bill, Mrs Knapp-Shappey. And just in case I haven't made it clear: This was my last flight with MJN."
Missy had listened to the whole conversation with big eyes. Nathan seized his chance and lay a consoling hand on her back.
"Your mother is right, Missy. Let's have a rest and try to forget the horrible events of today, shall we?"
Missy looked around, trying to locate Arthur, but when she couldn't find him, she let herself be steered away by Nathan.
Carolyn observed their departure with a hateful stare that looked as if it might have been able to kill, then turned around sharply on her heels.
"Now where is my idiot of a son?"
She found him together with Martin and Douglas. The poor boy was lacking all of his usual enthusiasm: He stood listless with slumped shoulders and was looking very pale. Martin had put a hand on his shoulder and was squeezing gently, a worried frown spread across his forehead—and if anyone needed another reminder about the severity of the situation, the rarely-seen concerned look on Douglas's face would have been enough.
"Arthur! What were you thinking?!" Carolyn yelled, not for the first time that day. "Ah, no wait, don't answer that. But how for goodness's sake could you forget to turn off the hot water boiler? After dumping a kitchen roll in it? One could almost get the impression you were deliberately trying to kill us, only that it would have needed at least some brain cells to come up with such a scheme."
"But it wasn't me!" Arthur said desperately, not for the first time either.
"Hang on," Douglas interrupted. "Just for the slow among us—Arthur had been preparing hot water for the tea and coffee?"
"And that was how long before we noticed the fire?" Douglas asked. "Half an hour?"
"Maybe? Maybe longer?" Arthur shrugged helplessly. "I don't remember!"
"And who was in the galley after you had served the drinks?"
"No-one!" Carolyn exclaimed. "That's the point!"
"I see," Douglas said. "And the hot water boiler was definitely turned on, as opposed to malfunctioning despite being off?"
"Yes," Carolyn replied.
"And the kitchen roll...?"
"Arthur must have put it in the hot water boiler."
"I didn't!" Arthur cried.
Carolyn fixed him with a stern look. "Who else could be confusing unofficially storing the asbestos fire gloves on the microwave with storing the kitchen roll in the hot water boiler?"
"No-one," Arthur said meekly.
After a moment of awkward silence, Martin said softly, "It's my fault."
"Far be it from me to disagree with you on this one, Martin, but how could this possibly be your fault?" Douglas asked.
"I should have taken the smoke alarm seriously," Martin blurted out. "I should have paid more attention during the walk-around. I should have..."
"Don't be ridiculous," Carolyn interjected. "None of that has anything to do with Arthur setting fire to the galley! Arthur, come with me. The BFU wants to see us tomorrow at eight sharp, and we need to find a hotel."
Carolyn strode off, and Arthur trailed after her like a kicked puppy.
"It's true, though," Martin insisted. "I've been distracted the past few days. I wasn't fit to fly. Oh god, to think of all the safety regulations I didn't adhere to..."
Whether it was the distressing mood, the dire situation MJN was in, Douglas's feelings for Martin rising to the surface—Douglas found himself unusually moved by Martin's proclamation.
"Carolyn is right. You couldn't have prevented what happened," he said gently.
"But you know my bad luck," Martin said stubbornly. "It's probably some sort of connected chain of events that lead to the fire to punish me for not being thorough."
Douglas put a hand on Martin's arm. "Martin, if you think you are sloppy with safety and regulations by your standards, you are actually still doing much better than many pilots I know. You have nothing to blame yourself for."
Sceptically, Martin looked up at him. "Douglas, I'd rather you just went ahead and mocked me. Let's get it over with; I can take it."
"I don't want to mock you," Douglas said. "I know this might be hard to believe, Martin, but I care for you."
Martin's eyes widened. Then he shook his head in disbelief.
Douglas sighed. "You look horrible."
"Why, yes, thank you," Martin retorted. "But we just had a bloody fire on board and now I'm missing out on my beauty sleep."
"Let me finish, Martin," Douglas said and stroked Martin's arm gently. "You look miserable and that makes me feel miserable. I ... well, this is really an odd thing to have happened, and I can't say I understand it, but it looks like I might have ... fallen in love." Then, when Martin stayed silent, Douglas added, "With you, in case that wasn't clear."
"Oh," Martin said and considered the new information for a bit. "Oh! Really odd, yes. I mean, no, not that odd, because it can't be that odd if I'm in love with you, too. Uh. Not saying that I am! I mean, hypothetically, if I were..." Martin trailed off, face flushed.
Douglas smiled fondly. "You old romantic."
"What?! No! I didn't say... well, anything!"
"Luckily enough, I have some experience in understanding you despite of what you do or don't say. So, now that we have settled that..." Douglas, now in familiar territory again, leaned in, his voice dropping to a syrupy drawl. "Is there anything I can do to make you feel better?"
"Douglas!" Martin exclaimed. "This is not the time! Nor the place!" Then he frowned, an idea occurring to him. "Well, I suppose there is something you could do to make me feel better. You could use your scheming skills and plot something to help Arthur."
Douglas shook his head. "I can't meddle with official investigations, Martin," he said gravely.
"You always come up with something." Martin turned his face away and muttered, "I thought you said you loved me."
"I did and I do," Douglas agreed. "But I fear there's a first time for everything. There's nothing I can do to help Arthur."
"He's innocent, I know he is!"
"Do you really believe that?" Douglas enquired. "Even so, interfering with official investigations is a bad idea. If they found out, we'd be in serious trouble, never mind if Arthur is innocent or not."
Martin sighed. "Can you at least think of something to make him not lose Missy? Regardless of how it turns out?"
Douglas raised an eyebrow. "You want me to play Cupid? I have to admit that's something I've never considered doing before. Not that I wouldn't be good at it, of course."
"Of course," Martin said, and he couldn't quite hide a smile.
As the investigations of the BFU proceeded, things were looking very bad for Arthur. The only one who could have shed light on the whole affair was Nathan, but as long as he was sticking to his lie and kept saying that he had been napping and only awoke after the fire had been spotted by the crew, no-one would ever find out what had really happened. Unless, of course, someone were to find Nathan's still-missing BlackBerry...
I waited until after the technicians of the German Federal Bureau of Aircraft Accidents Investigation were done with examining me—after all, I didn't want them to just return the BlackBerry to Nathan. I needed someone who'd be nosy enough to look at it and realise what they'd found. So I set to work to produce the BlackBerry from where it was safely hidden in the safety vest of seat 1B, a task which was quite hard for me to complete while stationed on the ground. After all, there were no movements or turbulences to use to my advantage. Luckily though, time and patience are things I have enough of.
Chapter 5: Act 5
The next morning, Arthur was once more interviewed by the BFU. Carolyn, unusually nervous, paced up and down in front of a little airport café, too restless to go inside and take a seat.
"This is preposterous," she muttered. "Everything turned out to be fine, didn't it? We landed safely, no-one was hurt. Why this farce of an investigation? We know what happened and I'll make sure that Arthur is never going to forget the hot water boiler ever again. I can't afford to be stuck here for days; it's bad enough that I have to pay for half a new galley."
Carolyn continued pacing.
"I dearly hope they aren't seriously believing that Arthur might have set fire to the galley on purpose. Wherever did they get that idea from?"
Well, knowing what happened, personally I'd suggest that Nathan might have had something to do with it. Who knows what he put down in his statement? Carolyn, of course, knew none of this.
"Surely they must see that Arthur doesn't have enough wit for coming up with such an elaborate plan? He's an idiot, yes, but not evil. Or mad."
"I hope he's not going to say anything stupid. Ah, who am I kidding, this is Arthur I'm talking about. Even feeling good he'd mess it up, and the poor boy doesn't cope well with these kind of situations at all."
Carolyn resumed pacing and nearly bumped into Catherine, who, accompanied by Missy and Nathan, was on her way to catch her replacement flight to London.
"Good morning, Mrs Knapp-Shappey," Catherine said icily.
"Good morning, Mrs Richardson," Carolyn replied, equally cold.
Catherine lifted her chin and stared down at Carolyn, her high heels adding to her impressive height. "How is the investigation going? I hope they won't let Arthur anywhere near a plane ever again."
"They have not come to a conclusion yet," Carolyn said. "And I'm not going to judge him until they have."
That was not quite true, but when confronted with Catherine's animosity, Carolyn had the motherly urge to defend Arthur.
Catherine shrugged dismissively. "Well, in any case, I'm not going to fly with MJN anymore. So why do I even care?"
Carolyn's eyes narrowed dangerously. "I don't care that you don't care. MJN is a professional airline, and there'll be other clients."
Catherine laughed. "Please, Dear. You are not professional, and you're very delusional if you believe you will come out of this unscathed. Don't assume I don't know about your financial situation."
"Fine," Carolyn spat. "I'll add you to the list of people who are waiting to see me fail and have been disappointed ever since. I'm sure you'll get on very well with my ex-husband."
Catherine stepped closer and opened her mouth for a retort, but before the situation could escalate, Douglas joined.
Catherine turned towards him, ignoring Carolyn. "Thank goodness, Douglas," she said. "Your so-called CEO is harassing me. But it doesn't matter, I won't see her ever again. You on the other hand... You know, I've been thinking of buying my own jet for quite a while now, and I'd need a pilot for it. Seeing that MJN is likely to go bust, if not because of this, then probably very soon due to some other stupidity, I'd like to offer the vacancy to you."
Douglas tilted his head. "Would you," he said.
Catherine nodded. "Consider it. It would be a new jet, and you'd get to be the captain."
"I'm flattered, Catherine," Douglas said. "But actually, I'm quite happy where I am now. Thinking about it, though—an old mate of mine from Air England is currently searching for a job. I'll tell him to send his CV to you, if you are interested."
"How much is she paying you?" Catherine asked, crossing her arms in front of her chest. "I can pay you more."
"That's very generous of you, but it's not about money," Douglas replied smoothly.
Catherine narrowed her eyes. "I'm surprised. Better position, better plane, better salary—and yet you are declining? That's not very much like the Douglas I knew. Are you finally starting to develop some sort of loyalty?"
"People do change, Catherine."
"Hmm," Catherine said, a derisive smile tucking at the corner of her mouth. "Or might it be that you are in love with your Captain? Tough luck, Douglas."
"At least some of us here do know what love is," Douglas replied. Then he turned towards Missy, who was standing a little aside and looked thoroughly uncomfortable. "People make mistakes all the time, Missy. Poor Arthur is taking the whole thing to his heart more than anyone else, and he's feeling miserable at the moment. I'm sure he'd love to hear from you."
"That's quite enough," Catherine said, stepping in between the two. "My daughter doesn't need relationship advice from you, of all people. And anyway, we have a plane to catch. A proper plane belonging to a proper airline."
Carolyn and Douglas watched as Catherine, Nathan and Missy turned around and disappeared into the crowd.
"I see now why you are divorced," Carolyn remarked dryly.
"Yes," Douglas said. "That was a little awkward, wasn't it."
While Carolyn stayed at the café, still waiting for Arthur, Douglas went to pay me a visit. He often does that if he wants to be alone, though of course he'd never admit that to anyone. As it was, he dropped into the captain's seat and pulled a mobile phone out of his pocket—Arthur's phone, as easily recognisable by its garish colours. Douglas had pick-pocketed it when they had left the hotel earlier, and now he went through Arthur's phone book. He grinned when he came across Missy's number. Snooping around some more, Douglas tried to find out if Arthur and Missy had had any contact since the fateful emergency landing, and when it turned out that they hadn't, he shook his head.
"That clot," he said. "He has her wrapped around his little finger, all he needs to do is talk to her, preferably without her mother sticking around. What a terribly bad time to choose to get all self-conscious and taciturn."
Douglas tapped away on Arthur's phone, composing a text. 'Feeling bad. Miss you!' After he had sent it to Missy and deleted it from the sent messages box, he smiled smugly.
"That was the easy part," he murmured.
Then he dropped the phone back into his pocket, got up from the seat and stepped into the galley. "As for the rest... I have to admit that I have no idea what to do." He looked around, taking in the charred remainders of the hot water boiler.
That was my cue. Who better to find Nathan's BlackBerry than Douglas? I had moved the BlackBerry into the aisle overnight, and now I just needed to turn Douglas's attention towards it. I opted for a screeching noise in the toilet which was easily heard in the otherwise silent cabin. And indeed, Douglas, following the origin of the noise, literally stumbled over the phone. He picked it up and turned it in his hands, then switched it on and looked through the applications. Curious as he was, it didn't take long for him to come across the photos of the galley, pre-fire.
"If that isn't interesting," Douglas mumbled. "Looks like there's a 'Get out of Jail Free' card for Arthur after all. Once again, luck is on Douglas Richardson's side. How could I have ever doubted myself?"
Magnanimous as I am, I let Douglas get away with his little misapprehension. And if nothing else, he did a great job with turning the BFU's attention to the real culprit and getting MJN off the hook as quickly as possible.
"That was brilliant, Douglas!" Arthur exclaimed afterwards, still a bit shaken but otherwise his old happy self. "You were like Sherlock Holmes! But I still don't get it. Why would Mr Clarke set fire to the galley?"
"That, Arthur, is an excellent question which I'm afraid only Mr Clarke can answer," Douglas replied. "I haven't the slightest idea what we might have done to deserve such an extreme reaction. After all, you didn't even cook anything for him. Wouldn't it have been fun if you had, though..."
"Wow!" Arthur said. "Real sabotage on my plane! Like a James Bond movie! That's exciting!"
Carolyn rolled her eyes. "As far as I am concerned, I could have done without the excitement. But it's certainly a relief to know that I won't be the one paying for the damage."
"Maybe you could remember your relief when issuing my next paycheck?" Douglas suggested.
"Oh, I have a much bigger reward for you than that," Carolyn replied with a smug smile. "The continued existence of MJN and your job!"
At that moment, Carolyn's mobile rang. Carolyn looked at the caller ID, and her face fell. "Mrs I'm-too-good-for-MJN Richardson," she sighed and put the phone to hear ear. "Knapp-Shappey!"
"Hello Mrs Knapp-Shappey. This is Catherine Richardson," came the reply from the other end.
"That's what I feared," Carolyn said.
Catherine sighed. "I suppose I owe you an apology. Nathan has been arrested on account of sabotaging your plane."
"So I have heard."
"Look, I am sorry to have been so rude towards you and your crew," Catherine said. "It was a stressful day for me, and I might have overreacted."
"You might have," Carolyn said. When she saw Arthur hanging on to her every word, hopeful and excited, she grudgingly added, "Apology accepted."
"Good." There was a slight pause. "Now that we have settled that—I was wondering if you would have me back as a client? Could you be in Messina on Saturday morning?"
"I suppose we could," Carolyn admitted. "It's not that we have any other clients lined up this month."
"Thought as much," Catherine said, and it sounded as if she was smiling. "I'd love to invite MJN to a small party on Saturday evening. Consider it a reparation for all the trouble my former junior partner has caused you."
"Very well." Carolyn said. "See you in Messina."
"I'm looking forward to it. Bye!"
Carolyn dropped her phone into her pocket. "It seems we have been invited to a party," she announced to the small group.
"Oh, really?" Arthur bounced up and down. "I get to see Missy again? That's brilliant!"
I have to agree with Arthur—that was brilliant turn of events, wasn't it? The truth had finally been revealed, Arthur's reputation had been restored, and MJN had been saved from bankruptcy. And I—I was about to get a new galley. This is, however, not quite the happy end we are looking for, is it? After all, I'm telling you a love story, and as such it should end with a kiss or two.
A few days later with myself not only airworthy again, but also presentable to passengers—have you ever tried to get rid of smears of ash and the smell of smoke?—the crew of MJN prepared for their flight to Messina. Douglas arrived at the airport unusually early, in fact even before Martin, and retreated into the flight deck. He pulled out a small notepad and a pen and started to scribble, but of course it had nothing to do with flight preparations.
"Rhymes with love," Douglas muttered to himself, absently spinning the pen between his fingers. "Dove... that's unbearably sappy. Glove... not very useful. Above..."
Douglas stopped the pen forcefully, then rubbed his face.
"Come on, old sky god," he tried to encourage himself. "It can't be that difficult. You have written dozens of love poems in your career, haven't you? So then... Rhymes with beauty... duty... hmmm. Fitting for Martin, certainly, but not very romantic. Booty... better, but not good. Oh bugger."
Douglas tore the page from the notebook, crumbled it and stuffed it into his pocket.
"It doesn't have to be a poem, does it? Let's try a simple letter..."
Douglas resumed writing, but after a while started scratching out most of what he'd put down.
"I can't believe this. It should be the easiest thing in the world. Write romantic love letter to girl—or boy, as it happens—invite them for dinner, let the evening end in bed or on any other sturdy surface of their choice. Been there, done that, more often than I can remember. Why is it so hard all of a sudden?"
Douglas sighed, forehead wrinkled with uncharacteristic chagrin. If you ask me, it was a rather endearing sight, but I doubt that he would have appreciated the idea.
"And this is Martin," Douglas continued his little monologue. "He probably doesn't have high standards regarding love letters."
Douglas tore another sheet of paper apart in frustration.
"The problem is, it's Martin. I really care about him. I don't want him to be another notch on my bedpost. Or another ex-wife."
Douglas's eyebrows rose as it occurred to him what he'd just said. "Oh dear!" Then he decided, "Maybe a change of tactics is in order."
That moment, Arthur announced his presence by tromping carelessly up the passenger stairway, slamming the cabin door and unceremoniously dropping the hoover in the galley.
"Is anyone here?" he called, then burst into the flight deck. "Oh, hi Douglas! You are in early!"
"So it would seem," Douglas admitted, pocketing his pen and paper. Then he added nonchalantly, "Say, Arthur, is Martin in yet?"
"Oh, yes, he's in the portacabin, doing the flight plans," Arthur replied cheerily.
"I suppose he would be. Thank you, Arthur."
Douglas popped into the portacabin where Martin was sitting at his desk and filling in forms.
Martin looked up only briefly. "There you are, Douglas," he said, eyes again on his writing. "Late as always."
"Oh, am I late?" Douglas asked innocently.
"It's quarter past eight," Martin said. "Don't tell me you don't even know."
Douglas sat down on Martin's desk, well within Martin's personal space. "There are more important things with which to occupy my magnificent brain than keeping track of the time to the minute," he drawled.
"Do you do that with your dates, too?" Martin asked. "Surely letting them wait is a bit of a turn-off."
"Funny how dates are the first thing that come to your mind when talking to your first officer," Douglas said. "But there's not much a good glass of wine, some flowers and dexterous lips can't fix in that department."
"Oh God, please spare me your smooth talking," Martin groaned. "And the flowers; we've had quite enough of those already."
"Would Sir care for a glass of wine, then?"
"Douglas, I don't drink while on duty, as you well know," Martin chided. "And I don't suppose Carolyn would appreciate you stealing her wine."
"Oh, not to worry," Douglas said. "I wouldn't bother with the cheap stuff that passes for wine on board our plane for such an occasion. On the other hand, I might. You probably wouldn't be able to tell the difference anyway."
Martin snorted. "Don't bother, Douglas. I'm not your date, thank goodness."
"Yes, what a relief," Douglas replied. "It would be a disaster."
"It would," Martin mumbled without looking up from his paperwork.
I have to admit I was a little baffled at Martin's and Douglas's behaviour. This was certainly not how I had expected a couple who had just admitted their love to each other to behave. Martin and Douglas kept bickering the whole flight to Messina, more than usual if that was at all possible, but luckily with a little less vitriol. I wished I could just smack them over their heads, which of course was impossible for me to do, and so I entertained the idea of trapping them in the flight deck long enough so that they'd finally see reason. But as it turned out, such drastic measures weren't necessary.
Finally, MJN found themselves in the Richardson holiday home in Messina again, attending another party, only that this party had considerably fewer guests than the last one, no costumes, and most importantly, no Nathan Clarke.
"Hello and welcome," Catherine greeted. "Once again, my apologies for everything that has happened. I hope we can look forward to a long business relationship in the future."
"Oh, I'm sure we can," Carolyn replied amiably, long since mollified by the prospect of more well-paid jobs to come. When Douglas opened his mouth for a retort, Carolyn stepped on his foot, hard. "Don't you dare say a word," she warned.
Before the conversation could take awkward turns, however, Missy joined them.
"Missy!" Arthur exclaimed. "I've missed you so much!"
"It's only been a week," Carolyn muttered, and now it was her turn to receive a discreet but chiding kick—from Catherine.
Arthur, in his excitement, didn't notice any of this. His eyes were still on Missy. "Oh, wow, you are wearing your Star Wars tee shirt. That's brilliant! I've always wanted to see it."
Missy smiled. "And you are still wearing your hat."
"I could make one for you, too, if you like!" Arthur replied earnestly.
"That would be awesome!"
Missy grabbed Arthur's hands and gave him a shy peck on the lips.
Watching the two, Martin said to Douglas, "I told you it wasn't Arthur's fault all along."
"So you did," Douglas replied. "Too bad you didn't bet on it. That would have been your one-off chance to win at something."
"I am not that desperate," Martin said. "There are some things no-one should bet on."
"Oh, really? Well, how about this: I bet we can teach those two lovebirds a thing or two about kissing."
"What?" Martin asked, surprised.
Douglas arched a challenging eyebrow at him. "Aren't you in love with me?"
"No!" Martin exclaimed emphatically, slightly flustered. "I mean... no! Absolutely not!"
"Ah," Douglas said. "Well, then Carolyn and Catherine and Missy must have misunderstood something. They said you were."
"No! They've got it wrong," Martin hastened to say. "Why, do you love me?"
"Wouldn't dream of it, no."
A small grin spread across Martin's face. "Hm, funny though that Arthur, Carolyn and Mrs Richardson were so sure you loved me."
"Yes, funny," Douglas replied. "Hilarious, almost, to believe that I, Douglas Richardson, would be in love with someone, with you of all people, and not seize the opportunity to act upon it."
"So you don't," Martin said. "Love me, that is."
"No," Douglas said.
"Good." Martin crossed his arms in front of his chest. "Neither do I. Love you, I mean."
"Good." With that, Douglas turned away.
Catherine put a hand on his arm. "Ah, come on, Douglas! Why don't you just man up and tell him already? There's no skin off your nose."
Missy and Arthur, who had interrupted their little reunion to watch the exchange between Martin and Douglas, stuck their heads together.
"Show them, Arthur," Missy whispered.
"Right-o," Arthur said and rifled through his pockets. He came up with a couple of crumpled pieces of paper and stepped in front of Douglas. "I found this in the flight deck while hoovering G-ERTI." He held out one of the sheets, then something occurred to him. "This is brilliant! Now I am Sherlock Holmes!"
"It's a love poem," Missy explained. "Dedicated to Martin."
"Yeah," Arthur said. "And Douglas is the one who has written it since it's his handwriting. I know it's his because I can never tell his n's from his u's, and the g's have these wiggly bits at the bottom..."
"Arthur," Douglas warned. "Don't."
But Carolyn had already snatched the paper out of Arthur's hand. Reading the poem, she snickered. "A love limerick? How romantic."
For the curious among you, Douglas's limerick went like this:
Well, love is a great thing indeed
But why am I so much in need
For the love of a man
Who has his own van
But otherwise not much succeeds?
It is rather cute, don't you think?
"And here's another one," Arthur continued. "This one's from Skip to Douglas. I fished it out of the bin in the portacabin."
Martin's face got first very white, then bright red. "Arthur, give that to me!" he demanded, but it was too late; Catherine and Carolyn were already cooing over the paper. Martin's poem consisted mostly of scratched out words and lines, only the words 'Douglas,' 'love,' and 'happiness' were legible, but the author had made up for his lack of writing skills by drawing little hearts all over the remaining space.
"That's not fair," Martin huffed. "That's personal."
"Oh, Martin," Douglas said, feigning sympathy. "I know how irresistible I am, you have nothing to be embarrassed about. And since I'm in a rather charitable mood today, I'll consider a dance with you. How does that sound to you? Well, maybe not a—"
Douglas never got around to finishing that sentence since Martin, letting out an exasperated sigh, interrupted him.
"Shut up, Douglas," he said, and to the surprise of all, he emphasised his words by sealing Douglas's lips with a kiss. Douglas, caught off-guard and for once effectively silenced, adapted quickly. He gathered Martin in an embrace and deepened the kiss, and Martin happily let him. And if I may say so, Douglas's and Martin's performance was indeed something to learn from, as Douglas had claimed earlier.
"That's brilliant!" Arthur commented cheerily. "Now Skip and Douglas are happy, too."
Missy snuggled up to him and whispered something in his ear, blushing a little.
"Wow!" Arthur said. "Do you reckon..."
"I'm sure we do not want to hear that," Carolyn interjected. "Well, if that isn't a happy ending worthy of a fairy tale. I might need to go brush my teeth now. And I dearly hope everyone remembers to keep their hands to themselves on my aeroplane. Somehow I've got the feeling it's going to be worse than supervising a bunch of horny teenagers..."
And thus, I have reached the end of my little story; I hope you enjoyed it. We'll be landing shortly, and if you don't want your dreams disturbed by Arthur's dramatic performance of the safety announcement, you should wake up now. And should you ever find yourself wondering if there's any truth behind the Mile High Club, let me assure you there is, despite all of Carolyn's warnings. Though, of course, you haven't heard that from me.