I hate flying. And yes, I know all the pat answers to my fears. I don’t remind myself of them. I know too much for them to do any good.
The trolly dolly is no dolly. In her fifties, she’s smart and efficient with a smile that tells me she’s heard and seen it all. Probably done it all, too. I check my cynacism with difficulty. It’s the dread. The fear. I fucking hate it. I know she can see it. It’s in my posture, on my face and in my sweaty palms. And I hate that to. Fuck.
‘Captain Hollis would like a word. Everything alright, Mr Saunders?’
She looks like she’s about to put a sympathetic hand on my arm, so I flick open the seat belt and start climbing from the seat
‘Tickety boo, thank you.’
She smiles, not quite sympathetically, and moves past me. She smells of Channel Five, soap and corporate hospitality. The Lear jet is not ostentatious, but still luxurious as any private aircraft can be. The cockpit is alive with screens, their glow bathing everything in a tinge of green, cutting edge technology bleeding a river of information.
Hollis is a young captain, late twenties. I like that. Older hands can be resistant to change, sometimes flying by the seat of their pants right into the ground. On the other hand, young guns sometimes don’t fly at all, trusting their computers when their computers have long stopped computing.
‘It’s the weather, Mr Saunders, sorry for the delay, but we should be off within fifteen minutes.’
‘No, just the snow, it’s not a problem for us, but it is for the ground crew, they’re struggling with things a bit, don’t worry.’
Jesus, does everyone know? I look out the window, it’s dark and the snow is getting thicker. It’s starting to settle and the ramp is covered in dark lines from vehicles tending the aircraft as the ground crew, bright spots of orange in hi-viz jackets, hunch and scurry against the wind.
‘It’s a bitch of a night though, ain’t it?’
‘I’ve flown worse, Mr Saunders.’
‘Call me, Jack, Captain. You might’ve, but I don’t think I have …’
I shake his proffered hand, and find it disconcertingly limp when I really needed it to be strong and confident. A guy full of the ‘right stuff’. Chuck Yeager at the controls. Confident, strong, ready to deal with any emergency. Even today, there are still a lot of American flyers that adopt Chuck’s laconic drawl. Chukkies I call them. Nick had a nasal Bronx accent, and that honesty gave me more confidence than any limp handshake.
‘My co-pilot here is Ruth.’
Ruth had her head buried in check-sheets when I entered, now she turned and shot me a real cool Chuck Yeager smile. Early twenties I guessed, blonde hair pulled back into a ponytail and blue eyes sharp as tacks.
Her shake was firm and as hard as those eyes. No dumb blonde here. I like her immediately.
‘Sure, I make it a point of knowing who it is I fly’.
No shy girl this one.
‘So you know all about me, huh?’
‘Actually, no, just your name. Oh, and that you’re an investigator.’
‘Not much else to know, I guess.’
‘No? That’s a shame…’
I glanced at Nick who was rather too studiously consulting his instruments. Ruth was staring openly at me with a hint of a smile. Damn.
‘Sure is. Well, I better let you two get on with flying this tin tube out of this place ... Good luck with the weather.’
‘Enjoy the flight, Jack.’ She says, those eyes drilling right into me.
‘Yeah, right, thanks …’
I head back to my seat and now I have something to distract my mind with. Ruth. I’m the only passenger on this special flight and my trolly dolly re-appears at my side.
‘Would you care for a drink? Coffee? Tea?’
‘Thanks, but I think I’ll have a Jack Danials, no ice.’
I throw the drink back in one, letting the fire burn its way down my throat, feeling the warmth wrap me in its arms. It’s been a long day. I’m tired and about to launch myself into to the worst flying weather I’ve ever been in. I try to concentrate on Ruth. But I’m already at the end of the runway and the engines are winding themselves up to their full fury.
In the cockpit, Nick releases the brakes. My back is pressed into leather as the aircraft, a small plane with the performance of a jet fighter, hurtles along the runway. Every thump from the wheels jars my thoughts and every scream from the engine is scrutinized for that wrong note that might spell disaster. Maybe I would have long seconds when I could curl into a ball, cover my head and wait for the final crunch, the tearing of metal and the sear of flame.
The snow outside the window is blurred into streaks of white as the speed increases. We’re at V2, the point of no return, in mere seconds. The thumping from the wheels vanishes and the nose of the plane pitches high into the night. Immediately the plane lurches to the left, back to the right, falls, bounces up and tilts wildly. The engines are at full thrust, screaming only meters behind my head, turbines spinning wildly, spitting fire.
My hands grip the chair; unimaginable forces are about to tear the aircraft and me to pieces. I’ve walked through those pieces, those raw lumps of flesh that have to be collected and reassembled into approximations of human beings. I’m on my way to another such scene. Another mess, another human error.
A hand on my arm is shaking me.
‘Mr Saunders, you ok?’
My trolly dolly is back. The plane is in clear air, high above the storm below. My face feels damp and cold.
‘Yes, I’m fine. But I’ll have another Jack Danials …’