Unaccompanied Minor, page 13
“Look, Malcolm.” I rummaged through my backpack and pulled out the piece of notebook paper I’d taken from Kathy’s purse after she and Cinderblock murdered Jalyce. Kathy’s pterodactyl scratchings didn’t make much sense to me at the time, but now things were starting to clarify. “See this paper, it’s Kathy’s writing, right there it says ‘angels,’ and those scribbles next to it? They say ‘among us.’”
“Angels among us,” Malcolm recited. Realization was starting to descend upon his features, but Flo was still completely in the dark.
“What?” she insisted. “What the hell does that mean?”
I took Beefheart’s certification papers from a slot on his vest and unfolded them. “Look,” I pointed. “Angels Among Us is a pet-rescue organization based in Georgia. They cherry-pick dogs from among their strays to send off and be trained as emotional support dogs—it’s an experimental program put together by the Fulton County Penitentiary. Before they’re certified, these dogs spend months in the possession of prison inmates.”
Malcolm tightened his embrace around Beefheart. I didn’t blame him. Beefheart grunted sweetly, licked his master’s face, and wriggled his tail stub. I choked back a sob.
“We have to tell the pilots,” Flo said.
“If we’re being hijacked, how do we know who’s really flying the plane?” I reasoned. “Remember, Alby called us to give the code word. Not the pilots.”
“Then who do we tell?” Flo asked.
I furrowed my brow thoughtfully, then shook my head in resignation.
“What?” Malcolm asked. “Who do we tell?”
“Officer Ned,” I said.
I took out the imposter’s cell phone and punched in the contact number from the business card Officer Ned had given me what seemed like a century ago. It rang four times and then went to voicemail. I left a synopsized message detailing the day’s events as briefly as I could. Then I hung up and tried again. Straight to voicemail. Dang. Wouldn’t you know he’d probably be the only one who actually turned off his phone during flight.
So it was on to Plan B.
An L-1011-250 model with a lower galley like this one is designed with a hatch in the cabin floor near the mid galley. Flight attendants are trained to use this hatch in case the elevators stop working. A good thing about this hatch is that it’s flush with the aisle floor and its seams are indecipherable in the thin, grody old seventies carpet that lines the aisles of the aircraft. Many of these hatches have never been opened even once, and after decades of being trampled and spilled on, I was worried we’d be unable to open this one.
But after some rigorous scraping along the edges with the Swiss Army knife, I was able to dislodge enough grime to lift the hatch half an inch to assess the condition of the cabin, or at least the floor of the cabin. Malcolm held me aloft by gripping me around my thighs so that the two of us made a human extension of sorts. The side of his head rested right at my belly.
“Your stomach sure is growling,” he said.
“Shut up!” I smacked the top of his head lightly. Once again I was so glad, and simultaneously sorry, that he was here with me.
I was surprised to see the passengers in the cabin behaving as though nothing was wrong. Either they didn’t know we were in danger, or Alby’s message had been coerced, or worse, duplicitous. There was no sight or sound of any flight attendants nearby, so I took a moment to evaluate the surroundings, as this vantage point proved to be pretty advantageous.
Officer Ned, unmistakably identifiable by his black motorcycle boots, and his prisoner Old Cinderblock had the two window seats directly opposite the hatch on the other side of the aircraft. Directly next to the hatch was a carry-on bag with a box of thin spaghetti peeking above a pocket. I stealthily reached out, took it, and put it in my own pocket. Another nearby passenger had a stack of porno magazines sticking out of his bag. (Really, what is it about porno and airplanes?) Then, a few rows up on the copilot’s side of the cabin, I spotted the telltale sign of an ankle holster peeking out from beneath a man’s pant leg.
I closed the hatch and whispered to Malcolm to let me down.
“Flo,” I said. “The guy on the aisle seat at 29H, did you get a look at him?”
“Are you talking about the air marshal?” she responded.
“Why didn’t you tell me there’s an air marshal on board?”
“Kid, I would have gotten around to it eventually, but you gotta admit, two dead bodies and a bomb can be pretty distracting.”
“How do you know he’s an air marshal?” Malcolm asked. “I thought they traveled incognito, even to the flight attendants.”
Flo and I chuckled wryly. “They couldn’t be easier to identify if they wore a uniform, which come to think of it, they kind of do,” Flo explained.
“Yeah,” I clarified. “Just picture a Hawaiian shirt on a guy who looks like the last thing in the world he’d ever wear is a Hawaiian shirt.”
I put the packet of spaghetti in the pile of useful things Malcolm had culled from the crew bags. He looked at me curiously and asked, “Are we making lunch?” I smiled wanly and asked him to tear me another piece of paper from his notebook. Then I produced the Sharpie marker I’d borrowed from him earlier and wrote a note to Officer Ned. It read:
Officer Ned. There is a bomb on the plane. A picture of it is on the cell phone inside the vest pocket. Also, we think we’re being hijacked. Please go right now and stand by the lavatory on the other side of the aisle from you.
P.S. Please don’t show this note to anyone.
P.P.S. This is April.
P.P.P.S. I’m serious.
Then Malcolm handed over the most precious thing in his life to me. I took Beefheart, tucked the cell phone with the picture of the bomb in the slot on the back of his vest, and put the note in the dog’s mouth. Then Malcolm lifted us both up to peek through the hatch again. When I saw that the coast was clear, I widened the opening and placed Beefheart on the floor facing the opposite aisle.
“Boots, Beefheart!” I whispered with the excitement dogs love to hear. “The boots.” I pointed. “Go get the boots.”
Beefheart wiggled his tail stub eagerly and set off toward Officer Ned’s feet. Please, please, Officer Ned, I prayed, please don’t be a grump and kick the dog down the aisle or something.
Beefheart padded quietly behind the last row of seats in the mid cabin to get to the opposite aisle, then up a few rows toward Officer Ned. I could hear a few squeals of delight from some surrounding passengers as they caught sight of the small dog, because dogs don’t commonly walk the aisles of an aircraft, but that was all. No one created an uproar over pet allergies, like Malcolm and I have seen people react on past flights, thank God. Soon Beefheart reached Officer Ned’s boots and began scratching at them softly with his paw.
“C’mon, pick up the dog,” I whispered.
The leather on those cowboy boots must have been thick, because it wasn’t until the passenger across the aisle pointed it out to him that Officer Ned finally noticed Beefheart. First he petted Beefheart’s head, then he must have noticed the note in the dog’s mouth, because he reached down to pick him up.
“He got him! He got him!” I whispered excitedly to Malcolm. “He’s getting up! He’s coming over!” Then I waited, trying to keep the hatch opening as thin as possible. Then, plunk!, somebody stepped on the hatch and it thwacked down on my head. Hard.
“Ouch,” I smarted.
“You okay?” Malcolm asked.
“Yeah.” I rubbed my head. “Are you?”
“I’m fine,” he answered. He seemed to hold me up effortlessly, the side of his head still snug against my abdomen.
I pushed up on the hatch and it wouldn’t budge. It occurred to me that the person who stepped on it was still standing on it. Then it further occurred to me that the person standing on it was Officer Ned.
Flo was one step ahead of me and had already entered the elevator to go up and get him.
Finally the hatch didn’t resist when I pushed up on it. Then I heard the familiar churning of the elevator engine as the car descended, and soon Officer Ned was looking through the small window at us. Fury and worry seemed to fight for the expression on his face. Then Malcolm opened the elevator door, and Officer Ned unfolded his big six-foot-five self from the interior of the tiny elevator, and I immediately noticed two things missing.
“Where’s Beefheart?” Malcolm asked.
“Where’s Flo?” I asked.
“April, what is going on?” Officer Ned’s voice sounded more frantic than mad.
“We only know what we told you in the note,” I explained. “Please, where’s Beefheart and Flo?”
“Flo is… ?” He swirled his hand above his head to indicate Flo’s customary large hairdo. I nodded. “And Beefheart is… ?” He pinched his ear to indicate Beefheart’s lovely little half-chewed-off ear. I nodded. “They’re up there. They couldn’t fit in the lift with me, so Flo took the dog and said she’d be down right behind me.”
Malcolm and I looked at each other in a panic. Where were they, then? Suddenly the second lift churned to life, and we both breathed a sigh of relief. But when the door opened it wasn’t Flo after all. It was the coordinator, Ramona Thibodaux. Malcolm and I froze, not knowing what to think or do. She opened the door and smiled so sweetly at me that I felt my tension ease, then she took Flo’s gun from her apron pocket, pointed it at my head and fired twice.
Remember I told you about how Officer Ned chased down that escaped prisoner on the tarmac of the LAX airport? Remember I said I’d never seen anyone move so fast? I didn’t think I ever would again—until today in the lower galley of that L-1011 when Ramona Thibodaux pointed a gun at my head. It happened like a shadow, or a flash—a blink, I’m telling you. It was so quick that I wondered where the bullets went, because surely she had hit me, I thought. But no, the bullets didn’t hit me. They hit Officer Ned.
He had thrown himself between me and the gun.
Malcolm and I both screamed so loud that we could hear passengers above us start to react in astonishment. The popping sound of gunfire was not startling, because evidently old, rickety airplanes like this one made crazy noises all the time. But screaming, now, that was cause for alarm.
Malcolm ran to me and embraced me. I don’t think he understood I hadn’t been shot until he held me at arm’s length and assessed my condition. Ramona kept clicking the trigger on Flo’s gun to no avail. She banged it against the door to see if she could unjam it, then tried shooting it at us again. The gun must have been out of bullets, because she angrily stuffed it in her apron pocket, closed the door of the elevator and began ascending.
I was too stunned from what had transpired to stop her, but Officer Ned, bleeding and by sheer force of will, dragged himself to the elevator door and yanked it open. The car had nearly made it to the top, but not completely. When Officer Ned opened the door, it stopped the car in mid-ascent, exposing Ramona’s legs from the knees down. Officer Ned grabbed her ankles and tried to pull her back into the galley. But Ramona kicked like a bronco. Remember, she’s built like a brick house, and plus there was someone above who was pulling her up, not to mention the fact that Officer Ned had been shot twice, so in the end we lost that battle, and Ramona clambered up and out of sight, minus both her shoes.
I ran to Officer Ned, who had collapsed and was breathing raggedly. “What do I do?” I asked Malcolm. There was nothing in the first aid section of the manual that told us how to treat gunshot wounds. Officer Ned was bleeding badly. I could feel the panic rise in my chest and the tears well in my eyes.
What do I do what do I do what do I do? Then I heard my mom’s voice. Don’t freak out. Figure it out. I sprang into action.
“Malcolm, get me the first aid kit from above the jumpseat over by the sink. See it there? Good. Now bring me the emergency medical kit from above the other jumpseat on the other side of the elevators. Thanks. Now, grab the defibrillator from the bracket above the cupboard. It’s that red square thing with the little blinking lightning bolt by the handle. Good.”
From there I worked in a blur as all the training I’d helped other flight attendants study for kicked me into autopilot. A gunshot wound is a wound, after all. I knew how to treat those. As far as I could discern, Officer Ned had been shot in the left arm and in the torso near the right side of his ribs. I pulled off one of his motorcycle boots and, using the scissors in the defibrillator kit, cut off the strap so I could wrap it around his arm to apply pressure and secure the bandage.
Then I directed Malcolm to look into Flo’s bag for painkillers, because I knew she must have had some in there. I shook three into my palm and fed them to Officer Ned one at a time, two because he was at least twice her size and one extra because, well, he was shot up. I bundled him in airline blankets and kept the defibrillator at the ready in case he started to die on me. Thankfully he didn’t just then, and soon he seemed to be as stabilized as we could hope for considering the situation.
I sat back and exhaled, finally.
But not for long.
I ran to the elevators and banged the buttons to descend the cars so I could ride them up. “April, where are you going?” Malcolm called. We could hear some passengers above us still chattering in the kind of half panic that comes with understanding that things are not right but not knowing exactly what is wrong.
“Flo! Beefheart!” I said, still banging the buttons, but Ramona must have opened the doors above to keep the elevators from operating. “Malcolm, you have to boost me through the hatch.”
“No, I’m not letting you up there.”
I yanked an empty meal cart out from its stowage sleeve and positioned it under the hatch. “I’m going up there, Malcolm. I have to. You can help me or not.”
He arose from Officer Ned’s side and reluctantly steadied the cart as I climbed on top of it. I was encouraged to hear Officer Ned admonish me from the floor. “April, don’t you dare,” he coughed. “Get back here.”
I ignored him for two reasons. One, I had to look after Flo and Beefheart. And two, I knew it would make him mad enough to stay alive so he could tear me a new one later. I pushed open the hatch and saw that people were up in the aisles all willy-nilly. Oh well, I thought, it’s chaos, and I flipped open the hatch and popped myself into the aisle, closing it behind me.
Only a few passengers noticed me emerge, and they stared at me in stunned silence. The blood on my white blouse did not help, I thought. But no time to worry about that. I looked around the cabin to assess its condition. The first thing I noticed was Old Cinderblock, or, more accurately, the absence of Old Cinderblock. He was not in his seat and was nowhere to be seen. The second thing I noticed was Flo near the aft cross-aisle. She met my eyes and held up her hand in a way that appeared to be meant to warn me away.
I ignored that and ran down the aisle toward her, knocking over two teenagers and that sloppy drunk who had earlier made a scene during boarding. When I reached Flo I saw what she meant when she had tried to warn me away. Lying behind her in the cross-aisle was the air marshal, his lurid Hawaiian shirt practically glowing like plutonium, his Dockers pant leg pushed up to expose an empty holster, a bullet hole in his head that was made, presumably, by his own gun.
“Kid,” Flo said sadly, “I tried to tell you to stay back.”
It was then that I noticed Ramona, pointing the air marshal’s gun at Flo’s head.
Lord Christ, I thought to myself, channeling Flo, how many damn guns are there on this aircraft? And then, once again, I sprang into action.
In the flight attendant self-defense course, they teach you ways to disarm an assailant, and one of the most interesting things in that training video—to me, anyway—is when the instructor says that he would rather face a gun instead of a knife any day of the week.
“With a gun,” he says, “
One of the interesting things about human anatomy, I learned from this training, is that the wrist is one of the weakest parts of the body. So weak, in fact, that when you smack the back of someone’s hand sharply, it easily jackknifes at the wrist and tends to release their grip. “Swat it!” the instructor instructed. “Swat it to the ground!”
So that’s exactly what I did. Swat! I swatted Ramona’s weapon right to the ground. Among the three of us—me, Ramona, and Flo—I think I was probably the most surprised that it actually worked.
When the gun clattered to the floor, I dove for it, along with Ramona and Flo both.
“Flo!” I cried as I struggled with Ramona over the dead body of the air marshal to try and keep her from retrieving his weapon. “Flo, go back to the galley!” She stood, but beyond that did not seem to move. Ramona tried scratching me like a bobcat, but at that precise moment I discovered something new about myself, and that was this: You don’t get trapped in a car trunk next to the corpse of one of your only friends, only to escape to find yourself locked up in a hospital about to be turned over to a murderer, only to escape to find yourself on a flight where the three remaining friends you have on this earth—as well as an innocent emotional support dog—are about to be bombed off the planet without growing some steel-clad cojones of your own.
I grabbed the Halon fire extinguisher from its bracket by the cross-aisle jumpseat, snapped the seal, and blasted it in Ramona’s face. She screamed and retreated, coughing and spitting and trying to dig the chemical foam from her eye sockets. I had time to feel satisfied for about half a second before I heard a menacing voice from behind me.
“Yoo-hoo,” it said.
I turned to see the sloppy drunk grinning at me. Only he didn’t seem drunk at all. In fact, he seemed immensely lucid right then—evil, even—seeing as how he was pointing the air marshal’s gun at Flo’s head.
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