1. Out of Order

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"The lavatories are out of order!" The man's anger was unmistakable in his slit-eyed predator's gaze. He pointed his thumb at the offending aircraft washrooms behind him.

The flight attendant standing in the aisle close to me flinched at his words. She took a step back and steadied herself against the backrest of my seat. "Yes, we're sorry, sir. You'll need to use the economy lavatories at the rear of the aircraft."

A muscle twitched in his cheek as he glowered at her. He was shorter than the woman, wiry, and at least twice her age, but he looked like a bull terrier ready to pounce on a kitten. "That's not what I booked business class for." The volume of his voice easily pierced the endless background drone of the engines.

"Of course, sir." She smiled her raspberry painted lips. "But there's a problem with the pipe bringing the water to the forward lavatories. We'll—"

"Makes me wonder about the safety of this machine if you can't even get the plumbing for your crapholes fixed." He brushed past her and her trolley on his way to the economy facilities at the rear of the plane.

When he passed me, I was tempted to kick his shin, but I remained still.

The flight attendant exhaled audibly. For a moment, her lower lip pushed upwards, giving her a tired and almost desperate look. She gave the trolley a little tug down the aisle and stopped at our row. Her smile reclaimed her face as she gazed at the man sitting to the right of me by the window. "What..." She took another breath. "What can I bring you? Tea, coffee, or anything else, sir?" When the addressee of her question didn't look up from the book he was reading, she gazed at me. "And you, madam?"

Her name tag called her Adriana.

I smiled back at her. "I'm good, thanks for asking." She deserved some respect for not slapping or punching her passengers. "Business class passengers aren't any better than those back in economy, apparently."

She shrugged. "In the end, we're all just human."

"True," I said, "a rich man is nothing but a poor man with money. And any man can have a bad day, every now and then."

"Yes." Her lips revealed a set of bleached teeth. Then she looked once more at the man at my side. "Sir, can I bring anything for you?"

This time, my neighbor looked up. "No, thanks."

The flight attendant nodded again and proceeded to the row behind me, tugging her trolley after her.

I didn't envy her for her job.

"Fields," my neighbor said.

I looked at him, unsure if he was talking to me. Up to this point, our conversation had been limited to a short, perfunctory greeting even though we had spent several hours sitting side by side.

His gaze was on me. His alert eyes were almost black, in an unsmiling dark-skinned face.

"Pardon?" I said.

"W. C. Fields... your quote about a rich man being nothing but a poor man with money." The syllables in his speech were harsh and throaty, carrying a foreign accent I couldn't place.

"Ah... yes." I knew it was a quote, but I didn't know where I had picked it up nor who it was from.

He eyed me for a second, one eyebrow raised. Fine wrinkles in the skin around his eyes and a few gray wires in his short-cut, curly, black hair made him slightly older than me. In his early forties, maybe. His features looked north African, Turkish, or Arab—I couldn't say.

"But then," he said, "you must be one of these rich people, too, if you travel business class from Hong Kong to L.A."

"I'm not," I replied. "They gave me a free upgrade."

"They must be running out of rich people, then." He winked at me and turned his attention back to his book.

Not much of a talker, that man. His classic profile—long, straight nose, thin lips, sharp chin—was almost black against the light entering through the window behind him. The brilliant rays of the tropical sun were reflected on the backs of an unbroken herd of clouds below us.

I had no clue what was down there, below the cloudscape—probably an endless expanse of Pacific ocean. My work for UNESCO had carried me all over the world, yet my sense of geography was still lacking.

I didn't care, though. The plane would carry me back to L.A., to my cold and lifeless apartment on the other side of the Pacific.

A wave of fatigue washed over me. I rubbed the bridge of my nose, pushing up my glasses while doing so. My body longed for a bed and my mind for a retreat. The plane had been late, and I had wasted hours in the airport's waiting area.

Most of the passengers had been booked into a replacement flight that would leave earlier. Not me, however. But it didn't matter—I could spend my time reading at the airport or back home. It was all the same to me.

When the airplane had finally been ready for boarding, they had herded me and a few other unlucky souls on board.

At least, they had given me the upgrade to business class, and the aircraft was half empty.

An impatiently voiced 'excuse me' made me look aft.

The man from before was on his way back, apparently having completed his errand to the economy lavatories. He tried to pass the flight attendant's trolley, which still blocked the aisle beside me. His buttocks came uncomfortably close to my face as he squeezed himself past. I leaned back to avoid impact and touched my neighbor's shoulder.

He looked up to gaze at the passing backside. "I have a sharpened pencil if you need one."

My idling brain took its time before it grasped the intended purpose of that pencil. When it did, I turned to acknowledge the joke, but his focus was already back on his book, and he missed my grin.

The lavatory man reached his seat, two rows ahead, and sat down with a sigh. It wasn't a tired sigh, but rather an irritated one, loud enough to carry its message of displeasure through all of business class.

Deciding to have a look at our committee's half-yearly draft report, I pulled my tablet from my backpack under the seat in front of me.

This was when the overhead lights went off. It didn't turn dark, though—the sun outside was bright enough.

But it wasn't only the illumination that had changed. There was something else, too. Something was totally off. I needed a moment to realize what it was.


The noise of the engines was gone.

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