Read The Last Flight Online

Authors: Julie Clark

The Last Flight (21 page)

BOOK: The Last Flight
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Eva

Berkeley, California

January

Five Weeks before the Crash

The day Liz moved, Eva stayed hidden inside her house, watching from her upstairs office as Liz's rental furniture got loaded onto the company's truck. Liz had slipped a note through her mail slot a few days after their argument, just a piece of paper, her neat script slanted, as if from another era.
Everything you ever wanted is on the other side of fear.
Eva had crumpled it up and tossed it in the trash can by her desk.

She knew that when Liz's apartment was empty and the truck was ready to leave, Liz was going to want to say goodbye. Eva tried to imagine facing Liz on the porch after two weeks of near silence, searching to find the words to apologize, to tell Liz that their friendship had mattered to her, despite the way she'd behaved.

She distracted herself by getting her own affairs in order. She checked her bank account in Singapore. She organized the evidence on Fish she'd been able to gather so far. She'd had all of it notarized the other day, just in case. The bored notary public had cracked her gum—thumbprint here, sign there—not even looking at what Eva had typed up.

But something tugged on her subconscious now, some piece of unfinished business that wouldn't let go until she looked at it, one last time. Soon, she'd be gone, with a new name and a new life. And once she was, she could never return. The opportunity to see her birth family, maybe even speak to them, would be closed forever.

She entered her grandparents' names into a Google search and clicked on one of the people-finder websites, quickly entering her credit card information to access the premium options that would give her a phone number and a street address.

It wasn't hard. All this time, the information had been there, waiting for her to find it. Nancy and Ervin James, and an address just a few miles away in Richmond.

When Liz went to buy sandwiches for the movers, Eva slipped away. She wasn't cut out for prolonged goodbyes. And there was too much she'd left unsaid to pretend otherwise.

* * *

She drove north, marveling at how close they'd been all this time, and wondered if they ever thought of her. If they ever looked for her. Perhaps they didn't pay for access to her address like Eva had, but maybe they'd done their own web search.
Eva James.
And there she'd be, on a list of people who shared her name.
Age 32, Berkeley, California.

She exited the freeway and navigated the last few blocks, finally driving down a wide, barren street filled with run-down houses. The yards were filled with junk, dead grass and weeds leaching all the color out of the environment. This was nothing like what she'd imagined, and she was tempted to keep driving, to hang on to the illusion she'd built for herself over the years.

She pulled up outside a faded green house with a broken window in the garage door. Someone had taped a piece of cardboard over it, though the tape looked old and brittle, the cardboard warped from water damage and edged with mold. Across the street, a dog chained in the yard split the silence with its barks.

As she walked up the cracked cement path, her eyes scanned the brown lawn and tattered shrubbery and tried to see herself playing there, but none of it matched what she'd spent so many years picturing. Where were the flower beds she'd imagined her grandmother tending? The well-maintained car in the driveway? Where were the ironed curtains in the windows, the driveway her grandfather power-washed once a year? What she saw was so unexpected, like an out-of-tune piano hitting all the wrong notes, loud and jarring.

Eva stood on the shady porch, trying to breathe through her mouth, the stench of cigarette smoke seeping through the closed door. She knocked, and inside, the sound of footsteps approached, causing her to want to turn around and walk away. She no longer wanted to see what was behind that door.

But before she could move, it was pulled open. An older man stood in loose-fitting jeans and an old T-shirt, his ropy arms covered in tattoos. “Help you?” he asked, looking past her, toward her car parked at the curb. She was struck immediately by his eyes. They were hers. Same shape, same shade, and for a moment, she felt a breathless recognition, like the center piece of a puzzle snapping into place, completing the picture.

“Who is it?” a voice called from inside.

Over the man's shoulder, Eva could just make out a large, lumpy figure in a chair. The smell of cigarette smoke was overwhelming, and underneath it something else—unwashed bodies and overcooked food.

“Sorry,” Eva said, backing down the steps. “I have the wrong house.”

The man stared at her, and she held her breath, waiting for a flash of recognition in his eyes, to see something shake loose—perhaps he'd see the ghost of her mother—his dead sister—standing before him. But he just shrugged, said “Suit yourself,” and swung the door closed.

She turned and walked down the walkway, her legs and arms uncoordinated and jerking, lurching her from the front path to the sidewalk and into her car. As she started the engine, she chastised herself for ever thinking they might be more than this, angry that she'd believed anything but the lowest possible denominator.

And yet, as she navigated the streets back to the freeway and headed south toward Berkeley, she realized she'd spent her whole life wishing for something she never would have had. All these years, she'd believed that if only they had loved her enough to raise her, she somehow could have avoided what happened to her at Berkeley. She could have finished her degree and built a legitimate life for herself. But now she knew that had she grown up there, she never would have made it to Berkeley in the first place.

Information is power.

Eva could walk away with no regrets, knowing for certain the past held nothing of value for her. That sometimes, the death of a dream can finally set you free.

* * *

When she arrived home, the moving truck was gone, Liz's apartment empty. The windows were uncovered, revealing bare rooms, the red accent wall almost glowing, and a cold and heavy sadness settled over her.

She stepped onto the porch and unlocked her door, keeping her eyes trained forward, trying not to notice that Liz had left the flowerpots she'd tended so carefully. She glanced to her right, to the tree they'd planted together, the only thing left of their friendship, where it would continue to stand, a quiet sentinel, keeping her secrets.

Eva

Berkeley, California

February

One Week before the Crash

Jeremy's text came fifteen minutes before Eva was to leave to meet Dex at a basketball game.

I'm failing my classes. I have a paper due on Tuesday and I need something to help me get an A on it. Please.

Of all her clients, Jeremy had been the most persistent, badgering her for weeks to sell him something. She'd managed to put him off, offered to connect him with someone else, but he'd refused. He wanted her. He trusted her. In the past, she would have rolled her eyes at his loyalty, but now she knew he was smart to be cautious.

She texted back.

Going to men's basketball game at Haas. Meet me at entrance to section ten at halftime.

She would hand off with Dex in the club room and then find Jeremy. She pulled four from her discards—pills that had an odd shape or were broken—and slid them into a plain white envelope. They weren't pretty, but they'd get the job done.

Two days earlier, Castro had slid up next to her in the frozen-food aisle at the supermarket. He'd only been there for a second, just long enough to give a location and a time, and say that she'd soon have her answer. Eva felt the hours, the minutes, slipping away, carrying her forward to an unknown outcome. She looked around her house and wondered if she'd miss it. Her gaze trailed across the familiar walls of the living room—her favorite chair she'd sat in millions of times, to watch TV or read. The prints on the wall, chosen because she wanted to infuse her dark and lonely life with splashes of color. Her old textbooks, the only reminder of who she'd hoped to become. And yet, the pieces didn't add up to a life. Eva felt a clarity as she stood there, as if she'd already left, and realized none of it mattered. Nothing would be missed. The only person she'd ever cared about was already gone.

She grabbed her coat, tucking the package of pills in an inner pocket—the envelope for Jeremy in another one—and her voice recorder into her purse for another night of what would probably be useless chitchat, and slipped out the door, trying to ignore Liz's empty windows, the sound of her footsteps on the porch louder, echoing that emptiness back to her.

She walked the few short blocks to campus, cutting across the wide lawn that led down toward the library, and followed a dark and winding path that let out by Sather Gate. A stream of students and fans headed toward Haas Pavilion, and she pushed through the crowd, entering the arena and going straight to her seat.

She gave a tight smile to the people who sat around her, familiar faces now that she was attending all the home games. But she didn't talk to anyone. Instead she stared down at the court where the team was warming up and let the sounds of the arena fold over her as she realized how far off course she'd drifted, like a boat pulled by the tide. She was a world away from where she started. Lost at sea, with no hope of navigating back to familiar land.

* * *

Dex didn't show up until the middle of the first half. “Sorry I'm late,” he said as he slid into his seat. “Did I miss anything good?”

Eva ignored his joke and looked down toward the student section, standing room only, where they moved and jumped as one, jeering the opposing team. “I never went to a single basketball game as an undergrad,” she said. “All I did was study and go to class. Except for at the end. With Wade.”

Dex nodded but didn't say anything.

“I always thought I'd stay in Berkeley. Maybe to teach, or to work in one of the labs. This was the only place that felt like home to me.” Below them, a player had grabbed a rebound and executed a fast break toward the basket at the other end, and the crowd around them went wild. But Eva continued. “I'm living an upside down and backward version of the life I wanted. I'm here in Berkeley. I have money and a home. I have everything I thought I wanted, and yet it's all wrong.”

Dex shifted in his seat so that he could look at her. “You think anyone else has it any better?” Dex gestured toward an older man at the end of their row, whose sweatshirt looked frayed at the cuffs, whose eyes had bags under them. “Look at that guy. I'll bet he's some kind of an accountant in the city. Taking the BART at the crack of dawn, shoving himself into the smallest space on the train. Eating his breakfast at his desk. Kissing his boss's ass and taking his two weeks in the summer, barely making enough to pay for his basketball season tickets. You want that life instead? What we have is better.”

She wanted to throttle him.
Better?
Hiding and scheming and constantly watching her back? How many people in the seats around them had the constant fear of either being arrested or being killed for their mistakes?

She was edgy, rattling around in a life that was slowly emptying. But the longer this took, the less certain she was Castro would be able to get her out. She wanted to have a backup plan, a way to disappear on her own if she had to.

As the noise level in the arena rose, Eva leaned closer to Dex and lowered her voice so her recorder wouldn't pick it up. “I've got an undergrad client who wants to buy a fake ID,” she said, hoping Dex wouldn't hear the waver in her voice. “She's nineteen. Wants to get into San Francisco clubs. Do you know anyone who can make her one?”

If Dex thought she was lying, he showed no sign of it. He leaned his elbows on his knees and angled his face so he was looking at her. “I used to know someone in Oakland who did that. But it was years ago, back when you could slide one photo out and another one in.” He shook his head. “Now? Her best bet would be to find someone who looks like her willing to give her theirs. Pay them for their real driver's license and let them report it stolen. It happens all the time.”

She looked toward the court, pretending to be interested in the game so that he couldn't see the defeat in her eyes. “That's what I told her,” she said. “But you know what college kids are like. Two years seems like an eternity at nineteen.”

A whistle sounded, signaling a time out, and loud music blared over the sound system.

Her voice grew louder again. “What ended up happening to that friend of yours, the one who referred Brittany?”

Dex stared at the cheerleaders dancing on the court below them and said, “He's been dealt with. Wasn't my call, but I can't say I'm sorry about it.”

“Do you know for sure he was a part of the investigation?”

Dex shook his head. “It doesn't matter.”

“Seems kind of dangerous,” she said, “to get rid of the guy who was Brittany's contact. Won't that draw the attention of the police again?”

Dex gave a tight smile that didn't reach his eyes. “They'll never find him.”

Eva felt a hollowness directly beneath her ribs and waited for him to continue.

“Fish has a warehouse in Oakland. Some kind of import/export bullshit. There's an incinerator in the basement.”

She swallowed hard, fighting to keep her gaze steady on his, and nodded, hoping her recorder was picking this up and not just the jumped-up music of Daft Punk. Below them, the cheerleaders twirled and spun, their hair flying out, arms and legs pumping faster and faster as the music accelerated.

Claustrophobia began to overwhelm her, the heat of the arena, the people crammed into narrow seats that spiked upward toward the roof, giving her the sense that they were all pressing in on her. Eva checked the time on the scoreboard. “Let's get a head start,” she said. “Beat the crowds. I'm starting to get a headache, and I think I want to go home.”

“You don't have to ask me twice.” Dex pushed himself out of his seat and slid past the people in their row, Eva following behind him.

* * *

They were first in line at the bathroom, and the drop took less than thirty seconds. “See you next week?” Dex asked, pulling his coat tight around him.

Eva looked out the window of the clubhouse, down to the baseball diamond below them, thinking ahead a few months to spring when the players would be down there, running bases and spitting sunflower seeds into the grass. Hopefully, she'd be gone by then, one way or another.

She looked at him, taking in the profile that had become as familiar as her own. This was a hard life, and he'd done his best to teach her everything he knew. And she'd learned well. For a long time, she'd been happy enough. But those days felt far behind her, like faded snapshots of a person she used to know. “Sure,” she said. “Stay safe.”

“Always,” he said, giving her a wink.

Back on the crowded concourse, she glanced at the time. She had five more minutes to get across the arena and meet Jeremy. She wasn't lying about the headache, which was creeping around her temples, and she knew it would be a full-blown migraine by the end of the night. She pulled her phone out of her pocket and texted Jeremy again.

Meet me at the entrance to section two instead.

She pushed through the doors of the clubhouse and maneuvered her way back into the crowd.

People squeezed past her on their way back to their seats, and she searched for a small corner to claim while she waited. She looked across the court, to section ten, trying to see if Jeremy was over there waiting for her, when someone caught her eye.

At first, she saw just the back of him—short brown hair. A sport coat large enough to conceal a holster. As if in slow motion, she watched him glance at his phone, read something, and push off the wall, heading in her direction.

She glanced at her own phone, as if seeing it for the first time, realization creeping over her, blurring her vision around the edges. She thought back to every text she'd sent over the past few weeks. To Dex. And to Jeremy, telling him exactly where to meet her, and when. And there was Castro, where Jeremy was supposed to be.

In a flash, she saw it all again. A piece of white paper being handed through an open car window.
Brittany
. Who had her number and was able to pass it on. The Whispr app was useless if someone was reading her texts at the same time she was.

She pushed through the crowd, a lone figure against the tide of people making their way back to their seats, keeping her head down. Afraid to look anyone in the eye, certain Castro's hand would grab her any moment, yanking her backward, asking her to empty her pockets. Explain why she was still selling drugs. Telling her their deal was off.

She burst out of a side exit and into the cold night air, sprinting down the stairs, her compromised phone still gripped in her hand. As she passed an overflowing trash can, she fought the urge to bury it under old food wrappers and empty cups. To get rid of it as soon as possible. But she held on to it, knowing that she had to keep using it, that Castro needed to believe nothing had changed.

She walked briskly toward Sproul Plaza, pulling up her last text to Jeremy and hitting Reply.

By the way, I ran into your mom today. She looks great!

That was the code she set up with all her clients, the one that let them know it wasn't safe to meet. Hopefully, Jeremy would go back to his spot in the student section and forget about her.

Eva walked up Bancroft and dropped the plain envelope containing Jeremy's pills into a trash can outside the student union, and turned toward home.

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