When Edward Carney said good-bye to his wife, Percey, he never thought it would be the last time he'd see her.
He climbed into his car, which was parked in a precious space on East Eighty-first Street in Manhattan, and pulled into traffic. Carney, an observant man by nature, noticed a black van parked near their town house. A van with mud-flecked, mirrored windows. He glanced at the battered vehicle and recognized the West Virginia plates, realizing he'd seen the van on the street several times in the past few days. But then the traffic in front of him sped up. He caught the end of the yellow light and forgot the van completely. He was soon on the FDR Drive, cruising north.
Twenty minutes later he juggled the car phone and called his wife. He was troubled when she didn't answer. Percey'd been scheduled to make the flight with him -- they'd flipped a coin last night for the left-hand seat and she'd won, then given him one of her trademark victory grins. But then she'd wakened at 3 a.m. with a blinding migraine, which had stayed with her all day. After a few phone calls they'd found a substitute copilot and Percey'd taken a Fiorinal and gone back to bed.
A migraine was the only malady that would ground her.
Lanky Edward Carney, forty-five years old and still wearing a military hairstyle, cocked his head as he listened to the phone ringing miles away. Their answering machine clicked on and he returned the phone to the cradle, mildly concerned.
He kept the car at exactly sixty miles per hour, centered perfectly in the right lane; like most pilots he was conservative in his car. He trusted other airmen but thought most drivers were crazy.
In the office of Hudson Air Charters, on the grounds of Mamaroneck Regional Airport, in Westchester, a cake awaited. Prim and assembled Sally Anne, smelling like the perfume department at Macy's, had baked it herself to commemorate the company's new contract. Wearing the ugly rhinestone biplane brooch her grandchildren had given her last Christmas, she scanned the room to make sure each of the dozen or so employees had a piece of devil's food sized just right for them. Ed Carney ate a few bites of cake and talked about tonight's flight with Ron Talbot, whose massive belly suggested he loved cake though in fact he survived mostly on cigarettes and coffee. Talbot wore the dual hats of operations and business manager and he worried out loud if the shipment would be on time, if the fuel usage for the flight had been calculated correctly, if they'd priced the job right. Carney handed him the remains of his cake and told him to relax.
He thought again about Percey and stepped away into his office, picked up the phone.
Still no answer at their town house.
Now concern became worry. People with children and people with their own business always pick up a ringing phone. He slapped the receiver down, thought about calling a neighbor to check up on her. But then the large white truck pulled up in front of the hangar next to the office and it was time to go to work. Six p.m.
Talbot gave Carney a dozen documents to sign just as young Tim Randolph arrived, wearing a dark suit, white shirt, and narrow black tie. Tim referred to himself as a "copilot" and Carney liked that. "First officers" were company people, airline creations, and while Carney respected any man who was competent in the right-hand seat, pretension put him off.
Tall, brunette Lauren, Talbot's assistant, had worn her lucky dress, whose blue color matched the hue of the Hudson Air logo -- a silhouette of a falcon flying over a gridded globe. She leaned close to Carney and whispered, "It's going to be okay now, won't it?"
"It'll be fine," he assured her. They embraced for a moment. Sally Anne hugged him too and offered him some cake for the flight. He demurred. Ed Carney wanted to be gone. Away from the sentiment, away from the festivities. Away from the ground.
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