From where she was sitting, he was nothing but a torso. A skinny torso in a pale blue dress shirt and a spendy suit jacket. From her seat by the window, she couldn't see his head; his arms were up, struggling to get an unwieldy clunking something into the overhead. She didn't mind that, the clunking: everyone knew that those compartments were designed to repel boarders.
What she did mind was the serenade. In a baritone sub-bellow that belied far too many late nights on the road with U2 blasting from an overly powered car stereo, the torso was singing, "Tall and tan and young and lovely/The girl from Ipanema goes walking."
You have got to be kidding.
Okay. Good for half a grin or one whole wince, whichever came first. Lisa Reisert put down her copy of Time and said, "You know, the first rule of Headphone Club is—"
"You don't sing along with Headphone Club." The clunking ceased, the overhead door clicked shut, and Jackson Rippner dropped down into the seat next to hers. He pulled earbuds from his ears and grinned at her. "Hello, Lisa."
"Umm— " For half a second, he looked confused. "Pick one."
"That's better." Rippner reached inside his suit jacket, switched off a black iPod. "How've you been?"
"What the hell are you doing here?"
"Just heading home."
"And you just happened— you just happened to end up on this flight. In this row."
"Oh: that again." He carefully rolled the cord from his 'buds and packed the coil into the pocket that held the iPod. "Do we really need to—"
Her glare said We do.
From the intercom the captain's voice announced their clearance for takeoff. The cabin shuddered; the 747 rumbled away from the terminal. They trundled toward the runway as the last of the sunset cast reddish light through the oval windows. She could have stood up; she could have shouted for them to stop—
But— she didn't. It all seemed too familiar: familiarity led to surreality; surreality led to hesitation. There he was, smoothing his trousers, buckling his seatbelt, settling back. Looking at her. Since their first trip, she'd seen his eyes plenty of times in her dreams, in circumstances ranging from the unreal to the downright embarrassing; his eyes by now seemed almost everyday. Practically ordinary— in an ice-that-could-freeze-your-very-soul kind of way.
"How?" she prompted.
"I've been following you all day--"
"—stalking you all day. That I'll— I'll admit that. But I'm here legitimately; I promise: I really needed to catch this flight."
The engines ramped up; the jet hunkered down at the head of the runway, rolled, picked up speed.
"Do we need to pause for your moment of jaw-clenching anxiety, Lise?"
Lisa gripped the armrest. "Do you mind?"
"Not at all. Take your time." He rested his head against his seatback, began to hum. "The Girl from Ipanema," again. He nodded absently to the beat.
Lisa flinched. "Would you— Stop. Stop it. Please."
"Sorry." Rippner cleared his throat. The jetliner nosed up, sank for a split second as its wheels left the tarmac. Lisa's knuckles locked. He said casually, "I was, um, doing something in an elevator earlier—"
"'Something.' In an elevator."
"You don't have that song on your iPod."
"No--? Would you care to bet on that?"
She looked at him very evenly. Rippner met her eyes very levelly, very coldly. Then he pursed his lips. Lisa raised her eyebrows at him.
He smiled, a full-on smile, all teeth and boyish dimples. "Okay, okay— Fine. We've all got things we're ashamed of— You got me, Lise. You got me."
"'The Girl from—' Hold on." Lisa swallowed, stopped smiling back, felt herself go quiet. "You did it again."
"Did what again?"
They were airborne now, leveling out. The sky outside the windows was dropping from royal blue to midnight blue to black. She shuddered.
"Putting me at ease."
"The last time we—" Why hadn't she stopped the plane? What was she doing, just sitting here--? "You were all sweetness and charm while we took off, remember? How did you put it--? 'Keeping the focus on me—'"
"'On you.' 'On you and your father': yes." Rippner's smile lost several degrees of magnitude but, oddly, very oddly enough, none of its charm. "Much as I hate to disappoint you, Lise: this time it's not all about you."
She nearly spat the words; Rippner drew back.
"Gee, Lise, I never took you for the jealous type—"
"Who are you trying to kill this time?"
"I'm not killing anyone. I'm on my way home. Job got called off."
"Then why are you sitting next to me?"
"You want to know? Honestly--?"
"I want to know."
"I want you to know that I can be an okay guy."
For a moment she thought the cabin had lost pressure. Little shock-induced dots danced before her eyes. "What--?"
A woman's voice over the intercom announced the flight's beverage service.
"Buy you a drink?" Rippner asked.
"You can buy me a bottle, Jack. You wanted me to know— Are you crazy?"
He shrugged. "Job got called off. I catch this flight— It's not looking like we'll be full up, so I request a seat next to an old friend—"
"For the 'old' or the 'friend'--?"
Lisa gave him a venomous look.
"We take off, we get in the air— We partake of the for-an-additional-fee beverage service. Cocktails, witty conversation. Then, one hour and twenty minutes into the flight, I contact my associate in Minneapolis, and he doesn't press a certain button."
Her throat tightened. "Which does— or doesn't-- cause what to happen?"
Rippner smiled. "The IDS Tower. Better the Crystal Court than the Shattered-Crystal Court, don't you think--?"
"And this makes you an 'okay guy.'"
"Lisa. Look. You don't have to do a thing. No phone calls, nothing. I send one little text message, and it's done. People stay alive; nothing goes boom."
"Why can't you send it now--?"
"We have agents on the ground: they need to get clear, catch flights. The less anyone knows at any given moment, the better." He paused as the beverage cart bumped to a halt at their row.
The stewardess loomed, smiled down at them. "Can I get you anything?"
Rippner's eyes were friendly, twinkles flickering in the ice. "How about that drink, Lise?"
"Uh, sure." Lisa bit her lip. "Why the hell not? Line 'em up."
Okay. Really— and it wasn't just the gin talking, and really, she'd held herself to one— things could be worse. She kept an eye on the time. Forty-five minutes to go. They sipped their G and Ts and talked. Really: he could be well beyond charming without half trying. Too bad that whole terrorist-murderer-supercilious-bastard thing was always lurking just out of sight. In any other reality, he would have been a keeper.
How much G went into that T, anyway--?
She was looking at the ice in her squat plastic cup, half-smiling at something he'd said, and Rippner was jostling the ice in his own glass and saying the rest of it. She checked her watch; he checked his. Then he tipped his head back, looked over at her.
"So I said to Tom, I said to him: 'For God's sake, don't put the toothpaste next to the C-4—'"
He stopped. He sat forward, frowned past her shoulder.
"There— Did you see—"
"Of course you didn't—" Rippner leaned around her, looking closely at the window. Lisa pressed back against her seat, away from him. "There was—"
By then— already by then— she'd had enough of looking that closely at his ginger sideburns and his sharp jaw and his stubble. "Jackson."
"Ridiculous. What the—"
He looked at her as though she'd only just appeared. "What?"
She suddenly found she wasn't nearly as ginned as she'd thought. "Why don't you just tell me what you're trying to plant on me or steal from me? Make things easier on both of us. Save you having to knock me out."
"I don't follow." But he did retreat a little. Lisa re-expanded into her personal space.
"This 'Twilight Zone' routine is a little tacky. 'Did you see—'? Come on: it was corny when William Shatner did it. I can't believe you'd—"
She stopped. Rippner was looking past her head at the window. He was breathing shallowly. She could see the pulse in his neck.
"Lise. Slowly. Turn around slowly."
"Please, Lise. Just turn around."
She hesitated. Of course she did. She had to admit he was doing the spooked thing very well. Maybe his up-tops had sent him off for acting lessons. He wasn't quite Tony material yet, but the quiet tightness in his voice, the slightly shaky frown: very convincing.
Alright: fine. He'll use a sap this time. Whatever. I've got plenty of Excedrin.
She turned toward the black window. She looked through the oval panes, the dingy plastic inner, the thick glass outer. She shrank back until her left shoulder was pressed tightly against Rippner's right arm.
Two red eyes, sharp as ruby beads, were staring back at her.