34,000 feet over Newfoundland, Canada, Saturday, September 14, 1991 • 10:02 p.m.
Eric Bainbridge worried the hem of the airline blanket between his thumb and forefinger. A loose thread, caught in his grip, twitched back and forth as he rubbed the coarse fabric, his mind jumping from one thought to another.
Jan’s going to be upset when she sees the stain on that white shirt I was supposed to wear. It’s just peanut butter. It’ll probably come out. I’ll take it to the dry cleaners when I get back. That should work. He glanced up at the overhead bin where he’d folded his navy-blue blazer and placed it on top of his briefcase. As long as I take a few minutes to freshen up in a Gatwick restroom, I should be okay. The Brits expect Americans to be less formal, don’t they?
He turned to look at a man and woman across the aisle. They look like they’re on a business trip, too. I don’t think they’re a couple. With a long exhalation of breath, he closed his eyes and squirmed in the narrow airline seat. Why is it up to me to save the account? I really could’ve used some support on this trip. What if I screw up? I don’t get paid enough for all this. He rolled his shoulders and twisted his neck, listening to the tiny crunch of bone and cartilage pressing against each other. I’ve got to take care of that Visa bill when I get back. I should have time before the due date. I know we’re over the credit limit. He reached behind to check that his wallet was still in his pants pocket. I hope Jan doesn’t make any big purchases.
As he scrunched up the airline blanket on his lap, he took in the sight of his khaki pants and light-blue Oxford shirt. A bit rumpled but presentable enough for the client meeting. And it is the weekend, for chrissake. London should be less formal on a weekend. He rubbed his hands against his pant legs, trying to smooth out the wrinkles.
With the dinner trays collected and the cabin lights dimmed, the atmosphere aboard the big jetliner was as restful as possible. Most of the passengers seemed to be settling in for the long overseas flight. Eric loosened his seatbelt and reclined seat 18-D, trying to find a comfortable position for his lanky 6-foot frame. He kicked off his loafers, and forced his eyes shut, then opened them again to glance down at his watch. Four more hours...gotta get some sleep. The agency is expecting so much from me. I can’t let them down.
“Excuse me, sir.” A strawberry-blonde stewardess with a flat American accent loomed over him, interrupting his thoughts. “If you don’t plan on watching the movie, would you mind switching seats with the man in 16-C? The headphone receptacle in his seat isn’t working. And...I gather that you plan to catch some shut-eye.” She gave Eric a winning smile.
He hesitated, rubbing his left hand down his cheeks to stroke his close-cut beard. An awkward moment of silence passed between them.
The stewardess leaned down and continued her spiel, sotto voce. “To be honest, he’s had quite a few drinks, and he probably isn’t fit to be in an exit row. I’d appreciate your assistance.”
Eric searched for an excuse to say no. “The seatback reclines in that row, doesn’t it?”
“Yes, it does, and there’s more leg room. I’m sure you’ll be even more comfortable there...and I’d really appreciate your help.” She was giving Eric a charming performance.
He sighed. “Okay. No problem.” With the airline blanket still wrapped around him, he slipped his shoes back on, but as he went to rise, his seatbelt pulled him back down. Red-faced with embarrassment, he unfastened his seatbelt and stood in the aisle. As he reached to get his briefcase and jacket from the overhead bin, he paused. The flight is packed. There’s probably no room above the other seat. I’ll just have to get them before the aisle is packed with people. No one’s going anywhere for at least four hours, and I’m only moving two rows up. Lost in thought, Eric didn’t see the man from 16-C appear in the aisle next to him.
“Dank you for your kindnez.” The bearded man was standing eye to eye with Eric and visibly swaying, balancing against the slight motion of the plane. Eric couldn’t quite make out the accent: Eastern European? Russian?
“No problem.” Eric squeezed past the stranger and found his way to 16-C. He opened the overhead bin and, as expected, it was jammed with bags, jackets and small packages. I’ll just have to wait until we land. With an unconscious reflex, he reached to feel the reassuring bulge of his wallet in his back pocket.
Settling into the new seat, he buckled his seatbelt and again wrapped himself in the blanket. He squeezed his eyes shut, then relaxed the muscles in his face, neck and shoulders – repeating a slow squeeze and relax, squeeze and relax. Clearing his mind, he tried to shut out the chattering of the family seated in front of him and concentrate on the drone of the jetliner’s huge turbofan engines.
“Sleep…relax…sleep,” he intoned as flight #002 sped across the North Atlantic.
Dunwoody Office Complex, Cornwells Heights, PA, Saturday, September 14, 1991 • 11:56 p.m.
A lone brown rat inched its way along the baseboard of the deserted hallway. After a small feast of potato-chip crumbs, scavenged from a half-empty bag, the rat was sated, and looking for a way out of the building, into more familiar surroundings.
The sound of approaching footsteps made it scurry and cower in the shadow of a heat register. But the footsteps soon receded down an intersecting hallway, and the rat hesitated only for a moment before continuing along the edge of the carpeted floor.
As it came near the doorway to office No. 201, it nosed the air, contemplating the thin wisps of smoke drifting from the shiny, aluminum ashtray, remnants of the guard’s half-finished cigarette. The rat paused, confused. Then an echoing clank from the double doors at the end of the hall sent a panic through the rodent, and it dashed between the tall, cylindrical ashtray and Dr. Weisz’s office door. The top-heavy receptacle wobbled and fell, knocking bits of glowing tobacco onto the polypropylene carpet along the threshold of the dentist’s door.
At that moment, the building’s ventilation system kicked on, cycling fresh air one last time before shutting down for the night. Soon a cool, steady breeze was drawn into the knife-thin space between the threshold and the door, fanning the cigarette ashes into a bright, glowing orange. Strands of the low-pile carpet began to wilt and smolder, sending acrid wisps of greenish smoke curling into the office. The emergent embers extended their reach into the office and searched for convenient fuel – scattered magazines and children’s coloring books that had not been picked up by the receptionist that evening.
The nearest smoke detector, mounted on the ceiling many feet behind the front desk, would not announce the fire for a good ten minutes.