“I’m sorry for waking you. Would this happen to be your vibrating butterfly?”
The man I was crouched next to squinted at me even though the lighting on the plane had been turned down so as to be conducive to sleep. His face scrunched up even more when I gingerly held up a bright pink object wrapped in a crinkly plastic package, and his voice, when he spoke, was thick with sleep. “What? Who are you?”
“I’m so sorry I woke you,” I apologized again, shifting a little when my calf muscle began to complain about the fact that I had spent the last twenty minutes squatting my way up the first-class aisle on the flight from Los Angeles to Munich. “My friend—really, she’s more my charge than my friend—appears to have mysteriously acquired this object from someone on this side of the plane, and I wondered if it was you.”
His eyes focused on the sex toy. “The hell? Do you think I’d use something like that? I’m a man!”
“Oh! That’s mine, George,” his seatmate said with a little giggle. She flashed him an embarrassed little smile, and said in a rush, “I thought we could try it out once we got to the hotel. Second honeymoon and all.”
I assumed the last part was aimed at me, and I duly dropped the toy into her outstretched hand with a murmured apology and plastic rustle that seemed overly loud in the hushed cabin.
“Although I don’t know how it fell out of my luggage…” She glanced upward at the overhead bin as if expecting to see her belongings hanging out of the opened door.
I gave her a wan smile and stood, gratefully stretching my cramped muscles. “My client must have mistaken your bag for hers. Sorry to disturb you both.”
The husband grumbled in a low tone to his wife, but I didn’t wait around to hear how she was going to explain her plans for their stay in Germany—I had an elderly lady to watch, and as the last few hours of the flight had shown, I had to watch her like a hawk.
I hurried to the galley area between the first-class section and coach, and slipped in with a couple of flight attendants busy with beverages for the few folks who were still awake. Next to them, seated on a small pull-down emergency seat, sat a tiny old woman, her hair a mass of white curls and her brown face bearing a myriad of wrinkles and crisscrossed lines. She bore an air of fragility and profound age that made one think she was crumpling in on herself, but I hadn’t been with her for half an hour before I realized just how false that impression was. “Here I am, back again. Have you enjoyed your visit with the flight attendants?”
The old lady, clutching a can of Coke and gleefully stuffing crackers into her mouth, shot me a look out of eyes the color of sun-bleached jeans. “I told them you took away my pretty pink shiny, but that I forgave you because you’re taking me to my beau.”
I smiled the smile of a martyr—even if my martyrdom was short-lived, I already felt very much at home with it—and said gently, “That sexual device was not yours, even if it was a nice shade of pink. I’m glad you’ve forgiven me for giving it back to its rightful owner, although I didn’t know you were meeting a gentleman friend in Cairo. Your grandson…er…drat, I’ve forgotten his name. All he said was that you were going on a cruise.”
“I have been kept from him for a very long time,” she said, confusingly scattering pronouns along with a few cracker crumbs. “But you will take me to him. And you will find me more shinies.”
I spread my smile to the nearest attendant, who earlier had taken pity on me and offered to babysit while I returned the pilfered object. It was the second item I’d had to return since I picked up my charge at an L.A. hotel—the first had been a watch that I had seen Mrs. P pluck from some unwary traveler’s bag. “Thanks so much for your help.”
“Oh, it was no problem, Sophea,” Adrienne the flight attendant said in a chirpy voice that perfectly suited her manner. “We enjoyed having Mrs. Papadom…Mrs. Papadonal…”
“Mrs. Papadopolous,” I offered. “She likes to be called Mrs. P, though.”
“Yes! Such a difficult name.” A look of horror flashed over her face when she realized what she’d said, and she hastily added, “But an interesting one! Very interesting. I like names like that.”
“It’s not my name,” Mrs. P said, letting me assist her to her feet. “It never was my name. He gave me the name. He thought it was amusing.”
“I’m sure Mr. Papadopolous had an excellent sense of humor,” I said soothingly, giving Adrienne a little knowing look. She’d been on my side ever since I explained how Mrs. P had used my visit to the toilet to blithely rifle through the bags of fellow sleeping passengers. I herded my charge toward the last row of seats, saying softly, “Now, would you like to watch another movie, or do you want to have a little rest? I think a nap is an excellent idea. We still have another five hours before we land in Germany, and you don’t want to be tired when we get there, do you?”
Mrs. P turned her pale blue eyes to me. “I like gold. You must like gold, too. Isn’t it pretty when it glistens in the sunlight?”
She gave me a beatific smile. “I knew your husband when he was a youngling dragon, still learning to control his fire.”
“Dragon?” I gawked at her, not sure I heard the word correctly.
“Yes. He has much better manners than you. He would never treat me as if I have no wits left to call my own.”
I stared at her for a few seconds, unsure of how to take that. “I didn’t…I apologize if I seemed rude, but Mrs. P, but my husband was most definitely not a dragon. And for the record, I’m a widow.”
She said nothing, just pursed her lips a little, then slid me a gently disappointed look.
“As in, my husband died almost three years ago. And yes, he had lovely manners, but he’s not around anymore, and in fact, when I met him, it was the first time he’d been to the U.S. He spent most of his time in Asia running a family business. Let’s get you back into your seat. Hello again, Claudia.”
The last sentence was spoken when we approached the woman across the aisle from our seats, a pleasant woman in her mid-forties who was on her way to visit family in Germany. She had been very chatty during the earlier part of the trip, taking an interest in my plight when I hurriedly explained to her that Mrs. P was an elderly lady in need of watching. When we stopped at our row, she was holding a book on her lap.
“Ah, you have found the owner of the pink sex toy?” she asked in a voice that was very slightly German. She tipped her head in question and I got Mrs. P settled in her chair.
“Yes, thankfully. It was owned by a lady on the other side.” Wise to the ways of Mrs. P, I made sure to buckle her in before relaxing my guard.
“I will watch a movie,” Mrs. P graciously allowed. I got her headphones plugged in, and flipped through her movie choices, stopping when she said, “That one. No, the one with the male dancer. Did I tell you that I was a president’s hoochie-coo girl?”
“Yes, you mentioned that when I picked you up at your hotel.”
“I was quite the dancer in those days, you know. I received many shinies for my dancing, many pretties that I kept hidden. Men used to ogle me when I danced, and afterward, they gave me things.” She cackled quietly to herself. “It was a long time ago, a very long time ago, but I remember it well. I remember each of the shinies given to me, although I don’t remember all of the men. A few I do remember, but they were the ones who gave me the best pretty things. I won’t tell you the president’s name, because I never was one to kiss and tell, but one time, he wanted me to pretend that he was a walrus—he had a very big mustache—and that I was a little native girl, and so we got naked while he took a tub of lard—”
“I’m sure you were an awesome dancer,” I interrupted, trying to expunge the sudden mental image she had generated, “but as I think I mentioned in L.A., for you to have been that particular president’s…uh…companion would mean that you were a very old lady indeed.”
Still chortling at her reminiscences, she patted my knee with a gnarled hand. “Appearances can be deceiving. You remember that, and you’ll survive just fine.”
Survive? I didn’t realize that was in question. I gave her another suspicious glance, but she was settled back happily watching her movie. Mrs. P had a way of inserting an unexpected word into a sentence that made me feel uncomfortable. And then there was her mention of knowing my late husband…
“She is quite the character, isn’t she?” my seatmate said with a benign smile directed past me toward Mrs. P.
“Hmm? Oh, yes, she surely is that.”
“And you said you are going to Egypt together?”
“Cairo,” I agreed. “My husband’s cousin…uh…man, I really can’t think of his name…he asked me if I’d escort Mrs. P to her Nile river cruise since he couldn’t take her, and she’s a bit frail and could use a helping hand.”
“Oh, that sounds so very exotic,” Claudia said with a little sigh. “I can only imagine how wonderful a cruise up the Nile would be.”
“Down it, actually.” I made an apologetic gesture. “The Nile flows north, so the ship sails downriver.”
“How fascinating,” she said politely, then added, “Will your husband be joining you there?”
I leaned forward and pulled my own book from the bag under my seat, using the time to put a placid expression on my face. “My husband passed away a few years ago.”
“Oh, I’m so sorry,” she said, her expression contrite. “I really put my foot in it, did I not? Please forgive me.”
“There’s nothing to forgive. Jian…my husband…we weren’t married very long.” Her face was filled with sympathy, so I did something I seldom did: I unburdened. “In fact, he died less than an hour after we were married. We didn’t even get a wedding night together. It was…it was so horrible.”
“You poor thing. How terribly tragic.” She leaned across the aisle to give my arm a sympathetic pat. “Do you mind if I ask what happened? If you do not wish to talk about it—”
I glanced over to make sure Mrs. P was still settled, and was relieved to see her eyes closed. “I don’t mind at all, but there’s not too much to it. I met him while I was working as a tour guide in Chinatown. The one in San Francisco.”
“How very interesting. I don’t think I’ve ever met a tour guide.”
“I’m not one anymore. I really got the job because I look Asian—well, I suppose I am Asian, or at least partly so, according to the orphanage where I was left as a baby—and the owner of the tour company said tourists liked authenticity.” I shrugged, but I wasn’t certain if I was dismissing the eight months I spent showing tourists around or the fact that I didn’t know my own parents’ ethnicities. “One day, I bumped into a handsome man on the sidewalk in front of one of the shops we take the tourists to, and four days later, we were getting married at the courthouse. Unfortunately, there was a drunk driver outside, and as we were crossing the street to the parking lot…” I swallowed back the harsh memories. “Jian knocked me out of the way so I wasn’t hurt, but he…he wasn’t so lucky.”
“How very tragic,” she repeated. “I’m so sorry for your loss.”
“Thank you,” I said, swamped with remembered guilt. “If he hadn’t taken the time to push me out of the way…”
Her hand moved again, as if she wanted to give me another reassuring pat, but stopped herself this time. “You can’t think like that. What ifs will always plague you if you let them. I’m sure your husband did what he thought was best.”
“Yes,” I agreed sadly, struggling with the secret fact that although I’d fallen hard for Jian, we had been together such a short time, I wasn’t sure anymore if I was grieving for his loss or for losing our potential life together. “It’s been a hard couple of years. He wasn’t American, you see, and I had no idea who his family were in China, and no way to contact them. I tried to go through the Chinese embassy, but they just said they had no record of him. I even hired a private detective, but he drew a blank as well, saying that Jian must have come into the country illegally.”
“Oh, my. That doesn’t sound…” She bit off the rest of her comment, no doubt aware it was less than polite.
“No, it wasn’t good. There I was, newly widowed to a man I barely knew, with no idea of who his family was or how to find them. I had quit my job to marry him, and the owner of the tour company was so pissed, he refused to take me back. Then things just kind of went to hell in a handbasket when the police were asking who Jian was, and why I had married him so quickly, and on and on.”
“You really have been through it,” Claudia said, stretching out and giving me another sympathetic arm-pat.
I shook off the old but familiar memories. “I have, but I feel like it’s time to put that behind me. I’m taking this job as an omen that things are going to turn around for me.” I gave her what I thought of as my brave smile. “And even if I don’t get to actually go on the Nile cruise, I will get to see Cairo. I’ll have a day there before I have to fly back home.”
To what? A little voice in my head asked. Back to the couch that your best friend lets you sleep on because you don’t have a job, or money, or any sort of a life?
I ignored the voice. I’d had long experience doing so after Jian’s death.
“I’m sure that will be a lot of fun,” Claudia agreed, and picked up her book.
I stared at mine for a while, not really seeing the words, but too tired to care. Memories of the events of the last ten hours flitted through my brain. Meeting Mrs. P at the hotel. Realizing right away that she had more character in her little pinky than most people have in their entire bodies, which was quickly followed by the awareness that her pinky—as well as her other nine fingers—were extremely sticky. And then there were the tales of her wild youth, with which she regaled me during the ride to the airport, and which I had a feeling were told in an attempt to shock me.
The drone of the engines and white noise of the air circulating through the planed lulled me into a half sleep. I must have dozed off because one moment I was mentally wandering in a bleak landscape made up of a pointless life, and the next, I realized that Claudia was gone and a strange man was leaning across me with one hand stretched out toward the sleeping Mrs. P.
“Hey!” I said on a gasp, instinctively jerking backward against my seat. “What are you doing?”
The man’s head turned, his dark eyes narrowing on me. There was something about his face that wasn’t…right. It was his eyes, I think. The pupils in them were elongated, like a cat’s. That and there was a sense of doom about him that had part of my mind screaming warnings.
“You have caused us enough trouble,” the man hissed, his voice pitched so low that only I could hear it. “Do not interfere again.”
That’s when I saw a glint of metal in his hand. I didn’t pause to think about how the man had managed to get a knife on board the plane, I simply reacted to a threat to a relatively nice—if somewhat confused—old lady who was in my charge.
“Terrorist!” I squawked, simultaneously pulling up my knees and using them along with my hands to shove the man into the seat in front of us. “Help! Air marshal! Someone help!”
He hissed again, not a normal sucking in of air, but an animalistic hiss, and jerked away. At least that’s what I thought he did, but I realized there was a second man beyond him, one who had evidently grabbed Hissy Narrow Pupils by the back of his jacket and pulled him off us.
I checked Mrs. P quickly to make sure she hadn’t been harmed, but her eyes were closed, her mouth opened a smidgen as she gently snored, and one earbud dangled free of her ear. Anger roared to life in me, sending me lurching to my feet to where the two men were standing.
“That man tried to stab my old lady!” I snarled, jabbing a finger toward the hissing man. He stood with his back to the dividing curtain, his head down as if he was about to charge, but the other man had a fistful of his jacket. “Are you an air marshal? I hope you arrest him, because he was clearly about to attack an innocent passenger.”
The second man turned his head slightly, just enough that he could look at me. He was a few inches taller than me, had short, curly, dark auburn hair, and gray-green eyes framed with the blackest eyelashes I’ve ever seen. It was like someone had dipped them in kohl. “I don’t think that’s very likely, do you?”
“What do you mean it’s not likely? I saw it!”
The green-eyed stranger considered the other man for a moment before turning back to me. “Why would he wait to kill her on a plane when he could have done so at any time?”
“What is going on here?” Adrienne pushed aside the curtain, accompanied by two male flight attendants. “Who was yelling? Is something that matter with Mrs. P?”
“No, but only because I woke up in time to catch this man trying to stab her. And then the air marshal here heard me and grabbed him.”
“Stab?” Adrienne asked. One of the other flight attendants said, “Air marshal?”
“Yeah, him.” I nodded toward my green-eyed savior. “And yes, stabbed. As in, with a knife. You can see it in his hand.” I gestured to where a bit of metal glinted in the man’s hand. He lifted his head at that, and shot me a look with so much malevolence, I swear there was a faint red glow to his dark irises.
Handsome Green Eyes released his hold on the jacket and took a step back, shaking his head a little. “I’m afraid the lady is confused. I’m not an air marshal.”
“No, he’s not. He’s a passenger,” Adrienne said with a little frown.
“Well, whoever you are, you stopped that man from stabbing my little old lady,” I told him before adding to Adrienne, “I hope you guys have some restraints on the plane for nutballs.”
“I have no knife,” Mr. Hissy said, holding out his hand.
I stared in confusion at the curved metal bracelet that sat on his palm. The silver crescent glittered even in the dim lighting of the plane, designed to resemble a twisted braid. It was very pretty, but not in the least bit deadly.
“Wait…that’s not what you had in your hand…I could have sworn it was a knife…” I frowned, trying to make sense of it all. Had I seen a knife, or did I just assume the man was attacking Mrs. P?
Adrienne turned to the green-eyed man. “Did you see a weapon, sir?”
“No.” His gaze flickered toward me for a moment, then away again. “I heard the lady complain about this man assaulting her, and was about to ask if I could be of assistance when he retreated.”
“I thought it was a knife—” I stopped myself and made a wry face. “I guess I just saw a bit of metal and assumed that’s what it was. I apologize for accusing you of trying to attack Mrs. P. Although…why were you trying to put a bracelet on her?”
“The lady dropped it, and I was simply returning it to her,” Mr. Hissy said smoothly, then handed me the bracelet before he made a little bow to the flight attendants. “Since you are acting as the lady’s guardian, I will give it to you to return to her. Now, if I may return to my seat…?”
“I do apologize for the confusion and any inconvenience you may have suffered…” Adrienne’s subdued voice drifted off as she and one of the flight attendants escorted the man back to his seat, located several rows forward.
“He looked like he was attacking her,” I explained to the remaining flight attendant and the handsome man. “He was leaning across me to get to her. What would you have thought if that had been you?”
“I would have asked the gentleman,” the flight attendant said gently, then with a little purse of his lips she returned to the coach section of the plane.
I turned to the remaining man, about to thank him for the assistance that it turned out I didn’t need, but simply watched in silent amazement when he plucked the bracelet from my hand, saying with an unreadable look, “I’ll take that. I’m sure there’s some sort of nasty binding spell on it, and we wouldn’t want any accidents, would we?”
He walked away without another word, leaving me staring in disbelief. Binding spell? I opened and closed my mouth a couple of times, tempted to accost him, but decided I’d better not. Perhaps I’d misheard him, or perhaps he was not quite all there…either way, since I didn’t have the slightest belief in the strange narrow-pupiled man’s story that he was returning Mrs. P’s bracelet—one that she hadn’t been wearing—I decided that I’d just let it go and forget about the whole episode.
I didn’t, of course, and when Claudia returned from her visit to the toilet, I told her in a near whisper of the happenings. She agreed that it was most startling to be woken up in such a manner, but didn’t seem to think anything odd was going on.
“You said you were certain the bracelet didn’t belong to Mrs. Papadopolous, so does it matter if the other man took it? Perhaps it was his to begin with, and the other man was mistaken in attributing it to your employer.”
“But then why didn’t he say that? And what was that business with a binding spell?”
“You must have misheard him.” She pulled out her book again. “Perhaps he was trying to save you from any further embarrassment.”
That shut me up on the subject, and pretty much for the rest of the trip. I sat vigilant the remaining hours of the flight, too embarrassed about raising a fuss over nothing to relax, and yet at the same time, oddly suspicious. What was that man doing leaning over me? Why had Mr. Handsome walked off with the bracelet without so much as a “do you mind”? And was it just paranoia to wonder if seatmate Claudia had disappeared into the bathroom at the ideal moment for an attempted attack on Mrs. P?
Too far, my mental sage warned. You’ll start seeing conspiracies everywhere if you go down that path.
Fortunately for my peace of mind—what was left of it—Mrs. P slept the rest of the way to Munich.
You just have to get her through a change of planes, and then onto a ship in Cairo, my sage pointed out. How hard could that be? Do that one little thing, and you’ll pocket a cool two grand, which will give you a start to fighting your way out of a dreary future, frustrating talks with the unemployment office, and an all-around loveless existence.
Unbidden, my gaze traveled along the rows of seats until it settled on the head crowned with short auburn curls.
My so-called savior was dressed casually in clothing that wasn’t in the least bit flashy, but still gave that off that subtle whiff of money. A navy blue blazer covered up a shirt in a lighter shade of blue, which was tucked into a pair of black chinos. Sharply creased chinos. This was a man who exuded quiet self-confidence, and absolute comfort in his own skin.
Even the fact that he wore lace-up dark gray, somewhat scarred boots rather than shoes didn’t ruin that impression. I was musing on what sort of man he was that he was so with it and together, yet marched around an airport wearing a pair of boots that would be more comfortable striding across a moor, when he must have felt my unabashed scrutiny, because his head turned and he glanced back at me.
Our gazes met in a way that left me breathless. My first impression of him had been one of chilly disinterest, but as I held his gaze, something kindled in the depths of those stormy green eyes, a brief flash of amusement that had me feeling strangely warm. One side of his mouth twitched, and he tipped his head a fraction of an inch in acknowledgment of…what? Awareness that I was clearly staring at him? Or perhaps it had something to do with our interaction with the nasty hissy man?
He turned back to book he held, leaving me feeling oddly bereft.
The blush I had been working on faded as I stared at the back of his head, admitting that it was just too bad I wasn’t going to see Mr. Bracelet Thief again. Those cool gray-green eyes combined with an air of mystery left my mind wandering down all sorts of paths, and not all of them were rated PG.