Derrick held out a hand and led her down the stairs at the front door of the restaurant. As he was listening to Rebecca’s laughter, he heard something else, something he most definitely did not want to hear.
“Derrick, is that your pager?” asked Rebecca, a quizzical look on her face.
Derrick took his little black pager out of his pocket and checked the number. “Oh, my God,” he said. “I told them NOT to call me tonight. I should have left this stupid thing at home with my cell phone …”
“Who is it?”
“It’s work,” said Derrick. “I’m really sorry, but I don’t think they would’ve called unless it was life or death. I told them I’d kill them if they did.”
“Here, use my phone,” said Rebecca. Derrick looked up at her in amazement as she dug her phone out of her purse and held it out to him. He was sure that page would be the end of it. It always had been, before. And yet, here she was, holding her phone out for him to call the jackasses who had interrupted their good time.
“Uh, thanks.” Derrick took the phone and dialed his office. It had barely rung once when Jimmy Doorman, the office computer specialist, picked it up.
“Derrick? That you?”
“Jimmy. Why the hell are you calling me, now? I told you …”
“… yeah, yeah, that you have a date with the virgin mother herself and if we interrupt you’ll have her sic her kid on us. I got the memo.”
“Yeah, and Jesus is on the other line warming up his lightning bolts, so explain yourself.”
“Kirven Labs just called. They need an over-night delivery. Tonight.”
“Oh, that’s rich. Unless they’re offering to replace our fleet with F-16s, it’s not gonna happen.”
Jimmy told him how much Kirven Labs was offering.
“That oughta cover it …”
“So you’re coming?”
“What’s being taken where?”
“Single passenger with small package, contents classified. New York to San Diego.”
“If I had a dime for every one of those I’ve flown … wait, did you say New York to San Diego? What the hell do you need me for?”
“We’ve only got one plane left in New York, and it can’t make it all the way. We need you to fly out and pick up the package at DIA, then fly it the rest of the way.”
“Why me? You can’t get George or Franky or … God, find some damn kid who plays flight sims. Why do I have to go?”
“Because God hates you.”
“I resent that.”
“George is sick and Franky isn’t answering, for some reason. You’ve got to do it, man.”
“Jesus …” said Derrick, rubbing his forehead in frustration. He glanced up at Rebecca who was just standing there, waiting patiently and looking a little worried. And gorgeous. Drop dead gorgeous.
“No, he’s on the other line. This is still Jimmy.”
“Shut up, smart ass. I’ll make your goddamn flight, but I’m taking my date home, first.”
“Okay, but just go straight to the tarmac when you get here. I’ll have the plane out and ready for you.”
“Thanks, Jimmy. I’ll see you in a bit.”
“Tell Mary I’ve been saying my rosaries.”
“Yeah, I’ll do that. Get to work.”
Jimmy hung up. Derrick closed the phone and sighed. He dropped his head and held out the phone without looking at Rebecca. “I gotta take you home and get going … big job and I’m the only pilot they’ve got left.”
He heard Rebecca sigh tersely. “Well, dinner was over, anyway. I was going to politely ask for some desert at the Dairy Queen on twenty-third, but this does sound more important.”
Derrick felt his insides tighten up. He had no idea what to say. Without looking at her, he just headed for his car while fumbling for his keys.
Sitting in the grass with his back against a black and yellow sign that marked one of the small landing strips of DIA, a young man in a newly acquired technician’s uniform pushed his hardhat up off of his eyes as he heard the distant whir of a small jet overhead. He heard a pilot talking to the control tower and confirming the landing authorization in his radio headset, smiled, and crossed his arms over his bright orange safety vest to get a little more relaxing in before he had to guide the plane in through the foggy night with his light wands. There was no need to hurry. It did not really matter to him if the passengers made it safely to the ground. They were not likely to put up much of a fight no matter what way they landed.
The drive was quiet, the goodbye had no kiss, and the flight was long and boring. By the time Derrick landed his plane at DIA, it was two and a half hours past midnight, locally. There was a low, dense fog covering the runways, and the signal man guiding him in had acted like a complete amateur. He had nearly lost some landing gear on the touchdown, and fortunately had decided to trust the ground lights rather than the signal man when it came to the length of the runway.
“What a perfect evening,” said Derrick as he unbuckled himself. He opened the door and saw the signal man wave at him from the edge of the runway. Derrick sighed and hopped down to the tarmac.
“Is the other plane here, yet?” he called out.
The signal man nodded and hooked a thumb over his shoulder, indicating another runway that, thanks to the fog, Derrick could only make out because of the ground lights. Sure enough, though, he saw the red port light of another plane.
“Thanks,” said Derrick.
The signal man took the thumb he used to point at the other plane and gave Derrick a boyish thumbs-up.
Derrick chuckled. At least someone out here had managed to keep a sense of humor. He jogged past the signal man (signal boy, really, which might have accounted for the bad signaling; he looked no older than nineteen and had hair dyed bright neon green under his hardhat) and across the grass to the other runway. He got close enough to make out the other plane sitting there, facing the opposite direction of his own plan, and with the same “Lightning Air” decal painted in white against the dark blue hull. The door was wide open, but no one was in sight. Not knowing what else to do, Derrick climbed into the airplane and stood in the ante-room just between the cockpit and the small passenger area.
“Hello?” he called out. No one answered.
Derrick could not have flown combat missions as successfully as he had without some sense of when things just weren’t right. He turned to get out of the plane and go grab the Berretta he kept in his cockpit.
Derrick stopped short and almost fell over in surprise. Standing in the doorway right behind him had been the signal boy, but he wasn’t wearing his uniform or his hardhat anymore. He was in a strange spandex jumpsuit, black with green designs of skulls everywhere, with a belt and two bandoleers just bristling with all kinds of short bladed weapons. He had a nasty smile on his young face and murder in his eyes, which were the same neon green as his hair. In a menacingly cheerful voice, he said, “Flight’s canceled. Pilot got stabbed.”