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Authors: Robyn Carr

Blue Skies (3 page)

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Nothing. He left the kids nothing.

Nikki went home in a daze. How was she to tell them? Did she have to tell them? Maybe there was some mistake. Maybe when she could finally bring herself to go through Drake's personal effects and private papers, she would find a safe deposit box or secret stash somewhere. But no, she thought—it was more likely she would find he had given everything to a shelter for homeless cats, giving Nikki the shaft one last time from the grave.
Wham!
Take that, Nick!

Although she knew it wasn't justified, Nikki felt tempted to direct her anger at Opal. After all, her mother had had far more faith in Drake than in her own daughter.

Once Opal had married Mayer Gould, a neurosurgeon, and moved to San Francisco, Nikki had only seen her mother on her rare and brief visits to Phoenix. But after Nikki married Drake and moved into the big house in the gated community, Opal had visited more often. And in the last couple of years, since Mayer's death, Opal was constantly turning up, ostensibly visiting her grandchildren, but Nikki thought it just as likely she was visiting Drake.

And Drake, who couldn't get along with anyone, had allowed this. According to April, Opal fussed over him, constantly praising everything he said or did. It was as though she had finally found someone who cared as much about money and style as she did, and Drake had found a mother to worship him. Nikki hadn't cared a whit about that at the time, grateful not to have to deal with her mother herself. And Opal was good with the kids, probably because she was just about as mature.

But now Nikki had to get her life back together, which
would be hard enough without Opal questioning every decision she made. Her mother would have to go.

When she got back to the house, Nikki found Opal in the living room, cradling Precious and a magazine on her lap, her two-hundred-dollar shoes kicked off and her slim, pedicured feet up on the ottoman.

Nikki ignored the poodle's welcoming growl and sat down on the sofa opposite her. “Mother, I'm afraid you're going to have to go home and let me have some time alone with the kids.”

“What?” she said, straightening.

“I know you'd like to stay, Mother, but we really need some time alone.”

“But won't you be going back to work? I assumed I'd simply…”

Nikki shook her head. “I have a week off, then a couple of trips. The kids can stay with Buck, like they always have. They have bedrooms there. That's where I've lived the past four years.”

Opal made a derisive sound, as though Buck's place was beneath them.

“I have to go through Drake's things, Mother, and I need privacy for that. You can visit again when our life is more organized, and stay as long as you like.”

“I think April and Jared would like me to be here now,” she argued. “And who knows how much time I actually have. I'm not getting any younger, you know. The last time I saw the doctor, he was concerned about a few things.”

By sheer dint of will, Nikki kept from rolling her eyes. Her mother had been suggesting her impending death since she was in her thirties. “You seem very well. I'm sure you'll be around for many years to come.”

“Don't be too sure. Carolyn Johanson was three years
younger than me, never had a sick day in her life, and—”

Nikki cut her off, unwilling to go down that path again. “I want the kids and I to make decisions about our life without any outside influence.” Like whether we stay in this house or not, she thought, but didn't dare say that. Opal loved Drake's house. “I'll buy you a first-class upgrade to go with your pass,” she bribed.

“Well…”

“And I don't want you to make this hard on the kids by complaining that I'm sending you away.”

“Well, if the shoe—”

Nikki set her lips in a firm line and shook her head, brooking no argument. Opal traveled free on Aries Airlines at the courtesy of Nikki, a privilege that could be rescinded by Nikki at any time she chose. “Let's not make things any tougher on the kids than they already are. I'm sure you didn't bring enough luggage for a long visit, anyway.”

“I did come rather quickly.”

“You don't want to stick around and bake in this desert heat when you have a lovely home in California.”

“I've never minded the heat—”

“And there's a flight tomorrow afternoon with plenty of room in first class.”

“I much prefer first class,” she admitted.

“Yes. I know.”

Opal scooted to the edge of her chair and wiggled her feet around until they found her shoes. “You're in mourning,” she said, hanging on to Precious. “You should be indulged right now. I've lost a husband, remember. I know what this is like. I wish Mayer's children from his first wife had left me alone to go through
his belongings, but they were not nearly as considerate as I.”

That was Opal. Ousted with all the delicacy of a cattle prod and taking credit for being considerate.

I'm not in mourning!
Nikki wanted to shout.
I'm enraged! I am so damn tired of getting screwed!

Two

N
ikki was back at work a week later—a week in which she had neither gone through Drake's things nor talked to the kids about their lack of legacy. Now, as she made her way to airport security, she forced her thoughts from her current problems and let her mind wander back to the days when she'd first fallen in love with the aviation industry.

When she was a little girl in the sixties, the airport was a mystical, magical fantasyland and the air crews were like movie stars—so exotic, so glamorous, so
beautiful.
The pilots were tall and handsome. Women would tilt their heads and gaze dreamily at them, and small children reached out to tentatively touch the silver bands on their sleeves. The “Stews,” as they were called in those days, were slender beauties who showed up to work in narrow skirts and high-heeled shoes, each with a matching square makeup bag that held her cosmetics. The crew would enter the airport en masse—two or three stately, distinguished pilots and their gaggle of long-necked beauty queens—and glide down the concourse toward the big shiny planes. As they passed, the crowds would part like the Red Sea. They were magnificent.

“Do you want to be like one of them when you grow up?” Opal had asked her one day when they were at the airport together.

“Oh, yes,” Nikki said with a deep sigh of longing. “Do you think they'll let girls be pilots of big heavies by then?”

Opal had groaned, but Buck had smiled down at her. “If they don't, you can be the first,” he promised.

“You're
hopeless,
” said Opal.

It wasn't just the flight crews that were different, Nikki recalled, but the entire airport scene. And the industry was regulated. The government established the routes for the carriers and there wasn't much competition, so flights were expensive. Damned expensive. It cost more to fly from New York to Los Angeles in 1975 than it did in 2002. There was a certain formality to flying then. Women wore dresses, sometimes hats and gloves, and men were in their business suits.

Security in those days was almost nonexistent. Crews and passengers alike entered the airport and went quickly to their planes without being subjected to bomb-sniffing dogs and metal detectors. And passengers were extremely well-trained. They did as they were told. They were civil. Polite. No yelling at the gate agent, no demanding compensation for a delayed or canceled flight. Airlines were admired, pilots were revered. If a flight was delayed to repair a mechanical problem, your life had just been saved by their diligence, their skill. Through the flight, passengers were well-behaved. God forbid one of those beauties who served the meals—and they
were
meals, make no mistake—be abused in the commission of her duties.

There was no denying that times had changed. As Nikki passed through security in her pilot's uniform, complete with ID badge, she was curtly reminded to take her hat off her head and empty her pockets. Randomly chosen, she was told to step to the side, remove her
shoes and extend her arms so she could be scanned with the magic wand. Now, it wasn't as if just wearing the flying costume should get you special treatment; she could as easily be a bad guy as anyone in civilian clothes. But—

“Hi, Virg,” she said to the security agent with the wand.

“Hiya, Nick. You have the same trip this week?”

“Yup. Phoenix, Chicago, New York, again and again.”

“Take off your shoes. Extend your arms. That a good trip?”

“Not bad.”

Nikki saw these same people at least once a week. Did they really think she was packing a weapon or bomb? She had wondered aloud once why they didn't just move on to the next stranger in line when they saw she drew the random pick. It might give them a better chance of actually catching someone with something to hide. Virginia had replied that they just did it by the book.

While she was being wanded, Nikki watched as a very nervous man who seemed awfully protective of his briefcase went straight through the check while they detained and wanded a woman in her eighties. Nikki wondered why security didn't just adopt the JDLR method.
Just Doesn't Look Right.
But no. They kept checking little old ladies and pilots they talked to every week.

“Have a good flight, Nick.”

“Thanks, Virg. You have a great day.”

Another man with a briefcase, in a hurry and obviously disgruntled by the long security process, rammed into her and almost knocked her off her feet. He had both height and heft and smelled like a mixture of booze
and perspiration. “'Scuse me,” he muttered. Then, seeing she wore a pilot's uniform, he asked, “Any idea what time the nine o'clock flight's leaving for Denver?”

“Nine o'clock?” she ventured.

“That'd be a first,” he grumbled, taking off down the concourse.

So much for the respect offered to pilots in days of yore.

Crowds didn't part for aircrews anymore, either, and Nikki stuck close to the wall to keep from getting knocked over again. Up ahead she spotted Dixie at the coffee kiosk and went to join her. “Hey,” she said. “I didn't expect to run into you.”

“Our inbound flight from San Diego is runnin' late. I should be servin' Bloody Marys over Albuquerque right now. Want a coffee?”

“Thanks. I'm a few minutes early. I'll meet you right over there,” she said, pointing toward her gate.

Nikki crossed the concourse and sat in the almost empty gate area, watching the passengers. They were people in ragged jeans and flip-flops. Young families who would be trying to board with car seats, Cadillac-size strollers and half the nursery. Ah—and a pilot. Not one of those distinguished gentlemen of the past, this captain was about thirty-five years old, forty pounds overweight, no hat, scuffed shoes, loose tie and coffee stains on his shirt. He hadn't had a haircut in a while, either. What a wreck. His appearance didn't exactly inspire confidence.

Dixie handed her a cup of coffee and took the seat next to her.

“Remember the old days?” Nikki said. “When flight attendants showed up in high heels and pilots were like rock stars?”

Dixie took the lid off her paper cup and blew on the hot coffee. “And now they're just like rock heads?” Nikki turned her head to smile at her friend. “Present company excluded, of course.”

“Remember when people dressed up to go on an airplane ride?” Nikki persisted. “They wore their Sunday best and behaved like they were in church. Even the hijackers were polite! They didn't want to hurt anyone—they just wanted to go to Cuba or someplace where you couldn't get a scheduled flight.”

Dixie tilted her head and looked askance at Nikki. “Back in the days when flight attendants were Stews, had to weigh in before each flight, and were fired if they got married?”

“Okay, it wasn't flawless, but—”

“And the airplanes didn't have carts and the Stews carried their five-course meals on trays, up and down the aisles in their straight skirts and high heels and precious little hats?”

“Well…”

“And don't let us forget about girdles. Any decent woman wore a girdle then.”

“Everyone?”

“It was required. And if you weren't bosomy enough, a little padding could be issued with the uniform.”

“Nah-uh!” Nikki protested.

“Yes, ma'am. Got to have your girls right up there on your chest so Mr. Passengerman could appreciate the flight. And you better not bend over to pick up an olive off the floor because Mr. Well-Mannered Traveler would definitely put his hand right up your skirt.” She blew on her coffee again. “He probably threw that old olive on the floor to start with. Mmm-mmm, those were some fine old days.”

“You have to admit that the passengers were a lot less rude and demanding,” Nikki said. “With the occasional exception.”

“And the pilots were a lot more accommodatin'. They used to carry bags and pay for dinner, and…Well…They were much more accommodatin'.” Dixie smiled suggestively.

Nikki grinned back at her. Dixie had been
accommodated
quite a few times. And vice versa. “So were the Stews,” she said.

“Coffee, tea or me?” her friend replied, smile dazzling, lashes fluttering. All of Dixie sparkled. She could easily have been one of those airline beauties back in the sixties. Five-eight, blond, blue-eyed, slender as a reed except for “her girls,” which were full and high and elegant. She had the kind of looks that had men crossing the room to ask if she was attached.

A very pregnant flight attendant pulled an overnight bag on its rollers toward a podium on the other side of the concourse.

“Now, there's something else you wouldn't have seen twenty-five years ago,” Dixie pointed out. “In fact,” she said, looking Nikki up and down, “it would've seemed pretty unladylike to ask to
fly
the plane.”

“My God, she looks ready to pop!”

“She told a little fib about her due date. She can't afford to go on maternity leave, she needs the overtime. Her husband was activated reserve—Navy—gone to Kuwait. The family took a huge pay cut.”

Almost everything about the industry had changed, all right. Back in the glamour days there was no real competition. Enter deregulation of the airline industry and the entrance of low-fare carriers. The large and established airlines found it increasingly difficult to compete.
The new entrants, often nonunion start-ups, had low costs, but the big guys had been around long enough so that with every union contract, the cost of labor went up, then up, then up some more. The cost of fuel kept rising, but competitive pricing meant ticket prices plummeted, and the business traveler took advantage, went global.

Before long the big airlines were making almost half their profit from the last-minute business traveler whose company paid the premium price. As for the rest of the travelers, they were no longer just the well-to-do. After deregulation it was cheaper to fly from New York City to Miami for the weekend than to go to a good restaurant and see a Broadway musical. It was frequently more expensive to travel by bus. Now the people waiting to board the airplanes were not wearing their hats and gloves, politely waiting for their flight, but clad in beach clothes or ragged jeans, complaining loudly about the degradation of the service.

The major airlines were losing millions a year, a month, some losing millions a day as they tried to compete with the start-ups. The start-ups would fail and disappear, but that did not put the money back in the coffers of the legacy carriers, and another start-up would appear with bargain-basement tickets, starting the whole process all over again.

Then the unfathomable happened.

 

Everyone remembered where they were that morning. Buck was hosing down tarmac outside the largest hangar at Burgess Aviation when one of the young maintenance techs came running, yelling for him to come to the office and see the TV. Carlisle was in New York on an overnight, due to fly out later that day. Dixie was in D.C.,
on the treadmill in the hotel's fitness center, watching CNN. At first, she thought she was seeing an Aries plane and she ran to the nearest phone and called Aries dispatch.

And Nikki was in Boston, sitting in the cockpit of an Aries 767, full of passengers, ready to push back. She was turned around in her seat, talking to a Delta pilot who was hitching a ride on an Aries jump seat.

An operations agent came aboard, stuck her head in the cockpit and said, “Did you hear what happened? An airplane hit the World Trade Center.”

“What kind of airplane?” Nikki asked.

“A big airplane. Like a 737 or something.”

“Whoa. How do you get that far off course?”

She shrugged. “Sit tight till the airport clears us,” the agent said, and left.

Less than a minute passed when her first officer said, “Did you hear that? They closed the airport.”

Nikki looked outside. “Why?” It was a beautiful morning. The sky was crystal clear.

Some other pilot at the airport keyed his mike and asked why the airport had been closed.

“The airport is closed for reasons of national security,” came the reply.

The deafening silence that followed lasted for perhaps two full minutes. Alarm filled the air like static.

The operations agent came back a few minutes later. Her face had bleached so white that her lips were indistinguishable from her flesh. “Another plane flew into the second tower. Another big one.”

“Holy Jesus,” the copilot muttered.

“They're saying the airplanes are U.S. passenger planes. Hijacked,” the agent said. She was visibly trembling.

The next announcement ordered all planes back to the gates. Passengers were deplaned, pilots and cabin crews were informed there had been several hijackings from Northeast airports and flights were canceled pending investigation. The airport was swiftly evacuated.

The unprecedented response was that every aircraft in the United States was grounded for several days. Nikki learned she had been sitting next to one of the planes that had been hijacked out of Boston.

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