Read Flight or Fright: 17 Turbulent Tales Online

Authors: Stephen King (ed),Bev Vincent (ed)

Flight or Fright: 17 Turbulent Tales (10 page)

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From its height and brutalist design, he correctly surmised that the Viru had once been the Intourist Hotel during the Soviet era. In its lobby he found a Wall of Fame listing some of the hotel’s notable guests: Olympians, musicians, actors, Arab princes, and the President himself. A note written to the hotel manager on White House letterhead was framed: “Thanks also for the good-looking sweater and hat.” After inquiries at the front desk, an elevator ride to the conference floor, and an olfactory napalming courtesy of a perfumed woman riding up with him, John walked down a lushly carpeted hallway toward the registration desk. The young man sitting there pointed further down the hall, toward a small group of people politely waiting outside the conference room proper for the current speaker to finish. John was on in half an hour. He joined the waiting listeners outside the conference room, a golden and chandeliered cavern.

The speaker was German. From the translation projected onto a screen behind the woman (in French, Estonian, and English—he, too, had been asked to send the text of his talk beforehand to the organizers, after extracting from them a promise that native English speakers would translate it) John knew he was in for a slightly rougher night than he had been anticipating. He had heard all the tropes of the German woman’s talk before. She finished to applause and answered questions, after which a ten-minute break was announced. As people rose from their seats, another woman near the back of the room turned, spotted John, and, with a smile of recognition, walked toward him. John met her halfway, maneuvering through the human cross-stream of intermission.

This was Ilvi, one of the organizers, his contact and a professor of law at the University of Tartu. A very young professor of law, which warmed the still-youthful-looking John to her instantly. They shook, after which Ilvi began knotting her hands as though shaping a small clay ball. Pleasantries, then: flights, sleep, Tallinn. She asked, “Are you ready?” John laughed and said he thought so. She laughed, too, her enamel giving off a slight yellow tinge. Ilvi had chapped lips and a mushroom of curly brown hair. Her long and angular face was almost cubist, its unusual prettiness cohering only after you spent some time looking at her.

For some incomprehensible reason, Ilvi guided John to the German speaker who had just finished condemning his country. She was speaking to four people at once, all of whom stood around her. She appeared accustomed to being the center of attention; they appeared accustomed to providing it. These conferences were all the same. Attendees may as well be given scripts and assigned parts. At Ilvi’s announcement of John’s name, they all turned to consider him. He smiled, his hand thrust out. Only one person, an older man wearing a heavy wool sport coat, deigned to shake, though he did so with the dutiful air of a prisoner meeting his warden. John’s smile was now a dying man’s attempt at serenity. No one said anything after that.

For far longer than John appreciated, Ilvi—whether mortified or oblivious he had no good way of surmising—stood beside him, then escorted him to a few other small bundles of conference-goers. He was received with only a few more calories of warmth. Finally, she led him to the dais. He plunked down upon the lone chair and withdrew his talk from a breast pocket. Ilvi stood at the maple podium, schoolmarmishly looking at her watch.

He was by now inured to the pariah treatment, which was not to say it did not wound him. Sometimes students (never his; his classes were always over-enrolled) wore black armbands and stood in silence on the steps outside the law school, waiting for John to pass en route to his office. A couple of times they had worn Gitmo-orange jumpsuits. He always wished them good morning. Once, and only once, he had stopped to talk to them. Their complaints were so numerous and multidisciplinary it had been like arguing with Beatnik poetry. He came away from all such experiences less befuddled than disappointed. John did not want them or anyone else to agree with him. He respected considered disagreement. All he wanted was someone other than himself to admit that it was complicated.

Early in the war, two detainees were captured. One was an American citizen, the other an Australian. What laws applied to them? As John learned, you had to go very far back in the history of American jurisprudence—the Indian Wars, piracy law—to find legally appropriate analogies. Some members of the Justice Department wanted the captured American Mirandized, but every court on this planet accepted that more amorphous laws governed battlefield conduct. Treating these men as criminals meant the loss of what they knew. The American and Australian detainees did not, John argued, enjoy the protections granted to prisoners of war under Common Article III of the Geneva Conventions. Enjoying no rank, no clearly defined army, and no obvious chain of command—prerequisites upon which war-prisoner protections under Common Article III were dependent—these men could not be considered prisoners of war in any legal sense.

When the third-highest ranking member of al-Qaeda was captured in Pakistan, John was asked to provide the CIA with legal guidance. This took much of the summer of 2002, and John could not recall having worked harder or more thoroughly on a memo. He had to determine whether interrogation techniques used by the CIA outside the United States violated American obligations under the 1984 Torture Convention. So he looked at what these obligations entailed. The first thing he learned was that torture was “any act by which severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental, is intentionally inflicted on a person.” “Severe,” then, was part of the legal definition. The United States had attached to its instrument of ratification a further definition of torture as an act “specifically intended to inflict severe physical or mental pain.” What was “severe pain”? What did “specifically intended” actually mean? John checked the relevant medical literature. Could a doctor define “severe pain”? A doctor could not. Did the law itself? The law did not. The fact was, you could look far and wide in legal documents for a working definition of “severe pain” and never find it. So John, with no relish, provided one: in order to constitute torture, the “severe pain” must rise “to a level that would ordinarily be associated with a sufficiently serious physical condition such as death, organ failure, or serious impairment of body functions.” As for “prolonged mental harm,” another bit of unexplained language from the Torture Convention, it appeared nowhere in U.S. law, medical literature, or international human rights reports. Again, John had to provide his own definition. For purely mental pain or suffering to amount to torture, thus satisfying the legal requirement of “prolonged mental harm,” the end result, he judged, must be akin to post-traumatic stress disorder or chronic depression of significant duration, which is to say, months or years. John had intended these guidelines to apply only to the CIA and only with regard to what were known as “high-value intelligence targets,” never to common prisoners and especially not in Iraq, where Common Article III of the Geneva Convention absolutely applied. Due to the interrogation limits the FBI agents at Guantánamo were insisting upon—they wanted everything gathered from the prisoners to hold up in court, forgetting (or choosing to forget) that none of these men would be tried by anything but military tribunals—prisoners could not be offered so much as a Twinkie without it being deemed coercive. Until John’s memo. Shortly after its guidance went into wide and, to John, unanticipated effect, the FBI’s head counsel wrote his own memo that claimed the interrogations his agents were seeing at Guantánamo were illegal. The day John’s memos were declassified, Gonzales disavowed them at a press conference, claiming they “did not reflect the policies of the Administration.” For this John would not forgive him.

The audience clapped, at least, after Ilvi’s introduction, an idle plagiarism of the curriculum vitae John had sent her. He made his way to the podium, leaned toward the mic, glanced at the screen behind him, leaned toward the mic, and glanced again at the screen behind him. Leaning toward the mic a final time, and making sure his already soft voice was as mild as a child’s aspirin, he said he was not sure which speech should begin first. A few scattered chuckles, then actual laughter. John turned to the screen one last time to see that his talk’s first block of translated text had obligingly appeared. Okay, he thought. Good.

He flattened out the first page of his talk, which he had given several times, and looked out on the facial pointillism of his audience. Three hundred people? Their expressions were more curious than hostile, he thought. Something then popped into his mind as suddenly as the words had appeared on the screen behind him: This was too far to have come. He was a tenured professor of law at a major American university. He wondered, once again, why he was so determined to defend himself. Was the solace of knowing he could that important?

At the beginning of September 2001, John was 34 years old and reviewing a treaty whose most legally substantive issue involved polar bears.

****

Before returning to his seat John tried a couple of things. He hit the cockpit door with the steel air compressor approximately four dozen times. He then returned aft, held down the PA button of the attendant’s control panel, and screamed. Becoming hysterical solved nothing. Calmer now, and sitting, he tried to formulate a reasonable explanation for what was happening. He did not think he had been drugged. He had eaten nothing that day and drunk only a can of Diet Coke shortly after boarding. The attendant had given the can to John and he himself had opened it.

He replayed various short-term-memory fragments. The morning flight from Tallinn. Forty-five minutes in Helsinki. The bovine ordeal of boarding. He recalled as many fellow passengers as he could. Chatty Janika, the Estonian on her way to the United States. The neckless, bullfrogish man John had sat beside at the gate. The amply eyebrowed young woman in the Oxford sweatshirt who smiled at John as she passed his seat on her way to coach. (No Asian man forgets a white girl who smiles at him, unibrow or no.) A young man he recalled only because he was black. A studious, string-haired girl in a loose white blouse. A kid in his early twenties in a YOU SUCK tee shirt. The female flight attendants in their powder-blue pantsuits. John had been conscious of his Asianness on this Finnair flight, in this northern clime, and recalled, now, anticipating his relief at returning to California, his university town, its sidewalks of multiracial buffet, its music stores and eateries, the varieties of its cannabis enfleurage.

But there was the matter of his iPhone. Someone had clearly taken it. He had looked for it under his and every other seat in business class. What would he do? What could he do? The air compressor had done real damage to the door, denting its hardened shell and knocking off the handle. The handle was now in John’s pocket, in case he needed to fix it later, though he had no idea how he might do that. He found some tools in an aft storage cabinet, which were now on the seat beside him. The door itself had not budged.

In sudden need of the transporting thereness of an outside item, he pulled a magazine from the mesh basket on the side of his seat, its heavily laminated cover as cold and slippery as glass. Finnair’s in-flight shopping magazine. Even under his present circumstances, the appeal of shopping while aboard a plane remained mysterious. He nonetheless slapped at the crisp, thick pages. Fifty-euro pearl necklaces. Twenty-euro sticks of Dolce & Gabbana deodorant. Thirty-euro Glam Bronze Sunset & Glam Shine foundation by L’Oréal. Pages of European chocolates and confections. He came to the last pages, electronics, and stopped at a 245-euro solar-powered BlackBerry Curve 8310 Smartphone. Almost certainly, dozens of passengers aboard this plane had been carrying phones, any number of which might still be in their carry-ons. While getting reception was unlikely, he might find a device that allowed the sending of a stored email or text once the plane reached a lower altitude.

As he rose, the plane shook as though withstanding atmospheric reentry. He sat and buckled his seatbelt. His fear, having almost come under the control of his hope, felt newly feral. He breathed. He was not sure what time it was, or how long he had been on this plane, but his window shade, like every other window in business class, was now open, and once again he stared into the freezing darkness of the troposphere. He thought of his wife, his students, their concern for him, and, yet again, rose.

John felt strangely better once he had all the business class carry-ons gathered around his seat. Remaining close to his appointed seat seemed important, though he could not explain why. He worked his way through the bags, most of which were small. People who paid business class fares did not hesitate to check their luggage. They had no cab line to beat; they landed to find Jordanian men holding small white signs bearing their last names. Unzipping luggage, John slipped his hand into one opening after another and felt and squeezed and searched. He did not want to unnecessarily disturb anyone’s items. Anything that felt at all promising he pulled out through its zippered caul. By the end of his search he sat among shaving kits, digital cameras, iPods, duty-free bottles of vodka with Cyrillic lettering, several Montblanc pens, and a smooth pink plastic torpedo he had realized only incrementally was a sex toy. Also accounted for were half a dozen computer cases, every one of them empty.

He moved on to coach, but before he had managed to empty a single overhead container, his stomach sent another dose of fiery waste toward its point of egress. He staggered to the bathroom, unbuckling his pants, and sprayed before he could get himself atop the metal-basined toilet’s plastic ring. The smell had no equivalent he could name. It was, somehow, an orange smell. His intestinal spigot opened again; waste escaped him in avid bursts. He was sick now, and dizzy, his brain an invalid whom no one had thought to visit in months. When he was finished he washed his hands.

Decorousness no longer concerned him. He walked down the first aisle opening overheads and savagely throwing their contents to the floor. Soon enough it was knee-deep with baggage. Would he really go through all of it? No. His anger was too overriding now, and he had to allow himself to regenerate the care and attentiveness searching the bags would require. He moved to the second aisle, pushing overhead release buttons as he traversed it. After a satisfying pop the doors slowly lifted open. So much of this plane was kept in place by plastic hinges. He was within a metal tube, sailing just beneath the fringe of outer space, while huge engines fifty feet from him spewed invisible 1,000-degree fire. Was this any less remarkable than the reality that he was now trapped inside?

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