Flight 3108Preview

There’s always one, thought Mason. One loudmouth, one drunk, one drama queen. Or in the case of the skinny twenty-something guy heading his way: one entitled, rude, self-centered millennial. In addition to the mesh bag across his chest, he also had a huge pack on his back he was nearly smacking people in the face with as he proceeded and a small duffel Mason watched him roughly shove a wheeled carry-on out of the way for in the overhead bin.

He did have some sympathy for that particular generation thanks to his nephew Cory, who had recently given him a whole new perspective on their way of thinking. The evening before, he’d reprimanded Cory for honking the horn at a middle-aged lady trying to make a left out of a busy intersection, and his nephew had spat, “Some of us don’t have all day. Some of us are going to have to work until well into our seventies before we can even think about retiring.” Which had given him pause.

But this guy with the backpack, who was now taking up his space as well as most of the legroom beside it, didn’t look as though he’d ever worked the same job for more than a month or two in his life and probably lived off handouts from Mommy and Daddy. And, his dark blond hair had been twisted up into a man bun. And not the kind that was low and messy and even Mason had to admit looked pretty good on some dudes, but a circular knot perched on the top of his head like a small paintbrush. Mason got it. It was all about being badass in a blatantly gender-neutral way. Which was kind of a beautiful thing. But still, a top knot, which never looked good on anyone?

He looked past his only seatmate out the window at the rain blurring the lights of the terminal across the tarmac. He’d enjoyed his stay with his nephew and his sister, Sienna, but he was ready to go home. He didn’t have to be back on the job where he worked managing and overseeing the staff and day-to-day operations of a small private security company—the pay wasn’t super great but it wasn’t bad either—until Monday morning, which gave him the rest of the weekend to get caught up on his laundry and veg on the couch with an ice-cold beer in his hand and Game of Thrones on the TV (he’d only recently got into it after refusing to watch it with Jess for years). What he’d done was wrong, but he’d loved her. Still loved her. He felt himself growing angry again at her callous indifference to him afterwards. Did one mistake wipe out five good years? He’d made one mistake, gone too far, once. One bad night out of hundreds of good ones, and just like that, she’d cut him out of her life. He still couldn’t believe the coldness of it. But still, plainly he had screwed up. He had been justified in his exasperation (in his anger), but he had not been justified in how he’d handled it. How he’d manhandled her, as she’d put it.

His thoughts were ripped away from the past as he became aware of another passenger, a gray-haired woman who was seventy if she was a day belatedly making her way down the aisle as one of the flight attendants, the blond one, began closing and securing the door. Though the plane was nowhere near full, the older lady was apparently the final passenger.

At last. American Skyways Flight 3108, leaving Fort Lauderdale, Florida and bound for Manchester, New Hampshire, where he had an apartment and a cat named Bruno, was already running almost an hour behind.

Another flight attendant, older and brown-haired but still attractive, positioned herself at the front, facing them. The FASTEN SEAT BELT signs were now on and glowing yellow.

Mason heard the gray-haired lady say, “You’re going to have to move that bookbag,” and realized she’d had the misfortune to reserve the seat beside Manbun.

“Backpack,” he snapped back at her.


“Its. A. Backpack,” he enunciated, still making no move to pick it up. “And there’s nowhere else to put it.”

“Well, I have to have enough room, so would you please—”

“Just squeeze in,” he said.

“The safety demonstration is about to begin,” the waiting flight attendant interjected. “If everyone would please take their seats and fasten their seat belts.”

The gray-haired lady, who was probably someone’s grandma and no doubt very much like the poor woman who had the bad luck of being this jerk’s grandmother, stared uncertainly down at the overstuffed pack. As if she could feel Mason’s eyes upon her, she looked over and he was startled to see she seemed on the verge of tears.

Oh, for fuck’s sake. He opened his mouth to tell the little shit to move it or he’d move it for him, when the blond attendant came over to help.

“Sir, I’m going to need you to move the backpack.”

“Where should I put it? I think it’s too big for the bin. I could barely fit my other bag.”

“If it won’t go in then we’ll have to check it.”

“I’m not checking it.”


“Here,” Mason said, getting up from the aisle seat he’d purposefully chosen. Reaching up, he snatched the smaller bag from the overhead bin, pushed between the attendant and the woman, grabbed the backpack, slung the duffel at the idiot, and then heaved the pack up and into the bin. It was a snug fit but with one good open-handed smack it went in, albeit a little tightly.

“There,” he said, and gave the older woman a smile.

She returned the smile tremulously and maneuvered herself into her seat, reaching down to place her purse underneath the one in front of her, pointedly not looking at the man-boy who was now staring over at Mason with an absence of expression that still managed to convey the message eat shit quite clearly.

Mason grinned at him to show he wasn’t the least bit bothered by his passive-aggressive show. Two can play your little game. Finally, the twerp made a snort of derision Mason bet he practiced several times a day, and reached down to stow the duffel.

After the two-minute safety demonstration and a reminder to turn off all electronic devices, the attendants were moving up and down between the passengers, instructing everyone who hadn’t already done so to secure their table trays and bring their seats into an upright position.

Then they were rolling toward the runway.

Mason awoke with a start as the airplane gave a small bounce. They seemed to have caught up with the storm they had been trailing behind since taking off. He could see flashes of lightning streaking across the dark sky through the rain-smeared window. On the other side of the empty space between them, his seatmate, a girl with Asian features who looked around sixteen but was probably older, had her eyes closed, resting against the window, trying to sleep. As were most of the other passengers, all except for Manbun who was watching something on his phone. At least he’d brought headphones to use instead of forcing everyone around him to listen.

Giving a small sigh, Mason relaxed back. He’d planned on sleeping through the flight’s duration, but he doubted that was going to happen now.

He’d been plagued by insomnia ever since Jess left. Usually he’d doze off fine, but then he would wake up three or four hours later and spend the rest of the night tossing and turning. Even on the weekends when he didn’t have to be up early for work, he could never drop back off. He would start thinking about everything that had happened and how lonely the apartment was, and no matter how hard he tried to push it away, his mind would keep looping back over and over. Like it was now.

He raised his head and twisted around to look for one of the flight attendants. He wanted to ask for a drink, but neither the stewardesses nor the male crewmember he’d briefly seen were in sight.

The airliner they were flying in was an older one and didn’t offer in-seat television—going by the worn upholstery and general dated appearance of the cabin, it had to be at least thirty years old. And the tablet he read most of his books on was stashed in his bag, along with the gun he always took with him, which was currently packed in the cargo hold. He needed that drink, and then maybe he’d be able to sleep.

Unbuckling his belt, he stood up, stretching, and moved out into the aisle. His seat was a standard one near the middle of the aircraft. Beside him, a preppy couple in his-and-her suits sat with their heads leaning in opposite directions. Across from Manbun and the older lady, a black woman, head propped on her hand and glasses perched on the end of her nose, leaned away from an obese man overflowing his seat onto hers.

The galley was in a niche to the right before the economy section at the rear where the restrooms were also located. As he slowly headed toward it, he checked out the other passengers closest to him. To his left, a young woman with long platinum-blond hair was asleep on the shoulder of an older man who could be her father but was probably her lover or husband. Across from them, a man, also older, lounged against the window, asleep with his mouth slightly open beside a woman, possibly his wife—she was about the same age as him and not nearly as pretty as the blonde—who was not leaning on him but trying, unsuccessfully it seemed by her restless shifting, to get comfortable without actually touching him in the barely reclined position the seatbacks allowed.

Behind them there was a young couple nesting close together as the young tended to do alongside a chunky teenage girl with curly brown hair who looked as though she longed to be anywhere but there, and on the other side, a husky guy with buzzed blond hair beside a Hispanic man around forty.

The same age as Mason. Two weeks before Jess moved out, he had said goodbye to his thirties. She had given him a keg of beer and a cake with Lordy, Lordy, Mason’s Forty written across it. It hadn’t seemed like such a big deal that night with his friends surrounding him and a beautiful woman on his arm, all of them carefree, laughing, and joking. But now. Now he was a forty-year-old man who lived alone with a cat. Jess had been more of a dog person and had never really taken to the cat, and so Bruno, who had started off as a stray and now thought he owned Mason as well as his apartment, had been left behind too.

He decided, as he passed the emergency exits, that he had better use the bathroom first while he was up.

He glanced over as he walked by the galley. The brunette had her back to him, pressing the button on a coffee maker, and the blond attendant was bent over a laptop. She looked up and smiled as he went by. He returned it and kept going.

The engines were much louder in the back, and he had to catch himself on the sink when the plane lurched and then seemed to drop about a foot. Christ, it must be some storm. Couldn’t they divert?

When Mason came out, the male crewmember, Trevor according to the name bar over his steward wings, was waiting for him.

“Sir, we’re experiencing some turbulence. You’ll have to return to your seat.”

What the hell did he think Mason was going to do? Or course he was going to his seat.

But now without a drink, if he had anything to say about it. He moved briskly away from the restrooms to put some distance between them, then stopped when he got to the galley. “Sir,” he heard behind him.

“Hey,” he said to get the brunette’s attention. “Could you please bring me a rum and Coke?”

“Um… sure.”

“Thanks.” He moved out of the doorway as the male attendant reached him.

“Sir, I’m going to need you to—”

“On my way now,” Mason said over his shoulder. Obviously.

One row behind his, the plane gave a hard jolt and he had to steady himself on one of the seats. In doing so, he jostled the lady who was probably a first wife and no longer considered a trophy. “I’m sorry,” he told her, regaining his balance.

“That’s all right,” she said, shooting her oblivious companion a look. “I’m not sleeping anyhow.”

Most of the other passengers were also awake. The FASTEN SEAT BELTS lights were back on, and the occasional bump had given way to harder bouncing and the occasional shudder.

The brown-haired stewardess had just appeared at his elbow with his drink when the captain came over the intercom.

“Ladies and gentlemen… obviously the ride has deteriorated. Until the turbulence ends, the beverage service will be suspended. Please remain in your seats and we apologize about the ride and the service today and hopefully things will be better next time, and we look forward to seeing you on another American Skyways flight.”

“Drink it fast,” the attendant, whose name was Deb according to her name bar, told him. “I need to get strapped in.”

He quickly took the plastic cup and began downing it. He paused to take a breath, eyes watering, then turned it up again, finished most of it, and handed the cup back to her. “Thanks,” he rasped.

He glanced at the girl beside him—eyes wide open though she remained hunched over, knuckles white where she gripped the armrest—then looked out the window, still trying to recover from the seriously strong drink he had just chugged.

A brief flash of lightning split the darkness followed by the crash of thunder so loud he heard it over the engines. That drink might not have been such a good idea, he thought as the plane lifted up, came back down again, and started rocking back and forth.

It continued this way a little longer, then began to taper off some. The aircraft was still vibrating and occasionally bouncing, but not like it had been.

“I think we’re through the worst of it,” he told the girl beside him.

She smiled at him and slowly straightened up.

“We might as well introduce ourselves now that we’ve lived to see another day. My name’s Mason.”

“I’m Kimi,” she said.

“Pleased to meet you, Kimi.” Shifting around, he surveyed his fellow passengers. Several looked flustered and he could hear sniffling somewhere up ahead, but no one seemed to be injured. Manbun was no longer wearing his headphones but appeared to be in pretty good shape. The lady beside him, though, was another story. She was slumped down with her head laying over.

He quickly got out of his seat and moved up to her. “Are you okay, ma’am?”

Her breath puffed in and out shallowly. “I’ll be okay… just need to… rest for a minute.”

“You do that. Just close your eyes and try to relax.” Mason patted her hand then turned his attention to the young man beside her. “Are you all right?”

“I’m okay,” he answered after a second.

He didn’t seem okay now that Mason was seeing him up close. His eyes were red and he looked a little shell-shocked. “What’s your name, kid?”

“It’s not kid.”

That was better. “I’m Mason.”


“I’m going to go and find her a pillow. Do you think you could switch places with her when I get back?”

Tyler glanced over at the lady beside him, blinked, and sat up taller. “Yeah.”

“Okay, I’ll be right back.”

The captain’s voice filled the cabin again as Mason moved down the aisle in search of the flight crew.
If everyone will keep their seats… We do apologize for the ride…

The male attendant—Trevor, Mason reminded himself—came out and blocked the way as he neared the galley. “Whoa. You need to go sit down.”

“There’s a lady up there that needs a pillow.”

“No,” said Trevor, shaking his head. “Only first class gets complimentary ones.”

“Listen, the lady’s not young and she seems pretty rattled.”

“I’m sorry, but—”

Completely fed up with the self-important prick, Mason rode over him. “The woman’s in bad shape, so how about you cut the shit and get me what I need?”

Trevor’s mouth opened and closed then finally settled into a hard line. “Fine.” He whipped around before Mason could say anything more and strode back into the galley.

He was back a moment later with a small white pillow.

“And how about some water for her?” Mason asked.

“We’re about to do a quick drink and snack service.” At Mason’s expression, he rolled his eyes and added, “But you can go on in and get one now if you have to. I need to check on everyone.”

Squeezing past, Trevor started down the aisle, and Mason resumed his journey to the galley.

In the doorway, he paused.

The blond stewardess was dabbing at a cut on her forehead, and Deb was busy filling a cart with can sodas and boxes. “Marcia, are you sure you’re all right?” she asked the younger woman.

The blonde, Marcia, glanced up, catching sight of Mason, and nodded, wincing. “I’ll be okay.”

“Anything I can do to help?” Mason asked.

Deb turned at the sound of his voice. “No, I believe Trevor’s going to see to it when he gets back. Is everyone all right out there?”

“As far as I know.” He raised the pillow. “This is for an older lady. I believe she’s feeling a little faint.”

Deb nodded, intent on filling the cart. “I’ll be out in a minute to start the snack and drink service. I’m sure everyone could use something right about now.”

“Um… can I grab a water? And then I’ll get out of your hair.”

“You can get in my hair anytime,” Marcia immediately cracked, and both Deb and Mason laughed. He appreciated the compliment, but he hoped she was just making banter. She wasn’t his type at all. But now Deb…

Trevor was coming back in as he was heading out with a bottle of Dasani.

“Everyone’s fine,” Trevor announced. “Shaken up, and one threw up in their barf bag, but that’s about it.”

“That’s good,” he heard Deb say behind him and then Mason was moving out of earshot.

He thought he might still have trouble with Tyler, but to his surprise, he had already switched places with the older woman.

Tyler shot up as Mason appeared at his side and moved out of the way so Mason could get to her. “What’s your name?” he asked as he gently situated the pillow between her head and the window.

“Gwen. Gwen Alverson.”

Mason told her his name, helped her to take a few sips of water, and then retreated, leaving her in the care of Tyler, who, weirdly, seemed to be taking his responsibility of her seriously. Maybe there was hope for their generation after all.

Ten minutes later, they all had their beverages and snack boxes, and Gwen was sitting up happily munching on Oreo cookies. Tyler, hair down now and tucked behind his ears, wasn’t eating anything, though, he saw.

“Hey,” he called up in a half whisper. He raised his chin when Tyler looked over his shoulder at him. “What’s wrong?”

Tyler screwed up his nose and shook his head.

Mason, who had just finished his crackers and cheese spread, closed up his box and held it and his drink out to Kimi. “Would you hold on to these?”

He lifted his tray table to the upright position, slipped out of his seat, and moved up to Tyler so he could talk to him properly. “What’s up, buddy?”

“I can’t eat any of this. I shouldn’t even be drinking this soda.” He gestured at the cup of ginger ale he had. “But I feel a little sick to my stomach.”

“What’s wrong with the food?”

“It’s all processed. And none of it’s fresh.”

Mason thought about it. “What about nuts? Can you eat those?”

“Are they raw?”

Mason held back a sigh. “I don’t know. Let me check.”

He retrieved the nuts he’d taken but not eaten right after they’d gotten under way and brought them back over. “They’re roasted. But they’re natural. And you probably need something. Here.”

After only a second’s consideration, Tyler reached out and took them.

“You’re welcome,” Mason said when no gratitude seemed forthcoming.

“Oh… sorry. Thanks.”

The turbulence was back and even rougher than before. Trevor and the other flight attendants were nowhere to be seen and presumably strapped into their jumpseats. Kimi, who, after a bit of coaxing, had been opening up to him about her life as a college student away from home for the first time, had gone silent beside him.

Not that he would have been able to hear her. The force of the storm along with the roar of the engines and rattling of the aircraft had brought the noise up to a new level. Where were they right that very moment? Had they been blown off course? Were they being pushed around like a kite in the wind above a surging sea?

A woman was reciting the Lord’s Prayer ahead of him. He thought it was the dowdy fiftyish lady on the other side of the yuppie couple.

“…us not into temptation but deliver us from evil. For thine is the kingdom”—her voice rose as one with the plane as it tilted steeply upward, engines screaming—“and the power, and the glory, forever and ever…

The pilot may have been trying to gain some altitude, possibly to get above the storm, because they continued to climb this way for a while—and then the laboring roar of first one engine and then the other suddenly cut out and the cabin lights flickered and then dimmed, leaving behind an ominous silence broken only by the sounds of the storm and the vibration of the plane.

We’ve stalled out!” someone shrieked.

Nose dropping, the plane sank down as outside the window there was a bright flash of light followed by a tremendous BOOM.

Jesus, they’d been struck by lightning. Clenching the armrests, Mason held tight to the tenuous hold they provided as he and the other passengers were lifted off their seats and sent into freefall.

He yelled along with the rest, belt cutting into him, as they arrowed downward in darkness lit only by the faint lighting and intermittent thunderbolts.

We’re going to crash! he thought in disbelief, and felt his ears pop.

As if in acceptance of their own inevitable mortality, the noise of the people around him slowly began to die down.

He felt an insane urge to giggle as another, closer bolt of lightning lit up the interior and he caught sight of the yellow oxygen masks hanging from the ceiling. All at once it hit him what was happening.

He reached up and snatched the mask above him and yanked it down over his face, making sure it covered his mouth and nose, then grabbed the one above Kimi, who was paralyzed by terror or already out, and pulled it over her head.

He had just gotten it on right when he heard the sputtering of one or both of the engines and with a sickening surge, the nose of the plane abruptly rose and the lights began to grow brighter. He thought it was going to tip over, but then it settled back down almost level, though they were still being bounced and jarred from side to side by the churning currents around them. Thank God, they’d managed to restart the engines.

His relief was short lived. Less than a minute later, the engines quit again, and Mason felt his ears pop once more as the nose dipped and they began another dark dive toward whatever waited beneath them, the ground or the sea.

He had just resigned himself to dying, when miraculously he heard the engines come to life once more. In seconds they were leveling out.

Mason had barely begun to rejoice when the plane was struck by a violent crosswind, nearly rolling them—and suddenly they were shooting forward. The turbulence that had plagued nearly the entire flight fell away except for a continuous shuddering throughout the plane that was somehow even more frightening as they were sucked across the night sky as if by some unknown force.

The aircraft hurtled through the clouds, the pressure of their acceleration holding him to his seat, pressing against his chest, tighter and tighter until he could barely breathe.

His ears began to ring loudly and he could feel his consciousness ebbing.

His last thoughts were of Jess, and of Tyler—and then he was out.

The first thing Mason registered was the almost absence of discernable motion, and the second was the soft drone of the engines. He opened his eyes. The cabin’s normal nighttime lighting was back on.

He turned his head. Kimi was slumped over in her seat but the mask he’d slipped over her face had stayed in place.

Other than the hum of the engines, the cabin was eerily quiet around him.

Almost afraid to look, he straightened up and peered around him. And what he saw chilled him to the bone. Many of the oxygen masks, too many, hung unused or had been put on incorrectly. And those people weren’t moving at all. Many of them had bled from the nose and ears, too. Merely unconscious, or worse? My God, what had happened?

Thank goodness Tyler had his mask on, as did Gwen, who was beginning to stir.

He heard the patter of approaching footsteps and turned his head, wincing. From the feel of it, his neck had been wrenched. Not too badly, though, he didn’t think, experimentally moving his head left and then right.

Deb appeared out of the dimness into the aisle beside him. “You can take that off now,” she said. She crouched down to help him. “How do you feel?”

“I feel… all right.”

She nodded. “Good.”

Mason waited for her to say something more, but she remained strangely silent. He stared at her blank profile and realized his worst fears upon awakening might be confirmed.

“How bad is it?” he asked.

She slowly moved her head back and forth.

“What? Are people…?” He had been going to say “hurt” but her stunned demeanor sent another chill through him that had nothing to do with the slightly chilly temperature of the cabin. “Are they…?” It couldn’t be true. But her silence said it was. “How many?”

She finally turned her head to look at him. “Most of them, it looks like.”

He gasped. “What?

“There was such chaos, and the lights were barely working… A few didn’t put their masks on at all. I don’t think they fully understood… And the others—they put them on wrong. No matter how many times we tell them, they always put them on wrong! It’s supposed to go over the nose, too.” She swayed, and Mason realized she wasn’t in much better shape than the rest of them. That galvanized him into action.

He unbuckled his belt and stood, pulling her up with him. When his head had stopped spinning, he gently pushed her into his vacated seat.

“No,” she protested weakly. “I have to—”

“I got it.”

“No,” she said again. “Marcia, she won’t wake up, and Trevor… Trevor, he…” Her face contorted and she began to cry.

“I’m going to check on everyone right now. Help Kimi, okay? I’ll be right back.”

She immediately turned to do as he’d requested, her sniffles already tapering off, and Mason left her to move up to Tyler and Gwen.

“He won’t wake up,” the older woman wailed as he reached them. “I can’t get him to wake up!”

Mason’s heart sank as he took in Tyler’s inert form. Oh, no. He reached to feel for a pulse.

“He put my mask on first!” she said, tears spilling down her cheeks. “He wasn’t supposed to do that. But I put his on right after! I did, I put it on him.” She began to weep harder, and Mason’s eyes filled at how unselfishly Tyler had acted, and how unfairly he’d judged him.

And then his fingers felt a pulse. It was faint, but there. “I’ve got a heartbeat.” He pulled off the mask still on Tyler, and began patting his cheek.

“Tyler!” Mason gave him another couple of light smacks, and finally felt him stir.

Tyler’s arm flailed out, knocking Mason’s hand away. “Dude, what the fuck are you doing?”

Mason laughed softly. “I think he’s going to be fine.” Gwen, who had stopped crying, was now gazing wide-eyed at Tyler.

“Thank heavens,” she said. “I don’t think I could have lived with that.”

Leaving them, Mason turned back around to head for the rear of the plane. Deb, he noticed, was no longer in the seat he’d put her in.

“Are you all right?” he asked Kimi, who had regained consciousness. He waited until she nodded, then resumed making his way along the aisle.

It was as bad as Deb had said. All the way through the main section and on into the rear, there was nothing but silent, motionless people slumped in various poses around only a sprinkling of passengers showing signs of awakening.

He found Deb kneeling by Marcia, whom she’d managed to get out of her harness and onto the floor. “How is she?”

“I don’t know. She still hasn’t woken up. But she’s breathing okay.”

“That’s a good sign.”

“I can’t leave her like this. We need to move her.” She looked up at him. “I need three seats together. We can lay her across them until she wakes up. Do you understand what I’m saying? I need three seats together.”

Mason stared stupidly at her and then understood what she was asking. Shit. Okay. “Okay, I can do that.”
Swiveling around before he could change his mind, he went for the first row of three seats, where there were only two passengers. He quickly unbuckled the slender woman hanging with her auburn hair covering her face, placed his arms around her, and heaved her out of the seat.

Trying to push the sorrow and pity he was feeling for the woman and the grimness of what he was having to do to the back of his mind, he quickly carried her over and carefully laid her down on the floor by the rear service door.

The man next to her had attempted to pull his mask down but failed to get it on all the way, and blood had dripped out of one ear. He was harder to maneuver, and pain flared again in Mason’s neck as he pulled him out and half dragged him over to gently lay him beside the woman.

What was going on with the flight crew? The plane was now flying smoothly; they were obviously out of the storm. Yet neither of them had come out. Were the captain and the first officer both dead and the plane flying on autopilot? He walked back over to fold up the armrests and then hurried back to where Deb waited.

“Deb, have you talked to the captain?”

She shook her head. “I couldn’t get a response. I… I have the code… but then I got distracted by Trevor and—”

“It’s okay. I understand. But we need to get into that cockpit. Grab her feet.”

Together they toted Marcia over and positioned her across the seats. Then Mason headed on up to the front while Deb went to fetch a blanket to tuck around her.

There were a few more people beginning to stir here and there, but not many. He was glad the interior lights were still dimmed. The horror of their current predicament was going to be bad enough without having to view it in all its gruesome detail.

What exactly had happened? He remembered the turbulence not long into the flight, the lightning… then the plane stalling and sending them into a dive, followed by the engines coming back on and a feeling of being sucked sideways and rushing through something. He shuddered as he recalled the sickening feeling of his ears popping, getting dizzy, and then passing out.

Even in the muted lighting, he was able to tell exactly what had happened to Trevor. Strapping in and putting on his oxygen mask hadn’t done him any good. A piece of paneling had fallen and hit him on the head, leaving a gap in the ceiling above him and a deep gash in his scalp. The broken panel lay beside him in a dark red puddle where the wound had bled before he died.

“Sorry, ma’am,” he told a still woman in first class as he pulled the blanket out from around her feet. “But Deb doesn’t need to see that again.”

He took the blanket over to Trevor and draped it across him, more to cover his glazed, unblinking eyes, staring at nothing, than anything else.

He could hear Deb answering questions on her way up, and by the time she reached him, she had a retinue of frightened passengers following in her wake.

“I can’t open the door like this,” she said, halting before him.

Mason nodded and stepped around her, coming face to face with the husky guy with buzzed blond hair. He wasn’t fat; he was just big. Not incredibly tall, only an inch or so above his own five feet eleven inches, but heavily muscled.

“Are you going to be trouble?” Mason asked him bluntly.

“What? No. I just want to know what the hell’s going on.” The guy leaned in. “People are dead.”

A teenaged girl behind him, the overweight brown-haired one, began to cry. “What happened?”

Mason held his hands out in a placating gesture as the people behind her began to exclaim and call out questions. “I don’t know much more than you. The cabin must have started to lose pressure when the engines stalled. Other than that, I don’t know. But those of us who saw the masks and were able to get them on properly seem to be okay.”

“Marcia’s not,” Deb murmured.

“Still no change?”

She shook her head.

“But if that’s the case,” the girl asked, “then why are we able to breathe now?”

Deb answered before Mason had to. “Because we’re at a lower altitude. We’re now down to where we have pressure and oxygen. I believe the captain must have managed to set our altitude and engage the autopilot. He wouldn’t have had it on before that with such extreme turbulence.”

They had just begun that curious acceleration, Mason remembered. “Yeah, everything smoothed out when…”

“When whatever happened, happened,” a young man with spiky brown hair finished.

“All I know,” Mason said, “is we have to get onto that flight deck and see what’s going on, and I’m going to need you to give her some space so she can put the code in.”

He expected reluctance, but all of them shuffled back without argument.

Mason waited tensely with the others as she punched in the digits. He thought it wasn’t going to work—but then it did and she was pushing the door open.

“Captain?” she said, stepping through the opening. Mason followed her as she moved on in. He felt someone behind him, looked around, and realized it was Buzzcut. But it was only him and they might need his assistance from the state of the pilots, who were both slumped over in their seats and obviously unconscious or worse, and he let it go.

Deb leaned over the captain to touch his shoulder, and he jumped like he’d been shot.

“Easy,” cried Mason as the man ripped his mask off and looked around wildly with bloodshot eyes.

Snapping back with impressive speed, he immediately began feverishly checking and adjusting the staggering array of instruments, indicators, knobs, dials, switches, and displays.

“All of you, out!” he cried after a moment, jerking a look around at them. “Except for you, Deb. You stay.”

“Out,” he barked at them again, sounding stronger this time, as Deb bent toward the first officer.

Mason didn’t have to be told twice. The man obviously needed to concentrate. Urging Buzzcut ahead of him, Mason exited the cockpit and pulled the door shut.

The others, the ones he’d already seen and a few he hadn’t noticed yet, surged forward. “The captain’s okay,” he told them, holding out his hand. “He’s awake and he’s got things under control.” Mason wasn’t sure that was exactly true, but he needed to keep them calm.

But what happened?” the brown-haired girl asked again, sparking a flurry of questions from the small crowd around her.

“Is he even alive?” the young guy with the spiky hair asked calmly enough. “Or are you trying to keep us from panicking?”

No,” Mason replied. “He’s awake, and—”

“What about the co-pilot?” broke in the Hispanic man who’d sat beside Buzzcut, pushing his way forward. “You haven’t mentioned him.”

“Deb is attempting to wake him now.”

“Does the captain evenknow the situation?” cried a man in a suit—the male half of the yuppie couple that had been sitting near Mason. “My wife is dead. Someone needs to address this.” Without warning, he lunged for the door.

Buzzcut caught him before he’d made it three feet, lifted him off the floor, and tossed him backward. The man landed upright and wasn’t hurt, but Buzzcut had made his point and he stayed put.

The beefy guy Mason was suddenly glad was at his side, pointed his finger at the crowd. “No one gets past this door besides this man”—he pointed at Mason—“myself, the flight attendants, or the pilots.”

“As soon as we know something, we will tell you,” Mason assured them. “We’re not trying to hide anything. We just want to give the captain the time he needs to ascertain the situation, and then he will be informed of the details, if he hasn’t been already. At that point, I’m sure he will have worked out a plan of action.” By plan of action, he meant what to do with the bodies of the deceased until they could land. Probably the best course would be to move everyone left up to first class and keep all the bodies toward the back. But that was where the lavatories were—

The cockpit deck door opened behind him, interrupting his thoughts. He turned and saw it was Deb.

“I need to get a coffee, strong with plenty of cream and sugar, and a water.”

“Two drinks?” Mason asked her. “Does that mean the other pilot’s awake?”

She nodded tiredly. “Finally. He’s pretty groggy, though.”

“Has the captain said anything?”

“Not much. Nothing I could understand, anyway.”

“Nothing you could understand?”

“Something’s wrong, but I’m not sure what. And I don’t think he’s receiving any radio communication.”

That was odd. “Is the radio system out?”

“I don’t know. It seemed to be working but he’s getting no response.”

He raised his voice for the benefit of the others who were listening intently. “Probably we’ve been blown off course, is all. We could be in a dead spot.” He realized his bad choice of words as soon as they left his mouth.

“I hope you’re right,” Deb said, starting toward the galley.

Mason turned to the big man at his side. “What’s your name?”

“Dustin,” he said. “Dustin Rogers. And yours?”

“Mason Tucker.”

“Nice to meet you, circumstances notwithstanding.”

“You too. Do you mind helping me keep an eye on things?”

“You don’t even have to ask.”

End of sample