"Well, that was fun,” I said, taking a sip of dry Champagne.
“Huh,” Terry grunted, not touching hers.
My attempts at cheering her up were falling ﬂat. Here we were, ﬂying ﬁrst class to Los Angeles in a 767, drinking bubbly and nibbling lobster–the dregs of our extravagant Hawaiian vacation–and the brat was already sulking big-time.
She was wearing purple reﬂector shades that matched the ﬂoral print on her shirt, cut-off jeans that ﬂared out at the knees, and neon pink ﬂip-ﬂops with white plastic ﬂowers. Her toenails were painted mermaid green.
Terry’d gone native, and not only in terms of her dress. She’d left her heart on Kauai with a Polynesian hula dancer named Lailannii. The shades were to cover her puffy eyes; she’d cried like a baby all the way to the airport.
“We’ll go back again, soon. I promise,” I assured her.
“I am going back,” Terry said, gazing down at the Paciﬁc. “As soon as we get to LA, we’ll get the money out from under the ﬂoorboards, I’ll take my half, then I’m gone.”
The money she was referring to–close to ten thousand dollars–was all we had left from our prior case. We’d retrieved it for a client who had subsequently shufﬂed off to the Great Buffalo in the sky. Since the client had no heirs, and since we were in possession of the money at the time of the client’s death, Terry was convinced that it was legally ours. She’d argued that the IRS had their hands full sucking untold billions from the pockets of our fellow citizens, so there was no reason to bother them with our paltry sum. Before we left for Hawaii, we’d wrapped the cash in plastic bags and planted them beneath our little cabin for safekeeping. We then took the generous reward we’d received from an insurance company for returning a stolen painting by Francis Bacon, and blew the whole amount on three weeks of sunning and funning on the island of Kauai.
It seemed like a good idea at the time.
“I . . . I can’t live without her,” Terry said in a faint whisper.
I rolled my eyes behind closed lids. With her ﬂair for the dramatic, Terry had already turned a vacation dalliance into a tale of soap-operatic passion worthy of Sweeps week.
“Why don’t you take it for what it was, Terry? A ﬂing.”
“Don’t tell me what my feelings are, Kerry! I think I’m in a better position to know what they are than you are!”
Due to the physics of the situation, she couldn’t kick me, so she kicked the bag containing the memorial coconuts at her feet. She and Lailannii had found them during a walk on the beach and had carved their names into the hulls. To Terry they symbolized undying love. To me they symbolized a pair of big hairy nuts.
“Sorry,” I said, grabbing a People magazine from the seat pocket in front of me and ﬂipping it open. “Far be it from me to suggest that you shouldn’t upend your whole life because of a few starry nights with a Polynesian hula dancer–”
“I don’t need your condescending, racist attitude!”
“I know what’s real and what’s not!”
“Lips zipped. Key thrown away. Forget I said anything.”
Her hand ﬂew into my line of vision and I ﬂinched, thinking it was a ﬁst coming at my skull. “Oh my God, is that Tatiana?” Terry said.
She jabbed her ﬁnger into the second page of a photo spread in the magazine and sure enough, there she was. Tatiana Pavlov, the notorious beauty from our last case.
“It is Tatiana,” I said in astonishment, ﬂipping back to the opening of the article. The last time we saw Tatiana, she’d been ducking process servers and lawyers and a citywide dragnet designed to catch her mobster ex-husband, Sergei. And here she was being touted as the next big thing. The new one-name pop cultural phenomenon:
Terry grabbed the magazine out of my hands. I grabbed it back. We wrestled with it for a moment, then it ripped in two. We each devoured our half of the article, then switched.
Tatiana had apparently been busy in the last few months. We knew she’d been dating a major Hollywood player and had managed to evade the police for weeks, only to resurface and be completely exonerated in a wide-ranging conspiracy involving a mainlining plastic surgeon, a silver-haired Beverly Hills attorney, and several well-heeled and very dead elderly widows.
But our girl had apparently become a media darling while we were lolling around on the island of Kauai. She’d landed a contract with Estée Lauder and bagged the role of the Bond girl in the next 007 movie. I wondered how much Tatiana’s extraordinary looks had to do with her getting away scot-free in L’Affaire Butcher of Beverly Hills. She’d been guilty of fraud at a minimum, I knew, but the DA hadn’t seen ﬁt to bring charges. And the publicity had evidently brought Tatiana to the attention of the country’s tastemakers.
“What a crock!” Terry said, laughing at the article.
It painted a picture of a tragic Russian folk heroine. Tatiana, we were informed in breathless prose, was a musical prodigy as a child–a pianist. But her ﬁngers were dislocated by a cruel shopkeeper at the age of eight, when she was caught stealing a loaf of bread for her starving family of six brothers and sisters. Somehow she’d made it through a harsh life on the streets of Russia to immigrate to the United States, and had sworn on the tomb of Lenin she would make it big in the land of opportunity and bring her orphaned siblings along with her.
Whereas we knew her to be the worst sort of opportunistic, predatory man-eater, leaving a trail of carcasses in her wake as she went for the gold. The entire family back in the old country was probably the invention of some high-powered PR agent.
“Ha!” Terry guffawed. “You’d think she was the Mother Teresa of Moscow.”
“Obviously, she got herself a publicist and a crack lawyer and a killer agent,” I said, shaking my head in wonder. “Only in America.”
“America will die like dogs!” a man shouted from the area in front of the cockpit.
Terry and I dropped the magazine.
A woman screamed and a baby squalled.
“Do not move!” We craned our necks around the seats in front of us to see a swarthy man tightening his grip around the neck of a wide-eyed flight attendant. He had a toothbrush pointed at her head, the handle ﬁled to a lethal point, piercing her temple.
“Move and the airline whore gets an Oral-B in the brain!”
The man wore a cheap suit with a loud, patterned tie. He had crazed yellow eyes and a sweat-ﬁlmed face sprouting a ﬁve o’clock shadow at three A.M. Hawaii time.
There was a flash of movement behind me. A passenger from the main cabin rushed forward into ﬁrst class, a sandy-haired guy in a Hawaiian shirt with a face like boiled lobster. Suddenly, another man jerked up in his seat and smashed the would-be hero in the face with a shaving kit. There were two of them.
Joe Tourist went down in the aisle.
“Do not move or you will die like the red-faced American pig!” the man with the toothbrush screamed. Holy shit! Were we being hijacked? Were these two clowns going to force their way into the cockpit with a toothbrush and fly us into the space needle at LAX?
The pilot’s shaky voice came over the speaker:
“Ladies and gentlemen, please remain calm. We have contacted the authorities on the ground and are currently taking evasive measures . . .”
This isn’t happening. This isn’t happening, I chanted uselessly in my mind. My mouth was dry and my mind was blank, and all I could hear was the ocean of blood roaring in my ears.
As the ﬂight attendant struggled in his grip, the man with the toothbrush addressed the horror-stricken passengers. “American inﬁdels!” he shouted. “Do exactly as we say! We are in control of the plane!” He jabbed the toothbrush into the ﬂight attendant’s temple. She cried out and blood trickled down her ashen face. He turned to her and growled, “Now, you will talk to the pilot and you will tell him to–”
Suddenly, Terry made her move. She jumped to her feet with a coconut in her left hand, wound back, and then, with all the power that had made her a legend on the girls’ softball circuit, she ﬁred one of the coconuts at Swarthy Man, smashing him square on the side of the head.
He went down on the cockpit threshold, never knowing what hit him.
A well-known TV actor who was ten years past his prime and seated a few rows in front of us threw himself on top of him. Two more ﬁrst-class passengers piled on like linebackers.
Meanwhile, an enraged Joe Tourist scrambled to his feet and took a flying leap at the shaving-kit-wielding man, knocking him ass over teakettle onto the laptop of a shrieking executive before decking him with a right hook.
The ﬂight attendant stumbled toward the cockpit, only to ﬁnd another hijacker rising from seats at the head of ﬁrst class to stop her. He grabbed her around the neck with both hands, choking the life out of her.
I quickly reached for the other engraved coconut and clambered out into the aisle. I swung the coconut up two-handed and ﬁred it toward the third man’s head, where it hit with a sickening cracking sound. Blood dripped down the side of his face as he swayed on his feet. Then his eyes rolled back in his skull and he collapsed onto the lap of a plump blonde with orchids in her hair.
The ﬂight attendant reeled away from her attacker, gasping for breath. The blonde pushed the fallen hijacker’s sticky, limp form into the aisle with a disgusted “Ugh!”
We looked around. It was all over. There was a momentary silence as the passengers of Flight 222 took a collective breath. Even the screaming baby was quiet.
Then the pilot’s voice came over the intercom again, sounding relieved and triumphant at once.
“This is your pilot speaking. The hijackers have been subdued. I repeat: The hijackers have been subdued, and we have alerted the authorities in Los Angeles. Go back to your seats and thank whatever God you believe in that a tragedy has been averted.”
The crowd erupted in cheers. A few people began to cry. Off-key choruses of “America the Beautiful” were belted out as the crew moved quickly to bind the hands and feet of the three men and pull them, unconscious, to the rear of the plane.
After the commotion had died down, Terry and I took our seats again.
I looked out the window and saw the brilliant blue ocean undulating beneath us, the pure azure sky giving way to a hazy brown blob that beckoned us back home to Smogland.
“Well, that was fun,” Terry said, her mood considerably brighter, as she picked up the pieces of the People magazine and settled back to read the latest showbiz gossip, while sipping the dry Champagne.
We already told everything to the guys from the FAA, the airport police, and the LAPD. . . . Can’t you get their notes?”
Terry was good and cranky after hours of debrieﬁng up here in the airport security ofﬁce at LAX. An army of stained Styrofoam cups was arrayed on the table in front of us, and I was so wired on bad coffee I thought my head was going to spin off the top of my neck and whiz through the air like a beanie cap propeller.
“I’m sure you can appreciate that in these matters, the FBI has to be in the loop,” the cute guy in the dark suit said.
Or something to that effect.
I wasn’t really listening. I was pondering the absence of a gold band on the left hand of Special Agent Dwight Franzen. He had blond hair in a buzz cut with a little cowlick over his forehead, and a squarish face with a broken nose that hinted at a violence beneath his friendly manner. The ﬂawless skin made him appear younger than the mid-thirties I pegged him at, and I noticed he wasn’t drinking the coffee.
Probably Mormon. Lotta those guys in the FBI are Mormon. Six kids and a nice frumpy little wife, dutifully homeschooling them. Or maybe six frumpy wives dutifully homeschooling eighteen kids. Duh, there’s no wedding band. He’d have to have them piled up to his second knuckle.
“Pardon me?” Special Agent Franzen said in my direction.
“Huh?” Surprised out of my reverie, I looked over at Terry, who stared at me, frowning.
“Tired, huh?” Agent Franzen smiled, showing dazzling white teeth that overlapped a millimeter in the front.
I nodded. “Extremely.”
He jotted something on his pad. “Now, which hijacker was wearing a wedding band?”
I said that out loud?
“I ask, because that’s not something you usually see on Yemeni terrorists.”
Terry got it now. She smiled wickedly and nodded at me. “Oh, she probably hallucinated it, Agent Franzen. You know how some girls just seem to have marriage on the brain . . .”
I rolled my eyes heavenward. Why me? I put my elbows on the table and buried my face in my hands, peeking out between my ﬁngers as the heat rose in my cheeks.
Agent Franzen laughed good-naturedly and looked at the ring ﬁnger on his left hand. “I’m not married,” he said, “if that’s what you were wondering.”
He chose to ignore my humiliation and continued with his questions, and Terry and I spent the better part of an hour reliving our citizens’ arrest at 30,000 feet.
“Poor guys,” Terry said when the interview was wrapping up. “They signed on for seventy-two virgins, but they’ll be taking it up the wazoo from a hundred feds instead.”
“Yeah, my heart really bleeds for them,” Franzen said, closing his notebook. “You know, this is gonna be big news. You girls are gonna be hounded by every reporter on the West Coast for a few days. Next time I see you, it’ll probably be on the cover of Newsweek. Or maybe Time magazine’s ‘Twins of the Year.’”
I felt an onrush of panic. “We can’t! They can’t . . . they wouldn’t!” I sputtered.
“What’s the big deal?” Terry said. “Don’t want your ﬁfteen minutes?”
I sighed, shaking my head. “Tell me something, Terry. How are we going to do our job with our faces splashed all over the media? How are we gonna get things done if everyone sees us coming, if everyone knows who we are?”
Excerpted from The Mangler of Malibu Canyon by Jennifer Colt. Copyright © 2006 by Jennifer Colt. Excerpted by permission of Broadway, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.