Charlotte can’t tell the real from the false as she goes undercover to bring the couture counterfeiters to justice and struggles to answer a life-changing question from a certain handsome professor.
The one thing Charlotte knows for sure is that the wrong choice could be the last decision she ever makes.
Air Time, the third book in the award-winning Charlotte McNally series, will be available June 14th. Please enjoy this excerpt.
It’s never a good thing when the flight attendant is crying. Franklin, strapped into the seat beside me, his seat back and tray table in the full upright position, headphones on and deep into Columbia Journalism Review, doesn’t notice her tears. But I do.
She’s wearing a name tag that says Tracy, a navy blue pencil skirt, a bow-tied striped scarf, flat- heeled pumps and dripping mascara. We’re sitting on the Baltimore airport tarmac, still attached to the jetway, a full fifteen minutes past our scheduled takeoff for Boston and home. And Tracy’s crying.
I nudge Franklin with my elbow and tilt my head toward her. “Franko, check it out.”
Only Franklin’s eyes move as, with a sigh, he glances up from under his new wire-rimmed glasses. He looks like an owl. Then, without a word, he slowly closes his CJR and finally looks at me. I can see he’s as unnerved as I am. His eyes question, and I have the only answer a television reporter can give.
“Get your cell,” I whisper. “Turn it on.”
“But, Charlotte—” he begins.
He’s undoubtedly going to tell me some Federal Aviation Administration rule about not using cell phones in flight. Like any successful television producer, Franklin always knows all the rules. Like any successful television reporter, I’m more often about breaking them. If it could mean a good story.
“ We’re not in flight.” I keep my voice low. “We haven’t budged on this runway. But one of us—you—is going to get video of whatever it is that’s going on here. The other—me—is going to call the assignment desk back at Channel 3 and see if they know what the heck is happening at this airport.”
I look out my window. Nothing. I look back up at Tracy, who’s now huddling with her colleagues in the galley a few rows in front of us. Their coiffed heads are bent close together and one has a comforting arm around another’s shoulders. The faces I can see look concerned. One looks up and catches me staring. She swipes a tapestry curtain across the aisle, blocking my view.
Part of me is, absurdly, relieved that our takeoff is delayed. I hate takeoffs. I hate landings. I hate flying. And if something terrible has happened, all I can say is, I’m not surprised.
But I have to find out if there’s a story here. Maybe Tracy just has some sort of a personal problem and I’m making breaking news out of a broken heart. I yank my bag from under the seatvin front of me and slide out my own cell phone. Bending double so my phone is buried in my lap, I pretend to sneeze to cover the tim-tee-tum sound of it powering up, then sneeze again to make it more convincing. As I’m contemplating sneeze three, I hear my call to the assignment desk connect.
“It’s me. Charlie,” I whisper. I pause, closing my eyes in annoyance at the response. “Charlie McNally. The reporter? Is this an intern?” I pause again, picturing a newbie twentysomething in over her head. Me, twenty-two years ago. Twenty-three, maybe. I start again, calm. Taking the snark out of my voice. “It’s Charlotte McNally, the investigative reporter? Give me Roger, please.” I glance at the curtain to the galley. Still closed. “Right now.”
Franklin’s up and in the aisle, holding his cell phone as if it’s off as he pretends to take a casual stroll toward the galley curtains. I know he’s got video rolling. I know his phone has a ten-minute photo capacity, and he’s done this so many times he can click it off and on without looking. Talk about a hidden camera. Our fellow passengers will only see an attractive thirtysomething black guy in a preppy pink oxford shirt checking out the flight attendants. I see Franklin Brooks Parrish, my faithful producer, getting the shots we need. What ever is happening— all caught on camera. Exclusive.
“Roger Zelinsky.” Th e night assignment editor’s Boston accent makes it Rah-jah. “What’s up, C?”
“We’re in Baltimore, on the way home from the National Journalism Convention,” I say, still doubled over into my lap and whispering. Luckily Franklin and I had an empty seat between us. A hidden camera is one thing— a hidden forbidden conversation on a cell phone is another. “We’re at the airport. In a plane. On the tarmac.”
“So?” Roger replies.
“Exactly,” I say. “That’s what I’m trying to find out.” I give him the short-version scoop on the tears, the delay, the closed curtain. Franklin’s now made it to the galley, his phone camera nonchalantly pointed at the spot where the curtain would open. But it hasn’t opened. Maybe Tracy broke up with the pilot. Maybe they don’t have enough packages of peanuts. Maybe someone decided to smoke in the bathroom.
Then, even through the fuzzy phone connection, I hear all hell break loose at Channel 3. Strapped in and surrounded by passengers and pillows and carry-on bags, on Flight 632 there’s only the muted sounds of passengers muttering, speculating. But about five hundred miles away, in a Boston television newsroom, bells are ringing and alarms are going off. I know it’s the breaking news signal. The Associated Press is banging out a hot story. I bet it’s centered right here. And any second, I’m gonna know the scoop in Baltimore.
“Runway collision. Two planes. A 737 and some commuter jet. Cessna. I’m reading from the wires, hang on.” Roger’s voice is now urgent. I can picture him, eyes narrowed, racing through the information coming through on his computer. Bulletins appear one or two sentences at a time and with every new addition more alert bells ping. “No casualty count yet. One plane taxiing toward takeoff, one on the ground.”
“The little plane,” I begin. “How many—was it—which—”
“Don’t know,” Roger replies. Terse. The bell pings again and our connection breaks up a bit. “Fire engines,” he says.
I’ve got to get off this plane. I’ve got to get into the terminal. This story is big, it’s breaking, and I’m ready to handle it. “Call you asap,” I whisper, interrupting. “I’m getting out of here.” I turn off the phone, tuck it into my bag, unclasp my seat belt and stand up. Franklin looks over, and I signal with widening eyes and a tilt of my head. Come back.
Franklin glances at the still motionless curtain. He points his phone backward and returns to our seats. Camera rolling. Just in case.
I grab his arm and yank him back into seat 18C. “Listen,” I hiss. “ There’s been a collision on the runway here. Fire, Roger says.” I pause, hoping no one can hear me. “I’ve got to get off this plane and into the airport.”
Franklin wipes away imaginary creases from his still-perfect khakis. I know this means he’s thinking. Calculating. Taking in the information.
“Listen, Charlotte. I know you’re addicted to the news,” he says, voice low. “But you’ve got to get to Boston. Our interview with the Prada P.I. is scheduled for tomorrow morning. She’s meeting us at the airport. It’s between flights for her. It’s tomorrow or never. That’s her schedule.” Franklin apparently has a calendar implanted in his brain.
“She’s got the specs and some inside scoop on counterfeit bags,” he says. “She’s giving us documents from the purse designers. Without her, our ‘fabulous fakes’ story may not be so fabulous.”
He glances toward the galley curtain, so I do, too. Nothing.
“Local reporters can cover the runway incursion,” Franklin continues. “ They’re probably already on the air with what ever the story is. And you’re the big-time investigative reporter, remember? You don’t do breaking news like this anymore. You’ve got to stay on this plane and get back to Boston.”
I know I’m an aging Dalmatian. But when the fire bell rings, I can’t stand to be out of the action. The secret to TV success is being at the right place at the right time. And recognizing it. I flip up the armrests between us, stand up again, and try to edge around Franklin and into the aisle. Luckily I have on flats, so I’ll be able to run if I need to. And my black pants, white T- shirt and black leather jacket will look appropriately serious when I go on camera. I’m heading for significant airtime. And a big story.
“Piffle,” I say. “I can cover this story, make Channel 3 look good, thrill Kevin by providing him with the news director’s dream ‘local reporter on the scene to cover national news’ segment, hop the next plane to Boston and arrive in plenty of time for the meeting. It’s at eleven, after all. You worry too much, Franko. Now, move it.”
Franklin doesn’t budge. “You don’t worry enough, Charlotte. You’re not going anywhere,” he says. He points to seat 18A. “Sit.” I don’t. But I can’t get out unless Franklin moves. I twist toward him, my back crammed against the seat in front of me, my head bowed under the too-short-for-my-five-foot-seven-self curved plastic ceiling of the 737.
“Your suitcase,” he says. “It’s checked. And you ain’t goin’ nowhere without it. After September eleven? Nobody checks a bag, then gets off the plane. Forget about it.”
“Nope,” I say. I try my exit move again, but Franklin is still blocking me. “I got the lattes. You checked both bags, remember? They’re both attached to your ticket. Far as this airline is concerned, I have no baggage. Which means you can pick them both up in Boston and I’ll get mine from you later. There is certainly a morning flight. Which means I’m free to go. And I’m going.”
I see Franklin hesitate. I’ve won.
“Call Josh, okay?” I say, edging my way closer to the aisle. “Tell him . . .” I pause, one hand on the seat back, considering. It looks like yet another news story will keep me from my darling
Josh Gelston. Maybe I should just stay on the plane. Go home. Let the locals cover the story. Have a life with the first man in twenty years who isn’t interested in my celebrity. Or jealous of it. Who isn’t intimidated by my job. Professor Josh Gelston is also the first man in twenty years who, I realize, makes me want to go home. Well, as soon as I can.
“Tell Josh what happened,” I say. “Tell him I’ll be back as soon as I can. Actually, he’s at some school event to night, so just leave a message. And ask him to call Amy to feed Botox. And I’ll talk to him tomorrow.” Josh will understand about the cat sitter. And my situation. I hope.
Franklin smoothes the wrinkles again, then shrugs. And this time, he slides his knees to one side, allowing me to squirm my way out into the aisle. “ They’ll never let you off this plane,” he predicts.
The unfamiliar airport blurs into a collage of gate numbers, flashing lights and rolling suitcases as I snake my way past luggage-toting passengers, blue-uniformed flight crews, maintenance carts and posses of stern-faced TSA officers. I’m focused on finding gate C-47. My cell phone is clamped to my ear, the line open to Channel 3, but no one is on the other end yet. I’m waiting for more updates from Roger. So far all I know is I’m supposed to meet the Baltimore station’s crew—a cameraperson and a live satellite van—from our local network affiliate. We’ll go live as soon as the uplink is set. And as soon as someone tells me what’s happened.
No one in the terminal is running, which seems strange. I don’t see any emergency crews. That’s strange, too. Maybe because it’s all happening in a different terminal. They don’t want to scare anyone.
I wonder if anyone is hurt. I wonder what went wrong. I wonder if there’s a fire. I think about survivors. I think about families. I’ve covered too many plane crashes over the past twenty years. And part of me knows that’s why I’m so unhappy about flying. I try not to admit it, because an investigative reporter is supposed to be tough and fearless. When it comes to air travel, I pretend a lot.
“Yup, I’m here,” I answer the staticky voice now crackling in my ear. The block-lettered signs for Terminal C are pointing me to the left. Following the arrows, I trot through the crowded corridor, listening to Roger tell me the latest. I stop, suddenly, realizing what he’s saying. A Disney-clad family divides in half to get by, throwing annoyed looks as they swarm back together in front of me. I barely notice.
“So, you’re telling me there’s nothing?” I reply. “You’re telling me—no big collision? No casualties? No fire?”
“Yep. Nope,” Roger says. “Apparently one wing tip of a regional jet just touched a 737. On the ground. No passengers in the smaller plane. But the pilot panicked, Maydayed the tower, they sent the alarm, fire crews powered in. Every pi lot on the tarmac picked up the radio traffic—guess that’s how your flight attendant got wind of it. And the Associated Press, of course. It was a close call. But no biggie.”
“So . . .” My adrenaline is fading as I face reality. I plop into a leatherette seat along the wall, stare at my toes, and try to make journalism lemonade. “So, listen. Should we do a story about the close call? Should we do an investigation about crowded runways? Is there a pattern of collisions at the Baltimore airport?”
“Charlie, that’s why we love you,” Roger says with a chuckle. “Always looking for a good story. Does your brain ever turn off ? Come home, kiddo. Thanks for being a team player.”
It’s the best possible outcome, of course, I tell myself as I slowly click my phone closed and tuck it back into my bag. And it’s certainly proof of how a reporter’s perspective gets warped by the quest for airtime. How can anyone be sorry there’s not a plane crash? I smile, acknowledging journalism’s ugliest secret. A huge fire? A string of victims? A multimillion-dollar scam? Bad news is big news. Only a reporter can feel disappointed when the news is good.
But actually, there is good news that I’m happy about. Now I can go home. To Josh. My energy revs as I race to the nearest flight information screen and devour the numbers displayed on the televisions flickering above me. Arrivals. Departures. If I’m lucky, my plane is still hooked to that jetway, doors open. I can get back on board, into 18A, and get home for a late and luscious dinner with Josh. I imagine his welcoming arms swooping me off the floor in a swirling hug. Our “ don’t-stay away-this-long-ever-again” kisses. I imagine skipping dinner.
I find what I’m looking for. Boston, Flight 632. I find what I’m not looking for. Status: Departed.
I drop my tote bag to the tiled floor. Then pick it up again so the airport police don’t whisk it away as an unattended bag. There are no more flights to Boston to night. I’m trapped in Baltimore. Wandering back down the corridor and into the ladies’ room, I’m trying to plan. I twist my hair up with a scrunchie. Take out my contacts. Put on my glasses. No one knows me here. Might as well be comfortable.
I have no story. I also have no clothes, I realize, as I stroll by the bustling baggage claim area. No toothbrush. No contact- lens solution to put my lenses back in tomorrow. No . . .
“Dammit!” A twentysomething girl, teetering on strappy, outrageously high platform sandals, is struggling to wrestle the world’s largest suitcase from the moving convey or belt. I watch as she tugs at the handle with one French-manicured hand, trotting alongside the moving convey or. Her tawny hair swinging across her shoulders, she yanks on the bag’s chocolate-brown leather strap again. And again. But the baggage doesn’t budge, continuing its travel away from her. And almost out of reach. She stamps an impatient foot, then looks around, defeated and annoyed, her hair whirling like one of those girls in a shampoo ad. I look, too, but there are no skycaps in sight.
“Need some help?” I offer. The laws of physics will never allow her the leverage to yank that obviously pricey closet on wheels away from the flapping plastic baffles that cover the entrance to wherever unclaimed baggage goes. Fashion-victim shoes aside, this girl probably lives on diet soda and breath strips.
I put down my tote bag, grab her suitcase handle, and wrench her tan-and-brown monolith from the belt. It lands with a thud on one wheel. We both move to steady it before it topples to the floor.
“Oh, wow. Thank you,” she says. Her voice has the trace of an accent, exotic, but I can’t place it. “I practically live in airports, but usually there is someone to help.”
“Yeah, well, that was clearly going to be a problem,” I say, gesturing to her actually very elegant and certainly expensive designer suitcase. Unless—hmm. I wish the Prada P.I. was here now to tell me if it’s authen tic. “I guess that’s why they call it luggage.”
She stares at me, uncomprehending.
“Lug?” I say. “Luggage?” I try to cover my failed attempt at humor by offering a compliment. “That’s quite the gorgeous bag. Where did you—”
The girl compares her claim check with the one on the bag. It’s tagged ATL, from Atlanta. Although there’s hardly going to be a mistake about who it belongs to. This isn’t one of the black wheelie clones circling the baggage claim.
“Ah, yes, it’s from . . .” She pauses, putting one slim hand on one impossibly slim blue-jeaned hip, and looks me up and down. Assessing, somehow. “ You’ve been so nice to me. Let me ask you. Do you like it?” She points to her suitcase.
She’s not from Atlanta. Canadian? French, maybe? As if she needed to be even more attractive. And she’s asking if I like her suitcase? Maybe it’s a cultural thing. I shrug. “Well, sure.”
The girl holds out a hand. “I’m Regine,” she says. Ray- zheen. “I’m . . .” I begin to introduce myself, shaking her hand. But she’s still talking.
“If you are interested in designer bags? Like this one?” She waits for my answer, head tilted, one eyebrow lifted.
“Well, of course, I . . .”
“Then here,” she interrupts again. She digs into her recognizably logo-covered pouch of a purse, pulls out a cream-colored business card, and presents it to me with what looks like a conspiratorial smile.
I glance at it, then back at her. Her eyes are twinkling, as if she has a secret. And I guess she does. “Designer Doubles?” I read from the card. I look back at her suitcase. This day is getting a whole lot more interesting. And potentially a whole lot more valuable. Talk about the right place at the right time. Thank you, news gods.
“Designer Doubles? You mean, your suitcase is not really . . . ?” I pretend to be baffled.
“Not a bit,” she replies. She pats her purse. “And neither is this one. But they are perfect, are they not? The website on that card will tell you where you can find a purse party. And there, you can buy one for yourself.”
“Well, my goodness,” I say, allowing my eyes to go wide. As if I’m considering some fabulously tempting offer. “I think I’ve heard about this in magazines.”
“Exactly.” Regine nods, as if the lust for luxury somehow bonds us. She twirls her bag on one wheel, ready to join the swirl of departing passengers heading for the exit. “My pleasure.”
And she’s gone.
Buy one for myself, she’d suggested. What a very lovely idea.
Tucking the card safely into a zippered pocket of my tote bag, I’m already reworking our story. Talk about the right place at the right time. If this all goes as I hope, I am indeed going to buy one for myself. Perhaps several. But what Regine doesn’t know is I’ll be doing it in disguise. Undercover. And carrying a hidden camera. This glossy, expensive little business card could be my ticket to journalism glory.
If I don’t get caught.
Copyright © 2009 by Hank Phillippi Ryan
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