Thrillers in the sky!
I have a friend whose cousin worked as the Canadian version of an air Marshall. I’ve always wondered what that kind of work would be like. He spends his working hours on flights (or did, before covid). I’ve never met him but I’d love to ask him what it’s like being on high alert much of the time but, hopefully, never having to actually deal with armed terrorists.
Joseph Reid’s Seth Walker series comes as close as possible to me being able to ask those questions. The author himself has spent thousands of hours in the air and in airports, which inspired this thriller series. In the interview we touch on the fascinating world of airports, which are like cities unto themselves, and also talk about what inspires Joseph to keep writing.
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This week’s mystery author
The son of a navy helicopter pilot, Joseph Reid chased great white sharks as a marine biologist before becoming a patent lawyer who litigates multimillion-dollar cases for high-tech companies. He has flown millions of miles on commercial aircraft and has spent countless hours in airports around the world.
Joseph is the author of the Amazon Charts bestselling Seth Walker series, which includes Takeoff, False Horizon, and the upcoming Departure. A graduate of Duke University and the University of Notre Dame, he lives in San Diego with his wife and children.
Learn more about Joseph Reid and all his books at JosephReidBooks.com
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Excerpt from Departure
Thursday, February 23
More often than you’d think, the troublemakers sit in first class.
Not the upgraders. They’re so thankful for a golden ticket to the promised land, they stay on best behavior in hopes of proving they belong in the club full-time. Most of them are business types who simply want to eat their free meal and finish their work.
No, it’s the ones who pay full freight. They think that entitles them to be all kinds of demanding. Whether it’s some rich-bitch type complaining about the white-wine selection or a slick lawyer with sterling-silver cuff links who wants to talk on his cell through takeoff—something about the extra-wide seats seems to deprive people of their senses.
Watching stuff like that go down, I always feel for the flight attendants. FAA regs force them to handle everything from nausea to a terrorist takeover, while passengers expect them to be attractive, attentive handservants. For their trouble, they pull down maybe twenty bucks an hour, and that’s only for “flight time,” door-close to door-open.
Despite my sympathy, though, I keep my mouth shut. An air marshal’s job is to blend in, not stick out. And while the crazy woman who’d exposed my identity and almost killed me a few months back had ended my run as a rank-and-file air marshal, it was hard to turn the training off. Even in my new, tongue-twisting role as Tactical Law Enforcement Liaison and Principal Investigator, I tried to keep a low profile.
That morning’s flight was an exception.
We were a predawn departure from DFW, the plane only about half-full. I felt exhausted, but not from the early hour. The past four days with my godkids in Fort Worth had been fun. Thanks to an unexpected heat wave, I’d spent a bunch of time horsing around in the pool, flipping them over my head, and launching them into the air to have them splash down a moment later. All that action had left my muscles slightly sore, but otherwise my time with them had been invigorating. Seeing five-year-old Rachael assemble some master-level LEGOs, watching nine-year-old Michael hop the curb on his bike . . . it made me realize how fast they were growing up.
What had left me drained was my time with their mom, Shirley. Not because she wasn’t nice—exactly the opposite. She was always far more welcoming and trusting than I deserved. She’d opened her home to me years ago; now, she wanted nothing more than to mother me about the dating scene, my new career, my life in Los Angeles. Truth be told, I didn’t even mind any of that. If we could have limited our conversation to what was going on in my life, I’d have gladly allowed Shirley to pry into my privacy all she wanted.
No, the past was the problem. And how diligently I needed to avoid discussing it with her. The quiet times, after the kids went to bed each night, were the worst. Shirley would want to sit on the porch and “visit.” Those talks invariably turned to Clarence, the kids’ father and my old mentor. Her husband.
The dead man between us.
His suicide had left her with a ton of unresolved questions. But while I understood her desire to plow over it, to process things, I had to tread carefully. Clarence had killed himself at work, and I’d been the one who’d found his body. There were . . . details Shirley didn’t know that would only make things worse if she did. They turned every conversation into a minefield—every silent smile she gave me, each invitation to go on with what I was saying, would cause my heart to catch in my throat as I hoped that damned mother’s intuition of hers hadn’t caught on to something. Praying I hadn’t let something slip.
It was exhausting.
So, I was looking forward to being home. I hadn’t surfed in a week, and while I needed to check in at the office when I arrived, my calculations said I could be on my board before lunch if things broke right.
Because this had been a personal trip, I’d booked my own seats and decided to splurge for some extra legroom in first class. When I saw what we were flying, I knew I’d picked the right day to upgrade. Instead of the 737 you’d usually draw for a short-haul route, we somehow ended up with one of the brand-new 787-9 Dreamliners they normally save for international flights.
The Dreamliner is a double-aisle, wide-body plane—it’s so big, it can load passengers through three doors simultaneously if the airport gate is equipped with a multipronged jetbridge (which ours wasn’t). In coach, they use a 3-3-3 configuration, but up front, there’s just one angled seat on either side of each aisle. I drew 3A, the third window on the left.
Although I’d heard good things, I hadn’t flown on a Dreamliner, so I spent the first few minutes after boarding playing with the fold-down seat and examining all the little storage compartments. Even better, the cabin was equipped with the new electronically dimmable windows I’d read about but hadn’t seen in action yet.
For the technological marvel that is a jumbo jet—a million-pound slab of steel that can fly—the plastic sheets they use as window shades always struck me as a cheap and tacky solution. Those things seem like they might rip at any moment; half of them become twisted in their tracks and get stuck. They don’t even block out all the light—the plastic is translucent, especially when the sun shines directly on them. The Dreamliner’s designers, though, had taken window shades to a whole new level. Its windows contain a special panel filled with a chemical gel that changes color when exposed to electricity. The more voltage, the darker the gel becomes, all the way to an opaque black. A button below the window lets passengers dim or brighten their own windows, or the flight attendant can control all of them at once from a switch in the galley.
I’m a tinkerer and an inventor in my spare time, so toying with the window gave me a few ideas. I pulled out my pad and mechanical pencil from my carry-on to make some notes. As I did, habit took over, and I found myself scanning the boarding passengers in my peripheral vision. Lots of families with young kids—enough that I figured it must be a school break or something. Other than a couple of muscle-bound guys headed back into coach, I didn’t see anyone I’d classify as a potential threat.
The guy across the aisle from me, though, seemed like he was going to be a handful for Amelia, the flight attendant working up front.
He boarded late, carrying the jacket to his navy, chalk-stripe suit over his arm. Tall and broad shouldered with massive hands, he might have been an athlete once. Now, though, his body had atrophied to a thick, doughy frame with a belly roll protruding over his belt. Although the contrast collar of his shirt was unbuttoned, sweat had moistened his forehead and created two dark stains in the pale-blue cloth under his armpits.
Huffing and puffing, the man’s first action upon reaching his seat was to check all the nearby overheads for a home for his rollaboard. Although this held up the line behind him, he didn’t seem to care in the slightest.
After stowing the bag, he stomped back to row 3 and collapsed into his seat.
Once the backlog of passengers dispersed, Amelia worked her way over. “Can I take that for you, Mr. Abbott?”
The man didn’t hand her the jacket so much as he allowed her to remove it from his lap. His only verbal response was, “Jack and Coke.”
If Amelia felt offended, it didn’t show. She simply swept a lock of her hair back behind her ear and carried the jacket forward, hanging it in the front closet before disappearing into the galley and returning with his drink.
Abbott took an immediate swig, his eyes locked on Amelia.
From the rosy tint of his cheeks, I wondered if Abbott had been held up finishing a round at the terminal bar. Either way, he made short work of the brown liquid; soon the glass contained nothing but rattling cubes.
After Amelia retrieved Abbott’s empty glass to prepare for pushback, he reclined and closed his eyes. I figured he’d sleep—a lot of nervous flyers suck down booze to relax themselves into passing out. But when the chime sounded to indicate we’d cleared ten thousand feet, Abbott was awake again. And fidgeting.
Most people requested coffee during the first drink service. I’ve got a medical condition that keeps me from having caffeine, so I got water. Despite the predawn hour, Abbott stuck with Jack and Coke, belting a second while Amelia prepped food in the galley, then swigging a third with his meal.
He and I both got the southwestern omelet. It was spicy—they’d mixed in jalapeño or something—but I was pretty sure that wasn’t what caused the pink to spread from Abbott’s cheeks to the rest of his face.
When Amelia came to clear Abbott’s tray, he leered up at her and planted his right palm firmly on the side of her hip. Amelia’s immediate reaction was to step back across the aisle toward me. Clever move: it made her too far to reach, and Abbott’s arm dropped to his side. But as she turned up the aisle, Abbott wound up his arm and spanked her, hard.
Nearly jumping from the impact, Amelia dashed up front, darted through the curtain to the galley, and yanked it closed behind her.
I’d seen enough.
I balled my right hand into a fist and glared across the aisle. I’m not the biggest guy in the world, but I’m not exactly small. Normally between that, my shaved head, and the tattoos running up and down my arms, a good, stern look will put someone in their place.
“Mind your own business,” he said and went back to his drink. Two more gulps, and it disappeared like the others.
Left with nothing but ice, Abbott began fidgeting again. He tugged at his cuffs, scratched his goatee, wiped his brow. He swirled and rattled the cubes around inside the glass, then loudly slurped up the few remaining drops. Finally, he unclipped his seat belt and rose to his feet. I watched carefully as he went forward, but a moment after he ducked through the curtain, the forward lavatory light switched from green to red, and I heard the door close and lock with an audible clack.
When he didn’t reemerge quickly, I turned back to my sketch pad.
Eventually, I noticed the lavatory sign switch color again in my peripheral vision. When Abbott didn’t reappear at our row within a few seconds, I glanced up.
The curtain separating the cabin from the galley billowed slightly.
I tucked my pad and pencil into the seat-back pocket and stood. Knowing how the aircraft floor can transmit vibrations, I stepped lightly on my way forward, up on the balls of my feet. Quick glances to either side showed that none of the other passengers were paying any attention. A decent number had reclined and fallen asleep.
Not wanting to change that, I stepped to the bulkhead and ducked through the curtain in one motion.
Amelia stood at the opposite end of the galley, backed against the fuselage. Her eyes were wide, her hand drawn to her mouth. Abbott stood between us, blocking the passage and nearly eclipsing her. He hadn’t touched her yet, but his left hand was reaching in her direction.
“Hey. Buddy.” I tried to keep the tone friendly. “You don’t want to do that.”
“Fuck off.” Abbott rocked forward on his feet, leaning closer to her.
“I’m serious—come back to your seat. She’ll get you some coffee, you can sober up.”
He glanced back over his shoulder. “Go fuck yourself.”
“Don’t make me—”
Before I could finish, Abbott whipped around, leading with the back of his left hand in a clumsy-but-dangerous kind of karate chop.
I leaned back to dodge the swing. As Abbott turned, though, I got a glimpse at what had caused Amelia’s distress: his pants were unzipped, his genitals protruding prominently from the open fly.
Abbott’s missed swing nearly cost him his balance. With all his weight up on one foot, he teetered, and for a moment I thought he might fall.
But somehow Abbott steadied himself, and a new wave of rage consumed him. He gritted his teeth, nostrils flared. A low noise sounded in his throat. He seized a glass carafe off the shelf to his right and smashed its bottom against the metal edge of the counter.
Then he turned to me.
Although he was drunk and clumsy, Abbott’s eyes had a wild look. The broken glass had formed several distinct points with razor-sharp edges between them.
I immediately thought about the Sig Sauer P229 concealed in my waistband but decided the quarters were too cramped. With Amelia standing directly behind Abbott, even if I got off a solid shot, the bullet stood a decent chance of passing through him and hitting her.
He took a step toward me, brandishing the jagged carafe.
As I retreated a step, I nearly tripped over something. My eyes darted to the floor, and I spotted one of those heavy-duty plastic restaurant racks for drinking glasses, standing on end.
Amelia must have set it there while preparing for service.
I scooped the rack up with my left hand, slipping my fingers through the handle hole on one side while bracing the rack against my forearm as a kind of shield.
Abbott jabbed the carafe at me once, then twice.
The second time, I made sure the rack hit the edge of the carafe—I needed to know if it would hold up. Thankfully, the glass scraped the plastic but didn’t slice through.
As if realizing that might embolden me, Abbott passed the carafe from one hand to the other, turning it in his grip so it pointed downward. Then, raising it over his head, he charged.
In two quick steps, Abbott managed to gather almost all his mass behind the blow. Even though I braced myself and blocked the carafe with the rack, the force drove me down to one knee.
Thinking he had me, Abbott began smashing the bottle down against the plastic. Shards of glass rained down on me with each impact, and I had to look away to protect my eyes.
That was when I spotted it.
Amelia had been loading dirty trays into one of the rolling carts tucked beneath the galley shelves.
The cart door was still open.
I jabbed my free hand inside and fumbled around until I felt something cold and metallic on one of the trays.
A fork. I’ve used forks as weapons before.
Clutching it tightly, I jabbed the tines into the back of Abbott’s knee as hard as I could.
He simultaneously howled and crumpled on that side.
I sprang to my feet and backhanded the rack against his wrist, dislodging the carafe. My eyes followed it to the floor, where it bounced and rolled out of reach.
Before I could take another breath, a hollow, metallic gonging erupted to my side. Turning, I found Amelia standing over Abbott’s head, clutching one of the airplane’s stainless-steel coffeepots.
Although dazed, Abbott shook off the impact and tried to turn toward her.
Amelia raised the pot with both hands and brought it down again on the crown of Abbott’s head. This time, he slumped to the floor, unconscious.
“Nice shot,” I said.
Visibly trembling, she raised the pot so that it dangled from one finger. The dent in its side was unmistakable. “They’ll probably fire me for that,” she said. Then her mouth turned up in a surprised smile. “But I think it might’ve been worth it.”
I snatched the pot off her finger. Cradling it in my left arm, I wiped the handle with the tail of my untucked T-shirt and then gripped it several times with my own hand.
“There,” I said. “Nothing for you to get in trouble for.”
Abbott woke during our descent.
While he was out, I’d bound his hands behind him with a couple of the zip ties I kept in my carry-on. Now, lying on his side along the galley floor, he struggled against the thick plastic.
“Don’t bother,” I said. “You’ll never bust out of those.”
Abbott looked up to find me sitting next to Amelia in the crew jump seats. I had the Sig pointed at his face.
“You’ll pay for this,” he growled.
“Actually, I’m guessing you will. Assaulting a flight attendant can get you up to a $250,000 fine.”
He did a double take.
“That’s right,” I said, nodding. “Plus jail time. Assault with a deadly weapon—you’re looking at life in prison, my friend.”
Abbott struggled even harder. “Motherfucker—”
“Hey now.” I unbuckled and stepped over him, redraping the napkin over his crotch. “We’ve got kids on the plane. They don’t need to see your junk.”
As he realized he was still exposed, the color drained from Abbott’s face. “You—you didn’t zip me back up?”
I laughed as I slipped back into the shoulder harness. “Not a chance.”
Handing Abbott over to police at LAX meant waiting until everyone deplaned, then signing a bunch of paperwork as officers hauled him to his feet and dragged him out. Amelia and I provided statements while technicians photographed the galley and gathered up the coffeepot, remnants of the carafe, and my makeshift shield as evidence.
Although we’d landed on time, the whole exercise put me about twenty minutes behind schedule. Still, surfing felt close enough I could almost smell the ocean.
That was, until I saw my boss, Vince Lavorgna, standing with his arms crossed at the top of the jetbridge.
“Of all goddamn days.”
Normally, Lavorgna’s words rattle around his hawkish nose a bit before popping out in his Philadelphia accent. Today, they emerged as a growl, straight from his throat.
“I’m sorry, Vince,” I said as I reached him at the mouth of the metal tunnel. “The guy was drunk and—”
“What, that?” Lavorgna nodded down the ramp. “We’ve got bigger problems. C’mon.”
Although I hadn’t noticed until now, a courtesy cart stood waiting at the edge of the seating area, a blue-shirted TSA agent behind the wheel. Lavorgna stalked over and settled onto the rear seat, his back to the driver. The suspension groaned under the weight of his frame, and the cart leaned precariously, almost comically, to that side.
“What are you waiting for? Let’s go!”
As I tossed my bag onto the front seat and turned to sit next to Lavorgna, the driver gunned the engine. The cart lurched forward with a loud electric hum and nearly pitched me off the back.
“What’s the big hurry?” I asked, grabbing the armrest and wedging myself down into the seat. Lavorgna had the shoulders of a professional linebacker, which didn’t leave much room on the cushioned bench.
“Radio call just came through. Some guy’s gone missing at SFO. Loretta found you a ride—we’ve got a plane holding in Terminal 7 to get you up there ASAP.”
Loretta Alcott booked all the flights for marshals working out of Los Angeles.
Terminal 7 was three buildings away, but given how our cart was whizzing down the hall, honking to clear the way, we’d be there in moments. “Who’s the guy? Some VIP?”
“Must be,” Lavorgna said. “Every agency on the West Coast is being called in.”
A glance over my shoulder showed we were rapidly approaching the mouth of Terminal 4. The cart slid to the left, then pulled a hard right to make the swing into the passage connecting the terminals. Thankfully, the TSA driver threw an arm over my bag so it didn’t fly off.
“What do we know about the guy? Anything?”
A grim smile twisted up beneath Lavorgna’s black beard. “At this point, you have the sum total of all the intelligence I’ve been given.”
As we passed the entrance to Terminal 6, the driver called into a walkie-talkie. When we reached Terminal 7 seconds later, TSA had cleared enough of a path that the cart slowed but didn’t stop on its way through the security checkpoint.
“Anything else, sir?” I’d inhabited my new investigative position for six months, but it still felt like we were making things up as we went along.
“This is bound to be high profile, so keep your head down. Don’t feel like you need to lead the charge.” Lavorgna’s eyes bored into me.
I looked back over my shoulder, as if checking the route ahead of us.
“And keep me posted how it’s going,” he added.
The cart jerked to a sudden stop at Gate 84. Lavorgna hadn’t been lying about holding a plane—no one remained waiting to board, and the gate agent manning the jetbridge door looked relieved to see us.
I hopped off and reached for my duffel.
As I did, Lavorgna seized my wrist in one of his giant mitts. “Seth, be careful.”
Of all the times Lavorgna’s given me advice, this was the one when I really should have listened.