Monday 20 December 19:30UTC
Max Swanson sweated in the back of the Uber and read the electronic boarding card on his phone for the fifty-fourth time. Flight BA247 from London Heathrow to São Paulo, scheduled departure 21:10, gate to be announced, last bag drop 20:10, one hour before departure. Snow fell lightly, flakes melting and sliding down the windscreen before the intermittent wiper blades swept them away. They edged forward in the solid traffic.
The driver didn’t seem to have much sense of urgency.
“How long till we get to terminal 5?”
“GPS says within half an hour, guv. Can’t do nothin’ about it. Weather and traffic. Everybody travelling for Christmas. If you ask me, you’re doin’ the right thing gettin’ out tonight. It’s only gonna get worse.”
The driver caught sight of Max’s unsmiling glare in the rear view mirror and cut his homily short.
All his life, Max had been late for everything. He never could judge how long it would take him to get somewhere, or what time he should start preparations so he could set out on time. Always in a mad dash, blood pressure elevated, perspiring, acid stomach, mounting headache.
The traffic looked to be easing a little - perhaps they would make it - then the brake lights glowed ahead and they were at a standstill again. Still the snowflakes slid and melted. They were alongside a row of hotels that served the airport. Figures hurried from buses and taxis, through revolving doors into brightly-lit lobbies. He glimpsed the Holiday Inn’s restaurant bar - how he envied the people he could see in there, relaxing, sipping, eating and chatting, no rush, all the time in the world. How did they do it?
The car moved again. Max was suddenly face to face with a bearded, grizzled man, maybe around sixty, standing on the pavement, a black duffel hood framing straggled curls, like a cowl. As the man’s unblinking eyes bored into his, Max saw that he wore a sandwich board, with the capitalised legend, BE SURE YOUR SIN WILL FIND YOU OUT. -Numbers 32:23
Max sat back and snapped his gaze straight ahead. The experience had done nothing to slow his racing pulse. It was as though the man knew. But how could he? The Uber could have taken any of a dozen different routes to Heathrow. It was coincidence, that’s all it was. Just coincidence.
Monday 20 December 20:00UTC
One hand on his wheeled suitcase and the other dragging his carry-on, Max legged it into the cavernous, single-span check in area, all plate class and white-painted cross members. There was one single check-in line for all British Airways flights. No way would he make it in time. Wait - there was someone - uniformed staff - ushering people forward. “Anyone else for São Paulo?” the woman called, holding the flight number aloft on a printed card.
Max began to relax a little as he found himself in a much shorter queue, only half a dozen people ahead of him, all for his flight. Surely they would not deny them boarding now, after opening a special desk for them, even if it got to a few minutes after the 1-hour deadline. For the first time that evening, Max’s vitals began to return to normal.
The main queue looked endless, still growing as more passengers joined. Where were they all going? At the line of desks, those who had completed check-in headed for security and air side, making their plans for duty free, coffees, sandwiches, beers, a quick browse in the mobile phone store…. So many people, so many permutations. Without knowing all their disparate intentions, it was chaos. Perhaps it would all make coherent sense to an all-seeing entity - to a LaPlace’s Demon, each scurrying individual a perfectly-placed component in the harmonious machine of the universe - but that was the last thing Max Swanson wanted right now. The anonymity of disorder was his solace. For a moment, in his mind’s eye, he glimpsed the sandwich board man, and his own guilt surged back, paralysing him. He pushed the recollection away as the queue moved forward.
Monday 20 December 20:30UTC
Becalmed, Max sat at the departure gate, pulp boarding card in hand, waiting for his row number to be called. They were boarding first and business class, together with economy passengers in the rearmost rows. When would airlines learn, he wondered, that the fastest way to board an aircraft was window seats first, never mind row number? It was a proven fact, verified by experiment.
“Good evening, sir. May I see your boarding card, please?”
Max had not noticed the newcomer, tall and bow-tied, incongruous amid the sea of tired passengers and carry-on bags. “Excuse me? Is something wrong?”
For answer, the man held out his open hand. Max found he could not stop himself placing his boarding card on the smooth, ivory palm.
“Nothing is wrong, sir. I would like you to follow me, please.”
Once more, for a fraction of a second, Max thought he saw the sandwich board man, in the crowd over the speaker’s shoulder. The suspect turned, and was a complete stranger.
Max swallowed and wondered if he looked as pale as he felt. In desperate need of something to drink, he feared he had lost the power of speech. Had he been discovered? Just a few moments from boarding his flight, to a country with no extradition. Yet, this man did not look like a police officer or a security official. Max mustered every ounce of self-control and looked his interlocutor in the eye. “What do you mean, come with you? I am about to board my flight, which leaves in just over half an hour. Why should I need to go anywhere with you?”
The other’s expression did not vary. “Sir, you really should come with me. It is in your interest, sir.”
Max thought he was beginning to understand. He had been upgraded before, on a couple of occasions, once into first class, when flights had been overbooked and they had sought out smartly dressed, single travellers. He nodded. The man’s expression softened into something that was almost a thin smile, then he turned and began to move through the crowd. Max did his best to keep up - the mass of bodies impeded him more than it did his guide.
“Hey, wait!” Max called out. “Why are we leaving the gate area? Wait, please can I have my boarding card back? You need to find someone else to upgrade, please. I just want to get aboard my flight.”
The shoulders ahead continued to recede. At least, Max thought, there’s no danger of losing him. The guy must be six foot three or more.
The crowd thinned out and Max followed the suited man through a recess that he would never have noticed otherwise, into a wide, featureless corridor. Floor, walls and ceiling were the same nondescript off-white; it was hard to know where one surface ended and another began. Fluorescent lighting came from all around. There was a row of seats. The man motioned to Max to sit.
“What’s going on?” Max demanded, remaining on his feet.
A lady, of whose presence Max had not been conscious, spoke up from a few seats away. “Do as he says, dear. I tried arguing too.”
Max sat. The man walked away.
“Are you getting an upgrade?” inquired Max.
The woman, forty-ish, blonde with a helmet perm, in an overstated dark fur coat with white edging, appeared nonplussed. Before Max could press the question further, the suited man was back. He held out two boarding cards. “Madam. Sir. Please be at gate M13 in time for boarding.”
Max studied the new card. He had not seen the airline logo before. First class. Flight number PS3738, destination blank, gate M13, boarding time blank. “There’s no destination,” he said.
“Your destination is unchanged, sir,” replied the suited man.
Puzzled, Max read the boarding card again. When he looked up, the suited man was gone. The fur coated lady was walking away down the lighted corridor. Max followed her, wondering where her original destination had been.
Abruptly, Max emerged back into the concourse. He glanced back; he could not see the opening he had come through. There was just a row of shops and the doorway to the washrooms. Ah well, he thought, lots of airports were like that. Doorways that were not obvious from one side, to stop people going through the wrong way.
Monday 20 December 21:00UTC
Still thirsty, Max gravitated toward the bar. It was quiet. He guessed most of the day’s flights had already left. Because of its location, with residential areas on all sides, Heathrow could not operate twenty-four hours and had, Max knew, no scheduled departures or arrivals between ten pm and six am. That meant flight PS3738 must be leaving soon. Strange, it wasn’t showing on the TV monitors. They’d probably call the flight and gate number on the tannoy.
Conscious that he might not have much time, Max ordered a pint of IPA and a large whisky. A moment later, he was aware of the fur-coated lady, seated at a round table. She was looking directly toward him. The table had several empty seats. Picking up his drinks, Max headed across.
“Hi, mind if I join you?” he asked. She inclined her head slightly, toward an empty chair. Max sat. “Cheers,” he said. They clinked glasses. She drained hers in a single swallow. Max tried not to look surprised. Instead, he picked up his whisky, tossed it back, and said, “Another?”
She nodded. “Thanks. Gordons and tonic. You look like you can’t wait to leave.”
Max waved and a waiter came across to take their order. When he had gone, he answered his companion’s implied question. “Too right. I’m ready to get away. Shame about the delay. I mean, I’m pleased about the upgrade but I hadn’t realised it would be a different flight. I’ve never had that before when I’ve been upgraded.”
“Do you travel a lot, then?”
Max nodded. “Yes, I used to fly several times a month, Middle East, Africa, Americas, Europe. I sold reprographics machinery on large-scale contracts. The personal touch was good for business.”
The waiter was back. Max tipped him and took a sip of his pint, wiping the condensation from his fingers on his trouser leg.
“I’ve not travelled as much as you have. Dolores, by the way. Dolores Shaw.” She held out her hand.
“Max Swanson,” Max replied, shaking her hand gently.
“I couldn’t afford to travel much. Bargain flights to Spain in the summer; did Florida once. It’s ironic; now that I have a little money, I just need to get out.” She stared into space for a moment, then took a long draw on her gin.
“Something go wrong?” Max prompted.
Dolores nodded, still not making eye contact. “I’m afraid I made it go wrong. I won the lottery. Eight hundred thousand. With a ticket that wasn’t mine.” She finished the rest of the gin and pushed her glass forward. The waiter appeared; she nodded and he went to get her a refill.
She continued. “My uncle. Well, he wasn’t really an uncle. He was a close friend of my late father. After my parents passed away, I would visit him because I knew he was lonely. He used to play chess with my father twice a week and I don’t think there was much else in his life, not after his wife died. Anyways, he used to play the lottery, same numbers every week, and I’d get his ticket for him. I’d get one for myself too - random numbers, different every time - and one week, we both won. My numbers brought in a tenner. His came up eighty thousand times as much. I lied to him. He never used to check the numbers himself. Told him he’d won ten pounds; I took the money that ought to have been his.”
Max stayed silent. It felt as though there was more. Dolores went on.
“The following week, he died. I wanted to convince myself I would have told him, but who am I trying to kid? It was just selfish greed.”
Max tried to look kind and understanding. “I think you would have told him. And besides, if he’d only a week left, what use would the money have been to him?”
Dolores shook her head. “I don’t think I was going to tell him. That’s the thing. I know my own guilt. If he’d lived another twenty years, I wouldn’t have told him. By dying, he’s made it easier for me. And that just rubs it in more.”
There was a heavy silence. As he contemplated Dolores’ story, it was some minutes before Max became aware that the bar - and, as far as he could tell, the airport concourse around them - was empty, apart from Dolores, himself, the bar waiter and the man who had just entered, blinking around, clutching a boarding card with the same logo as theirs.
Monday 20 December 22:00UTC
Max drained the last of his pint and waved the waiter over, with the bonhomie of the moderately inebriated. “Hey, fella, is this gaff still open? Get the man what he wants, on my tab. Same for the lady.”
Quiet and professional, the waiter complied, also bringing Max a fresh pint and whisky chaser. While waiting for the drinks to arrive, they had learned, through Dolores’ friendly but direct questioning, that the newcomer was Leroy Crowley, of Jamaican and British descent. His grandfather had arrived in London aboard MV Windrush in 1948.
“Thank you very much, my friends,” said Leroy as he raised his glass. “Say, the dude in the suit, looks like he has us all on the same flight. I didn’t know there’d be any more flights tonight. I was sure I’d missed mine in that darned snow, but he said he’d make everything work out.”
“Glad you made it, Leroy.” Max raised his pint and lowered the level by several inches. “You know, Dolores was telling me her story just before you came. Now I’ll tell you mine, if you’d like to hear it.”
There were no objections. “So this is why I’m leaving the old country,” began Max. He’d been a technology whiz since his teens, when the first personal computers came on the scene. At university, he’d picked up more than a degree. He’d rubbed shoulders with some seriously geeky types, one of whom had taught him the trick that had, indirectly, brought him to the airport this evening. Identity theft was easier than most people imagined. Everyone’s online life had a permeable back door. It was just a matter of finding the hole. Max had not intended to steal his victim’s identity as such. Just to borrow it for a while. If his plan had clicked, his colleague would never have known. Max had just needed a few hours to complete the deal, place the money back in Bryn’s account and cover the digital footprints of its ever having been gone. Thing was, the scheme hadn’t worked out. Bryn Gross happened to check his bank app and discovered all his savings gone, and a massive overdraft. Perhaps he thought his wife had done something stupid. Maybe there was something else he’d been up to his eyes in, and he thought it had come home to roost. Whatever way, he went straight off the balcony. Twenty-seventh floor - one for each year of his life. Max had braved the funeral, the two young children’s tears as holy water to Count Dracula.
They all drank in silence, reflecting on Max’s tale. While he had been speaking, the last few moving figures had vanished. The three of them sat alone in the vast building’s only island of light.
Leroy was first to speak. “I guess that just leaves my story. My crime was I waited too long. My ex-wife died last year and custody of our little boy passed to me. Social services looked me over; I convinced them I could stay dry. At first, I did. Then, I found out my ex had left everything in escrow, in Bobby’s name. The only way his inheritance could pass to me would be if he died a natural death. When he got sick, I kept putting off taking him to A and E, thinking he was getting a little better. Meningitis, they said, when I finally got him there, and there was nothing they could do. Three years old. I’m going to carry that guilt for the rest of my days, no matter how far I run.”
A quiet cough. “Madam, gentlemen. It is time. Please come this way.” The suited man bowed from the neck as they all stood.
They followed him through the dark, deserted airport, down a flight of stairs, through several corridors, until they came to gate M13. The aircraft on the ramp was an old Constellation. Paean Airways - Max had never heard of them.
“Sir, what about my return reservation?” Dolores asked.
“This arrangement is strictly one-way, madam,” replied the suited man.
They appeared to be the only passengers. Their guide saw them safely aboard and took his leave.
Tuesday 21 December 00:00UTC
Trees. Moonlit, snow-covered hills and bare trees. They were too low. Max gripped the arm rest, the deep thrum of the piston engines resonating all the way to his teeth.
Ding-dong. Tannoy message. It was the voice of the suited man. “To mark this shortest day, an announcement from Psalm 37. The transgressors shall be destroyed together. The future of the wicked shall be cut off.”
Still losing height, the Constellation droned on, with finality, into the valley.