He arrives at Kai Tek International late, numb with panic. The men in Kuala Lumpur are waiting for him and won’t tolerate more tardiness. The flight’s on Cathay. He runs, his shoes slipping on the linoleum. His suit is sweaty, but does not seem to alarm the clerk at the ticket counter. She hails three uniformed boys, who rush him to the gate in an electric cart, siren wailing. He boards. The door shuts behind him. He gets a middle seat.
The red-faced man by the window curses, surveying the Asian Wall Street Journal. The blond woman in the aisle-seat reads a romance. The plane taxis but does not take off; it belly flops into the South China Sea. Water floods the cabin. Newsprint blurs. He escapes through a gash in the roof, worrying some about sharks, but more about the men in Kuala Lumpur who are waiting for him. Everyone survives. He’s got to get another flight.
He’ll go straight to the meeting, no time to check in at the hotel.
He arrives back at the Kai Tek ticket counter, soaked. The clerk remains unalarmed. She finds him a flight on Air China. Again, uniformed boys ferry him to the gate; again, he’s last on board, and stuck with the middle seat. This time the plane ascends, but the cabin flies apart midair. He swims back to Kai Tek, hugging a piece of fuselage. Five others live.
Now, he’s really late.
The clerk books him onto Geruda. Siren wails; door shuts. The blonde woman in the aisle seat snores, her romance lying open on her lap. She wakes once, says, “Jesus,” then falls back to sleep. The plane hits a volcano in the Philippines. Four others live.
The men in Kuala Lumpur are probably checking their watches, drumming their fingers on the boardroom table.
At Kai Tek, the clerk looks miffed. Uniformed boys. Siren. Singapore Air. The man reading the Journal gives him a name-card that says, “Headhunter: B2B Web Sites.” He pockets it, then turns on the in-seat entertainment center. There are no video games involving crashes, only colorful things that eat each other and grin. The pilot comes over the loudspeaker and says, “Life’s too hot,” then nosedives into the Pacific. Three others make it back to Kai Tek.
The meeting will soon start without him.
On Thai Air, the engine explodes over the King’s Palace in Bangkok, frightening the Royal Elephants. Two others live.
In Kuala Lumpur, the meeting’s begun without him.
Air India meets a typhoon; the Headhunter spins into the mist. One other survives.
Malaysia Air makes it to Kuala Lumpur, but, while landing, the wing catches a gale. The plane flips and skids to the gate, belly-up. Sirens wail. The passengers dangle, inverted, seat belts giving out, one by one. When the blonde woman’s belt snaps, she cries, “Lord!”
At the Kuala Lumpur hotel, a message from the men advises him to resign. The concierge books him back to Kai Tek.
When the Dragon Air flight is aloft, the stewardess approaches with the drinks. Her green uniform resembles the South China Sea when calm. He looks out, sees fog, and shuts his eyes. “Poor Joe,” she says, touching his shoulder gently. “All alone?”
“Please,” he says, “Bloody Mary.”