The passengers and crew on Sentient Air Flight 99:
Anarch—Columbia University professor
Autarch—chairman of Globalcorp
Cynic—Sentient Air captain
Deontologic—safety and security specialist
Empiric—CalTech astrophysics researcher
Glamor—L. A. celebrity model
Hedon—scion of a billionaire
Libertine—post post-modern artist
Thirty-two minutes, twenty-seven seconds, and twenty-nine thousand feet of altitude into Sentient Air’s flight from New York to Paris, Glamor’s head descended to her breast and her tongue emerged from her mouth like a lethargic snake from its lair.
“That type can’t hold their liquor,” said Autarch, a dark-haired virile-looking man in a Savile Row suit.
“Some of us don’t care about holding our liquor, or any of your conventions,” retorted Libertine, a shorthaired androgynous person in a black pullover and gold pantaloons.
“Drinking to a stupor among strangers?” said Autarch, shaking his head. Even in a state of repose, this man exuded vigor, looking as if he could step off the plane and run a marathon.
Empiric, a longhaired Asian woman in a chocolate pantsuit and a caramel leather jacket, said, “She only had one drink in the lounge, and she was steady enough when we boarded the plane.”
Beneath a mop of dark hair, Hedon said, “Let her sleep it off. She’ll be fine by the time we get to Paris. It’s not as if she’s flying the plane.”
Empiric said, “I heard her say something had stung her as we were boarding. You don’t suppose she’s had a reaction to a bee sting. Should we examine her?”
“She’s been stung all right,” said a condescending Autarch, “but not by a bee. People like her need direction, to prevent misdirection.”
Stoic, an older man with a salt and pepper goatee, bushy brows, and melancholy eyes said, “I suggest we let her be…with a single E. Let nature take its course. She’s breathing isn’t she?”
With a mischievous grin, the handsome Hedon put his head against Glamor’s breast, frowned, and said, “I don’t think she is.”
“You don’t think she’s what?” Stoic said.
“Breathing,” said a suddenly nervous Hedon.
“Then, we’d better inform the pilot,” Stoic said. “Someone call the flight attendant.”
His hand on Glamor’s breast, Hedon said, “If she’s ill, or dead, what do you suggest we do?”
Empiric said, “Those are different questions. If she’s ill, we ought to act based on what we observe. If she’s dead, there’s no need for urgency.”
The woman who went for the flight attendant, Anarch by name, had stylishly unkempt hair, obsidian eyes, and a nose like a dagger. In less than a minute, she returned with a lovely young woman with china doll skin.
By then, Stoic was examining Glamor, a beautiful dark-skinned woman wearing a white dress and a striking emerald and white necklace. Glamor’s makeup and hair were impeccable. Even in death, if indeed she was dead, the woman looked lovely.
“Does anyone have medical training?” Stoic asked the group.
When no one answered, Stoic said to the attendant, “Tell the pilot we have a dead woman on our hands.”
“I hope this doesn’t delay us,” Autarch remarked. “I have a board meeting in Paris, and they can’t do without me. What do we know about this woman?”
Libertine said, “She a famous model, for one thing. I recognized her in the lounge. She told me she’s…was highlighting the Paris show, then going on to Cannes for the festival.”
“A vacuous creature,” Autarch said, dismissively.
“You would say so,” snapped Libertine. “She was an artist of the human form.”
“Form over function,” remarked Empiric.
Libertine said, “That’s one way to put it. Most art concerns itself with form, on the surface at least. That doesn’t mean art lacks substance.”
Empiric said, “That depends on how one defines substance. A lot passes for false substance in art.”
“So, if you can’t measure it, it has no value?” asked Libertine.
“It may have subjective value…you may like it.”
“I’ve heard of this woman,” said Hedon, aiming a finger at Glamor, “and from what I’ve heard she knew how to live big. Too bad I didn’t get to know her.”
The attendant returned, saying, “The Captain said to carry her to the hold in the rear of the plane. It’s cooler back there. She can be examined when we get to Paris.”
“What’s your name, my dear?” Hedon asked the attendant.
“Gnost. Who can help move her?”
“Did the Captain say anything about turning back?” asked Autarch.
“We’re going on to Paris. Captain Cynic said we have an approved flight plan and it would be more trouble going back than going on.”
“Thank God,” Autarch exclaimed.
Empiric, who was removing the caramel-colored boots that matched her jacket, said, “I wonder how she died. She looked perfectly healthy.”
Anarch said, “Could have been anything. Quite often, what we see on the outside looks beautiful, while inside…a mess. Think of a castle occupied by a royal brute, or the cathedral that enslave minds and hearts. Let’s get her to the hold.”
“Afraid to look death in the eye?” said Libertine.
“Not I,” replied Autarch. “My concern is with the material world. I have work to do, and a dead body in this cabin would provoke idle chatter.”
Stoic and Hedon lifted the body and followed Gnost to the rear. While they were gone, Autarch found a fresh bottle of Scotch and poured each a glass, saying, “To an uneventful remainder of the flight.”
Empiric set her glass aside, though everyone else indulged.
“Haven’t I seen your picture somewhere?” said Libertine to Autarch.
The man said, “I’m chairman of Globalcorp. And you,” Autarch said to Hedon, who had rejoined the group with Stoic, “are a billionaire’s wastrel son.”
Hedon made a slight bow and elevated his empty glass, with Autarch obliging.
“So, how did the rest of you manage a seat on this plane?” said Autarch.
“I teach philosophy at Columbia,” said Anarch. “An endowed chair.”
“Nothing like spending other people’s money,” the boyish Hedon chimed in, filling his glass yet again.
Empiric said, “I’m a research scientist at CalTech, the kind that makes the university a lot of money.”
Hedon grinned and said, “Libertine doesn’t have to introduce herself…or is it himself this week? Who hasn’t seen her post post-modern art?”
Autarch said to Libertine, “I’ve see your paintings—not in person, mind you. As I recall, they start at several million. Nothing like heaping opprobrium on the evil market that provides you with a seat on private planes like this.”
“I don’t paint for the market, or Philistines like you,” replied the both pretty and handsome Libertine. “I paint whatever I please and people pay whatever they please.”
“How about you, Stoic?” said Autarch.
“I’m a clergyman.”
“Then, shouldn’t you have sprinkled holy water and mumbled some pieties over that poor girl?”
“My congregation takes a broader view of such things. The long arc of time, the cyclical rhythm of life and death, the divine synonymous with nature.”
Out of nowhere, Gnost spoke up. “You’re a pantheist, and you have it exactly backwards.”
With a sad look, Stoic said, “Why do you say so?”
“The only god you’ll find in this world and in nature is dark and dirty,” said a weary-looking Gnost.
“You must’ve robbed the collection plate to get a seat on this plane,” Anarch said to Stoic.
“We don’t take vows of poverty,” Stoic answered her with a wry grin.
While Stoic was still speaking, Captain Cynic, a trim bearded man of about forty, wearing an open collared white shirt and a blue and white seersucker jacket, joined the group. “Everyone can relax. I’m expecting good weather for the remainder of the flight, and Gnost is ready to serve whatever you desire. Please put this unfortunate incident out of your minds. The authorities in Paris have been notified, and they shouldn’t require more than a few minutes of your time when we land.”
Stoic said, “Death is an integral part of nature. Even the young and beautiful aren’t immune.”
“That calls for another drink,” said Hedon, “for tomorrow we may die.”
“Today isn’t over yet,” Autarch said, “though the law of averages is in our favor.”
“It doesn’t work that way,” said Empiric. “Even though Glamor has died, the odds of another perishing on this flight haven’t changed.”
“You’re a ray of sunshine,” said Hedon.
“I’m not a ray of anything,” replied Empiric. “What we know and can say is a matter of experience and the laws of science, and by the way, science tells us that drinking to excess on long flights increases your odds of dying.”
“I’ll take my chances,” said Hedon. “So far, I’ve held off the snake eyes. Why defer pleasure, when pleasure’s the only thing that’s good in itself? As for pain and discomfort, to be avoided at all costs.”
“What about a trip to the dentist?” Autarch asked.
Hedon said, “I see what you’re saying. Some discomfort might be desirable instrumentally if it can prevent worse things, like having teeth pulled.”
“I’m returning to the front of the plane,” said Cynic. “Let me know if you need anything, or if there’s anything we can do to make you more comfortable…poor girl.”
“He’s cute,” said Libertine, in the captain’s wake, with Autarch saying, “I don’t care if he looks and smells like Quasimodo. His job’s to get us to Paris in one piece and on time.”
Wearing a black Asian dress with large white roses and matching black and white ankle boots, the exotic-looking Gnost served appetizers to the passengers. Autarch was paging through a quarterly report when Libertine said to him, “A summary of how Globalcorp rakes in money on the backs of its workers and customers?”
“At least we come by it honest. Hypocrites like you want it both ways, high minded when it suits you, and as avaricious as a miser when it comes to what you want. I’m comfortable in my own skin. To each according to his abilities. I don’t begrudge any amount of money you can pry from your admirers’ hands.”
Libertine said, “Tyrants are always comfortable in their skin because they never ask themselves the hard questions.”
“I don’t need to ask myself whether I’m a man or a woman.”
“If you’re trying to make me blush, you’re wasting your time,” said Libertine. “Desires ought to be indulged. Hedon and I have similar views on that subject.”
“Are there no brakes on desire?” Stoic asked Libertine.
“Only to protect the indulgence of desires. I mean if you enjoy Scotch”—Libertine glanced in Hedon’s direction, “and if you drink too much too often, you may not be able to enjoy the experience for long. You may call that a brake if you like.”
“So your beliefs and Hedon’s are identical,” Stoic said to her.
Libertine shook her head firmly and said, “Not identical. I have an aesthetic imperative, and others like me have social or political imperatives, that supersede the indulgence of physical and emotional desires. You could consider these imperatives brakes too.”
Stoic said, “It seems to me that you, Libertine, and Autarch are straining at gnats when it comes to what separates you. Autarch just happens to be a practical materialist.”
Anarch said, “That’s just another way of saying Autarch uses his authority to drive people like cattle, and most of the cattle are superficial blockheads like Glamor. That’s why I despise authority and superficiality.”
The captain’s voice boomed out over the passenger cabin speaker, “Let me propose a toast to the haute cuisine and wine of Paris,” prompting everyone to stand, come together, and touch glasses, but when they pulled apart, Autarch said, “Dammit. Who did that?”
“Did what?” said Hedon.
“A prick for a prick,” said Libertine, haughtily.
Autarch sat down, a strange look on his face, a faraway look, as if he saw something no one else could see. He said, “Tell the captain we’re in for stormy weather,” just before he stopped breathing. Gnost, who was collecting plates, noticed first, and when she alerted the others, panic ensued.
Gray eyes like narrow slits in her face, Libertine loosened her green and black silk scarf. She made a move as if to spread the scarf over Autarch’s face, shrugged, and placed it in her lap.
“I said the laws of probability don’t protect us from what happened to Glamor,” Empiric said, “but the probability that two healthy people would die on this flight is close to zero. No more food or drink if you know what’s good for you.”
“Is he really dead?” Anarch asked.
“He’s dead,” said a visibly upset Gnost, darting up the aisle toward the Captain’s cabin.
A minute later, Captain Cynic’s voice said, “This has to be a coincidence. Do what you think best, but I can assure you everyone is safe.”
“What does he mean by safe?” asked Stoic.
“I’ll settle for being alive when we touch down in Paris,” said Hedon. “And I could use a drink.”
Gnost returned to the passengers and said, “Who will carry the body to the back?”
“Do you mean the morgue?” Hedon said. “Before we take him back, we should consider that Autarch said he’d been pricked with something. Glamor said she’d been stung. The food and drink may be the least of our worries.”
Empiric said, “You’re right. What if both Glamor and Autarch were stabbed with a poison pin? That would explain the sting and prick. And that means one of us murdered them.”
Gnost said, “Even though we’re miles above the Earth, the world’s evil can’t be shut out. There’s no escaping it.”
Libertine said, “No, my dear, there is no evil or holiness, just nature grinding away. In this case, human nature.”
“I suggest there’s a motive for what’s happened,” said Empiric. “What did Glamor and Autarch have in common?”
Libertine said, “Those two…nothing.”
Hedon said, “I’ve met people who have nothing in common but lust, and that’s more than enough to bring them together. Perhaps one was jealous of the other, or hated the other for having been rejected. Murder and suicide.”
“That doesn’t sound reasonable to me,” Stoic said.
“Nor do we have a shred of evidence to suggest it,” Empiric chimed in.
“Let’s get him back to the hold,” said Stoic. “Then, we’ll talk to the Captain. If someone’s intent on murder in this confined space, all we can do is take the precautions Empiric suggests. In the end, nature will have its way with us, as it always does.”
Hedon accompanied Stoic to the rear, and after they returned to the passenger cabin, Cynic joined them, along with Gnost. The Captain said, “Let’s face it, one of you is a murderer. We can only hope he…or she is finished killing.”
“Not so fast,” said Empiric. “Someone on this flight has admitted to despising what Glamor and Autarch stood for, superficiality and authority.”
“You mean me,” Anarch said, sweeping hair from her eyes. “It’s true I abhor superficiality and authority, but that doesn’t mean I’d murder…unless I had a compelling reason, and I didn’t know either of them.”
Stoic said, “What the killer did must have a rational explanation.”
“Or a psychological one,” Libertine insisted.
“A psychological explanation, once revealed, is a rational explanation,” said Stoic.”
Empiric said, “How many of us were close enough to Glamor and Autarch to have stabbed them with a pin?”
“Ever the data hound,” said Hedon. “Count me in.”
Cynic said, “I was flying the plane when Glamor died, though I suppose a dart gun explanation could be concocted that makes me a suspect too.”
“I don’t think a dart explanation works,” Empiric said. “The Captain wasn’t in the line of sight when either victim complained of their sting.”
“I wasn’t there either,” Gnost said. “though I have deep knowledge of evil, and can tell you I felt the presence of the Demiurge from the time I boarded the plane.”
Libertine said, “If by evil, you mean disorder, then there’s no place on Earth that’s free of that.”
“Disorder is a weak work for conscious evil,” answered Gnost. “Evil permeates this world, but the evil I felt was strong, eager…and close,” immediately raising her hands above her head and whispering something.
“Are you praying?” Hedon asked Gnost.
“I’m connecting with the anti-cosmic God. I’m tapping into Its wisdom and expelling the filth of the Demiurge.”
Empiric said, “That’s not going to keep us any safer, but if it makes you feel better, go ahead.”
Cynic said, “Evil, disorder, call it what you will, we need to achieve independence, like the gods. That’s the authentic self, to be god-like and to dismiss lesser things.”
Anarch said, “We could stand fewer words and more action.”
“We can make the killer’s job more difficult,” Cynic replied. “I’m ordering all of you to come no closer than five feet from your fellow passengers. If someone has poisoned pins, that might keep us safe until we land. I’ll report what’s happened. Unfortunately, we can all count on a longer delay when we land.”
Empiric said to Cynic, “Why don’t you search everyone?”
“Better yet,” said Libertine, “We should remove our clothes for the duration of the flight.”
Hedon said, “If we do, I won’t be able to stay five feet from Empiric.”
“We needn’t go that far,” Captain Cynic said, “and I have a suspicion that if we did, it would be to the advantage of the killer, who’s considered more than we have.”
Empiric said, “I’d like to know is if any of us has met before this flight.”
“Not to my recollection,” said Hedon. “Though some of my memories are blurry.”
All insisted they had never met their fellow passengers before the flight.
“I have to return to the Captain’s cabin,” said Cynic, “but I want my order obeyed to the letter. If anyone tries to approach another passenger, ring me immediately.”
Libertine shivered, automatically consuming some of her Scotch. Within seconds, she groaned, turned blue, and collapsed to the floor.
“Nobody move,” said Cynic. “This is a mass murder plot, and I’m putting an end to it right now.”
An obviously anxious Empiric said, “In a few more minutes there’ll only be one person left…the murderer.”
Backing away from the group, Gnost said, “Someone poisoned her drink.”
Stoic said, “That’s obvious, meaning the killer isn’t confining himself to poisoned pins, which makes sense as he’d have anticipated an order prohibiting personal contact after the first two murders.”
Anarch said, “We can’t rule out the Captain. Just because he rules this airship and wears a uniform doesn’t mean he’s trustworthy. He was in close proximity to all the passengers, perhaps closer than we know. Any future orders will be established by the group as a whole and enforced by the group. I propose no food, no drink, no contact of any kind for the remainder of the trip, and if anyone violates this rule, the others may attack the violator immediately. Fair warning, I’m a karate double black belt and I’m not above cracking necks.”
“How we revert to type in a crisis,” said Hedon, his pouty lips displaying a trace of mirth.
“As for me,” Stoic said, “I’ve resigned myself to the possibility that I may not survive this flight. We’re trying to out-think someone who’s been scheming for a long time. I agree with Anarch, though I’d prefer to subdue the killer, rather than kill him…or crack his neck.”
“Many a man has lost his life attempting to subdue an alligator,” Cynic said.
“Do you have a gun?” Stoic asked the Captain.
“We’re not permitted to carry firearms.”
Hedon said, “Then, other than flying this plane, you’re worthless.”
“By international law, I have the right to issue orders, and you’re required to obey,” said Cynic.
Anarch said, “On principle, I don’t observe laws with which I disagree, and as a practical matter I’m not obeying someone who’s had three murders on his watch.”
From the corner of the cabin, Gnost said, “Laws and orders aren’t going to restrain this evil, or those who succumb to the Demiurge.”
“Then, what’s your suggestion?” Anarch asked her.
“Only higher powers can subdue the dark spirit that rules this world. It’s a matter of discernment, awareness, words of power.”
“Then by all means pronounce them, dear girl,” Hedon said. “I, for one, won’t stop you.”
“Gnost herself might be the killer,” Empiric said. “If she sees this world as evil, and if she considers us products of this world and servants of this Demiurge, she may be duty bound to act against us.”
“Employing evil to subdue evil is futile,” Gnost responded. “A kingdom fighting against itself cannot stand.”
“I’ll hear you on this some other time,” Cynic said. “We’re flying on autopilot and I have to make sure everything’s in order.”
“I’m exhausted, but I don’t dare go to sleep,” said Empiric.
“Unless you’re the killer,” Hedon said. “Then you may sleep until we land and disperse.”
A yawning Empiric said, “Every possibility should be examined. Are we certain Autarch, Glamor, and Libertine are really dead?”
“As certain as we can be without a doctor,” Stoic answered her. “You’re suggesting one of them is pretending to be dead and is responsible for the other deaths? Or perhaps the killer took a drug that made him or her seem to be dead.”
“I admit it’s a fantastic idea,” Empiric said.
Hedon said, “I haven’t been this sober in years. The pater would be proud of me. How much longer till Paris?”
Anarch said, “A few hours. If we keep our distance as the Captain ordered and abstain from food and drink, we should be safe, unless someone has a gun and comes out blazing.”
Gnost said, “It’s an illusion to think you’re ever safe from the evil that permeates the world.”
“You call it evil, but it’s nothing more than a manifestation of nature,” said Stoic. “What’s happening was bound to happen. It’s our reasoning that falls short of understanding what nature demands.”
“Empiric…Empiric!” said a nervous Hedon.
“She said she was tired,” Gnost said.
“Someone should try to wake her,” suggested Stoic.
Hedon said, “The Captain ordered us…”
“We don’t have to obey, and I certainly won’t if it doesn’t make sense,” Anarch snapped.
“She didn’t have anything to eat or drink,” Gnost remarked.
“And of all people, Empiric would have said something if she’d been stung like Glamor and Autarch,” said Anarch. “We’d better let this farce play out and call the Captain.”
As Gnost scurried forward, Stoic, Anarch, and Hedon moved their chairs even further apart.
No one objected when Cynic examined Empiric. “She’s dead all right,” he said.
“No food, no drink, no pricks, no fun whatsoever,” said Hedon, “So how did she die?”
“I’ve told you, but you won’t listen,” Gnost insisted.
“I don’t believe in evil spirits…or good spirits for that matter,” Stoic said. “There’s a natural explanation, and it behooves us to figure it out if we want to stay alive.”
Anarch said, “Let’s remove her clothes.”
“Yes, let’s,” exclaimed Hedon.
“Just the Captain. The rest keep your distance,” Anarch said.
“Now you trust me?” Cynic asked her.
“I don’t have a choice, do I? For the record, I don’t trust any of you.”
Methodically, the Captain removed every stitch of Empiric’s clothing.
“She looks good to me,” said Hedon.
“Except for this,” Cynic said, removing a flesh colored patch from Empiric’s neck.
Stoic said, “You’re suggesting someone poisoned her with a vertigo patch?”
Cynic said, “Gnost said Empiric hadn’t consumed anything on the plane. Coincidental death is impossible to believe. Even a small puncture wound that delivered a poison would have left a mark. She was breathing the same air as the rest of us. This patch is the only explanation that makes sense.”
“Not the only explanation,” said Gnost.
“The only scientifically plausible explanation,” an annoyed Cynic responded.
“Getting crowded in the hold,” Hedon remarked. “Come to think of it, I’d prefer to spend the rest of the flight with the corpses. Nothing personal, chums. Rap on the door when we land.”
Cynic said, “Help me carry her back and you can keep them company. And you can practice your sparkling wit on a captive audience.”
Not bothering with Empiric’s clothes, Cynic and Hedon carried the corpse to the rear. On the return trip, Cynic stopped in the passenger cabin, saying, “I’m locking myself in the Captain’s cabin. If I’m killed, everyone’s going to die. Gnost, stay well back from these two for the remainder of the flight.”
“Physical distance doesn’t make any difference,” Gnost said.
“Captain, before you go, is there a possibility that someone else is on the plane?” asked Stoic.
Cynic’s eyes widened. “There’s no one else up front, unless you want to include Robbie the robot. The hold in the rear is too small for someone to conceal himself or herself. The lavatories used when we first boarded. Any space large enough for a person inside the bulkhead would require time to get into and out of. One of the five of us has to be the killer. And why not? Human nature’s had a murderous streak from the beginning. The fact that all of you—I’m speaking about the passengers on this flight—are, or were, rich and famous doesn’t remove their biological heritage.”
Anarch said, “Empiric’s killing told us more about the murderer than the others.”
“How so?” Stoic asked her.
“Though the killer had to prepare for Glamor and Autarch with the poisoned pins, and spike Libertine’s drink with poison, the patch required prior knowledge that Empiric needed it for vertigo, and meant the guilty person had access to her things, and time to impregnate all her patches with poison, as the killer wouldn’t have known which one she’d use.”
Stoic said, “You’ve demonstrated what I meant when I said the murderer is better prepared than we are.”
By then, Cynic had departed, leaving Stoic, Anarch, and Gnost in the passenger cabin.
“Are you afraid to die?” Gnost asked the other two.
“I’ve neither eager nor fearful,” Stoic told her. “The important thing is to keep my will in accord with nature. As death is a natural and inevitable event, how can I rationally fear it? However, as I enjoy life, I’m in no hurry to hasten my death either.”
Anarch said, “As for me, I’m not afraid to die so long as I’m doing the things that matter to me, throwing down the Autarchs and religious frauds, living by my rules.”
“I’m not afraid to die either,” Gnost said. “I know things neither of you know, things that will protect me no matter what happens to the fleshy garments I’m wearing.”
Stoic said, “What you’re saying is contrary to reason—the creative fire, pneuma, call it what you will—and it’s contrary to nature, which proceeds as it must.”
Gnost was shaking her head. “As reasoning proceeds from the minds of human beings, and as human beings reside in this world, they must be wary of such thinking. Nay, suspicious of it. Only the proper disposition and forms suffice.”
“Captain here. Hedon wants Gnost to go to the hold and turn up the thermostat outside the door. No need to go inside. His words.”
The attendant looked nervous until Stoic said, “As long as Hedon is in the hold, you’re safer back there than with us. If you see him, come back immediately and tell us.”
Gnost lifted her hands, closed her eyes, smiled, and whispered a few words before walking to the rear of the plane.
Stoic and Anarch remained in the passenger cabin, facing each other, as distant as they could be in that small space. Stoic’s seat was turned toward the aisle way that led in one direction to the Captain’s cabin and to the hold in the other direction, while Anarch was facing the other way.
“You don’t trust me, do you?” asked Stoic.
“I’d be a fool to trust anyone,” replied Anarch.
“Would it surprise you to hear I trust you?”
“You’d be a fool to trust me.”
Stoic said, “Do you think Gnost is the killer? She’s someone who had access to passenger records. She knows none of us share her beliefs. That makes us part of this evil world. She’s someone who had access to Empiric’s patch before we came aboard. She moved among us when we boarded and after we were seated.”
“A kind of revolutionist…like me?” Anarch responded.
“You could say so, though you’re different in most respects.”
“In what way are we alike?”
Stoic hesitated before saying, “Both of you would use any means necessary to bring an enemy down.”
“Or perhaps you are the killer,” said Anarch, “As death is inevitable, and as you’re no longer a young man, you might have decided to do something spectacular before you go.”
“Doing spectacular things for their own sake is antithetical to my beliefs. Only spectacular things that are in accord with the demands of nature are in my repertoire.”
“Wouldn’t your god prevent you from killing?”
“My god isn’t a lawgiver. You see my god when you examine the universe, a waterfall, a flower, those tiny frogs in Central America.”
“What do you think is holding Gnost up?” asked Anarch.
“Look down the aisle and see what’s she’s doing.”
Anarch said, “You won’t mind if I keep an eye on you while I do?”
“By all means. That’s the prudent thing, and prudence is a cardinal virtue.”
Anarch rose from her seat, swept her long hair out of her eyes, and stepped around the corner, returning to her chair in a matter of seconds.
“She’s in a heap next to the hold door.”
“Are you sure it’s Gnost?”
“Unless someone else is wearing that kimono of hers.”
“Did you see Hedon?”
“No, but this makes him our prime suspect, doesn’t it?” Anarch replied. “Calling her to the hold. No one else has been there since he went back. Unless someone is hiding and moving around in the bulkhead, Hedon must be behind these murders.”
“That makes sense. Listen, the three of us are more than a match for him. I suggest we call the Captain and settle this once and for all. We’ll find something to use as weapons…broken glass, forks.”
Anarch said, “What if Gnost is only pretending to be dead?”
“An excellent question. Your suspicious persuasion might keep us alive. As we dare not go back together—in case you’re wrong and one of us has another poisoned pin—would you prefer to check or would you prefer that I go?”
“Then step back so I can pass. We might as well continue to observe the protocols.”
Returning in less than a minute, Stoic said, “Gnost is dead. I didn’t see any signs of violence but she has no pulse and isn’t breathing. The evil she feared has caught up with her.”
“Could you tell how she was killed?”
“No, which leads me to believe the poisoned pin was employed again, though Empiric would have called that sloppy reasoning as I’m lacking evidence.”
“Did you try to contact Hedon?”
“No, and I saw no sign of him. I’m guessing he’s back in the hold, like a spider in its web. I’ll knock on the Captain’s door.”
When Stoic returned with Cynic, Anarch said, “Did you tell him our conclusion and our plan?”
“Briefly. If Hedon’s the murderer—and what other conclusion makes sense, he’s proved himself to be a resourceful fellow. We’ll have to exercise caution when we go after him.”
“We’ll have to devise an elegant lie to get him out of the hold,” Anarch said.
Cynic said, “The three of us will walk back together and talk him out of there.”
“What makes you think we can do that?” asked Anarch.
“Do you have a better idea?”
Anarch shook her hairy head and said, “I have no intention of getting close enough for either of you to work any mischief. Hedon may be the prime suspect but I don’t trust anyone on this plane.”
“Think rationally,” said Stoic. “No one else was in the rear with Gnost except Hedon. Thus, no one else could have killed her. And unless we have more than one killer aboard, Hedon must be the culprit. No matter how crafty and prepared this murderer is he can’t defy the laws of nature.”
“There’s more to this big wide world than your elementary logic,” Anarch said. “I won’t change my mind. I’m keeping my distance from Hedon, and everyone else, until we land.”
“What can I do to convince you?” Stoic asked her.
“Nothing. I won’t take anything on your authority, or Cynic’s authority. Here’s the kitchen knife I brought from the airport lounge, by the way. I’d intended it for an apple, but needs have changed.”
Stoic and Cynic’s eyes met. Wan smiles. Stoic shrugged and said, “Then I suppose we must tell you how it is.”
“You’ve already told me how it is, and I’ve told you what I’m prepared, and not prepared, to do,” Anarch responded.
“Would you like to know exactly what’s going on?” said Stoic.
“Only the killer knows that,” replied Anarch.
“We are the killers,” Stoic said to her.
“By we, you mean Cynic is involved.”
“He certainly is,” said Stoic. “You see, Cynic and I have been lovers for some time, though in secret for reasons that need not be divulged.
“Cynic is dying of cancer. We decided that suicide would be preferable to his dying a painful death and me having to live without him. It occurred to us that there would be no better way to die than to bring this plane down in the ocean near the Shangri-La where we met, a resort on the coast of Ireland, and to preclude any suspicion, it had to be a normal flight in every respect, with passengers and a credible destination.”
“The rest of us as collateral damage,” Anarch bitterly observed.
“If you will. It wasn’t personal. Your deaths are serving a greater end—art, a natural drama. We decided that eliminating all of you before we brought the plane down would prevent any interference and give us time to ourselves before the end.”
“Who had the pins?”
“The pins were my job…except for Gnost,” Stoic said, “and the poison in Libertine’s drink was my work too. As the passengers’ things were stowed on the plane an hour before takeoff, Cynic was responsible for poisoning Empiric’s vertigo patches.”
“Is Hedon dead?”
“Cynic took care of that when he and Hedon conveyed Empiric’s body to the hold. He was already dead when we were radioed that Hedon wanted the thermostat adjusted. You thought Cynic had returned to the Captain’s cabin, but your back was to the aisle and he actually went to the hold, waited for Gnost to adjust the thermostat, and did away with her, then he went forward again. Only I saw him pass because I faced the aisle, and I made sure you were preoccupied with what we were discussing.”
Cynic said to Anarch, “As we’re not far from the pointe du fate, we must insist you choose your poison. Shall Stoic give you a gentle prick, or will you do it yourself?”
“Are there no other choices?” Anarch asked them.
“None,” Cynic said.
“Then I choose…neither,” shouted Anarch, bolting from her seat and charging toward the Captain’s cabin.
The two men shrugged at each other, each removing a pin from their pockets and placing it on the tip of a forefinger.
Following Anarch to the front, they discovered that she’d gone inside the Captain’s cabin and shut the door.
“You shouldn’t have left it open, my dear,” Stoic said to Cynic.
“It doesn’t matter,” Cynic answered him, “as I have the code to the keypad and she doesn’t.”
But when Cynic punched in the code and turned the handle, the door remained locked.
From behind the door, Anarch said, “I have a keypad just like this on my office door. I may not know your code, but I know how to change the code, and now it’s my code.”
“Foolish girl,” Cynic said. “When we run out of fuel, the plane will crash…may kill dozens or hundreds, and only to extend your life by an hour or two. You might as well throw a bomb into a crowded theater.”
Anarch said, “There’s a certain irony in that, don’t you think? You gave me two choices for how to die. Let’s consider a third, an option of my devising. My guess is fighter planes’ll circle us long before we run out of fuel. A big boom!”
Stoic said, “Since you’ve admitted we’re going to die, and as we admit defeat and salute your ingenuity, why not let us have the deaths we desire?”
“Because I delight in sowing chaos.”
“Didn’t I tell you there were too many variables,” Cynic said to Stoic. “Something was bound to go wrong.”
“Then, dearest friend, we must submit to what the Fates have in store for us, and accept it with good cheer.”
“Easy for you to say. For my part, I wish we’d commandeered the plane and gone ourselves. You remember I argued for it. Can we open a bulkhead door and go that way?”
“Certainly not,” Stoic said. “If we can’t perish as we chose, then we must accept the death that’s in store for us.”
“May I intrude on this intriguing conversation?” asked an unfamiliar voice. “My name is Deontologic,…call me Deon. You see, as you’ve violated your flight plan, and as you pose a mortal threat to innocent people, we were obligated to intervene. I’ve heard enough to conclude there’s mischief afoot, so in the interest of doing what’s right and proper, we have hacked your command and control system.
“There’s no sense looking around, as I’m on the ground, in London actually, though I have people with me that can fly your plane as efficiently as you could, Captain Cynic. So sit back and enjoy the rest of your flight. We will be landing the plane shortly.”