Grave Reservations by Cherie Priest
Leda Foley of Foley’s Far-Fetched Flights of Fancy cringed at her phone screen. Grady Merritt’s name flashed like an accusation.
“Mr. Merritt, I was just about to call you regarding your—”
He stopped her right there. “You changed my flight?”
“Yes, sir, I changed your flight. Please let me explain—”
“I was supposed to connect in LAX and be home in time for dinner. I promised my kid! Now you’ve got me routing through…” He trailed off, checking his own phone for the updated flight notification. “Hartsfield? Why am I going to Atlanta?”
“Mr. Merritt, if you die and go to hell in the South, you have to stop in Atlanta first. I’m very sorry, but this was the next best option.”
“Next to what? The original flight isn’t canceled,” he protested, and then the background noise drowned him out. He was hustling through some crowded corridor of Orlando International Airport, scrambling to come home from a convention.
“The LAX flight wasn’t canceled, but it’ll be… it has been… there were… difficulties.”
“This is ridiculous. I know I’m running really late, but I’m almost to the gate. The original gate,” he emphasized, “for my original flight. I think I can still make it. I’m sorry, but I don’t want to go through Atlanta. Maybe they’ll let me change it back.”
“Sir, please—if you want to get home this evening, you have to take the rebooked flight. Please, Mr. Merritt.”
But he continued wheezing into the phone, jogging to a backbeat of someone repeatedly paged to security for a lost item.
Then she felt it: a little “pop” in the back of her head. An option had closed, and now Leda knew it in her bones—he would officially, certainly, absolutely miss that first flight. Maybe the boarding door had shut, maybe the plane had left the gate. Whatever had happened, she’d successfully run out the clock.
She exhaled, kind of relieved and kind of depressed. Maybe this guy would never hire her again, but he’d get home safely before midnight.
“Mr. Merritt, there’s no way you’re going to make the original flight. But that’s okay! You’re safely booked on the next one out, leaving in a couple of hours. I apologize for the unforeseen traffic delay and the inconvenience of rebooking.”
“Delay? Inconvenience? You changed the flight I approved last week. It’s not like you knew I’d get stuck in traffic on the way to the airport.”
“No, sir, I did not know… that.”
If she wanted to be completely honest with him—and she didn’t, so she wouldn’t be—she’d admit that she didn’t know why she’d changed his flight. It’d been a feeling, hard as a fist in her stomach. Leda had tried ignoring those feelings in the past, but doing that had often come around to bite her in the ass. Now she didn’t ignore them anymore.
He sighed. His feet quit squeaking against the floor. He was breathing hard, and he sounded wholly defeated when he asked, “So why’d you do it?”
But she’d already decided not to answer that question. “Did you make it to the original gate?”
“I’m standing right in front of it. Watching the plane pull away. Dammit, now I have to call Molly.”
“I can call her for you, if you’d prefer. Give me her number, and I’ll do it. You can blame it all on me.”
“I do blame this all on you.”
“It’s not my fault you were stuck in traffic, sir.”
“Well, not that part.”
She worked hard to sound upbeat. “Let’s look at the big picture, shall we? You would’ve missed the flight anyway, and you would’ve been rebooked regardless. I assure you, I’ve put you on the first confirmed seat assignment back to the West Coast. I even scored you an upgrade to Comfort Plus!”
He didn’t fight her. Either he didn’t have the energy or he sensed that it’d be useless. He’d lost this round, whatever it was. “Yeah, you’re right. I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have yelled at you.”
Leda was touched. Usually the next step after getting yelled at was getting hung up on, so all things considered, this was going quite well. “Aw, you didn’t really yell. Travel is stressful for everyone, even under the best of circumstances.”
“I mean, you did rebook me before I even knew I needed… to be rebooked. I guess we would’ve had this conversation anyway.”
“That’s the spirit, sir.”
He sighed again, and she tried to feel less terrible. He was really making the best of it, and she appreciated that.
“Oh, hell,” he mumbled, half to Leda and half to the empty gate. “Would you look at that—they’re first in line for takeoff. Those lucky sons of bitches.”
She cleared her throat, and, since he was being such a mensch, she took a chance. “Sir, maybe your luck is about to change.”
“For the better, I hope. I’m not sure I can take any more bad luck today.”
“For the better, yes. Any minute, Mr. Merritt. I apologize again about not contacting you before I made the alterations, but I grabbed the last upgraded seat assignment on flight 3422. More leg room and free booze is lucky, right? I promised you’d be home in Seattle today, and I intend to fulfill that promise. Please believe me when I tell you this: You would have never made it home tonight. Not if you’d caught that flight.”
“What do you mean, I wouldn’t have made it home?”
“I don’t know exactly. It’s just a feeling I had. A very strong feeling.”
“You changed my flight… because you had a feeling.”
She nodded, like he could hear her head rattle over the cell connection. “A very strong feeling, I think I’ve made that clear.”
A muffled thump suggested that he’d dropped himself into a seat to catch his breath. He had ninety minutes before boarding would begin for his next flight. “As long as I’m home tonight, everything will be okay. Even if I have to detour through Atlanta.”
“Atlanta isn’t that bad, sir. You have enough time during your layover for a massage, a drink, even a mani-pedi—if you’re into that kind of thing.”
He was calming down, resigned to his southbound-connecting fate. “Drink, yes. Massage, maybe. The mani-pedis, I’ll leave to my daughter. She’s seventeen, home alone for the first time.”
“She must be a very responsible young woman.”
“Generally. She has a dozen emergency phone numbers, a key to our neighbor’s place, some cash, a credit card, and the dog. This was an act of faith. A leap of faith?”
“Gesture of faith?” Leda suggested.
“Sure, that works.”
“I have no doubt that she’s fine, sir.”
He snorted. “Like you had no doubt that I should skip the LAX connection?”
“Yes, just like that.”
“That makes me feel better. Kind of. I don’t know why.”
“I don’t know why, either. But I appreciate the vote of confidence, and—”
She stopped. She’d heard something, loud and very close to where Grady Merritt was sitting—a hard, fast noise that echoed through the cell phone’s connection. In the background, people started shouting.
An alarm went off. Then another.
He said something, a single syllable. She thought it was “God.”
“Mr. Merritt? Are you all right? Is everything okay?”
With his mouth a little too close to the microphone, he breathed, “I gotta go.”
“Wait—was I right? Is something wrong? Did something happen? Mr. Merritt? Are you okay?”
The call dropped.
Leda held the phone out and stared at it, blinking at her own reflection in the screen. She spun half a circle in her office chair, all the better to face her best friend. Then she said, “He hung up on me. I mean, I hope that’s what happened.”
Niki Nelson didn’t look up. She smiled, though. “It wouldn’t be the first time.”
In high school, Niki had been Nicole-Marie, then Nickie, then Nicki, then Nikk, and then Niki—partly because she liked the look of it and partly because none of the other two dozen Nicoles at school ever spelled it that way.
Together, Leda and Niki had been the two most semi-famous weirdos at South Lake High. Not the only weirdos by any means, but the only girls who got suspended for breaking into the abandoned boathouse of an old yacht club because they’d heard it was haunted. They hadn’t done any damage. They hadn’t done anything at all except get inside, trip over a family of raccoons, and run into the cops as they fled the scene screaming.
No charges filed. No raccoons harmed, merely startled. Best-friends-forever status, cemented. Fifteen years later, plenty of other things had changed—but not that.
A couple of weeks previously, Niki had slipped on an errant lime garnish at work, so she was on medical leave from the bar at the top of the Smith Tower downtown. Her plastic bootie was propped on the edge of Leda’s desk, where it took up a lot of space and frankly smelled a little weird.
When Leda’s phone rang again, a chorus of chipmunks singing Sia’s “Chandelier,” Niki laughed. “You need a new ringtone.”
“I do not. But, hey, look. It’s Mr. Merritt again.” She accepted the call. “There you are, sir. I’m sorry, but we seem to have gotten disconnected. Are you all right? Please tell me you’re all right.”
In reply, she heard sirens, and people hollering, and something that sounded like radio static—but wasn’t. After waiting another minute or two, she ended the call.
“I think he butt-dialed me.”
“Where did you say he is?”
“Um. Leda.” Niki frowned and refreshed her timeline. “Hang on. There’s a…”
“What? Give me your… What are you looking at?” She reached for Niki’s phone, but Niki swatted her hand away.
“You’re not going to believe this. A plane in Orlando skidded off the runway on takeoff just now. It… it’s on fire. Everything’s on fire.” She turned her phone around to show Leda a grainy video shot by somebody in the airport.
“Holy shit,” Leda said. She closed the booking site on her laptop and opened a new window. Five seconds of searching and there it was, flight 2661 to LAX. No doubt delayed indefinitely due to its giant fireball status. Leda leaned back in her chair and put her hands over her mouth. “Oh my God.”
“That was his flight, wasn’t it? The one he was supposed to be on in the first place?”
Leda nodded. “Yup.”
“Did you know that was going to happen?”
“No! Obviously!” She pushed her chair back until it hit the wall behind her, but it wasn’t far enough to escape the live footage of the burning plane. “If I’d known, I would’ve told everybody. I would’ve spray-painted it on the side of the airport, I would’ve gotten a bullhorn, I would’ve maxed out my credit card with skywriting!”
“No. You wouldn’t have.” Niki knew Leda was only talking. Her friend had learned the hard way that warning people about tragic misfortune could lead to restraining orders, at best—and at worst (just the one time), a ride in the back seat of a cop car. Because sometimes a frantic heads-up sounds like a threat. Apparently.
“I would’ve at least called in a fake bomb threat or something.”
“Now you’re talking. Keep it low-key.” Niki put down her phone and put her heavy, plastic-bound foot back on the floor with a thud. “So what happens next? What are you going to do?”
“What can I do? The plane’s already crashed. I can’t undo it; I can’t fix it; I can’t save anybody.”
“You saved that dude.”
“Still counts,” Niki insisted. “You did a good thing. Stop freaking out.”
“But hundreds of other people might be dead because I’m ninety-nine percent worthless as a psychic!”
“And one percent super useful. If it weren’t for you, this Merritt guy would have been on that plane. I bet he’s feeling pretty good about being in the one percent right now.”
“Oh God, what if he tells people that I saved him? What if he goes on TV to talk about his close call and the cops come arrest me because they think I did something to the plane? What if somebody calls Homeland Security? What if they think I’m some kind of domestic terrorist? They’re going to send me to Guantánamo.” She scooted her chair forward again, all the better to collapse facedown onto her desk.
“I don’t know if Guantánamo is even open anymore, and you need to calm the hell down.” Niki knew better than to try a more formal intervention; Leda’s freak-outs ran hot and loud, but they burned out quick. “You haven’t been anywhere near a plane in the last two months. I’m sure somebody, someplace, can prove it.”
Leda raised her head. “I sure as hell haven’t been anywhere near Florida,” she said thoughtfully. “I haven’t even talked to anybody in Florida, except for the rental-car place. Mr. Merritt’s boss wanted him to have a rental car so he could come and go from the event without running up an Uber bill. Mostly I dealt with someone on this end from”—and here Leda’s voice ticked back up again—“the crime lab. Oh my God, I think he’s a cop. He must have hired me with cop money.”
“Are you sure?”
“No.” Her hands fluttered over her desk. “But that conference had something to do with modern forensic methods in law enforcement.”
“Okay, so he might be a cop. The question is, did he sound like a crazy person to you? Because if he goes on TV and tells the world that a psychic travel agent saved his life, he’s going to sound like a crazy person to literally everybody else—and he will not be a cop for long.”
“Even though it’s true?” Leda squeaked hopefully.
“Especially because it’s true. Untwist your knickers, babe.”
Niki hauled her purse up from the floor. It was a big purse, the kind you could carry a toddler in, if you really had to. “I have a suggestion.” She reached over and smacked a button to turn off the monitor. “Log off and look away, would you? Let’s call it a day. We can get poké around the corner. First bowl’s on me.”
“I have to stay here and work.”
“Work on what? Do your other clients need anything right now?”
“No.” Leda sulked. “The other two are on their Alaskan cruise. They should be fine.”
Niki frowned. “Three clients total? That’s all you’ve got?”
“Small business is hard, Nik.”
“A small travel business even harder, I guess,” she said in a pointed fashion. “In this day and age where anyone can do anything on the internet.”
Leda sighed. “Not everyone does everything on the internet. Corporations use travel agents. Conventions and conferences use travel agents—and so do people who attend them, like Mr. Merritt. Older people who hate the internet and couldn’t use Expedia if you held a gun to their heads… they use travel agents. But real-life human travel agents are getting harder and harder to find.” Then she added, halfway between defiance and surrender: “It sounded like a good idea at the time.”
“Then you’ve really got to scare up a few more of those, and fast. How much does this office cost you every month?”
Leda reached down and picked up her own purse. It was stashed under the desk, next to her feet. “So much money, you don’t even know.”
“I could help.”
“You can barely keep yourself afloat, and I’m supposed to be the responsible one,” she said, except neither of those things was exactly true. “I cashed out my 401(k) from that couple of years I worked at Amazon, got a small-business grant, and took out a loan. Don’t worry about it. I can keep the lights on for another three months, at least, before I default and the bank takes… whatever it can.”
“You don’t have a house. Your car is a thousand years old. What will they come for, your fish?”
“God help them if they come for Brutus,” she said solemnly. “I will lay waste to them.”
“You spoil that fish.”
“Yeah, well. Maybe in my next life, someone will spoil me.” Leda slung her bag over her shoulder. “Screw this, you’re right. I can’t deal right now. It’s too late for breakfast, it’s too early for lunch, and I don’t want poké anyway. I can’t tell if I’m hungry or nauseous, and I’m too freaked out to go home and take a nap.”
“Does that mean it’s alcohol time?” Niki stood on her good foot and let her busted foot hang like an anchor. “Because, honey, this day was made for mimosas. Let’s go to Geraldine’s for calories and adult orange juice. We’ll pretend that none of this ever happened, until we can’t remember that it did.”
“You’re terrible, and I love you.”
Niki grinned and held the door open. “Yeah, well. That’s what friends are for.”