Part 1: Fly Hard

Les had been sound asleep for the entirety of the flight from Queens to Los Angeles. In fact, he’d fallen asleep when the plane had still been on the ground at Kennedy, pretty much as soon as he’d buckled himself in, while the aisle seat next to his (at the window, on the left side of the plane, toward the back...where Les liked to be, the ride being perceptibly smoother there) was still unoccupied. It wasn’t until the flight was coming to an end and the aircraft beginning its final descent into LAX that Les woke up and first saw the man who’d been sitting next to him for several hours, by that time. Les noticed that the other man was holding on tightly to the armrest, his knuckles literally white.

“You don’t like flying, do you?” Les asked the other man, the first words they’d exchanged.

“What gives you that idea?” The other man wasn’t being snide, despite likely being a native New Yorker. Rather, Les realized, the other man was himself acknowledging that it must have been obvious that he’d have preferred to drive from New York to California. Or take a train. Or walk. Anything but traverse the 3,000-plus miles in a hundred-thousand-pound steel container just a hundred feet long and twelve feet wide... some 35,000 feet above the ground for most of the trip. But, hey—some people just have no sense of adventure.

Not Les: Les loved to fly. He had since he’d been a kid, and sometimes he thought that he’d become a traveling salesman subconsciously just so that he’d have to fly across the country to do his job. He could have become a pilot, Les supposed, to accomplish the same end, but if flying were his job he likely wouldn’t have enjoyed it as much. It might have become a chore, spoiling the fun of it.

“You wanna know the secret to surviving air travel?” Les offered his seatmate. “After you get where you’re going, take off your shoes and your socks... then walk around on the rug barefoot and make fists with your toes.”

“Fists with your toes?” The other man was skeptical. Les wasn’t at all surprised. He’d been skeptical himself, a decade earlier, when the wisdom had first been imparted to him—by a former Theravadan bhikkhu, who had just recently given back his vows though he had intended to renew them at a later date—something the discipline permitted in order to keep the monastic vows clean, rather than have monks break them in times of great distress. Anyway, the once-and-future monk had been flying from Rukumkot, Nepal (RUK) to Seattle-Tacoma (SEA) with a stopover at LaGuardia (LGA), which is where Les had met him in the men’s washroom. The monk had had with him only the four items allowed by the Patimokkha: a razor, a needle, an alms bowl, and a water strainer. Les had offered to sell the monk his spare toothbrush, but the monk, of course, had had no money, and Les hadn’t needed a razor, needle, alms bowl, or water strainer. What the monk had had, though, was wisdom, and the men quickly reached an arrangement: The monk got a new toothbrush; and Les got the secret to surviving air travel.

“I know, I know: It sounds crazy,” Les said to his current seatmate, who wasn’t a monk. At least, Les didn’t think he was. He had no idea, he realized, what the other man did for a living, being that this was their only conversation. Les didn’t think the other man was any sort of businessman, though, like he, Les, was, and certainly not a salesman. The other man just didn’t quite have that... personableness. To be honest, Les thought the other man was kind of gruff. The strong, silent type. Not mean, and not cold, but... well, serious... and maybe a bit jaded. Wary. Cynical. The kind of man who wasn’t quick to take advice from a stranger. So Les said, “Trust me, I’ve been doing it for nine years. Yes, sir, better than a shower and a hot cup of coffee.” The other man did look like someone who enjoyed showers and hot coffee.

“Okay,” the other man said, but Les wasn’t sure he’d meant it. Ah, well. You can’t save everybody, Les thought.

By then, the jet had not just landed but taxied all the way to the gate. The pilot had turned off the seatbelt light, signaling that the passengers were now free to unfasten their restraints, get out of their seats, collect their bags from the overhead compartments, and disembark. Being that the other man had the aisle seat, he got up first. Les looked up at him, because he was going to add to his advice something about remembering to put your shoes and socks back on before going into a business meeting—something Les had learned not from the monk but from his own, unfortunate experience—but Les fell silent when he saw that his seatmate of the past few hours, who was just then extracting an outsize stuffed brown bear from the overhead bin, was wearing a gun in a shoulder holster under his right arm. Les just stared, and the other man must have noticed, because he said, “It’s okay, I’m a cop. Trust me: I’ve been doing this for eleven years.” Then the other man took his giant bear and walked up the aisle.

It takes all kinds to make a world, Les thought. And even to fill an airplane. And even New York’s Finest deserved a vacation. Heck, especially New York’s Finest! Les hoped to himself that the other man would enjoy his stay in California over the Christmas holiday.

Les was there on business, though—which he would enjoy. On the morning following Christmas Day, he would be meeting with Harry Ellis of Nakatomi Corp. about some parts for a bridge in Indonesia. Les could get those parts for Nakatomi cheap.

Read Part 2: Why Guard
Read Part 3: Die Hired