I’m thirty-six thousand feet above the United States, somewhere over Arizona, and there’s a very good chance I’ll be dead by the time my plane reaches the ground.
There is nothing wrong with Atlantic-Pacific Airlines flight 722, flying nonstop from Los Angeles to Atlanta. It’s moving like a dream and the captain said we might even touch down a little ahead of schedule. It’s not the food, either. I wouldn’t touch it, even if I hadn’t lost my appetite half an hour ago.
No, I am going to die because I am at the window in seat 9A, the Tennyson Killer is in seat 9B, I know who he is, and he knows I know.
I am writing this story in my head even though I know no one will read it, because writing stories is what I do. My name’s Garrison Dallas. You’ve probably heard of me. I’m an investigative journalist covering major crime stories for one of the big shows on cable news. If you’ve seen my show at all this year, you know my producers and I have been desperate to track this serial-killing son of a bitch down. So has every other news outlet and law enforcement agency in the country.
Six cities. Six murders. All young, black women with their hair in box braids. All students at major liberal arts colleges. Nearly all of them gutted like fish and left in very public view. All found with handwritten scraps of Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s “Charge of the Light Brigade” stuffed in their right hand.
“All in the valley of Death/Rode the six hundred.”
“Not though the soldier knew/Someone had blundered.”
“Theirs not to reason why/Theirs but to do and die.”
“Stormed at with shot and shell/Boldly they rode and well.”
“Into the jaws of Death.”
“Into the mouth of hell.”
I said “nearly all” were gutted. One was shot. The fourth one, with the line of poetry to match. That deviation first made law enforcement think they had a copycat. But it was him. The handwriting on the poetry was a perfect match.
To be honest, it was a miracle they even got to the point of thinking they had a copycat. The killings were so spread out across America, it was a complete fluke that a connection was even found. A desperate Boston murder detective trawling a Reddit forum stumbled upon a few guys talking about what he at first thought was his case. When he realized their killing was in San Diego, well, that’s when things started coming together. Boston called San Diego and learned their victim had some Tennyson in her hand. The handwriting? Identical. That got the feds involved. Then someone realized they needed the media involved, too. All of it. The feds called a press conference, and the rest is history.
I fly about twice a month, mostly for work. I’ve been to crime scenes, police stations, forensic labs, courtrooms, and the homes of witnesses all over America. I’ve seen the worst humanity has left in its wake and I’ve sat yards away from stone-cold killers during their trials. But I’ve never been so close to someone so dangerous and been so helpless.
I always take the window seat. I like watching the takeoffs and landings. I have since I was a kid. I was staring out the window, watching the LAX groundcrews scurrying around, thinking about the horror I had witnessed this week, when I felt a bump in my back.
“Whoops. Sorry, chief,” I heard. I turned to see a man drop into the seat next to me. He was a pale white guy about my size. He either hadn’t been in California long or he was very cautious about sun exposure. Probably the latter, I thought at the time. It explained why he was still wearing his sunglasses.
“No problem,” I said. “Seats are always tight.”
I fly economy. It always felt like a modest thing to do. Now I hate to think the last moments of my life are gonna be spent in one of these tight-ass chairs. If I had known, I would have sprung for business class. Anyway, the man gave me a smile without showing his teeth, then sat back, never removing his sunglasses. Before long the captain announced we’d be taking off, the flight attendants went through the safety song and dance, and then we were in the air. Once allowed to do so, the man next to me opened his tray table and laid a copy of the Los Angeles Times, open to the crossword puzzle, on top of it. The blue skies and clouds over southern California were getting boring, so I idly watched the man fill in some answers. “Aquarius.” “Tenacity.” “Falderal.” I had to admit, he’s good at puzzles. And then he filled in 47-across, and I almost gasped.