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Sky Pirate Of The Golden Age
About the Author: Eric Cline's stories have appeared in Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine, Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine, and Mystery Magazine. His science fiction stories have appeared in Analog, Galaxy's Edge, and other places.

Braniff flight 1225 from Kansas City, Missouri to Los Angeles was half-empty and half an hour late. I was excited and scared, because I was 10 years old and had never been on an airplane before.

My mother was not excited.

My grandmother had paid for two tickets for us to come out to visit her, minus her son-in-law. Mom was tensed up about seeing Grandma, but I didn’t care. I was 10! You don’t let an adult’s crabby mood get in your way at that age, especially if that adult is the most tiresome, embarrassing, and uncool person on Earth—your own mother.

The first thing I noticed as we boarded the plane was the smell. It reeked of tobacco. My lungs wanted to stop contracting. Every seat had a hinged ashtray. My parents didn’t smoke, so I always noticed when we went anywhere that smelled of smoke—which was almost everywhere.

Just as we sat down, some guy in a rumpled business suit, clutching a single valise, came on board huffing and puffing.

Just found out they needed me in LA!” he said to a stewardess. “How much for a seat?” He plunked himself down a few aisles ahead of us. The miniskirt-wearing stewardess wrote out a ticket for him in pen, using a preprinted blank form. He paid with cash.

Oh, he wasn’t the hijacker, by the way.

In 1972 there were thirty-one skyjacking attempts in the United States, an average of more than one every two weeks. By January of 1973, metal detectors were mandatory for all flights, and the devil I met that day was one of the reasons. But at that moment, people just … accepted that any passenger on any airplane could have a gun or a bomb, just as they accepted that anyone’s cigarette smoke would permanently contaminate any public place with oily residue.

It was the golden age of the sky pirate.

Our Boeing 727 had a single aisle, three seats on each side, and 94 seats. We were near the back on the left. Mom had the middle seat. I was on the aisle, and no one was obstructing her view of the window. I was the only child on board.

Only one other passenger was between us and the rear exit: a man, one row behind us on the right.

That Russell Crowe movie had him swaggering onto the plane with his wraparound sunglasses already on. Crowe glowered like a silent movie villain about to tie the damsel to the railroad tracks.

Balls. The real guy had cheek in buying his ticket under the name “Robin Skye,” but that was just to screw with everyone’s heads after, when they looked at the manifest.

He wasn’t a fool; he didn’t draw attention to himself. All of Braniff’s employees agreed on that.

I only noticed him because of this:  Before we took off, Mom bought a Coke for me and a Tab for her from the beverage cart. He was next. He leaned in closer to the aisle and said, “Jack and Coke,” in a quiet rumble of a voice.

I’d seen some awful movie with George C. Scott on TV recently, and his voice reminded me of Scott’s. Immediately, I looked at my own mere Coke and yelled, “I want a Jacqueline Coke too!” thinking, I guess, it was some kind of flavoring, like cherry Coke.

I hadn’t exactly been raised on the street, you see.

The stewardess smiled at me. “Robin Skye” merely glanced at me with a bland, unthreatening face.

He was just a guy in a turtleneck sweater and a trench coat he had not yet doffed. He handed her the money, and I remember thinking how small those dollars looked in that meaty palm.

“You don’t drink,” my mother said. I’d heard people say that before, and I never knew what it meant! How did people not drink? Didn’t they get thirsty?

When we took off, I was nervous, but also excited. Mom was just nervous. I looked at her curiously, wondering why on earth my mom would be afraid of anything. But we did not speak of it.

This story appears in our JUN 2024 Issue
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