Darkness Before The Dawn
Part 1

by Bel-wah

Disclaimer: Xena, Gabrielle and any other characters featured in the actual TV series are copyrighted to MCA/Universal and Renaissance Pictures while the rest of the story and other characters are my own.



So what if it was four lanes away and going in the wrong direction? It was yellow, it was on duty, and it was empty. In the chilled, slushy New York afternoon that had followed a morning of intermittent snow, it was golden.



"Where the fuck ya goin’?"

More braking wheels and blaring horns.


The battered cab she’d hailed down recklessly swerved across the four lanes of traffic, skidding to a stop about ten yards past her. As it swept by, only her quick reflexes saved the tall, dark-haired woman from being doused by the wave of sludge kicked up by its wheels. The travel bag she’d slung over her shoulder and the flight kit she carried didn’t help her balance any, but she had survived worse than this.

No tip for this jerk. She shook her head, and warily made her way up to where the driver had wedged his vehicle behind a bottled water delivery truck.

In spite of her luggage, she knew better than to expect the cabby to give her an assist. She could see him through his halfway rolled-down window, tamping out the cigarette he’d been smoking and bobbing his head to a silent beat only he could hear.

Great. She pulled at the balky door of the cab and angrily shoved her bags inside. She was running late. She’d spent more time than she’d intended on that damn letter, she knew, and she reached once more into the pocket of her dark blue trench coat, reassuring herself that it was still there.

It was.

Another horn blared as she cast a glance up at the steel-gray clouds overhead. She gathered her coat against the cold, and breathed in the bone-chilling air that carried on it the stink of exhaust, burnt rubber, and disappointment. It won’t be much longer now, she reassured herself, and she slid into the back seat.

The driver pivoted slightly, wordlessly raising his eyebrows and swabbing a finger under his runny nose.

Two could play at this game, she thought, and she silently returned the favor, with a piercing, questioning blue gaze of her own.

Neither of them blinked.

She was tired of all this crap, tired of New York, tired of having to fly busloads of yammering passengers to all points on the compass; they could sit here the rest of the afternoon for all she cared. It was up to the beat-bopping cabby.

After locking eyes with her for several seconds, she could see the sullen demeanor of him evaporate, and he folded. He’d been beaten fair and square, and he knew it. She was the boss. As if there had ever been a doubt.

"Where to?" he returned his attention to the road.

"JFK. Orbis Airlines."

"Traffic’s pretty heavy goin’ that way...." With herky-jerky stops and starts, the driver maneuvered the cab back into the flow of cars.

"Get me there before 4 o’clock, and I’ll make it worth your while," she said, turning to the right just in time to see a transit bus nearly broadside them. The cabby was oblivious to it all.

"Yes ma’am!" he said, punching his foot on the accelerator.

Captain Catherine Phillips settled back into the shadowy interior of the cab. It would be a wild ride to JFK, she was certain of that, as the cabby tried to redeem his way back into a good tip. She closed her eyes. She would make it to work on time after all.

Work... And that’s what it was to her. Flying had long ago stopped being the thrilling, exhilarating love of her life. Now, she imagined herself as no more than a glorified tour guide, barely along for the ride. Oh, she was a professional, more so than most of her colleagues, she considered, but that was because of her training, her character. She didn’t know any other way to be. Wasn’t capable of it.

But soon… she idly fingered the letter in her pocket - she would be done with it. After this last haul to Rome and back, she was quitting. Leaving the people-moving business to others. She would take that job with Federated Parcel, moving cargo that didn’t talk back. That was the answer, she was sure of it.

Just like you thought quitting the Air Force was the answer.... Catherine popped her eyes open as the cabby suddenly jammed on the brakes.

"Sorry," he said, looking anxiously into the rearview mirror.

Will wonders never cease, the pilot thought. An apology from a New York cab driver. For that alone, this guy gets his tip!

"We’re almost there," the cabby said, and indeed, in the sky out Kate’s window she could see an L1011 suspended in the air like a Christmas ornament, initiating its final approach for landing.

"Almost," she whispered, though she knew it wasn’t true. Her breath lightly fogged up the glass as she watched the plane descend.

No. To Captain Catherine Phillips, it all had never seemed so very far away.


The Hilton courtesy van veered sharply to the right, horn bleating, forcing its way into the outside lane of traffic heading towards Kennedy airport departures. The van’s occupants, six men and women wearing various dark blue and white combinations of the Orbis Airlines flight uniform, lurched to the left.

"Geez, buddy, take it easy, will ya?" A young man of medium build, with close-cut dark hair, narrowly dodged a spray of coffee that came slopping out of his half-lidded styrofoam cup.

"Sorry!" The driver threw up his hands defensively. This was his fourth trip to the airport so far this day, and he’d already been radioed by his dispatcher that there was another full load - airport bound - awaiting his return to the big hotel in Manhattan. Great. He’d be late for dinner again. His wife would have his head.

Nathan Berbick sourly noted the driver’s apology. "And keep your hands on the wheel while you’re at it!" he said, returning his attention to his coffee cup. He lightly massaged his temple as he carefully took a sip of the steaming mixture. "Aaaah...."

In the momentary silence, a voice piped up from the back of the van. "I begged him not to drink that last kamikaze!" and all the occupants, save for one moderately hungover flight attendant, roared with laughter.

"Nice, Alan," Nathan’s voice was stony. He blearily eyed his chipper, sun-blonde colleague. "And it was a jello-shot, if you must know!"

"Like you could even tell the difference at that point!" Cindy Walters gave Nathan a playful nudge in the ribs, causing him to once more cradle his coffee as if it were a baby. "I’ll tell you Nathan, if word of that show you put on gets back to the desk jockeys, they’re liable to put you up next trip in the Hoboken Motel 6!"

"I didn’t hear you complaining last night!" Nathan said with a smirk. He teased the petite brunette, knowing she could take it.

"That’s because you fell asleep," she blandly replied, and she turned her face to the window.

Once again, laughter erupted throughout the van, and eventually Nathan and Cindy joined in. They’d had an on-again, off-again "thing" for the past year or so and, as-of the previous evening, it was distinctly "on" again. Much to Nathan’s delight.

Cindy put up a sharp-tongued, quick-witted front, but Nathan fancied he knew just what buttons to press to get the southerner to reveal the softer, nurturing side of herself that he so… liked. He’d nearly blown it last night, he knew, but she’d promised as they packed their flight bags late this morning that she would give him another shot at it during their layover in Rome. IF he swore that he’d lay off the grappa this time.

"Man... the traffic is crazy around here!" Alan Ross’s hollow voice again floated up from the rear of the vehicle.

"I just wish that American Airlines strike were over," a forty-something red-head sighed. Joan Wetherill, the senior fight attendant, peeked around Nathan’s shoulder to look through the front window of the van. "And that US Airways slowdown in a show of support - ugh!"

They were approaching the terminal drop-off area, and the place was a madhouse. Complete gridlock. It appeared to the older woman as though the jam-up were more of a chain reaction accident, what with occupants abandoning their cars, taxis, and shuttles, arguing over who was at fault. And they were still at least a half mile from the Orbis gates.

"Tell me about it," said Joan’s seat-mate, Trish Dugan. "I’m sure our flight will be packed with a lot of happy passengers, not." And she grimaced at that horrid thought. The flight attendant had been working with Orbis since forever, or so it felt like to her. She was bored with her job, and tired of battling both the airline’s corporate politics and her own desires. At this point, she didn’t think she’d ever make senior crew or lose that extra ten pounds. Just the thought of those harsh realities threw her into despair. No matter than Rome lay at the end of the rainbow, this was going to be a long flight indeed. And even longer on the return shift she’d pulled.

"Who else is crewing with us, Joan?" Cindy swiveled around in her seat to face the older woman behind her.

The senior flight attendant shook her head. "You’re looking at it."

"What?" Trish’s voice was a near-screech.

"Oooh... you’ve done it now, Trish. She’s awake at last!" Alan Ross reached a tanned hand to the young, blonde-haired woman snuggled next to him. "Becky?" Gently, he gave her shoulder a quick shake.

"Huh...?" It was obvious that the girl was slightly disoriented. Then, catching herself, her green eyes snapped open to full alert, and she self-consciously moved away from Alan’s side. "We there yet?" she groped for her flight bag.

Darn it Hanson! she thought. She’d fallen asleep again. Was no place sacred?

It wasn’t as if she hadn’t exited early-on from the revelry in the Hilton’s bar. No, she preferred to leave the more dedicated partying to her co-workers. Particularly on the eve before an overseas haul.

She’d been teased about it since she was a child. She was quick to nod off, slept like a stone, and greeted the dawn of each new day with uncommon ambivalence. And now - to have found herself unintentionally slumbering against the blue trench coat of Alan Ross - she feared it would be the stuff of his dreams for weeks.

"Sorry," she said, a blush flaming her cheeks. She averted her eyes from her grinning friend. And why weren’t they at the airport by now, anyway? She turned to look out the rear window.

"Hey, take it easy there, Champ!" he laughed. "I don’t mind you keeping me warm!"

"Alan!" Cindy called back from the front bench seat, "Keep those hands of yours in full view at all times!" She smiled back at the still-confused Rebecca Hanson. "He botherin’ you, hon?"

"No more than usual, Cin," she replied, finally getting her bearings. She gave her fellow Californian a playful shove, and smiled up at him. "I’ll keep you posted."

"Joan, what do you mean we’re it?" Trish Dugan persisted. How was it that this flight from hell kept getting worse, she wondered.

"Orbis has laid on extra flights to accommodate passengers stranded by the strike," she explained under the watchful eyes of her flight crew, "so staff is running lean and mean."

"Emphasis on the ‘mean,’ it sounds like," Nathan drained his coffee cup.

"Ah, maybe it won’t be so bad after all," Becky rationalized, running a finger through her short, feathered hair. "If we stick together, it’ll be okay...."

"Are you kidding?" Trish was nearly slumped double on her seat. "I ran into a friend of mine yesterday after we landed. She was working the 108 from LAX to Atlanta, and she told me she had two passengers start slugging it out in the stand-by line. They had to call the cops!"

"Oh my God..." Becky’s face blanched.

"Ah... we won’t have to worry about today, champ," Alan put a calming arm around her shoulder. "See, it could always be worse."

"Obviously," Nathan pointed out, "you haven’t heard who our pilot is this trip."

Cindy started tightening the belt of her coat. The Orbis Airlines terminal entrance was creeping into view at last. "Isn’t it... Joe somebody? That cutie from Santa Fe?" She knew her comment would get a rise from her dark-haired friend, and it worked.

"No," Nathan said testily.

"Who, then?" Trish’s voice was fearful.

"It’s ‘Frosty the snow-bitch.’"

Collective groans issued from everyone but Joan and Becky.

"Frosty?" Becky asked. They’d lost her on that one. But it wasn’t the first time and it probably wouldn’t be the last. The young flight attendant from southern California had advanced quickly through the crew ranks at Orbis, and so she frequently found herself on the more preferred routes with far more seasoned colleagues. At times, she thought, they seemed to be speaking in a language of their own that eluded her, and she wondered more often than not whether it was just as well.

She loved her job and loved working hard, making sure every last detail was attended to. Nothing pleased her more than being there for her passengers... being responsible for them. In a sense, for however many brief hours they were together, they were like her family, and made her miss her own not quite as much. Even through all the peanuts, pillows, and barf bags, she loved it all.

And the same could be said for her colleagues, she considered, as she looked up at the blonde Adonis sitting next to her. Alan Ross was a poster boy for ‘LA Surfer-hunk,’ no doubt about it. With his barely cut-to-regulation sun-kissed hair, blue eyes and brown skin, she knew there was no reason why she shouldn’t be falling at his feet. Still, for all the flirtatious bantering that passed between them, she thought of him as the big brother she’d never had.

Becky hadn’t worked the 2240 from JFK to Rome more than a few times, and she was relieved to see that Joan Wetherill was senior this trip. She’d taken an instant liking to the older red-head several years ago when they first crewed together on a trans-con NYC-LAX run, and she had appreciated then how Joan had looked out for her and shown her the ropes. Not to mention how the senior flight attendant had backed her up when a certain first-class passenger had a few drinks too many, and took it upon himself to put his hands, where he shouldn’t have, on Becky’s person.

To this day, Becky wasn’t quite sure what Joan had said to him, her voice was so low and her face so close to his as she spoke. But it had proven effective, and the offensive passenger elected to snooze the rest of the way to LA. No, if there was one thing one didn’t want to do, it was to get on the bad side of Joan Wetherill. Or to tangle with one of her charges.

"Captain Ice Cube!"

With a start, Becky realized Nathan was still talking, earnestly trying to have her "get" who he was talking about.

"Catherine Phillips," Alan whispered in her ear. "A real piece of work."

"She pissed me off so much last year on the 1966 to London - I swear I thought she was gonna hit me!" Cindy Walter’s face flushed at the memory.

"And it wasn’t even Cindy’s fault!" Nathan supported his sometimes girlfriend.

"She could hit me with her best shot, I’ll tell you!" Alan said, and they all laughed at that.

Catherine Phillips... Rebecca thought. She had never flown with the pilot before, but she certainly knew of her by reputation. In the crew circles in which she traveled, it was a name that was feared and reviled. Most of it having to do with tales involving the Captain’s fiery temperament. Fortunately, she’d never heard any indictment of the pilot’s flying skills. Becky tried to turn a deaf ear to all the gossip and innuendo she’d heard about the former Air Force Academy graduate, preferring to make her own judgments about a person’s character. Well, today, she would get that chance where Captain Phillips was concerned.

She only hoped she survived the experience. Intact.

"All right kids, dial it down a notch will you?" Joan rebuked their bawdy laughter with a stern gaze. ‘Captain Frosty’ or not, a captain was still a captain, and that demanded a certain degree of respect. She’d flown with Kate Phillips a number of times, and found her to be a demanding professional, with an economy of word and motion that the senior flight attendant marveled at. Do your job, do it well, and Joan had found that the pilot had no quarrel with you. As a result, the two had established a working relationship that was civil, efficient, and collegial.

And with Catherine Phillips, Joan thought, that was as close as the pilot would ever allow herself to step towards the line of friendship. A line that for her was bold, clear and intractable. Never to be crossed. And some small part of the senior flight attendant thought that a shame... for the captain, more than anyone else.

The driver tooted lightly on his horn several times, in quick succession, and Becky realized that the forward crawl of the van had slowed to a complete stop.

"All right, this is as close as I think I’m gonna get you folks," he said glumly, pushing up on the bill of his Yankees baseball cap. They were still nearly forty yards from the Orbis entrance, and idling virtually in the middle of the congested access road. "I could try to work in a little more, but that might take another 10 minutes and--"

"And we could get there and back again on our hands and knees in that amount of time," Nathan cut in, leaning towards the sliding door. "Thanks a lot, Bud."

Nathan shoved open the door and hopped out onto the slick macadam, turning back almost as an afterthought to help Cindy and the rest of the women behind him. With resigned sighs, the flight crew piled out of the van and into the bedlam of a strike-mired JFK.

They ran a gauntlet of traffic, winding their way into the terminal; Nathan looked back and noticed with some satisfaction the Hilton courtesy van was now boxed in.

"Ladies..." he said, standing to one side and waiting with Alan while the four women slipped through the revolving door of the terminal. Just inside the entrance, the group paused to get their bearings.

"Anybody for a quick cup of coffee before we go to the lounge?" Nathan glanced towards the escalator, and a ‘Starbucks’ coffee sign.

Cindy linked her free arm in his. "Let’s go, sweetie. Last call."

"Aaah..." Alan’s blue eyes lit up at the prospect of more caffeine before take-off.

"Go ahead," Joan laughed. "I’ll take care of checking us in at the lounge. Catch up with you at the gate?"

And with a few quick nods, the group split up, with Becky and Trish trailing behind Joan. They began wading their way through the mass of travelers, dodging rolling bags, tour groups, and scrambling children. It was pandemonium, that was for certain, with no signs of improvement anytime soon, at least until the strike was settled. It was painfully apparent that the overflow of travelers was stressing Orbis’s resources to the limit.

They kept as best they could to the perimeter of the crowds, in an attempt to avoid the heaviest traffic.

"Oh God, there she is!" Trish Dugan hissed. She gestured towards the next set of revolving doors street-side.

Rebecca followed Trish’s gaze, and saw what had to be the most striking woman she had ever seen. Her figure was partially obscured by the long regulation overcoat she wore over a pair of dark blue Orbis slacks and a dress jacket. But Becky could tell that she was lean and tall, taller than most of the people around her, and her long, rich black hair was pulled back and plaited behind her. Her 30-ish features were fine and strong, and twin laser-blue eyes scanned the terminal from beneath the bill of an Orbis Airline’s captain’s hat. Becky amazed at how serene and calm the woman looked in the midst of the surrounding chaos.

The young flight attendant pulled up short, startled, when the captain’s eyes settled on her own for one second, two at the most. The hard stare told her nothing about the woman and, just as quickly, the moment was over and the pilot had moved on.

Wow... that is one cool customer! Becky thought, losing Captain Phillips in the crowd. They would meet up again, soon enough. Perhaps Phillips had recognized her as being with Orbis? – and that accounted for the stare.

"Don’t worry Becky - she doesn’t bite," Joan said, casting a reproving look at Trish Dugan.

"That’s not what I heard," the heavyset woman sniffed. She tugged on her wheeled suitcase, sneaking a sidelong glance at Becky. "I’ll bet she has peeps like you for breakfast!" and she laughed aloud, sarcastically, at her own attempt at humor.

Joan narrowed her eyes at the caustic flight attendant. "Gate 22," she said. "Let’s get going."


He was just a businessman. An Italian businessman, moving in concert with the mob of passengers pressing towards the security checkpoint. He carried an expensive black woolen coat over one arm, and in the other he held a soft leather bag: a briefcase doubling as a carry-on. He wore a charcoal double-breasted suit, Moschino of course, with a custom-made white-cotton shirt and a red tie dotted with flecks of green, the better to bring out the emerald of his eyes. Pine-pitch colored Fermani lace-ups completed his ensemble, and with some satisfaction, Roberto Andizzi noted they were nearly the same dark color as the stylishly trimmed curls upon his head.

"Don’t draw attention to yourself," Stefan had warned him, "but don’t try too hard to disappear in the crowd - for that will surely arouse suspicion. You look the part. You have a right to be there, as much as any other first-class passenger." The ethnic Albanian clapped him on the back. "You look good!" and he gave him a cold smile.

The cheap hotel room, in a dive so close to the airport that planes overhead had rattled the windows all night long, was shabby and cold. But when Roberto had turned to Alexandra, and he saw the appreciation in her eyes as she took in the sight of him wearing the expensive clothes - so foreign to a man of his military background - his heart warmed. He was doing the right thing, he knew it. The tall, beautiful woman with the high slavic cheek-bones had him under her spell, and he would do anything for her. The fact that he had even agreed to Stefan’s plan, was poised even now to put it into action, wasn’t that proof enough to her of his love?

And it was for her that he’d agreed to brazen his way onto a big jetliner, carrying the dis-assembled pieces of the latest in high-tech non-metallic firearms, he thought, as the security checkpoint loomed ever-closer. Not for Stefan, not for the Kosovar’s friend Mishka, but for his Alex. Soon, this mess would be all behind them, and he and his black-eyed beauty would be together. Ischia. Off of Capri. He would take her there.

"Aren’t you the dandy," Mishka had mocked him, catching the look that passed between him and Alexandra. The young man from Kosovo turned away, and tended to his own carryon. He had to be jealous, Roberto had thought. Who wouldn’t be?

Mishka was dressed in casual travel clothes, while Stefan wore a herringbone blazer over brown dress-pants. They were tourists, traveling in coach, while Alexandra would be joining Roberto in first class. Where he would endure the torture of pretending not to know her. No matter. He would make up for it later.

"All right," Stefan had gathered them around a battered table. "You know what you’re supposed to do. You all know your parts." He’d slowly turned his gray-blue eyes to each of them. "As of this moment, operation ‘Independence’ is under way."

Roberto arrived at the security checkpoint. Smoothly, he laid his bag down on the conveyor belt. He felt strangely calm. He was a businessman. He had a right to be here.

"Any computers or recording equipment, please open them," sang out a harried attendant.

The security people looked exhausted and irritable, and well they should. Stefan was ecstatic when word of the strike and subsequent work slowdown had hit the news. Over-burdened security people were less inclined to do a thorough job.

An overweight, middle-aged woman was sitting on a stool behind the monitor, and the security guard to her right was fussing with a stroller that had tangled with a garment bag while coming through the conveyor.

Roberto knew that Stefan had said to keep to himself but... "Hello!" He offered the woman a barely-accented greeting, quickly followed by a blazingly white smile. He could just imagine how good he looked: his muscled body clothed in a designer suit... the white of his teeth against his olive skin… his deeply-set green eyes capturing the frazzled security worker in an empathetic "tough day?" gaze.

"Hi," she said, pushing a lock of hair behind her ear, and cracking the slightest of smiles at him in return, before looking back at the monitor. By then, his bag was already through. Without breaking his stride, he picked up his bag, and moved off towards gate 22.

He was a businessman. He had a right to be there.


"So I thought I’d have a layover in Rome like you, Becky, but instead they assigned me to the 2260 back to New York. Can you believe that?" Trish Dugan looked to her colleagues for support, but Joan and Becky kept their heads down as they made their way to the gate. "I don’t understand it. After all, you’d think my seniority would count for something...."

"That’s a bummer," Becky said, halfheartedly. She felt badly for the woman, knew she’d been unhappy with her job for quite some time. And, by the looks of how Trish’s uniform was fitting her... differently, the Californian surmised that she’d been eating her way through her troubles recently. Still, the thought of Trish complaining all the way across the Atlantic was not appealing. She would have her hands full already, handling her passengers and trying to stay out of the way of the mercurial Captain Phillips.

It happened quickly.

A surge of passengers arriving from a nearby gate, heading towards the terminal.

Their path was blocked by the main flow of traffic moving towards the outlying gates. Disaster was imminent.

"Ronny, over here, dear!" a mother called to her young son. He had to be no more than ten years old, and the mother had evidently decided to let him ‘entertain’ himself by dragging a small piece of wheeled luggage on his own, as if it were a pull-toy.

"Daddy’s this way!" and she motioned him after her. Unfortunately, that meant the child’s path directly crossed the Orbis flight attendants rushing in the opposite direction. Somehow, Trish and Joan stopped in time. But Becky, with her head still down, didn’t see the pull-strap and bag until it was too late.

Her exposed knees and feet tangled in the strap, and Becky let go of her own pull-case as she felt her body pitch forward, out of control.

"Aaah--!" she reached her hands out in front of her, bracing for impact, when suddenly two strong arms caught her from behind. She hung there, suspended in mid-air it seemed, until those same arms propped her back upright.

"What the..." she gasped. The air had rushed from her body when she’d begun to fall, and she had not yet recovered it.

"Ronny, that wasn’t very nice!" The luggage strap was at Rebecca’s feet, lying there like an uncoiled snake. The mother swiped it up with one hand, and grabbed her son with the other. "Sorry!" she smiled, but her voice was insincere, and quickly she and "Ronny" melted back into the crowd.

"Are you okay?" A low voice sounded from above and behind her.

Becky spun around and looked up into the cool blue eyes of Captain ‘Frosty’ Phillips.

"I... uh... yeah, I think so," she said, flustered, smoothing her skirt.

"This yours?" The pilot maneuvered the handle of a wheeled flight bag to the younger woman’s side.

"Yes-- th--"

"See you on the flight deck..." blue eyes flickered down to Rebecca’s name tag, "...Hanson," and then, after a quick nod to Joan Wetherill, she was gone.

Joan and Trish simply stood there, slack-jawed. Finally, the crew chief spoke, shaking her head in wonder. "Uh-oh. You’re off to some start, champ."


It was done.

She had surprised herself with the slight hesitation, as her hand hovered over the Orbis interoffice mail slot. She’d turned to stare out the floor-to-ceiling windows, watching the planes move slowly along the tarmac like great-finned fish swimming in a gray concrete sea. And in those few seconds of deliberation, a thousand thoughts had stormed through her mind.

Was she doing the right thing? Was it as simple as running from Orbis to Federated Parcel, or was she running from something deeper, more profound, that she couldn’t or wouldn’t put her finger on? She hadn’t been happy in a long time, she knew that much. It was easy enough to attribute those feelings to work. Therefore, in her highly analytical mind, a change in jobs should mean a change in outlook, right?

Cyrus Vandegrift, Colonel (Ret), USAF, now director of flight operations for Orbis, would be disappointed, she knew. Her old mentor had lured her to Orbis four years ago, when he’d heard through the military grapevine what had happened. To Catherine Phillips, he was the father she’d never had. Or wished she had. She would make him see, in time, that it was for the best.

She returned her gaze to the letter in her hand, addressed to the grizzled Air Force veteran. Yes, he would be angry. But she’d given her decision plenty of thought, she rationalized.

For hours, during her down time, she had stared at the antiseptic white walls of her Manhattan apartment, sparsely decorated lest she ever begin to think of it as someplace permanent. A home. And she would think about another time, another place, when she quit. For something better, or so she had hoped then.

She held none of those illusions now.

The Federated job would be different, nothing more. Kate would pace the floor and gaze out over the city, watching the people and cars spin and turn like ducks in a shooting gallery, and she would wonder what the secret of it all was. Were they happy? What did they know that she didn’t?

With a sigh, she released the letter and watched it flutter into the bin.

The pilot hadn’t gone far when she anticipated the accident about to happen between that kid and the flight attendant. It had all seemed so clear to her as it unfolded, like blipping targets on a flight simulator screen: "A + B = Crash."

She didn’t know how she covered the ground to the young woman so quickly, she was only relieved to see that the girl hadn’t hurt herself. Rebecca Hanson. She’d seen her name on the crew list, and though she had never flown with her before, she understood from quiet comments here and there that the girl was well respected - a real comer. She had to be, or she wouldn’t have pulled such a preferred flight route in the first place.

The taller woman was amused to see the fearful look on Hanson’s face after she’d caught her in mid-fall. What - did she think she would bite her or something? Maybe so... she had to have heard some of the stories about her, at least. People talked.

Well, last trip out or not, if this ‘Hanson’ couldn’t pull her weight, Catherine Phillips would let her know about it.

Kate left the stunned flight attendants behind as she strode towards the gate. Attempting to focus her concentration towards the upcoming flight, as was her habit, the pilot found herself slightly annoyed at a puzzle that kept tugging at her memory. There was something about that young blonde that was so... familiar. But she hadn’t crewed with her before, Kate was certain. No, she would have remembered her.



"Welcome aboard!"

"Here, let me help you with that…"

An unending stream of passengers flowed down the jetway ramp, bottle-necking as usual at the entrance to the main cabin. Nathan and Cindy played traffic cops, directing people fore and aft, while Joan and Becky were already providing pre-flight service to the first and business-class passengers. Alan and Trish assumed duties in the rear galley, making sure that the foodstuffs required for the long flight were present and accounted for. The one thing worse than cranky, tired passengers were cranky, tired, hungry passengers.

The Boeing 777-200 was a big plane, one of the largest in Orbis’ flight service, and for this particular route, the airline had fitted it out for three classes: first class, business, and coach. All told, the aircraft could carry just over 300 passengers, the bulk of whom – nearly 230 – would be economy class. The crew complement for a full flight should have been at least six for the main cabin, as well as another two or three for business and first class. Joan Wetherill and her team would be stretched to the limit for this flight.

"This is ridiculous!" Trish Dugan muttered, watching the rows of coach seats – two seats on either side and five seats across the middle – fill up. "I’m going to make sure the union hears about this!"

Alan Ross said nothing, merely rolling his blue eyes in response. Trish was right – it would be a rough flight being so short-staffed, but complaining about it wouldn’t help matters any. He turned his eyes down the main cabin, where once in a while he could catch the blonde head of Becky Hanson as she cheerfully went about her duties. Funny. The additional workload hadn’t seemed to bother the young Californian. From the moment they’d stepped on board, Becky had simply set to it. She accepted the hardship, and moved on. It was one of the things Alan admired about her, and he smiled to himself at that thought.

"Alan, it looks like 32C is having trouble with that stroller," Trish said, making no move to help out.

"Got it," Alan sighed, and he wedged himself down the crowded aisle towards a harried mother and toddler. The last thing he wanted was to have Trish Dugan bitching in his ear all the way to Rome. Worse, he would be stuck in the tube with her on the 2260 return flight tomorrow. Great.

"Here ma’am, let me help you with that," Alan reached for the offending stroller. The mother gratefully stepped aside, letting the handsome flight attendant take charge. So engrossed was Alan in properly stowing the awkwardly shaped stroller, that he took little notice of the black-haired tourist sitting two rows back. He wore a herring-bone jacket, and he stared right through Alan with his icy, gray-blue eyes. The flight attendant was too pre-occupied with the stroller to take notice. After all, the man was simply another passenger. He had a right to be there.


Catherine Phillips had already been aboard for some time, choosing to punch her access code into the jetway keypad as soon as she had arrived at the gate. She normally enjoyed being first aboard the aircraft, her aircraft, and although the end of the line was near, today was no exception.

Using the service door, she had quickly slipped out of the plane and performed her "walk around," taking little notice of the late afternoon chill. She walked the length of the sleek airframe, visually confirming the tell-tale droop of the starboard wing as jet fuel was pumped into the tankage; she laid a hand on the side of the port six-wheeled bogie the big plane sported on its undercarriage, and at last she peeked through the nacelles of the twin jet engines, catching sight of the great turbofans concealed within them. Satisfied with what she saw, she climbed back aboard.

Kate had chosen to ignore the bustle of the ground service crew in the cabin behind her, as they cleaned and re-supplied the plane for the overseas flight. Passing by the workers, the pilot had taken off her cap and slipped out of her coat and jacket, stowing them in the small crew valet just outside the cockpit.

Closing the door behind her, she ducked onto the flight deck, sweeping her eyes along the large dual-control instrumentation array, fully digitalized on-board the big 777-200. She paused for a moment, taking it all in. Then quietly, with a faint whisper of a sound, she eased herself into the leathered pilot’s seat. Bill Samuelson, her first officer on this flight, hadn’t arrived yet, and that was fine with Kate.

This was her time, when she mentally went through her pre-flight check, and she wistfully recalled days past when even the simple anticipation of every new flight left her breathless. It had been some time since she’d felt that way.

She did not put on her headphones yet, choosing instead to absorb the sounds and sensations of the plane; it was as if it lived and breathed all around her, as if she were in the belly of a beast. The soft hiss of the air through the inflow vents. The muffled thumps from the re-fueling team. The vibrations of the wing tanks through the fuselage as the plane thirstily drank in the jet fuel. The groans and bangs from the cargo bays as the luggage was stowed.

Oftentimes she had wondered whether the secret to a successful mission, to a good flight, was allowing herself to become a fully mechanized, computerized, automaton – to become one with the plane. Or, was it in breathing a spark of sentient life into the 250 tons of fully loaded steel alloy she rode on nearly every day… joining in an unholy communion with the beast, and taming it under the firm guidance of her hand? Cyrus Vandegrift was bound to have an opinion or two about that, and she had smiled to herself at the thought.

The door at the far end of the jetway burst open, and she heard the pounding of footsteps hurrying along the ramp. She opened her eyes just as the chatter of the flight crew behind her signaled their arrival on-board. And an end to her meditations. It would be a rough flight, being so short-staffed, but if anyone could make the best of it, the pilot thought Joan Wetherill and her crew could. As long as the new girl didn’t muck things up too badly.

"Captain!" Bill Samuelson poked his salt and pepper head inside the cockpit. Samuelson was a commercial pilot all the way. He’d worked his way up through the ranks from flight school to small planes, advancing to mid-sized jets and now the big birds. Kate had never said so, but she admired the man’s initiative and drive.

Bill was her senior in terms of age, but her junior in terms of rank, and he always was mindful of that whenever they worked together. He followed her orders, was supportive, reliable, and had a steady hand. Kate couldn’t ask for more from any first officer.

"Hi, Bill," she casually waved a hand in greeting. "How’s it look?"

"We’ve got a full boat," the older man said, siding into the seat at Kate’s right, and reaching for his headset. "If we’re lucky, the chicken kiev will knock ‘em out once we’re under way!" He grinned at the dark-haired pilot.

Kate could not help it, and she returned her first officer’s smile with a small one of her own. Quickly, she returned her attention to the tasks at hand, donning her own headset and checking the printout of the weather update. Once they got above the cloud deck, it looked like smooth sailing all the way from JFK to Leonardo daVinci airport. Or, ‘Fiumicino’ as the Italians called it. Good. The passengers might sleep after all.

At her side, Bill had pressed a command on his touch-sensitive control panel, initiating the electronic display of the 777-200’s pre-flight checklist. "Ready when you are, Captain," he paused, waiting for her command.

"Okay, let’s fire this bird up," Kate said, keying in the ignition sequence, pressing the final switch with her thumb. The Pratt & Whitney 4098 engines, each bigger than the average compact car, rumbled to life.

Kate heard Bill’s calm voice through her headset, methodically calling off the points on the checklist. They worked in tandem, smoothly and professionally, prepping the plane for departure. Soon, they would be under way.

And for Catherine Phillips, there would be no turning back.


It was happening; after all the planning, they were actually doing it! Roberto Andizzi watched Alexandra Sadrio take the seat just behind his own. She had moved through the first-class cabin as if she had never seen him before, and though he tried to avert his gaze as Stefan had told him he should, he couldn’t help but steal a glimpse of her as she passed by. After all, he had a right to look, didn’t he? He, a wealthy, attractive businessman, admiring a beautiful woman – his woman – as she took her seat.

Roberto had seen Stefan and Mishka earlier in the throng of passengers swarming at the gate; so they too had successfully made it through the besieged security checkpoints! But as a first-class passenger, he had boarded ahead of them both. He hadn’t seen Alexandra at all and he had worried for her, until at last he saw her tall, blonde form fill the entrance to the cabin. Now he could relax, at least until they were under way. Until the signal was given.

"Wait for it," Stefan had said. And how many times they had rehearsed it all! To assure themselves – Stefan most of all – that there would be no failure.

At times, Stefan’s resolve had irritated Roberto. After all, he was only doing this for the money – and for his Alex. But for Stefan, Alex, and Mishka, this was about their homeland – their people. Roberto didn’t understand it all, but he understood well-enough the anger that flashed through Stefan’s dead eyes whenever the purpose of their mission was discussed: to bring the Americans fully into the fight for freedom and independence in Kosovo, to force out the hated Serbian butchers, and give the ethnic Albanians a homeland to call their own.

The time for negotiation and compromise was over, Stefan had sworn. He would bring the eyes of the world down upon the Americans and force their hand. To hell with NATO and their worthless talk, treaties, and impotent bombing runs. In the end, it all had merely rained more suffering down upon his people. He would force the indecisive Americans to drive the Serbs from the Kosovars’ rightful homeland, one kilometer at a time.

Independence – denied them so far by the Yugoslavs and NATO – would bring peace to Kosovo. Stefan was sure of it.

And for now, Stefan was willing to use any and all means at his disposal to reach that end. Roberto’s maternal grandfather had been born in Albania and had migrated across the Adriatic to Italy many years ago – Stefan routinely reminded the Italian military pilot of that fact. Still, this was not his fight. It was too much to risk, had it not been for Alexandra. How lucky he was that the beauty had come into his life, and he would do anything to keep her a part of it – even this.

"I’ll take a campari and soda," he heard himself saying to the attractive, short-haired flight attendant who had suddenly appeared at his side. "With just a little ice," he winked at her sea-green eyes.

"I can handle that!" she smiled at him, and he found himself watching the sway of her hips in her tight blue skirt as she turned and moved off towards the galley. She was teasing him, he knew it! Anyway, it wouldn’t hurt to pass the time flirting with the little blonde, he thought. It was what any Italian businessman would do, wasn’t it? And it didn’t hurt that Alexandra would be left to seethe behind him, in silence. After all, a little jealousy was good for a relationship, his father had taught him that.

Alex would be angry with him afterwards, or so he hoped.

She was beautiful when she was angry.


For the fourth time, Mishka Rhu checked that his seat belt was fastened low and tight across his lap. He didn’t like to fly. In fact he’d rarely flown at all, given the life he’d led back in Pristina, as a technical engineering graduate student at the university. But the war, Stefan, and the death of his little sister Natasha – shot and killed while walking home from school with several of her friends - had changed all that.

The grief of his parents over the loss of their daughter had continued to deepen, like a worsening cancer. She was gone forever, as were the memories of the peaceful, happy times of their life together as a family. His father had turned to drink, his mother to her bed, and Mishka to the KLA – the Kosovo Liberation Army – as the means of easing the despair.

Mishka had committed himself to the hit-and-run, house-to-house guerrilla style warfare that the KLA favored against their Serbian oppressors, but as months passed and still nothing had changed, he’d grown more and more disillusioned. Even NATO was only willing to go so far, supporting the Kosovars in their quest for peace and self-rule, but not in the independence from Serbia that would guarantee the peace for future generations.

Mishka had heard the stories from his parents and grandparents; he knew what the Serbs were capable of. And hadn’t they shown this to the world already? Independence was the only answer. Only freedom would pay a final homage to the sacrifice of Natasha and the thousands of other victims of the invaders.

And Stefan Bukoshi, the passionate man with a cool exterior who lurked around the coffee-houses frequented by the KLA student-sympathizers, seemed to have an answer. His intense, deep set eyes, his high cheekbones and long, slim face drew them all in to his rebel-rhetoric. And it didn’t hurt that the beautiful Alexandra was never far from his side. It wasn’t until after Stefan had taken him and several of his KLA cell-members into his confidence, that he realized she belonged to the irritating Italian pilot Bukoshi had recruited into his plan.

That pompous fly-boy fool!

"My name is Joan, I’ll be your first flight attendant this evening on Orbis flight #2240, flying non-stop to Rome. May I please direct your attention to our safety video.…"

Mishka swallowed hard and pushed himself back into his seat as his personal video unit displayed the emergency procedures.

"Please be sure all electronic devices, including computers, cell phones, and radios, are switched off until ten minutes after take-off.…"

Mishka could feel the sweat beading on his forehead. He knew Stefan sat several rows behind him, but he dared not turn around. He knew he was doing the right thing, he was sure of it. It was just this damn airplane that was making him so nervous, not that he’d ever give that Italian asshole up in first class, the satisfaction of ever letting him know it.

"There are six exit doors on the Boeing 777-200…."

He concentrated on his breathing.

"Keep in mind the nearest exit may be behind you…."

Mishka had already counted the rows.

"In the event of a water landing…."

In the event of a water landing! Mishka squeezed his eyes shut and tried not to visualize the plane plummeting into the sea. Oh God, I can’t swim!


"Flight attendants, prepare for departure." The smooth voice of first officer Bill Samuelson filtered through the intercom.

Cindy Walters and Nathan Berbick performed one last visual check of the main cabin, working their way back to the aft jump seats where Trish Dugan and Alan Ross had already strapped themselves in.

Nathan moved along quickly, that last coffee in the airport having done wonders to clear his hangover. He tapped the tops of each seat-back as he passed, checking that they were in the upright position. The dark-haired young man looked over at Cindy, working her way down the opposite aisle. As usual, he would finish before her.

She always seemed to take extra time chatting unnecessarily with the passengers. Hell, she was doing it even now! He smiled in spite of himself as he went by her. That southern belle of his. She surely loved to talk. A perfect counterbalance to his moody silences, he knew. He could never stay angry long, not with her around. So, she was giving him another chance in Rome. That was all he needed, he thought.

"Sir, could you make sure your bag is fully under the seat in front of you?" the Charleston accent in the voice was clear and strong.

He would not panic. He was cool. He was calm. He, the leader of ‘operation independence.’ "Not at all," Stefan Bukoshi replied in formal English, pushing his carryon under the seat. He turned his gray-blue eyes to the petite, brunette flight attendant, and offered her a thin-lipped smile.

"Thank you," she said, returning the smile, and she moved on, looking past him.

"You’re welcome," he said softly, turning to gaze out at the gun-metal sky.


"I think you’ve got a fan in 2C," Joan laughed, as she sat down next to Becky in the forward jump seats.

"Please," Becky held up her palm in protest. "As long as he’s not like that guy on the NYC to LAX run," and she shook her head, remembering.

"I don’t know," the older woman tightened her seat belt, "he’s not that bad looking--"

"Exactly. I’ll bet there’s not a beautiful woman – or a mirror – he passes by. No thanks. Not my type."

"Good thing Cindy’s not working first class," Joan said, chuckling. "If Nathan ever got a load of Mr. ‘GQ,’ he’d have a hissy-fit of monumental proportions."

"Been there, seen that," Becky shared a knowing look with the senior flight attendant. Nathan and Cindy were her friends, but boy when they got together, it could be explosive at times. She fell silent for a moment, considering how she might take a rain check on hanging with them during the Rome layover. She’d been thinking anyway how it might be more fun to strike out exploring on her own, and leave the lovebirds elsewhere in the eternal city. Not a bad idea at that, she resolved.

There was a slight bump as the plane taxied to a stop, waiting its turn in the take-off queue. Bill Samuelson had already announced that they were fourth in line, so it wouldn’t be long now. Becky had thought it strange how the first officer was handling all communication from the flight deck, but Joan had told her earlier that this was not unusual when crewing with Captain Catherine Phillips. The pilot preferred to delegate such tasks to her first-officer, concentrating on flying instead.

And Kate Phillips was a serious one, that was for sure. Joan had taken a moment to formally introduce the young flight attendant to the captain, shortly after they had come aboard. After knocking, Joan had boldly entered the spacious flight deck, while Becky barely dared to poke her head in.

"Hiya there, Becky!" Bill Samuelson had removed his headphones and grabbed one of her hands in both of his, shaking it heartily. Becky knew the older man and liked him; she’d flown with him a number of times and found him to be warm and engaging. He was quick to laugh, and it was a running joke between them how he slyly kept offering to fix her up with his son, the doctor.

"Captain, this is Rebecca Hanson," Joan gestured toward the small blonde.

The pilot barely turned her head, giving the two women a quick nod. But it was enough for Becky to once again feel as though she’d been run through by the sidelong look. What was it about that woman’s gaze that made her feel so awkward?

"Hanson," the captain returned her attention to the active matrix cockpit displays. "Welcome aboard."

"Thanks," Becky had finally choked out, beating a hasty retreat back through the doorway. I think… she added silently to herself. Only 4,300 miles to Rome!


Captain Catherine Phillips found herself looking up the butt-end of a United Airlines 737. They were just that one plane away from being cleared for take-off. Kate heard the tower direct the UAL plane onto the runway, and she found herself gazing fondly at a plane that was truly the workhorse of the skies. She’d flown the efficiently designed 737 more times than she cared to recall. A big jet in its day, it was dwarfed by the Orbis Airlines 777-200 that trailed behind it now.

When Kate had first started flying the 777 super-jets, she was amazed at how the avionics of the aircraft had so closely resembled what she’d been used to in the Air Force: state of the art flight management, flat panel displays, and satellite-based navigation, all utilizing fully integrated fiber-optic technology.

Many pilots, Kate Phillips included, thought that the most impressive feature of the 777 line was its ‘fly by wire’ or ‘FBW’ flight director system. The European AirBuses were the first commercial carriers to utilize this revolutionary digital flight manager. In conventional aircraft, flight control surfaces such as flaps and ailerons are mechanically linked to the control column on the flight deck. But on the 777, control surfaces are moved by computers that interpret the pilot’s commands.

The triple-redundant system replaced heavy cables, complicated pulleys, and brackets, with a wire that electrically transmits signals to the flying surfaces. Aircraft instability, linked to flaws in the automatic pilot system, become virtually a non-factor.

Kate stared at her control column. If she were to pull up on it, the computer would sense that she wanted the aircraft to climb. The computer would then activate the flight control surfaces – increasing the camber of the ailerons on the wings, raising the tail elevators – to comply with that command. The damn thing was so good, Kate wondered at times whether a pilot were even needed.

The Federated Parcel planes were not equipped with FBW systems, and a part of Kate was glad of it. Truth be known, she preferred "hands-on" flying.

"Orbis two-two-four-zero, taxi to the leading edge of runway three-five-alpha and hold short."

"Roger, Orbis two-two-four zero." Kate acknowledged the control tower over the din of the United 737 roaring past. They were next.

Next to her, Bill pulled the throttle out to idle power, and continued reviewing the pre-flight checklist. "Be nice to get out of this cold," he said in an aside to her.

"Mnnnn…" her voice was non-committal. She would miss working with Bill, though she doubted he would feel the same. But that was her problem, wasn’t it? That she still even gave a damn what people thought?

"Kennedy tower to Orbis two-two-four-zero, you are cleared for take-off on three-five-alpha."

Kate taxied the plane to the top of the runway, and the twin PW4098’s gunned to a feverish whine. "Roger, wilco Kennedy tower. Orbis two-two-four-zero at runway three-five-alpha, ready for takeoff." She flashed Bill a quick look. "Full throttle," she ordered, and the jet began to accelerate down the runway.

The display panels came alive, shouting their bits of information at the pilot: airspeed, wind, heading, engine temperature and rpms. Kate felt a flare of excitement in her belly, she always did at takeoff. It was in her blood after all, she supposed. She watched the speed display leap forward: 75, 150, 200 mph. She pressed forward on the elevator trim and she felt Bill’s warm hand beneath her own, backing her up. It wasn’t really necessary, not with the FBW, but it showed that her first officer was a pilot of the old-school: procedures and routine first, and the younger woman appreciated that.

There! It was time. Kate’s gut would’ve told her so, even if the digital displays hadn’t already.


She pulled back on the control column, and the plane responded. The nose began to gently rise up, and instantly she vectored in on her optimal rate and level of climb, banking to the west and into a head wind as she did so.

"Wheels up."

"Roger, wheels up," Samuelson confirmed, and Kate could tell he was right by the hydraulic hum of the nose wheel and twin bogies as they retracted into the airframe.

The 95,000 pounds of thrust generated by the jet engines pressed the pilot hard into her seat, and she knew that the passengers and crew behind her were feeling that same stirring power: at once frightening, impressive – and highly effective.

Higher and higher the plane climbed, occasionally buffeted by the storm clouds they passed through – the same snowy system that had plagued New York all weekend. In the main cabin, the passengers were silent as the overhead bins rattled and the seat-backs shook with the force of the engine burst. Finally, at about 12,000 feet, they punched through the cloud deck and into one of the most beautiful sunsets Kate had ever seen – and she’d seen plenty here above the clouds.

"Wow," Bill said. "Neat."

Kate smiled faintly at her first officer’s understatement. "Turning on a heading of one-one-zero."

"One-One-zero, roger that," Bill replied, as Kate began to fly the plane towards the east; climbing all the while, with a vertical speed of over 2500 feet per minute. Soon, they would be at their cruising altitude of 33,000 feet.

The pilot could not help but admire the view as they strained skyward. The sun had already slipped away, and far as she could see the western horizon glowed as though it were aflame, like a fire on a desert plain. Hot, red embers at the base of it, bleeding into singed amber, finally topping off with the cooling topaz of the descending darkness.

Yes, she’d seen sunsets before, but this one touched her, in a way that surprised her. He mind briefly skipped back to the berry-flavored popsicles of her youth, with a trio of colors like this sunset. The kind her father had brought her on those sweltering hot summer afternoons at Coney Island.

How tall and dark her father had seemed next to her, as they strolled along, her little hand held up safely in the grasp of his beefy palm. One brother was too little to come with them, while her older one didn’t care to, and that was fine with her. She loved having her handsome father all to herself.

Together, they would walk the fair grounds, watching the other kids on the tilt-a-whirl, on the scrambler.

"Please, Poppa, take me on the roller-coaster!" she would beg. High and fast. Even then she craved it.

"Not this time, Katie," he would say, a hint of sadness in his voice, and he would ruffle the dark hair – so much like his own – on the top of her head.

It wasn’t until much later that she realized he couldn’t afford to pay for all those rides like the other kids’ dads could. And by then he’d been long dead.

Catherine Phillips’ father would never live to be a rich man. Not on what little money he cleared from the tiny Greek store-front takeout he owned in Queens. The small business was all the legacy he had from his own father, an immigrant from Greece who passed through Ellis Island in 1923 in search of a better life. He left behind everything he had in the land of his birth, forsaking all for this land of opportunity.

And somewhere passing through those gates of promise, with the Statue of Liberty gazing down sublimely upon him, keeping her secrets to herself, he left behind the "i" at the end of his name. Most likely thanks to a harried customs-house book-keeper’s error, Stavros Phillippi became Stavros Phillips.

It was just as well for the wide-eyed 17-year-old from the Peloponese. It meant he belonged. He was a poor farmer’s son, but his children would be Americans. And his children’s children. His joy knew no bounds, though it was short-lived.

Stavros didn’t travel far. He settled in Queens, in a fine Greek neighborhood off 35th street, and he tried to build a life for himself, his new wife, and a growing brood of children. He served the foodstuffs of Greece to his home-sick fellow emigrants: the fish, the feta cheese, the lamb. It was a hard life made harder still by the poor health of his fair wife. She died all-too-young, from a cough that wouldn’t leave her, despite all the tonics that doctor sold him.

Stavros never stopped mourning for the wife he lost, and for the children who left him one-by-one, seeking better fortunes across the river. They headed west, into the heart of the big city and beyond. Time passed and he heard little from them as they built their lives elsewhere, and so he was overjoyed when his youngest son – Nicholas – announced that he was interested in making a go of the family business.

It did not matter that Nicholas had courted and wed a tall, red-headed Irish girl. Stavros had recognized soon enough that the new Mrs. Meghan Phillips had a backbone of iron and a blazing temperament to accompany it. She would do well, helping her husband in the business and bearing fine young sons besides! It was a love match between those two. Stavros could see it.

And so, at peace with this small bit of happiness in his heart, Stavros Phillips, adopted son of America, went to sleep one warm spring night in 1970 and did not wake up.

Nicholas and Meghan barely had time to mourn, as busy as they were they with "The Olympia" – so Nicholas had named their emporium – and their small children. Peter, the oldest, sporting the same red locks of his mother. Then Catherine, a raven-haired, blue-eyed firebrand that Nicholas had delighted in, and finally Brendan, the fair, tow-headed baby of the family.

It may have been decided for her that Meghan Phillips would help to run a Greek fish-house in Queens, but by God if it was the last thing she did, she had sworn to the Blessed Mother and to herself that her children would all have proper Irish names. Knowing this was a fight he was destined to lose, Nicholas had capitulated to his bride’s wishes. In this matter, anyway.

A child can tell when they are the apple of a parent’s eye, and so it was with Katie and Nicholas. For as much time as the boys spent with their mother, little Kate did with her father. And it was those rare, infrequent sojourns to Coney Island, alone with her poppa, that she treasured most.

She would never know what caused her father to put a bullet through his brain when she was only 12. Her mother never talked about it. And Kate had always been too hurt, too angry, to ask. She thought she would never live know such a terrible heartache again, to feel such a loss, and indeed that was so, at least until Brendan had been killed.

Catherine Phillips sighed. The western horizon began to fade away behind her, a silent elegy to a promise unfulfilled, as the plane banked towards the darkened east. Towards Rome.

Shake it off, woman! What the hell’s the matter with you? The pilot self-consciously cleared her throat and straightened up a bit in her seat. Something had set her off. Perhaps the knowledge that a part of her life was coming to an end. Changing.

Or maybe it was the disappointment she knew she would hear in Cyrus’ voice, made all the more biting because in her own heart she feared she would feel the same way.

Or perhaps it was the fair-haired looks of that new flight attendant – Rebecca Hanson. Not only her coloring, but her manner too, shy yet confident, reminded Kate of the brother she’d lost. Not that it mattered.

None of this matters, Kate thought, as the plane struck out high above the Atlantic, sweeping eastward over darkened, turbulent waters. It never did.

continued..Part 2

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