Ticket To Samarkand
by Dave Weaver
The girl in the smartly-tailored brown and gold company uniform looked up from her screen as the man pushed his passport across the check-in desk. She quickly put away the newspaper she'd been reading with its lines of harshly scrolled writing and gave him a winning smile.
"Yes sir, how can I help you?" The airline hadn't exactly been swamped for business so far that morning; there were great yawning gaps of empty seats in the departure lounge and the day's only flight had already been called twice. Amira stifled a yawn and managed to keep the smile switched on.
"Have you anything leaving in the next hour?" The man asked, half panting as if he'd been running. Amira studied her new prospective customer more closely as he glanced warily over his shoulder. He wore a dark business suit with a light travelling bag slung over his back that kept slipping down. The hand that held the passport had a raincoat wrapped over it which also kept slipping, obscuring the document as he tried to shrug it back up his arm. He was forty-five-ish, medium build, nondescript in a swarthy way and sweating profusely. You got to notice things like that at a glance in her job. She could also tell somehow that he was scared. Really scared.
"What is your preferred destination?" she asked, as coolly as she could.
"I don't care, as long as we take off immediately. You have to guarantee me that."
"Well we have a flight leaving in a few minutes sir, in fact it's already about to board but I can still get you on if we're quick. Is that all the luggage you're taking with you?" She pointed to the bag.
"Yes, that's the lot. Could you hurry it up please?"
"Did you pack the bag yourself sir?"
"Yes yes, of course I did." He gave a strange twinge of frustration. "Will this take very long?"
"Wouldn't you like to know where the flight destination is before booking sir?"
He shook his head. "It's immaterial. Okay, where?"
"Samarkand? Where in hell's name is that when it's at home?"
"It's the second largest city in Uzbekistan sir." She tried not to show her incredulity but it was getting difficult. He was unnerving her, cracking her polished veneer of professionalism. There was desperation in his attitude, as if he were blindly fleeing headlong from something only vaguely comprehended. The situation's heightened sense of unreality made her begin to prattle. "Alexander the Great, Genghis-Khan, they say it's the Rome of the east..." Amira wasn't normally a prattler, but he'd got to her.
"I thought you said we hadn't much time." He tapped the passport on the desk impatiently until the raincoat slid down again and muffled it. "How much?"
She gathered her wits and punched in some figures, scrolled and clicked a few times then punched a few more. She told him the price.
"That's a return sir, I'm presuming you're coming back."
"Of course I'm coming back, next week. Why would I not be coming back?"
She shrugged and ran out the tickets. "This is your outward and this is your return to Baghdad." She pointed to a time on the latter. "It's a little late in the day I'm afraid."
He almost snatched them from her hand. "That's fine. And you're sure the flight's leaving now, you promise me that it does?"
Again, that air of desperation. She sensed him fighting the desire to look over his shoulder again.
"Yes sir, see, it says the arrival time on the ticket; 4 PM local time."
"And where do I go?"
"Through the departures gate to your left then through the passenger lounge to boarding gate fifteen, it's all marked when you get there."
He turned away to where she'd shown him without a thank-you. As he entered the gate, a dark shadow swept across the brightly-patterned carpet as if trying to catch up to him.
By the time the man had got to gate fifteen people were already being funnelled back through it by two more brown and gold uniformed girls with tiny walkie-talkies while a security guard looked on impassively. He saw some look annoyed, others just stoically accepting as the crowd pushed each other back to the rows of plush seats.
He caught up with one of the girls in mid-talkie. "What's happening? Why aren't we leaving?"
She caught the panic in his voice and looked up quickly. "It's nothing to be alarmed about sir. There's been a small leak while refuelling. The clean-up will just take a little time to finish."
"A little time, how long is a little? When are we going to take off?"
She gave him a humouring smile. "Not long now sir, excuse me." And she slipped gratefully away.
He sat down heavily in one of the seats.
A boy and a girl started playing a game of tag a few feet away, one of them nearly falling over his feet, until a woman's sharp voice made them reluctantly return to her side.
He hardly noticed. He had begun to sweat again, the lounge suddenly stifling and oppressive as if the sudden influx of extra bodies were sucking the oxygen out of the long low room as he watched. His head throbbed like there was a hammer smacking against the inside of his skull. He wheezed, trying to breathe in the thick pungent air of hairspray and aftershave, alcohol and rushed fast food.
Spluttering, he reached into the bag and pulled out his Blackberry.
"Hama, It's Mohamat. I'm at the airport. Baghdad Airport..." The man coughed roughly and flecks of blood appeared across the screen. He automatically wiped them off with a finger. "Yes at the fucking airport, that's what I said. Yes I went to see the bitch, damn it. Why the Christ did you pick me for that contract? Because she's a real ball-breaker, she's got us screwed and she knows it, I couldn't get her to agree and... Oh God Hama, it was awful, I... I think she had one of her guys put something in my drink, I don't know, she said something as I was leaving, some kind of curse, mumbled it under her breath but I heard enough... I've got to get out of the city, the country, look I'll call you tonight, I can't think straight now. Yes, tonight. I'm not fucking panicking boss, she's evil; look, you weren't there..." He broke off as another racking cough spotted the carpet with more blood. He put a handkerchief up to his mouth. "Boss...? Hama...? Fuck it!"
He dropped the phone back into the bag. His vision began to get to hazy as the room seemed to swim before his eyes. Someone sat down next to him.
"Sounds like you're having a tough day."
He turned slowly at the dry American voice. She sat there in a high fashion black dress that moulded itself to the contours of her small breasts. White boney hands clutched a silver purse to her knees. The thin high cheek-boned face moved towards him, eyes sharp and unblinking like a snake's, crimson lipstick smudged as if applied by a child. The pale skin looked almost translucent in the harsh neon light.
"Why, It's Mohamat isn't it?" She stretched out his name. "I'm sorry I was so abrupt this morning but I was somewhat taken aback by your presence." As he tried to look away from her his heart gave a jerk of recognition as it thumped against his ribs. "You see, I thought I'd agreed that the meeting would be at our Samarkand marketing office at noon. I was just leaving when you arrived." She smiled through yellowy teeth and her death's head swung even nearer. "Perhaps we can still meet up later, I'm on my way there now if they get that damn plane ready in time..."
His chest heaved again as a final spasm ripped through his body; he shook and twitched a few moments more then lay still.
"Mohamat...? Oh dear. Excuse me miss." She turned to wave over one of the girls. "I think there's been some kind of accident here..."
The man lay slumped back in the seat, eyes staring sightlessly at the ceiling. A thin drool of blood ran from his mouth and across his blue pin-striped shirt. The tightened claws of his hands pointed upwards at the ceiling.
The ticket to Samarkand was clutched in one of them.
© 2011 Dave Weaver
Bio: Dave Weaver is a graphic designer living in St Albans. He is a member of the Verulam Writer's Circle. Dave's 'Finding Uncle' short story was published in Hert's University's 'Visions' anthology. His most recent Aphelion appearance was The Man Who Turned Himself Off, October 2011.
E-mail: Dave Weaver
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