Before you find yourself stranded in the woods with a cranky apex predator, ask yourself: Do I really want to go on a camping trip with a vampire? The answer is probably going to be no.
—Where the Wild Things Bite: A Survival Guide for Camping with the Undead
An evil transportation-hating monster had devoured my plane. And in its place, the monster had left a little, bite-size plane crumb behind.
I stood on the tarmac of the Louisville airport, staring in horror at the plane crumb as my purse, a brown leather tote bag, dangled from my fingers. This was not a momentous beginning to my trip to Half-Moon Hollow.
Despite the fact that I could see crowds of people milling around the airport through the windows, I felt oddly alone, vulnerable. A handful of planes were parked at nearby gates, but there were no luggage handlers, no flight staff. I’d never boarded from the tarmac before, and the short, rickety mobile staircase being pushed up against the side of the plane like a ladder used for gutter cleaning didn’t make me feel more confident in the climb.
When I’d booked my flight to westernmost Kentucky, I knew small planes were the only models capable of flying into Half-Moon Hollow’s one-gate airport. But I’d thought the plane would seat at least thirty people. The vessel in front of me would maybe hold a baker’s dozen, if someone sat on the pilot’s lap. There were only four windows besides the windshield, for God’s sake.
“This is the right plane, in case you’re wondering,” said a gruff voice, which was accompanied by a considerable whiff of wet tobacco.
I turned to find a florid, heavyset man in a pilot’s uniform standing behind me. His healthy head of wavy black hair was counterbalanced by a pitted, sallow complexion and undereye bags so heavy they should have been stored on the nearby luggage cart. A lifetime of drinking had thickened his features and left a network of tiny broken capillaries across his broad nose. Given the sweat stains on his uniform, I might have doubted his current sobriety, but I supposed it took considerable motor control to keep that large unlit cigar clamped between his teeth. His name tag read “Ernie.”
“That is not a plane,” I told Ernie. “That is what happens when planes have babies with go-karts.”
Snorting, he pushed past me toward the plane. The olfactory combination of old sweat and wet cigar made me take a step back from him. I was starting to suspect his pilot’s license might have been written in crayon.
“Well, if you don’t want to fly, there’s always a rental car,” the pilot snarked, climbing the stairs into the plane. “It’s about a four-hour drive, until you hit the gravel roads. You might make it before noon tomorrow.”
I frowned at Ernie the pilot’s broad back. If there was anything I hated more than flying, it was driving on unfamiliar, treacherous roads alone at night. Besides, there were too many things that could happen to the package between here and the Hollow. I could spill coffee on it while trying to stay awake. It could be stolen while I was stopped at a gas station. A window malfunction could result in the package being sucked out of the car on the highway. I needed to get it back to Jane as soon as humanly (or vampire-ly) possible. So driving was a nonstarter.
I gritted my teeth and breathed deeply through my nose, watching the way the sickly fluorescent outdoor lights played on the dimpled metal of the wings. The tiny, tiny wings.
The pilot stuck his head out of the plane door. “Plane’s not gonna get any bigger,” he growled at me around the cigar.
“Good point,” I muttered as I took the metal stairs. One-in-nine-million chance of dying in a commercial plane crash. One-in-nine-million chance. There had to be at least nine million and one other people flying commercial right now. One of them had to have worse luck than me . . . they were probably on a bigger plane, though.
Even though my cargo was completely legal, I still felt the need to look over my shoulder in an extremely obvious manner as I boarded. My superspy skills were supremely lacking. The looks that security gave me as I visibly twitched while sending my bag through the X-ray machine were bad enough. But I’d never hand-delivered an item to a customer before, especially an item of such high value. My bonding and insurance couldn’t possibly cover something that was considered priceless to the supernatural community at large. I just wanted to get it out of my hands and into those of my employer, Jane Jameson-Nightengale, as quickly as possible.
Despite my fervent wish that the plane was secretly a TARDIS, it was not, in fact, bigger on the inside. And except for Ernie the pilot, it was completely empty. This was, after all, the last flight from Louisville to the Hollow for the night, which made it a risky proposition, layover-wise. From what Jane had told me, most Hollow residents didn’t want to risk being stuck overnight in Louisville, so they planned their connections for earlier in the day. But a client meeting had kept me in Atlanta until the last minute, so I’d booked a late flight. It worked better for me to land late anyway, since Jane, an oddly informal vampire who insisted that our relationship be on a first-name basis, would be meeting me at the airport. Pre-sundown pickup times didn’t work for her.
Though minuscule, the interior of the plane was comfortable enough, with its oatmeal-colored plastic walls, the smell of recently applied disinfectant, and its closely arranged seats. Though I clearly had my choice of spots, I took the time to find my assigned berth in the second row. I declined putting my tote bag in the tiny storage compartment at the front of the plane. Despite being the only passenger, I was uncomfortable with the idea of not being able to see my bag at all times. I turned, checking the distance from my seat to the door-slash-emergency exit. Studies showed that passengers were five times more likely to survive a crash if they sat within five rows of the emergency exits.