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Due Preparations for the Plague

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“She had a ticket for Flight 64, but she never got on the plane because—”

Lowell laughs in a nervous high-pitched way. “I bet this is about blackmail,” he says.

Sam presses her own foot down on Lowell’s, to stop the trembling. “That doesn’t seem to be her motivation,” she says. “She’s got something heavy on her conscience, is my impression. She wants to set something right. She wants to make contact with you.”

Lowell recoils. “You didn’t tell her how to reach me?”

His eyes constantly monitor the Penn Station throng. Sometimes he twists his chair to carry out sentry duty from a new angle. From time to time, he partially unzips his overnight bag and reaches in to feel the contents, checking.

“What’s in your bag?” Samantha asks in a low voice.

“Nothing,” he says. “My things. How much information did you give her?”

“I didn’t give her anything, but she can easily find it herself.”

“Great,” Lowell says. “That’s just great. Wait. Where are you going?”

“I have to make a phone call,” Samantha says. Her own panic reflex is high. In a pay phone booth, she dials Jacob’s office number, then tries him at home. Both times, she gets his answering machine.

“Jacob,” she says. Her voice wavers. “It’s Sam. Just wanted to know you’re okay. Don’t get upset, but I’m meeting with Lowell, you know, the son of the woman … We’re in a fast-food joint at Penn Station, and he knows more than he’s letting on. I’ll call back later, okay? I just want you to know where I am.”

At the table, Lowell has his backpack pinned between his knees. He is holding his beer glass with both hands. “There are Civil War junkies,” he says, “and Titanic junkies, and Elvis-sighting junkies.” He gulps down his beer. “I can tell you’re a hijack junkie. Someone who collects every harebrained rumor from loonies on the Web—”

Samantha bridles. “I may be a junkie, but I’m rigorous. I read declassified documents, I read the airline reports, I read newspaper archives, I contact survivors and families. I’m doing this for a senior thesis in American history. Everything has to be documented.”

“So what have you documented?”

“Nothing much yet,” she concedes. “But I’m working on it. And I think the odds are that you do have a half-sister even though Françoise may not be her real name.”

“Okay, so maybe I have a half-sister. And okay, maybe she had a ticket for the same flight—is that confirmed?”

“Not yet. But it will be. I’ve applied for a research grant to go to Paris for spring semester. I want to meet with Françoise. I want to see her ticket. She says she’s still got it.”

“Air tickets are easy to forge. She’s just a name on the Web. Some people get high on that. They make up names, they cruise websites—”

“I know that. That’s why I want to go to Paris. I want to meet her, check her ID, check her birth certificate, date of birth, check her driver’s—”

“I bet this is about the will,” Lowell says. “My father’s will. Fishy that she suddenly pops up now, the way scores of women claimed to be Anastasia, the czar’s daughter—”

“Maybe. But she made contact in August, before your father died.”

“Maybe she knew what was coming,” Lowell says.

They stare at each other.

“I’ll tell you something else that’s creepy,” Samantha whispers. “My mother was on that flight, right? My mother’s sister was living in Paris and sharing an apartment with a woman named Françoise. I know, I know, it’s a common name. It gives me a strange little buzz, just the same. That’s another reason why I want to go to Paris. My aunt has a photograph of her

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