Delta Flight 1565, the red-eye from Atlanta to Los Angeles, was uncharacteristically on time as it descended from thirty thousand feet over a scrub-brush-dotted California desert.
The man in seat 4A opened his ultrathin laptop and connected his cell phone to the modem port. A mouse click initiated the sequence of dial tone, keypad tones, and connection static common to accessing the Internet.
“I swear those things are gonna be the death of us,” the man seated next to him said. “Between laptops and cell phones, a guy can’t get a moment’s peace anymore. Time was a business trip meant a nap and drinks on the plane and a girlie revue at night. Now it’s spreadsheets and reports in the hotel room and email in flight.” He grinned. “Not this time, pal. My hard drive crashed just before takeoff.”
The grin widened. “Took three ‘Oops!’ to crash it, too.”
“What business?” 4A asked.
“Auditor. IRS.” He laughed. “Yeah, that’s the expression I usually get.”
“Sorry. I’ve never met an IRS auditor.”
It was the first exchange between the two men since takeoff four and a half hours earlier.
The IRS auditor sat in the aisle seat. His rumpled gray suit coat was unbuttoned, his tie loosened. He leaned back and gazed at 4A’s computer screen, interested in how another man did his email.
A high-resolution image of a rotating earth filled the screen. A tiny envelope seemed to rise out of Europe. It got larger as it circled the globe. After a single orbit it filled the screen with the software company’s familiar triangular logo. A female voice said, “You have thirteen new messages.”
The auditor leaned closer.
“Do you mind?” 4A said.
“Oh, sorry . . .” Straightening himself in his seat, the auditor signaled to the flight attendant. “Another scotch and soda.”
4A clicked on the envelope graphic. A column of file folders appeared. A digit in brackets beside each folder indicated the number of messages that had been routed into each one.
OFFICE  UNREAD MESSAGES
PERSONAL  UNREAD MESSAGES
ADS / SPAM  UNREAD MESSAGES
That left one message the program was unable to route. The email’s routing data was displayed.
From: <blocked by sender>
To: Seat 4A
Sent: Wednesday, 11:47 a.m. EST
Subject: Death Watch
Beneath it were three options:
Save to folder
The man in seat 4A stared at the subject line. For a full minute he didn’t breathe, neither did his heart beat. Then, pointer icon shaking, he clicked on the Read option.
A new window opened with the text of the message.
You have been selected for death. Precisely forty-eight hours from the time of this transmission you will die.
This is an official death watch notice.
Seat 4A glanced nervously at the man next to him, who was busy eyeballing the flight attendant as she handed him his drink.
As casually as he could, 4A clicked the program closed and eased shut his laptop with the same slow, deliberate motion a mortician would use to lower the lid of a coffin. 4A’s breathing came in short, shallow gulps.
The auditor didn’t seem to notice his distress. Taking a sip of his drink, the man reached for the phone that was embedded in the headrest of the seat in front of him. Balancing his drink, a phone card, and the handset, the auditor’s freckled finger punched in a number. He stopped after three digits.
“What in blue blazes . . . ?” Pulling the phone away from his ear, he looked at it, then listened again. To 4A, he said, “There’s an incoming call! That’s not possible, is it?”
Heads in the first-class section turned his direction.
The man across the aisle frowned. “Those phones can’t take incoming calls.”
“That’s what I thought,” said the auditor. “But I got an operator telling me to hold for an incoming call.”
“I swear, that’s what she said!”
The auditor put the phone to his ear, slowly, almost as though he expected something to jump out at him. “He . . . Hello?”
He listened for a moment.
His eyes grew wide.
He held the phone out to 4A. “It’s for you.”
“Me? You don’t know who I am.”
The IRS auditor spoke with a queer tone of voice. “She told me to hand the phone to the man in seat 4A. That’s you, isn’t it?”
The handset was shaking. The auditor seemed desperate to get rid of the phone. He handed it over. “It’s bad news, I tell you. Believe me, I know. I’ve delivered it often enough.”
“What did they say?”
“This woman just said to hand the phone to 4A. But she had a really weird voice. Eerie, you know? It echoed like it was coming from the bottom of a well.”
“Probably just a bad connection.”
A perky blonde flight attendant appeared. She spoke to 4A with a smile. “I’m sorry, sir, you’ll have to hang up. We’re beginning final approach.”
Seat 4A held up a finger. “One moment, please.” He placed the phone to his ear.
The voice offered no greeting.
You have forty-eight hours. Your Death Watch begins now. This is your second and final notification.
Then the line went dead.
Outside the double-paned window, an endless patchwork of LA streets, frame houses, strip malls, and palm trees slid beneath Delta Flight 1565 in a dizzying blur.