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Saturday, 9 May 2015

Saturday Story - 'Dead on Time'

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Nik Morton


Ironically, fog had descended a matter of minutes after he alighted from the taxi outside the airport. Thick griseous swathes, blanketing sound as well as sight. Fog always reminded him of Bleak House: 'Fog everywhere... fog all round him, as if they were up in a balloon and hanging in the misty clouds.'

Having paid the fare, Alan nervously edged his way forward, groping for a door. Perhaps the fog would lift; perhaps they would take off anyway. His fingertips thudded into glass and the door opened to the pressure.

            Sweat-seepage increased as he crossed the gleaming tiled floor beneath the suddenly stark fluorescent lights. Nervously, he looked over his shoulder. A few rogue wisps of fog hovered around the jamb of the door he had entered; outside, vaguely menacing greyness.

            It was nerves, of course. First hijacks must always be like this, he told himself, trying to smile. The place looked empty, devoid of the usual bustle associated with a minor airport of Florida. But, then again, it was only 2am. He had been surprised to find a flight at this hour, really, here. Any plane would do; the sooner it was over, the better.

            Then he saw them, to the right, through a barrier and seated in a glass-partitioned room. He sauntered over, trying to look inconspicuous. He prayed there wouldn't be any metal- or chemical-detectors, and sweat soaked his shirt and his bladder felt weak and cowardly.

            'I'm afraid we've got a shuttle-load, sir...' The attractive stewardess leaned forward solicitously. 'Mr Mason? Are you all right?'

            He started. The damned mist had sent him off dreaming,, mulling over the pain, the loss, the cost. Yes, the terrible cost. 'What?' He must have mentioned his own name, instead of the moniker he'd used when phoning to book a shuttle ticket.

            Nerves, damned nerves! He wiped a wet brow, eyed her. Young and shapely, of course, immaculate in her airline's blue trouser-suit, little pillbox hat perched jauntily on a ginger head of hair.

            She smiled, a trifle unsteadily he thought. 'I don't have room on this flight for you, sir - I'm just waiting for a couple of late-comers...' That smile again: 'The next Nassau plane leaves in two hours, if - '

            'No,' he interrupted, only too aware of other passengers' eyes on him. A soulful lot, not properly awake or asleep yet - as though padding through a nom-man's land between dream and consciousness. 'No way!' he growled. He couldn't face a longer wait! His nerves wouldn't stand it - then, if he flunked now, what would become of poor little Sandy?

            'No,' he said again, gruffly, emboldened by an unwanted vision. 'This'll do fine.' He noted the Dymo'd nametag: 'Jeanne?' She nodded. 'Well, Jeanne,' he began, bravado swelling his chest, creasing his thin mouth, 'What kind of airline is this, dissuading passengers when there are plenty of seats left, eh?' He forced a chuckle, very conscious of the explosives strapped to his sweating flesh.

            She seemed upset, distraught. The three or four other passengers waited behind him with remarkable patience.

            Gently easing him to one side of the bus's entrance, she said, 'Please stay here, Mr. Mason, till we get the other passengers onboard. Then we'll see about... fitting you in. All right?'

            Tension within him mounted. His muscles ached with it; his jaw was uncomfortably stiff. And still the sweat oozed. He grunted agreement.

            Jeanne kept giving him sidelong glances, clearly worried about his feverish appearance. His hasty, weak smile did little to allay her fears. But why couldn't he go? There was, after all, plenty of room. Some safety regulation, perhaps?

            It was more than nerves, he knew. Reaction, probably. Trauma. Well, he'd had a pretty dreadful three weeks of it...

            As the last passenger clambered up the bus steps, Jeanne followed and unlatched a radio-telephone from the facia, jabbed a button and spoke briefly.

            Finally, she replaced the handset in its recessed bracket and sighed down at Alan's upturned, expectant face.

            'I'm sorry, Mr. Mason, but the Captain is quite adamant, he says he can't make exceptions - his plane has its correct passenger quota - '

Alan swore under his breath then stared. From the condensation-covered windows of the bus the other passengers gazed down at him. He was fuming. So grim and pallid-looking, the lot of them. God, they reminded him of Rachel, of her death-mask, all passion spent, life voided. Yet they had money, were doubtless off to Nassau to get some colour put into them, to throw their money about. Money. Greenbacks galore, and not a smile among them. If it wasn't for Sandy, he'd give it all up. Turn his back on the whole lot. Until you lost, though, you didn't realize how precious life is. Not money, just life. God, how he ached inside. And how smug they looked! But he'd soon change that! He would try arguing once more: 'But, Miss, there are empty seats!'

            Reluctantly, Jeanne climbed down to the tarmac. 'Please - if you won't leave, I'll call up Security.'

            There was nothing for it. He moved closer, threateningly, almost brushing against her in the stair well of the bus entrance. He caught a whiff of her heady perfume, shook his head to dismiss resurrected thoughts of Rachel. Here, nobody could see him hastily open his shirt and reveal the explosives. 'I'm wired to go off at any time I choose, Jeanne.'

And he smiled without feeling.

            Her hazel eyes simply stared, her features becoming pale.

            'Now, go about your business as normal and just do as I say.'

            Obediently, she nodded.

            'I'll sit beside you on the front seat. Okay?' She was about to say something, but he continued, 'The Captain need not know he has an extra passenger just now. All right?' She nodded docilely and they clambered up just as the driver arrived.

            As the bus moved across the fog-bound tarmac, nary a sound of its movement or engine reached his ears. Everything seemed muffled. Fear did that, he remembered reading somewhere: it distances you. At the moment, he'd like to be a thousand miles away.

            Slowly, his pulse began to return to normal as he recovered from the ordeal of getting this far. Thank God they hadn't used the metal-detectors! The last hijack was so long ago that security had, naturally, relaxed. No matter how he tried, though, he couldn't prevent his body trembling, his stomach somersaulting.

            The fog still had not lifted as they climbed into the fuselage. The air-stewardess took the tickets; her eyes widened a little when she saw him, but Jeanne said, 'It's all right, Marge, the Skipper okayed it.'

            'Oh. Fine... Seat 43B, there, sir...'

            'Er, no - that one, by the pantry, if I may?' He cocked an eyebrow at Jeanne.

            Still pale, she nodded.

            Alan ensconced himself in the centre seat of three, the other two vacant. He had an uninterrupted view of fog through the porthole. He pulled a hand away from his brow: soaking.

            Loosening tie and collar, he peered out the glass port, through the ghostly reflection, his grey almost lifeless eyes, and stiffened. What if they grounded the plane after all? He'd already revealed his intentions to Jeanne, he'd never get away. He turned sharply; his neck cricked painfully.

            She stood by the aisle seat, unsure what to do.

            'This is your Captain speaking.' The tannoy momentarily startled Alan, and he was annoyed to see her register his reaction.

            'Doubtless many of you noticed a little bit of mist...' A few chuckles from the rear greeted this understatement. Alan glowered at the speaker unit. 'Well, rest assured, folks, I've left on schedule these last four years driving this tin can and I intend today to be no different.'

            Somewhat mollified, Alan relaxed, leaned back from the seat's edge. Two elderly passengers across the aisle were laughing at some private joke, or they were easily amused: the Captain wasn't that funny. Still, at least two of this lot had some life in them, he mused. 'I'll hand you over to Jeanne, now, your hostess this trip - '

            While the other girl shut the bulkhead door and disappeared for'ard into the flight cabin, Jeanne explained the workings of the flip-down oxygen masks.

            Alan closed his eyes. For the hundredth time, he told himself, make the demand simple. Collect the money and the parachute at Nassau. Bluff, tell them there's a bomb hidden, triggered by remote if the 'chute doesn't open... Parachute over the Bahamas. A search party would never find him. Then back, circuitously, to Sandy...

            The sudden banshee wail of the jets starting up shook him. Hell, I'm on edge! He gripped the chair arms and craned his neck round. Where the hell was she?

            There, strapping in a blind woman. Now she was walking down the aisle. She settled herself beside him and he smelled that perfume again. She snapped on her seat-belt, said, in a whisper, 'What do you want, Mr Mason?' There was a nervous timbre to her voice. It sounded as edgy as he felt.

            He looked out. A little tug as the throttles went forward. He had the stomach-churning impression of blindly hurtling through impenetrable mist. Intermittently, a runway light glinted redly in the murk.

            He reached out, clasped her cool long hand on the seat arm.

            Then, a slight shift. He eased back in his seat. The FASTEN SEAT-BELTS lights went out. They levelled off, engines droning soporifically; nervous exhaustion threatened, he left her hand go, and his head jerked forward suddenly, scared him alert.

            'I must tend to the passengers, Mr Mason - '

            'No, Jeanne, you stay here. Until I'm ready - '

            'Please, why must you - ?'

            Impulsively, he reached out, knuckles gently brushing her high cheekbones. She sat immobile, wide eyes never leaving his features. 'Have you ever lost someone you loved, Jeanne?'

            Gingerly, she raised a hand, took his own away from her face. Eyes unwavering, she said, 'Yes. A pilot - he flew into a mountain in fog just like this...'

            'Then you'll know something of what I feel, won't you?'

            Still gripping his hand, she whispered, gently, 'But how can hijacking a plane bring her back?'

            Silly, really: his eyelids were becoming moist. Through misted eyes, he studied her.

Concern creased her brow, clouded the hazel irises.

'One day everything's hunkadory,’ he said, ‘then along comes this drunken slob with his battered Oldsmobile and your whole world folds - just like that!'

            'I'm ... sorry...'

            'He wasn't even insured, can you beat that?'

            'Your wife - ?'

            'Yes. Mercifully - their word - Rachel didn't die in pain - so they said, anyway, so I must believe that, hang onto it. Concussion. Deterioration, And cerebral haemorrhage...' Why can the grieved be so clinical when describing the method of death? Some kind of expiation?

            Tears welled as he again saw her lying there with bloody tubes stuck in her once-unblemished flesh, her bruise-ringed eyes and scarred face, the shallow breathing, and then... nothing... while he was miraculously unscathed.

            Now he held both her hands in his.

He was oblivious to all the other passengers.

His words rushed out in a hushed torrent: 'I just wanted to explode and tear down the whole goddamned hospital. There it was, crammed full of expertise and fantastic million-dollar equipment yet incapable of saving Rachel. God, how I wanted to cry out and curse, to inflict the pain that swamped my heart and filled my throat to choking - '

            'It's only natural, Mr. Mason, nothing to - '

            ' - and kill, that's what, to kill that mumbling jelly of a drunken swine. Sorry, he kept saying, sorry... Sorry!' Alan's body shook as the catharsis took him: oh, to lather into the slob, to salve his intense feeling of frustration, the terrible knowledge of loss, of emptiness. 'It was so unfair, Jeanne...'

            'What did you do?' she asked softly, a glassy look in her eyes.

            'Nothing. There was Sandy to consider, you see.'

            Although initially in a coma with a dented skull, cracked ribs and a compound fracture of femur, his six-year-old daughter was, thank God, off the critical list.

            Strange, he had never been a religious man. And he had doubts in the Almighty's credibility after losing Rachel. But still he offered thanks all the same when the surgeon informed him that Sandy would pull through.

            He smiled thinly at Jeanne. 'I feel bloody silly, telling you this - especially as - '

            'Never mind, Mr Mason. It does you good to get it off your chest.'

            'Yes. I'm sorry it had to be this plane, really...'

            'Don't think about it. You'll see, afterwards, it'll all be forgotten, a nightmare, you'll live again...'

            'No, my life is as good as done. All I want is money, for a trust.'

            'But?' Beguilingly, she cocked her head.

            'The bills came in. It couldn't have happened at a worse time. The Space Program had run down and I'd been laid off work at the Centre, with little prospect of alternatives in the area. Rachel had had to leave her job after contracting a virus that she'd just shaken off - so we had some hefty doctors' bills to begin with...

            'We hadn't been able to afford either hospital- or life-insurance. Virtually every cent was sunk into our home. That's a laugh! A good choice of words, there. Sunk! About three weeks back I learned that the swamp was reclaiming the land. The property speculators had vanished, the property - among the thousands there - was worthless...

            'So my bank balance read some five thousand dollars, the remnants of my handshake from the Centre when the first hospital bill for Sandy hit me.'

            'I see...'

            'It's already $12,000, and Sandy's keep and nursing is steadily rising at $500 a day!'

            'But, what about Medicaid?'

            'On paper, till the wrangling gets sorted out, I'm not regarded as poor. I'm on my own.'

            Sombrely, she let go of his hands. 'Yes...' She looked down. Her watch told them they had been talking perhaps ten minutes; not time enough to distress Marge up front. 'What now, then, Mr Mason?'

            Outside, there was nothing but wispy cloud. His mouth felt dry; reliving those weeks of loss had drained him, his knees were weak. Maybe fear-seepage was to blame, too.

            'I'm sorry about Sandy,' she said and sounded sad, 'but you won't succeed, you know.'

            He grinned. 'Just watch me!' The adrenaline began to flow again. 'Back up with me to the Flight Deck.'

            Quietly, she obeyed.

            He pushed her through the cabin door, followed, and slammed it shut.

            The navigator's eyes widened in mild dismay and the co-pilot swivelled round, speechless. On their port quarter, the sun rose steadily. Without pausing from the instrument array, the Captain growled over his shoulder, 'What's going on?'

            'An extra passenger, Chief,' Jeanne said. 'He's a hijacker.'

            Alan, tense as he was, felt sure he saw them fleetingly smile. 'This isn't a hoax!' he snapped. 'Now, listen good!' He rubbed a sleeve over his streaming brow, licked dry lips. 'Tell your airline I want $80,000 in used bills waiting at Nassau - with a parachute!'

            Casually, the Captain turned in his bucket seat. 'We can't do that.' Soft-spoken, cool: damn him!

            'You what?'

            'We're - '

            'Chief!' interrupted the co-pilot, pointing out the sloping windscreen. 'It's Rhoda! She must've turned!'

            The once-clear dawn sky was now veiled with a thick yellowish haze. Surging up at an angle from the sparkling sea of Florida Keys, a dark column blotted out the sun, spinning directly in their flight-path. The ominous mass of whirling water and hot air, greyish-green as it neared, was shot through with a weird coppery light.

            'Hurricane Rhoda,' someone said in awe.

            'For Christ's sake, why don't you take avoiding action?' Alan screamed, but no-one seemed to hear.

            Broken fast-moving clouds, like out-riders at Rhoda's side, scudded low beneath them. The body of the storm became black, overshadowing, and Alan's heart sank.

            Only the submarine glow of the gyrating weather-radar and other instruments illumined the cabin.

            Then great windy gusts buffeted the craft, deafeningly.

            Panic tore at Alan's face, contorting his features, but he couldn't move, frozen with fear.

            Rain lashed, echoing.

            They tilted and bucked, vibrations jarring to the core without let-up. Jeanne cannonaded into him. They tumbled onto the canted metal deck amid skidding instruments, flight paraphernalia and papers.

            A change occurred. The pounding noise and frenetic shuddering disappeared, leaving only the muted humming of air outside, like a distant swarm of locusts.

            Damp globules drooled down the windscreen. Sunlight spectrum-streamed from above. Stillness surrounded them.

            'We're in the eye, dammit!' exclaimed the Captain.

            Disbelievingly, Alan stared at the encircling grey-green cloud of spray, a forbidding dense wall. He met Jeanne's ironic gaze. 'You picked a right one here, Mr. Mason!' Then, brushing past, she whispered, 'It's time, again, Chief...'

            'Okay. Delta Echo calling Control... Delta Echo...’


'I'll take over, Johnny,' said the relief controller in the tower.

            Johnny removed his head-phones. He looked as white as a ghost. 'We received Delta Echo's distress signal again. Dead on time... That's four years since they were lost in Hurricane Rhoda...'



Previously published in Fantasy Tales, 1990

Copyright Nik Morton 2015

If you enjoyed this story, you might like my collection of crime tales, Spanish Eye, published by Crooked Cat (2013), which features 22 cases from Leon Cazador, private eye, ‘in his own words’.  He is also featured in the story ‘Processionary Penitents’ in the Crooked Cat Collection of twenty tales, Crooked Cats’ Tales.

Spanish Eye, released by Crooked Cat Publishing is available as a paperback and as an e-book.

Or you could try my co-authored fantasy novel Wings of the Overlord (by Morton Faulkner) currently available in hardback (5 good glowing reviews):

Floreskand, where myth, mystery and magic reign. The sky above the city of Lornwater darkens as thousands of red tellars, the magnificent birds of the Overlord, wing their way towards dark Arisa. Inexplicably drawn to discover why, the innman Ulran sets out on a quest. Although he prefers to travel alone, he accedes to being accompanied by the ascetic Cobrora Fhord, who seems to harbour a secret or two. Before long, they realise that it's a race against time: they must get to Arisa within seventy days and unlock the secret of the scheduled magical rites. On their way, they stay at the ghostly inn on the shores of dreaded Lake and meet up with the mighty warrior Courdour Alomar. Alomar has his own reasons for going to Arisa and thus is forged an unlikely alliance. Gradually, the trio learn more about each other -- whether it's the strange link Ulran has with the red tellar Scalrin, the lost love of Alomar, or the superstitious heart of Cobrora. Plagued by assassins, forces of nature and magic, the ill-matched threesome must follow their fate across the plains of Floreskand, combat the Baronculer hordes, scale the snow-clad Sonalume Mountains and penetrate the dark heart of Arisa. Only here will they uncover the truth. Here too they will find pain and death in their struggle against the evil Yip-nef Dom.


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