Buckle Up

Excerpt from Sea of a Thousand Words:  Chapter 38

By Christine Wallace


 

Queen Charlotte Strait. August 24 2033

52°20’32.5″N 129°33’34.3″W

 

“I don’t believe this is what this aircraft was designed for, Kai,” Adili muttered as he reached for the grab-rail above his shoulder.

“Are you kidding me? This is exactly the kind of thing these birds were made to do—just ask HighTower’s guy in back there… Hey, Ashfield—you awake?”

Adili turned to check on the prisoner when he failed to hear any response. His cold stare was returned by a disinterested nod from Trip, who upon acknowledgement, returned his gaze out the side window. Kai sent the helo plummeting toward the ocean sideways. “Man, I miss flying these things. I almost wish we weren’t so close to our destination… I don’t want to give this baby up.”

Adili frowned and shook his head. He didn’t share his partner’s enthusiasm for the whirling helicopter and would be glad to put his feet back on solid ground again—even if it was to be enemy soil.

It had been twenty-four hours since Kai piloted the HighTower helo off Haida Gwaii, leaving Mike’s bloodied corpse on the gravel below. Since then, Adili spent much of his time staring out of the copilot’s window in a brooding silence. The violent hand-to-hand combat and its grisly aftermath had taken a heavy toll on the Maasai warrior and memories from long-ago returned to haunt him. Kai glanced across the cockpit at his sullen friend, he could only guess what was troubling him, as they’d never spoken of Adili’s life back in Kenya. With an inaudible sigh, Kai returned his attention to the skies ahead.

A fuel alarm began to beep and a red button on the instrument panel flashed. Kai tapped the readout. “Shit.”

“What—what’s wrong?” Adili asked.

“Fuel. That kerosene we used from Eli’s stock must be a lot less efficient… Damn.”

Adili watched nervously as his partner scanned the GPS screen. “Now what do we do? Will we crash into the—the…?”

Shhh! Let me look—OK, I’m pretty sure we can make it to Campbell Island… I’ll put her down in Bella Bella.” With that, Kai turned the controls and the helo tilted shoreward, heading toward the hilly green archipelago of the British Columbia Coastal Islands.

 

A short time later, they touched down in Bella Bella on the outskirts of main street. Trip had been staring out the back window for the entire ride and suddenly recognized the run-down store where he and Mike had quizzed the Native girl about Kim Chen. He cleared his throat and shifted his gaze to the opposite window. Kai jumped out of the cockpit and threw the headset on the seat. “What do you want to do with him?” he asked, gesturing to Trip.

Adili shrugged his shoulders. “I’ll stay here with him.”

“Nah, I’ll need some help with the jerry-cans. I don’t think we’re going to find a gas station that will let us pull in with a helo, mate.”

Adili walked back to the passenger compartment and unlatched Trip’s harness. Without a word, he grabbed the six-foot-one prisoner and hauled him to the ground. Trip winced as his wounded leg folded beneath his weight. “Can you walk?” Adili asked.

“Gee, I dunno. What do you think, Kunta Kinte?”

Adili pulled Trip to his feet and wrapped his long arm around the hostage’s waist, gruffly leveraging the injured man’s weight onto his hip. Together, they hobbled their way toward the village. Kai walked ahead, counting out the money.

They reached the general store and Kai nodded at Adili. “Wait out here, I’ll ask where we can find some fuel.”

Adili deposited Trip into a folding chair and stood beside him, arms folded across his chest, eyes fixed straight ahead. With a heavy sigh, Trip straightened out his leg and adjusted his position. He glanced up at the big man next to him, scrutinized Adili’s expression and then looked away deep in thought. Finally, he coughed and chuckled aloud, as if enjoying a private joke. “You always the farmer’s dog?”

Adili looked down with distaste. “What do you mean by that?”

Trip stretched and sucked on his teeth as he looked down the empty street. “Nothing really—just observing, that’s all. I see you, always at the beck and call of these people—you fight their battles for them; carry their cargo…” gesturing toward himself, “you’re their boy. I’m just rather surprised that you’re OK with it Adili, that’s all.” Picking a stalk of dried grass off his trousers, Trip waited for his words to sink in and take effect. After a moment of silence, Trip looked up. He found Adili in the exact same position, his focus had not changed, nor his expression.  At last, the big man looked down at Trip with a withering gaze.

“I am who I am. I do what I want for my friends—my people. Tell me, why did you bring this helicopter up to the islands, Mr. HighTower suit? Who is really the boy, here?”

Kai pushed the creaky screen door open and rejoined them. “They say they’ll have to send a boat over to Shearwater for fuel. I told ‘em we can’t go there ourselves—too risky.” He tossed a package of jerky at Trip and handed Adili one of the bags of provisions. “Let’s get back to the bird—we might be here for a while.”

As they spoke, young woman climbed the stairs and reached for the door handle. She glimpsed at Trip as she pulled the door open and did a double take. “Hey, I remember you—you’re the one who gave me all that cash for the salmon! You almost got me fired, mister.”

Trip nodded with a frown and gave her a cursory wave.

“Did you ever find your friend—the one who was travelling with Ooligan?”

Kai and Adili exchanged glances as Trip mumbled, “Nope, I never found him.”

“Huh, OK. Well then… have a good’un.” She shook her head and walked into the store, letting the screen door slam behind her.

“Let’s go,” Kai said. He helped Trip to his feet and motioned for Adili to lead the way, saying, “I got him this time.” As the two stumbled back to the helicopter, Kai said, “You know, we’re not you’re enemy. Why does it have to be like this?” He paused and knelt lower to get a better grip on Trip’s waist. “These people here—and back in Old Massett—they’re all just trying to live their lives. What have they done to HighTower? Why is it we’re all so expendable to you folks in your big cities and fancy buildings? Man, we’re all in this together… It doesn’t make any sense.”

Trip gritted his teeth as he half-stepped across the grassy meadow. He let out a terse laugh and said, “I’m just earning a paycheck, my naïve Kiwi friend.”

“Trust me, mate—there’s better ways to earn a buck.”

“You think so? I happen to be pretty good at my job. And, most of the time, I enjoy it.”

“I’m sorry for you, Trip. Really sorry.”

As the men approached the helicopter, they were met by two elderly Heiltsuks. The pair introduced themselves to Kai as friends of The Greenwood’s—code speakers. The elders had family members who lived in Tsawwassen. A three-person baidarka had been stopped by ferry officials close to shore several days ago… a baidarka that resembled the one that had been seen near Bella Bella recently.

Adili and Trip waited beside the helo as Kai spoke at length with the elders. Upon his return, Kai announced that they would stay the night in Bella Bella to learn more about the fate of the paddlers and why they’d chosen to move closer to the mainland shore.

They set blankets underneath the helicopter and ate a frugal dinner of apples, jerky and flat bread. The sun began to sink behind the hills of Campbell Island and Kai rose to leave. “I’m heading into town—the code speakers may have received more news about Dot and Táan—and that guy you’re so hot to locate, Mr. Ashfield.”

Adili tied Trip’s hands together and lashed them both to the skids. He moved himself apart from the other bed rolls yet sat near enough to keep a wary eye on their prisoner. The two of them spent the next few hours in silence with only the soft sounds of the trees and the water around them. Trip rolled onto his side and stared up at the yellow moon.

Kai returned to camp with some good news: the code speakers confirmed that the paddlers had been released and, from their general descriptions, Kai was certain that the three were indeed their friends—and that they all seemed to be unharmed. He’d asked the code speakers to send word throughout the southern network—that should anyone encounter their companions, aid would be rendered and word sent back to The Greenwood at once.

The men settled into their bed rolls but sleep was soon interrupted by the buzz of Trip’s mobile; the electronic device vibrated so loudly that it fell from the dash and landed on the footboard above Kai’s head. He grabbed the mobile and looked at the display. Urgent texts from Amanda Terrance demanded that Trip respond immediately. Despite several tries at unlocking the protected device, Kai was unable to respond to the director’s requests. After his last attempt, the screen went dark and would not open back up. They spent a restless and troubled night underneath the helicopter; each man pondering what the messages foretold.

The fuel arrived early the next morning and after Kai had poured the jerry-cans into the helicopter, it was time to leave. They silently lifted Trip into the seat and climbed into the pilot and copilot seats. Before he pushed the ignition, Kai turned around to address their hostage. His face was somber as he spoke. “Okay, I can’t think of any other way to say this. You’re going to have to cooperate with us, Trip. There is only one way.”

Bringing his bound hands up to scratch the stubble on his cheek, the cleaner raised one eyebrow and offered a sardonic smile. “It always comes down to ‘only one way’, Kai. That’s what you’ve missed.”

“Look… We need to help our friends. I don’t give a shit about your loyalty to your craft—or to HighTower, or to what-the-fuck-ever. It’s simple, you help me out or you don’t. But if you don’t, I’m going to lighten the load in this bird by about a hundred and eighty pounds over the Pacific.”

“I don’t doubt you, Kai. And I don’t think for a second that your big friend here wouldn’t hesitate to do the same thing to me that he did to the mercenary.” Adili looked back over his shoulder with a scowl but Trip pressed on, “It’s nothing personal. This is just how it goes. Trust me.”

“I see.”

Kai started the ignition and the dual rotors began to hum. The helo rose slowly, parting the dried grass beneath the skids into flaxen furrows. As they flew over Queen Charlotte Sound the mobile buzzed again with a flurry of messages from HighTower. Kai glanced back via the mirror on his dash. He had a strange look in his eyes—as if concentrating on a puzzle. He closed one eye and squinted with the other—wrinkling his bronzed brow as he blurted out, “Adili—grab that mobile off the dash… OK right… Now try entering the words ‘Sun Tsu’, only all one word—lower case.”

After asking Kai how to spell the name, Adili punched in the six letters and the screen flashed back to life. “It says it needs a fingerprint,” Adili muttered and without hesitation, reached behind him and grabbed Trip’s hand. Pressing the astonished prisoner’s thumb hard onto the display, he shouted, “Got it!” Kai shook his head and chuckled.

Trip grabbed the edge of Kai’s seat and leaned forward as far as his restraints would allow him. “How in the hell did you figure out my password?”

Kai smiled and adjusted the mirror. Looking back at the cleaner, he smiled as he replied, “I didn’t. But you’ve got to be careful what you give away when sparring with my wife, mate. She’s a fan of The Art of War as well… And from what I hear, you two traded some quotes during your friendly little chit-chat back at Doc’s house.”

Trip’s eyebrows shot up and he opened his mouth to speak—thought better of it and collapsed back into his seat, shaking his head. At last he muttered, “I’ll be goddamned.”

Adili whispered, “God damned is right.”

With little time wasted, they were able to access the texts and learn that Kim had been detected at a charter dock in old Seattle earlier that morning—around one o’clock according to Amanda’s terse communication. Kai directed Adili to respond that Trip was southbound and would check in as soon as he arrived. Before long, another incoming message flitted across the screen.

“Ashfield—get your ass to the compound. I want both of Chen’s family members and the journalist taken care of: Disappear them. Do it today. Banks.”

“What is this about?” Adili asked of Trip. “Who is this ‘Banks’?”

Trip shut his eyes and rolled his head toward the window. “Guys, I don’t have any problems with telling you who Nelson Banks is or what he’s referring to—you can look it all up on my device for Chrissake. But I think I should warn you—you’re in so far over your heads right now… There’s absolutely no way out of this.”

Kai twisted the controls, sending the helicopter into a side-slip toward the water. “All the more reason to go big or go home!” he yelled. “Now or never, Ashfield. You want to stay in or are you ready to swim?”

Trip clutched the grab-rail above his head as Adili leaned back to unfasten the harness that kept him inside the compartment. The helicopter continued its sideways dive toward the Pacific. “In! Goddamn it—I am in for Chrissake!”

The helo levelled off and ran parallel with the surface of the ocean. Trip shut his eyes and took a measured breath. He exhaled and looked down at the water to confirm he was still above it. “Alright. We’ll try it your way for now,” he said. “We’re dead men either way—you realize that at least. But it seems logical to hedge my bets for the short term.”

 

By the time they’d reached the San Juan Islands, Kai had a hashed out a rough plan. Armed with the knowledge that Trip was ordered to appear at the compound by HighTower’s senior executive, Kai decided he would land the helo on top of the roof. With Adili’s assistance—and close oversight to ensure cooperation, they would take their wounded hostage straight to security and order the guards to deliver them the prisoners, citing the need to dispose of them offsite. Beyond rescuing Kim’s family members—and some unknown French journalist—Kai had no comprehensive strategy. “We’ll just wing it,” he’d explained.

 

 

“How much longer?”

Kai checked the computer on his instrument panel. “I’d say we’re only about thirty minutes out. Let’s hope that this plan works.”

Looking back over his shoulder, Adili shot Trip an intimidating look—the same one he used when hunting lions in the savannah as a Maasai ilbarnot.

Glancing out the corner of his eyes, Trip acknowledged the threat. He cleared his throat and spoke loudly enough to be heard in the front compartment, “It’ll work. Just don’t overreact.”

 

 

The HighTower helicopter approached Puget Sound—which meant that old Seattle was only eighty miles away. Some distance below them, a solitary red navigation buoy bounced about in the waves. Kai spotted it out of his side window. “Hang on, Adili—I’m takin’ her down for another dive—Whooohoohoo!”

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