The Mysterious Documentarian
December 26th, 2012
Despite being in better spirits than the night at the coffee shop, Alan still looked pretty moody, avoiding conversation, as they drove along the country road towards Newbury, where they were supposed to rendezvous with this documentarian. His freshly shaven face had regained some of its colour, but the dark bags of silent misery in his eyes still remained.
Upon arriving in Newbury, they went straight to their hotel. After a short wait by the fire in the lobby, the stern-faced concierge came up to them, "Drs Shaw and Johnson?"
"Aye. Has Mr...Robbins arrived yet?" asked Derek, looking up the documentarian’s name in his notepad. The concierge nodded, "He’s expecting you in the lounge. This way, please." Motioning to the bellboy to take their luggage up to their rooms, he led them into the hotel’s small sitting room. Seated at a private table by the fire was their employer, Mr Russell Robbins; a tall man with sleek black hair, almost as if dyed with tar, and a shallow-skinned face that seemed to curl into an ugly sneer whenever he smiled. His sinister appearance, combined with his all-black garments, like those of an undertaker, gave Alan the chills. Sitting with him was a lanky young man in his late-twenties with a Spanish accent, who, Alan figured, was their pilot.
The concierge approached this walking corpse of a documentarian and whispered into his ear, who nodded and turned to greet the newcomers, "Hallo," he said, shaking hands with Alan and Derek, "Russell Robbins of Road Show Documentaries and Captain Julio Andre, our pilot.” The pilot Julio also offered his hand to shake, uttering a greeting in Spanish. "Bartender, two more pink gins for my guests please," he called, raising his hand to get the attention of the man at the mini bar, who hurried to get the drinks.
"So what's your field, Mr Robbins? War-impact documentaries?" Alan asked, sipping his drink, his eyes surveying at Robbins with suspicion; he didn't know if he liked this fellow or not. There was something off about this man, which he couldn’t quite figure out.
"War, wildlife, drama, you name it… And in every extraordinary place imaginable - Africa, the Amazon, the Middle East, British Columbia, even Antarctica. I don’t miss a place, not when it means good documentary material." Alan gave a mirthless laugh.
"Unfortunately, as all these extraordinary places you speak of will most likely only exist in your documentaries by the turn of the next century," he said grimly, remembering the RSPCA expressing concern that, following the natural impact left by the war, the environment’s integrity were now in the red, and the shattered global economy made any major restoration funding impossible. New Forest, a former National Park, was one of many dead zones worldwide simply evacuated and left to nature.
"I hear radiation levels in New Forest are still dangerously high and only accessible via air. How are we supposed to conduct our observations on site?" asked Derek but Robbins reassured him.
“I’ve chartered us a plane from the local flight club, and Julio here is qualified to fly us over the Forbidden Zone,” he explained, “I’ve managed to secure permission for us to fly low enough for shooting. We’ll manage. We fly eleven o’clock tomorrow, sharp."
That night, Alan lay awake in bed, thinking of this mysterious documentarian, Robbins. He couldn’t help but feel that he knew this man from somewhere before, yet the name Russell Robbins was one he had never heard before in his life. There had been something vaguely familiar in that man’s cold black eyes…or not? He turned to point out his suspicions to Derek, only to see his friend snoring on the second bed across the room.
Deciding to forget about it, he removed his glasses and settled down to sleep. His old nightmares paid him their usual visit, only this time they were filled with Robbins, who stood laughing maniacally at him, his hands dripping in the blood of his slaughtered wife and daughter…
Meanwhile, Robbins, safely within the privacy of his own room, was making a call on his cell phone, keeping his voice to a minimum in case someone could hear him, "…Everything’s set, Sergey; Johnson and Shaw have arrived on schedule and don't suspect a thing. Is everyone briefed and ready?" A gruff voice with a deep, foreign accent answered him.
"Yes, Shelton says you’ll be the only ones flying at the club tomorrow, so there's no fear of any witnesses getting in the way. You’ve received your package?"
"Yes, I’m ready," replied Robbins, caressing, what, at first glance, appeared to be an ordinary journalist's video camera, which had arrived at the hotel by registered post that afternoon. However, as he opened the lid that supposedly housed the tape, the slot instead contained a concealed stun gun, fully charged. The camera's battery pack was also another decoy, housing a concealed gun, complete with two 20-round magazines. Even the strap was a fake, containing a strangulation wire-cord sawn into the lining. Robbins' journalist kit was a concealed assassin's arsenal! Making sure his gear was in good working order, he carefully repacked everything back into their secret housings and put away the camera.
"Excellent. I already have our boys erasing your name from all the registries. By this time tomorrow, you won’t exist…and nor will Johnson and Shaw. Good luck!" Robbins smiled as he hung up; everything was going like clockwork.
On the morning of the 27th, following a quick breakfast, the four men were on their way to the airstrip in Sandleford Park, to catch their plane to New Forest. Alan, the biological consultant on this trip, who would be doing most of his work after the footage and photographs were shot, only needed his binoculars, camera and notebook to take down notes for his report on the fallout left by the missiles in the area. To save him the hassle of carrying everything in a bulgy backpack, he had brought along his favourite traveller’s vest, which could use to transport his gadgets in its many pockets.
Robbins carried his camera kit - their key arsenal for the trip. Relatively small in size, the camera could easily be used within the confined space of the cabin, by being passed around for different-angled shots through the windows…or so Alan and Derek had been told. Derek, who liked to travel in style, carried his traditional work satchel, containing his laptop and his own camera. Julio only carried his pilot accessories, including his flight logs, an aerial chart of the restricted zone, and an old-fashioned brass compass on a chain, which, he explained, was his talisman, which he wore on every flight.
After a short drive out of Newtown, they reached the flight club. Nothing spectacular; just a former World War II airstrip once used for RAF squadron training, having since been converted to a civilian flight club by two former Air Force aviators back in the early 1970’s. A small log cabin on the edge housed the radio shack and pilots' locker room, as well as an open hanger on the edge of the field, where the aircraft were kept. A rusting sign on the fence read:
SUTCH AND MARTIN’S FLIGHT CLUB
GLIDERS, CESSNAS, AND PIPERS FOR CHARTERING
FLYING LESSONS BY APPOINTMENT ONLY
Tom Shelton, the thin, balding flight controller and manager of the club, greeted them and led them into his cramped office. After filling in the necessary paperwork, and each man was given a pair of headsets for the radio, Julio led them to the edge of the runway, where a shabby Cessna 172 Skyhawk – the club’s one and only aircraft - stood waiting for takeoff. Removing the chocks from the wheels and the covers from the engine vents, and doing a brief pre-flight check, they boarded.
"Okay senores. You can stow your belongings under your seats or in the aft locker; you should be able to reach them easily during the flight. Now, the morning forecast reports fair weather with scattered clouds at 8,000 – the lowest safe altitude we’re permitted to fly at while over the Forbidden Zone. That should guarantee us an easy flight over New Forest, so you can do your work. However, I would appreciate if you keep your seatbelts fastened at all times, as a precaution. Any questions?"
"Yes, would it be all right if I keep this on during the flight? It has a flight-safe mode," said Robbins, showing Julio his cell phone, which had an in-built GPS menu, supposedly to track the coordinates of where the enemy missiles had struck (nobody knew it was actually fitted with a bug, recording everything that was being said onboard). To everyone's surprise, Julio violently swatted the phone away as Robbins brought it close to his chest so he could see it, "What's the matter with you, man?"
"Please keep any devices with magnetic fields away from me, senor," said Julio, easing up, "It might disrupt my pacemaker." They all frowned at this, "Pacemaker? Should you to be flying solo with a heart condition?"
"Nothing to worry about, senores," Julio reassured them, "I have been through hundreds of medical tests and I’ve passed my physical; it was a friend in the CAA who recommended I get this pacemaker implant when I was diagnosed with this heart condition, passed down through my family, to keep my licence. I assure you, there’s no cause for alarm." Although he seemed confident, his passengers still felt rather uneasy for their pilot’s delicate health. However, there wasn't much that they could do about it now, so they decided to just forget about it and prepare for takeoff.
"All right, Senor Johnson, you can sit next to me to help with the checklist." Alan, the only other person onboard with any flying experience – in his case, a semi-finished flying course back when he had been a student -, seated himself in the co-pilot’s seat, strapped his seatbelt firmly around his waist and picked up the checklist clipboard. Julio started up the engine and avionics, testing the radio, "This is Cessna 232-G to SAM Control. Do you copy SAM Control, over?"
"Roger, 232-G, I read you loud and clear,” came the assistant flight controller Stan Hallows’s voice over the radio, “You are clear for take-off."
"Any updates on the weather conditions?"
"Radar station reports some heavy frontal activity and turbulence approaching from the south. We recommend you keep a tight flight schedule. I’ll keep you advised on any weather changes. Out."
"Roger and out."
They taxied to the edge of the dirt-track runway, where Julio braked for the final pre-flight check. While Alan read and ticked off the procedures on the checklist, Julio set all the instruments and controls, "Controls: master switch on; avionics on, flaps zero; pitch zero. Engine: mixture on; ignition off; fuel check; oil pressure check; anti-ice on. Instruments: altimeter check; airspeed indicator check, artificial horizon check, radio set and checked, transponder check, GPS on-line and tracking, panel lights off. Checklist complete.” He put away the clipboard, “Release parking brakes!"
Julio gently pushed the throttle lever forward and released the parking brake; the plane began speeding along the runway until it reached 85 knots. Then he pulled back on the stick and the wheels left the ground. Levelling at 8,000 feet, Julio set a southwesterly heading, towards New Forest. Their flight had begun, but their real adventure hadn't even started yet...