“Quite a cook up you fellas are gonna have,” the butcher said and wiped one hand on his apron while handing Paul a white paper parcel with the other.
“Can’t beat your famous burger mix, and this little one can eat twice what he weighs,” Paul said and winked.
The butcher laughed and his eyes fell to Jobe. He patted his own belly and pushed it out while making a face. Jobe giggled and his cheeks flushed, spreading to a bright pink right up to his hairline. He edged closer to Paul’s hip with a sheepish grin. In that moment Paul saw his younger brother, just as they had been when they were kids shopping with their parents and being shown off to friends around town.
Paul thought again about his brother returning from hospital and wanted to make it as good an experience as he could. He had even called Tom to see if he could make it out, but had not been able to get through. Paul ruffled Jobe’s light brown hair and gave him a devil horn. The butcher laughed and made a face like he had turned into a zombie. Jobe screwed up his eyes and laughed as well.
Paul smiled, their home would be full of moments like these tonight, as well as good hearty food and the four of them enjoying some board games. Sarah would no doubt use the opportunity to bring out her eighties dance music. His tone deaf brother would then attempt to sing each of the choruses.
“Oh, hey, Paul, we seeing you at the quiz tomorrow night?” the butcher asked.
Paul shrugged and patted Jobe’s hair back down.
“Hope to, but I’ve got the police coming by later. See what happens with that for now.”
The butcher nodded while continuing to sort out meat behind the glass display. “Right, right. Or maybe you’re just scared you’ll get pummeled by my invincible team of quiz masters again?” He watched for Paul’s reaction from the corner of his eye, a hint of a smile on his lips.
“Good on ya,” Paul said, as Aussie as he could.
The butcher shook his head and groaned. “No, please. Don’t do that horrendous Australian accent ever again. Please!”
Paul waved good bye and guided Jobe outside to the car. They loaded the groceries and Paul checked his phone. No further messages from his brother or the detective, so everything must be good from that end. And Sarah would be home before dark. Now all he had to do was cook enough food to keep everyone happy.
Beads of cool water dripped down the beer bottle and along Paul’s arm to his elbow. He shook his hand to get rid of the stray drops, which then made his drink froth. Green sparkles scattered over the stainless steel barbecue, from the sun’s rays through the glass. Hot air shimmered above the hot plate and cooked Paul’s already reddening face.
The wind blew and added an undertone of rustling leaves. He breathed in and felt the sun drenched air fill his lungs. Nearby cockatoos squawked and screeched from the gum tree above like squabbling old men. A distant truck changed gears in its struggle up the steep climb of the main highway.
A smile stretched across Paul’s lips.
“City living. Bah!”
He swapped the tongs to his beer-hand and clicked on the radio with a flick of his finger. 107.5 flashed on the bright cyan LCD screen. An old classic came on: Smells Like Teen Spirit.
The lyrics blasted from the speakers to accompany a drowning bass and sharp guitar riff. He banged his tongs on the hot plate with out-of-tune clanging and swished frothing beer onto the hot plate, which bubbled and steamed. He threw his head back and sang the mumbled words of Kurt Cobain, which set the cockatoos above to flight.
He continued his singing while enjoying this moment without a further care. The problems of the police, Loz’s work and the rest of it could go to hell. He ran his eyes over his gardens and admired the way the late afternoon sun-stretched shadows ran over his lawn—from the gums to the patio to... To an outline of a head and shoulders. It came from behind. Running. He put his beer down and adjusted the gas knob. He turned just as feet crunched on stones then grass. Jobe crashed into his hip.
“Whoa!” Paul said. “You’ll give an old guy a heart attack.”
“Sorry,” Jobe said, a mischievous grin tugging at his cheeks.
“You little rascal,” Paul put hands to his hips in a mockery of sternness. “You meant it?”
Jobe giggled. The three containers and bowls of food bounced about in his hands. Salt and pepper fell from the top of his pile and rolled onto the fold out table.
“Hang on, look out.” Paul said, as he also began laughing.
A plate of sausages perched precariously on top of a bowl of salad, fell. Paul caught it in time just as everything else tumbled onto the table.
A plastic-wrap covered salad bowl rolled around in a wide circle and banged into the radio, clicking the off button. They both stared at the radio then each other and started laughing again—so much so Paul had to hold onto the barbecue just to stay upright. Crows cawed from perches on Paul’s roof as if to join in the merriment, then took flight.
Jobe continued to cackle and hold his belly, while Paul began sorting the containers on the table and setting everything right.
“Nothing spilled, so all good.” Paul said, and ruffled Jobe’s hair.
Still smiling, Jobe shrugged and appeared eager for it to all happen again. Paul took his hand away from Jobe’s head to see he had messed it into another devil horn.
Jobe patted his hair and opened a salad container to get himself a stick of carrot. He crunched down and then said through pieces of flying orange, “Should I go get everything else? I mean, all the food?”
Paul looked over what they had. “May as well, I expect the police may stay when they bring your dad.”
Jobe nodded. He ran back to the house, whooping and skidding, sliding in the stones.
“And, hey, Jobe,” Paul called. “Thanks for helping me prepare the food. Your dad will love it.”
A final whoop came from Jobe as he leapt up the steps to the back door and stomped through the house to the kitchen. Paul laughed and gave a little whoop as well.
Tires crunched over crushed rock up along the driveway.
The house screen door slammed in the background.
Paul turned and shielded his eyes while squinting to see through the dense scrub along the winding track. Black metallic panels flashed through breaks in the trees and reflected a dimming sun.
A V8 engine revved just as the front end of the SUV rolled into view. It slowed then stopped a few feet from Paul. Another SUV followed and settled behind the first. Both looked more like trucks than people movers. The radiator fans whirred and the engines laboured to feed the air conditioned interior behind the heavily tinted windows.
Paul raised an eyebrow. Surely the detective wasn’t so paranoid he had employed an armed motorcade. He turned the gas down again and wandered over to the dark vans, shaking his head. His tongs still in hand and apron on. Across his chest were the words Chefs do it better.
The over-endowed vehicles rumbled and grunted, each shaking under the might of their purring engines. A door clicked open.
“Paul Emerson,” a man said and stepped out from the vehicle with his hand proffered before him. He wore a light blue short sleeved shirt adorned with polished metal and fabric badges along with long navy pants and black boots. His old, yet relatively unwrinkled face seemed friendly, although his dark eyes said this would be more than just a social visit.
“I’m Colonel John Redcliff.” He ran his eyes over Paul’s apron and smiled. They shook hands with measured strength and let go at the same time.
Paul looked over the cars. “Okay, you’ve certainly got my attention with all this. What’s going on?”
“Straight to the point. Good, I’ll pay the same courtesy.” The colonel took off his cap and wiped sweat from his forehead, then placed it back with a pull on his visor. “Your brother’s in trouble.”
Paul’s brow creased. “I know, Colonel, Detective Bradbury has—”
“Detective Bradbury is a good man and very good at his job, but he doesn’t have all the information. Not yet. Nor the resources. You need to know what’s really going on, and once you understand what’s at stake, I’m going to ask you a favour.”
Paul rolled his eyes and shook his head. This day just got stranger and stranger by the minute. He turned, while kicking at the stones.
“Alright. Come this way and we’ll talk, I guess.” Paul motioned the colonel to the outdoor setting near the barbecue. Smoke rose in a skinny wisp from the middle of the hot plate.
“No, Paul, you’ll need to come with us.”
“What, why?” Paul laughed and put his hands on his hips. “I’m about to cook dinner and my wife will be home soon...” Paul nodded up his driveway in the general direction of the camouflaged main road.
A man with tree trunk arms dressed in combat fatigues stepped out from the lead vehicle. His head turned to take in the entire property then stopped when he faced Paul. A strap hung over his shoulder connected to a semiautomatic. His hand over the trigger, and what may have been a silencer on the muzzle. He aimed it directly at Paul.
“Now, Paul,” the Colonel said, nodding to the SUV, his voice staying even. “We have to go.”
The soldier took three steps toward Paul. His black boots crunched under his heavily muscled weight, deep into the stones. Paul’s hands shot up in the air out front of him, in a supplicating motion, and he stepped back.
“What’s going on?”
The Colonel shook his head at his man. The man stopped. His aggressive stance wavered for a moment, then he turned, his concentration going to Paul’s long driveway instead.
Paul wiped the sweat trailing down his chin and nose. The tongs still felt warm in his hands. He took a few steps back and decided he could probably make it to the house before the soldier with the gun turned around again. Then he noticed the pistol strapped to the colonel’s hip. Also, if he ran back to the house they may come in, then Jobe would be subjected to... whatever this was. A kidnapping. So the detective maybe wasn’t so paranoid.
Just stay in the kitchen Jobe, nothing going on out here, just talking, Paul thought, hoping Jobe could sense his projected wants.
“Don’t worry about your nephew,” the colonel said, “he’ll be fine.”
Paul’s expression fell. He would have to go with them—they would then have no reason to go into the house. Jobe would be safe. He walked toward the vehicles. Jobe would be okay and so would Larry.
The detective should have been here by now. If he had, then this wouldn’t have happened.
No other cars sounded along the drive.
The soldier kept looking from the colonel to the driveway then touching a device in his ear. The colonel motioned Paul to the vehicles. His forehead glistening with sweat. His mouth twitched into a crooked smile. He took off his hat again and wiped his grey hair. He pulled his cap back on and his expression had changed to match his cold eyes.
“Paul, inside, now!” he grabbed Paul’s arm and led him to the open door.
Paul stopped at the SUV door and put his hand on the roof. “What do—”
The soldier grabbed him by the top of his pants and threw him into the van. The colonel got into the front passenger seat.
Bradbury’s stomach dropped at the sight of two SUVs heading out of Paul Emerson’s driveway and onto the main road, still at least half a kilometer away. Bradbury turned the possible scenarios over in his mind, and although he preferred the idea of pursuing the vehicles, he decided they should check the house first. Larry Emerson probably wouldn’t stand for anything else, anyway. He retrieved the two-way radio and called in additional cars and a helicopter to begin pursuit of the retreating SUVs. Modern SUVs weren’t common enough around here that they could be traveling in twos. And as far as he could tell, these were a fair match for the two SUVs spotted in the area following the kidnapping of Gerald McKlay.
The Emerson home appeared quiet.
Larry ran for the house while calling out for his brother and Jobe. Bradbury, Matthews and Jones watched on as he screamed out their names and ran in through the front door. A few minutes ticked by before Bradbury decided he should check for himself. The nightmare of finding Paul or Jobe dead inside crept into his mind. He pressed his lips together and readied himself.
Just as Bradbury left the car, Larry came running back out of the house. Beads of sweat rolled down his face—his skin drawn and white. Red blotches marked his cheeks like blush. He leapt into the car. Bradbury climbed in as well, although confused at Larry’s silence.
“What happened, is everyone—” Larry cut Bradbury off.
“I told you I wanted my family kept safe!” Saliva sprayed out from Larry’s mouth with each word, his eyes red and intense. “Why weren’t you looking after them? You’ve killed my brother, you know that!”
“What? Where is he—”
“I don’t know.” Larry yelled back. His voice softened. “He, Jobe, he looked so scared when I came running in. Because of me, screaming for him. He didn’t even know Paul had gone...”
“I’m sorry, I’ll get your brother back,” Bradbury said. “Stay with your son.”
“I rang Sarah. She’s only minutes up the road. I’m coming with you.”
Bradbury turned back to the front and nodded an okay to Jones.
Jones slammed his foot flat on the accelerator and they sped up the driveway, then swerved onto the asphalt road, everyone gripped their car door handles, Matthews’ hand clenched white on the wheel. Body parts bumped against the interior. The patrol car’s tires screamed and black smoke swirled once they hit the tar road. They were now in pursuit of the two SUVs. Both Larry Emerson and Bradbury shared a moment of determination at capturing these people, and neither of them would settle for anything less.
They flung around a second tight corner and Bradbury still urged Jones on faster. At 100 miles an hour they hurtled along a straight stretch just as there came a Wokwokwok of rotating propellers above. The radio came to life.
“Detective Bradbury, this is, Able-one, at your position. The SUVs are heading in the reverse direction; South along Heidelberg Kinglake Road.”
Jones slammed on the brakes and turned the wheel to full lock until they faced south, then planted his foot again.
The chopper dipped out of view for a moment while keeping close to the two escaping vehicles.
Jones took the next corner like he had more than one life and still barely kept the chopper within visual range.
“Were you able to get anyone out after the SUVs?” Bradbury said into the two-way to Kinglake station.
“Sorry sir,” came back, “patrols were all in town when I called them, they’re minutes behind you.”
Bradbury swore again.
The helicopter pilot’s voice crackled with static, “Detective, turn right up ahead onto private property.”
A clay rock driveway jutted out only half a kilometer up the road.
“Ah, no, sorry detective,” the pilot said,
“What?” Bradbury’s face reddened.
“Sir, they’re out of the SUVs and boarding a light aircraft. I can’t see you getting there in time.”
Bradbury threw the microphone at the dashboard where it clunked then dropped to the limit of its curled cord.
“I’ll check with Civil Aviation, Sir. Out.”
Jones kept his eyes on the road and Matthews stayed quiet.
“Detective?” Larry said, his face still pale. “My brother has a heart problem. He can’t be taken.”
Larry continued to stare out the window.
They were almost there.
They reached the driveway just as a plane began its climb into the sky. It’s engines thundering and muffling out Larry’s cry of hopelessness. They watched as it rose higher and away.
Larry yelled something out at the plane. Bradbury turned to him, just as irritated. Emerson said something else straight after. What did he say... Lookout?
A thick metal gate cut across their path. Jones braked.
The car slid sideways. Dry yellow dust puffed up in the air, choking the engine and clouding their windows.
The car dropped with a jarring clunk and threw everyone about in the car.
Larry groaned and touched his bruised head. Blood dripped from a wound. The other occupants also groaned and rubbed their knees and shoulders and whatever other limbs had hit the interior of the car.
Matthews got out and pushed at the metal gate. It didn’t even creak. He leaned into the obstruction and cursed at it, his arms and legs bulged, but nothing.
He searched the metal box at the foot of the gate; the protective casing for the motor, but found nothing to help get the door open. He stopped and turned to the patrol car and stared. They all got out and saw what he saw. One of the wheels had dropped into a deep gutter. They weren’t going anywhere, anyway.
The sun dipped down behind the distant city of Melbourne and night fell all around them. They walked up the winding driveway to find the two empty SUVs and the shell of a rusting shed. But nothing more. Larry sat on the yellow flattened grass and lowered his head into his hands. The grassy slope dropped away into the valley. A perfect runway for a small plane.
Detective Bradbury swore once more.
Paul righted himself in the back of the SUV and the door closed behind him. Two other men were already seated. The first looked like a clone of the man with the machine gun—hard facial features and less emotion than bare rock.
The second, he had not expected to see. Someone who looked none too pleased to be there—which Paul completely understood.
“Gerald?” Paul said, while being thrown back into his seat as the car took off.
“What’s going on?” Gerald said, his chin quivering for a moment. “They won’t tell me.”
“I have no idea. They say they want to help.” Then more quietly, “I’m not so sure... I don’t know if I believe them.”
The colonel sat next to the driver with a map. He pointed to the left at the next road and they took the corner at high speed. The tires screamed.
Paul waited until they headed along a straight stretch again and said, “Colonel, I was wondering—”
“Not now, Paul.” The colonel turned to face him, “You need to shut your mouth. We’ll talk when we’re in the air.”
The Colonel turned back to the front.
Paul wondered what, in the air, meant, but realized there was no other meaning for it.
The vehicles wound their way along the narrow mountain roads for the next ten minutes before turning into a driveway. Paul recognized the property but didn’t know the owners. A dull, dirt-laden and yet solid looking gate opened automatically as they approached. It then closed immediately after. They drove up the rocky driveway to yellow flattened grass and stopped alongside a light aircraft.
Hands grabbed at Paul and Gerald and yanked them from their seats to rush them to the plane. Before they were seated, the propellers turned and the aircraft shook to life, then they were moving along the runway at full speed.
“Sit, now!” One of the men yelled, as he also threw his massive bulk into a seat and strapped in.
Gerald and Paul did as they were told. Paul clicked in his belt as the plane lifted up. His stomach sank. Bile inched up his throat. He swallowed and felt acid burn its way back down.
Once the plane levelled out, the Colonel stood and shuffled past the cluttered seats to sit next to Paul.
Paul felt his ears pop. Sweat beaded on his brow. The Colonel seemed calmer now that they were in the air. He drummed his fingers on the arm rest. His lips moved as if deciding on what to say. A frown dug lines into the middle of his forehead.
“How’s your heart, Paul?” The Colonel turned to face him.
Paul raised his eyebrows. “Why?”
“You have a heart problem, yes?”
Paul nodded and felt his chest before realizing he had done so.
“And all this excitement and stress should have it racing like you were running a marathon?”
“I’m doing okay.”
“And how long has it been since you’ve been, doing okay, Paul?”
Paul thought for a moment and realized no pain or irregular beats had occurred for at least six months. It was strange, but it was welcome.
“You have a virus, Paul,” the Colonel said. He sat back in his chair and faced forwards. “You see, Paul, and this may come as a bit of a surprise, you’re actually your brother’s lab-rat.”
Paul opened his mouth to ask a question but the colonel spoke over him.
“You could still be contagious, although your brother probably used a technique that he developed when he was still working with the Australian military that inhibits the virus so it can only infect one particular person. It’s a very smart virus and your brother, he’s a very smart man, or was, from what Gerald has told us. Pity. He would be here instead of you, otherwise. I understand he was almost killed, and his mind is now a little fried. I want you to know we were not involved.”
Paul nodded barely hearing him. He felt his chest again. Still steady.
“Why? Why would he infect me?” Paul wiped the sweat from his top lip. His underarms had begun sweating as well. He tried a slow breathing technique; one his doctor had shown him when he was first diagnosed.
“It’s not just for you, Paul. You were only a test. An illegal—”
“Am I going to die?” Paul said, and gripped the colonel’s arm.
“No.” The colonel’s eyes went to the hand on his arm.
Paul removed it.
“More likely he’s prolonged your life. This kind of viral development will change the way people live—and die. The United States will be an ongoing partner in this growing technology, no matter who controls it. We’ll be there to ensure it’s used to benefit and not destroy the American way of life.
“You’ll be interested to know we had initially made a deal with Sincorp to buy the technology. It was unfortunate another company came in and bought them out. We went from potentially controlling the entire supply and research data, to having nothing. The free-world would have otherwise rested easy knowing that the drugs were safe and under our military regulation.”
The colonel took a deep breath, then let it out. “So, we’ve had to develop a secondary plan. We take a sample from you and get production running that way. Time will be short; we’ll need to have a working virus before—” the Colonel stopped short. He let a grin creep in, “Before Tech Dynamics uses the viruses, or sells the data to a less than reputable country. We really do need your help, Paul.”
Paul looked out of the window and massaged his temples. “Do I have a choice?”
“Australia is your country, you’re protected under their laws. However, the American government wants you safe. They asked me to ensure you don’t disappear. And that means we take you back to US soil where you can be watched around the clock.”
“I don’t have my passport,” Paul said.
“We’ll be landing in a diplomatic plane and boarding another immediately after. No one will question us. As for your passport, you’ll have to trust me to get you back to Australia when all this is over.”
The colonel smiled and patted Paul’s shoulder. “The testing will go much quicker with your cooperation.”
Paul wondered if the colonel’s story could really be true. Not that it mattered, it didn’t look as if they were going to give him much of a choice.
“What do you need from me?”
The Colonel grinned. “Very good, Mr Emerson. We have a hospital set up where we can run the tests. Once we extract the virus, replicate it and inject it into a viable subject, you’ll be safe.”
“Didn’t you say the virus was tuned specifically to me?”
“It’s a possibility, but we should be able to alter it. Don’t concern yourself with the specifics. Instead, think of all the sick people you’ll be helping and lives you’ll save. You’re doing a good thing.”
The dual-engine, light-aircraft screeched as it landed on the tarmac. The air rumbled around them and the plane slowed, jerking them all forwards until they stopped. The plane turned off the main strip and headed for hangers at the far end of the airport. Only one other smaller plane could be seen, it taxied past them to the stretch of runway where they had just touched down.
In the distance workers tended trucks and planes out the front and inside of the hangers.
Another larger plane, with only a serial number to mark it, came into view. It sat still and dark, a short distance across the tarmac.
From a different direction a van screeched, turned, then stopped a couple dozen feet from the extreme edge of their plane’s wingspan. Six men in dark clothing with automatics, stepped out from the van and took up position around the exit of the small plane.
The engines shutdown. The lights went out.
The Colonel signaled to his men outside with a wave of his hand, then received the all clear from the one man facing the plane door.
Another of the colonel’s men unlocked the door from the inside and led the colonel out of the hatch. A shot rang out, then more shots. Bullets darted around the exit of the plane cracking into metal, shattering glass and thumping into flesh. Blood sprayed out from the Colonel’s back in red mists. One of his soldiers leapt across and tackled him out of harms way.
His remaining armed force exploded out the plane door returning fire, joining their comrades in the bloody fight against the unseen assailants.
Paul and Gerald splayed themselves on the ground trying to protect their heads with their hands.
The gunfire stopped as abruptly as it had started.
The captain and copilot ran through the plane from the front cabin. One grabbed Paul and the other Gerald, and half carried half shoved them to the exit. They scrambled down the clanging metal steps, following the rest of the cabin’s occupants, including the injured colonel supported by two of his men.
The pilots carried weapons too; glocks, and aimed them anywhere they saw movement.
Random single stray shots sang out from distant and nearby locations around the tarmac giving the impression that no one had clear sight of who to shoot. Rapid gunfire started again. Bullets sliced through the air searching for targets. Paul felt as if he had left his body and was watching on as the insane situation took place. He couldn’t think straight and only had a vague realization that he was being led by the arm across the face of a gun battle.
The 777 airliner grew to its monstrous full size as they closed in. A shot whizzed over Paul’s head, close enough for him to hear it whistle. His spine tingled as he thought of a gun trained on the middle of his back.
Another shot sounded nearby. Then something hit the pilot holding Paul with a thunk-splat—a sound Paul would never forget. The pilot slowed while letting go of Paul and put his hand over the red pooling wound on his arm.
Paul slowed as well and fell back behind the pilot. He turned to watch the other men running, shooting, stumbling, bleeding. A soldier fired three times past Paul towards the hangers. Paul flinched and put his hands over his ears as his head sung a high pitched song. The soldier ran, then crouched, and shot again.
Paul opened his mouth to call out, but stopped as more blasting gunfire burst around him, piercing his ears. He wanted to scream, but his lungs burned from panic and a strained body. Tears filled his eyes. A bullet hit the ground three feet in front of his white sneakers, shooting sparks and concrete an inch into the air.
He searched for any sign of escape, near or far. Three or four people ducked and fired from behind trucks around and inside a hangar.
Another bullet sounded and pinged past his legs.
The colonel’s men looked to be concentrating their gunfire on that single area. Two trucks and a plane gave the attackers ideal cover. That was until Paul recognized the symbol on the side of one of the trucks. Fuel.
Paul sprinted away, running faster than he ever had and headed for the 777. The ground rumbled and the fueling truck exploded. Chunks of metal and rolls of orange fire shot out in all directions followed by a massive dark mushroom cloud. The hangar blew apart. Black smoke swept across the runway.
The shooting stopped, but the mad scramble to the steps of the Boeing 777 continued. Two soldiers dragged the bleeding Colonel across the last few feet separating the two planes, then up the steps and onto the larger plane. Paul staggered behind everyone else, still with his hands on his ears. He coughed and spat, the thick smoke rolling overhead. He wiped his forehead. His hand came back sweaty and black.
The injured pilot hadn’t looked back even once. Gerald and the two pilots ran further through the smoke and up the stairs to the plane door. Paul stopped a few feet from the bottom of the steps and looked up. No one called down for him or looked for him.
He squinted. The dark curling haze moved and shifted. Eventually clearing a little so he could see a fence and road beyond. More fence line stood a half mile to the left, both covered in razor wire. He could run for it, regardless of how far away it appeared, if it meant escaping the colonel and his soldiers then he could do it.
As he began to move away from the stairs, a hand slipped under his armpit and he fell up the first step. Then he was being dragged up to the top. The soldier didn’t say a word. Instead putting his energy into not letting go of Paul and running up the steps while wiping black sweat from his eyes.
The soldier threw Paul inside. The doors closed and the large plane’s engines screamed. The plane rocketed along the tarmac.
Paul stood as the plane changed direction and he fell against the wall. He got to all fours and crawled across to Gerald who sat nearby, also on the floor, his head in his hands.
Some of the Colonel’s men rested on the converted 777s couches, bleeding. One was unconscious or dead. The Colonel lay on another couch, white-faced. Blood seeped from too many wounds to count. He barked orders and directed his men like he would live forever.
A soldier applied bandages and packed wads of white cloth onto the colonel’s body, then went to the rest of the men and tended their wounds. Finally he came back to the colonel to see if he could do more.
Gerald eventually looked up at Paul. They stared at each other for a time, each feeling the other’s dread. They then sat side by side on a luxurious leather couch facing the front of the plane.
Too scared to speak to anyone, even the injured Colonel, they stared out the window to see that they were well into the air and climbing higher. Sandwiches, hot dogs, buffalo wings and other foods had been lain out previous to boarding the plane. All the food steamed, creating a soupy mix in the air. Gerald and Paul made use of what was available over the next few hours and indulged in the liquor as well.
A soldier walked past on his way to the rest room, but didn’t acknowledge either of them with even a glance. The soldier also gave a wide birth to the three masses lying under blankets pushed up hard against the opposite wall. The Colonel being one of them. He had died an hour into the flight.
No one seemed to be in charge after the Colonel’s passing. None of them appeared to even care that he had died.
Paul felt the plane begin it’s decent. Minutes later the plane’s wheels screeched against the tarmac. Then a rumble of the brakes and upturned flaps. One of the pilots spoke over the intercom, which were the first words Paul had heard during the entire trip, “We’re here.”
The door opened and the colonel’s men exited with their equipment. The engines shutdown and the lights went dead.
Paul and Gerald looked to each other seeing that neither knew what to do. Finally they stood and walked to the exit to follow. The sun had begun dipping behind the trees on the horizon and changing the sky to a smoggy red. They climbed down the stairs, Paul first, followed closely by Gerald. They then stood on the tarmac and watched the soldiers help their wounded and pack away their guns.
Bags got stuffed into the back of the large blue van while the colonel’s men crammed themselves into the front. Paul and Gerald stood at the van door and waited to get in. A soldier put his hands up against both Paul and Gerald’s chests, stopping them and watched as the rest of his people clambered inside. The soldier took his hands away without looking at Gerald and Paul, then stepped inside as well. The door slammed shut. The vehicle started up and they skidded away. The rear of the van shrunk until it turned a corner with another squeal from its tires and headed out of sight.
A plane screamed along a runway nearby and lifted into the air. They both turned their heads to watch as it took off. Paul shielded his eyes as it dipped a wing and turned across the face of the sun. Its white body sparkling, reflecting the light in a sky devoid of clouds. Paul kept turning until he faced the 777 again. The engines continued to be silent and the lights stayed off. They weren’t going back with the colonel’s men, and they weren’t able to go home.
“I guess we weren’t supposed to go with them?” Gerald said to Paul.
“I don’t think we really wanted to, did we?
A few moments later the pilots alighted the plane, one of them with his arm in a sling. Both hurried down the metal steps and trotted past Gerald and Paul without a word. They soon closed in on a car parked near the first hangar.
Paul followed behind.
“Captain. What do we do?” Paul said as they reached the car.
Only one of them stopped, his car keys in his hand.
“I have no idea.” The pilot unlocked the car. “We were paid to get the plane to San Francisco Airport. And now that that’s done, we’re done.”
Before Paul could argue, one of the pilots took a gun from his pocket and held it up to check the clip.
Paul jumped backwards and ducked out of the way, but fell into Gerald. Their legs crossed over and Gerald’s hand crashed into Paul’s face. They both stumbled then finally separated.
Paul glanced back while holding his sore nose and saw that the pilots were already in their car. He took his hand away from his nose. No blood, however grime and sweat dribbled down from his fringe to the tip of his nose.
The pilots reversed, then drove off toward an exit, and would soon be gone the same as the soldier’s van.
The car stopped with a screech. It stayed motionless for a few seconds, then just as suddenly reversed back. The driver’s side window rolled down. Paul stepped away and fell into Gerald again, who was right behind him as if deciding to stick to Paul like a dog to its master.
The pilot cocked his head and watched, seemingly amused at Paul and Gerald’s reaction.
“I guess I’m a sucker, but I can’t really leave you two here just in case airport security decide to question you. Your Colonel guy in there, he was our only contact, so we have no idea where you should be going.
“Get in, and we’ll get you out of the airport with our papers your Colonel gave us. They won’t search the car, but they also can’t see you’re with us. One of you get under that blanket. The other can get in the trunk. When we’re in the city you can find your own way.”
Gerald opted for the trunk for reasons Paul didn’t understand or question. Paul crouched down as low as he could with the blanket over the top of him. It smelt of oil and what he thought could have been vomit. As the two pilots said they would, they made it past airport security without incident.
Gerald now sat in the back seat with Paul. Paul tried to engage the pilots in conversation, including asking them about the Colonel and how they could get in contact with someone who knew him. The two pilots stayed silent and gave no reason why.
No American money—no money at all—no passport, nowhere to sleep and no friends to call on; they were lost.
The San Francisco streets flew by. Paul recognized some areas, but time had changed so many things, especially in this town. His brother and parents had often visited from Colorado Springs. Spent time around Pier 39, the markets and maybe an exhibition if something had been on. They had watched the seals, went on the cable cars...
The scenery changed from grungy San Francisco to city fringes and finally they came closer to downtown, just over a mile from Union Square. He realized then why he felt a little ill. He was homesick. Well, kind of. Maybe he just missed his parents? He wanted a mum again who would ask after him if everything was okay, and a dad to laugh with on the patio while they watched the sun go down and sipped cold drinks. Both caring for he and his brother, and watching over them.
“This is where you guys get out,” the driving pilot said. “If you head straight up 5th Street, then take a right at Market Street, you’ll come across the Australian Consulate. You can’t miss it, just look for the street with all the flags on the buildings. Good luck.”
Paul and Gerald said their thanks. Paul realized an Aussie consulate was exactly what they needed. Before Gerald closed the door, one of the pilots called out. “Hey, the less you say about what happened, the more chance you have of staying alive. We’ve been in these situations before and found that if we talk less, we die less.”
The pilots sped off heading for the Bay Bridge while Paul and Gerald walked in the direction they had been told to go.