The Man In Orange

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JULY 18

“G’day Max,” Mike Parker called to Hughes as he saw the pilot enter through the side door. “I’ll just be a minute.”

“No worries,” Hughes called in reply as he watched Parker hard at work in the cabin of ZK-HMH. He and another engineer were reinstalling the seats in the rear of the aircraft, having completed their checks of the rear bulkhead and floor. “Good news?”

Parker finished re-attaching the seat and nodded. “Clean bill of health, as always. Bugger me if I’ve ever known a more careful pilot.”

Hughes chuckled. “I expect her to keep me safe, so I treat her nice.”

Now it was Parker’s turn to laugh: he and his fellow engineers saw the machines as mere tools, as opposed treating them as creatures of feeling and emotion as Hughes and several other pilots did. “No wonder you have trouble hanging on to the ladies, Max, they always play second fiddle to your chopper!”

Hughes smirked. “Anyway, I’d better let you guys finish up, looks like you’re almost done though?”

“Yep, the boys will have her all back together by lunchtime. We can do the engine run then, if you like?”

“Sounds good,” Hughes replied as he inspected the cockpit. “1 o’clock okay with you?”

Parker leafed through the clipboard on the cabin floor. “Should be. See you then.”

Hughes decided to take the hint and leave the engineer to his work. That left plenty of time until Sandy’s service, so he decided to busy himself with the mountain of paperwork on his desk.

#

After a few hours there was a knock on Hughes’ door, the apprentice calling him to let him know the aircraft was ready for a test flight.

Soon Hughes had passed over the airport’s boundary fence and was headed for the hills at the head of the Waitaki River, a valley haunted years before by deer and pig hunters. Now the valley was a nature reserve, the guns held tracking darts instead of brass, and helicopters journeyed overhead solely to drop off Department of Conservation staff. Hughes hadn’t been this way for some months – now that Charles had taken their contract to ferry DoC workers and their equipment - and thought it would be a great opportunity to just zip about the ridgelines.

Minutes passed as the nimble little machine flitted from hill to forested hill down through the valley, and Hughes was relaxed like he hadn’t been for many months. His mind was free of all the stress and worry, free from the mad Canadian and all he represented. Even the beautiful but devious Genevieve was gone as he manoeuvred the 500 nimbly around the hills.

Before long he decided he’d had enough and should return, and he checked his position briefly on the GPS to figure out a course home. He found a route he hadn’t taken in ages, down along the valley which almost lead straight to Pukeko Flats and Lake Rototahi. Hughes saw the large tracts of native bush he had dropped countless conservation rangers into over the years, and felt glad to know he had played a part in their restoration. He descended to 250ft and slowed over the lush foliage, smiling slightly at the thought. It was then a patch of scrub caught his eye. A fairly large area, possible a couple of hectares or more.

The plants didn’t look like the ferns which made this area such an important part of the conservation department’s bush rejuvenation programme, but something else entirely.

“Dope?” he said aloud, a look of confusion on his face. “What the hell…?”

He banked the nimble chopper over the bushes and circled at 100ft. There was no mistaking the distinctive leaves on the countless plants, even at that altitude. With his forefinger he triggered the microphone.

“Tangikea traffic, this is Hotel Mike Hotel - ”

He was cut off by three heavy thuds in quick succession below and behind him. Suddenly his gauges began to spin back to their stops. Hughes frantically tried to right the aircraft but it didn’t respond, instead continuing in its spiral downward toward the green plants. He pulled back hard on the collective and pressed his chin into his chest, bracing his feet on the floor.

#

“This fucking guy.”

The world was black. No, dark red.

“You said you had us covered.”

Brighter, now. He tried to open his eyes.

“I did. I thought I had him covered.”

They felt as though something was keeping them shut, as if they were glued.

“Obviously you thought wrong. If he can find us that easily, what about the Pigs?”

He strained his eyelids, felt the strange substance slowly giving way.

“Calm down, a little cash in the right places and they won’t care. Throw her into the mix, and…”

Hughes opened his eyes. The edge of his vision was red: dried blood? He must’ve crashed.

“And he’s awake.”
He looked up. Standing before him were a short, stocky figure in orange and a taller one in green. The taller one was cradling a rifle.

“Proud of yourself?” the tall man asked as he approached, sarcasm in his voice. “Found our patch, did you?”

Hughes tried to speak, but couldn’t muster the words.

“Accident? You found this by accident, did you?” The man wearing green leaned in close. “Funny. Then you had another little accident. That didn’t turn out well, did it?”

Hughes blinked, trying to get the blood out of his eyes. He found he couldn’t move his arms without pain.

“Piripi,” called the man in orange, “leave him alone.”

The man in green stood up to his full height. Hughes guessed the big Maori to be 6’4”. His brown face seemed weathered by hard times and his black hair was flecked with grey. He was solid in build – Hughes suspected he was once a soldier, especially with the way he held his rifle.

“He’s been through enough today.” The man in orange approached, and as he got closer Hughes recognised him as Francois Charles. “That was some crash, Mister Hughes. Wait, you people call them ‘prangs’ here, don’t you?”

“I’ve had worse,” Hughes croaked.

Charles smiled. “I doubt that. You came in hard. The damage won’t buff out, that’s for sure. Took out a few of my man Piripi’s plants here, too.” He gestured behind him, where Hughes could see smoke.

“Oops,” he replied, feeling exhausted as he struggled to sit up.

Charles’ face darkened. Hughes had seen that look before. “Yeah, ‘oops’. ‘Oops’ isn’t compensation enough for my man. He’ll want blood.”

Piripi stepped forward, his rifle practically poking Hughes’ eye. “This is all me. I’ve been working on this crop for months, and then you come over and fuck it all up.”

“You should’ve got a real job, then,” Hughes replied, coughing.

Piripi frowned and struck Hughes hard in the ribs with the butt of his rifle. “Fuck you!”

Charles waved his hands and stepped between them. “Whoa, calm down there boy, don’t be too hasty.”

“Who are you calling ‘boy’, old man?”

“I’m sorry, but this man is valuable to me.”

“His fucking helicopter’s burned out half of my crop!”

“And if you hadn’t shot him down he wouldn’t have crashed.”

Piripi looked from Charles to Hughes and back, spat at the dirt next to Hughes, and turned to walk away.

“You wanted to fly for me so you could smuggle drugs on the side?” Hughes asked the man in orange as the big Maori examined some of his intact plants.

“I wanted to share in a very profitable venture, Mister Hughes,” Charles replied, bending down on one knee. His jumpsuit was unzipped to his waist, showing a very dirty grey T-shirt underneath. The smell of Jet-A1 fuel reeked from him – normally Hughes enjoyed the scent, but coming from Charles it was foul. “Farmers tend to get suspicious when they see a helicopter making its way around the place regular-like, could be poaching from them for all they know. It’s nice to have a reputable name on the side of the machine.”

“Damn near 30 years of hard work made that name reputable, and I’m not going to have some dopehead screw all that up.”

Charles’ fist flashed out and hit Hughes’ face with considerable force. Hughes almost blacked out but willed himself to remain awake, trying to ignore the pain. ‘The bastard broke my jaw’, he thought with a wince.

“That hurt? Good. It’s a shame you weren’t in that little Twenty-Two, that someone else had to die in your place.” Charles stood and looked back over his shoulder. “That was a damn nice machine you had. I flew them in Fiordland, but I’m sure you know about that.”

Hughes croaked, and Charles bent down again.

“Say what? I didn’t catch that.”

Hughes looked him straight in the eyes, blood showing on the right side of his mouth. “Sandy.”

“Oh,” Charles replied, standing. “Her. Loose end. Back in ’83 I was doing a bit of work like this,” he gestured to the marijuana plants behind him, “but small-scale. Her husband caught wind of it and threatened to go to the cops. I tried to, uh, persuade him to change his mind but no dice.”

“You shot his chopper?”

“Not me, my man Piripi. Anyway, he didn’t get the hint so I had to do something a bit more drastic.”

Hughes shook his head sadly. “You tampered with his machine? Two innocent men died in that wreck.”

Charles spun round angrily. “Two witnesses ready to go the cops were gotten rid of! After that I had no choice but to scram.”

Hughes played round with the rope around his wrists, trying to get himself free.

“I had a good gig back home. A nice little team working between the States and Vancouver. Good connections meant we had a Customs man on our books to check us in and out, no-one’s ever the wiser. I’m sure you’ve heard of those Mexican and Spanish fools who fly twins into Florida…or try to, before they get shot down. That’s the good thing about our Southern friends – Canada’s no threat to them. A whole, fresh market ripe for the taking.”

Hughes stopped moving his hands. The bonds were far too tight to wriggle out of while Charles was there.

“John and I were doing pretty good, so well we were able to lose one of the choppers. Course, we didn’t know there was still product in it.”

“So you tried to buy it back?”

Charles shrugged as he sat in the soil next to Hughes. “It’s a cut-throat economy.”

Hughes shook his head. “But you didn’t cut the throat yourself. You had to get someone else to do your dirty work.”

“Blood’s blood. Your father does something for you, you do return the favour for him.”

Hughes’ eyes opened wider. “What are you talking about?”

Charles looked down at Hughes. His lip was curled into a sneer. “I had my daughter push Brownstone off his balcony. When she told me you’d been sniffing around the old woman I had her got rid of her, too.”

A light went on his Hughes’ brain. He mentally kicked himself for not having seen it. “Genevieve is your daughter?”

Suddenly one of Charles’ boots flashed out and connected with Hughes’ gut, and then he stood. “Don’t go anywhere, Kiwi.”

Hughes watched as Charles stalked away toward the wreckage, where Piripi was working with a garden hose in an effort to extinguish the fire. Frantically he looked around for something with which to free his hands. The other two men, and the smoking wreckage of the 500, were a few dozen metres away but nearer to Hughes there was a table and chairs. He could see a hunting knife on the table.

Before he could begin rolling over to the table Hughes heard something. He looked to the other men, who now looked back at him and then to the north-western sky.

“The fuck is that?” Piripi exclaimed, but Charles didn’t reply. Instead he took a pistol from a leg pocket on his overalls and made for Hughes. He thrust his thumb.

“Up. You’re coming with us.”

“What?” Hughes replied. “I’m in no condition to walk.”

“Who said anything about walking?” Charles spat at him as Piripi yanked on Hughes’ wrists to stand him up.

Charles led the pair behind the small shed where Hughes had been lying, and Hughes saw how he would be going with them.

“Put him in the back,” Charles barked at Piripi, glancing in the direction of the buzzing sound. Then he looked back at Hughes and smirked. “Unfortunately this JetRanger is set up for cargo, so there are no seats in the back.”

Hughes looked at the battered helicopter he first saw months before. He saw there weren’t any doors, either. Piripi seemed to read his thoughts and grinned.

“Don’t worry. I’ll tie you in so you don’t fall out. But I never got past Cub Scouts so my knots aren’t so great,” he laughed.

The big Maori threw Hughes onto the bare metal floor of the JetRanger’s rear cabin, and lashed a rope between the front bulkhead and Hughes’ wrists. Charles had already clambered into his seat and begun starting up the chopper.

“You’d better stay in back with him,” Charles shouted over his shoulder as the helicopter came to life, “it’s no good trying to supervise him from up here.”

Piripi looked as though he was going to protest but instead gritted his teeth and clambered aboard.

“Let me go, surely you don’t want to be caught up in this?” Hughes pleaded with his co-passenger.

Piripi smiled broadly. “Once you’re in the life there’s only one way out.” He mimed putting a gun to Hughes’ temple.

Hughes felt his stomach lurch as the JetRanger leapt into the air and ducked over the crop, flying straight through the smoke cloud emanating from HMH. From where he was laying Hughes couldn’t even steal a final look at his old machine, but he could see a speck in the distance.

Piripi saw it too.

“Hey, Dom,” he called out.

Charles didn’t turn but his reply was loud and clear. “It’s a Squirrel. Probably one of his,” nodding his head back toward Hughes.

Hughes smiled. A kick from Piripi’s steel-capped work boot wiped it off his face.

The JetRanger banked suddenly right and then dived, cresting over a ridgeline at near-treetop level. Hughes was inwardly impressed with the Canadian’s skills behind the controls, but all thoughts of admiration quickly vanished when he remembered his situation. He strained to look over at Piripi, the big Maori framed by the left-side door frame. He was standing on the skid and leaning out into the slipstream watching the other machine, his shaven head occasionally darting forward and below to see where his own aircraft was.

Hughes started to play with the rope tying his wrists together.

“How’s he doing?” Charles bellowed over the noise of the JetRanger’s turbine.

Piripi turned to look at Hughes, who feigned unconsciousness. “Alive,” he replied, adding with a smirk, “just.”

“Not him, you fool,” Charles called back, “the Squirrel! The other fuckin’ chopper!”

Piripi looked outside again. Hughes continued his wriggling.

The JetRanger levelled off and descended even lower, and Hughes saw – with some alarm – the tips of the taller trees flashing past.

“It’s behind us,” Piripi called back to his pilot, clutching the door frame as he stood on the helicopter’s landing skid. “They’re gaining – that thing’s bloody quick, Dom.”

Charles replied by banking again to the right, so violently Hughes thought Piripi would fall past him and out the other side.

“What’re you doing, who’re you trying to kill here?”

Charles laughed. Hughes didn’t like the sinister edge it had. “Anyone in the way.”

Piripi shook his head and went back onto the skid. “You’re crazy, bro.”

Hughes could just make out the sound of the other machine. As the bush below flashed by and transformed into the green-blue of a lake, Hughes slipped the rope off his wrists. He glanced around, looking for some part of the cabin to cling on to.

Piripi turned.

Hughes froze.

“They’re right on us, I don’t think you can lose ’em!”

“Wanna bet?” Charles replied, so quietly Hughes figured it wasn’t meant to be heard.

Suddenly the helicopter reared up into a zoom climb. Hughes grabbed onto a D-ring set in the floor, struggling to hold on through the pain of three fingers holding his whole weight as the helicopter shot upward. He saw Piripi on the skid, both hands on the top of the door frame.

His eyes wide and fixated on Hughes.

“I’m sorry,” Hughes said quietly as the helicopter slowed to a near-stop.

Just as Charles spun the JetRanger 180 degrees in a torque turn to the left, Hughes kicked out with his still-bound feet, connecting with Piripi’s gut. The other man’s grip failed and he slipped away to the back of the helicopter. There was a THUNK, felt more than heard, and then another.

“What the - ” Charles started, turning to face where his man was meant to be keeping watch, but the sound of alarms began to distract him.

Hughes frantically tried to free his feet as the helicopter spun toward the water – Piripi must have hit the horizontal stabiliser, he thought, and then the tail rotor.

They were out of control, and not even Charles could stop it.

Hughes looked outside and saw the water of the lake, and made a snap judgment. He let himself slip out the open doorway, free of the helicopter. Almost instantly he crashed into the water, the helicopter mere metres behind him.

Hughes thrashed, trying to kick both legs at once to make it to the bright sky above.

He broke the surface, gasping. He couldn’t see the Squirrel.

Suddenly he felt a tug on his left foot, and he was pulled under. Straining, he tried to punch at whatever had him.

He opened his eyes and saw orange.

He kicked out and felt his feet connect with something solid and the grip loosened as Charles fell away. The rope had come free from his feet so Hughes surfaced again and paddled toward the shore.

He pulled himself onto the dark sand, clear of the water, and lay on his back. His breath was coming in short bursts, shock was setting in – had he just killed two men? – and he closed his eyes to try and focus.

What little breath was in his lungs was knocked out of him as something connected with his belly. Doubled over in pain, he opened his eyes again to see Charles, wet and with manic eyes, standing over him.

“You motherfucker,” he spat.

Hughes scrambled to find something – driftwood, a rock – to throw at the man, who seemed possessed. He tried to get to his feet.

“Years of work, hundreds of thousands of dollars, my last goddamned chopper, all fuckin’ gone because of YOU!”

Charles lunged at Hughes, a manic scream piercing the air. Hughes, feeling weak and defeated, put his arms up to protect himself.

But the blow never came – there was a shout followed by a bang like a low calibre bullet and then a rapid-fire TICK-TICK-TICK-TICK. Hughes opened his eyes to see Charles frozen in place, his body shaking almost imperceptibly. He fell to the ground.

“Mister Hughes, are you okay?”

Hughes turned to see a clean-cut man in dark blue overalls lower a stun gun, the wires from which led to Charles’ gut. Bold, white letters on his chest read POLICE. “Mister Hughes?”

Hughes nodded, and then collapsed.

#

The light was bright – not as bad as the novels he liked to read made out, but in seconds Hughes knew where he was. He opened his eyes to see he was in a hospital room, as he’d guessed. But there was no-one in the chair next to his bed, and there were no flowers on the table.

He lifted his torso – painfully – to look outside. He could see the trees and flowers of King’s Park, which meant he was in Tangikea still.

“Hey.”

Hughes turned his head quickly – instantly regretting it as pain coursed down his neck – to see Hardy in the doorway. He was in a black suit, but the tie was loosened and the top button undone.

“It was a lovely service.”

Hughes swore softly. “Sandy?”

Hardy nodded as he entered the room, turning off his cellphone and taking the seat next to his old buddy’s bed. “Good turnout, too. Lance even arranged for a Cresco to do a flyby.”

“Nice,” Hughes smiled, although he felt tears coming. “The bastard made me miss Sandy’s funeral.”

“These things happen, mate.”

Hughes cocked an eyebrow after subtly wiping his eye. “Mid-air fights to the death over Rototahi?”

“Par for the course for you lately,” Hardy smirked.

Hughes chuckled. “Where is he?”

Hardy breathed out a long sigh. “Cop shop. For now. They’re calling in a JP tomorrow to keep him in custody, they tell me. Court later in the week.”

Hughes nodded softly. “Did the cops say what he’ll get?”

“Well,” Hardy said, reclining as he pulled his tie off completely, “could be as long as 25 years.”

Hughes scowled. “Three murders – that we know of – plus the Brownstones, plus the drugs…25 bloody years is all they’re worth…”

Hardy leant over to the bed and touched Hughes gently on the shoulder. “Max, it’s not up to us.”

Hughes nodded again. “I know.” He looked at Richard. “Did they find Piripi?”

Hardy looked at him blankly. “Who?”

“Big Maori guy, Charles’s offsider.”

Hardy shook his head. “Never heard of him. Keep an eye on the paper, maybe the dive squad’ll pick him up.”

Hughes lay back in the bed. “So what now?”

Hardy got up and walked to the window. “They’ll find the woman and probably charge her, in Canada,” he began.

Hughes winced, turning away so his friend wouldn’t see the expression on his face. “She’s his daughter.”

He turned to see Hardy’s head go back. “Wow.”

Hughes nodded, staring at the ceiling.

Hardy wisely decided to leave that matter alone. “Doctors tell me you’re okay, maybe a week in here.”

“How long till I can fly?”

“Knowing you,” Hardy looked at his watch, “three hours?”

Hughes chuckled.

“Seriously though, a month at most. They say you need some bedrest. Maybe catch up on those model kits you like buying so many of. You won’t be able to work on the Fletcher for a while, that’s for sure.”

Hughes smiled, picking up the magazine Hardy had placed on the table next to him. “I’m sure you know what happened to the 500.”

Hardy smiled and lowered his head, shaking it. “25 years without a prang and you write off the best aircraft in the fleet. We may have the technology, but I don’t think even Trev can salvage what’s left of her.” He got up and stretched, turning his cellphone back on and opening up the web browser. “Not much left of the thing apart from the cab.”

Hughes’ smile vanished. He and HMH had been inseparable, “partners” for decades, and now it was little more than scrap metal.

“I’ve seen a couple of 500s online going cheap, good condition, too. As soon as you’re back on your feet the boys can have it ready to go.”

“I dunno,” Hughes said as he leafed through the issue of Trade-A-Plane, “It wouldn’t be the same with another C-model. I wouldn’t mind something a little newer. Something with a bit more get-up-and-go, leave the old girl behind.”

Hardy turned to see Hughes’ finger on an advert showcasing a McDonnell-Douglas MD520N, a newer version of the 500 but with a thicker tailboom and no tail rotor. “Is that what you want?”

Hughes smiled. “It’ll do nicely. I just want to get back to work.”

“There’s no keeping a good pilot down.”

Hughes turned the magazine back to admire the shiny red, five-year-old machine on the page before him. “I won’t be coming down for a while yet.”

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