THE AIRCRAFT FLEW EASTWARD, its airspeed steady at one hundred and ninety miles per hour, one thousand feet above the Pacific, a red and white twin-engine customized de Havilland, outfitted for water takeoff and landing.
Jeremy switched on the radio again. “Witch Grass, this is Red Bird, do you copy?”
He said this over and over, nothing but faint white noise in his headset.
Jeremy turned off the transmitter. He liked using the radio, getting into that high-plains drawl pilots used, roger this, roger that. But you couldn’t have a conversation with nothing. Well, you could, but you’d be like one of those meth heads outside the video arcade in Kapaa, talking nonstop, no one listening.
Jeremy’s dad was a warlord criminal. Through minions, he dealt drugs to these ravaged souls, but his dad told Jeremy to stay away from both the dealers and their customers. He wanted Jeremy to learn from the predators at the top of the food chain, of which Elwood was the prime example.
Jeremy peeled the wrapper off a ProteinPlus bar, offering it to Elwood, who was piloting the plane, and then he unwrapped a bar for himself.
“Better wake Shako,” said Elwood, chewing hard around the wad of protein bar. “Make sure he eats one, too.”
Sure, wake Shako and feed him, thought Jeremy with an ironic smile. Like feeding a tarantula. He would wake Shako in a moment—you had to prepare yourself for the encounter.
“Fly out there with Elwood and don’t come back without the money,” his dad had said. He had been slumped in a chair beside his crumpled bedding two days after a hernia operation, the pain medication wearing off.
This was the first time Ted Tygart had ordered his son on an assignment, the first time Jeremy had gone on a non-drill operation with Elwood, and Jeremy dreaded disappointing either man.
Elwood piloted the airplane in his aloha shirt and Sleeping Giant Spa baseball cap, cargo pants, and black combat boots, a rangy man with red hair on his head and curly red hair on his arms. He needed a shave—he had been at the controls for more than six hours.
The aircraft had a range of over two thousand sea miles, thanks to auxiliary fuel reserves. Still, the plane could not go on like this forever, and besides, they would have to swing well to the north to avoid the storm heading this way.
A transponder on the missing vessel was sending out a location indicator, showing where the lost craft was, and that gave Elwood an illuminated image to follow on the radar screen. But it was very hard to translate the bright dot on the cockpit panel, a pulsing sore, to an actual position on the sea.
“I’m going to circle,” said Elwood, speaking easily over the sound of the engine.
He was not asking for permission, exactly, but the boss’s son got a little respect. Jeremy drew a little circle with his finger and nodded. These protein bars were full of flavor, but they stuck your teeth together.
The aircraft banked, slipping northward. Then they looped west. Jeremy kept his eyes on the tilting expanse before him, the Pacific a glittering slab, nothing visible but the skittering, fugitive ghost of the airplane’s shadow as the sun rose.
Jeremy slipped his BlackBerry out of his pocket and read the last message from Kyle. im KIA sht/Pl 2 bi me lzr trfd.
Even by the standards of compressed text messages, this communication had been terse. But the meaning was unmistakable, given Jeremy’s experience in figuring out messages from Kyle Molline. Kyle was always laughing, playing catch, fooling around.
I am killed in action—shot. Paul too, by me. Laser is terrified.
Laser was the dog, the three-year-old German shepherd that was supposed to keep Kyle company and act as backup security in case something went wrong. Jeremy liked Laser very much. He and Kyle played Frisbee with the dog, but Elwood hated the animal, and the dog hated him.
This message had to be an exaggeration. Kyle couldn’t be dead, as in actually dead. He was fooling around—but they could not be sure.
“Can I look at the gun?” asked Jeremy.
“Sure,” said Elwood.
But he gave a little tilt of his head and a set of his mouth that let Jeremy know: be careful.
He leaned down and picked up the MP5 from the floor of the aircraft, down there with the canvas backpack of emergency gear—a flashlight, a flare gun and an air horn, and a zipped-up black gun case, part of Elwood’s personal arsenal.
The Heckler & Koch had a teardrop-shaped safety switch on the side and diagrams showing the rate of fire settings. The full automatic setting was a stream of bullets like red footballs. The barrel would get so hot the operator needed to wear protective gloves. The canvas pack contained a pair of Blackhawk Hot Ops gloves ready and waiting. Elwood had loaned the weapon to Jeremy for practice outings, cutting plumeria branches to pieces.
Property San Jose PD was etched along the stock. It had been stolen right out of a police yard vehicle by one of Elwood’s former associates.
“I have two clips down there in the bag,” said Elwood, “along with some other stuff. And Shako has a couple extra clips, along with his own ammo. Don’t you, Shako?”
This last was louder than the rest, and Jeremy could feel Shako stirring in the rear of the passenger compartment.
Shako wore wraparound Cartier sunglasses, black Noko denims, and Black Mamba edition Nikes. He had close-cropped brown hair like a scrub pad, and was tanned dark by the Hawaiian sunlight. Shako was fifteen years old and had killed people. Jeremy understood that he had taken lives for hire in Richmond, California, where he was from, and on the high seas off the Big Island and Maui. Two years younger than Jeremy, he was a professional.
Shako lifted his sunglasses, revealing green eyes. He stared right back, an interesting experience for Jeremy. His eyes were two decimal points, vision-holes. They gave no evidence of feeling or personality. Shako had smack down tattooed on his right arm, and something in Chinese tattooed on his left arm.
“You woke him up, Elwood,” said Jeremy, to place the blame where it belonged.
“Sorry, there, Mr. Quinn,” said Elwood. “I was going to ask if you were hungry. Jeremy brought us some snacks.”
Elwood was maybe forty years old and he called Shako “mister.” When you were a killer like Shako, you got respect.
Shako looked at the protein bar Jeremy was offering and reached out and took it.
It was like the time an elephant took a peanut from Jeremy’s hand, outside the new Safeway in Lihue. It was a surprise acceptance, the trunk curling around and tucking the peanut into the great mammal’s unexpectedly tiny mouth. Jeremy had felt honored.
There was a tug at his sleeve, and to his surprise Shako was handing a protein bar of his own between the seats, an exchange, a CLIF Organic ZBar.
“Thanks, Shako,” said Jeremy.
Behind his sunglasses, Shako was tightening his lips together, not a smile exactly, but close.
Jeremy was surprised. A gesture of friendship from Shako. He could hardly wait to tell Kyle that maybe Shako was human.
Because Kyle was alive. He had to be. You could talk to Kyle, not like hanging out with Shako, afraid he might take offense and shoot your head off.
“Take a look, to the south, Jeremy,” Elwood said, pointing. “One of those yachts your dad always wanted.”
He banked the plane and Jeremy used the binoculars, taking in the yacht and the spacious, metallic ocean.
“It would be nice to capture that,” said Elwood musingly. “It would sure make your dad happy. I’d be pleased just to set foot on a vessel like that.”
That was one more problem with Elwood. He was civil, but he insinuated his way into your thoughts and generally did things his way. Even bringing Shako along had been his idea. What was he talking about now, stealing yachts?
Not one of them was paying that much attention when they hit the thing. One moment Elwood was taking a drink of vitaminwater and Jeremy was using his teeth to open the CLIF bar and Shako was settling back down in the back, like an eel back into his shadows.
With a startling whiplash snap, the Plexiglas windscreen took a hit, cracks all over the surface, and there was a simultaneous shock that traveled along the framework of the aircraft.
Jeremy had sometimes wondered what people did during a plane crash. Did they say anything, or did they spend their last moments with silently gritted teeth, making sure their seat belts were snug? Or did people who never gave a thought to God suddenly think hard about the Almighty?
Or maybe people didn’t really do very much at all, too alarmed and too busy inwardly bracing for impact.
Because that was basically what Jeremy did, and Elwood, too, as though flying straight down like this was what they had planned. Only Shako, the professional killer, was wailing, like a hurt animal, or actually more like a hurt and stricken person, stuck in a crack and the crack closing, about to die.
Text copyright © 2012 by Michael Cadnum