Authors: Ward Larsen
Tags: #Fiction, #Thrillers, #General, #Thriller
Fly by Night
The Perfect Assassin
Fly by Wire
Thrillers: 100 Must-Reads
Fly by Night
Copyright © 2011 by Ward Larsen
All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced in any form or by any electronic or mechanical means, including information storage and retrieval systems, without permission in writing from the publisher, except by a reviewer who may quote brief passages in a review.
This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, businesses, organizations, places, and incidents either are the products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events, businesses, locales, or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.
Published in the United States of America by Oceanview Publishing,
Longboat Key, Florida
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PRINTED IN THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA
Fly by Night
The young boy trudged up yet another dune and was breathing hard when he reached the crest. Squinting against the fading light, he scanned the next wadi for his wayward beast. Nothing. His grandfather’s words came to him.
Never give yourself completely to either hope or despair. A wise man lives between the two.
It was a regular thing for lambs to wander off at this time of day, but finding them was usually easier. The boy had been searching for a full twenty minutes, and if he didn’t find the lamb soon he would be forced by the new moon to wait until morning. When he considered that the rest of his flock was roaming untended, the boy picked up his pace. With darkness gathering, the jackals would soon begin their rounds.
He kept moving, angling for the highest ground on the next rise. As he walked, his sandals kicked up tiny clouds of dust with each step, fine powder from the Sahara that had migrated a thousand miles east. It hadn’t always been this way. The boy was only twelve years old, but even he could remember when the Golis Mountains had been awash with vegetation, before the soil had begun to dry up and blow away. Now he was forced to go farther each month, deeper into the plains of Togdheer to find sustenance for his flock. The other young boys did the same, trekking great distances to keep their families’ tenuous prospects afloat until things got better. Things had to get better.
The next dune was unusually steep, and the boy felt sweat beading on his forehead, mocking the cool evening air. On reaching the top, he paused, and that was when he saw it. His spirits fell. The wretched creature was twenty paces ahead, clearly dead, its hooves sticking up at awkward angles, the head bent unnaturally to one side. As he moved closer, the boy’s first thought was for himself—his father was going to give him a terrible lashing. His second thought was for his younger sisters, who would see their prospects of a prosperous marriage dim that much further. His family’s wealth had been decimated in recent years, and here was another setback. Small, to be sure, but the most recent of a thousand cuts. The drought had taken their cattle and two goats, the warlords their modest home. The sheep were all they had left.
The boy stopped next to the carcass of his wayward lamb, and in the fading light he was struck by two curious things. First was the lack of blood. When the jackals worked there was always blood, staining the sand and trailing off into the desert as flesh was torn from bone and dragged away. And that was the second problem. No flesh was missing. None at all. He saw only a broken, misshapen corpse, like the poor creature had been hit by a truck. Yet there were no trucks here. The boy reached down with his hand and felt the body. Still warm. He stood straight and looked around cautiously. Whatever had happened, it had nothing to do with jackals.
It was then that he noticed the trench. Fifty feet away, a deep groove plowed through the sand, disappeared, then carried on again all the way to the top of the next rise. It reminded the boy of a vehicle track, although much deeper. And what kind of vehicle left only a single rut? A motorcycle? No, he decided. No motorcycle would ever cleave a path a full meter in depth.
The boy went to the trench, and as he closed in he began to see other marks in the sand, smaller and intermittent, but parallel to the first. It was definitely something man-made. He searched the area guardedly, listened for any sound. In this part of the world, anything having to do with man was trouble. Smugglers, soldiers, bandits. That was the norm. The few remaining nomad families led an increasingly
anxious existence. The desert here was a lawless place, and the boy knew the wicked truth of this new desert order—a few sheep and a half loaf of bread weren’t much of a prize.
, on the other hand, was of great value. Another reluctant conscript for someone’s wandering army.
The boy hesitated, knowing he should just go back. Knowing that nothing good could come from whatever was beyond the next ridge. He stood still for a very long time, until his curiosity got the better of him. He began to climb carefully, quietly. At the top of the dune he peered over and saw—something. The boy tried to make sense of the dim image. It was very big, the size of a truck. But the shape was unearthly, a great wedge of angled metal, the color as dull and dark as a starless night sky. He looked around carefully, yet saw no one. He was still alone. The boy edged closer, not pausing until he was an arm’s length away. There were wisps of smoke at the back of the wedge, wafting up slowly, almost delicately in the cool evening air. This made him abandon any thought of touching the thing. It seemed almost alien, like something from another world. Then he recognized the emblem on one side, an image that made the object seem very worldly indeed. The boy was not educated, could neither read nor write, but he had heard enough stories, seen enough Hollywood movies. He might not know how it had made its way here, but he knew what it was.
He tried to subdue his excitement. Carefully, just as his grandfather had taught him, he took his bearings using the stars. Then the boy ran. He bypassed the carcass of his lamb, and five minutes later went right past his flock. Twenty minutes on, he was completely out of breath when he reached his father’s tent.
IGHT MONTHS LATER
Jammer Davis was running hard. So were the other twenty-nine players on the pitch.
The deluge that had begun at halftime had slackened to a cold drizzle, but plots of standing water held fast on the rutted pitch. Not that anyone cared—this was, after all, the championship game of the Virginia Rugby Union Fall Classic. Over-30 Division.
Deep into the second half, the score was tied at twenty. Both sides chased the oblong white ball as it careened haphazardly over a mud-strewn field. Grass ripped out by the roots and players went sprawling into ankle-deep muck, all amid a muffled chorus of grunts and slapping skin.
The moment of truth came out of nowhere. It often did. A squat back from Davis’ side scooped up the ball and, in the instant before he was flattened, slung a lateral to a teammate. The receiver was immediately corralled, but not before off-loading a long square pass that Davis caught in dead stride. He was the biggest man on his team, a prop forward with the traditional number eight on his back. And Davis was quick for his size. He beat the first tackler with a stiff arm. The second got hold of his thick legs, but couldn’t hold on. Free of that challenge, Davis made a hard diagonal cut that left two defenders grasping air. When he picked up his eyes, he saw open field. Lots of it.
He had a head of steam now, legs pumping and arms churning. His left ankle hurt like hell. With twenty yards to go for the try, Davis had
one man to beat. It was the biggest guy on the other team, an off-duty cop who had to go six-six and was as big in the shoulders as Davis. He was the cop you wanted to see walk through the door when there was a bar fight to be broken up. Not the prop forward you wanted to beat at the goal line with the game in the balance.
The guy took a good angle and made the cutoff, set his feet square, and waited. Davis had plenty of room. He could go left or right. The big cop knew it and waited for the move. Ten yards from victory, Davis stuttered a half step and saw what he wanted. The cop lightened on his feet for an instant, ready to react to Davis’ change of direction. There wasn’t one. In that critical moment, Jammer Davis dropped his shoulder and went full steam ahead.
Half a lifetime ago, in an even more miserable plot of mud, a drill instructor had taught Marine recruit Frank Davis an important lesson—size meant little without balance. Now that lesson was replayed. The impact lifted the cop off his feet and propelled him over the goal line. He landed flat on his back. Davis fell right beside him, bounced once on the ball, and came to rest in a heap.
“God dammit, Jammer!” The cop rolled up to a sitting position and put an exploratory finger in his mouth. It came out bloody. “That’s the same tooth I had fixed last month. My wife’s gonna be pissed.”
“You cops have good insurance,” Davis said. “And besides, your wife is a dentist. That’s money in your pocket, Tom.”
The cop spit out a mouthful of blood, then smiled big enough for Davis to see not one, but two misaligned teeth.
The referee blew the final whistle and muted cheers came from the sidelines. The teams began to mingle like two colonies of insects, one red with black stripes, the other royal blue on white. There wasn’t much in the way of either celebration or agony. Just tired handshakes with hands on hips, a few predictions on how things would or wouldn’t be different next year. Everyone gravitated to the sidelines where energy drinks in plastic bottles were snapped open. Damp towels stained with mud, sweat, and blood got draped over shoulders.
The captain of the opposing team came over. He was limping and holding a hand to his back in a way that would put dollar signs in a
chiropractor’s eyes. He handed Davis a beer, and said, “I guess the first round’s on us, Jammer.”
“Thanks, Mike.” Davis took the bottle and tipped it back for a long draw. When the bottle came down, he froze.
It was a strange thing, trouble. Strange how you knew it was coming. Davis had always wondered if there really was a sixth sense, some aura or electrical impulse that shot out bolts of bad vibes. Or maybe it was based on smell, a hormonal aerosol that rode on the wind. But then, he’d never been good at biology or chemistry. All Jammer Davis knew was that his old boss, Larry Green, was standing on the far side of the field staring at him.
And he wasn’t here to watch bad rugby.
Green met him halfway, his brisk runner’s stride countering Davis’ limping gate—his ankle still hurt like hell. They merged at the far sideline.
“You look like a kid who just came in off the playground,” Green said. “Well, times four, maybe.”
Green looked like he always did. He wore dark pants and a sober gray sweater under an unbuttoned raincoat. Green was small and compact, with a lean, angular face. The haircut was strict regulation, high and tight, unlike Davis’ own ragged mess. He’d been needing a trim for weeks, which somehow made him oddly uncomfortable in front of his old commander. Davis had worked for Green twice, first in the Air Force, and later with the National Transportation Safety Board. Their transition to civilian life had been concurrent, Green retiring from a two-star pentagon billet to take a high-level job at the NTSB. He was the kind of guy who always rose to the top. The cream. Davis had retired as a major with a résumé that was a lot shakier. More curdled.
“Did you catch the match?” Davis asked.
“A little at the end. You looked pretty good out there. Not that I would know. Rugby was never my sport—don’t have the size.”
“You’d be surprised. Some of those little guys can hit hard.”
“Thanks, but I’ll stick to my marathons.” He pointed to Davis’ ankle, and said, “That’s going to be sore tomorrow. You know, Jammer, there are certain sports you can play forever. Golf, tennis, swimming. Rugby’s not one of them.”
“I’ll give it up one day.”
“Yeah. I’ve got a friend who says that all the time. He’s an alcoholic.”
Davis said nothing.
“So how is Jen?” Green asked. “Is that semester in Norway working out?”
Davis’ eyes narrowed. He hadn’t seen Larry in months, and couldn’t remember if he’d mentioned the exchange program. “I talked to her yesterday. She’s doing great. When she comes back in two months I’m sure she’ll be all European. You know, converting prices to euros, putting bars through her handwritten zeds.”