Someone Of Little Consequence
by Peter Hunter
Ex ace fighter pilots don't panic - Bonney knew that but his brain hadn't told his churning bowels - only one more storm in just another sky - like hundreds before, none of which troubled him much.
Why the fear - those warning stabs between abdomen and brain? Was his arse telling him he was too old - no more the hotshot wartime pilot? Just another has-been re-capturing his youth with one more crazy adventure?
A final adrenalin surge proving him still a sharp and capable?
The stabbing pains grew in intensity, there were skills to be summoned, reserves of concentration to be plundered. Fear's cold hand knotted his insides; he tasted its acid.
Just a storm, another patch of turbulent sky - twisted masochistic fun to a flawed eternal child unable to reject another dare.
Still his choices - turn back, re-route around the storm - or fly through tempting fate? Nothing new - fear, in all its forms was his old acquaintance, friend and drug - the ultimate fix - opium to mad, incorrigible misfits seeking thrills in every trouble spot. Fear - his co-pilot from Vietnam, throughout mercenary days in Africa, gun running into Bosnia and Rwanda - fear, astride his wingtips, taunting and beguiling.
Fear old friend, in his mind's abyss, tottering on its edge, peering tempted to jump - seduced for delicious seconds before pulling back, adrenalin recharged.
That wasn't the style of Major Lynton Bonney, once flight commander, 366th Tactical Fighter Wing, Vietnam - just another ex Nam jet jockey - used, then ejected like some spent cartridge.
With need for a high once again too strong - racing pulse heralding danger, pounding heartbeat a drum roll before the guillotine severed some poor bastard's head in the Place De La Revolution - marking time with the marching feet of his own funeral cortege?
Vietnam, his highest high - then free-fall into disillusionment, drifting and searching
By now he should have grown out of it
The storm, once a modest low-pressure trough twelve hundred miles west over the featureless wastes of the Pacific. Calm blue ocean - hot sun, sucking moisture from the sea until thousands of tons of saturated air drifted eastwards.
The stagnant high-pressure air mass lingered over The Bay - oppressive smog, trapping the pollutants of seven million cars into a yellow pall dimming the sunshine. Air humid and sweaty, poisonous to breathe - irritation, discomfort and bad tempers
Many suffered, those with runny nostrils, hay fever and asthma fared worse, but everyone breathing the pollution, sweating outside without air conditioning - all blessed the cool new air.
On the coast, crab fishermen of Moss Landing welcomed the clear air rolling back the fog to reveal the sparkling shimmering deep azure lifting their spirits. The breeze, the drop in humidity eased their blistered hands as they laboured - blessing the changed weather.
Bonney approached the storm, thoughts differing from those below him - lips curled, part grimace, part grin - positively welcoming the tempest
For him - just another day nearer death
The precocious weather matured on the Diablos western slopes - surging upwards, invisible fingers bending the young sequoia trees - swallowing thermals fed by the summer sun.
Bonney scanned his instruments - coaxing the pitching aircraft back to level flight. Oil and fuel gauges - temperatures and pressures indicating the health of the machine
Everything was right
The adolescent storm, annoyed that its tears brought relief to drought-hit farmers below, displayed growing petulance by spitting enormous hailstorms.
Its saliva of contempt
Steadying the control wheel, Bonney pushed first the left, then right-hand levers, channelling hot air into the carburettors, melting choking ice condensing from the moist air.
With a sickening wrench the plane fell from under him, shoulder straps biting painfully, dragging him with the plummeting machine. Cursing, he tightened them vice-like around chest and waist.
It was beginning
* * *
Nudging the storm Bonney's feelings were mixed. Subconsciously, was he trying to make things even more difficult - a price of growing old maybe?
His failure to change the world?
Just one more chance - another big one? Maybe this journey would provide it - flying to Phoenix to kill someone he'd never met and who'd done him - perhaps no one - any harm?
Hired by two crazy Englishmen for money and excitement
Perhaps he'd finally succumbed to madness or some perverted sickness? Lusting for increasingly bizarre thrills, going further and further, gaining some twisted satisfaction.
He understood himself well, long prison camp years encouraging self-analysis - self-recognition, an atavistic throwback needing to hunt, stalk and kill
In Vietnam he'd killed for money called 'being patriotic'. Initially he thought it protected the great Western democracies. The politicians the comedians, the poor bloody soldiers mere stooges in that tragi-comedy.
Disillusioned, he'd reconciled himself to being a hired gun - ideals were for little people or the very young - grown-ups the real cynics, grabbing the goodies. Self first - concern for others just a token.
Lubrication to enlightened self-interest
Often, he hated these beliefs, accepting his own psychopathic personality. Vietnam killed off any youthful naivety, as his kind realised they'd become mere cannon fodder to political ambition. The rancour never decayed and bitterness poisoned his mind. Would this contract to kill, satisfy him, or was it another fix down a slippery slope towards total degradation?
Autopilot off, he hand-flew the Duchess into the boiling turbulence. Fighting two storms that day - the easy, physical one he understood, but the other inner storm, an attempt to purge his bitterness and anger - one that might bring him peace?
Turbulence again, he eased back the throttles - less speed - less airframe stress. The plane shuddered, aluminium wing skins shimmying, groaning with strain. One moment soaring upwards two thousand feet per minute and then plunging downwards again, rolling alarmingly side to side - an insignificant leaf in an autumn gale.
Let it ride. Keep on an even keel. Wings level. Don't get low or slow
As long as he didnt descend too far he'd be OK. Despite its protesting tortured metal the Duchess was very strong. Concentrating, struggling to stay level, he fought the storm. Ice was now worrying him - a film of rime on the wings leading edge and an opaque layer coating the windscreen. He knew he could handle the turbulence - rattling his bones a little before hyping him into giddy adrenalin high, but it wouldn't kill him
A terrifying crescendo of hailstones drowned the roar of the engines. Hail wouldn't kill him either. It might ruin the paintwork, dent the wings and tail, but that was the extent of it.
As for the lightning?
There, the storm gods might achieve more. Already it had struck several times, only pinpricks in the aluminium skin. Lightning is normally harmless - unless it finds some flaw in the plane - like a missing strip of bonding wire where explosive heat builds up?
It was ice he feared most - rapidly becoming a problem at the current rate, forcing him to descend as extra weight and more urgently the crystalline build-up on the wings, destroyed their efficiency.
Warmer air was the answer, three thousand feet below - air unfortunately stuffed with the rocky peaks of mountains. He would have to remain where he was, as long as he could maintain level flight.
His throat tightened from excitement and fear - not anticipating so much ice. Now another sound joined the symphony of strained aluminium, drumming hailstones and throbbing engines. Chunks of ice spinning off propeller blades and ricocheting against the fuselage.
Each impact speeding his heartbeat into a drum roll heralding eternity
Welcoming bright, warm sunshine saluted him outrunning the storm to the east - one hundred and sixty five miles to Skyharbour, Phoenix.
An hour's flying - a hotel room, a shower, drink and a large meal.
Life suddenly was very good
* * *
Bonney wasn't sure what bit him, drinking his blood, irritating and discomfort, but he called them sand fleas - a label he'd invented during long hours of boredom. Five days, the sand fleas had given him hell - itching like crazy, almost eaten alive. They alone were incentive enough to finish the job quickly.
Hed had time for reflection, tedious hours prone under the scorching desert sun. Hiding amongst the rocks, acacia scrub and thorn bushes with light red-brown earth infiltrating his clothing, a merciless sun frying him. Suffering from insect stings and risking a bite from rattlesnake or sidewinder, whatever else that infernal desert might reveal. Time to review his elaborate precautions, the details ensuring he would not end up on Death Row awaiting the electric chair.
His aircraft, sadly displayed visible signs of its beating from the hailstorm, needed a re-spray where the ice bullets had sanded the leading edges to bare metal. He had left it parked on Skyharbour's north side in the care of the handling agent, chained to the tarmac in case one of the miniature whirlwinds - locally called dust devils - came by.
Dealing with the agent he'd used the first of the four aliases Smith and Jones had provided. The mysterious duo had been thorough, providing credit cards, false pilot and driver's licences and a handful of creased letters supporting each alias. They'd shown considerable resources - he wouldn't have agreed to the contract if they hadn't been so totally professional.
He'd hired a yellow cab to the southern terminal. There he'd mingled with arriving passengers and enjoyed two drinks before using another alias to rent a car.
Now, itching and sweating, the fine dirt abraded his skin. As fleas continued their banquet - cursing frequently but silently, he resolved to conclude this business. If the pattern of the five previous days were replayed it wouldn't be long now
Searching for comfort, he shifted in the grit that passed for soil - so many stones, hundreds of small sharp ones beneath him. Five days prone, allowed their razor edges to press deeper into his increasingly sensitive skin, bruising, rubbing it red raw. Now he desperately wanted to end it and leave this scorching hostile place.
Five days was long enough
He recalled the first morning - after making the twelve-mile journey from Phoenix to Scottsdale, leaving the Ford in an all-day parking lot, anonymous amongst hundreds of others.
The cab driver didn't know Desert Wheels, a business hiring buggies and bikes to those intending to explore the trackless wilderness. Bonney had chosen two wheels - a bike was faster, more manoeuvrable and able to cross terrain too rough for a four-wheeler. The Suzuki SP400 trail bike - was an old model, but its single cylinder 397cc engine was more reliable than a multi. He couldn't risk breaking down in the desert.
Hiring the bike burned his third alias - the fourth would be purely for emergencies.
Bonney glanced at his wristwatch - not long now
His discomfort was having a cumulative, very negative influence on his temper. He desperately wanted an end before his resolve evaporated.
Twenty to six - already he observed the dust tracing the Lincoln's progress along the valley road. As usual, it followed the dried up river from the house to the hamlet, onwards to the cleared strip serving as a rough airfield.
Five days he'd studied the sprawling building - white walled, single storied, like others in this area, in the style of a Mexican hacienda. Remote, high above the cacti-riddled scrubland, the rambling complex dominated the hillock on which it was built - more mesa than a hill - three sides were too steep for a road vehicle, the fourth had a winding track from the valley floor.
A security fence surrounded the 150-acres. Around he house were smaller buildings, stables and garages. He couldn't understand why the owner hadn't built an airstrip on his property but Bonney's task would then have been far more difficult
The target, large with rust coloured hair, in many ways resembling an ox, obviously preferred the hilltop site, the hacienda, dominating its surroundings like a medieval castle.
Near the large house lay the tiny hamlet of Arrow Valley Springs, seventy miles north east of Phoenix, its meagre collection of shacks littering the valley floor - like a film set for a western in Apache country. He half expected to see John Wayne ride in on a tall horse.
Cruel country, five thousand feet above sea level, typical Arizona high desert - harsh and lonely.
Five days watching, noting and planning - Phoenix to Scottsdale then the long journey north east - twenty miles off-road, bumping skidding, leaping even, over ridges, gullies and small dunes.
Never more than a few yards in a straight line
Nobody watching would suspect - leggings, gloves, heavy leather boots and shoulder pack - all standard apparel riding trail bikes in that wilderness. Even the rifle case across his back, wouldn't arouse comment. Guns are common in Arizona. Numerous species are shot - antelopes, the pig-like javelina, coyotes and big horn sheep. Where most pick-up trucks carry gun racks and signs ordering No Shooting From The Highway, stand riddled with bullet holes.
His rifle wouldn't be out of place
Worst, was leaving the Suzuki a mile from his surveillance point. Walking wasn't the problem - he was fit and even in this scorching desert it wasn't too far - it was the rucksack he carried, containing a hundred pounds of rocks guaranteeing, large deep footprints.
His boots, three sizes too big - were padded with tissues. Without having time to sweep the dirt behind him - the redskin way of hiding tracks - he preferred a false trail, that of a bigger man a hundred pounds heavier.
Long hours, observing the house and airstrip, gave him time for thought. Why did Smith and Jones want Ox, dead? Why pay so well? Who employed them? There had to be another masterminding the affair? What had Ox, living in this remote place, done? Who had he offended? Did he owe money? Has he screwed some powerful man's wife? Was he just politically inconvenient?
Bonney was disturbed by the apparent lack of motive.
It worried him more than killing
Obviously Ox was very security minded. Bonney was pleased not to have to penetrate the complex. It would deter any casual intruder. Additionally the guards - driver-minders and highly trained, body language indicating professional alertness and certainly armed. Searching eyes forever scanning, wary - he could tell even at a distance, the concentration on their faces, the earnest set of their jaw lines. He was glad the hit would be long range, using the telescopic sight of his hunting rifle.
Killing close is traumatic - at distance no more alarming than shooting a target or rabbit - at least that was his experience in Nam, when he had eliminated a Mig 21.
He hadn't visited Valley Springs - no need to, only attracting attention - perhaps Ox would be notified of a stranger in the vicinity.
Why was the hamlet there at all?
Probably once the site of an old mine? Silver, being why people settled on this high plateau. Most mines had now gone - decades before, becoming ghost towns. Some still remained, miners scratching subsistence from the desert unlike this place's rich resident who commuted to Phoenix by private aircraft.
Bonney had only one chance of success. Ox never ventured out other than to commute to the airstrip. Pool, patio and barbecue, must all be there somewhere but he couldn't see them. Probably they existed amongst the complex of buildings, but even the parking area was concealed. It did not matter too much - the range, from the security fence - would be too great to be sure of a fatal hit.
One fluky shot might kill from the boundary, but he couldn't rely on luck
It had to be the airstrip, the flat dirt track east to west between thorn bushes and cacti - eleven hundred yards long, twenty wide. A small lock-up hanger was beside the strip, just big enough for Ox's twin engined Piper Aztec. One other aircraft lived there, an old Taylorcraft F21 with tattered canvas-covered wings, faded blue and white paint showing existence outside in the hot sun.
It hadn't flown all week
The dust plume heralding the limousine approached slowly along the dirt track. Bonney expected the 'plane overhead to circle, then land. Ox must have radio contact with the ground; so precise had been their arrival every day.
The minders left the big Lincoln, fanned out, scanning all four horizons. Bonney felt secure, in his hideaway amongst some grey boulders. His shot, his only chance, would be when Ox transferred from aircraft to car, leaving a minder to taxi the plane into the hanger. It took three seconds for Ox to make the short journey, partly shielded by one of the guards.
Bonney had considered the morning, but all four were then too alert for his liking - so he preferred the afternoon, after hours of hot sun had relaxed them, blunted their reflexes. He'd decided against shooting through the aircraft windscreen - the clear Perspex might deflect his bullet.
The twin-engined machine droned into sight, descending towards the strip. Bonney cowered deeper into his cubbyhole amongst the rocks. He needn't have bothered. There was no way anyone six hundred feet above - would spot Bonney, whose camouflage outfit closely matched the pastel desert.
The plane touched at the far end of the strip making dust. Ox acknowledged the reassuring wave from his guards, as Bonney's grip tightened on his rifle. He fingered its walnut stock - satin smooth wood smelling faintly of linseed oil he'd lovingly rubbed into it.
He fondled it the way a lover caresses a woman's breast
As the engines died - Bonney cycled the action of the Rigby. The bolt slid easily, silky smooth, as only a best London gun does. Sound carries a long way in the still desert air so he could not risk the slightest click from the mechanism traversing the two hundred yards between him and the minders.
Rifle ready - safety off, fore-end resting on a large boulder - its lush wood protected from the rock by a folded bandanna. The gleaming black barrel felt heavy but the sight-picture remained unsteady from the tension within Bonney.
He blinked a few times to calm his eyes, to stop their nervous twitching
For a week, he'd taken Proprandol, the beta-blocker drug for high blood pressure and a muscle relaxant. A trick, used by competition marksmen before drug testing was introduced - it prevents trembling, slight shaking holding a heavy gun on target. Hands now steadier, his target loomed large and clear, magnified by the Zeiss telescopic sight.
For the tenth time he reminded himself to stop breathing, pause as he squeezed the trigger
He could hear his heart pounding against his rib cage, impossible to relax when about to kill another man in cold blood. Forget what youve heard - bar room talk, fiction writer's descriptions; Only those who have done it - those whove killed a man, know how it's really like, dry mouth and racing pulse - above all the uncontrollable adrenalin surge - the crazy unreal high - simultaneous elation and violent sickness.
Bonney struggled to control emotions, breathing, slow down and regain his disintegrating composure. All that effort - everything so far a preparation for the next few seconds.
Stay cool, he thought - he was already too high for that
He struggled to maintain even a fragile composure.
Seconds before both engines shuddered to their stuttering stop, Ox jumped from the aircraft, running the three short yards to his car. Like an alerted, startled rabbit, thought Bonney - expecting something to happen - possessing the well-honed survival instincts and lightening reactions of the pursued.
Having only microseconds, Bonney's senses and reflexes assumed the razor sharpness of the hunter, a leopard about to spring. But, he almost blew it - just one of those moments - improbable, unplanned, unanticipated. As the smallest, the shortest of the minders opened the car for his boss; its window reflected the bright sunshine.
Bonney might have had a mirror flashed at him - blinding sun into his eyes. Although the glare was momentary, he was temporarily blinded, desperately struggling to recover.
Enough to ruin his shot - his one chance
As Bonnie squinted, blinking to clear his vision - Ox stooped into the Lincoln. Bonney panicked, just microseconds to act, abandoned his careful aim, forgetting breath control and squeezed off the one desperate shot he had time for
Beating three thousand feet per second, the hollow point, three seven five magnum needed a quarter second to travel two hundred yards. At that distance its trajectory was almost flat. Bonney had aimed a notch high, compensation for the slight drop. The big man never heard it, no victim of a supersonic round hears the shot - least not until it has hit.
The bullet missed Ox's heart by half an inch. It didn't matter much - an expanding-nose slug - muzzle power over one 1300 foot-pounds doesn't need to hit a vital organ. The soft lead bullet spreads - mushrooming and dissipating its energy in a tissue-destroying orgy. A tiny entry, one third of an inch diameter, but where it exited it leaves a fist-sized cavity
Not just bone and tissue are destroyed but the nervous system itself - the shock to the neuron network too great. Shock kills. Ox died as quickly and cleanly as anyone can decently expect from a high velocity bullet. Bonney racked the Rigby's bolt, chambering another round. As Ox died before his body even hit the ground - Bonneys concern was now with the minders.
Would they earn their pay having failed to protect their boss?
Bonney couldn't take chances - shifting his aim - targeting one mid-thigh, now with fractionally more time. One of their companions screaming in agony might deter the others
* * *
Four days after killing Ox, Bonney again met Smith and Jones in San Francisco. He was punctual when entering the Plaza hotel on Union Square. He'd felt no remorse or pangs of conscience after escaping Arrow Valley Springs. The two unharmed guards; mindful of their wretched, wounded colleague screaming beside their dead boss showed no stomach for pursuit.
Bonney returned the Suzuki to Scottsdale and the car to the rental unit at Skyharbour airport. He had then flown himself back to California to confront his paymasters.
'Well done.' Jones spoke first, after Bonney had presented his report. 'How do you feel now?'
'OK, I guess,' replied Bonney
'Adverse reactions?' asked the man calling himself Smith. 'Any regrets?'
'Negative - none so far. It's not the first time I've killed. We weren't in Nam to socialise'
'Good,' both men spoke in unison - like some bizarre comic act.
'Tell me,' asked Bonney, 'who was he - the red haired man?'
'He was...' answered Smith slowly, deliberately choosing his words, 'someone of little consequence.... no importance to us at least. In his own field he undoubtedly had many enemies as you could judge from his security arrangements...'
'Why then,' asked Bonney, voice hoarse with suspicion, 'why have me kill him? The high pay? The elaborate planning - so much trouble?'
'My dear Bonney.' Jones's seemed slightly patronising - irritating the veteran pilot.
'My dear fellow... you killed someone of little consequence to us - heavily guarded, obviously of importance to others - but not to us.'
'You're the one who's important, Bonney
Welcome aboard... it was only a test... just an examination - to measure your skill, check your resolve. See if you'd go through with it - a sort of extended interview'
To see if you'd go through with it... To see if you'd go through... To see if... Words that echoed through Bonney's head like a haunting tune - sneering, facetious
'You got the job friend Bonney - congratulations. Welcome aboard.' Smith joining in continuing a macabre double act. They were too jovial, too light-hearted for men who'd commissioned the murder of a stranger - albeit someone of little consequence.
'What job?' Bonney gasped - more troubled
'You don't think,' continued Smith, eyes narrowing - frivolity gone, your qualifications - that combat pilot stuff in Vietnam? You don't think all that was needed to kill a man in some remote backwater'
'Would've been a waste. Overkill - forgive the pun. We've plans for your talents. Bigger plans than you could ever imagine...'
The gimlet eyes bore deep - Bonney stared back with a gamblers inscrutability. This business was becoming more interesting.
Again he felt the chill, gripping hand of fear - worse than flying the storm en route to Phoenix - more than amongst boulders; gun in hand, overlooking Arrow Valley Springs.
He'd never been so frightened in all his life
From 'Time Of The Eagle' on Kindle.