By Tipp Hex
Nick had considered himself a lucky guy, until now.
‘Mr. Saunders, you look as if you could do with this.’
Nick looked up. A fireman covered in smoke and oily filth, held out the British cure for everything. His eyes were pained and watery, and Nick knew it wasn’t just from the smoke.
‘Thanks,’ Nick said, taking the mug of steaming tea.
The fireman nodded a shared understanding and trudged back towards his colleagues still damping down the aircraft wreckage.
Exhausted, Nick leaned back against the trunk of a tree. With grim irony, it reminded him of Christmas. He didn’t look up into the bare branches decorated by bright pieces of aluminum, paper and body parts. He’d seen too many before.
Fourteen hours previously.
Filtering through the gaps of carelessly drawn curtains, the greyness of a London dawn filled the bedroom. Resting her head on his thigh was MeeHow, a pretty young Japanese woman. She kissed his unresponsive penis in much the way an acquaintance might kiss a friend’s cheek.
‘Poor baby,’ she purred. ‘It must be very tired.’ She switched her attention back to Nick’s face. ‘You fucking Tessa this weekend?’
‘Yes,’ Nick said, with as little interest as his member showed for further sex. She had been reading his mind again. MeeHow was infuriatingly contradictory. Beauty and passion mixed with a cold, calculating mind – she also had a perceptive insight that she wielded like an assassin’s knife.
Tessa was due back tomorrow.
MeeHow snaked up beside him and nuzzled his neck, wrapping herself around the tortured side of his body, the area once kissed by flame.
Through the scar tissue, Nick sensed rather than felt her lips upon his neck. He breathed-in the scent of her; the sweetness of jasmine leavened by the acidity of sweat. He decided it suited her perfectly.
He had been with Tessa when he’d first met her. He remembered those dark almond eyes slicing through the haze and noise of the party, fastening upon their prey; he’d been reeled in like a helpless fish.
‘So you’re the “Crash-Man” are you?’ She’d said to him when they found themselves alone for a brief moment.
‘Well, I prefer my friends call me Nick.’
‘But I’m not one of your friends, Mr. Saunders,’ she’d replied casually and without hesitation.
Nick didn’t like being wrong footed. Had he misread her? Was she just another one of those ghoulish people who couldn’t help staring at disfigured people?
‘Oh, so you know me,’ he said, a little defensively, which also annoyed him. Of course she knew him. After all, he was a minor celebrity within aviation circles – and this party was primarily for those people.
‘Yes, I know all about you, Mr. Saunders,’ she continued.
‘Ah.’ He never got used to the morbid interest of some strangers. He braced himself for all the usual questions, but they hadn’t come.
‘Your girlfriend is very beautiful,’ she’d said instead, looking over to where Tessa was standing.
Following her gaze, he’d seen Tessa laughing with some Delta executives. He noticed her hand kept touching the forearm of Don Winston. He understood it wasn’t just a coincidence that MeeHow had drawn his attention to her.
‘Yes, she is,’ he replied flatly. The old insecurities were never far from the surface.
He wondered if she was also suggesting he was lucky to have a pretty girlfriend at all, considering his injuries.
‘She’s very fortunate to have you.’
Could he be read that easily? Nick shrugged. ‘I haven’t known her all that long.’
‘Long enough for me to think she is perhaps a little in love with you, Mr. Saunders. I wouldn’t worry.’
Nick looked back to where Tessa was laughing with Don Winston. He wasn’t at all sure about that.
‘What makes you say that? We’ve just this minute met.’
‘I’m very good at reading signs, Mr. Saunders.’
‘Body language you mean?’
She smiled. ‘Something like that.‘Have you never been in love, Mr. Saunders?’
‘I’ve avoided it so far … I’m sorry, you have me at a disadvantage … I don’t know your name?’
She smiled and said, ‘I’m MeeHow – I fly with Gulf Air Executive.’
‘Ah, as a hostess?’
‘If you like, Mr. Saunders, but don’t you think that’s just a little sexist of you?,’ There was the hint of a smile on her lips he only later understood.
But before he could stutter an apology, she had moved close, taking a deep breath as she did so – as if a risky decision on her part had been made. He was distracted from this thought as it also had the effect of accentuated her breasts, which swelled even more enticingly over the square-cut silken top of her blouse.
A good head shorter than Nick, who stood at slightly over six-foot, she was still tall for a Japanese woman. For a long second, she didn’t look up at him, and Nick found himself holding his breath alongside of her. She exhaled with a question:
‘May I touch you?’
‘Please don’t be offended, and of course you can refuse, but I just want to touch you …’ her hand moved hesitantly towards his neck, ‘there, where you were burned.’
Nick began to refuse, she was one of those weirdo ghouls … but her voice held a peculiar intensity, and her dark eyes had lost their sharpness, were almost pleading.
He found himself nodding – and she rewarded him with the slightest of smiles, then dropped her gaze to intently follow her right hand as she placed it softly upon his ravaged skin.
Nick barely felt the feather-like touch through the scar tissue. He watched her tilt her head back and close her eyes. It was the briefest of touches, but it seemed to silenc the noise around him.
Leaning close, she whispered: ‘I want you. I want to have you. And soon.’
MeeHow stepped back and coolly watched his confusion.
‘You’re a very lucky man, Nick,’ she said with a teasing smile.
His stunned brain dimly noted the layered ambiguity in her statement. He wasn’t sure she was telling him he was going to get lucky; lucky she now considered him a friend by using his first name – or just lucky to survive the plane crash that had left him disfigured.
‘I hope so,’ was all he could say.
‘Your girlfriend is coming to rescue you,’ MeeHow announced without seeming to check. ‘I’d better leave you two alone. I hope to catch you later.’ As the expert angler leaves the line baited and dangling in the water, she drifted away.
‘Hello Tess, just mingling.’
‘Is that what you call it?’
Believing that attack was the best form of defense, Nick questioned her tactile fondness for Don.
‘Don’s harmless, that MeeHow however, isn’t.’
‘You know her?’
‘Know of her, more like,’ Tess had replied tartly. ‘She’s what they euphemistically call, a “special-services operative” – for wealthy clients of the airline.’
‘Ah, indeed. So unless you’re feeling particularly flush with money, you can forget her.’
‘She’s forgotten,’ he’d lied.
‘I’ll bet,’ Tess had said. ‘Let’s go back to your place. I’ll take your mind off her.’
But it was already too late. He’d already taken her bait. A week later and here she was in his bed.
He wasn’t sure if MeeHow, nestled in the crook of his shoulder, had fallen asleep. Left hand cupped and lazily stroking one breast, he felt the small nipple hardening beneath his touch. The contrast between her flawless skin and his skin grafts was almost obscene. MeeHow however, loved his ravaged side.
She’d told him it was his damaged inside on the outside. She could sense some strange connection. She’d felt it, she said, that very first time she’d touched him. His fire-seared body had become sensitized. It was one reason he was so successful in his job she told him. MeeHow really could be full of shit, he’d decided.
‘You fuck around too much, Nick.’ MeeHow said sleepily. He’d ignored the comment the first time she’d said it, but now his mood wouldn’t let it pass.
‘That’s rich, coming from you.’
MeeHow, noting the tone, woke up instantly, drawing her head back, Cobra-like.
‘You have some problem with me?’
He wanted to say, “Yes, yes I do have a problem.” Instead, he took the coward’s way out, swung his legs off the bed and stalked to the bathroom. He could feel her eyes on his back until he closed the door, shutting her out.
Nick stared at his reflection in the bathroom mirror and cursed the world silently. It wasn’t her fault. She’d made no secret of her profession. “It’s just sex, Nick.” Except, Nick now decided, sex was no longer enough. He realized he wanted more. He wanted Tess.
Nick turned the heat up in the shower to let the water burn away his mood. By the time he’d finished, he was clean, invigorated. The decision made.
He walked back into the bedroom. ‘MeeHow? Listen, I’m …’ But she’d already gone.
She was a perceptive bitch. He should have known she wouldn’t be messed around. Nick flopped back onto the bed and swore at the ceiling. He was still swearing when he fell asleep. It had been a vigorous night.
Nick was dreaming – his skin was crawling with insects, tightening under the fire scorching him as tearing metal lanced his face, the crashing of disintegrating engines bursting his eardrums. He sat upright with a shout. The banging continued. He shook his head. Someone was hammering at the front door.
‘Yes! OK! I’m coming,’ he shouted, shaking his head to clear the nightmare.
‘Mr Saunders, it’s the Police.’
Nick checked the spy-hole. Two large policemen stood impatiently outside. He opened the door.
‘Could you get dressed please Mr. Saunders, we’ve been sent to collect you.’
‘You haven’t heard? There’s been an incident, over at Northolt Airfield, your department have sent us to escort you to the scene.’
Nick began clambering into his clothes; his ‘incident bag’ was always fully prepared. As he did so, he switched on his Blackberry and read the urgent emails from his office. The first one told him everything he needed to know: “Where the bloody hell are you, Nick – it’s another biz-jet, same type you’ve been working on. Crashed on take off. Northolt airfield. Get over there as soon as you can.”
Nick switched on the 24hour news channel. As usual it was a mess, though there were still substantial pieces of aircraft intact. Fires burned amongst the wreckage. Nick felt his scars tighten. He remembered the dream and telling MeeHow about that feeling, how it happened whenever he investigated an aircraft accident that involving fire – and most did. He shuddered. Maybe she wasn’t so full of shit after all.
In the squad car, Nick read the latest info on the incident: “Initial reports state the aircraft came down a kilometer from the runway, Aircraft operator ‘Direct Air’ out of JFK.”
He felt a knowing sickness creep like frost into his heart. Tessa. No passenger list yet. Might not be her plane. When he arrived, the fires were out but the heat remained. The fire services were still damping down the wreckage. Nick flashed his credentials and walked past the Police cordon and entered the accident scene.
Catastrophic disintegration surrounded him. A shape in the debris became a foot. Next to it was half an arm – a glint of gold sparkled between blackened fingers. He placed a small red flag marker next to it.
He continued carefully stepping through the wreckage, placing the small, red marker-flags against every body-part found. The only way to positively identify how many souls were lost, were by the genitals. His Blackberry chimed. It was the passenger list. And it confirmed his fears. Tessa’s name was right there. He dismissed it. Could be a mistake, nothing was yet certain – and he had a job to do.
Hours later, Nick sat alone nursing the cup of tea given him by the fireman. He was dirty, sweaty and covered in a greasy film of burnt kerosene. The stench of aviation fuel mixed with burnt flesh stung his nostrils.
His mobile rang again and he flicked it open – uncaring as to who the caller was.
‘Nick? Nick, is that you?’
‘Nick, I just heard the news,’ MeeHow’s voice was strained and tense. ‘Your phone was always engaged … I couldn’t get through to you.’
‘I’ve been kinda busy.’
‘Nick, listen, I’m sorry, I think …’
‘Yes, Tess was on the flight, MeeHow.’ Somehow, by saying it aloud, it became real. Nick broke down.
Nick closed the connection. He smeared a clean area off his face using his tears and the dirty sleeve of his clean-suite. He still had a job to do. But he would never again consider himself a lucky guy.