Prologue: Makings of A Ghost
The War on Drugs, The U.S. Coast Guard's "Line In The Water" Somewhere South of Key West, Florida--The Recent Past.
I hang my head out of the door of the helicopter and take one last look at the sleek cigarette boat as it races away behind us, the late afternoon sun sparkling off its creamy white wake. That's the boat I was looking for all right and they almost blew us right out of the sky. Where did they get an RPG? Even better, why didn't somebody tell me they might have one...? Maaaaan, I gotta start listening to those little noises in my head! The door opening is sucking the smoke out, and when I turn back into the cabin the acrid fumes burn deep into my eyes, causing water to stream down my cheeks. I reach up and pull the helmet-mounted microphone close to my mouth.
"The door's open, Skipper."
"Yeah, okay, roger that. How's Hookerman?"
I look over at the mangled body that used to be Petty Officer First Class Charles Hookerman. The explosion killed him instantly. His face and shoulders are a knot of twisted glistening red. We really hadn't ever gotten along. I knew he resented me, and that was partly because my mere presence onboard the aircraft usurped his position as the crewtech. And, well, that always pissed crewtechs off to a degree. But they usually never took it personally. Hookerman just plain didn't like me.
I always had the feeling that he disliked Indians and hated CGI (Coast Guard Intelligence) people in particular. Seems like he was from Montana or someplace out there. It isn't unusual for Westerners to dislike Indians. I'd see him on base somewhere, and he wouldn't even return a hello. Just the same, he was one of the best airdales I'd served with, even if he didn't appreciate my companionship. He knew his job and he did it well. Whatever his problem was, he never let it interfere with the job. He treated me as a part of the team for the mission, even if I was a "spook." His helmet lolled from side to side. He was married with kids, if I remember right. I shake my head to clear the pictures it contains and key the mike.
"He's dead, Skipper, killed instantly," I answer as I make my way around the gaping hole in the deck and head for the cockpit. As I inch between the two seats, I look over at the pilot, Lieutenant Mike Antlovitch. He's still wrestling with the controls while talking into his headset. I know what he's doing, but I think it's a lost cause. He's trying to raise someone, but the radio is gone. It's a wonder that the intercom is still operational. My gaze switches to the co-pilot. There's a slight trickle of blood dripping down the side of his mouth, and a very unnatural slant to his position.
I raise my right hand to my teeth, and bite the fingertips of the flight glove pulling it free. I haven't looked at my left hand yet, but I know that it's messed up pretty bad. A lot of pain and some fair bleeding there. I stick my two right fingers against the copilot's jugular. Nothing. His visor snapped down during the impact, and I raise it up to see the eyes of Lieutenant JG. Pete Johnston already glazing over. The smoke is getting heavier in the cockpit, and I look over to the pilot. He's fighting the cyclic, manhandling the aircraft, while calling out MAYDAYs on the dead radio.
I glance back at Johnston and wonder what killed him. I ease him forward, his chest pushing against the harness. The smoke is bad enough that I can't see clearly, and I have to bend over to make out the three small holes in his flight suit--probably shrapnel--and then I see where the fragments penetrated the seat cushion. I gently set him back. The smoke is getting thicker and carries the scent of scorched metal. I turn back to the pilot. I tap him on his shoulder, but he's too busy to notice. I glance at the frequency light and switch my own headset over. The fear in the pilot's voice sends a cold shiver down my spine.
"MAYDAY, MAYDAY, MAYDAY...Coast Guard Aircraft 6578...I have injured crewmen onboard and am losing power...Request Assistance ASAP...Does anyone copy...over..."
He gives our location, but his plea is answered by the sick sound of solid radio static. A growing uneasiness grips me like a bad case of stomach flu as I tap his shoulder again.
"Lieutenant, I think the radio's shot. What's going on with the bird?" I ask as I point to the instruments in front of him. He turns to look at me and the panic displayed on his face is enough to make me piss my pants. I'd flown with this guy a lot over the past couple of years and he wasn't the type to scare easily. I get the nasty feeling that we're in deep shit. He's probably just in shock, but I can't sail a paper airplane much less fly this Dolphin. I need this guy to be all right and he sure doesn't look like he is.
"I've lost some hydraulics and oil pressure is going." He nervously looks out the window and then back to me. "We're gonna go in. I'll do the best I can, but you better make sure those guys are secured when we hit the water. How're they doing?" he asks me in gasps as he fights the helicopter.
He is alternately looking at me and at his controls. He didn't hear me tell him before about Hookerman, and he doesn't know about Mr. Johnston. I sure don't want to be the one to tell him that his whole crew is dead but...
"Hookerman and Mr. Johnston are dead, sir, and there's an eighteen-inch hole in the flightdeck. When we touch down, we're gonna sink like a rock."
His eyes lock onto mine, and they change as he gets the message. I know what he's thinking. If it wasn't for me, his crew would still be alive. I can feel the hate as his pale blue eyes blaze into mine, but at least the panic is gone, replaced by a seething scorn. He slowly nods his head.
"Okay...see if we got any survival gear back there, yet. I'm gonna look for someplace to set this tired girl down." He switches his attention back to flying the aircraft. He's the tried and true professional again. His voice is close to calm and his eyes seem steadier. I asked him about injuries right after the hit. He said he wasn't hurt, just a little shook up. That's fine. If giving him someone to hate brought him back to reality, that's tits with me. We can square it once we get down safely.
I make my way back to the tail and pull the netting open. There's nothing but fast-moving turquoise water where the survival raft used to be. The whole rear of the fuselage has been blown away. Oh that's just marvelous. What's next on this fun-filled little excursion?
"The survival gear's gone, Skipper," I say as I start to turn around.
"Yeah, well that makes sense considering where we took the hit." His voice vibrates in my ear. "Make your way back up here, Stone. Maybe we caaaa..."
The helo noses to the right, and I slide toward the open door. My good hand is trying to scratch grooves in the no-skid deck, but gravity is proving more powerful. An all-consuming fear chokes my throat. The bird rights itself as I smack into the starboard side of the aircraft, just missing the opening in the fuselage. Hookerman piles into me. Pushing the dead man off, I scramble forward. The pilot looks like death warmed over. Sweat is pouring off his face like he's standing bareheaded in a rainstorm and outside the world is spinning.
"That's it, the engine seized." Antlovitch grunts while straining to work the dead controls. "I'm autorotating in! There's a reef down there, but I don't know how deep it is. Grab something and hang on!"
The aircraft spools down in wide circles, and I can't make any sense of anything through the canopied windows. I struggle to the bulkhead behind the co-pilot's seat, wrap my arms through the nylon loop straps and scrunch down. The last thing I hear before my helmet is slammed against the bulkhead is Mr. Antlovich's long and continuously repeated "Hail Mary...Mother of God!"
The world comes back into focus in a darkened haze. I don't know where I am. After a minute or two, the cobwebs cave in and I remember something about a crash. I start to take inventory. My legs?... Oh please, no... My God, what happened to my legs? I tell them to move--now! And they pop up out of the water. Okay, I guess I still have them, but where did all the water come from? It's covering the whole inside of the aircraft and is almost a foot deep. I force myself to think. I realize that I'm in shock. My head is pounding, swimming to and fro. Probably some type of concussion. I use my good hand and pull off the helmet and move my arms from the straps.
I call out to Mr. Antlovich. He doesn't answer. Hookerman's body is floating near the open door, half in and half out, bobbing like a piece of forgotten driftwood. Peering out the door and into the depths, the phosphorescence of a coral reef glows brightly. The chopper appears to be sitting on the very edge of the incandescent mountain. The only light inside the helicopter is coming from the stars, as I start splashing up toward the cockpit.
As I crawl along, a sharp pain stabs at my knee. I roll over on my butt and raise my leg. A slice of meat is hanging from my kneecap, showing through the torn flight suit. It's bleeding, but not bad. I feel around under the water, and my hand rubs across a protrusion of something gritty and sharp. I make my way up forward. Mr. Antlovitch's head is hanging. I reach over his neck, and I already know he's gone. The starlight is casting an eerie glow inside the downed aircraft, and as I focus my eyes I can see a huge dark stain all around the pilot's groin. A piece of jagged coral is jutting through his right thigh. It probably cut an artery so that he bled to death. No two ways about it, this day will not get a smiley face in my diary. Outside, through the cracked Plexiglas, the light is dancing off a quiet sea, the gentle waves appearing like rippled black velvet. I ease against the pilot's seat and the only thing I think or say is a whispered "sheeeit."
Something out the window catches my eye. I scoot over and look across Mr. Johnston's chest. There. There it is again. Just a fish's fin poking above the calm water's surface. I slowly realize what kind of a fish has a dorsal fin like that. In that instant, I remember Hookerman. Racing back onto the crewdeck, I grab Hookerman's leg and start pulling him back from the open door. His left arm is dragging the water, seeping a steady stream of dark looking fluid. All of a sudden, a geyser blasts forth after it. A hideously huge gray and white toothed mouth reaches for Hookerman. Large black omniscient eyes guide the mouth and push it after us.
A scream erupts from inside me before I have to tell it to. Scrambling backward, my foot slips into the blasted-out hole in the deck of the aircraft. The mouth closes with a "thaawack" onto Hookerman's arm, and the black eyes twist from side to side. I scream at the top my lungs and pull Hookerman, while pounding the shark with my wounded hand. The fish makes a final jerk creating a disgusting splash and crunch. It completely severs Hookerman's arm. The shark flops and slides backwards into the water, the crewtech's dissected arm protruding from its evil mouth as it sinks into the depths.
I get my leg free and drag Hookerman over to the straps behind the co-pilot's seat, slipping and splashing the whole way. I stare at the open door and my mouth voices my mind's words.
"Holy shit...Hoooly shit!" I tie Hookerman off to the straps while watching that damn door. My heart is pounding harder than it ever has and I wonder if it will blow out of my chest. I scoot myself along between the pilot seats, my eyes refusing to leave the door and the frothy black water surrounding it. I scooch back up into the dash between the two dead pilots and wait. Sonavabitch! I hate sharks.
My heart is slowing down now, but I can't stop my eyes from flicking to the door opening every couple of seconds. Just for the hell of it, my hand reaches up and unsnaps the shoulder holster under my left arm and eases out the Colt 45 pistol resting there. It adds a certain amount of comfort to my psyche. But other parts of my body ain't so lucky. I can feel the pain setting in again now, and I know that the adrenalin is backing off. With the pain comes the woozies. I can feel reality shifting gears around me.
Somewhere, somehow, I know that the visit's coming, and I don't want it to. But I've been here many times before and know that this bit of social protocol that will have to go on. I would give anything not to do this. But I know that it's God's plan. I also know that it's just. I ask anyway, already knowing that it's academic. "Please Jesus, don't make me do this...please?" But it's no use. I always come back. The Great Good Spirit has his reasons for my torment. For the next thirty-seven hours, I'm going to sit and talk with these men. I'm going to hear about Mr. Johnston's times at the academy and his fiance. He was going to get married in a month. Hookerman just made the Chief's list and had one more hitch to go until he retired.
Mr. Antlovitch had four kids, and was looking forward to taking them and his wife back to his parents' home for Christmas. Like so many times in the past, I tell them that "It wasn't my fault. No one told me that the pukes in the cigarette boat might be carrying a grenade launcher. The only info I had," I tell them, "is that the baddies were picking up--not chauffeuring the coke. My command should have clued-me-in, guys; I swear, I'd never have taken us close if I thought they would be carrying heavy stuff!" The ghosts say that they don't blame me for their deaths, but their eyes...their eyes tell a different story. They always do.
And so it is. Here we go again...Mr. Johnston is telling me about the farm he grew up on when the alarm goes off. The ghosts look at me. It's my call. I tell them I don't know what it is, as we all turn and look at the overhead of the downed helo. Then, it begins to blur and changes shape, twisting and revolving, and slowly...it becomes...a bedroom ceiling. The alarm is ringing on the nightstand and it takes form as a...telephone.