Thank God for That

Chapter 41: Save the Kak!

Over the Sea of Pu’ukan east of the island, the air traffic took a perplexing turn.

The winglet of Navy fighters that just a minute ago were preparing to vaporize the PAYBACK had rearranged themselves into an inverted V. Phil estimated the formation to be about ten miles behind the PAYBACK and closing in.

And yet …

“Something’s weird,” she said. “Something’s very weird.”

The Hornets decelerated to the PAYBACK’s slow pace and held steady about half

a mile behind it. There was only one circumstance in which this kind of thing happened.

“Take a look, Bun.”

Bundy looked out at his rearview mirror.

“Huh,” Bundy said.

“Yeah. Huh,” Phil said.

“Either we’re about to be force-flown to the bottom of the sea—”

“Or we’ve got an honor detail.”

“Did we just win a war or something?”

In a seamless piece of air art, the point of the V burst upward at a ninety-degree angle while the six remaining jets—three on each side and still in formation—pulled alongside of the bomber in escort-service position so that the PAYBACK was now flying point. The lead jet, Colonel Pinchuk’s, wheeled and danced overhead like a bat at night.

Phil could barely draw a breath as she watched.

“Slot of honor, Bun,” she croaked. “It’s for you. Missing Man Found.”

Colonel Pinchuck broke onto all radio lines—the PAYBACK’s, Pitch’s on the ground, and on Plumage Oaks’s lines.

“Pardon the intrusion, Fifty-Niner,” he said. “But it’s good to have you back. And to have your back. Be outta your sky in a sec.”

“No bother, brother,” was all Bundy could muster. “No bother at all.”

The sides of the V remained in place while Colonel Pinchuck crisscrossed the sky in giddy homage, then took a steady place beside the PAYBACK.

“It’s all yours from here, Mr. Swing,” he said. “Our best to REANAL. Over.”

He tipped a wing to the PAYBACK and peeled off. The six other jets in the squad peeled off, too, and headed for the horizon at mach three, tearing off another section of the PAYBACK’s fuselage in the backdraft.

“Looks like Rommel came through after all,” Phil said.

“Yeah.” Bundy pretended to focus on the cockpit controls, when all he wanted to do was swallow that big lump in his throat. “I guess the Fish did swim,” he said quietly.

“You OK, Bun?”

Bundy nodded. “Yeah, I’m OK.” He turned to his co-pilot. “What about you,

Phil?”

“Never better, Bun. Never better.”

“Thank God for that,” Bundy said under his breath.

On Tangaroa, Pitch watched the jet fighters disappear into the Pu’ukan horizon. It occurred to him that early in his term he had voted for a supplemental military appropriation that continued funding for development of the next-generation of the

Superhornets—the ones that had just slid into the golden crease of the earth.

“Thank God for that.”

Safe now from being shot down, Phil wasted no time. She hand-cranked the

PAYBACK’s main bomb hatch to the open position. From the bomb bay, she called out

to Bundy.

“Ready to drop, Bun!”

“Let ’er drop at will, Phil!”

Thus commenced the carpet bombing of the Jewel of the Pu’ukan Golf & Spa & Resort at SoftHarbor® with half a ton of Liberty Thru Intelligence foil-wrapped chocolate coins—from the graffiti-desecrated front gate and unattended security booth, to the main guest building, to the tennis pavilion, pool deck and pink-sand beach.

And into the back rotor blades of the little red helicopter Phil had seen buzzing the yellow golf cart. The copter had zipped into Phil’s field of vision the instant she released the coins. Coins shot back out of the rotors like shell casings from a machine gun. The engine sputtered and stalled a hundred feet below the PAYBACK, and began to sink like a stone.

“OhshitohshitohshitohshitohSHIT!” Phil covered her eyes and turned away. She couldn’t bear to watch. It was the Goddamn fog of war—again! “Goddamn Clausewitz.”

“What’s that, Phil?” Bundy had been too involved with keeping their own craft

afloat to notice the helicopter.

Phil stumbled back to the cockpit.

“I think I killed him, Bun.”

“Killed who, Phil?”

“The copter pilot.”

Bundy looked out his window. “I don’t think so.”

Confused, Phil looked out. Apparently the pilot somehow regained control of the chopper and was now executing one of the finest controlled-corkscrew descents Phil had ever seen. It landed on the tarmac of Boresby Airfield with a bit of a bounce, but not in a fireball.

Relief washed through Phil. She couldn’t believe it. Everything on this mission was going both wrong and right at the same time. The B-29 was falling apart, but flying. Half a dozen Navy Superhornets had come to kill them, but had congratulated them instead. A civilian helicopter had wandered directly into the drop zone and took at least three pounds of sweet Liberty in the tail, but had landed safely.

As for the coin drop itself, the Rain of Gelt was intense. The fudge splattered across windows and windshields and onto the sunbaked asphalt of the deserted downtown, splotched the manicured greens of the Gold Course in brown, slathered the hotel roof, and added yet more debris to the pool.

Pitch Farnum made his own limping, disheveled descent from Mount Tangaroa and reached the edge of the airfield, where the helicopter pilot was scraping chocolate and picking tattered gold foil from the rotor housing with a mechanic’s tool.

“Hiya!” Pitch called out.

The pilot looked up and squinted at Pitch, backlit by the bright sun, and returned to the rotors.

“Awesome landing!” He thrust his hand out and introduced himself. “Pitch Farnum. United States senator.” She looked up again, and Pitch noticed she was a woman. “Hey! You’re a lady pilot!”

She gave Pitch the once-over. His clothes were torn, his face and hands were scratched and streaked with dust and dried blood, and a huge headset that had seen more functional days sat askew on his head, dinged and dented from plane parts.

“Penny Pollock,” she said and returned to her work, which at this point consisted of banging a screwdriver against the rotor cowling to dislodge a glob of gelt that she could see but couldn’t reach. “You look pretty fucking weird, by the way.”

“Huh? Oh! “Right!” He touched a finger to the headphones. “ ‘Klaatu barada nikto!’ ” he said robotically.

“I have no idea what that means.”

“It’s from a—”

“Whatever. Maybe when you get back to Washington, you can pass a law against ass hats dropping silver dollars onto unsuspecting civilian aircraft.”

“I can definitely speak with the chairwoman of the Tropical Air Transport Subcommittee. If I know Lucille Smoot—and I know Lucille Smoot—she’ll get right on

top of it.”

Pitch asked where she learned to fly so well and what in the world she was doing here.

“In answer to the first question, Birds Without Borders,” Penny Pollock said. 

“The avian-rights group? I’m a big fan!”

“Yep. They run a fast-track program for highly motivated bird lovers. We’re all about saving the”—she took a crumpled piece of paper from her pants pocket and snapped it open—“the kakerori.”

“Oh I love the kakerori! Spectacular plumage!” Retching sounds came from the cockpit.

“Hey if you’re gonna puke, get outta the cabin!” Penny Pollock called back. From the cabin came a plaintive moaning in reply. Penny slipped the tool into her back pocket, walked over to the passenger side of the copter and pulled the door open.

“Let’s go, slob.” She shook her passenger’s shoulder. “We’re there.”

“I don’t feel well.”

“You’d feel worse if I had dropped you in the drink, which is what I wanted to do.

C’mon, let’s go.”

The man crawled out of the cockpit. He was a wreck. Pitch asked who he was.

“Felcher,” the man said, pressing a palm against his belly as if to keep his innards from spilling out. “Harold Felcher. I own this place.”

He swallowed hard, then belched. He wobbled on his wingtips, then fell back to his knees and dry-heaved.

Penny took a pair of binoculars from the cockpit and scanned the landscape until she spotted the golf cart that she had been buzzing. It was near the marina.

“I’m outta here,” she said. “Gotta go save the kakerori.”

She climbed back into the cockpit and restarted the engines. Melted chocolate and flecks of foil spat out of the rotors. A globule hit Harold in the neck, knocking him off his hands and knees and onto his back.

“If you hear screaming,” Penny said over the whirring blades of her helicopter,

“you’ll know I’ve found him!”

“The kakerori?” Pitch asked.

“The kak I save. The guy in the golf cart I kill.”

Pitch was hopelessly confused. “Who are you talking about? Who is she talking about?” he asked Harold.

“Denny Dash,” Harold said through gurgles.

“Denny Dash?” Pitch asked. “Who’s that?”

“My father,” Penny said. “Biggest deadbeat this side of the Laccadive Ridge.

Child support, tuition, alimony—you name it, he owes it.”

“Bring him back alive,” Harold moaned. “He owes me money! Oh God, I’m dying.”

Pitch stepped away and watched the copter lift straight up, hover thirty feet over the ground, and bolt off, shimmying from the bent rotors but no less airworthy than the

PAYBACK.

“She really is an excellent pilot. And such a quirky sensibility,” Pitch said, shielding the sun from his eyes. “I’m very impressed.”

“Don’t be,” Harold said.  “She’s nuts. Just like her father.”

“I guess we’re all a little bit crazy, Harold,” Pitch said, watching Penny take off after her father. “And thank God for that.”