The long-awaited fourth book in the Thieves Series
By Ella West
copyright Ella West 2013
“What are you doing?” Tim explodes.
He’s just hung up the phone. I’ve already reached into the box to get the next file out, have read as much as I needed to, scanned the photo and am about to travel.
“Nicky, just stop.”
I stare at him, feeling like a sprinter who’s been halted half way through the race.
“What’s wrong?” he says, taking the folder out of my hands. “You tell me. What’s the rush all of a sudden?”
“Nothing, it’s just, I want to get through them all.”
“So, they’re not missing anymore. Isn’t that what we’re doing? We’re finding people?”
“But not at this pace.”
“Why not? I can do it. I’m okay.”
“That’s why you’re checking the time, you’re seeing how fast you can do them? It’s some sort of personal race? See how good you are?”
“No. I wouldn’t do that. It’s not a race. It’s not about me. I just want them all found.” Tim sits down, runs his hands over his face, looks back up at me.
“All found?” he asks.
“All of them?”
“In this box are the files of the people reported missing today, in just LA.”
“I know that.”
“In just LA,” he repeats. “That’s like, three and a half million people that live in LA. Then there are all the places outside it like Anaheim and Long Beach and Santa Ana and if you include all of them, that’s something like fourteen million people. We haven’t got the missing people from there.”
“We could get them.”
“No. Nicky, what I’m trying to tell you is that you can’t find everyone.”
“Because then there’s the rest of Southern California or we could go up the coast to San Francisco or over the state line. Where do you want to stop? And then you have to go back to school next week.”
“I don’t have to go.”
“Yes, you do.”
“I want to find these people.”
“Nicky, you can’t.”
“I want to. I can do it.”
“No, you can’t. You can’t save everyone.”
We agree to find five more and then go home. I sneak in a sixth. Whatever. It doesn’t matter, does it? There’s still a pile of folders in the bottom of the box when we turn the lights out. People’s daughters or sons that have gone missing, parents, grandparents, brothers, sisters. They’ll all end up in the second box tomorrow. And then I’ll never get to find them.
The last one, the sixth one that I did quickly before Tim realised what I was up to, was dead though. Tim’s was right. I can’t save them all.
I’m on the beach again the next morning, running out my depression. The sky is blue, the waves gorgeous and perfect, the sand linking the two in a shimmering heat haze even this early in the morning. There’s surfers and cyclists and joggers like me, and people just walking, looking at the view, enjoying the moment. I turn at the Venice Beach pier and head back along the path. After several days running my legs are starting to feel good. I should run more at home but there I only have time to swim. My coach doesn’t believe in running. She wants me doing lengths, hours in the pool, not outside. Maybe I picked the wrong sport. Maybe I should take up long distance running. I’m also starting to go brown. A tan to go home with. Nice.
Thinking about running and swimming keeps Tim and his boxes out of my head. I don’t want to think about the boxes. They’ll be waiting for me again tonight. Refilled, reshuffled. He’ll probably only bring out the one box tonight. I know now he regrets showing me the boxes of those reported missing days ago, weeks ago, years ago. We will never get to them, even if I could find those people. We will only concentrate on those reported missing today from now on. I know that. I understand that. But it doesn’t make me feel any better. I keep running.
I listen to my breathing, my feet hitting the path, the regular one-two, or if I want to, I make it one-two-three, or one-two-three-four. The rhythm pounds in my head, over and over again. The waves roll in, the gulls fly overhead, the people pass me going the other way, running or cycling or roller blading or skateboarding. One-two, one-two, one-two, one-two-three-four. Another hundred metres, another kilometre, heading back to breakfast and Tim and later a box of missing people. One-two, one-two, one-two.
Then I stop.
The person behind me has to step off the path onto the sand to avoid a collision. I should mumble an apology in reply to their grumpy glance but I hardly register it. Instead I’m starring at a face up by the Santa Monica Pier, by the steps. Then I run. No longer a jog, I’m running as fast as I can, skirting round people, onto the sand, back onto the path, my eyes staying on that face, that body. He’s spotted me. Or has he? He’s turned and started up the steps. Slowly, looking around, making way for someone. At the top of the steps he will be on the pier and I won’t be able to see him, I won’t know which way he’ll have gone. I run even faster. My legs feel like lead but I know how to push them. Please, stop at the top of steps, I silently beg. Don’t go any further. Just wait for me. Stay there for me. Please. But he doesn’t. He’s at the top and then someone walks in front of him and he’s gone. I can’t see him anymore.
I give up on the path, dig my toes into the sand and sprint straight towards the bottom of the steps. They’re crowded. A group of early morning tourists surge down, guide books in hands, expensive cameras around necks. I take the steps two at a time, dodging around the tourists, hopping left then right, finally making it to the pier.
But he’s gone. I search the crowd for his sandy-coloured hair, a head bobbing above the rest, but there’s nothing. I look the other way, towards the streets where the cars are parked but I can’t see him there either.
Did he know I was there? Was it a coincidence or did he seek me out? Why didn’t he wait for me on the beach, at the top of the steps, here?
Suddenly I have to sit down. The sprint after the long run along the beach has winded me. There are no seats so I lean back against the railing on the side of the pier, trying to catch my breath, slow my heart rate.
Where is he?
I search again through the crowds of faces, backs of heads, bodies moving in a disjointed dance along the pier and there are tears in my eyes and my T-shirt is sticking to me with sweat and people are starting to look at me. Finally I stand up, start walking back to the apartment. There is nothing else I can do.
I avoid Tim and head straight to the shower. Even clean and dressed I feel wretched. I sit on the edge of the bed for an age and then at last head into the living room. Tim looks up from his laptop but doesn’t say anything until I open the fridge and shut it without taking anything out and then sit on the sofa.
“Are you going to turn that TV on or just stare at it off like that?” he asks after a bit. “Nicky?”
“I saw Jake, down at the pier, at the end of my run.”
“Jake, as in Jake the guy from the Project who you had a thing with?”
Tim’s standing, cautiously moving closer to me, concerned, worried, freaking out in his own Tim way.
“Did you talk to him? Where is he?”
“I saw him, in the distance. When I got to the pier I couldn’t find him.”
“Did he see you? Had he travelled to find you?”
“I don’t know. He must have travelled. How else would he find me otherwise? Maybe he was just there, maybe it was nothing to do with me.”
“You sure it was him?”
“Yes. I saw him and then I lost him. There were people everywhere. You know how it is along there. I just couldn’t find him.”
I start to cry.
Crying in front of Tim like this is really unfair. I know he wants to put his arms around me but he can’t because he’s supposed to be looking after me but he’s not my dad and he has his own girlfriend and sometimes, living with a guy is really awkward, especially when I cry. Which I shouldn’t be doing. But it was Jake. I’m sure of it. It really was Jake on those steps.
Within minutes, Tim is walking me back to the pier. His face is set, that worried look he gets when he doesn’t say much, won’t say much.
We start searching for Jake. I give Tim the best description I can of him which isn’t great as it’s almost a year since I saw him last, besides this morning, and that was at a distance. Tall, athletic, kind of long, sandy-coloured hair, dark green T-shirt, denim shorts down to the knee is the best I can do. We search the pier, the shops, the Ferris wheel, the visitor centre. At one stage I ask Tim if he shouldn’t be getting to work.
“This is work,” he mutters back. The look on his face hasn’t changed.
He’s been on the phone lots too. I don’t know who to, but there have been heaps of calls, one’s that he’s made and ones that he’s answered. Above the noise of everyone around us I don’t get to hear any of them. Maybe something is happening in Tim’s office. Something big. He really should be there, not here with me searching for my former boyfriend. This is just nuts.
“I could travel to find him,” I finally suggest when we have run out of places to look.
“No.” He says it straight away, like he doesn’t have to think about it and I know from his tone it’s non-negotiable.
So we start searching the approach to the pier, then along the beach either side. It’s getting hot and I still haven’t had breakfast and I’m thirsty and really this is getting too much.
Jake just isn’t here.
We give up, at least I think we give up, because we’re walking back to the apartment but I only have time to grab a drink of water and a banana before Tim bundles me into the car and we’re driving to the operational centre. I’ve never been there in the day so I’m curious who will be around. The car park is almost full. This could be interesting.
It’s not. Tim unlocks a side door which opens to a corridor which leads to a room and that is where he sticks me. I don’t see anyone along the way, or anything unless you count walls and carpet and ceiling lights. Oh, there were some doors too. Closed.
Tim says he’ll be a minute and I sit down at the table in the room and stretch my arms out along its top and silently groan. Tim is back in probably less than a minute with a tablet which he puts on the table between us. He swipes the surface a couple of times and then pushes it towards me.
“Do you see him?”
I’m watching security camera footage. It’s time stamped at the bottom of the screen. It’s of when I went for my run. He shows me how to fast forward it and I watch as people jerkily move up and down the pier steps.
And there he is. I slow it down, freeze it and I’m staring straight into the eyes of Jake.
Pixelated, slightly out of focus, but it’s Jake.
For the past few hours, ever since I first saw him and then lost him in the crowds on the pier, I have been telling myself I must have been mistaken, it couldn’t be him, he’s dead.
But he’s not dead. He’s there on the screen in front of me.
“Is that him?” Tim asks, looking over my shoulder.
All I want to do is to travel to him. Seek him out. He can’t be far away. Somewhere, in this city, is Jake. My Jake.
“Don’t do it, Nicky,” Tim says. “Don’t travel to him.”
He’s seen me start to concentrate, he knows me too well. But he can’t stop me.
“I mean it, Nicky. You don’t know why he’s here or who he’s with or what is going on.
“Until we find out more. Let’s see where he went on the pier.”
Tim takes the tablet and this time I’m looking over his shoulder. He switches to another view, another camera, and we watch Jake climb the steps.
“Do you think he saw you at all?”
“I don’t know.”
“Was there anyone else with him?”
“You mean like the other travellers? Tina and Shelley? You mean Paul?”
“I mean anybody. It’s been a year. They were all meant to be killed. You were meant to be killed. Maybe they’re using Jake to find you so they can kill you both. Clean up what they failed to do back then.”
“Jake wouldn’t be doing that.”
“Jake might not know what he’s doing.”
“What do you mean?”
“I’m just saying we don’t know anything yet.”
Suddenly I realise just how worried he is. For me, finding Jake alive is the best thing that could happen. For Tim, it seems like it’s the worst.
He’s flicking through footage. A view of the top of the steps shows Jake walking onto the pier but seconds later the camera loses him in the crowd. The next camera doesn’t pick him up.
“Could that be him, with the cap on?” Tim asks.
“Maybe. I don’t know. I can’t see his face.”
“Would he be thinking that someone would be watching for him, to put a cap on like that?”
“I don’t know. I don’t know if that is him.”
“Did they you teach you stuff like that, at the Project?”
“Of course they did. All sorts of things like that.”
Tim sighs and goes back to the footage of the steps, watches Jake climb them again and again.
“He definitely saw you. He knows you’re there, on the beach. See how he looks back, over his shoulder. He’s looking at you. What were you doing?”
“Sprinting as fast as I could towards him. But if he saw me, why didn’t he wait for me?”
“Is there any reason why he would be there? Did he know about me? Did the two of you have some plan to meet up here?”
I think back.
“No, I never told him about you. When the bombs started going off I travelled to him. He was looking for his sister and for Tina, he wasn’t going to leave without them. He knew I could get out by myself. I told him to find me. Then we got separated and I don’t know what happened. The whole place got destroyed, everyone got killed. I got out.”
“And so did Jake.”
“That’s the last thing I said to him, pretty much. Find me.”
“And he has.”
“Then why isn’t he walking through that door right now? Why isn’t he here?” I feel the tears start again but I’m too angry. I’m not going to let them fall. I rub my eyes with the back of my hand.
None of this day is making sense.
“I don’t know. I’ve got people looking for him. Until we find him, you’re staying close to me. And no more travelling tonight searching for people.”
“Because I’m not letting you out of my sight. It’s too dangerous.”
“It’s just Jake. He wouldn’t do anything.”
“We don’t know what’s going on and until we do, that’s it.”
I open my mouth to protest but Tim holds up his hand stopping me.
I give up. We find a diner and Tim orders me pancakes for breakfast.
“Tell me about Jake,” Tim asks. He’s on his second coffee, I’m stuffing pancakes into my mouth which have real maple syrup on them, not imitation. They taste divine and I’m starving.
“What do you want to know?”
I have my mouth full again so it gives me time to think. Where to start? What to say? How can I describe what Jake meant to me? I wasn’t his girlfriend. Tina was. I wasn’t family. That was Shelley, his sister. So where did I fit in? How did I fit in? I swallow.
“Jake wasn’t very good at travelling. He could only seek out his sister Shelley to start with. She was a finder.”
“Finders can travel to places, seekers seek out people?”
“They thought that travellers could either only be finders or seekers. Then I came along.”
“You can do both, can’t you?”
“Yes. I was the freaky freak.” I shovel in more pancakes, make Tim wait. “The Project would use Shelley and Jake together. They’d show Shelley a picture of the room they wanted her to travel to, where whatever it was they wanted stolen was, and she’d travel to it and then Jake would follow her as kind of a backup, in case she needed any help and then she would travel back again and he would follow her. For a long time he couldn’t travel very far. Few hundred metres and then it was a kilometre, couple of kilometres at best.”
“You’re in the States. We have yards and miles.”
“Same thing,” I tell him.
“But he could seek you out too?”
“Yes. Which caused all sorts of problems. They thought seekers could only travel to people they cared about which is why Jake could travel to his sister. So when they found out he could seek out me everyone thought it was because he had a thing for me.”
“Which he did.”
“Yes, but that’s not why he could travel to me.”
“So for him to travel to you this morning, he must have been here in LA?”
“Yes. I suppose so. Or this area of California at least. It’s been a year. He could have got better, a lot better.”
“Better than you?”
“No one is better than me. Remember, I’m the freaky freak.”
I don’t know why Tim doesn’t pack me up and put me on a plane out of California there and then. I think about suggesting it, but then, I do really want Jake to seek me out. What Tim said could be true. Maybe someone is using Jake to find me and then they will destroy us both. But maybe it’s just Jake and he’s been searching for me for a year and now he’s finally found me and he doesn’t know what to do.
Maybe he’s just as scared as I am.
Tim’s immediate solution to the problem is to give me a babysitter – his girlfriend Joanna. I have no idea what he tells her, or how she can leave her office job just like that, but by the time it’s afternoon, Joanna and I are on the beach and Tim has gone back to work. Those words of his about not letting me out of his sight are obviously now forgotten. If Jake does appear I have no idea what I’m supposed to do and Joanna doesn’t seem at all worried about the situation. Or even that she knows what’s going on. We sit on the hot sand, not far from the steps leading up to the pier, and watch the waves, talking about nothing.
Joanna’s got a guy at her office that keeps chatting her up and she doesn’t know what to do about it. She broke her favourite pair of heels yesterday. The red ones. There’s a new crab recipe she wants to try out. Why is the sky so blue today? I mean, really?
I mutter as many words of wisdom to her as I can and scan the pier, the steps, the beach for Jake but there’s nothing. Hours later Tim arrives and walks us both to the apartment where Joanna cooks the crab recipe (and it is pretty good) and then the three of us sit around and watch back-to-back CSI episodes on TV until it’s time for bed.
“Tomorrow morning, I can’t go for a run, can I? Along the beach?”
“Of course you can,” Tim says. “It’ll be fine.”
So the next morning, after sleeping in my bed without anyone watching, I’m out running as usual. Well, not as usual, because there is a tightness in my chest that however much I breathe doesn’t go away. I try to think about keeping my shoulders still and relaxing my stride and just going with it but the tightness just gets worse, especially when I make the turn at Venice and head back north.
Approaching the Santa Monica Pier is like walking to the school hall on exam day. I can see it looming in the distance – a long, dark line jutting out to sea in the early morning sunshine. As I get closer I can see it’s already busy, people walking along the pier, up and down the steps, spilling out onto the sand. My eyes search desperately for Jake as my legs still move rhythmically under me, my arms pumping by my sides. He’s not there but something is up. Suddenly, the training the Project gave me kicks in. The guy holding the surfboard at the top of the beach wearing boardies is watching me, so is the woman on the pier in the dark glasses and yellow T-shirt and the man coming down the steps with a camera around his neck. I swing my head around slowly, still jogging, and count another four, no five people who all have their eyes focused on me. The one in the black cap and shades even nods directly my way. This is why Tim wanted me to go jogging. He was setting a trap, a trap for Jake.
And I’m the bait.
I keep running. I have another thirty seconds max before the path ends and I have to make a decision about what I’m going to do. But the decision is made for me. I glance up again at the pier and there, leaning over the rail, is Jake looking straight at me.
He’s wearing a dark coloured hoodie this time. It’s covering his hair. And his shoulders are slumped, making him look shorter. It’s all stuff the Project taught us to do, to keep ourselves hidden, unnoticed, safe. I stare up at him, straight into his eyes, and my heart breaks.
We stay like that, me running towards him, Jake leaning over the rail, our eyes locked, for what seems an eternity but I’m sure it’s only a second, if that. Then I look away, slow to a jog and then stop altogether. The path has ended. I walk up towards the edge of the beach and onto the streets and dodge traffic on the way back to the apartment.
It’s hard now not to notice the brand new cameras on the pier and covering the beach, one angled so it would have perfectly captured Joanna and me sitting on the sand yesterday afternoon discussing broken high heels. I walk slowly, so the entourage following me can keep up. They’ve spread out, on both sides of the road, in front and behind me, but they still seem unsure about whether they’re meant to let me know they’re there or not. I decide to ignore them. The less they know about what I can do, the better. Why should I tell them I can spot them as easily as if they were wearing polka dot clown costumes and silly noses?
Tim is working on his laptop at the kitchen table when I get there. He doesn’t say anything, doesn’t look up. I walk straight into my bedroom, come back, grab a chair from around the table and take it to my room. A minute later I return the chair and slap the bunch of wires and the tiny camera I’ve found in the smoke alarm in my bedroom ceiling on the table by Tim’s laptop and go have a shower.
I’m flicking through news channels over a bowl of Special K when Tim finally speaks. There’s nothing on TV about me but then I haven’t done a lot lately have I? That small plane is still missing in the mountains but everything else is politics and the share market and fiscal debt or something. Mutt has jumped up on the sofa and has tried to put his big floppy head into my lap but I pushed him away. Now he’s sulking at the other, no doubt shedding dog hair on the cushions.
“So, if we can’t find Jake my way, maybe we should do it your way,” Tim says.
My spoon, halfway to my mouth, ends up back in the bowl.
“Well?” he asks again.
“I just don’t like being watched.”
“Especially when I don’t know about it. Especially when I’m in bed sleeping.”
“I can understand that.”
“Didn’t you think?”
“I said I’m sorry.”
“No you didn’t.”
“I have now.”
“Jake doesn’t like it either.”
“How do you know that?”
“Because otherwise he probably would have come over and talked to me this morning.”
“But he wasn’t there. We had people on the pier, on the beach, cameras . . .”
“I know. You don’t have to tell me. I saw them.”
“So Jake was there?” From the way he says it I know he doesn’t need an answer. Instead he turns back to his laptop on the kitchen table. I get up and go over, watch him scroll through camera angle after camera angle from this morning until he gets the right one and then I point out the teenager in the dark hoodie slouching over the rail.
“We missed him completely.”
“Yeah. You did.”
I go back to the sofa and finish eating my cereal thinking: so that’s what he’s been doing while I was out running, watching camera feeds on his laptop.
“The Project taught you guys really well.”
“There wasn’t a lot else to do there.”
I stare down at the empty bowl. The sarcasm in my voice lingers in the room and I’m sick of it, sick of treating Tim this way. He’s not the enemy. He never has been, never will be, but that’s what it feels like right now.
“How about, tonight, if I travel to Jake?” I finally say. “You’ll know where I am. If anything goes wrong I can travel back.”
A thousand things could go wrong, some of which Tim can guess at, others he will have no idea about. He’s silent, thinking.
“And until then?” he finally asks. He hasn’t said yes, but at least he hasn’t said no.
“Let’s go somewhere. Where Jake can’t seek me out. So you don’t have to worry.”
“Somewhere out of LA?”
“Why not? How about that little plane that’s still missing in the mountains? We could go find it.”
The little plane has been missing for six days. It’s a charter flight. On board are a camera crew and a wildlife expert they were going to film plus the pilot. Because of the wildlife expert (apparently he is a big-name celebrity but I’ve never heard of him) no one was too worried the first few days because they thought they would all be able to survive rubbing two sticks together and drinking their own pee. Now it’s day six and there is still no sign of smoke curling out of the trees in the Yosemite National Park.
The park is in a mountain range called Sierra Nevada which kind of runs up the spine of California and I think becomes the Rockies further north. There’s snow and glaciers and lots of trees and probably bears and cougars too. It’s pretty rugged and huge and when a plane goes down in these mountains and the emergency beacon doesn’t go off, it’s almost impossible to find. Even I can see that. We’re in a helicopter, flying over them, and the light and the shade created by the peaks makes everything either blindingly white or deepest darkness and my eyes can’t adjust quickly enough in between to make anything out on the ground below.
Tim got us on a scheduled flight which was about to leave LAX to this place called Fresno which is the closest airport to Yosemite and then we jumped into a helicopter. Usually in a United States airport you have to be there two hours before the flight is leaving, even when it’s flying within the country, within the state, and you’re put through x-ray machines and sniffer machines and your hands are swabbed for explosives and there is endless queuing while you do all this, but with Tim, we just walked right on board. Working for the FBI does have its advantages.
The flight was boring and noisy. It was a small plane so no inflight movies or even snacks. Tim worked on his laptop. I stared out the window. The helicopter is so much better.
We set down in a clearing by a small lake. The water is crystal clear blue but it’s the peaks around me that grab my attention. We have reasonably sized mountains in New Zealand but nothing like these. Sheer grey faces rise up wherever I look, so high that I have to almost lean over to see the tops. Trees somehow cling to the rock sides, blanketing them in green until halfway up the struggle ends and the mountains rear up on their own, free. There’s snow up there, even though we’re in summer, not that far from the equator, and the air is crisp around us. Clean. I’m so used to Santa Monica salt and humidity and city smog it’s a shock to suddenly breath clean air again.
Tim is handing me a jacket and waving to the helicopter guy who is shutting down the machine. We’ve already done the jumping out thing half bent under the rotors, just like everyone does on TV, and now I follow Tim and his laptop bag into the trees which is something I’m not so happy about. Remember – bears, snakes, cougars. Isn’t Big Foot around here somewhere too?
After about five minutes walking, Tim stops. We’re now far away from the helicopter pilot. He won’t be able to see us or hear what we say. There are just trees and some ferns and us. It’s so quiet. The trees are so big there’s not a lot of light so I suppose that’s why little else grows. Either that or the bears eat everything. If that’s the case, by now they’ll be hungry.
“So Jake won’t be able to travel to us?”
It’s the first words he says and it surprises me. Jake, I must admit was the last thing I was thinking of. Maybe Tim doesn’t understand the bear danger. Or maybe he thinks he can run faster than me so it won’t be his problem. He’s delusional. With a bear behind me I will run faster than anyone. There were posters at the Fresno Airport about bears. It said whatever you do, don’t drop your pack when being chased. Too many people were doing it and the bears were ripping open the packs and eating the food in them so the bears had figured out all you had to do was chase someone to get food. Crazy. If I was getting chased by a bear and I had a pack on I know what I’d be doing and it wouldn’t be worrying about altering bear behaviour.
“No, it’s too far. Jake won’t be able to seek me out here. Not from LA.”
Tim visible relaxes. There’s a fallen tree and he sits on it and unpacks his laptop. I stand uncomfortably waiting while he fires it up, searches for a signal. I’m glad of the jacket. It’s cold.
I keep looking at the view, the trees, the glimpse of the mountains above them, but my eyes are always dragged back to Tim working. It’s as if he’s at the table in the apartment, Mutt by his side, or in the ops centre. He looks just the same. But he’s not. He’s straddling a log, there’s moss under his feet and some sort of bug hovering over his shoulder and probably bear poo under the fern by his knee and he’s ignoring all of it. I don’t get it, I don’t understand.
“I’ve got a signal. So how do you want to do this?” He looks up and sees me watching him. “What’s wrong?”
“Nothing, it’s just, wow, look at this place.”
“And we’re here to find a missing plane and five people.”
I give up. We discuss the best options. It’s been six days so if anyone is still alive they may have separated, wandered away from the plane. They might be in another valley or across a ridgeline, trying to get help. Or they might be all dead.
“If they’ve been eaten by bears I won’t be able to seek them out,” I tell Tim. He gives me a long look then goes back to his laptop.
He’s got photos of each of the five men on the computer, photos of the plane. I look at the markings on the plane’s tail, the letter and number combination, and it feels right.
“Okay, let’s do it. Where’s the tracking unit thing?”
He hands it to me.
“Here’s the earpiece although out here I’m not sure if we’ll get a clear signal with these mountains. Just travel there, wait a minute so I can get a fix then travel back. Don’t get too close. We don’t want anyone to see you. Remember they’re a film crew. For all we know they could be shooting the whole thing for reality TV. And be careful. Wherever they are could be rugged. There’s a lot of steep country out there.”
“Okay, okay. I’ll be fine.”
“I’m just saying.”
“I got it.” One more look at the picture of the plane on Tim’s laptop and then I travel.
I’m slipping on rock, my hands, feet, anything, trying to find purchase. Grey, hard rock, smooth, nothing to grab onto, nothing to stop me sliding uncontrollably downward. Already my hands are skinned, my blood leaving streaks on the rock above me, the pain making me clench my teeth together. I look down, scarily down, and there is nothing to stop me and I can’t see the bottom.
“Tim,” I yell but there is no reply in my ear and nothing he could do anyway. This is all going to be over in seconds.
And I can’t travel back. My hands are raw and bleeding. I’m in too much pain.
Those amazing, beautiful slopes I was admiring only minutes earlier are now going to kill me.
I snap out of it. It’s as if I hear Jake’s voice in my head. Don’t give up. You’re not dead yet. I twist around, looking for anything that could halt my slide. Stones and small rocks I’ve dislodged are falling with me, bouncing off the slope, downwards. I scramble with my feet desperately, trying to get them to slow me, but the rubber soles of my gym shoes find nothing, my knees knocking against the rock painfully.
And then I see it. A small ledge, a tiny rock shelf, just below me on the right. I try to steer my way over to it, rolling over on the rock face, shoulders, thighs twisting wildly, willingly myself to make it. But as I get closer I begin to see just how tiny it is and then the sheer drop off below it. If I go over it, if I can’t stop myself on it, I will be falling into space.
It’s too late now, I’m heading straight for the ledge. I bend my knees up, bracing ready for the impact, my hands still trying to grab at anything. And then I scream. I don’t know why, but I scream my lungs out and then I hit the shelf, a shooting pain up my right leg and I stumble forward, half somersault head over heels.
I’ve stopped. I’m finally not moving. I’m clinging to the edge, my fingers locked onto the hard rock, my face hanging over it, looking down to nothing.
I stay still, absolutely still, spread out on the ledge, my body numb with pain from my ankle, my mind numb with fear as I look downward. Finally, very slowly I half crawl, half push myself backwards, roll over carefully and sit up, shuffling over until my back is against the slope and I’m as far away from that edge that I can possible be.
“Tim?” I say hesitantly, but there is still no reply in my ear. At least the earpiece is still there, I haven’t lost it. I pat my pockets and find the tracker and sigh at last in relief. He’ll find me. He’ll realise sooner or later something is wrong and he’ll come. All I have to do is wait. I try to think, have I ever told him I can’t travel when I’m in pain? I can’t remember.
I’ve stretched my right leg out as much as I can. It seems to ease the throbbing. I know my ankle’s bad, really bad, but I’m too scared to look. I can feel it swelling under my pants, around my shoe. My swim coach is so going to kill me.
The ledge is two metres wide max and probably ten metres along and then goes into some sort of crevice in the rock. Even if I could put weight on my bad leg, there is no way off it, no way down or up that I can see. As I bend forward, to look around to the crevice, I see the plane, the one I was seeking out. I can’t make out much, it’s too far away, but it looks like it’s stuck on its own ledge, as if someone has crumpled up the wings and the front of it to make it fit. I can’t see anyone.
Well, at least I found it, but what a way to do it. I start to shiver. It’s cold, but not that cold. Maybe it’s shock, or fear, or I’m just plain terrified at coming so close to dying. I don’t know why but I’m shaking and every time I do my leg hurts even more and the palms of my hands are stinging where I’ve scraped them and to make matters even worse I start to cry.
I’m crying so much that I almost don’t hear it.
It’s Tim’s voice in my ear.
“I’m here,” I say, wiping tears out of my eyes with the back of the sleeve of my jacket.
I suddenly laugh, the craziness of the situation hitting me.
“I think I need rescuing.”
“I’d figured that. We’re about five minutes away. Where are you? I don’t think I’m getting a proper reading off your GPS unit.”
“Are you in the helicopter?”
“Well, you travelled too far away to get to you on foot. With these mountains I couldn’t even get a radio signal until now. So talk to me, what’s going on? Why didn’t you travel back?”
I try unsuccessfully to swallow a sob and take a deep breath.
“I kind of slipped and fell.”
“Are you all right?”
“I can’t travel. When I’m in pain I can’t travel.”
There’s silence. I wonder if Tim’s is waiting for me to talk or if he’s thinking. Maybe he’s saying something to the helicopter pilot.
“Okay, I want you to tell me exactly what is hurt.” He’s back, his voice steady in my ear.
“I’ve lost some skin off my hands and they’re bleeding a bit and I think I’ve got some bruises.”
“What else?” He knows me too well.
“I’ve hurt my ankle.”
“How bad? Is there bones sticking out or have you just sprained it?”
“I think I’ve just sprained it.” Honestly, I’m too afraid to look to see if there are bones sticking out of it. And if there were, there is a very high chance I might faint.
“And where are you? Are you under a tree? Can you make it to clearing do you think? Can you walk?”
“I’m on a mountain, on a ledge.” I embarrassingly let out another sob. “It’s really high up.”
Now I hear him swearing but only just, because there is the sound of a helicopter in the distance and I’m concentrating on that, trying to make out the dark speck in the sky. I wave. Maybe they have binoculars.
“Is that you, up there?” Tim swears again. “Don’t move, whatever you do, don’t move.”
Moving is the last thing I want to do, or can do.
The dark speck finally becomes a helicopter, with the pilot and Tim sitting in the front seats. It hovers level with me, the sound deafening, echoing off the cliff face, the rotor wash chilling me even further. Tim and the pilot are discussing something. There’s lots of pointing and nodding. Tim looks at me and gives me a thumbs up signal. I give him one back and try to smile. Even I can figure out the problem. The helicopter is for passengers. It doesn’t have a winch, it doesn’t even have sliding doors. And the ledge is far too narrow for it to land on. There’s no way it can pick me up.
Tim has got into the back seat and is opening the door. He has something in his hands. The helicopter is edging closer to me, the skid lining up with the ledge. I have to put my hands up to stop the stones the wash is blowing about hitting my eyes and I almost miss Tim climbing down to the skid and then jumping off it what seems like an impossible distance onto the ledge. Immediately the helicopter moves away, the wash and the noise going with it.
“Hi,” Tim says.
“Hi,” I say back and press my lips together between my teeth to stop anymore sobs. He’s turned the earpiece off. We don’t need it anymore.
“I’ve cut one of the seatbelts out and I’m going to use it to make a harness around you okay?”
It all sounds completely practical. A harness is exactly what I need.
“I’ll try not to hurt you.”
Tim wraps the grey seatbelt material around my waist, through my legs and ties it, putting his weight into the knot before he’s happy. He’s shaped it so it’s like an abseiling harness. Then he ties a length of rope to the front. The knots he’s using, they’re not your right over left and left over right. They’re complicated.
“Do you think you can stand?”
I know it’s not a question. It’s a necessity. He helps me up and I lean back against the rock face, keeping my weight off my right foot. Even so, just moving it makes pain shoot through me.
“Just stay still. All right?”
I nod, not trusting my voice.
Tim waves at the helicopter and it hovers towards us, open back door the closest. With the other end of the rope in his hand he jumps onto the skid and then pulls himself up into the helicopter in one movement. I turn my head away from the rotor wash but I can see what he’s doing. He’s tying the end of the rope to something inside the helicopter. The pilot is watching me. Even behind his dark glasses, I can see he’s worried.
“Okay, let’s go,” Tim yells at me, above the noise of the helicopter.
I hop forward, closer to the edge and look at the skid.
It’s not staying still. It keeps moving up and down, left and right, forward and backward, all over the place. Tim made it look so easy, like he’s done it a million times before. He can’t expect me to make the same jump.
“Don’t look down,” he yells again.
Such helpful advice. How about which leg should I stand on? I’ve only got one that works. Should I use that to jump off from or use it to land on the skid? Or should I try to hop from the ledge to the skid? The pilot is still watching me. Tim is stretched out on the floor of the helicopter, his arms ready to grab me. It’s just one step. One rather large step.
I push off with my good leg and hope that my bad one can hold my weight on the skid the split second I need to reach Tim’s hands. It doesn’t. As soon as I feel my foot hit the skid I know I’m not going to make it. I fall, past the skid, downwards, my hands trying to grab hold of something but there is nothing but air.
The rope stops me with a jerk. The knots of the makeshift harness squeal but it holds and I’m hanging,
upright, legs dangling, hands painfully clinging to the rope, my cheek pressed against it. The helicopter moves away from the rock face and I feel myself swinging outwards, air rushing past me. All I can do is hang on. And don’t look down. It’s a long way down.
Instead I look up and see Tim rolling his eyes at me. Really?
He’s hauling me up, hand over hand on the rope. I reach for the skids and hang on, then pull myself up, helping Tim. The less time I’m dangling from beneath a helicopter the better, then it’s his hands under my arms and with one last heave, we’re both sprawled on the floor of the helicopter. With his free hand, Tim reaches for the still open door and slams it shut.
I gulp in air and try to exhale fear. He pushes me up on to the seat, uses a pocketknife he gets from somewhere to cut the harness off me and pushes headphones on to my head. He slips another pair onto his own ears and suddenly we can talk again, and to the pilot.
But the pilot is staring out the window, at the crumpled plane on the side of the mountain.
“It’s been missing about a week,” he says to us. “They were hoping everyone would be alive.”
Tim and I don’t say anything, just look at the wreckage.
“See, up there?” the pilot is pointing, “that’s must have been where it hit the mountain and then it fell until it hit that crevice. They didn’t stand a chance. I’ll radio it in.”
We listen to the pilot contact emergency services, give the details about the plane, its position. It all sounds so unemotional, so reasonable, logical. There are five bodies in that wreck but the pilot could be ordering a McDonald’s cheese burger.
“Right, where are we going?” he says when he’s finished.
“The closest emergency hospital which has a helipad,” Tim says.
The pilot doesn’t answer but the helicopter’s engines whine and we tilt sideways, suddenly looking at the sky instead of the plane on the mountain and we’re leaving.
Tim turns his attention back to me which is good because I have the shakes again. He’s buckled the remaining seatbelt around me and taken off his jacket and tucked it around my legs, both of which he has propped up on the back seat.
“How come you can jump in and out of helicopters like that?” I ask him.
“Afghanistan,” he says. “Do you have a first aid kit?” he asks the pilot.
The pilot hands it back to him and Tim spends the next few minutes bandaging my bleeding hands until it looks like I have thick mittens on. I listen to the pilot radio the hospital, to expect our arrival.
“They want to know what’s wrong with her,” he says.
“Broken lower leg,” Tim replies.
“It won’t be broken. It can’t be broken,” I protest but both men ignore me.
When my then best friend Sarah broke her ankle playing hockey when we were nine, one of the other mums dropped us both off at the hospital, because neither of our parents were at the game. Sarah still had her hockey stick and she turned it upside down and used it as a crutch to hobble into the emergency department where we were both told to sit and wait. It took two hours for it to be our turn. My mum had just arrived by then and the two of us helped Sarah hop from the waiting room to a room where a doctor was and then to x-ray where they told her it was broken and then, and only then, did they finally sit her down in a wheelchair.
When the helicopter lands on the Fresno hospital helipad, the pilot has to shut the engines down as it’s not a proper rescue helicopter, he tells us. Tim undoes my seat belt and takes off the headphones, my padded hands useless.
“I’ll catch up with you in a bit,” he says and then the door is yanked open and I’m grabbed out of the helicopter and lifted onto a stretcher. The doctors or nurses or whatever they are then push the stretcher at a run, and I mean a very fast run, to inside the hospital, strapping an oxygen mask over my face at the same time. They’ve got an IV-line stuck in my arm before I even realise and can protest.
I do get a room to myself which is good (maybe Tim flashed his FBI ID) and when they stop taking my blood pressure and my pulse and whatever and I prove to them that I’m not dying, I am left alone with one doctor and one nurse who spend several minutes unwrapping the bandages Tim just put on my hands.
“Ouch,” the nurse says, looking at my palms.
“We’ll get a plastic surgeon to look at those,” the doctor says. You have got to be kidding me. My mum would have put some Savlon cream on them and a band aid.
“What else hurts?” the doctor asks.
“My ankle,” I say, my voice muffled by the oxygen mask.
“Right or left?”
I point to my right one.
She pulls up my jeans leg and has a look.
“Are you allergic to any medicines, treatments, anything you know of?” This time she takes the mask off my face so I can talk properly.
“I don’t think so.”
“Let’s give you some morphine.”
They ignore my protests, again, and inject the drug into the IV line.
“You may feel a little sleepy,” the nurse says.
“Right, we’ll take your shoe off now. Okay?”
Which is about the time when Tim shows up.
“I followed the noise of your screams,” he tells me.
“We’ll get you up to x-ray shortly,” the doctor says and the two of them leave me, the nurse handing
Tim a bundle of paperwork on the way out. He starts reading through the pages, ticking boxes and writing stuff.
“It won’t be broken,” I say.
“Of course it’s not.”
“I have swimming when I get back, there’s Nationals to get ready for. It’ll be better tomorrow, day after I’ll probably be able to walk on it. I’ll just need some physio.”
“Yep,” Tim says.
“Did you pay the helicopter pilot for cutting up his seatbelt?”
“We had a little more than that to discuss, like how the young passenger he let off in the woods ended up minutes later on a cliff face miles away.”
“Is there any way we could have avoided the you almost dying bit today?”
“No. Maybe don’t go looking for small planes in tall mountains?”
“I thought so. Just thought I’d better check.” He finishes going through the pages and signs the last sheet.
They come and get me for the x-ray, wheeling my bed down the corridors to the machine and yes, everyone is right. My ankle is broken. Shattered. An operation required to pin the pieces back together then six weeks in plaster. Tim signs more paperwork and the surgery is planned for the evening. I feel as if everyone is moving around me as I lie in this bed, making decisions for me, and walking, because I can’t.
“We better ring your parents,” Tim says after the doctors leave.
I sigh. The rule is I don’t ring them and they don’t ring me when I’m over here. We tried, my first visit, but it was too hard. It just made everyone upset. Reminded everyone of when I was really gone, really missing. When I’m here, I like to focus on here, when I’m at home, I’m just a normal school kid living with my parents.
So when Tim rings, we both know they’ll be expecting bad news when they hear his voice.
I listen to him explain that I broke my ankle, that I’m okay, but I’ll need an operation, that if all goes well he’ll have me back in New Zealand on Saturday as planned but he’ll change my ticket to first class from economy so I’ll be able to prop my leg up, that he’ll come with me on the flight, to make sure everything is okay, he’ll bring everything from the doctors.
Then he passes the phone over to me.
“You silly duffer,” Mum says. “Breaking your ankle.”
“Yeah,” is all I manage to get out before I start crying. See, this is why I don’t ring. Anyway, Mum talks about how the cat is missing me and how the weather has been awful and how it will be so good to see me and they’ll meet me and Tim at the airport. I manage to say goodbye and to say hi to Dad for me and then we hang up and I pass the phone back to Tim.
And then finally it hits me. I can’t travel.
I was going to seek out Jake tonight.
I’ll have to leave the States without seeing him, without finding out what happened and how come he’s here and if he’s okay. And he won’t know why I’ve gone or what has happened.
We will have lost each other all over again.
School on crutches is not fun. Sure I’ve got signatures on my cast from just about everyone, including a few teachers, but my ankle hurts, my swim coach hates me and if I drop one of the crutches once more in class which always results in a loud bang and everyone turning around and staring at me I will scream.
Four weeks to go and then the plaster comes off.
Will I make it?
Mum and Dad have been really good about everything. Tim explained to them almost exactly what happened (although he didn’t actually say how far I had slid down the mountain and just how high up it was and how close I came to dying) and when he was gone I repeatedly told them how well he had saved me. I’m still wondering about that. Just when and where did he learn to tie knots and jump in and out of helicopters? He had told me Afghanistan and sure, I kind of know what the United States has been up to there and in Iraqi but Tim sits at a desk, he works in an office. There is no way I can imagine him in a flak jacket carrying a really big gun shooting people. I’m going to ask him about it when I get back to LA.
After our plane lands in Auckland, we all have coffee together at Subway at the airport (my mum likes their cookies) and Tim explains once again to them what happened.
“Did you say Yosemite?” Mum asks.
“Yes, the national park.”
“That was on the television news here,” Dad says. “That adventure guide was on the plane, he makes the documentaries.”
I roll my eyes. Why does everyone seem to know about this person except me? I really need to watch more TV.
“So, you found that plane, Nicky?”
“It was too late though, they were all dead,” I interject.
“But it’s great that you found it,” Mum says. “We didn’t even think when we saw it on the news that could have been you.”
When everyone finishes their coffee, Tim gets back on a flight returning to the States. Before he leaves, when my parents aren’t listening, I make him promise to keep a watch out for Jake.
“Of course I will,” he says.
“Just, you know, be nice to him, when you find him. Don’t arrest him or lock him up or something.”
“Why would I do that?”
He grins at me and kinds of gave me a half punch on my shoulder which almost sets me off balance (I’m still getting used to the crutches) and turns around and walks through the door leading to international departures. I totally don’t believe him but there is nothing I can do now. I watch him until he’s gone and then hop back to where my parents are waiting. One life finished with for a couple of months, the other one starting again.
Mum then makes me take a week off school “to recover” which means I sit around home doing nothing going senseless with boredom and then I’m back and negotiating narrow corridors and stairs and classrooms with swinging doors and everything else that makes hopping around on crutches downright impossible, especially when carrying a school backpack full of text books.
And if all that isn’t bad enough the teachers are suddenly serious about teaching us. Practice exams are coming up near the end of the term and we have to study like crazy to show we have actually been learning something this year. Practice exams, they tell us, will give us practice (believe it or not) for the real thing in November and if, for whatever reason we can’t sit the exams at the end of the year, then the practice exams results will be the one we are given. So they are important. We all get that, but the teachers keep on telling us over and over again.
It’s not that much of a surprise, we all know the drill, but it makes winter feel like it will be a long one. My suntan is already fading fast and the dull days and cold rain remind me constantly just how far away I am from LA and Tim and the Mutt. And Jake.
After two weeks back, Mum takes me to the pool. She reckons my coach will have calmed down enough by then to see me. I hop along the length of the swimming pool, being careful that my crutches don’t slip on the wet tiles. She saw me as soon as Mum and I came through the entrance but made no move to come towards us, instead watching me struggle towards her the whole way. As I carefully hop, I pass some of my friends doing lengths, their eyes flip up towards me, I can see them looking at me through their swimming goggles, but they don’t stop. They know better than to do that.
“Cow,” Mum whispers to me, looking down the length of the pool to my coach.
It doesn’t help. Sharon is the best swim coach in the country, we both know that, but she doesn’t have the personality to match. To be in her squad you just don’t have to have the top times in the country in your age group, you also have to be thick skinned and able to tolerate loud noises, like her yelling at you. Even when you are under the water you can still hear her yelling.
“Sharon,” Mum says, thankfully all smiles, as we finally get close.
“Well, that’s you finished with Nationals,” Sharon says, looking at me, her arms folded.
“She’ll be out of plaster in another month,” Mum says. I just stand there, on my good leg, hands holding the crutches tightly.
Sharon’s attention is suddenly elsewhere. Cory, one of the guys in my age group, has mucked up a turn, and she is after him, yelling at the top of her voice. I keep my expression the same but Mum winces next to me. I wait patiently for Sharon to return her attention to us and silently pray Mum will do the same. I need Sharon to keep coaching me. She is the best, all her squad get results, her swimmers make up the teams who compete overseas. I can’t stuff this up any more than I already have.
She finally comes back to us, via a detour to her office, with several sheets of paper which she thrusts at me, even though both of my hands are occupied. Mum takes the papers for me.
“You might not be able to swim but you can still go to the gym,” Sharon says. “And every day, no slacking. There’s a programme all set out for you,” she points to the papers. “If you don’t understand any of it, ask one of the trainers at the gym or ring me. When that ankle is right I want to see you back here in the water fitter than you have ever been before. You got that?”
“Yes,” I reply. Yes, because I’m going to do exactly what she says, and yes because you just don’t say no to her.
“And I don’t want you in the water until that ankle is right. There’s no point you clogging up the lanes and wasting my time.”
She stares at me a second more and then her attention is back on the teenagers in the water. I turn around and start hopping towards the entrance.
“Cow,” Mum says again when we are out of hearing.
So the next evening, Mum or Dad, whichever one of them is free, starts dropping me off at the gym and then picking me up an hour later. Sharon’s typed instructions are precise, which machines to use, how many sets, how many in a set, rest times. They’re all for upper body and core. And after two weeks of doing next to nothing, the next day I hurt. I really hurt, especially as I need to use my upper body and core to hang onto the crutches. But I’m back at the gym that night and the next and the next and I just don’t do what is on the sheets of paper. I do more.
They get to know me there, some of the guys even pick up my crutches for me as I can hop from machine to machine without them, and thinking about my arms and my shoulders stops me thinking about the pain in my ankle. And about Jake. And about the missing people in LA who I’m not there to find. Missing kids and mums and dads and old people and people who will never be found just because they were unlucky enough to go missing when I’m here instead of there. Last term, it wasn’t like this. Tim and I hadn’t got started into a nightly routine of folders and finding people like we did these holidays. It makes it harder, knowing what I could be doing, what I’m not doing, and the effect it will be having on so many and it’s not their fault. It’s mine. I take it out on the weights at the gym.
School doesn’t stop me thinking about Jake either. Especially since Flynn, this blond kid who is, I admit, kind of cute, keeps on trying to carry my backpack for me. I don’t know if he has the hots for me or what it is but Sarah and Chloe, two of my best friends, of course think it’s really funny.
“I mean, why doesn’t he just come out and say something?” Sarah says.
“You do look quite the couple together,” Chloe adds. “And Nicky, it’s about time you had a boyfriend.”
She lets her voice drawl out the word “boyfriend”. As if she can talk, I think she’s onto her fourth “boyfriend” this year.
Neither of them knows about Jake. No one knows about Jake, not even my parents and what’s the point of anyone knowing. I have this guy who I don’t know where he is or what he’s doing or what he feels about me or anything. We just have a past together and it wasn’t a good one. It didn’t end well would be the understatement of the century. I keep Jake to myself.
Which doesn’t help with the Flynn problem. The sooner I can get off these crutches and carry my own school bag the better. And he does say stuff, just not when Sarah and Chloe are around. Actually, he’s really nice and intelligent and funny. It’s just a bit hard for him to compete with Jake, but he doesn’t know that and I can’t tell him and I’ll probably end up breaking his heart.
Did I tell you how tough school is?
I’m getting ready for another no doubt dreadful school day, halfway through brushing my teeth, when Mum calls out Tim’s on the phone. I hop from the bathroom to the kitchen, too much in a rush to pick up my crutches, and take the phone from her. There is only one thing he could be ringing about.
“You’ve found him, you know where he is,” I say excitedly. Mum has left me to it. She’s getting ready for work. Dad has already gone. I’m alone in the room.
“Hello to you too,” Tim replies. He’s a million miles away but it sounds like he could be phoning from across the street.
“Is he okay?”
“Nicky, I’m sorry, I haven’t found Jake, if that’s what you’re talking about.”
“You haven’t?” I don’t believe him.
“No. But we’re still looking.”
“So why are you ringing then?”
“To find out how you are.”
“You don’t sound it.”
“Well, I just thought you would have found Jake by now.”
“We will no doubt soon and if we don’t, when you get back here in September, he’ll be the first person you seek out, I promise.”
“He’ll be gone by then. He’ll be too far away for me to travel to him and that will be it.”
“We will find him, one way or another, I promise. How’s your ankle?”
“Painful. Remember, I broke it.”
“What are the doctors saying?”
“I had an appointment a couple of days ago. They took x-rays. They said it’s healing fine. They’re so happy with it, said something about the Californian doctors doing an amazing job.”
“You don’t sound that happy about it.”
“So you’ll be all set to come back in September. Off crutches, walking, not in any pain, able to travel? I don’t need to change the air tickets?”
“Should be. I better be. My swim coach has got me going to the gym.”
“Good. Don’t want you turning into a couch potato.”
“No chance of that.”
“We will find him, Nicky. It will be top of the list, as soon as you get here.”
“If you haven’t found him by now, then he must be gone.”