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STRATAGEM Chapter 29

STRATAGEM by Joshua Graham

PREVIOUS CHAPTER

TWENTY-NINE

 

“HANDS WHERE I CAN SEE THEM,” one of the two armed men in security uniforms said.

Blake complied without resistance.

“If this is your idea of cashing in on a favor,” Sabine said to Blake, putting her hands up and behind her head, “Don’t do me any.”

“Don’t worry,” he said, his voice strangely calm. “Everything will be okay.”

“You don’t know that.”

“Quiet!” the second guard said. He pointed his shotgun toward the path ahead. “Now walk. Not another word.”

They followed a trail through the woods for about seven or eight minutes and came to a wide-open space. From the paved runway and the small tower with a 360-degree panoramic view at the top, Sabine could instantly tell.

“An airfield?”

“Exactly where we’re supposed to be,” Blake whispered. “I’ll do the talking, okay?”

She nodded.

A rude nudge between her shoulder blades alerted her.

“Keep moving,” the guard said, urging her and Blake toward the control tower and adjoining building in the distance.

She remained silent for the rest of the way. Not so bad compared to the stiffness in her shoulders from keeping her hands on her head. Blake seemed to know what he was doing, but it took more to trust him now than when he was guiding a shuttle through atmospheric re-entry and nailing the landing.

After about five minutes, they arrived at the edge of the tarmac, then walked about fifty meters to the control tower entrance. One of the guards opened the door, held it open with his foot, and kept his weapon trained.

“Go,” the other guard said.

Inside, the dark corridor concealed the figure of the person who stepped out of the shadows and into the dimly lit foyer. His grizzled mug and oily hair testified to his hygiene—or lack thereof. Sabine had sensed presence well before he’d come in view.

The man lowered his glasses and peered over its rim at Blake.

Then he shook his head and spit out a wad of whatever he was chewing.

“I don’t believe it.” He pulled out a handgun and moved in close to Blake, who didn’t so much as flinch. “Never thought I’d see your ugly face again, you arrogant sonofab—”

“Good to see you too, Frank.” Blake scoffed. “What’s it been, ten years?”

Frank clicked off the safety and pressed his gun into Blake’s chest. “Not nearly long enough.”

“You’re not still mad about the skirt—?”

“Kilt, dammit! It was a kilt!”

Eyeball to eyeball, neither of them blinked.

Sabine’s heart pounded like a Chinese dragon dance drum.

Then, without warning, Frank holstered his sidearm, broke into a wide grin, and threw his arms around Blake. “Bring it in, you big jackass!”

They both laughed, shared a quick man-hug, then shoved, and punched each other in the shoulder. Blake winced.

Frank stepped back and looked at Blake’s bandaged wound. “Whoa, you’re bleeding.”

“Just a scratch” Blake said.

“When’s the last time you slept? Man, you look like hell.”

I look like hell? Listen Frank, no one could beat how you looked in that skirt. Boy, you showed some serious leg in Instanbul.”

Frank shot him a death glare. “How many times do I have to tell you? It was a kilt. And we do not talk about Instanbul.” He looked over to Sabine, who couldn’t quite process what was going on. It must have shown because his entire demeanor instantly changed from hostile to genial as he walked over to her. “And who have we here?”

“Frank,” Blake warned. “Fersenbefehl.”

Sabine had a friend who trained german shepherds. That was the German command for ‘heel.’

“Sabine Stone,” she said. “Whatever Blake told you about me—”

Frank grinned. “That scoundrel never mentioned you.”

Blake got between them and shoved Frank away. “Don’t mind him,” Blake said to Sabine. “He’s just a sheep in wolf’s clothing. So how’s your daughter doing, Frank?”

“Dau—What daughter? What are you talking about? I don’t have a daughter.”

“But if you did, she’d be about Sabine’s age, you old fart. Now act your age and be a gentleman. Sabine’s a coworker.”

“Like a flight attendant or something? What’ve you  been up to these days?”

Blake smirked. “Have you been living under a rock for the past decade? Don’t you watch the news?”

He shrugged. “As usual, your self-importance eclipses everyone around you. My life doesn’t orbit around you. I haven’t kept tabs on your life or career any more than you have mine.”

“I still remember the gate code.”

“Hm.” He turned to Sabine. “Oh, and sorry about the welcome committee,” he said, nodding to his guards who had since stood down. He glared to Blake. “Wasn’t expecting visitors.”

“What do you want, an advance team? Forty-eight hour’s notice?”

“You don’t call, you don’t write…” The smile gradually faded from Frank’s face. He regarded Blake with a look of one part curiosity, two parts suspicion. “What the hell are you doing here anyway? I told you that gate code was for emergencies only.”

Blake lowered his gaze with a grave look.

“Oh,” Frank said. “So now you need my help?”

“I’m afraid so.”

“And why would I ever go out of my way to help you?”

Blake arched an eyebrow. “Because you owe me.”

“What are you talking about? I don’t owe you any—”

“Istanbul.”

“Hey!” Frank’s eyes grew wide. “We don’t talk about that.”

Dead silence. Were they still kidding, or did Blake strike a nerve?

“So here’s what I need.” Looking back to tell Sabine to stay put, Blake rested his hand on Frank’s shoulder and led him away.

Sabine had a pretty good idea about the favor Blake was cashing in on. But for the time being, she needed to sit down and shut her eyes. It must have been between close to 2:00 AM and now that the adrenaline rush had ebbed, she could barely stay awake.

Unreal.

With all that had happened since returning from the Athena mission, this all had to have been a dream.

A very….bad…dream…

The low-pitched rumbling of Blake and Frank murmuring faded into white noise.

Sleep…

…rest your eyes for a few…

 

#

“Hey, kiddo.”

A gentle squeeze to the shoulder.

“Wakey-wakey.”

Consciousness eluded Sabine each time she tried to open her eyes. Halfway between asleep and awake, she struggled to grasp where she was and who it was that dared beckon her back to the land of the quick.

“Hmmm?”

“Sorry to wake you,” Blake said, his voice hushed. “We have to go now.”

Had it been anyone else, she would’ve snapped into fight-or-flight mode. But it was Blake, so she’d allow him to live.

She pushed her back up against the wall and stood. Eyes stinging, she blinked repeatedly only to find him waiting for her to move. “Where?”

“Follow me.”

She almost tripped but grabbed onto his arm.

Steady now, she walked with him with only one eye slightly open—intermittently. Wherever they were going, there had better be somewhere to sleep.

A gust of cold air forced her eyes open. With a shudder, she found herself walking out onto the tarmac toward the passenger stair ramp leading up to the cabin of a Gulfstream.

Frank met them at the foot of the steps. “I swear, Blake. You’re going to be the cause of my demise—or my arrest, whichever comes first.”

He gripped Frank’s shoulder. “Thanks, man. I knew you’d come through. Now, remember…”

“Yeah, yeah. Incognito, I know.” Frank turned and winked at Sabine. “Whatever you do, don’t ever owe him a favor. He’ll call it in at the worst possible time, in the worst possible way.”

“I’ll keep that in mind,” she grumbled and followed Blake up the steps into the jet. He had once mentioned flying F-18s for the Marines in a different life, so this was likely a piece of cake for him.

“Hey, Hendricks!” Frank called out.

Blake stopped, turned around, and regarded him.

Eyes glistening, Frank’s jaw quivered. “You land this baby in once piece.”

Responding to the subtext, Blake gave him a poignant smile, then a thumbs-up. “Take care of yourself, Frank.”

The finality in his words betrayed probably more than he wished. Frank must’ve been a close friend, perhaps someone with whom he’d served a long time ago.

Blake got inside and motioned for her to take a seat beside him in the cockpit. Before he began any of the preflight checks, he sighed and turned to her with weary eyes. “Well, I’ve gotten us this far. We’ve got a decent chance of falling off their radar, at least for a while.”

“What’s next then?”

“This is as far as I could plan. I need your help with the next step.”

For the first time ever, Sabine sensed his uncertainty. Didn’t suit him well, but if he really needed her help… “Name it.”

“I have a feeling I’m running out of time. We have to go somewhere far from here, somewhere off the grid—I mean way off the grid.”

She took a deep breath. “I have an idea.”

 

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Joshua Graham is a New York Times and USA Today bestselling author, winner of the International Book Award and Forward National Literature Award. His thrillers include DARKROOM, LATENT IMAGE and BEYOND JUSTICE, and TERMINUS. Graham's works have been characterized as thought-provoking page-turners.

Legal Notice: All information on this website and blog are from Mr. Graham's personal experience and insight and should not be viewed in any way, directly or inferred, as qualified professional advice.

All creative writing on this website or Mr. Graham's books: This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, businesses, places, events, locales, and incidents are either the products of the author’s imagination or used in a fictitious manner. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or actual events is purely coincidental. (novels, short stories)

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