Chapter 10: Climbing Up Fire Escapes
Extensive Enterprises, 200 Park Avenue, New York City
They say when you are about to die, your whole life flashes before your eyes. People on the verge of death report whirling visions of time spanning from the moment of their birth to the pastrami and rye sandwich they devoured ten minutes before getting hit by that bus. The only thought Lady Jaye had at the moment when her body hovered in the air, half in and half out of Tomax's office, was of Lucky.
Toward the beginning of her army career, with some reluctance, Lady Jaye "volunteered" for the Basic Airborne Course at Ft. Benning. Her Black Hat instructor was a grizzled sergeant nicknamed Four Fingers Lucky. Jaye always thought it was an odd choice for a nickname. Surely his god-given moniker had to be a bit easier on the tongue than Four Fingers Lucky. It wasn't. Master Sergeant Belmerlee Leradell Hudspeth, III, was from an old military family. His dad served in Korea, his granddad in the Pacific fleets of World War II, and his great-granddad in the trenches of France. He had kin who wore the blue and some who wore the gray. And before that, they wore coats of red.
As for Four Fingers Lucky, he knew where he fit into his family lore. Since the time he could walk, there was one thing he was meant to do—fly. But not the kind of flying that usually comes to mind. Hudspeth didn't want to be hampered by a cylinder of steel; he wanted to be entirely free to touch the clouds as close to his maker as possible. He wanted to soar of his own accord. Hudspeth was a paratrooper.
Hudspeth had a canned talk that he gave at the beginning of ground week, as the first week of training is called. "Ladies," he would start, because to Hudspeth there was nothing political or correct about his choice of words, "Only an insane man would jump out of a perfectly good airplane. By the end of your three weeks here, you will all be one hundred percent, Grade A certified, loony, bat shit (Hudspeth did not believe in holding back), insane!" This little nugget of motivation was typically followed by boisterous cheers of "Yes Sergeant, Airborne!" and lots of fists pumping in the air. Jaye herself was not immune to Hudspeth's enthusiasm. She joined right in even though she harbored a dangerous secret. She was terrified of heights.
She couldn't point to where the fear first started. It seemed it was always with her. As a child, while her brother climbed to the top of the jungle gym, she would be content to hover around the mid-way mark, not quite on the ground, but definitely not in the air. She had no problems flying as long as she had the aisle seat. Even the window seat, when there was no choice, wasn't cause for strife as long as she stared straight ahead during landings and take-offs. She'd been to the top of the Sears Tower and hiked Mt. Kilimanjaro. It wasn't an all-encompassing, crippling fear, but that was only because she knew how to harness the beast.
Unfortunately, the 34 foot tower of ground week was a beast for which she was unprepared. During ground week, the students performed mock jumps out of the tower. Supposedly some smart guy somewhere posited that jumping out of 33 feet has the same effects on a person as it does from any other increased height. So the Army, in all of its infinite wisdom, threw on another foot and created the 34 foot tower. If you're too scared to jump from that, you'll be too scared to jump from anything higher. As she ran laps, she came to the realization that she was too scared to jump from the tower. Try as she would, she couldn't hide her trepidation. She wasn't that good of an actress, yet. Hudspeth could spot a person who didn't have a head for heights a mile away. The night before her first scheduled jump off the tower, he found her preparing to run more laps after leaving the chow hall. He stopped her and asked her to take a walk with him instead. "I don't mean to engage in any shenanigans," he said, "I just want to talk to you."
As they started to walk around the training area, Hudspeth raised the ghost of Lady Jaye's fear, "Do you know why they call me Four Fingers Lucky?"
"No Sergeant Airborne."
"Please, it's just us, you call me Lucky."
"Ok," her training was good; it had beaten out of her any ability to call superiors by anything other than what the Army dictated. "Uh, sarge, I mean, Lucky." That elicited a chuckle from the man.
"They call me Lucky because I am one lucky bastard." With that, Lucky pulled the glove off his left hand revealing that he only had four fingers. The fifth, his pinky, was noticeably absent. Lady Jaye tried to mask her surprise at his unexpected revelation. Lucky laughed again and slid the glove back on. "We were in a C-141 barreling toward our DZ. We'd checked and double-checked the chutes. We were ready. That hunk of junk was not. Something happened to engine number three. It chucked itself, but not before trying to take engine number four with it. Number four failed and the smoke grew mighty thick. The pilot couldn't see and put the plane in a steep bank. We were tossed around like a bunch of dice back there. I'll admit; I was scared and I let it get the best of me. My brain took over, ignoring my training. I ignored orders and froze. Debris flew into the cargo compartment, setting one of the pallets on fire. It exploded. I had my hand on the door, paused, when a big 'ol shard of metal came straight for my head. Put up my hand and it got my finger instead." Lucky wiggled his hand for effect. "That'll wake you up. I jumped. When I landed, I could count on four fingers why I was still lucky to be alive."
They had reached the 34 foot tower by this point. "I like you Burnett, I think you're a good kid and you'll do fine in this man's Army. I know you want to stay a number and not a name. Names aren't all that bad." Lucky pointed up to the top of the tower, "Don't wash out kid. That thing has nothing on you. I don't know what you're running from 'cause you're not trying to prove anything. That's ok. Just keep it out of your head. When the time comes, let your training do what it's supposed to do. I see you rehearsing your PLFs, your brain going a mile a minute. Don't. Just do." He poked her in the head. "If you're jumping from an aircraft with 100 pounds of gear strapped to your body from 1,000 feet, you don't have much time to think about what to do if something goes wrong. Your chute opens up after a 4,000 count, well you hope it does, and you've already lost about 400 feet. If you have to think about pulling your reserve, you've taken too long. It's a quick way to become one with the earth." Lucky shrugged, "That's all I wanted to say." He turned back toward the barracks. Lady Jaye resumed her run, letting her mind wander free of the tower for the first time since she had arrived. Three weeks later she was awarded her wings. Still scared, but that was all in her head.
In the present, as her feet cleared the window of Extensive Enterprises and gravity pulled her body down, she let go to her conditioning. Relaxing her muscles, she leaned into Tomax and allowed him to pull her closer, much as she would have done if falling without a chute. He led with his head, spinning his feet and twisting them back toward the building. It must have been something he learned in gymnastics. It felt like tangoing in the sky. She hadn't noticed it when she'd first glanced out the building, but attached like a hammock underneath was a net spanning the width of Tomax's office. Tomax, his arm clapped around her shoulder much like a harness, reached out, entwining his hand in the netting. Their bodies abruptly completed their circle trajectory, smashing into the metal below. Tomax's grip loosened and she slid down a few inches, thrashing out a hand to grab the net. Glass shards from the window caught in the net glistened in the sun. They also dug into her hand. It was but another check to add to her growing tally of physical injuries on this mission. Two Crimson Guards appeared at the window, rifles aimed.
"Let go! Climb onto me!" Tomax yelled down to her.
"You're crazy!" No way, no how was she letting go.
Tomax shook his arm, trying to dislodge her. "You're too open to a shot."
He was right. No sooner than he said the word "shot," a real one followed, pinging off the support girder a few inches above Lady Jaye's white-knuckled hand. "Shit!" She gathered as much of Tomax as she could with her one hand and let go of the netting with the other. She swung like a pendulum as she attempted to wrap her legs around Tomax. Freed of his burden of supporting her, Tomax reached up with his other hand, grabbing more net. He waited to start pulling himself up until she had fully wrapped herself around him, thinking to herself that she must look a lot like Stephanie Seymour in the "Don't Cry" video, trying to pull Tomax down to the watery depths. At least she wanted to look like Stephanie Seymour.
More shots rang out followed by cries of "Stop, you'll hit him!" Glancing up, Lady Jaye was offered a glimpse of the two Crimson Guardsmen leaning out over the window, trying to figure out how to pick her off while leaving their leader unharmed.
Come on Flint, come on! She could sense Tomax's arms were starting to weaken. Not that she wasn't in awe of his physical conditioning. He reminded her of the paratroopers she'd come across. Those guys were in impeccable shape. It kept them alive. Now Tomax's physique was the one thing separating them from ending up as flattened pancakes on the pavement below. The wind was picking up; she could feel Tomax start to shudder, tremors working through the strained muscles of his locked arms. He relaxed his grip and she cried out as they dipped down for a moment. "Getting . . . better, grip," fell out between his clenched teeth.
A gust blew them against the building and Tomax exclaimed a few choice words, unable to kick his legs for leverage because Lady Jaye had him wrapped up in a death grip. The wind gusted again, and she heard what she thought was the sound it made whipping around the high rises. It was a distinct low "thump, thump, thump," the bass reverberating in her chest cavity. The noise grew louder and more ear-splitting; that wasn't the wind.
"Lady!" J.T.'s voice flooded her ears, "We're here to rescue you."
"Oh thank god." Around the bend, the Joe's Tomahawk materialized, Flint at the helm, face set in grim determination. He did not look pleased at all. J.T. leaned out of the side, gun at the ready. She looked up; the Crimson Guards shrank back from the window. At least they wouldn't be taking pot shots at them. All she had to figure out was how to get her body into the Tomahawk. Flint was as close to her as he could get. Any closer and the rotor blades would slice through Extensive Enterprises. Hopefully this was another event already on Tomax's radar.
"Ever been to a circus?" Tomax gritted his teeth.
"Good, you're going to be the girl on the flying trapeze."
"Oh no." Lady Jaye's hands felt clammy with anticipation.
"Yes." Tomax sighed, "Tell Flint to angle to the left. Have the goon harness up, get on the skid, and prepare to catch."
She had done a good job up until that point relying on training and instinct. That training included the maxim, never look down. Temptation overwhelmed her and she did, instantly regretting the decision. 58 stories was a really long way to fall. She had visions of falling and taking out half the people gathered on the side-walk below with necks craned up high to witness the show unfolding above. Lady Jaye closed her eyes, burying her face into Tomax's back.
"God woman, we don't have much time. Tell them!" Perhaps sensing all was not right with his passenger, Tomax softened his tone, "I can't hold us much longer. I'll go before you."
Tomax's assurance of self-sacrifice was the kick in the rear Lady Jaye needed. He'd done enough; it was her turn. She relayed Tomax's instructions to J.T., leaving out the goon part. No sense in offending the man who was about to catch and save her from certain death.
"On the count of three." Tomax took three deeps breaths while pumping his arms. When he shouted "three" he pressed his body against the building, reaching up and unhooking part of the net. As it detached from the building, he tensed up his abdominal muscles and flipped his legs out behind him, swinging Lady Jaye toward the helicopter. As the net separated from the building, it propelled them in a straight line further out over the street. Reaching the apex of their arc, Tomax screamed, "Go!" Without question, she released her grip on Tomax, maintaining the line of her body lest she end up grated by the blades. Every moment counted. As an old jumpmaster motto held, "The sky, even more than the sea, is unforgiving of the slightest mistake." She would make no mistake.
"Got ya!" She felt J.T.'s firm grip on her ankles, inching up her legs lest momentum carry her and smash her into the helicopter's underside. She became keenly aware of every passing second as J.T. hauled her inside. She was suspended in the air, arms raised in front of her. She felt like superman. And then she screamed. Tomax let go of the net moments before he would have plowed into the rotor. His body floated, carried by his movement. She pulled against J.T., trying to push herself far enough out to grab hold of some part of him. J.T. got a hold of a belt loop in the back, fighting against her for control of her body. He was a better judge of distance and knew she was too far away. He turned his head.
Not Lady Jaye. She observed in wide-eyed horror as Tomax tucked his body into a ball, tumbling head over heels. He passed the 57th floor, than the 56th. She couldn't look away. She wanted to. She felt she owed him something. Maybe he'd rather she didn't watch. She started to shut her eyes when a flash of red and black popped them open. Flying down to save his brother was Xamot. Harnessed to the building, he overtook Tomax, wrapping his arms around the man's torso. In Tomax's window, two Crimson Guardsmen, Lady Jaye had no idea if they were the ones shooting at her moments before, reeled the two brothers up back into safety. J.T. finished pulling Lady Jaye into the Tomahawk and Flint cut a sharp right to the canyons of Wall Street.
She collapsed onto the floor, sucking wind back into her stricken lungs. J.T. respectfully gave her space, refraining from asking her about her eye. She patted the small pocket in her jumpsuit and breathed a sigh of relief. It was still there, Tomax's gift to her. She had feared it didn't survive her mad dash escape. Her hand stung, her eye throbbed, her legs ached; she was alive. That was all she needed right now. Let the rest come when it may.
As the Tomahawk thundered away, the two brothers leaned against the slice of wall underneath the broken window in Tomax's office.
"You gave me quite the scare, brother."
"I knew you would come."
"Always brother, always." Xamot paused, "That was unusual, dear brother."
The guardsmen in the room snapped to action, rifles all pointing at the door as the figure of Agent Miller crossed the threshold, his gun raised at the ready. "Freeze, FBI!" Behind him a cadre of agents filed into the room.
Tomax waved his Crimson Guard to stand down and turned toward the visitors. "Agent Miller?"
"Yes?" Miller's eyes darted around the room, preparing for an ambush.
"Please put your gun away. It won't be necessary. Call Patterson and tell him I'm putting out the press release about the movie."
Tomax let out an exasperated huff, "Really, it's no wonder our government can do anything; you people can't take simple direction." He motioned to Xamot, who reached into his suit jacket, causing every FBI agent to point their guns, fingers itchy. Xamot held both hands out, one holding a cell phone. Tomax took the phone, dialed a number, "Patterson. My publicist will place the release about the movie shoot with thanks to the FBI for its cooperation." Tomax handed the phone back to Xamot. "Done."
A/N: I took a few fictional liberties with describing Airborne training and Lucky. I have the utmost respect and incredible admiration for our Airborne troops. They are truly amazing.