The shooter is so close I hear the sound and see the flash at the same instance. I feel like I've been punched in the chest and my head tips forward of its own volition. Strangely, the blood is only just oozing out. I must be dead, but I don't feel any pain. Surely no one could be shot in the chest and live.
It takes an effort, but I get responses from my recalcitrant muscles and tip my head back up to look at my attacker. Strangely, his eyes are bugging out, blood is flowing out of his mouth and nose and he's falling toward me, clearly dead. I thought I was the one who died. Now I'm really confused. My attacker flops face first on the ground. The back of his head is bashed in, as if hit by a sledge hammer.
I see my client step into the doorway. I'm puzzled, I don't see any sign of the hammer. My client frowns as he walks toward me. I'm surprised I'm still standing. How come I'm not also lying on my face, dead?
My client, this time he gave me a name of "Bob," though it changes with each job, reaches out to steady me. I guess I'm just dying slower. Bob helps me sit back to a chair. I feel his finger at my neck; taking my pulse, I guess. Once again my head tips forward onto my chest. Amazingly, I still don't see any spurting blood, though the stain has got a lot larger. I realize I've been hyperventilating small breaths. I try and slow down and take a deeper breath. I hear a strange sipping noise, which makes me realize the world sounds amazingly quiet all the sudden. Must be another symptom of death. I notice that my skin is turning grey and my vision is dark around the edges.
Just before everything goes black, I see Bob put some sort of plastic bag on my chest. I didn't even realize he'd opened my shirt.
I guess I'm not dead, I keep having flashes of sight and sound. I think I'm in my plane, at least the ceiling looks like I remember it from my last cleaning. I try to look at my chest, but am strapped down somehow. I lack the energy to explore more and pass out again.
This time I seem to be in the back of a covered truck or primitive ambulance. Sort of like what they use in the military. That thought reminds me of the first time I believe I met Bob. I used to work in the military flying SpecOp missions. SpecOp is short for special operations. The sorts of things one knows to never ask probing questions unless one wants to wind up with a psychological downcheck and likely time in prison after a court martial. I can't be totally sure, they were grubby from being out in the field for who knows how long (they all stank), and covered with camouflage paint. The guys in SpecOps never wear any sort of rank or insignia, so no way to tell which branch, or really, even which country, though I assumed they were from mine.
My specialty back then was very short take offs and landings. They loved how I could get more out of the plane than the manufacturer said was possible. I dropped into some tiny airfield, all grass, naturally, and stopped with plenty of space before I hit the trees, maybe 100 feet. The takeoff was more interesting. I had a lot of additional weight and really needed more than that extra 100 feet. There are games to play with ground effect, if you know what you're doing, and how to anticipate the plane's reactions when it loses it: you can bounce right over obstacles. Sometimes. I lost a few undercarriages learning those tricks.
Since I didn't know where I was supposed to go, one of these grubby SpecOp guys joined me in the cockpit. We were doing instruments - it was a pitch black night - and I was told to stay in the overcast as much as possible. No running lights, of course; that's standard for these jobs. My "co-pilot" had the typical hard eyed stare of any SpecOp guy I'd worked with in the past, but he seemed interested in the plane's controls. When it became apparent we were going to be in the air for a while, I quietly started to point out the functions of the various gauges and dials. Though he didn't respond, he did follow my pointing and seemed to be listening closely. His number one focus was on the mission, but he seemed perfectly capable of splitting his attention when there was a break.
In total, I think we were in the air two hours that time, his curiosity on how to operate the plane being satisfied in between operational directions. He never spoke beyond the minimum necessary for the mission and any flight instructions were a monologue on my part. He struck me as a little different from the normal SpecOp guys I'd worked with in the past, he had curiosity beyond the mission, at least when it came to operating a plane.
He watched with close attention as I landed the plane, another micro air field. I have this trick that works particularly well on props. I can stall the plane just before I get to the ground, then tip it forward to stop quickly. It's hard on the landing gear, but generally these small planes are built rugged. I call it my carrier landing. Most people don't care for it. My co-pilot seemed to enjoy it, though, at least that's what it seemed like to me in the dim glow of the dash reflecting off his smudged, darkened, dirty face.
I think it was a year or so later when I worked with "Bob" again. Yet another SpecOp job, this time an insertion. Once again, he joined me in the cockpit. Not filthy this time (and thankfully didn't stink), but camoed up nonetheless, so his visage was again unclear. Because everyone in the military wears the same thing, you get used to identifying people by their height, build and walk. I felt sure this was Bob, a feeling that seemed confirmed with his relaxed familiarity in the cockpit. As before, no conversation on his part beyond the minimum necessary for mission, but this time I offered to let him take the stick and he did so without hesitation. I continued my lessons like we were together the previous day, though, like last time, it was a monologue on my part.
A real runway this time, paved and everything. My job was to do a dead stick landing as they wanted a silent approach. Black night, once again, though the airport was lit up brightly. I landed at the very end of the runway and rolled off into the grass. They were boiling out the door before I'd come to a complete stop. I'd been told to get back to base, no return trip for them, but to allow them an hour or so before I took off. I have no doubt that there were some surprised looks on the faces of the airport managers as my blacked out airplane took off, but I was gone in moments.
The bumping of the vehicle causes me pain from time to time, but the pain is remote, like it's happening in another room. I feel a tiny bit more lucid, but still can't stay awake.
This time I'm in a building. It smells of antiseptic, but there's an undercurrent that I can't make sense of. I hear conversation, but can't make it out. Trying to focus takes an effort and my brain is ignoring my commands to do so. A face swims into view; a middle aged woman with short dark hair. She looks Spanish. When she shines a light in my eyes, I try to turn away and realize I'm still strapped to something. She looks away and says something. Now I realize why my brain couldn't explain, she's talking in Spanish. Though I can normally understand and speak Spanish, along with several other languages, I have to work at it, something clearly not happening now. I hear a response from a couple of feet away, but other than it being a man, I can't make sense of it.
The woman looks back at me, then I feel a pinch on my arm and everything goes dark.
I'm in a bed and don't feel tied down this time. As I open my eyes, I realize the woman is here. She wipes my face with a cool damp towel. It feels really good. She gives me a sip of some cool water, which tastes really good. I have tubes in my chest, jammed in my nose and into my arm. I guess I got some surgery. I try to speak. She shakes her head at me and says "no." Mentally, I shrug and relax.
The next several days are largely a blur. I'm fed when I'm awake, but I sleep a lot. The woman adamantly refuses to talk with me and when I insist on talking to her, she walks out. Since I can barely sit up in the bed, I realize the smart thing to do is to shut the hell up. A few more days and I'm finally able to make it to the bathroom and no longer have the embarrassment of requiring her help for bodily functions. The first couple of trips exhaust me, but another day and I'm left with enough energy to look around at my room. The curtains are closed, though light gets through. I can see out the bedroom door, but just to a wall opposite. Not much information to go on, but now I have energy to speculate.
Clearly I didn't die, unless this is some magnificently bizarre Hell. The bullet must have punched a big hole in my lungs, that was probably the sipping noise I heard. I recall now, from trauma training ages ago, that so-called "sucking chest wounds" could be temporarily treated by putting a plastic sheet over the holes. That would allow for the lungs to function to a minimal level, though they would still collect fluid.
I look at my chest in the mirror on one of my trips to the bathroom, pulling up the bandages. The surgery seems to be pretty good, though no doubt I'll have a scar for the rest of my life. Some women think scars are sexy, at least the type of women I like to spend time with, so I'm not worried about that.
A couple of days more and I'm able to walk around the room fairly easily, but am not allowed out. My ribs hurt like I got kicked in the chest, but I see pain as a good thing. I was really worried when I first got shot, not feeling any pain at all. Now when I breath, anything more than shallow breaths causes sharp pain. My nurse/doctor/whatever encourages me to breath a little deeper as each day goes by. All with gestures, never by talking.
One day I wake up and see "Bob" standing at the foot of my bed.
"I guess you're the surviving type."
"I guess I have you to thank for that!"
"I was contracted to make a delivery to a specific location at a specific time. How is it my fault when someone other than the intended picks up the product?"
Bob nods at that, a small smile on his face.
"The guy who set up the contract was very upset and wanted me to pay him for the product. Naturally I told him to fuck off, but perhaps I could have chosen a slightly more diplomatic way to respond. He said he would ‘take care of me,' but I ignored him. That was obviously a mistake!
"He'd just showed up. I was getting ready to tell him to fuck off once again when he pulled the gun and shot me. Then his eyes practically exploded out of his head. What did you hit him with?"
Bob shrugs, "My fist."
"Your fist?! I thought it was a sledge hammer!"
"I do work out a bit, and may have hit him with unnecessary force as I was frustrated my day was inconvenienced."
Inconvenienced. Hmm, I'd hate to see him when he gets really upset!
I ask, "What's the story here? The woman refuses to talk to me."
"That's partly my doing. I paid her a nice pile of money, but told her if she spoke with you she would spend years going to court as a material witness. People around here will work hard to stay away from the so-called justice system, so I felt sure she'd keep her mouth shut. The less you two communicated the better for both of you.
"I brought you some clothes. She tells me you're strong enough to leave."
I'd had all the various tubes removed over the past days, so other than some painful stretching, I was able to get dressed quickly. I smile my thanks at the woman as I leave, she returns with a small, tentative one and a nod. As Bob helps me into the car, I pause and look back. I just realized that I wasn't in a regular hospital, I was at a veterinarian! Oh well, I guess people are animals too. At least she did good work.
The roads around here aren't great and sometimes I wince when we bump over something. Finally we arrive at a small, grass, airstrip. I see my plane parked off to the side. I wonder who flew it here and who's going to fly it out; I don't see anyone else. As I'm helped into the plane it becomes clear it's just Bob and me. He hesitates when at the top of the stairs, I guess trying to decide where to put me. I solve his problem by heading to the cockpit and taking a seat. He heads back out and goes around the outside of the plane, checking it out. I start to bring it to life. The tanks are full, but the hour meter indicates either he's been making use of it or we really went out of our way. I fire up the GPS and find out we aren't that far South of the Border, no more than a couple of hours North from where we started. Clearly he's been flying around a lot.
When Bob is back in the plane and folding the stairs, I fire up the engines. He joins me in the cockpit and takes control. He's pretty comfortable operating the plane and it's clear he knows what he's doing, so I just sit back and relax. Once we're in the air and things are stabilized, my curiosity gets the best of me.
"You've always seemed a little familiar to me. Did we work together before?"
He looks at me without an expression. I hesitate a moment, then figure if he wanted me dead he could have easily left me anywhere along the line.
"I seem to recall you as a SpecOp member, once a retrieval, another a drop off."
He continues to look at me without any expression. I imagine he would deny it if it were untrue, so plow ahead.
"I'm going to take your non-answer as an affirmative."
He smiles slightly at that.
"I noticed that the hours on the plane were higher than the straight flight here. I guess you continued with your original mission after you got me to the doctor."
Bob nods at that, "Fortunately, being a day late didn't change the outcome. My client was still satisfied."
Bob isn't much more chatty than I remember him from the SpecOp days, but after that experience, whenever we worked together he would ride in the cockpit with me instead of in the back. I always made a special effort for his jobs and offered a lower price, but he insisted on paying the going rate. When I objected, he told me that the client was paying anyway.