London City Airport, Early Evening…
No one had explained a word about the sudden change in scenery. An outside NHS doctor spent over an hour assessing his general condition, at intervals consulting with nurses and his solitary handlers. He thought he’d asked for his attorney or his advocate, but he simply couldn’t remember. The flat American accents had tipped him off, and if he was honest, he had long suspected this day would come. They didn’t even ask him to sign anywhere, nor did they present him any writ or order. Four sturdy men in suits, in addition to the usual guards, had escorted him from the infirmary to the transfer bay. Two of these bespoke Yankees rode along with him in the back of an SUV. He thought he glimpsed unmarked police cars in a short procession, but he wasn’t sure.
Little of it, any of it, made sense. And he didn’t have much time to process what was happening. Nearly a decade of hiding, waiting, and suffering had crawled by him, only for this evening’s unexplained venture from Belmarsh, and the short, fast drive under the Thames (he guessed it was the Blackwall Tunnel), and now he was securely in the custody of - someone. Who were his new friends? The FBI? CIA? As the surprisingly well-appointed business jet began to swing around on its approach to the lone runway, he realized something. Whoever they were, they had not shackled him!
In fact, once on board, they had begun treating him rather well, more like a guest than a prisoner. Something in the cabin smelled sweet, familiar almost. He was seated in a comfortable leather chair and was just sipping from a bottle of Perrier when the pilot hastily announced their imminent departure. One of these agents, if that was the word, a large man seated across a small table from him, gestured for him to fasten his seatbelt. The gesture came with a smile, something to which he was no longer accustomed. No sooner than he had secured himself and turned to gaze out the window than the plane launched forward, soon climbing over the River, passing on the one side a sewage plant and, on the other, the sewer of a prison he’d of late called his home. In a few minutes, he realized they must have already been closing on the Delta, heading, he assumed, due east towards Antwerp. He couldn’t be exactly certain, but there came the feeling that the craft slowed in the air and subtly turned to the south - to what degree, he did not know.
And, just as he gave thought to another effervescent sip and perhaps a request for something solid to eat, another man kindly invited him forward to the flight deck. Entering through the open cockpit door, he beheld before and below him, shrouded in moving darkness, what he took for the Channel and, far ahead, the lights of the Continent. Two men sat under dim lights behind a sea of screens and controls. The younger one, on the right, was dressed in a similar if more understated fashion as the rest of the crew. He looked like the government issue. The other man, older, and obviously in charge of the flight, bore an altogether different look and demeanor. He was half slouched over to his left, with his arm resting near the window. His right hand lazily, casually held the yoke. His black hair, flecked with sprinkled salt, was shaggier than one would have assumed, as was his short, stubbly beard. He was chewing on a cigar and wore, over powerfully-built arms and shoulders, what could only be described as the tackiest of Christmas sweaters. Upon entering, he caught the end of a short conversation between the pilots.
The older casual man on the left was quipping in answer to something: ‘...Corona is a hoax, Biden didn’t win, and Gina didn’t kill herself. Eff- it!’
‘Yeah, right. Listen, RAF and the Bude are blowing up again about it, Tom,’ said the younger man on the right, ‘like it popped up out of nowhere.’
Unperturbed, the man of the left gave a dry response: ‘I know. Ninety-high and tracking our position perfectly?’
‘You know?’ the young man asked incredulously.
‘Yeah,’ the older man hummed, ‘or, I suspected. He’s with us. An escort.’
‘Then, who is he?’ asked the younger man.
He could no longer contain his bewilderment. ‘Whose plane is this?’ he asked, more to the older man.
The whimsical pilot immediately pivoted around and smiled sincerely. ‘My brother-in-law’s!’ he said happily. ‘Well, he bought it, as a tax write-off and so forth, but I get to fly her. Keep her down in Hickory. She’s not a lot of use most of the time, what with the price of fuel but, for this jaunt, Uncle Sucker is picking up the whole tab!’
‘Who are you?’ he asked, feeling even more bewildered than before.
‘I’m Tom,’ the pilot said, extending his hand (leaving the yoke floating momentarily), ‘and this is Freddy,’ he said nodding to the younger man who smiled slightly at the introduction. ‘May I call you Julian?’ Tom asked.
‘Yes, uh, yes, that’s me,’ was Julian’s answer, before he ventured another question: ‘Are you CIA?’
‘No,’ the pilot said flatly and proudly. ‘The guys in the back are Marshals, or Secret Service, or something or another. Freddy here is Company, but I’m not. Not anymore. I’m just a guy with some cheap time and a plane. Welcome aboard the White Hat Express!’
He stumbled through his more recent memories for a moment before uttering: ‘Tom? You’re the professor?’
‘At your service, pen pal!’ Tom replied with a smile.
‘You two have been corresponding?’ Freddie asked with sudden interest or alarm.
‘Yeah,’ Tom said dismissively. ‘Now, Julian, where to?’
‘What do you mean?’ Julian asked.
‘I mean where do you want me to take you?’ Tom asked. Then, he clumsily tapped at a few of the screens above the throttle. ‘I’ve got nine-thousand, or ninety-five-hundred kilometers worth of range. Can’t make Australia, directly, but, there’s … Sweden? No, maybe not. Paris is just over the horizon. You probably aren’t keen on the States just yet---’
‘They’re keen on him,’ Freddy added.
‘Well, not yet,’ Tom said. ‘You just think about it, Julian, and let me know. I can hold over the Channel if I need to. Try not to take too long. I have a mountain cabin full of women who are probably angry with me about this side trip. Missing Christmas and all that, you know.’
‘You’re not taking me to a prison in America?!’ Julian asked perplexedly.
‘No, why would I?’ Tom questioned. ‘You’re a free man. It’s in the--- Wait, they didn’t tell you?!’
‘Tell me what?’ Julian was confused. ‘No.’
‘Well then, the honor is mine,’ Tom said proudly again, ‘You’re free! Full pardon. Freddy or one of them has the paperwork. And, not to burden you, but you are requested - at your convenience - for a special consultation on some more recent, pressing matters. The uh, the shitshow, you know? There’s a storm about to hit. Hard. Anyway, Merry Christmas, old man!’
Julian leaned on the door, feeling a lump moving up and through his throat. A pardon? He thought. For---
As if reading his new friend’s thoughts, Tom quietly added, ‘Not that you did anything wrong. But, all’s safe and legal now. And, I’m serious. Wherever you want. Got family somewhere? Or, friends? Why don’t you talk it over with her and get back to me.’
‘Talk to whom?’ Julian asked as tears filled his lower eyes. ‘Who is her, she?’
Tom looked sidelong at Freddy and almost growled, ‘You didn’t fucking tell him?! He hasn’t seen her yet? It’s a small plane!’
‘We had her scooch down in a rear seat, and she’s obviously still playing along,’ Freddy said defensively. ‘It was going to be part of the surprise, along with the pardon. Then, you had to take off like a wildman and---’
Tom cut Freddy’s explanation short. Holding the intercom button, he spoke out loudly and clearly, ‘Sweetheart, come on up here. He really needs you.’
Julian, utterly confused, wiped his sleeve over his eyes. But, she was already there. From behind him, a golden, sultry voice cooed over his shoulder, ‘Hello, beautiful.’
Turning, he looked into her eyes. His jaw dropped even as she moved in quickly to heartily embrace him. He exclaimed, ‘Pamela!’
*And now, this column will enter into a short period of festive rest. I intend to return in the new year, not later than the invocation of the Insurrection Act or the commencement of President Trump’s second term. Merry Christmas to all and a very happy 2021! -Perrin