Ione made a difficult decision.Karen was already awake and downstairs when Ione brought her luggage, a sports bag and a computer bag, to the front door. "You're not leaving without saying goodbye, Ione." She held her arms wide.
Ione set down her luggage. She dashed into Karen's arms. "This time, I'm doing sightseeing. I'll bring something back for you." She returned her tiny housemate's hug.
"I'll keep in touch. If I'm not back by Monday, call Olivier and give him some excuse."
"What about the truth?"
"Not yet. I have an email set to send if I disappear. It'll tell Lawrence everything that I've found."
Karen held Ione closer. "Just be safe, okay?"
Ione gave her friend one last squeeze then stepped away. "I will. I better get going." She straightened her pink U of W sweater.
"Do you want a ride? I can drive you."
"Thanks, but I don't want you to become a target, too. I'll take the bus." Ione kissed Karen on the cheek. "Give Diesel extra treats for me." She picked up her luggage and stepped out the door.
Ione looked around, trying to spot the silver sedan. The block was quiet, though Ione expected that at six-thirty on a Saturday morning. The sun began lighting the clouds in the sky, giving the streets an orange tint. Ione checked the time. Her bus should starting soon, giving her enough time to get to the stop. She used shortcuts, avoiding the streets just in case her stalker had switched cars. As she stepped out on to Preston Street, Ione spotted her bus a few blocks away. She hurried her pace, reaching the stop with a few seconds to spare.
Watching out the window as the bus pulled away from the stop, Ione spotted a black Chev Impala leave its parking space. The car kept pace with the bus in the light traffic, even when the bus stopped to pick up more passengers. Ione smiled to herself. She was ready to be followed; it was the reason why she turned down Karen's offer.
The bus turned off Preston to head east into the downtown core. It soon entered a bus-only lane. The Impala veered one lane over, still intent on staying behind the bus. As road changed from being Scott Street to Slater Avenue, the amount of traffic picked up. The bus stopped at Kent to let a passenger off. The Impala had to keep going to prevent blocking the road. Ione grabbed her bags and jumped off after the passenger. Using the bus as cover, Ione walked towards Kent to see what her stalker did at the lights. The black Impala kept going straight.
Ione dashed across the street, not caring if she was seen. The maze of one-way streets in downtown Ottawa would work to her advantage, giving her enough time to run the block to Albert, where the bus she wanted going west would stop. Worst case, she could dive into the convenience store to hide from her stalker until her bus arrived. A coffee would also be nice to have.
All hopes for coffee disappeared as she spotted one of the buses she wanted waiting for the light to change for it. Ione ran the half block to the stop, her bags boucing against her. The bus, the route 96 heading west to Stittsville, reached the stop first, beating Ione by several of her strides. The driver opened the door, letting her to get on. After flashing the driver her pass, Ione walked to a free seat so she could catch her breath. She watched out the window. The black Impala zipped by, reaching the traffic lights first. Ione caught a glimpse of the driver, a woman wearing a grey suit, her face hidden because of the angle.
The light changed. The Impala's driver waited to let the bus go first. Ione looked ahead, trying not to draw notice to herself. Once again, the black Impala paced the bus. Ione resisted the urge to wave; she knew that, not too far ahead, the bus would turn on to the Transitway, the buses only road that cut through the city. The next time the bus would meet with regular traffic was on the John A. Macdonald Parkway. Catching up would be difficult for Ione's stalker, especially if she checked each of the stops along the way. Ione settled in for the ride.
The bus arrived at the Bayshore Shopping Centre fifteen minutes later. Ione got off with her luggage and walked towards the mall. Spying a cab, she flagged it down, asking the driver to take her to the Carp Airport. With a resigned expression, the driver flipped the meter and began the trip. Ione began to relax once the cab made its way on to the Queensway. She wasn't one hundred per cent sure that she lost her stalker, but, if she could keep up, it'd be through sheer luck.
When the cab reached the airport, Ione gave the driver a generous tip for going out of the way for her. The Carp Airport was small, catering to small private aircraft instead of larger airliners. Ione walked into the main building and sat on a hard plastic seat. She closed her eyes. The enormity of what she was doing threatened to overwhelm her. It wasn't yet nine o'clock; she could still back out now with no one the wiser. She could still go to work on Monday and take whatever punishment Lawrence would give her, whether it would be a reduction in pay, a suspension, or even a lay off. Leaving the country again? Foolishness. Madness.
"A little early, Sarah."
Ione opened her eyes. Jack stood in front of her, looking fresh and wearing a leather aviator's jacket better suited for a World War II fighter pilot than a private plane owner. "Good morning."
"There's fresh coffee in the office. If anyone gives you any trouble, tell them Jack said you could have one."
"I'm good." Ione watched as a blue and white single-engine propeller plane zoomed down the airport's only runway. "We're not going to get far in one of those."
Jack grinned. "Oh, trust me, that's not what we're using. I prefer something much more comfortable."
"You'll see. Were you followed?"
Ione looked behind her out of instinct. "Here, I don't think so. I lost whoever was following me downtown."
"Good, good. If you're not getting coffee, head to the second hangar on the left. I'll be right with you."
"Not even going to help with my bags?"
Jack pointed at a cart. "If they're heavy, use that."
Ione rolled her eyes. She grabbed her luggage and walked out of the main building. Another plane took off, its twin propellers buzzing, as Ione crossed the distance to Jack's hangar. The main door was down, blocking her view inside. The door into the hangar's office was open, though. Ione walked in, past the lone desk, and into the main bay. A gleaming red jet, long and sleek, sat in the middle of the hangar. Ione's jaw dropped. A red haired woman poked her head out from the open hatchway. "Oh, hi! Jack said you were coming. Better get you settled." She disappeared back inside.
"Yeah, settled," Ione mumbled. "Good luck with that." She trudged over the jet. It was smaller than the commuter plane she took on her first leg home Wednesday morning, after the explosion, but it looked far more roomy. Ione climbed up the portable stairs beside the red airplane and ducked inside. The interior of the jet was far more luxurious than Ione imagined. A deep red, almost blood red, carpet covered the floor. The cabin walls were panelled with wood; Ione resisted touching the panels to see if the wood was real. The seats, all five of them, were almost overstuffed and made her own couch and chair look shabby.
The redhead came out of the cockpit, her hands smoothing down her micro-miniskirt. "Jack's just taking care of a few things with the tower. Let me take your bags." She reached for Ione's luggage.
"Thanks." Ione let the woman take her sports bag. "This is all Jack's?"
"Indeed." The woman took the sports bag to the back, placing it into a storage bin that she locked up.
Ione collapsed into one of the chairs. The chair molded itself around her. "And you work for Jack?"
The woman walked back into the cabin. "Yeah, that's a good word for it." She stopped at the galley. "Want anything before take off? We have several types of wine, a selection of beers, rum, rye, whisky?"
"Tea, thanks. It's a little early for alcohol." Ione pulled her phone out of her computer back and turned it off.
"It's ten in the morning somewhere."
"Just tea." Ione swivelled her chair around to face the red haired woman. She noticed that the uniform the woman wore consisted of the red micro-mini, a black vest, and three-inch red stilettos. "Jack makes you wear that?"
The redhead filled a small tea pot with hot water. "This? Oh, no, this is more for guests."
Ione blinked, bewildered. "I'm Sarah."
The red haired woman nodded. "Jack already told me."
Ione shook her head in confusion. "I mean, what should I call you? It's going to be a long flight and I don't want to say, 'Hey, you,' when I want to talk to you."
"Oh! I'm Mara. Your tea shouldn't take too much longer."
"No rush, Mara. So, you're the pilot?"
Mara nodded. "Among other duties."
Ione let herself get comfortable in her seat. "How long have you worked for him?"
"Oh, let's see." Mara let her voice trail away. "Long enough," she finally said.
"Right." Ione forced a smile.
Mara gave her passenger a sympathetic look. "Non-disclosure agreement. What I do for Jack stays with Jack, or something like that."
"Okay, that, I understand. Not the Jack part, but the NDA. Those are annoying."
"Aren't they?" Mara's posture relaxed. "I mean, there's all sorts of things I've done for Jack and I can't even brag about it to friends. So, if I try to get another position, I can't say what I've done. At least Jack's a decent boss. He rewards well. You'll see."
"I'm not working for him."
"Oh, he still hasn't made the offer." Mara brought the tea to Ione. "Just wait. It'll be worth it, at least at first."
"I already have a job, thanks." Ione heard footsteps on the portable stairs. She looked over to the hatchway to see Jack enter, closing the door behind him. "Speak of the devil."
"I thought my ears were burning." Jack tossed a packet to Mara. "Get ready for take off." He slipped off his aviator's jacket and handed it to the redhead as she passed. "Hang this up, too." Jack slapped her ass as she left for the cockpit.
Ione didn't try to hide her disgust. "I should have figured."
"Mara loves the attention." Jack sat down across the aisle from Ione. "I'm so happy you decided to come with me. It'll make my job so much easier."
"I have questions I want answers for."
"Yes, yes, once we're in the air. Hawkers need two pilots."
Jack waved his hand through the air, indicated the entire jet. "You're on board a Hawker 400A. Worth a very pretty penny, but she's all mine. Like it? Just wait until we're in the air. It'll be like we're still on the ground."
Ione sipped her tea, never taking her eyes off her host. "I just want this over as fast as possible. The sooner I'm done, the sooner I'm home and the sooner I can forget all this."
"Whatever makes it easy to live with yourself." Jack stood up from his chair. "Our take off time is in twenty minutes. Probably best not to have a hot drink when we lift wheels. I don't have the needed skin grafts in stock here." He walked forward into the cockpit, closing the door behind him.
Ione watched the cockpit's door for a few seconds, then settled back. She finished her tea, then took the empty cup to the jet's galley to wash it and put it away. As she returned to her seat, the intercom crackled. "Miss Sarah, better buckle up," Mara said. The jet lurched under Ione's feet. The brunette flailed her arms to keep her balance. "We're taxiing out to the runway now."
Biting off a few choice obscenities, Ione fell into her seat. She fumbled with the seat belt, but managed to get it secure as the jet reached the runway. Over the intercom, Jack said, "Now comes the fun part."
The jet accelerated. The scene outside Ione's window passed faster and faster, becoming a blur. The jet tilted, throwing Ione back against her chair. Outside, the world gained a sharp angle. Ione gripped the arms of her chair as she tried to breath normally.
A few minutes later, the jet levelled off. The pressure holding Ione in her chair lessened. "Ha!" Jack exclaimed over the intercom. "They said the runway was too short."
"Um, sir, the intercom's on," Mara said.
The intercom clicked off. Ione shook her head. She figured Jack was playing another game with her. The less she reacted, the less he'd gain. She loosened her seat belt a bit but left it on. Smaller planes were more affected by turbulence, she reasoned. No need to bounce out of her seat and hit her head on the roof.
The jet levelled off. Ione retrieved her computer bag and pulled out her tablet. She opened her e-reader and returned to the book she had started on the first trip to France last Friday, a techno-thriller that would be a doorstopper if she had bought the paperback copy of it. For her, the novel was like candy, satisfying enough for when she wanted to just put her brain in neutral and enjoy a story for what it was instead of nit-picking the details. The heavier reading, the meatier science fiction stories, she saved for when she went to bed.
Jack emerged from the cockpit. He braced himself on the overhead racks when he stopped in front of Ione. "Fascinating reading?"
Ione set down the tablet. "Decent enough."
"Mara will be out soon to make breakfast for us."
"Do I want to know where you two learned to fly?"
"I learned in Gander. Nothing to it, really."
Ione arched an eyebrow. "Gander?"
Jack sat across from Ione. "I get around. Part of my job. This jet? Just a means to an end."
Jack beamed. "Just because I have to travel doesn't mean I can't do it in style. The means can be as important as the ends."
Ione turned her chair to face Jack. She leaned forward. "Who are you?"
Jack spread his arms. "I'm Jack. That's all you need to know."
"Fine, Jack. Then why me?"
"Why you? Why not you? That's the question people should really be asking themselves. Everything being equal, why not you?"
Ione counted to ten under her breath. "What I mean, Jack, is why did you need my help?"
"That's a different question entirely. And, to be fair, if I had more time, I wouldn't have asked you. That's the problem, though. Time. I need to find that man you saw in the explosion."
"There's no way he could have survived one explosion, let alone two."
"And yet, you saw him. You saw my photos. The questions is, do you reject the reality of what you saw?"
Ione sighed. "Right now, I don't know what to believe. The photos you have could have been faked. Look on the Internet and you can find tens of thousands of altered photos where even a trained eye couldn't discern it from real."
"What about your eyes, Sarah?"
"I don't know."
"Maybe after you've had breakfast. Mara should be done setting the autopilot."
As if summoned, Mara came out of the cockpit. "I heard my name?"
"Breakfast for us, Mara." Jack turned his attention back to Ione. "Think hard, Sarah."
Ione watched Mara at the galley as she thought. "Your man isn't human, not if he survived two explosions, plus gun shots plus who knows what else. Force fields are still science fiction. A man-shaped robot, maybe. It'd be easy enough, if expensive, to build a dozen robots that all looked the same. Why anyone would build a killer robot and keep it so quiet no one knows about it is beyond me."
"Are you sure about your robot theory?"
Ione sighed. "No. He didn't move like a robot would."
Jack reached over and patted Ione's thigh. "Keep thinking about it." He turned his chair to face Mara. "That smells wonderful."
Mara winked. "French toast. The ham shouldn't be much longer."
"Perfect, Mara." Jack looked over at Ione. "Her cooking is just sinful."
"Just like her uniform."
Jack returned his attention to his guest. "After breakfast, maybe you can get in touch with your people in France."
"You want me to use WiFi while in flight?"
"I'm not worried."
"Great. Do you have a network I can connect to? My wireless card can't reach open networks on the ground. Or should I tether my laptop to my phone and rack up thousands of dollars just in roaming charges?" Ione retrieved her smart phone from her computer bag. "Assuming that I have a signal up here. I'd hope that we're well above cell towers."
Jack smiled. "My dear, you think too much. You have to trust me."
"Ha!" Mara laughed. "Good one, boss."
Jack pointed at his co-pilot without looking at her. "Mara, don't, not while we have a guest."
Mara sighed, her bosom heaving in her vest. "Fine. Miss Sarah, what would you like to drink with your breakfast? We have three different roasts of coffee, including kopi luwak, the wild sourced, not the farmed, of course, several types of black, green, herbal, and white tea, and orange juice, which I could add champagne to."
"Kopi luwak?" Ione wore a puzzled expression. "I don't think I've heard of it."
"Ah, a delicacy, at least for some people," Jack explained. "Collected from the civet on the island of Sumatra after the animal has, oh, let us say, 'processed it'."
"Oh?" Ione thought for a moment. She mad a face in disgust. "Oh, that coffee."
"Yeah, the one that monkeys--"
"That's enough, Mara. At least before a meal."
Ione chuckled. "Orange juice with champagne, please."
"I thought it was too early for you to drink," Mara said.
"It's ten o'clock somewhere, probably below us."
"You've been thinking. I can tell."
"Jack, how the hell can I help you?"
"They don't like Jack for some reason."