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Glowing in the distance, cool, firm, confident, the Himalayas reminded him of Irene. Irish male breast fixation, she would say with an amused little smile. He would reply that at least he had good taste in his fixations. And she would blush with delight, limitless in her capacity to absorb compliments.
He had made the prescribed sweeping turn over the Sinkiang plateau at a point a hundred miles short of the Russian border. At least his sextant, a dubious instrument at best, assured him that Russia was still a hundred miles away.
Halfway home. The sun now at his back. The prevailing winds, too. May the wind be at your back. A long way from the old neighborhood, where that was a wedding toast.
And may you be in heaven a half hour before the devil knows you’re dead.…
He grinned. No toast yet for him. Jackie would have to give it when he got back.… No, not the ruggedly handsome young priest, better the intellectual—Roger. Something more elaborate than an old Irish American cliché.… Damn. He missed them both. Too much of their father, Clancy, in them. Still, they were mostly Brigid’s kids.…
Six more hours. The station chief had told him it was the less important half of the trip, not that you could believe anything they said there. He was stiff and uncomfortable in his pressure suit. This giant blackbird, for all its soaring grace, was more cranky than the others. It needed careful nursing every mile.
You flew over the Himalayas because they were there—and on the way to his destination in northern Thailand. They made him think of Irene again.
Was her ability to forgive as great as her passion? He thought it might be. Lord knows she would have to forgive him for the rest of their lives.
The sun turned the mountains red, reminding him of another haunting image: his uncle Clancy at the foot of the stairs, blood pouring from his head, all that anger snuffed out, looking like a broken Christmas toy.
And then more blood: a young woman’s face. Not Irene. Someone else. His mother, probably. She and Irene were often confused in his dreams.
What had really happened to his mother on that day? Did he remember it? Or did he merely remember the stories he had heard when he was older?
A beautiful young face, smashed bloody like Uncle Clancy’s. And he was responsible both times.
He would not let it happen to Irene.
Another year and a half on his contract. What could the Chinese be doing down there that was so interesting? In a year they would have spy satellites and they wouldn’t need the great blackbirds, half jet and half sailplane.
They would find some use for them, though. And for the kooks who flew them.
They traded the Russians for Gary Powers. No trades with the Chinese.
God, I need Irene. Okay, God, since I brought you up, you know how much I need her.
And she needs me. She’ll never survive them without me.
Irene leaning over him on the beach, her long hair touching his motionless body, tantalizing him until he thought he would lose his mind; then the edge of her fingernails …
And her blunt warning that he would have to grow up. Their last day together and their last fight.
He hardly noticed the flameout; there was only a change in the sound and an ever so slight downward tilt of the bird. It had happened before. Let her float a few thousand feet and start it over.
He tried at 60,000, 55,000, 50,000. No dice. The Chinese MIGs could make it no higher than 45,000—that’s what they told him.
The bird floated lower. 30,000 and still no MIGs. 25,000. Time to jettison, destroy the plane, walk out of Sinkiang.
Where to? Russia?
He pushed the eject button. No reaction. Sixty seconds and the plane would blow up. He pushed the button again. Still no ejection.
Something was beginning to smell. He watched the second hand sweep on his watch: thirty, twenty, ten …
Forgive me, I love—
No explosion. Something badly wrong.
Then the MIGs, dancing up to him like angry mosquitoes. The little puffs of light from their tracers. Shoot first, little Chinese friends, ask questions later.
Put the plane into a dive, evade them, try the motor again. It wouldn’t start. A MIG following him down. More tracers.
A kaleidoscope of faces. His mother, eyes open and staring; Brigid, her white lace gown torn and covered with blood; Clancy, blood pouring from his head; John, the self-satisfied young priest; Roger, the faintly supercilious intellectual; Irene …
Copyright © 1984 by Andrew Greeley Enterprises, Ltd