The Cannibal Tree
Tucker Case awoke to find himself hanging from a breadfruit tree by a coconut fiber rope. He was suspended facedown about six feet above the sand in some sort of harness, his hands and feet tied together in front of him. He lifted his head and strained to look around. He could see a white sand beach fringed with coconut palms, a coconut husk fire, a palm frond hut, a path of white coral gravel that led into a jungle. Completing the panorama was the grinning brown face of an ancient native.
The native reached up with a clawlike hand and pinched Tucker's cheek.
"Yum," the native said.
"Who are you?" Tucker asked. "Where am I? Where's the navigator?"
The native just grinned. His eyes were yellow, his hair a wild tangle of curl and bird feathers, and his teeth were black and had been filed to points. He looked like a potbellied skeleton upholstered in distressed leather. Puckered pink scars decorated his skin; a series of small scars on his chest described the shape of a shark. His only clothing was a loincloth woven from some sort of plant fiber. Tucked in the waist cord was a vicious-looking bush knife. The native patted Tucker's cheek with an ashy callused palm, then turned and walked away, leaving him hanging.
"Wait!" Tucker shouted. "Let me down. I have money. I can pay you."
The native ambled down the path without looking back. Tucker struggled against the harness, but only managed to put himself into
a slow spin. As he turned, he caught sight of the navigator, hanging uncon
scious a few feet away.
"Hey, you alive?"
The navigator didn't stir, but Tucker could see that he was breathing. "Hey, Kimi, wake up!" Still no reaction.
He strained against the rope around his wrists, but the bonds only seemed to tighten. After a few minutes, he gave up, exhausted. He rested and looked around for something to give this bizarre scene some meaning. Why had the native hung them in a tree?
He caught movement in his peripheral vision and turned to see a large brown crab struggling at the end of a string tied to a nearby branch. There was his answer: They were hung in the tree, like the crab, to keep them fresh until they were ready to be eaten.
Tucker shuddered, imagining the native's black teeth closing on his shin. He tried to focus on a way to escape before the native returned, but his mind kept diving into a sea of regrets and second guesses, looking for the exact place where the world had turned on him and put him in the cannibal tree.
Like most of the big missteps he had taken in his life, it had started in a bar.
The Seattle Airport Holiday Inn lounge was all hunter green, brass rails, and oak veneer. Remove the bar and it looked like Macy's men's depart-ment. It was one in the morning and the bartender, a stout, middle-aged Hispanic woman, was polishing glasses and waiting for her last three customers to leave so she could go home. At the end of a bar a young wo-man in a short skirt and too much makeup sat alone. Tucker Case sat next to a businessman several stools down.
"Lemmings," the businessman said.
"Lemmings?" asked Tucker.
They were drunk. The businessman was heavy, in his late fifties, and wore a charcoal gray suit. Broken veins glowed on his nose and cheeks.
"Most people are lemmings," the businessman continued. "That's why they fail. They behave like suicidal rodents."
"But you're a higher level of rodent?" Tucker Case said with a smart-ass grin. He was thirty, just under six foot, with neatly trimmed blond hair and blue eyes. He wore navy slacks, sneakers, and a white shirt with blue-and-gold epaulets. His captain's hat sat on the bar next to a gin and tonic. He was more interested in the girl at the end of the bar than in the businessman's conversation, but
he didn't know how to move without being obvious.
"No, but I've kept my lemming behavior limited to my personal relationships. Three wives." The businessman waved a swizzle stick under Tucker's nose. "Success in America doesn't require any special talent or any kind of extra effort. You just have to be consistent and not fuck up. That's how most people fail. They can't stand the pressure of getting what they want, so when they see that they are getting close, they engineer some sort of fuckup to undermine their success."
The lemming litany was making Tucker uncomfortable. He'd been on a roll for the last four years, going from bartending to flying corporate jets. He said, "Maybe some people just don't know what they want. Maybe they only look like lemmings."
"Everyone knows what they want. You know what you want, don't you?"
"Sure, I know," Tucker said. What he wanted right now was to get out of this conversation and get to know the girl at the end of the bar before closing time. She'd been staring at him for five minutes.
"What?" The businessman wanted an answer. He waited.
"I just want to keep doing what I'm doing. I'm happy."
The businessman shook his head. "I'm sorry, son, but I don't buy it. You're going over the cliff with the rest of the lemmings."
"You should be a motivational speaker," Tuck said, his attention drawn by the girl, who was getting up, putting money on the bar, picking up her cigarettes, and putting them into her purse.
She said, "I know what I want."
The businessman turned and gave his best avuncular-horndog smile. "And what's that, sweetheart?"
She walked up to Tucker and pressed her breasts against his shoulder. She had brown hair that fell in curls to her shoulders, blue eyes, and a nose that was a tad crooked, but not horribly so. Up close she didn't even look old enough to drink. Heavy makeup had aged her at a distance. Looking the businessman in the eye, as if she didn't notice Tucker at all, she said, "I want to join the mile-high club, and I want to join it tonight. Can you help me?"
The businessman looked at Tucker's captain's hat on the bar, then back at the girl. Slowly, defeated, he shook his head.
She pressed harder against Tucker's shoulder. "How about you?"
Tucker grinned at the businessman and shrugged by way of apology. "I just want to keep doing what I'm doing."
The girl put on his captain's hat and pulled him off of the barstool. He dug into his pocket for money as she dragged him toward the exit.
The businessman raised a hand. "No, I've got the drinks, son. You just remember what I said."
"Thanks," Tuck said.
Outside in the lobby the girl said, "My name's Meadow." She kept her eyes forward as she walked, taking curt marching steps as if she was leading him on an antiterrorist mission instead of seducing him.
"Pretty name," Tucker said. "I'm Tucker Case. People call me Tuck."
She still didn't look up. "Do you have a plane, Tuck?"
"I've got access to one." He smiled. This was great. Great!
"Good. You get me into the mile-high club tonight and I won't charge you. I've always wanted to do it in a plane."
Tucker stopped. "You're a...I mean, you do this for..."
She stopped and turned to look him in the eye for the first time. "You're kind of a geek, aren't you?"
"Thank you. I find you incredibly attractive too." Actually, he did.
"No, you're attractive. I mean, you look fine. But I thought a pilot would have a little more on the ball."
"Is this part of that mistress-humiliation-handcuff stuff?"
"No, that's extra. I'm just making conversation."
"Oh, I see." He was beginning to have second thoughts. He had to fly to Houston in the morning, and he really should get some sleep. Still, this would make a great story to tell the guys back at the hangar - if he left out the part about him being a suicidal rodent and her being a prostitute. But he could tell the story without really doing it, couldn't he?
He said, "I probably shouldn't fly. I'm a little drunk."
"Then you won't mind if I go back to the bar and grab your friend? I might as well make some money."
"It could be dangerous."
"That's the point, isn't it?" She smiled.
"No, I mean really dangerous."
"I have condoms."
Tucker shrugged. "I'll get a cab."
Ten minutes later they were heading across the wet tarmac toward a group of corporate jets.
"You fly a pink jet?"
As Tuck opened the hatch and lowered the steps, he had the sinking feeling that maybe the businessman at the bar had been right.
I Thought This Was a Nonsmoking Flight
Most jets (especially those unburdened by the weight of passengers or fuel) have a glide rate that is quite acceptable for landing without power. But Tucker has made an error in judgment caused by seven gin and tonics and the distraction of Meadow straddling him in the pilot seat. He thinks, per-haps, that he should have said something when the fuel light first went on, but Meadow had already climbed into the saddle and he didn't want to seem inattentive. Now the glide path is too steep, the runway a little too far. He uses a little body English in pulling back on the steering yoke, which Meadow takes for enthusiasm.
Tucker brings the pink Gulfstream jet into SeaTac a little low, tearing off the rear landing gear on a radar antenna a second before impact with the runway, which sends Meadow over the steering yoke to bounce off the windscreen and land unconscious across the instrument panel. The jet's wings flap once - a dying flamingo trying to free itself from a tar pit - and rip off in a shriek of sparks, flame, and black smoke, then spin back into the air before beating themselves to pieces on the runway.
Tucker, strapped into the pilot's seat, lets loose a prolonged scream that pushes the sound of tearing metal out of his head
The wingless Gulfstream slides down the runway like hell's own bobsled, leaving a wake of greasy smoke and aluminum confetti. Firemen and paramedics scramble into their vehicles and pull out onto the runway in pursuit of it. In a moment of analytical detachment, one of the firemen turns to a companion and says, "There's not enough fire. He must have been flying on fumes."
Tucker sees the end of the runway coming up, an array of an tennae, some spiffy blue lights, a chain-link fence, and a grassy open field where what's left of the Gulfstream will fragment into pink shrapnel. He realizes that he's looking at his own death and screams the words "Oh, fuck!", meeting the FAA's official requirement for last words to be retrieved from the charred black box.
Suddenly, as if someone has hit a cosmic pause button, the cockpit goes quiet. Movement stops. A man's voice says, "Is this how you want to go?"
Tucker turns toward the voice. A dark man in a gray flight suit sits in the copilot's seat, waiting for an answer. Tuck can't seem to see his face, even though they are facing each other. "Well?"
"No," Tucker answers.
"It'll cost you," the pilot says. Then he's gone. The copilot's seat is empty and the roar of tortured metal fills the cabin.
Before Tucker can form the words "What the hell?" in his mind, the wingless jet crashes through the antenna, the spiffy blue lights, the chain-link fence, and into the field, soggy from thirty consecutive days of Seattle rain. The mud caresses the fuselage, dampens the sparks and flames, clings and cloys and slows the jet to a steaming stop. Tuck hears metal crackle as it settles, sirens, the friendly chime of the FASTEN SEAT BELTS sign turning off.
Welcome to Seattle-Tacoma International Airport. The local time is 2:00A.M., the outside temperature is 63 degrees, there is a semiconscious hooker gurgling at your feet.
The cabin fills with black smoke from fried wires and vaporized hydraulic fluid. One breath burns down his windpipe like drain cleaner, telling Tucker that a second breath may kill him. He unfastens the harness and reaches into the dark for Meadow, connecting with her lace camisole, which comes away in shreds in his hands. He stands, bends over, wraps an arm around her waist, and picks her up. She's light, maybe a hundred pounds, but Tucker has forgotten to pull up his pants and Jockey shorts, which cuff his ankles. He teeters and falls backward onto the control console between the pilot seats. Jutting from the console is the flap actuator lever, a foot-long strip of steel topped by a plastic arrowheadlike tip. The tip catches Tuck in the rear of the scrotum. His and Meadow's combined weight drive him down on the lever, which tears though his scrotum, runs up inside the length of his penis, and emerges in a spray of blood.
There are no words for the pain. No breath, no thought. Just deafening white and red noise. Tucker feels himself passing out and
welcomes it. He drops Meadow, but she is conscious enough to hold on to his neck, and as she falls she pulls him off the lever, which reams its way back through him again.
Without realizing it, he is standing, breathing. His lungs are on fire. He has to get out. He throws an arm around Meadow and drags her three feet to the hatch. He releases the hatch and it swings down, half open. It's de-signed to function as a stairway to the ground, designed for a plane that is standing on landing gear. Gloved hands reach into the opening and start pulling at it. "We're going to get you out of there," a fireman says.
The hatch comes open with a shriek. Tuck sees blue and red flashing lights illuminating raindrops against a black sky, making it appear as if it is raining fire. He takes a single breath of fresh air, says, "I've torn off my dick," and falls forward.
And You Lost Your Frequent Flyer Miles
As with most things in his life, Tucker Case was wrong about the extent of his injuries. As they wheeled him though the emergency room, he con-tinued to chant, "I've torn off my dick! I've torn off my dick!" into his oxygen mask until a masked physician appeared at his side.
"Mr. Case, you have not torn off your penis. You've damaged some major blood vessels and some of the erectal tissue. And you've also severed the tendon that runs from the tip of the penis to the base of the brain." The doctor, a woman, pulled down her mask long enough to show Tucker a grin. "You should be fine. We're taking you into surgery now."
"What about the girl?"
"She's got a mild concussion and some bruises, but she'll be okay. She'll probably go home in a few hours."
'That's good. Doc, will I be able to? I mean, will I ever...?"
"Be still, Mr. Case. I want you to count backward from one hundred."
"Is there a reason for that - for the counting?"
"You can say the Pledge of Allegiance if you want."
"But I can't stand up."
"Just count, smart-ass."
When Tucker came to, through the fog of anesthesia he saw a picture of himself superimposed over a burning pink jet. Looking down on the scene was the horrified face of the matriarch of pyramid makeup sales, Mary Jean Dobbins - Mary Jean to the world. Then the picture
was gone, replaced by a rugged male face and perfect smile.
"Tuck, you're famous. You made the Enquirer." The voice of Jake Skye, Tuck's only male friend and premier jet mechanic for Mary Jean. "You crashed just in time to make the latest edition."
"My dick?" Tuck said, struggling to sit up. There was what appeared to be a plaster ostrich egg sitting on his lap. A tube ran out the middle of it.
Jake Skye, tall, dark, and unkempt - half Apache, half truck stop waitress - said, "That's going to smart. But the doc says you'll play the violin again." Jake sat in a chair next to Tuck's bed and opened the tabloid.
"Look at this. Oprah's skinny again. Carrots, grapefruit, and amphetamines."
"Tucker Case moaned. "What about the girl? What was her name?"
"Meadow Malackovitch," Jake said, looking at the paper. "Wow, Oprah's fucking Elvis. You got to give that woman credit. She stays busy. By the way, they're going to move you to Houston. Mary Jean wants you where she can keep an eye on you."
"The girl, Jake?"
Jake looked up from the paper. "You don't want to know."
"They said she was going to be okay. Is she dead?"
"Worse. Pissed off. And speaking of pissed off, there's some FAA guys outside who are waiting to talk to you, but the doctor wouldn't let them in. And I'm supposed to call Mary Jean as soon as you're coherent. I'd ad-vise against that - becoming coherent, I mean. And then there's a whole bunch of reporters. The nurses are keeping them all out."
"How'd you get in?"
"I'm your only living relative."
"My mother will be pleased to hear that."
"Brother, your mother doesn't even want to claim you. You totally fucked the dog on this one."
"I'm fired, then?"
"Count on it. In fact, I'd say you'd be lucky to get a license to operate a riding lawnmower."
"I don't know how to do anything but fly. One bad landing?"
"No, Tuck, a bad landing is when the overheads pop open and dump people's gym bags. You crashed. If it makes you feel any better, with the Gulfstream gone I'm not going to have any work for at least six months. They may not even get another jet."
"Is the FAA filing charges?"
Jake Skye looked at his paper to avoid Tuck's eyes. "Look, man, do you want me to lie to you? I came up here because I thought you'd rather hear it from me. You were drinking. You wrecked a million dollars' worth of SeaTac's equipment in addition to the plane. You're lucky you're not dead."
"Jake, look at me."
Jake dropped the paper to his lap and sighed. "What?"
"Am I going to jail?"
"I've got to go, man." Jake stood. "You heal up." He turned to leave the room.
Jake Skye stopped and looked over his shoulder. Tucker could see the disappointment in his friend's eyes.
"What were you thinking?" Jake said.
"She talked me into it. I knew it wasn't a good idea, but she was persistent."
Jake came to the side of the bed and leaned in close. "Tucker, what's it take for you to get it? Listen close now, buddy, because this is your last lesson, okay? I'm out of a job because of you. You've got to make your own decisions. You can't let someone else always tell you what to do. You have to take some responsibility."
"I can't believe I'm hearing this from you. You're the one who got me into this business."
"Exactly. You're thirty years old, man. You have to start thinking for yourself. And with your head, not your dick."
Tucker looked at the bandages in his lap. "I'm sorry. It all got out of hand. It was like flying on autopilot. I didn't mean to..."
"Time to take the controls, buddy."
"Jake, something weird happened during the crash. I'm not sure if it was a hallucination or what. There was someone else in the cockpit."
"You mean besides the whore?"
"Yeah, just for a second, there was a guy in the copilot seat. He talked to me. Then he disappeared."
Jake sighed. "There's no insanity plea for crashing a plane, Tuck. You lost a lot of blood."
"This was before I got hurt. While the plane was still skidding."
"Here." Jake tucked a silver flask under Tuck's pillow and punched him in the shoulder. "I'll call you, man." He turned and walked away.
Tuck called after him, "What if it was an angel or something?"
"Then you're in the Enquirer next week too," Jake said from the door. "Get some sleep."