- 1 -
The Boeing Business Jet sped through the stormy night. Ahead in the far distance, the sky was lightened slightly by the coming dawn, spreading ghostly creepers through the dark, roiling clouds that churned below the aircraft. Here and there, the angry carpet of cloud flashed as veins of lightning were discharged. Thunder boomed like artillery fire below the whine of the jet engines as they laboured in the turbulent air.
Within the warmth of the aircraft, Damien St Clair was holding court. Whilst Gavin Alcock was the heart and body of the team, Damien was the soul. His boyish enthusiasm and irrepressible humour were contagious, and endowed the team with a spirit of collective vitality. He was also infamous for his practical jokes. Nearly everyone in the team had at some point been on the receiving end of one of Damien's pranks, and although these often got out of hand, his infectious grin and cheeky Geordie charm meant that he was almost always forgiven soon enough.
Damien was strutting up and down the aisle of the aircraft, holding a magnum of Champagne in one hand while his other hand was clenched round the waist of the World Club Championship Trophy, its globe-shaped head sparkling as he moved.
"Who's ready for a refill then, lads?" he asked. "There's another three of these still left!"
"Yeah, fill me up, mate", replied Marco Christofis, the club's huge Australian goalkeeper.
"How's about you then, Joey", said Damien, grinning at the young man sitting next to Marco. "You not joining us?"
"No." replied Joey sullenly, keeping his eyes fixed on the seat in front of him.
"It tastes just like lemonade, you know", encouraged Damien.
"I know how it tastes", Joey sighed, turning his head away.
"Oh, sorry, Jo-Jo, I forgot what time it was", said Damien in mock concern. "Shall I make you a nice hot cocoa, and tuck you in?"
Joey sighed loudly and turned towards Damien. His face was changing; his chin and his lower lip were pulled in while the skin below his eyes darkened as if he was about to cry. Damien had seen this face often enough. This was the face Joey made when he was upset, and if pushed any further, he was likely to start shouting and would then sulk for the foreseeable future.
Wisely, Damien backed off, giving Joey a comradely wink. "Only joking with you, pal", he said in a high-pitched voice as he moved on.
Joey - full name João Eugénio dos Santos Vasconcelos - was one of the few people who could resist Damien's charms. A talented and precocious young Portuguese superstar, he took himself very seriously, and expected everybody else to do the same. Of course, Damien saw this as a reason to push the boundaries of Joey's very limited sense of humour. Joey had recently been the victim of one of Damien's more crude practical jokes, which had resulted in Damien receiving a warning from the manager to leave Joey alone.
This joke had been weeks in preparation. Damien was both a vegetarian and a big eater, and hence was renowned for having a problem with wind. Damien saw this as more of a gift than a problem, and the team, with the exception of Joey, tolerated it with a mixture of amusement and resignation. Joey, on the other hand, could not abide it. He would shout at Damien, calling him "Pig" and "Animal" whenever his nether eruptions were audible, and leave the room in a huff.
Damien had previously discovered, while in the bath, that if he filled a bottle with liquid and turned it upside down underwater, he could catch his gases inside the bottle, pushing out the water to make room for the precious vapours.
Over the course of a few weeks, and many baths, he filled a sports bottle half full with his fumes, replacing the lid afterward and closing the nozzle.
The next day, straight after training, Damien grabbed a few of the bottles and handed them out to some of his thirsty team mates, making sure that Joey got the specially prepared one. As they strolled into the changing rooms, Joey opened the nozzle and took a sip of his, while a few of the team whom Damien had let in on the joke watched him surreptitiously. Surprised by the soapy taste, Joey stopped, pulled the lid off and smelled the contents.
Damien, when re-telling the story, is fond of saying that Joey's face became a lot like that of the Nazi interrogator in Raiders of the Lost Ark, when the Ark of the Covenant was opened.
Joey didn't take it well. When he finally got the full story from another team mate, he flew into a hysterical rage, screaming and cursing in Portuguese. He ran into one of the toilets and was audibly sick. When he emerged, his face was red from crying, and his chin seemed to have receded more than was physically possible. Shaking with rage and disgust, he stormed out of the changing rooms and jumped into his Porsche, revving his engine and spinning his wheels as he sped away.
The next day, Joey was notably absent from training, and it turned out that he had refused to train or play again until he received an apology, which Damien swiftly gave him with as much sincerity as was possible in the situation.
Even months later, Joey would go out of his way to avoid speaking to Damien, and it was clear that the prank would never be forgiven. Damien, never one to avoid a situation, still pestered Joey in his friendly manner, but always backed off when the danger signs were showing and the chin started to drop.
"Woody!" Damien said, stopping at the next seat along the aisle. "Where's your glass, man? Get it while it's still cold!"
"Oh, that's alright, mate. I'm on the water", replied Woody, flashing his famous smile.
"Come on, man, it's good stuff, you know. Not every day you win one of these", Damien reminded him, holding the trophy above his head.
"I can't, mate, I've got a photo shoot tomorrow, you know, and alcohol dries my skin out"
Ever since his marriage to supermodel, Elizabeth Meadows, Woody's career had been stellar. His talent and good looks had already made him a favourite with both male and female fans, but his relationship with his wife-to-be, the new face of Chanel, had acted like a catalyst for both of them, propelling them into the upper echelons of the celebrity aristocracy.
Their wedding had attracted record bids from a number of celebrity gossip magazines, but the besotted couple had opted for a low-key affair, hiring a luxury cruise ship which they had repainted in white and baby blue for the ceremony and inviting only their family and four hundred of their closest friends.
Woody became famous not just for his sporting ability, but also for his newly discovered fashion sense, and the contracts came rolling in. Over the next few years he had been paid ever-increasing sums of money to promote or model products ranging from pop socks to chest wax, and very soon he and his wife became one of the most recognised couples on earth.
"What's the shoot for, superstar? Reckon they need another model at all? I'll try not to show you up too badly", joked Damien, pouting.
Woody grinned good-naturedly. "It's for this stuff", he said, opening up a magazine that was on his lap. "It's like a kind of foundation for men. You put it under your eyes, you know, to hide the bags. I've got boxes of it that they gave me, if you want some"
"I don't know about that, man", said Damien, peering at the magazine. "I reckon I'd look like a bloody panda bear with that stuff on."
Gavin Alcock piped up from the seat behind. "I can't see many people being bothered if you were endangered though. Call out the hunting parties, more like!"
"They do make it in dark colours too, if you want me to get you some", Woody said, but Damien had already moved on.
"You wouldn't shoot me, would you, big man?" Damien said to Gavin, holding the Champagne bottle against his chest. "I thought you loved me!"
"Get off, you soft shite", Gavin answered. "I'd shoot you as soon as look at you."
Damien recoiled in mock horror. "Gavin Alcock", Damien said as if reading the voiceover to an action film trailer. "Big game hunter and captain extraordinaire. Part man, part machine...." He held the base of the trophy against his groin, bulbous end pointing towards Gavin. "....All cock!"
Some sniggering could be heard from the surrounding players.
"Get stuffed, Damo, you twat", said Gavin affectionately.
Suddenly the plane jolted violently, launching the trophy into Gavin's lap and throwing Damien to the floor of the plane. The lights inside the aircraft flickered twice and then died.
For a few moments there was utter panic. In the darkness, people shouted and screamed. Everyone on the aircraft could tell by the feeling in their stomachs, and the deafness in their ears, that they were losing height rapidly.
Pale lights came on, strips of luminescence running along the sides of the aisle. A moment later, the exit signs also lit up, casting an eerie red glow. People glanced about, unsure if this meant that they were any safer than they had been before.
Everyone's attention snapped forward as the cabin door opened and the co-pilot stepped out, his white uniform standing out in the half-light. He was doing his best to remain calm, but was clearly quite shaken himself.
"Everyone, please get to the nearest seat and fasten your seat belts. We are experiencing some... ah... some electrical problems", said the co-pilot, peering about in the dark. "Please stay in your seats and try to remain calm."
Damien levered himself off the floor. He was still clutching the Champagne bottle, although the contents were now gracing his shirt and trousers. As he glanced around, disorientated, he felt a hand grip his shoulder.
"Damien", said a voice, strangely soft in the situation. "Over here."
Damien swung around to see two bright eyes earnestly watching him.
"Samson", he sighed in relief, recognising the voice.
Damien put his arm out, and felt Samson take hold of it and pull him up and towards the seat.
Falling into the chair, Damien fumbled about for the belt. "What's going on, man?" he spluttered, trying to fasten the strap with his shaking hands.
"I'm not sure, brother. I was watching from the window. There was a bright flash, a kind of blue light. Then it went dark." Samson replied in his soft Ghanaian accent. "Here, let me help."
Samson took the buckle from Damien's hands and calmly snapped it into place, giving Damien a reassuring pat on the shoulder.
Both looked up as the co-pilot entered again, this time seeming more pale and nervous than before.
"Please, everyone, your attention. We're being forced to make an emergency landing. You must stay in your seats, and get into the brace position." The co-pilot glanced around, ensuring everyone was watching. "Hands on your head, please, and then place your head between your knees."
There was more cursing as the passengers rearranged themselves.
"Please, do not leave your seats or change from that position until we have landed. There are life jackets under your seats if we need them." The co-pilot turned to go back into the cabin, and then added, hopefully, "Please try to stay calm."
"Shit!" muttered Damien, stuck for better words to describe the situation.
He heard whispering close to his ear, and turned his head awkwardly to look at the man next to him. Samson was bent over too, but his hands were clasped together, and he was clearly praying.
"Hey, Sams, mention me, will you?" Damien asked, forcing a grin.
Samson turned, his wide smile glowing in the gloom. Reaching out, he took Damien's hand, holding it tightly, and then closed his eyes again and continued to pray.
"Do I need to cross myself or anything?" Damien went on.
Samson's smile flashed in the darkness. "If you like", he answered.
With one hand still holding Samson's, Damien sat up briefly and crossed himself, unsure of quite how to do it. Then, feeling a bit sheepish, he put his head back between his knees.
"Don't mention this to the other lads though, eh?"
The aircraft tore through the solid bank of low-level cloud, jets screaming. Below, the tops of ancient trees split the canopy of dense jungle. A wide river snaked through the soaked forest, swollen with the storm. It was towards this pitch-black expanse that the stricken aircraft headed.
The tip of one wing scythed through the higher branches of the trees and then the aircraft hurtled into the churning river, spraying sheets of water to either side. The tail lifted, threatening to turn the aircraft upside down, but then a wing caught in the shallow water next to the bank, turning the aircraft around. With the aircraft now careering along sideways, the other wing sunk in to the murky river, slowing the plane and tipping the body on to its side.
With a deep, metallic creak, the plane righted itself, the higher wing splashing back down into the water. The persistent sounds of the rain-sodden jungle and the churning river now took over, claiming the aircraft as if it were nothing more than a drowning insect.
* * *
"Everyone, shut up!" shouted Gavin.
The last few moments had passed in panicked chaos. The passengers had groped for their life jackets in the gloom, and then stumbled towards the nearest exit sign. A bedraggled group were now splayed out on one wing of the aircraft, the flashing lights on their life jackets adding to the confusion.
Gavin was bellowing to make himself heard over the sound of the river.
"Have you all got a jacket on?"
A handful of voices shouted their agreement.
"Anyone not got one?"
A voice, cracked with fear, spoke up. "There was no jacket. I could not find it"
"Who's that?" Gavin shouted, peering at the faces near him. "Joey? Oh, for Christ's sake..."
Gavin sighed and glanced around, deciding what to do.
"Okay, just keep quiet and listen to me", he said after a moment.
"The plane's sinking, and we need to get off it quickly. The bank's over there a way." Gavin pointed into the humid darkness. "Do the belts on your jackets up tight, right?"
He paused a moment. "Now grab the belt of the person next to you with one hand. Hold on tight, okay? We don't want to get split up."
Gavin waited while the group groped for each other's belts.
"Right, so when I say, we're all going to get off this plane and swim to that bank over there. Just follow me. Swim with one hand and hold on to your mate's belt with the other. Joey, grab my belt with both hands, and keep those legs kicking. Don't let go."
Gavin glanced over his shoulder again, getting his bearings.
"Ready?" he shouted, giving his companions a few seconds. "Come on then, go! Go!"
The desperate group of young men kicked and paddled their way across the raging water, lights flashing like a swarm of hyperactive fireflies. The minutes stretched on, and coldness and exhaustion started to set in.
"I can't keep going", moaned Joey, struggling to keep his head above the water without a life jacket.
"Just shut up and keep kicking. Not far now", Gavin urged.
"If you stay still too long, the crocodiles'll have you," chimed in Damien's easily recognised voice.
"What?" Joey screamed, straining to see around himself in the strobing darkness.
Damien was too cold to laugh. "Don't worry, kiddo, they wouldn't eat you anyway, you're too scrawny!"
Nonetheless, Joey seemed to find some hidden energy reserves, and started kicking his legs with renewed vigour.
A few moments later, Gavin's legs bumped against solid ground.
"Alright, keep swimming. We're almost there", he shouted, his voice hoarse.
Gavin pulled himself up on to the muddy bank using a thick root that was trailing in the water. He turned round and helped heave his companions up, too exhausted to register their faces.
The group collapsed onto the bank, soaked and worn out. For a few minutes, they just lay on the muddy earth, breathing heavily, unable to speak.
Finally, Damien spoke. "Who's here, then? Joey and Gav. Who's that, Emil?" he peered at the man lying next to him.
"Yes, me", replied Emil van Keulen, the club's Dutch winger.
"That it?" asked Gavin, sitting up.
"I'm here - Rudolf", answered a shaken-sounding voice.
"No way. You alright, gaffer?" said Gavin, genuinely surprised.
"Yes, yes. Fine", replied Rudolf Emmerich, sounding anything but fine.
"So, what happened to the rest of them?" Emil put in.
"I think they went out the other exit", Gavin answered.
"Should we look for them?"
"Well, there's not much chance of finding anything until it gets light. We're best to sit tight, I reckon."
Joey, who seemed to have been lost in his own thoughts for a while, spoke up. "What are we going to do?"
After a moment of silence, Damien spoke up. "I know", he said, and then paused until everyone was listening. "Anyone got a pack of cards?"
Gavin chuckled, and glanced down. He grinned as the flashing light on his life jacket reflected back at him from the World Club Trophy, which he still had clasped in his hand.