Off the Chart by Smith Hagaman

Is it possible to escape from hostile soldiers in an airplane that has no wings? Is it possible for a modern airliner to crash so that no one knows where it is? What would you do if you found a substitute for petroleum?

Smith Hagaman’s first novel is an epic tale of hardy souls who survive a horrifying tragedy only to discover the most dangerous part of their story has just begun. There are murderers in their midst and intrigue in their journey back to civilization.

Chapter One

The loudspeaker at Heathrow announced the flight to Hong Kong.  Two businessmen seated next to each other in the waiting room were relieved to hear that, but for very different reasons.  One of them, Tom Hawkins, was anxious to leave London before he was spotted. Tom had spent the last six hours of flight delay talking and laughing with his newfound friend, Roger Gravely, in order to exhibit the most gregarious manner possible.  It had worked.  A man in a leather coat across the waiting room never gave Tom a second glance.  That man was on the lookout for his target, a man named Tom Hawkins, who would be trying to slip out of London unnoticed.  Hawkins was to be eliminated by whatever means it took.  He did not spot Tom, but Tom certainly kept an eye on him.

Tom thought of the many events in his life which had proven that the old saying, “timing is everything”, is true.  Now it had happened again.  When someone had Mr. Thomas Hawkins paged to report to the ticket counter, Roger had been in the men’s room.  This allowed Tom to continue to idly leaf through a magazine without flinching at all.

When Roger left the men’s lounge, he was tempted to sit somewhere else in order to get some quiet time but he decided that was too rude even from one American to another.

He went back and sat beside Tom

“So, what was that all about?” was Roger’s first question.

“What?”

“I heard you being paged.”

“Oh, that,” Tom managed that innocent look he could always count on.  “It was absolutely amazing. Evidently I had dropped my papers, passport and all, and someone turned them in at the counter.  The person didn’t even wait to be thanked.”

“Unbelievable.”

* * *

 Roger was a legitimate businessman who was having problems with his Chinese contact in Hong Kong. He was unaware of having been used to help fool Tom’s pursuer.  His biggest concern was just getting to Hong Kong in time to straightened out a problem with his Chinese supplier of gas grills.

When you sell only one product to only one customer, and you make about $100,000 a year, poor quality can be a disaster.  Roger sold gas grills to the Wentworth Stores of London chain,” and the quality of the latest shipment had been below normal.  Now he was on his way to meet his grill supplier.  Roger had returned this shipment and reordered to cover Wentworth’s needs.  To the Chinese, such a return was almost a slap in the face.  But Roger did have about thirteen hours to prepare a talk which would blame his supplier’s suppliers, thus avoiding a direct insult.

Roger would have used the six hour flight delay to prepare, but his seatmate, Tom, had been almost a compulsive talker.  It occurred to Roger that Tom had done most of the talking but had revealed almost nothing about himself.

Time had taught Tom Hawkins that his profession was often misunderstood and rarely appreciated, so he no longer discussed it with anyone at all.

Heathrow is one of the busiest airports in the world and this waiting room for the Hong Kong flight held passengers from many countries.  Here, their varied languages served to separate them from each other.  None imagined that, for a few of them, they would soon be so desperately linked together that even language could not come between them.

Tom was from Kansas City, Kansas and was going to Hong Kong.  Other than that, all he told Roger was a not-so-brief outline of the Great Circle system of navigation.  It was fairly interesting and it did pass the time.  Tom explained that, since the earth is round, any route between two points will be a curved line. But the shortest curved line between two points is an arc of a great circle.  And a great circle is the perimeter of a disc that would cut the earth into two equal parts.  After they boarded and were seated together, he continued and illustrated this by examples.

He asked, “If you were going to fly a plane from New York to Tokyo, which way would you take off?”

Roger sensed a trick question and replied, “I’d take off west.”

“Naw.  The shortest route, great circle, out of New York would be to aim just west of the North Pole.  You’d take off north by northwest.”

“Listen,” he continued, “Madrid is almost exactly due east of New York.  But if you took off due east, you’d fly at least 100 miles more than if you took a great circle route.”

Roger’s mind was starting to wander, but Tom started in again, “On this great circle, at 465 mph, we’ll be there in about thirteen hours.”  Then Tom thought to himself, “I’ve already been paid and now I just wish this was over and done with.”

When Roger thought he was through, Tom said, “This great circle deal is not like your local bus line, you know.  We don’t go from one town to the next.  Fact is, the great circle from London to Hong Kong will cross over some of the most remote places on the face of the earth; not that we could see anything much from 30,000 feet.”

Tom got up and moved about the plane.  After he had determined that the man in the leather coat had not boarded the plane, he came back, quit talking and went to sleep.

Roger had made this trip many times and Tom knew that.  Roger found it interesting that Tom would assume he didn’t know all this about the great circle. It was a trait Roger had seen before.  It seemed that some personalities, in the absence of imagination, just recited lots of facts, assuming somehow that their facts were exclusive to themselves.

The other passengers were beginning to settle in for the long haul.  An older man across the aisle from Roger was seated beside an older woman who was absolutely beautiful.  He seemed in need of sleep and the woman tended him and arranged his pillow with great care. He was a dark, interesting looking man whose neat beard was showing some gray.  When he soon fell asleep, the handsome man on the other side of the woman attempted conversation.  She politely declined and opened a book.

In the seat in front of Roger was a middle-aged man to whom Roger had spoken in the airport. The man had introduced himself as James T. Manning; not Jim Manning or James Manning but James T. Manning.  His face was fixed in a permanent expression of annoyance.  Roger had noticed that expression because, even though he was only twenty-seven, he had made himself a promise never to let his face “take a set” as they say.  To him, faces like that meant the end of inspiration, and exuberance, and belly laughs. If your face “took a set,” you couldn’t even pump your fist and say “Yes!” properly.

***

Smith Hagaman says he wrote “Off The Chart“, his first book, in just six months because he didn’t know any better.

He was born in the N.C. mountain town of Boone in 1925. Twenty-four years later he graduated from UNC. His father, an educator, was overheard telling a friend, “Yes, he has graduated from Chapel Hill, but he is a pretty good boy, I think he’ll get over it.”

He has been married to Vicki, a champion golfer, for 62 years. His advice to young men on how to have a happy marriage: “First, marry a good looking babe. That’s what I did.”

He adds, “I have played golf for over sixty years and I believe the abuse and humiliation I suffered from that game has hardened and matured me into the author I am today.”

Click here to buy: Off the Chart

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