I flew over the long hangar with Rip Foster’s Stick It Flight Training painted on top, checked his windsock, and banked easy into a light southwest wind toward the big pond fifteen miles in any direction from a paved road or population of any kind. Rip was a late-in-the-game Viet Nam vet who’d helped evacuate Saigon and didn’t have a politically correct bone in his body. His threshold for bullshit was “lower than snake shit in a wagon rut” unless it was him doing the bullshitting.
I’d just turned fourteen when I told my parents I was going south to Texas and work a combine crew north for the summer, all the way to Wisconsin, make a butt load of money. It was a complete load of crap, but they bought it, happy they only had to deal with my older sister, each other and alcohol that summer. I didn’t give a damn about money or combines, I wanted to fly a bi-plane crop-duster. I was willing to eat SPAM, wash planes, wax propellers, whatever was involved including making a huge pain in the ass of myself until someone working the combine trail crop-dusters took me up.
I soon discovered no one wanted anything to do with me. “A little too short in the britches, arncha?” “Probly a virgin, arncha?” “Betcha can’t even drive, can ya?” All true. But I’d worn out Huckleberry Finn and The Reivers and I wasn’t a quitter. After six weeks I was having trouble keeping the quitter at bay when Rip Foster walked up to me, pulled on his gloves, eyed me like a small dog that might pee unexpectedly.
“If you’re the kid givin’ ever’body a case a ass over wantin’ to fly, come on.”
Rip relinquished the go-kart steering wheels of a Beechcraft 17 to me headed west somewhere over Kansas, and then promptly went to sleep. Just before he found nap-thirty he’d done a cursory run-down of the important gauges, nose up, nose down, just hang on, it flies itself.
I was losing about 500 feet a minute over flat terrain, with Colorado looming on the distant horizon. I pulled up on the wheel and got a couple of thousand feet back punishing the Beech. I pushed down, same effect looking at the ground. I went through the roller coaster until I was seasick and scared shitless. I got it leveled out around two thousand feet for a while, but it still wanted to go up or down and scoot sideways and damn sure wasn’t flying itself. Rip woke up after forty minutes of me living on panic and adrenaline, walked me through a bank around back east and after forty more minutes of full-on ‘this is an airplane’, my very first landing. I remember saying something stupid like “Man, that was cool!” I vividly remember his response.
“No, son. It was suicidal.” But he lit a cigarette, thumped my shoulder saying, “See you at five tomorrow. In the morning. Find some decent sunglasses between now and then.”
He taught me how to fly over weekends and summers for the next three years. By making me fly anything we could find with an engine that would get off the ground. Rip once lit a couple of books of matches, waved them in front of my face and shouted “Fire! May Day! Fire in the cockpit!” when I was trying to land in deep dusk with no lights. We bounced to a stop just short of a river and he said, “It’s not always happy hour. You gotta keep your shit straight, fly through it.” A lesson that came in handy in a burning plane over Columbia. He also taught me the value of shotguns as he saw them. Any length, any gauge. He had them everywhere, always one within reach.
We’d pushed the Cub into one of his hangars where he was helping me pull the floats off so that I could replace them with the 26-inch tires that would land me anywhere except water. Like down the street from a middle-of-nowhere bank.
He listened and wrenched without interruption while I ran down my situation. When I finished he continued to wrench on the float struts in silence before he set his ratchet down.
“So, Bo Diddly, tell me. Who do you trust?”
Whoooo do you luh-uve. “I don’t know.”
“Well, we’ll think on it some more. What I do know is it’s hot as hell in this hangar. And pontoons, god almighty, plus a certain fool I know who uses them are the only reasons I don’t ‘doze that pond. Stinks when it has water in it.”
“Never seen it dry.”
“Never has been. Stinks all the damn time.”
I was wondering if I should thank him for the stinky pond while we dropped the floats and carried them out of the way but that thought was interrupted when Rip’s phone made windchime noises. He picked up a rag, dried the sweat off his hands, pulled the phone from his front jeans pocket.
“Comp’ny comin’. Two miles out.” He whistled through his fingers, two short chirps and one long. He checked the phone, handed it to me. “You know a black fella, drives a dirty maroon Lincoln?”
“I asked your lady friend in Sugarland,” Tavius said. “You don’t call, don’t answer your damn phone. I’ve been driving all fucking day. Where’s Moreno?”
“I turned my phone off. Moreno, I couldn’t say.” The fucker was lying, selling it like nobody could do math. I’d left Houston with Moreno at 10 AM. Addison by 12:30. Moreno and Secret Agent Man had eaten up another hour. Not quite three hours to Rip’s in a straight line at 105, a trip that was right at five hours by car because I’d driven it before. It was now almost 5:30 PM. Tavius’s total drive time would have been nine hours if he’d refueled without stopping and the freeways had been accident and construction free. No way he was here from Sugarland. But he could have driven from Shamrock in the hour I’d been on the ground. It stunk worse than Rip’s pond.
“Son,” Rip looked up from his desk at Tavius standing by the open door, “we all know you’re lyin’. Why’nt you tell Comparo where the body’s at, what you’ve done with the knife and what your stake in all this is ‘cause spray paintin’ us with your brand a bullshit ain’t gonna fly.”
“Look, old man, I asked him a simple question.” Tavius’s hand was on its way to his back. A sawed-off 12 gauge swung up from the side of Rip’s chair and blew a hole in the sheetrock next to Tavius, his slick matte nickel .380 stalled at his side, still pointed down. Rip always said a shotgun in close quarters froze time.
“Don’t be cute, son, or you’ll end up like the meth heads show up out here time to time thinkin’ I have somethin’ worth stealin’. Paro, relieve the man of his weapon and his predicament.”
Blood flecks were showing on Tavius’s left arm, the one closest to the blast. There was no hole in the wall, just wasted sheetrock on top of concrete.
“Paro, how long you figure on the van fulla convicts?”
“Maybe an hour.”
“Dandy. Our friend here oughta be done with the sheetrock patch by then.”
Tavius was on one knee, a bucket of premix wall compound next to him, an eight-inch putty knife in his right hand. The left sleeve of his silky rayon hoodie was missing and he had half-a-dozen Band-Aids on his arm. Rip was sitting on his desk, shotgun in hand, supervising.
“Now when you’re done an outta here, son, you get yourself to an emergency room or a vet. Somebody knows how to fix huntin’ accidents and pull buckshot. Leave ‘em in there and that lead’ll start a blood infection, kill you as sure as you’d taken a direct hit.”
Tavius tried to be cool, wiped the putty knife on the edge of the bucket, checked his work. “What kind of wall is this?”
“Poured concrete, four inches thick. The galvanized outside helps keep the heat down and has an authentic look to it. The sheetrock is for folks who think it looks finished that way.”
I could see Tavius wanted to ask arrogant survivalist nut case questions, but Rip had kept a shotgun on him the entire time, even when he’d handed me the first one to reload the spent shell. I’d wanted to ask Tave a bucket of questions myself, but Rip wanted his wall fixed without conversation. I heard the wind chimes again.
“More comp’ny, Comparo. Hook our friend up to the reins rings in front where I can see him.”
“This is going to go down bad for you, old man.” Tavius wasn’t happy about being hooked up like a yard ornament.
“Could be. But it’s my shotgun and my party. I’ll cut you loose when we’ve had our second little get together and you’ll be free to tell whoever you want what happened here. Like you said,” Rip slid off the desk to upright. “I’m an old man and I can’t party like I used to. But you just go along with us an I think we can get through this one without needin’ to kill you.”
I led Tavius out in hands-behind-his-back cuffs, ran the short length of chain between his wrists and through the steel ring embedded in a concrete post.
“Paro, you can’t be doing this. We had a deal.”
“We still do. I’m still Moreno’s pilot. You shouldn’t have tried to pull on Rip, that’s all.”
“It was just to get him to shut up so we could take a walk, talk about Moreno, work this out.” He heard the padlock click, shook his wrists “Motherfucker’s crazy.”
“Maybe.” I shook the lock and the cuffs to be sure. “But he’s got the shotguns.”
Moreno was the first one out of the van and led a crew of three to the door, none of them acknowledged or spoke to Tavius. This time they were greeted with the shotgun out. Left to right inside it was Cav, Mr. Doubleknit, Muller the crazy-eyed driver from Corpus and a short man wearing a tweed beret and painters coveralls tucked into black combat boots. I figured him as the import Slovak Firestarter named Usman. He was the first to speak.
“You da pilot?”
“No,” Rip tipped his head slightly in my direction. Usman turned toward me.
“You not get da message, not get too fancy, not think too much? Huh?”
“If you’re talking about the campfire down south, I got that message. Pissed me off.” I lowered my shotgun to his chest height. “But before you and I work that out I want someone to tell me what the fuck is going on.”
Rip rested the butt of his sawed-off on his thigh, pointed at the middle of the crew. “Otherwise we waste the three of you and rob the bank with the woman.”
“You can’t do that,” Moreno said. “We only know a part, each of us. No puedo hacerlo solo,” She looked at me like I could help. “Paro?”
“No honor among thieves?” Rip popped a brief ironic smile. “Imagine my surprise.”
Muller and Usman drew handguns, Rip ignored them, didn’t kill anyone, but he whistled.
“You, you can’t kill us all,” Muller stammered. “You already killed Dwight.” Dwight must have been Third Eye horseapple nose. “We kill both of you, I say we’re even.”
“An I say you’re dead either way.” Rip pointed at the door with his sawed-off. “Turn around, have a look. I’d go easy, I were you.” Behind them, in the wide doorway, were five of the meanest looking junkyard dogs I’d ever seen. Rip lit a cigarette, started talking.
“State troopers, they got dope dogs in their patrol cars these days. For stoppin’ people comin’ outta Colorado might have some pot. Now I was comin’ back, I guess, oh, ‘round April maybe. I’d been huntin’ for a week or so up there an had my dogs in the cab with me. I was probably speedin’ a little, up in the panhandle an believe it or not I fit a profile. Geezers who mighta been hippies, thirty somethins in expensive cars an kids with stupid haircuts in rice rockets. Anyway, this trooper fella, he lights me up, I pull over an he parks up in front of me, gets his dog outta the back. They train those dogs, you know, and they’re smart as hell. Really smart fuckin’ dogs.” He blew a smoke ring, watched it.
“Where was I? Oh, yeah, the dope dog. This trooper, he walks up, asks do I mind if his dog searches my truck for drugs. I roll the back winda down and it fills up with these dogs here and I say I don’t mind, but you should ask my dogs how they feel about it. Well the really smart dope dog, a big ol’ Golden Retriever, he looks up at the winda and says ‘woof’, more like a dog howdy than some badass bark, an trots his fluffy tail back to the K9 car. The trooper looks at me, an the dogs an back at his dog that’s opened his own door and hopped back inside the cruiser. He thinks for a few an then he says ‘Have a nice afternoon. Slow it down’.”
“For God’s sake, what the hell is your point?” Double Knit had a radio announcer voice that belied his lack of fashion sense. And he had his arm around Cav’s waist.
“Those dogs there,” Rip nodded out the door, “they hear gunfire in this room, and they go straight for the crotch. No matter who’s dead your luggage is gone, y’all bleed to death worryin’ about how you and pussy are done forever. Sorry ma’am.” He blew another smoke ring, watched the facial contortions from everyone but Cav. “My point is, son, see that trooper, he knew I had him out dogged.” He smashed the cigarette out in an upside-down piston head sitting on his desk. “A revelation you fellas should be comin’ to long about now. You can set your weapons on the file cabinet there or I can let go a round and y’all can kiss your balls goodbye.” He cradled the shotgun in the crook of his arm, finger on the triggers. “Frankly, I don’t give a damn one way or the other.”