Tart’s Palace

I’d explained to Moreno how the “math” she didn’t understand on one side of the little laminated strip told the story, in equations, of the tracking number for a flash drive that contained the information for obtaining and redepositing approximately sixty-four million dollars in specific offshore accounts. I didn’t tell her the “math”, properly executed, would reveal those account numbers and the password to the flash drive where the real treasure map resided. I did tell her how the side she thought she understood but didn’t was more than a delivery date of cash to the Kerrigan State Bank but the route it would take, times, checkpoints and two redirects.

“When you and your friend discovered these things, were you tempted, Paro? To go about this plan of yours without me?”

“No.” It wasn’t a lie. Temptation is one of those things we ask the Lord not to lead us into when temptation is so pervasive that whichever way the Lord sees fit to turn our heads temptation remains a line of sight proposition. Realizing that, the sinner’s rationalization then becomes a matter of succumbing to temptation of choice. I could have a lot more fun with whatever money I realized out of this deal with Moreno than without her. Whatever it was about her proximity effect on me was inexplicable, addictive, possibly foolish, even dangerous. I didn’t care.

“Why should I believe you, Paro? When, as you say, everyone involved is ‘out for theirs’?”

“It would be impossible without you.” That was true, too. If she stepped up, we’d nail it. If not, or if she got tempted, we’d be dead. At least broke, and minus one or two planes. Dead would make me worse off than when I got into this. Broke, maybe minus a plane, I could handle. Dead, though? None of it would matter. The girl, the money, the restored Stearman biplane and a new, bright red Jeep pickup? *Poof*

“And you have the same trust for me as you are asking me to have for you?”

“Yes.” I hoped it didn’t sound as feeble as it felt getting past my teeth. Trust is one of those things like temptation. More layers than a fresh Rio Grande Valley onion and at least as many ways to make you cry. Or break your heart.

“I see.” She paused, probably doing the same mental gymnastics I’d been doing only on that higher female level, drew herself erect on the stool. “Do you have beer? Cold beer?”

Every hanger and workshop at Rip’s had a beer fridge, and I walked to the one on the front wall. “Dark, yellow, or light?”

“Do you still love me, Paro?”

“It’s beer, Cav.” I busted a bad spin dance move, threw my head back and howled, “What’s love got to do, got to do with it?”

It’s good to laugh when five days away might be the day after they bag what’s left of you for the coroner.

***

“And this?” Moreno held up the female Postal Service uniform with her non-beer hand.

“All yours.”

She set her beer down, pulled the shirt to her chest, made a face of medium dissatisfaction. “There is no one else who can act the part of cartero mujer?”

“Ever worn a wingsuit?”

Wing suit?”

“Can you parasail?”

“Para, what?”

“Thought not. That’s why you’re the mail lady.”

“Paro, I’m not…Explícamelo por favor?”

I explained by showing her a couple of YouTube videos that canyon carving wingsuit crazies had shot with fore and aft Go Pro cams. Videos that not only included skimming and cliff diving but the parasail ‘chute pop and landing. While the videos ran I outlined my plan for leading the bank robbery posse into a box canyon and getting out alive while they looked for pieces of me and the cash embedded in the side of a cliff.

Madre de Dios, Paro.” When she stopped staring at the screen she shifted her gaze to one of  Rip’s custom Cessna cargo containers with the orange ripstop bags set on top and then to me. “You are willing to crash your airplane for me?”

“Mine or Rip’s. If we make it out with twelve million dollars, you’ll have to buy us new ones.”

“And you are expecting this, ‘posse,’ of everyone? The helicopter CIA debriefing man from Columbia, Woody and the piratas de motos, the black man who steals my cars, all ‘hot on your tail’?”

“Don’t forget your overly armed convicts.”

 “Madre de Dios…” That time it came out under her breath. She took a moment to stare at the backs of her hands, fingers wide. “Okay, John Wayne junior…” She looked at me, her hard-eyed gaze set in palpable determination. “We will do it your way.”

***

The afternoon dragged on. Hot. Humid. Sticky. Moreno had swapped the decent clothes I’d kidnapped her in for a t-shirt she attacked with a pair of scissors and turned into a sleeveless tie-in-front halter top and a cinched up pair of Rip’s boxers. I’d gone the boxers and t-shirt route myself. A pair of sweaty, unisex fashionistas working diligently on a project that might be an exercise in futility.

We had carefully, and I stress carefully unpacked the last of four rectangular, self-inflating life rafts to attach to the Cessna cargo bin when we heard Rip make his approach. We unrolled the raft, set it down, handling it like a Faberge egg.

Moreno picked up her drill and again used the corrugated cardboard template to drill holes in the aluminum support plate while I used an exact copy to drill into the cargo container. With the raft in place, we punctured the bottom of it using the support plate for a guide. That’s where we were when Rip taxied the Cessna right up to its hanger door before he killed the engine and climbed down, a red and white Coleman cooler in one hand. He took a few steps into the hanger, stopped.

“I dunno what’s lookin’ more ridiculous here. You two, or that Frankenstein afterbirth of moon lander bubble wrap you’re makin’ outta my cargo container.”

“Mars Rover lander,” Moreno corrected him. “Or so he keeps saying.” She set her drill down, wristed sweat off her forehead that had escaped from her soaked through bandana. “I say –”

“He’s out of his fuckin’ mind is what I say.  How do you say that in Spanish?”

“Please. Don’t tell him,” I said.

Estas jodidamente loco. As a rule I don’t curse in Spanish,” Moreno wiped her forehead again. “But that should be close enough.”

“No,” I set my drill down next to hers. “That’s ‘you’re fucking crazy,’ not –”

“I should think,” she winked at Rip, “es lo mismo.”

“It is the same, my dear lady. Perfecto, in fact,” Rip winked back. “Just like these babies.” He reached into the cooler and pulled out two Sam’s size bags of frozen, boneless buffalo wings. “Who’s hungry?”

***

Like the beer fridges, Rip’s half a dozen hangers and one outbuilding had minimalist guest quarters for the itinerant pilots who needed gas and a place to crash while they waited, like I’d done in the Valley, to pick up weekend hunters, survivalists and nature nuts. Minimalist as far as the several I’d seen, anyway. When Moreno asked if there was a place to clean up I was afraid she’d balk at the campground amenities on offer. Rip took a key off the wall inside the back door of the office/house and walked her to the posh climate-controlled hanger where the spotless ’39 Beech 17 Staggerwing I’d learned to fly in belonged. A hanger I’d often joked was more of an airplane boudoir than a hanger. Hear this. The posh hanger had nothing on the tart’s palace suite tucked under the loft. Cav took the key from Rip after he’d opened the room and kicked on the air conditioner.

“All this, a post lady uniform and boneless wings of buffalos…” She gave Rip a peck on the cheek. “Not many girls can say that when it isn’t Valentine’s or their birthday.”

“There’s a little gold bag a Ghirardelli caramel chocolate things in that little fridge there, and some wine, an a coupla bathrobes…in the arm-war…” I’d never seen Rip either effusive or red-faced embarrassed before, but there they were.

“How thoughtful.” She stood, back to us and, like a little girl who’d just seen Cinderella’s bedroom, she sighed, let her shoulders drop. “No flowers?”

She might as well have cut him in half with a rusty sword. He started to say something apologetic. I’d heard the smile in her voice and elbowed him before he could get it out and make a bigger fool of himself.

“Mr. Taylor, how long does it take to cook the wings of buffalos?”

“They’re not exactly wings of –” I elbowed him again. “Oh, right. Uh…Well…There’s the microwave way. That’s pretty quick if you’re in a hurry. And the air fryer is maybe what, twelve minutes I guess?” He scratched his gray stubbly chin for a few seconds, and his eyebrows came up a little. “But in the oven now, low and slow, the way they’re best? I’d say twenty to twenty-five, at least. Wouldn’t you, Paro? After the oven’s hot, a course?”

“Oh at least.” I lowered my head to shield the snort l laugh I was choking on. “Maybe thirty.”

“Oven.” She turned, pushed us both gently out of the doorway. “And one hour, at least, before you even think about turning it on. Por favor.

***

I’d pulled some Jockeys, wrinkled cargo shorts and a Van Halen t-shirt that had seen better days out of the backpack I kept in the Cub before I soaped up and turned this way and that about a dozen times in one of Rip’s lesser plastic shower pan/plastic curtain outfitted bed and no breakfast cells. I dressed, shot some convenient, wisely placed Lysol into a pair of heavy-duty pre-distressed Margaritaville logo flip flops left behind by a former occupant, and stepped into them. They were a half size too big but not all that bad. Except for the creepy vibe that comes with wearing someone else’s shoes. The second I crossed the threshold of the back door into Rip’s kitchen I kicked them off. He looked up at the noise, as did two of his dogs.

“Just me,” I said, and the dogs went back to being indoor lazy on a hot Texas late afternoon, Rip went back to doing something in the sink that required a paring knife. I loaded a large glass, green cactuses decorating the sides, with ice cubes, poured in a shot of Flyer the CIA man’s expensive scotch, filled the rest with lemonade and sat down at the table.

“Waste a good scotch, drinkin’ it that way.”

“Maybe.”

“Waste of a good woman too, there in the hangar.” Rip loaded the basket of his industrial air fryer the size of a watercooler with fresh potato wedges covered in some mixture of herbs and bacon crumbles, wiped his hands on what looked like a new dishtowel. “Notice she didn’t invite you to stay.”

“Propriety. You bein’ all den motherly and all with chocolates and wine and bathrobes.” I recalled the girliness of the room, spun the ice in my glass. “Anyway, I read somewhere, maybe in my sister’s kid’s bathroom, that even Princesses can bathe themselves.”

“Bullshit.”

“Bless you.”

“I didn’t sneeze, I said…Fuck you, Paro. What’d you do, ‘sides being you, to piss her off?”

“Nothin’. Changed her mind is all.”

“About?”

“About how her bank robbery needs to go. She’s not mad, she’s thinking. What? You thought I –”

“Don’t get testy. You can be a real prick when you set your mind to it. Maybe you got too high an mighty ‘splainin’ yourself as being the boy genius you’re not. And makin’ her work that fucking life raft bubble wrap like it’ll protect the money…my ass. Listenin’ to you spew that shit less than once would test the patience of a rock. Still has to be the dumbest, most absurd –”

“You’ll both thank me when you’re spending the money. You drop off our San Jose hacker, put him on the bus?”

“I did. He’s a whiny little shit.”

“What does he know?”

“Shit for nothin’.”

“You asked?”

“I did.”

I few scenes from Allfuckedupistan flashed on the big screen in my head. “You had his full attention when you asked?”

“Fuck me, Paro. The man has broken ribs. Way I was askin’, he’d a burned his gramma if I’d a told him I had a use for the ashes.”

“And you called me a real prick.”

“I said you could be a real prick.” Rip picked up the cactus glass, drank half my expensive lemonade. “But what you wanted to know by way of casual conversation ‘stead of interrogation, about Woody an the Feds an Woody’s joke of a prison sentence and the gang accountant an all that? Well, it fit together, timing-wise, just like you thought. I was convinced you were lookin’ at OJ’s glove with all that.”

“Me, too.” Moreno stepped through the back door, made the room smell a lot better. The floor dogs raised their heads and two more followed her in and dropped in heaps beside their buds.

I cloaked my surprise at seeing her with a clever observation.

“You’re early.”

“You’re remarkably perceptive for someone wearing a worn-out sexist stoner party band’s t-shirt.”

She’d found a pale yellow with a white floral design summer dress in Rip’s Cinderella room. It might have been, like my sandals, a half size too big, but it was…She was…I needed to stay on task.

“What happened to the girl who would’ve said ‘yo, tambien’?”

“She’s too tired and hungry to come out and play.” She sat in the chair opposite me, squeezed my hand, let go and sniffed my glass. “Yes, I would love a hard lemonade, thank you for asking. And I would like the truth. As it stands between us.” She turned to Rip. “All of us.” I handed her an expensive lemonade, which she took without taking her eyes off Rip.

“Well, Miz Moreno,” he put a second cookie sheet loaded with boneless buffalo wings in the oven, wiped his hands again on the new dish towel. “That would be Paro’s bailiwick. He’s the one who put two-thirds of this Kerrigan bank robbery shindig a yours together.”

“I have heard more than enough from Paro for one day. The truth I want you to tell us, Mr. Taylor,” she sipped her drink, batted her eyelashes, watched him go weak. “Is the story of a Princess’s bedroom in the middle of this God-forsaken nowhere.”

Published by

Phil Huston

https://philh52.wordpress.com/

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