I turned due south fifteen miles east of Liberal, Kansas, cleared the Oklahoma panhandle and picked up lights at 3 o’clock, two miles out, 150 feet low. They weren’t closing, they didn’t go away. I flipped the radio to shortwave, phoned home.
“PD 1 to PD 3”
“Copy PD 1. What’s your location?”
“Southeast of Perryton.”
“PD 1, the coordinates are in front of you.”
“Good for them. I have a shadow, 3 o’clock, two miles.”
“Probably. You copy that, PD 3?”
“Roger that. PD 3. Out.”
I clicked off the radio. Rip was sharp enough to skip the sermons about Palo Duro at night. Hopefully sharp enough to drive most of the way without lights to avoid picking up his own shadow.
PD 3 was the second most dangerous of the four routes we’d plotted through the Palo Duro Canyon to a drop point. In daylight. It wasn’t daylight and this wasn’t the way it was supposed to go. I glanced out the window at my shadow. Whoever you are. I hope you can fly that thing or know when an order starts to look like suicide…
I backed off airspeed to give Rip the hour drive time he needed. The shadow closed to within a mile and we flew formation that way for an hour. A third of the way from the southern end of Palo Duro Canyon I ran the Cessna up to 120, dropped to 50 feet off the ground, killed the lights. That got the shadow’s attention and they pulled up on my tail.
This was the touristy part of the canyon. Great views, steep cliffs, wide canyon floor. I took it low and fast across the top of Castle Mesa, cleared the edge, pushed the nose down and dropped like a rock, pulled the nose up 30 feet off the canyon floor and ramped back up to 120, skirting the canyon floor and walls, scrub brush so close I could almost feel it grab at the landing gear.
My shadow had stopped at the edge of Castle Mesa, like a horse afraid of a jump. The pilot must have lost an argument and was behind me again, trying to stay centered in the canyon and higher, but not high enough. Smart money would have put them way up and over in a wait and see, let their electronics track me but they were as close to on my ass as fear would let them, catching up in spurts only to lose me again. That told me they weren’t outfitted for air to air or air to ground weapons or any radar other than weather and nav. That was the best news I’d had all night.
The canyon was a straight northwest shot if you knew where the walls, interior mesas and outcroppings were, except for a quick left-right dogleg by Brushy Draw. I twisted sideways and over, took the bend in a roll. The helicopter saw the dogleg coming, gained altitude at the expense of speed or face into the cliff. They were back a few miles later when the canyon valley made sense again. I banked hard left into a wide gulch, followed its rise, nosed up and out of the canyon. My electronics told me that my shadow had flown past and reversed back to the gulch. If they went in, they weren’t coming out. It appeared they were debating, again, and remained stationary.
I took advantage of being out of their line of sight and flew north at 140, slowed, dropped down into another, wider gulch and shot out into Flat Canyon, banked hard left. My shadow had stayed in the canyon drifting north, assuming my business waited somewhere on the canyon floor. They caught up and stuck to me until the easy part went away at Nameless Draw and the old canyon riverbed turned into a narrow snake run of hard banks left, right, left, then right again. I lost them at that point, which was the only part of this evening that had worked according to plan. Without a rehearsal, no one was following that run at speed. After the last hard right, I pulled the Cessna into as steep a climb as it could handle, cleared the mesa, nosedived back over, located the large, brackish pond covered in green slime off Thomas Draw, dropped power to near stall, reached up, put my hand on the cargo release and held my breath.
Too many things could go wrong in the next five seconds. The cargo container would drop, the static line would pop the gas canisters, they’d inflate the life rafts. The static line wouldn’t break free, the plane would drop like I’d tossed out an anchor. Rip’s custom cargo doors on the floor of the fuselage wouldn’t fall shut and I’d be flying a big wind scoop too slow to pull out and keep flying and too low to use the Cessna’s safety parachute. The rafts wouldn’t inflate, the cargo container would explode on impact littering the area with hundred-dollar bills…
Madre de Dios…
I pulled the handle.
The Cessna jumped, bucked, the nose went up. The cargo doors dropped and held. I didn’t have time for the rest of it, that was Rip’s job. I was up past the mesa and climbing in a slow, easterly bank and wiping the sweat out of my eyes when my shadow, who’d never made it past the second bend, bubbled up out of the canyon to follow me to Rip’s.
The Lakota pilot waited for me to turn on the big outdoor lights after I’d landed, and set down almost exactly where they’d landed before. This time Flyer the CIA man wasn’t with them. Three armed to the teeth rifle squad troops trotted from the back. The first one offered his field pack ID, held up in a gloved hand for me to read. Damn he was young. And smelled cleaner than any foot soldier I’d served around.
“Run short on Sergeants tonight, Corporal…?” His name had more consonants than a Russian phone book. “Don’t make me say that without help, soldier.”
“No, sir. Prizz-bull, sir. Our orders are to search your aircraft and surrounding premises.”
I turned sideways, swept my hand in the direction of the Cessna and hangers. “Corporal Pryzbyl, make yourself at home.”
“Thank you, sir,” came awkward and slow. The corporal must have expected resistance. He signaled his two compatriots, sent them off to either side.
I went to the kitchen, switched on the lights, calmed the dogs. I should’ve let them out to put some combat duty shit in the recruits’ drawers, but they might have freaked and shot the dogs. I knew Rip had at least one sermon waiting for me when he arrived, I didn’t need another.
The kitchen door slammed open. Moreno’s hair was the mess of sleep, her clothes were what she had on when I’d dropped her on the bed. She shoved the soldier behind her in the chest with both hands.
“Déjame ir, sucio cabrón!”
The soldier looked at me, hope and fear in his eyes. “Sir? We found her in –”
She shoved again, and for all his combat gear I knew Moreno scared him more than any enemy he’d been shown movies of.
“Thank you soldier. She’s unexpected, but not unwelcome.”
“Not unwelcome? YOU!” She reached in the dish drainer, grabbed a cactus tumbler and threw it at me. Good aim, but I caught it. Through the screen door I saw the soldier hauling ass back to his search duty, most likely praying there were no more Cavanaugh Morenos lurking anywhere.
“Calling a soldier in full combat costume a filthy asshole is a risky proposition, even for you.”
“You! You wish to talk assholes? With me? You think you are so clever. Your sneaky lemonades. So you might have your way with me?” She spit in the sink.
“I didn’t –”
“You did! Your way to get rid of me while you go off, off to…Rip said you went to rob the bank! Two and a half days early! He told me you say the bank has already been robbed! How? The money, it’s not even here.”
“It wasn’t ever going to get here.”
“So you said, but in two days’ time more! You, Comparo. And Senor Rip. And me,” she poked herself in the chest, “Cavanaugh Moreno. We would rob the van. Together. As a team!”
“No.” She dropped in a chair at the kitchen table. I opened the fridge.
“Filtered water. The tap is disgusting.”
I tossed her an Ozarka bottle. “Fort Worth tap water.” She made a ‘that’s disgusting’ face. “Reverse osmosis filtered.”
She eyed the bottle, turned it in her hand.
“That makes it Spring Water?”
“You pissed off at everybody, Cav?”
She chugged most of the bottle, set it on the table.. “You. Only.” She leaned back in the chair, both fists propped on the table, stared at me through the slits her eyes became when she was angry. “Did you do it? Re-rob our bank?” She smacked her forehead with the heel of her palm, “Re-rob! Dios que suena estupido.”
“I know it sounds stupid, but –”
“Sir?” The leader of the partial rifle squad stood outside the door. “Sir, we need to search this building.”
I made another welcoming gesture. “Don’t break anything, the old guy who owns this place has lots of friends. Give him an excuse to get a hard-on and you soldiers will be doing combat duty someplace way nastier than Texas.”
“Yes, sir. Sir?” He hadn’t moved. “The dogs, sir?”
I’d tuned out the rumbled growls of the dogs, but I read the corporal’s mind and led them off the to a bedroom, closed the door. The proper command and it would splinter. “They’re in the back bedroom. Let me know when you need in there.”
The corporal turned and with a jerk of his thumb sent one of his underlings to search the house. I heard drawers and closets open and close as he worked his way through. He stopped at the dog room.
I went back, sent him to the kitchen, herded the dogs into a bathroom, returned to the kitchen, gave an “all clear.” He was back in three minutes. He talked in low tones with the other two for maybe thirty seconds. They broke their three-man huddle, the young leader stepped up to the door again.
“Sir, thank you for your cooperation.” He touched his helmet in a one finger salute. “Ma’am, sorry to wake you.”
We waited for the helicopter to do a brief preflight, wind up, lift off and fly east until it was no more than a rowdy locust in the distance.
“The bank. Paro? The bank, which was not yet a bank, but a van. A van in Kansas?”
“Why aren’t you with Tavius?”
“I refuse, that’s why.” She shook her head for effect, as if to clear it. “The bank? The van I mean.”
“Yes, I re-robbed the bank. Van.” I had to laugh. Tension release, the stupid way it sounded. She laughed with me. We collected, sat for a moment in silence.
“All of it?”
“ALL of it.”
By the time I’d finished the Mullinville Cenex truck stop saga she was sitting on my lap in the patio loveseat, a plastic wicker number with thick, dusty cushions.
“Madre de Dios…” she said, her head resting on my left shoulder.
“That’s what I said. In fact, I think you’ve infected me with it. It’s become my go-to for ‘holy shit’ and ‘muhhh-ther fuhhh –’”
“Good. It is a nicer way I think, to say the same.”
“Unless you know it’s a replacement.”
“Then it becomes an inside joke. Like re-robbing a bank. That’s not even a bank.”
“Think of it like refried beans. Miss it the first time –”
She swatted my ribs. “I missed nothing. I didn’t know.” She rubbed where she’d swatted me. “Why, en el nombre de Dios, did you give Woody money and let him go?”
“Pity. And maybe a shot of stupid.”
“A double shot, if not a triple.”
We sat in silence again. I thought she’d fallen asleep when she whispered, “Why the old movie?”
“Don’t worry about it.”
“I worry as I please. Senor Rip discovered the film, but had not started to watch when I, when they woke me up. I told them I was going nowhere and that you were cutting us all out of…of…” She let that trail off. “But you came back.” She squeezed me, yawned, arched her back like cat, made fists at the end of her outstretched arms, let them go. “The three of us came in here to watch together. We made popcorn. And I melted butter in the microwave.”
“That’s a first?”
“Si! I was taught low and slow, on the stove, or to use the little plastic cup on top of the popcorn maker.”
“Those cups never worked. Good popcorn?”
“Perfecto. Terribly greasy, just like the movies.” She eased her shoulder under my arm. “Rip teases your black friend, but they are two of a kind, I think. Men like you, without regard for El Jefe.”
“Tavius is CIA. Possibly still active Army Intelligence.”
“That’s an oxymoron if I ever heard one…”
I considered all the oxymorons in what I’d said. She snuggled back into my shoulder.
“Where is the money now, Paro?”
“Rip has it if it survived our lander.”
“He is trustworthy?”
“I’m not sure anyone is when there’s sixteen million cash involved.”
“You have been…so far…” She yawned again. “In your old movie? Rip thinks it is one of the men you are speaking about. I think it is about the girl.”
I let that go and she was asleep in minutes. I watched the stars, the lights of a lone aircraft with enough altitude to pass soundlessly through the night sky, thought to myself all this crazy shit – the whole bank robbery setup, combat soldiers on domestic CIA duty, long nights, near-death experiences…They’re always about the girl, aren’t they?