I raised my head off the bed, reached out and palmed the phone. Rip. Two minutes before the alarm would’ve gone off at 0600.
“What? What sorta mess you leave me, Sleeping Beauty?”
“Oh… Shit. That.” I rolled up to sitting, dropped the phone on the bed, rubbed my eyes.
“In the hangar… Dogs…”
“At this rate I’ll wait for the movie. Pick up the goddam phone or put it on speaker.”
“Right…” One of those sounded like an excellent idea, but all I could do was rub my face and stare at the phone.
“Yeah, yeah…” I picked up the phone, stuck it to my ear, leaned forward elbows to knees. “There were two of ‘em. They killed one of your dogs, enjoyed it too much. Got ‘em in the hangar… The other dogs…” I hadn’t heard him laugh out loud for a while.
“Didn’t leave ‘em in there all night, didja?”
“I let the dogs out after twenty minutes or so.”
“Good. The dogs’ll fuck with somebody till they’re dead, but they won’t eat ‘em. Guess we taste funny. Wish I’d been there.”
“Assholes would’ve never made it to the hangar.”
“If they’d a killed the dog before I killed them, though, think I’d a sent ‘em to their knees an let the dogs finish it, same as you. Only outdoors. Why is it you always gotta make a goddam mess?”
I didn’t have an answer for him, but I’d fumbled my way into the kitchen. “Where’re you hidin’ the loads for this Keurig?”
“You too lazy to make a real cup a coffee?”
I didn’t have an answer for that, either.
“They’re in the second drawer there, underneath. You know where the Bobcat’s parked?”
“The baby ‘dozer? Yeah. Jesus, is this Keurig plumbed for water?”
“Double filtered. Don’t fuck with it. Turn it on, stuff one of those plastic jobs in its mouth, push the button, drink it if you can stand it. I’ll get hold of somebody to clean up.”
“Cops, or Sheriff or–”
“Paro, need you to wake the fuck up, son. Nobody in any kinda uniform is on your side an you got work to do.”
“But I have two, three hours–”
“No, you don’t. Listen. Need you to make sure the Bobcat’ll start so I can send people out there to mop up. Then you an your puddle jumper need to be in the air an gone.”
“What’s the big damn hurry?”
“That unmarked UH-72 helicopter the CIA man with the high dollar scotch dropped by in? The one the polite, heavily armed uniformed children come lookin’ for the money in? It’s on its way again. No way you’re outrunnin’ it in your little Cub so you need to be at ten, twelve thousand feet going the other way now.”
“Whoever’s comin’ has radar. They can follow–”
“They don’t wanna follow you, Paro. They don’t want you in the air. Period. People like the dog killers disappear every day. You’re another likely if you don’t hit it damn quick.”
“What if they find the bodies, or—”
“Nobody in that chopper gives a damn about any dead bodies other’n yours. They see you’re gone? They’re gone. Stop askin’ questions. Git.”
The hurry and get out only to end up waiting at the convict and Moreno rendezvous point wasn’t the way I’d wanted to start the day, but Rip was right. A UH-72 in the air wasn’t cause for alarm. They weren’t designed as combat machines, but on the ground they could easily deliver eight combat troops loaded for bear. Or a Company hotshot with a crew of black balaclava-clad erasers looking to make someone disappear. Whatever the payload, if Rip’s heads-up call was on the money, I’d have been standing in the kitchen in my birthday suit, drinking another half cup of Keurig almost coffee when they arrived.
I walked through a hot shower, balled up the camo jumpsuit, stuck my feet in the flip-flops, and air-dried on the way to the Cub. I fished out my next-to-last pair of disposable boxer briefs from a bag under the seat, found some not too objectionable socks stuffed in my desert boots. I dressed, trotted down to the Bobcat front-loader, made sure it would start for the cleanup crew. On the way back I stopped at the old red Ram, grabbed the Walther PPK S along with a box of ammunition and two spare clips. I lifted the pickup bed cover, discovered the gym bag with three million dollars in it was missing. Moreno. She either needed it to bait the convicts into twenty-four more hours of service or fund her disappearance.
Either way, if I got to the best-case engagement rendezvous and found out I was playing solo I’d turn around and keep traveling.
What a bucket of talk. I had far too many unanswered questions for everyone involved in this circus. It felt good, though, to say I could walk away from the Great Kerrigan Bank Robbery by brushing my hands together.
I’d climbed through 10,000 feet and trimmed out on a North-Northeast heading towards Lipscomb County Road N when I spotted the Lakota helicopter 3,000 feet below me, chugging along in the opposite direction. The helicopter didn’t turn around, didn’t raise me on the radio for an ID. Whoever they were, they had their order blinders on. Stay on course, one scenario, one outcome. I’d almost gotten killed doing that for the same breed of “intelligence community” people. They’d ‘purged’ me for making them look stupid, and here I was in the middle of their shit. Again. I didn’t have time for the who’s stupid now game. I knew without playing.
I flew over the engagement area, an intersection of secondary, unpaved roads in the eastern Texas panhandle. There were a few perfect, green circles of irrigated crops, the rest of the area was flat, high plains scrubby grassland dotted with oil and gas wells that stood out from the green and brown on bright white four hundred foot diameter Caliche pads.
I banked in from the west and County Road N presented as a seven-mile-long straight shot of more white Caliche. Utility poles, wires and fences on the side, nothing to fly over getting in or out. Landing on an unknown surface concerned me. Ground up and mixed with coarser chunks of itself Caliche forms a decent surface for unpaved rural roads in this part of the world but it’s not always smooth and the gravelly version wasn’t what I wanted to land on. The snow white color made it impossible to determine texture unless you were right up on it. But the fields of saw grass knots and waves of irregular sand mixed with solid Caliche outcroppings and gas wells on either side were worse.
I lined up low a mile west of where I wanted to drop, with over a mile in front of me after I hit. I floated in so low the Cub kicked up a sizeable dust cloud before I leveled out, cut the throttle back and held my breath for that instant before flying machine meets ground. The surface wasn’t glass, but it wasn’t heavy gravel. I taxied to the edge of the road, swung the tail around into the rough grass where I waited for the white dust cloud to settle before climbing down into a hot, no breeze middle of nowhere morning.
I’d left myself a decent walk. A half a mile on N before it turned right into another mile on 23 to the best-case engagement where 23 dead-ended into County Road O. I decides to cut across a scrubby pasture where I skirted a couple of gas wells and a Caliche gravel pit. A route that saved me time, a nose full of dust, drenched me in sweat and tried its damndest to twist my ankles. I got to the intersection, found two ten foot long thirty-two-inch high concrete barriers laid end to end across County Road O. Parked on the far side of the barriers and facing east sat a huge, white-dust-covered yellow and rust road roller. Its presence explained why my landing surface was better than expected. No one was driving around that road-width roller without driving into the drainage ditch, a solid wall of Caliche, or facing out into barbed wire. The barriers were a bonus.
I put one of the concrete barriers between me and the scorcher of morning Sun and sat facing west, feet flat, thighs to my chest. Thought about a cigarette. Not the first one that would make me feel like shit, but the pacifier effect of the subsequent ones. Without them I settled into edgy, fidgety, vigilant boredom. The boredom you feel waiting for the event you know is coming that will turbocharge your adrenaline production. The Moreno gift phone buzzed, startled me. I patted a few pockets until I found it, popped it out, tapped the red dot.
“Paro?” Moreno, her voice encapsulated in road noise.
“Perhaps there is the better choice of words? Donde?”
“Gracias, amor, I didn’t think you cared. You’re early.”
“I had to get out before el lechero.”
“Figure of speech. What do you know about Gerald Ng?”
“Geral-deen? The Milkman? Estoy perdido, Paro, you confuse me. Make sense, por favor.”
“Forget it. ETA?”
“Twenty minutes, perhaps. We, um,” she faltered, “we also achieved the early start. The gentlemen wished to make shooting practice.”
“They let you shoot?”
“You in Rip’s truck?”
“Si. With the weapons, also. As you asked.”
“Shit. You have the money?”
“No, pero el dinero debería llegar pronto.” She barked ‘okay’ to someone in the background. “It will be there, with you, very soon. In the van with Señores Muller and Dawson. Paro?” She hesitated, dropped “Ten cuidado mi amor, estos hombres no son quienes dicen…” at triple speed. I heard Usman tell her to shut up with the Spanish and the phone clicked off.
‘Be careful my love, the men are not who they say they are.’ Thanks, Cav, but I’d picked that up early on. Usman was the only legitimate badman. A B-grade thug at best and a minor player in the arms trade game. ‘Bax’ Wheeler, AKA Third Eye Horseapple Nose, had been Flyer the CIA hotshot’s plant. Maybe he was a con, but the little time I’d spent around him he smelled like a professional weasel, a career informant. Muller was playing damaged, threatening psychopath for reasons unknown. Not wearing the crazy eye contacts in the same eye every day had given him away. The other tallish one, Dawson, had a bogus convict sheet planted in the systems on his behalf in case anyone went looking. He was some brand of undercover or ex-cop with cop and service tats and million-dollar teeth. Not a forger, much less a con.
Judging by the dust rising on County Road N behind the ‘convict’s’ van, I didn’t have long to wait to find out. If they stopped and fucked with my plane instead of driving around it, I’d have to shoot first when they arrived. I vaulted over to the east side of the concrete barrier, checked the Walther for a chambered round. Out of curiosity, I climbed up on the road roller to see what cover it could offer. The key, attached to six inches of worn, braided leather the thickness of a shoelace, was in the ignition lock. Whoever owned the roller must’ve figured it was too slow to steal and too big to hide. I scrambled down, walked to the barricades, the Walther behind my back, safety off, finger on the trigger.