Six hours ago
The glossy red Learjet was parked on the ramp beside a Winjeel, an old orange and white single-engine flight trainer with faded Royal Australian Air Force markings on the wings and fuselage. Bobbie Macey, the Lear’s pilot, patted the old timer’s dusty skin with the flat of her hand. “You’re a long way from home, babe.”
A cab pulled up. Macey’s co-pilot, Rick Gartner, got out and wandered over. “That ol’ girl’s had a hard life,” he said with way too much cheer for the hour. “Bit like you.”
“Watch it, sonny,” said Macey.
Gartner slipped her a sly grin.
Macey sighed. “Local girl?”
“Struck out, huh?”
Gartner kept up the grin but the edge had come off it.
“Thought so,” said Macey.
The two pilots had an easy relationship, all business in the cockpit and all banter out of it – most of it good-natured. At forty-four, Macey was the captain and Gartner, in his early thirties, her co-pilot. Over the past few years they’d flown quite a few charters together and knew the routine like it was scripted. If there was occasional friction between them it stemmed from Gartner’s habit of chasing skirt even though he was married with a kid. A gigolo had written the guy’s moral code, Macey had decided, and it rubbed her the wrong way. But he was easy to get along with otherwise, once the ground rules had been set out during a two-day layover in Panama. That night, after putting away a skinful, he’d cupped her breast as she passed him on the way to the john. She’d stopped, looked down at his hand like it was a food stain on her shirt and said, “You want a bottle broken over your frikken’ head?” Later that night, she’d said, “Pull that shit again I’ll have you fired. I’m your boss, get it?” After that, no further trouble. Nevertheless, it still bugged Macey when Gartner left a bar with some floozy under his wing, and that happened often enough.
Macey ran her hand down the riveted skin of the old trainer’s flank. The aluminum was cooler to the touch than the ambient air temperature, which the local weather report on her cell phone told her was hovering just above seventy degrees Fahrenheit. Comfortable.
“Not much going on around here,” Gartner commented, hands on hips, surveying the surroundings. “Might go see if I can rustle up some coffee.”
“Not for me, thanks,” said Macey.
“Bladder can’t cope, eh?”
She grunted. “I’d like to see you pass a kid the size of a submarine.”
The younger man snorted as he walked off. “Too much information, boss.”
“Be back here in thirty,” Macey said to Gartner’s back, the co-pilot raising his hand above his shoulder in acknowledgment.
With Gartner gone, the pre-dawn quiet returned. Macey did a few stretches, using the Winjeel’s wing for support. A pickup pulled off the access road and motored slowly into the facility. Despite the early hour, there were still plenty of people moving about this small privately owned airport – early risers.
Here and there were single-engine aircraft: Cessnas, Beeches, a few twins and several gliders – this place was big on those. It was Macey’s first time at this facility. She’d run charters in and out of El Paso often enough in the past, operating from the international airport ten miles across town to the northwest. But Horizon Airport looked and felt home built. The single runway was narrow and lumpy like it had been rolled straight onto the desert floor, the sand and rock nibbling at the edges of the asphalt. And getting in and out of this place was different to what she was used to. After flying for United back in the day, and the Marines before that – KC-130s, tankers, airborne gas stations – you got used to a certain level of infrastructure. This place had almost none. No radar, no control tower. Around here it was all see-and-avoid, which wasn’t ideal when you were flying a jet with a stall speed equal to the cruise of the average single-engine plane frequenting this chunk of sky. What troubled Macey most about Horizon, though, now that she thought about it, was the almost complete lack of security. A little chain-link fencing enclosed the back of the facility and that was pretty much it. Anyone could just wander in and do whatever they liked. It was for this reason that she’d slept aboard the Lear. The passenger seats went back horizontal so it wasn’t so bad. Lord knows she’d slept on aircraft most of her adult life.
Macey took a stick of cinnamon gum from her pocket, called it breakfast and popped it in her mouth. She walked past the trainer toward the Lear. A 35 model. Compact, yet with ample room for eight passengers. Agile too, like a sports car, and cruised comfortably at a little over Mach 0.8 at forty thousand feet, performance roughly equal to that of a big commercial airliner. Worth a few mill. A nice prize if someone cared to steal it.
She walked around the aircraft, giving it a casual pre-flight, looking over the control surfaces and landing gear. Chocks up against the tires: check. Tags on the pitot tubes to keep out the sand and bugs: check. Covers on the engine intakes for same reason: check. Nothing amiss. Macey examined the front hatch: locked, just as she’d left it.
Today’s charter was to take a local well-to-do rancher, his wife and two young children, to Orlando, Florida. They were spending the day at Disneyland, a birthday present for one of the kids from what she’d been told. At 7 pm, they were to return the family to Horizon before heading back to the charter company’s HQ at LAX.
Macey’s watch read 5:09. The family wasn’t scheduled to turn up till 5:45. It would still be dark then, but they wanted to get an early start. So, in other words, Macey told herself, you got time to kill, babe. She gazed up. The stars directly overhead were dimmer than the points of light down on the horizon, the larger ones twinkling like the landing lights of faraway inbound aircraft. She dug her hands in her pockets and started walking along the short taxiway, toward the runway. Somewhere unseen within the facility, a single-engine aircraft fired up and then settled back into an easy idle. A Lycoming 320, her educated ear told her. A lizard, startled by her footsteps, skittered for cover into some low scrub. Macey walked into and out of a cool band of air. She enjoyed this time of the morning. It was peaceful, quiet.
Gartner strolled to the terminal building and tried the front door. Locked.
“Great,” he said. He put a hand against the glass and peered inside to make doubly sure that the place was empty. Dark, no movement. He went around the corner of the building and was startled by a large black man sitting on a side doorstep. The man stopped what he was doing, which was aimlessly lobbing pebbles collected in one hand into a tin.
“Hey,” he said looking up.
“Hi,” Gartner replied.
“You work here, man?”
“No, just having a look around.”
“Know if I can I get a plane outta here?”
“It’s not that kinda airport. A charter flight maybe. You might get lucky …”
The man grunted and turned away without further acknowledgment and went back to lobbing pebbles.
Gartner walked around him and meandered back behind the building toward a row of Quonset huts. Several had lights on. The sound of an angle grinder coming from one of them cut through the silence. A pickup motored slowly by, muffled country and western music on its sound system. Despite the early hour, people were already here earning a buck. An old Piper Cub was hangared in one of the Quonsets, a Cessna 172 in its neighbor and an auto body shop in the one after that. He stopped in front of the body shop. A shower of sparks from the angle grinder sprayed from the shadow behind a ’69 Mach I Mustang. The space around the old classic was filled with used auto parts: panels, axles, differentials and suspension components. A guy in dirty blue coveralls stood up behind the car, a cigarette attached somehow to his upper lip. His sudden appearance caught Gartner by surprise.
“Morning,” Gartner said, adding a wave.
The guy repositioned the protective glasses on top of his faded Las Vegas ball cap. “Mornin’.”
“Say, where can I get a coffee around here?”
The man walked to the front of the Quonset. He was in his mid-forties, of medium height with longish brown hair hanging down either side of the cap and a face streaked with black dust. He puffed on the cigarette before pulling the butt off his lip. He dropped it on the ground and stood on it. “Now? Not a chance.”
“The sleepy end of town, eh?” said Gartner more to himself, looking around. This adventure was a dead end. He told himself he should just go back to the Lear and fire up its cappuccino machine. And then he remembered Bobbie had the keys.
“Ah can fix ya some if yer desperate, long as ya don’t mind it black,” the man said helpfully. “Cain’t get m’ heart started ‘thout it.”
Gartner thought about saying no, but the minutes were dragging. A coffee and a word or two would pass the time. “Know what you mean. Black’s good, thanks.”
“Don’ got no sugar, neither.”
“That’s how I take it.”
“Shouldn’t be more’n a minute or two. Just had a coffee masef.” The man laid the angle grinder carefully on a mat protecting the car’s hood, went to a side bench cramped with a jumble of auto-electrical components and flicked a switch on a white plastic electric kettle smeared with greasy black fingerprints. “Ya’ll own that Lear up on the main ramp?”
“But ya’ll’s the pilot, right?”
“One of ’em.”
“Needs two pilots, eh? Nice plane.”
“Nice car,” Gartner countered.
The man unscrewed the red lid from a jar of Folgers and shook some granulated coffee into a foam cup.
“Will be when ah’m finished. Juss ‘bout ready to take ‘er over t’ the paint shop. Not mine, though – a customer’s. She been givin’ me the hurry up for weeks.”
“She?” In Gartner’s world a Mach I Mustang was a man’s car, though probably Macey would have something to say about that, he thought.
“Yeah, she – Gail Sorwick. Anniversary present for her ol’ man.”
“Some present.” For some reason the name was familiar to Gartner but he couldn’t place it.
“Some lady – ya know what ah mean?” In case Gartner didn’t, the man made a gesture with his hand like his fingertips were burning and then shook them to put the flames out. “Drives a Porsche herself, a Cabrio’. Every time she come roun’ here the place kinda stops and a lotta male traffic starts walkin’ back an’ forth out front here tryin’ t’ look busy, borrowin’ shit. Funny as hell.”
“Hot women have that effect on the world. An immutable law of the universe.”
The lid on the jug danced excitedly before the unit turned itself off with a loud click. The man poured boiling water into the foam cup and handed it to Gartner. “There ya go.”
“Thanks. This’ll help.”
Close by, a Lycoming roared into life and then settled back into an idle. Gartner glanced in the direction of the sound and saw the red beacon rotating on a Piper Warrior. “What’s down the far end of the road?” he asked.
“Not much. Trucks an’ trailers, mostly. Whole yard full of ’em out back. All the action’s right here.” He confirmed that with a yawn. “Don’ get many Learjets. Why ya’ here?”
“Got a charter. Off to Disneyland for the day.” Gartner sipped his coffee. “Happiest kingdom of them all.”
The man grunted. “So they say. Well, ya’ll have a nice day.”
“You too,” said Gartner. “And thanks for this.” He held up the foam cup and gave it a nod.
The man went back to the Mustang and his angle grinder and Gartner walked toward the Piper, thinking that the people round here were pretty friendly. The single-engine aircraft began to move, its landing lights chasing away the darkness in its path. Red light from its tail beacon swept the low buildings while its strobe light fired flashes of hard white light that hurt his eyes. A refueling truck drove a short distance and parked against an office. The lights went on in the building beside it and Gartner heard music or a television, he wasn’t sure which. The place was waking up. He glanced at his watch. Still had a good fifteen minutes. He gulped down a mouthful of the Folgers and followed the Piper. It turned and disappeared from view until Gartner walked further onto the ramp, opening out the angle. The lights outlining the runway came on. He concluded that the Piper’s pilot would’ve flicked the switch remotely with his radio to activate them.
Bright white lights suddenly came on, outlining the runway. Macey turned and watched the aircraft swing onto the taxiway. It motored slowly west, coming her way, heading for the beginning of Runway 08 and a take-off into the soon-to-rise sun.
She stepped off the asphalt and walked in the flinty dirt, giving the aircraft coming up behind her plenty of room. Something small and frightened jumped out of her path and dived for a burrow; some kind of gopher, she imagined.
The aircraft – it was a Piper Warrior, she now saw – turned off the taxiway and onto the runway. Half a dozen seconds later it ambled past her, strobe lights flashing and its beacon washing her in red light. The pilot raised a hand to Macey, giving her a departing wave. She returned the gesture and went back to keeping an eye out for gopher holes.
Up ahead, the Warrior stopped briefly. It then turned sharply through one-eighty degrees and faced back down the runway, its landing lights powerful and blinding. Macey put her head down and watched her feet kicking up the dust as she walked. The Warrior’s engine note climbed rapidly, its throttle open. She didn’t have to look up to know that the plane would be stationary, its handbrake on while the pilot performed final engine checks. Its racing Lycoming and prop noise died away for a few moments before it began all over again. But this time the plane began to move, handbrake off, the engine and propeller reaching a higher, louder, more serious note this time, throttle wide open.
It eventually howled past her – no wave from the pilot this time – and bounced down the asphalt, lined up perfectly between the two rows of lights. The small aircraft lifted off when it was roughly adjacent to the terminal building and climbed out at a shallow angle. Macey savored the smell of burned aviation fuel reaching her nostrils. The lights beside the runway turned off, leaving behind blue and orange floaters that swam in her eyes.
The night quickly returned and the sound of the single-engine plane dwindled to nothing after a minute or two. Macey stood in the darkness and took it in, her hands deep in her pockets, playing with spare change in one and the packet of Big Red in the other. She took a deep breath. Better head back and pre-flight the Lear, she told herself. Their charter would be turning up soon.
It was then that she heard aircraft engines. This note was totally different to the Warrior’s. These engines were distant, the hum carried by the night air, and the sound faded as the currents shifted. But then they came back again, distinctly louder this time. Macey peered into the night, searching for landing lights. She couldn’t see any. The engines were turboprops. The rapidly growing volume of sound told her the aircraft were approaching fast and it was disorienting not knowing the direction they were coming from. And troubling. Aircraft approaching a facility like this had to do so with at least fifteen hundred feet of air under their wings, their strobes and running lights illuminated. An inbound radio call would have automatically triggered the runway lights. The fact that the runway was still darkened informed her that the mystery aircraft hadn’t made –
A black shape exploded from out of the darkness and roared past low overhead, interrupting her thoughts.
“Shit!” she exclaimed, ducking involuntarily as the blast of propeller and turboprop roar enveloped her. “Hey!” she shouted at it as the shape disappeared in the blackness. Macey’s muscles relaxed as she stood up from the crouch, the hair raised on the back of her neck, her spine tingling with shock. Then a second aircraft, lower than the first, almost took her head off, the pressure wave coming off the backs of its wings buffeting her. Like the first aircraft, this second one was almost instantly swallowed by the night. She peered into the darkness, trying to locate them. After a dozen seconds, as if to help her out, their landing lights and strobes came on, pinpointing them against the stars, one three hundred yards behind the other. They were coming in to land.
The fright Macey experienced almost being chewed up by low flying propeller blades ebbed away leaving indignant anger in its place. She was gonna have some serious, mother-lovin’ words with those pilots. But almost immediately she decided that probably wouldn’t be too smart. There was only one reason for coming in low like that: to avoid the radar at El Paso International. The aircraft seemed to have come from the southwest, the direction of Mexico. The border was barely seven miles away, only a couple minutes’ flying time with the ass those turboprops had been hauling. Macey watched the aircraft lights enter the landing pattern. Her hands were clammy. Everything told her that what she was witnessing had a dangerous quality about it.
The runway lights finally came on. Macey started walking toward the facility, turning to look back over her shoulder at the inbound aircraft. They were approaching fast, the wash from their powerful landing lights already shimmering and flickering on the ground around her. After a few steps she broke into a jog, which turned into a sprint. She was running hard, wanting to get back to the Lear, find Gartner. She stole another glance over her shoulder. The aircraft were coming in hot. Her foot went into a hole. It went in deep. She stumbled. Macey knew she was in trouble. Her momentum propelled her forward, all the strain of her weight on a point against her shin pressed against a rock, her knee joint overextended. She knew it was coming, nothing she could do to stop it … The crack was like a dry tree branch being snapped over someone’s thigh, her bones breaking as the ground rushed toward her outstretched hands.
Macey lay facedown in the dirt for several seconds, groaning, dreading the worst – knowing the worst – before rolling slowly to the side. The change in body position released the pressure on her foot and it popped out of the gopher hole. She pushed herself up on an elbow and saw that her lower leg was bent in an odd way, a right angle in it halfway up the shin like she had a second knee joint there. She rolled all the way onto her back and grunted, holding her leg below the break, swearing angrily at her own stupidity.
“Now what the hell are you gonna do?” Macey said aloud and brought her foot back down on the dirt, feeling the ends of the fractured shinbones grinding against each other. This should feel worse than it did, she thought, but knew the real pain was yet to come.
The lead aircraft touched down and then its engines shrieked and propeller blades snarled in full reverse thrust. Macey turned her head to the side to watch it go by, to identify it. It flashed past, lit up by the runway lights. A turboprop with a T-tail – a King Air. The whole thing was painted flat black. Macey hadn’t seen too many King Airs painted flat black. Or any, come to think of it.
She groaned and let her head fall back onto the ground. Then the second aircraft thundered past, sounding the same as the first. Another King Air. The facility’s buildings were a good thousand feet away across the dirt and rock. “You’re gonna have to crawl or hop to get there,” she told herself. “What’s it gonna be?” Macey decided on the latter; too many critters on the ground, some of them with stingers or fangs.
The effort that went into standing up made her eyes water, but she eventually made it, her foot, held off the ground, swinging uselessly in midair. She had a cell phone in her breast pocket. Call Gartner, she told herself, and patted both pockets – empty. The damn thing must be on the ground somewhere. She looked around but couldn’t see it. Get back to the Lear, was her next thought, and the quicker the better. But then the runway lights went out again, plunging the world into darkness. “Fuck,” Macey grunted.
“It’s a Piper Warrior taking off. Nothing to get excited about,” said Gartner to the night air. He decided to head back to the Lear, but there was plenty of time, no need to hurry. And Macey was probably already there, taking charge as usual. Flinging what was left of the coffee on the ground, he dropped the cup in a trash-barrel. It was only when he heard the Piper’s engine racing out on the end of the runway that he picked up the pace. The aircraft was already moving when he walked around the corner of a building to bring it into view, its landing lights dancing in the darkness out on the end of the runway. The thrill of flight still excited Gartner and, though it was only a Warrior, he paused to watch it inch down the runway and eventually, finally, lift off. A jet it wasn’t.
A few minutes later Gartner arrived back at the Lear and now there was a mini hub of activity going on around it. A refueling truck was topping up the Winjeel’s tank, its pilot discussing something with the mechanic. Their charter was also waiting, the family sitting in a white Suburban with the motor running to power its AC, a muffled song from The Lion King playing on the DVD for the kids. As Gartner approached the vehicle, the driver’s door opened and a fit, forty-something male in Levi’s and a crisp blue shirt hopped out and came to meet him.
“Barney Sorwick,” he said. “You the pilot?” He tilted his head at the Lear.
“Co-pilot.” Gartner held out his hand. “Rick Gartner.”
Barney shook it. “We’re a bit early.”
“No problem, sir. Good to get an early start. The boss will be back in a minute and we’ll take off shortly after that.”
“Call me Barney, okay?”
The passenger door opened. Mrs Sorwick climbed out and walked over: long tan legs, khaki shorts, suede boots and a loose white cotton top. Gail Sorwick. It clicked – the woman giving her husband a Mach I for an anniversary present. Gartner felt he already knew her. And yeah, he could see what all the fuss was about: tall and slim with olive skin, dark eyes and dimples. Her straight black hair was in a tight high ponytail. It swung from side to side as walked toward him, seemingly in slo-mo. The Gail Sorwick Effect.
“This is my wife, Gail,” said Barney.
“Hi.” She smiled warmly.
“Rick Gartner, your co-pilot for the day.”
“Dad …” a whining kid called out from the Suburban. “Can you tell Amie to stop?”
“Excuse me.” Barney sighed deeply. “Duty calls.”
Gartner was happy to be left alone with Mrs Sorwick, only she seemed to be distracted by something in the night sky. “What’s that noise?” she asked.
Gartner realized that the sound of approaching turboprop engines had been in the background for a while. He hunted around in the sky for the source but couldn’t locate it. The aircraft – was it more than one? Yeah, two. They were close, very close. And low. Gartner frowned with confusion. Why were aircraft buzzing the airport at night with their lights turned off? He subconsciously scratched his head while he searched the sky again, at a loss. Gail Sorwick was having similar problems. Then, above, aircraft landing lights came on. There were two sets, almost directly above them, climbing. The runway lights came on next.
“They’re landing,” said Gartner, thinking aloud.
Mrs Sorwick stood beside him. “Do planes usually fly like that? With their lights off?”
“No,” Gartner replied, uneasy about it, same as she was. He hid it with shrug. “But I’m sure there’s a good reason – emergency training procedures …” Of course, that was complete fabrication.
Mrs Sorwick changed the subject. “So, I checked the weather in Florida and looks like it’s going to be hot, steamy and overcast. I hope that doesn’t affect the flight home.”
“No, but it’s going to provide plenty of excuses for ice cream,” Gartner ventured.
“Trust me, our kids don’t need any excuses when it comes to ice cream.”
Gartner glanced across at the Winjeel and the Lear, the refueling truck having finished with the old RAAF trainer and starting to move. The pilot was in the truck, hitching a ride somewhere. Gartner noticed a lightening in the eastern sky, the black sliding into a thin dark-blue band at the horizon. Time was marching on. He’d happily stand around for hours doing small talk with Gail Sorwick, but duty called. He wondered where Macey had gone. “Well, you’ll have to excuse me, ma’am. Gotta go do my thing.”
“Sure,” she said. “When can we come aboard?”
“Whenever you’re ready.”
Mrs Sorwick gave him a nod and went back to the Suburban to organize the kids, World War III having broken out between them and their father.
Gartner walked to the Lear. The landing lights of inbound aircraft were now lined up with the runway – the mystery turboprops. One was a mile out, the other two miles behind it. “Bobbie?” he called out. Silence. He went past the back of the Lear to the edge of the ramp. Perhaps Macey had gone for a walk in the desert. He scanned the darkness for signs of her, but there weren’t any.
The first aircraft touched down, its propeller blades snarling when reverse thrust was selected. It slowed quickly, using very little runway, and turned off onto the taxiway. The second aircraft landed moments later, as economical as the first in the amount of runway used. Gartner focused on the plane coming toward him, wondered what type it was and who might be at the controls. The mystery only deepened when the lead aircraft was close enough for him to get a good look at it. A King Air. It was painted a dull, flat black all over. The second aircraft, also a King Air, had caught up to the lead plane and he saw that it, too, was painted up just like the first: black.
This little airport was suddenly getting busy. A large truck had pulled up behind the Suburban, which the Sorwicks were in the process of moving to a spot around the back of the parking lot. The air was now full of turboprop noise, and beams from the two sets of landing lights. The aircraft came off the taxiway and continued on past the Lear and the Winjeel. The lead King Air turned ninety degrees so that it faced the access road and the truck parked on it, extinguished its lights and shut down the engines. The second aircraft pulled up beside the first and its lights and engines died. The deafening roar of the turboprops ceased almost immediately and simultaneously, replaced by a whoosh of the windmilling blades. Despite the imminent arrival of dawn, the two aircraft on the ramp were congealed remnants of midnight.
The sudden silence increased Gartner’s unease. Where the hell was Macey? She was ex-military. Maybe she could explain this. He took the cell phone out of his pocket and was about to speed-dial her when the door behind the cockpit of the lead aircraft opened, the action mirrored by the King Air behind it. Ladders came down. And then men spilled out of the first aircraft. Gartner swallowed. They were all wearing ski masks and carrying guns.
They fanned out across the ramp. Some were shouting. And before Gartner could move, two of the masked men ran up to him, yelling. He froze. One of them slapped the cell phone out of his hand and stamped it into the asphalt. The other bashed him in the side of his face with a swipe of his gun. Gartner fell to the ground in a state of shock, his face numb and his mouth full of blood. Jesus Christ, a tooth was loose.
The two men were talking at each other excitedly. Gartner couldn’t understand them. He thought that his brain had come loose, like his tooth, or that something had broken inside his head. Then he realized that they were speaking a foreign language – Spanish. Were they Mexican? He began to sit up and one of the men pointed a gun at him and shouted. Gartner lifted his hands up above his head and moved slowly as he got to his knees. Then he saw the Sorwick family being herded toward the Lear by two armed men. The kids were bewildered, crying. Gail was trying to comfort them while Barney attempted to reason with their captors. One of the men grabbed a kid by his blond hair, pulled a heavy Bowie knife from a scabbard on his belt and held the blade against the boy’s throat. He wanted silence. Barney Sorwick gave it to him.
Gartner knew enough Spanish to order a tortilla, but that was about it. He couldn’t communicate with these men. And he’d seen the reaction when Barney Sorwick tried. Two more masked individuals walked almost casually over to the Sorwicks. One of them was dressed in military camouflage pants and shirt. He was short – maybe only a little over five feet tall, and stocky. The shape of that well-fed body told Gartner that he was older than the men around him, all of whom were fit-looking and mostly dressed in faded military gear. The men who had accosted him and the Sorwicks all seemed to defer to this man, standing aside for him when he approached. He reached Barney and Gail. He spoke to them in Spanish and Barney replied in Spanish. The man laughed, made a gesture and, in response to it, Gail was separated from her husband. The man with the Bowie knife offered it to his boss, who shook his head. He turned to Gail and assessed her as he removed his own knife from the scabbard on his belt, a knife with a long thin blade and mother-of-pearl handle. Then he cut Gail’s top off her body. Just like that. Gartner’s mouth fell open. Gail screamed and the man slapped her, hard. He then grabbed her by the ponytail, cut the straps of her bra and the cups sprang away from her breasts. The sight of them, now exposed, terrified Gartner. The situation was fucked up to the nth power. What was happening? This wasn’t reality.
Gail whimpered. Barney yelled something and then lunged at the uniformed man, hoping to grab him, to stop him assaulting Gail. The man responded by taking a pistol from a holster on his hip, cocking it and pointing it at Barney’s little girl, who was facedown on the tarmac crying her eyes out. Barney backed off and started sobbing, holding his hands over his face. He fell to his knees and bent forward so that his forehead almost touched the ground.
“I’m sorry. I’m sorry. I’m sorry. Please …” Barney begged between the sobs, his voice cracking.
The uniformed man ignored him and, using the knife’s long blade, traced the undersides of Gail’s breasts, taunting Barney to do something stupid.
Gartner watched, immobilized by fear, as the point of the blade scratched a white line in Gail’s skin all the way down to her exposed belly button. The man then pulled the zipper down on his fly and extracted his erection. He yelled something at one of the men who rushed in and forced Gail down onto her knees in front of his curved member. He held the knife under her chin and she looked up at him, her face twisted with fear. She trembled as she opened her mouth.
That was when the shooting started. Brraat … brraat-dat-dat-dat. Brraat … It came from somewhere behind the terminal building where the Quonset huts were. There it was again – brraat … brraat-dat-dat-dat – individual bangs followed by automatic fire. There was a lull, and then the shooting seemed to be coming from everywhere. The uniformed man barked a few words at his people, his prick still in Gail’s mouth, his hand wound tightly around her ponytail.
Gartner watched Barney Sorwick, could see that he was about to make some kind of move, his eyes darting left and right, his hands and shoulders twitching. Suddenly, he broke free of the men holding him and lunged at the monster forcing himself on his wife. But the man moved at the last instant and all Sorwick managed to get was a finger hooked in the mouth opening of the ski mask the man was wearing. And then it was ripped away, revealing the uniformed man’s face.
The subordinates held their breath, along with Gartner, waiting for the reaction. It was a mestizo face, wide and flat with high cheekbones. Gartner placed him in his forties. As faces went it was brutal and cruel, the face of nightmares. Large blue tattooed tears dropped from the corner of an eye and grew larger as they ran down his cheek and neck. He sneered at Barney and made a gesture to the man with the Bowie knife, who then threw the heavy weapon at Barney. It flew through the air and hit Barney’s forehead with a thunk, the blade quivering above the left eye, four inches of the polished steel embedded in brain. As Barney fell backward on the asphalt and began to convulse, the tattooed man drew his holstered pistol and began shooting the children.
And that was all Gartner saw as a spray of lead smashed into his spine at the base of the neck and returned him to the night.
Bobbie Macey wasn’t covering a lot of distance. She hopped a few times and then stopped. The pain in her broken leg was different now. It had an edge to it. The nerve endings were waking up to a serious problem, and they were ringing alarm bells. She went down on her hands and knees and crawled, braved the critters and made reasonable ground. It was that or stay put and wait for Gartner to come looking for her. She realized that she could see her hands in the darkness now. Dawn was on the way. With around a hundred yards covered down on all fours, she stopped to rest and give her knees a break.
“Lord, don’t let me faint,” she said aloud after a sharp stab of pain caused her to catch her breath. Macey imagined herself lying here in the heat of the day, dehydrated, discovered by ants and scorpions long before Gartner got to her. The taxiway was still another three hundred yards ahead.
It was then that she heard the gunfire. Brraat … brraat-dat-dat-dat … She’d heard it before, as a Marine in Iraq. From a distance it crackled, sounding like bubble wrap being squeezed. “What’s happening?” she asked the night. Another pain spike shot up her leg, convincing her to lie down. Macey’s eyes rolled back in her head.
When she opened them again, the sky above her was blue, her mouth was full of dirt and the pain in her leg was unbearable. An awful noise filled her head. She turned it to the side and saw a black bird streak past not more than thirty yards away, followed by a second black shape.
“Buzzards,” she mumbled before again slipping into unconsciousness.
I was earning an honest day’s pay as a special agent in the Office of Special Investigations, doing my best to apprehend Senior Airman Angus Whelt, officially AWOL from Lackland Air Force Base roughly three hundred miles to the east. Whelt wasn’t inclined to make it easy for me and my current partner, Hector Gomez – not the Hector Gomez who plays shortstop for the Colorado Rockies but the carsick Texas Ranger Hector Gomez who was throwing up onto the floorboards in the passenger seat beside me, making the cabin reek of regurgitated spicy ground beef, corn chips and refried beans as we bashed along a dirt trail close to the US–Mexico border.
Whelt wasn’t making it easy for us because if we caught up with him he’d soon thereafter be doing a big slice of federal time. He was on the run because OSI had closed in on his narcotics operation. “Doctor” Whelt and his partner, Airman First Class William Sponson, also AWOL, were, according to various sources, the dealers of choice at Lackland until someone tipped them off about OSI closing in on their asses. So they fled. The Air Force grinds its heel on drug dealers and neither man was too keen about becoming something sticky on the bottom of the Air Force’s boot. We knew where Whelt was – playing hard to get on a dirt bike at our eleven o’clock. Sponson’s whereabouts were presently a mystery.
Ahead, an overhang in the bend jutted out suspiciously – a root ball maybe. I yanked the wheel hard over to clear it. Our rental – a Jeep Patriot from Thrifty – hit it anyway. Or maybe the damn root ball hit us. The impact jarred like an uppercut and pitched the vehicle on its side, up on two wheels. We teetered there like a stunt car, on the verge of rolling over while I wrestled with the wheel. Gomez was thrown sideways against the window. He left behind a smear of something on it: either bile or banana smoothie, I was too busy to make a positive ID either way. Fortunately, nudging the opposite berm jolted us back down onto the relative security of all four wheels.
“Je … sus!” Gomez said, bouncing around beside me, one hand braced hard against the ceiling.
Whelt was on what looked like a Honda motocross bike. He’d chosen to make his escape on it with good reason: the asshole rode like a Crusty Demon. His record said that he’d been some amateur national motocross champion before joining the service. Any moment I fully expected him to loop his bike in midair and flip us the middle finger.
He suddenly speared off the trail and took to the virgin bush, the bike’s rear wheel spewing a rooster tail of rock and sand as he rode a divergent course from ours, away from the trail. Shit, I’d known he was gonna do that eventually. I glanced across at my partner, the Ranger, fighting the heaves. He was a mess. And, yeah, re window smear: banana smoothie.
If we were going to catch Whelt, we had to follow the guy into the rough. Gomez looked over at me, read the play instantly and shook his head, his eyeballs large. Like we had a choice.
I turned into the low dirt wall that bordered the trail we were on. The jeep’s front wheels hit it with a sickening graunch and the hood reared up as the front wheels clawed at the sky. The rear wheels punched into the berm next and the vehicle reacted, bucking viciously fore and aft. When everything settled a little I stood on the gas pedal and steered for the crest, the tires scrabbling for traction while the front air dam smashed into rocks and low bushes.
My hope was that Whelt would make a mistake and put his bike down so that we could catch him, cuff him and take him in, but that hope was fast disappearing over the hill in front of us, standing up on the footpegs, the bike leaping and bounding over the terrain as it was designed to do. Behind Whelt meanwhile, the Patriot, designed for Walmart parking lots, didn’t at all appreciate the treatment we were giving it.
“Hey!” Gomez said, pointing.
He was indicating the US–Mexico barrier fence in a depression below us, an eighteen-foot-high, rust-colored steel mesh barricade that looked about as solid as a parked freight train, one that snaked across the land as far as I could see.
“What’s he … up to?” Gomez wondered aloud.
“The Great … Escape.”
The pounding, crazy ride was making talking difficult.
“What’s . . . that?”
“The Great … Escape … with Steve McQueen. Movie.”
“McQueen’s running from the N … Nazis. Steals a bike, makes a break for Switzerland …” I swerved to avoid a boulder and ran the jeep nose first into a ditch. A thick wave of dirt spewed up and over the hood and windshield. “Only the border’s … fenced – like we got here,” I continued.
“Lemme guess, he jumps the fence,” said Gomez. Whelt had stretched his lead, almost gone. “You think that’s what this guy’s gonna do?”
I doubted tunneling was on his mind.
Ahead, another hill. Whelt was already beyond the crest, only his dust visible.
Gomez shouted: “It’s a movie, so … he makes it, right?”
“No, he gets … hung up on the fence.”
I wasn’t ready to give up. And anyway, it was this or paperwork. I steered toward the crest, foot to the floorboards. We came over the rise, the jeep’s motor racing, tires spitting gravel, the dust thick inside the cabin.
“Whoa!” Gomez yelled, bracing for impact as we shot over the crest.
My left boot beat him to it, standing on the brake pedal. The jeep slid sideways one way and then the other as we ploughed down the hill, coming to rest while a rolling ball of our own dust overtook us. Below, in the crook between the hill we were on and the one beyond it, was a crowd of people and vehicles. A crowd of illegals – Mexicans. Significant numbers of Border Patrol Agents were marshaling them together. There were well over fifty people and a dozen off roaders down there, out in the middle of nowhere. The attraction that brought everyone to this particular point appeared to be a break in the fence, a five-by-ten-foot section of the steel mesh simply cut out by an oxyacetylene torch. On the other side of the fence, the Mexican side, were chewed-up tracks of numerous vehicles that, presumably, had brought the illegals to this point. A departing dust ball on the southern horizon confirmed it.
Several of the BPAs were looking up at us, presumably wondering who we were and what the hell we were doing. One of them was starting to move in our direction, hand on the butt of the pistol on his hip, coming to investigate. I scanned the area for Whelt and found him on the crest of the hill opposite. He’d stopped and was looking back at us. Okay, so the guy wasn’t upside down in midair but he was still flipping us the bird. No way were we gonna negotiate our way through this parking lot and catch him.
Gomez wiped his mouth clean with a wad of Kleenex. “Shit.”
“You were saying about real life?” I asked him.
My cell was buzzing in my pants pocket. Taking it out and looking at the screen, I saw I had half a dozen messages from a familiar Maryland number: Andrews AFB, home of the people keeping me in the style to which I ought to have left far behind by now at age 34 – the OSI. Gomez wandered down to talk with the BP Agent coming up the hill, his ID and badge held above his head, while I checked in. My supervisor and buddy, Lieutenant Colonel Arlen Wayne, picked up after a ring and a half.
“Vin …” Arlen said, the signal sketchy. “Where are y …”
“Where am I?”
“I can’t hear you,” I said. “I’ll call you back later.”
“… NO …”
There was a bar and a half of signal strength registering on the display. I walked around, trying to find another bar or two. “That better?”
“Yeah. Where … you?”
“On the border with Gomez letting Doctor Whelt slip through our fingers.”
I noticed a major dent in the Patriot. The panel just below the front fender had been stove in. I bent down to have a closer look and saw a pool of hot engine oil spreading on the gravel between the front tires, ants running from the steaming black tsunami. I hoped I’d checked the insurance box on the rental agreement and, if not, that Thrifty were a bunch of understanding folks.
“For … bout him,” Arlen said.
“Did you just say forget him?”
“They . . . his buddy, Spon …”
“They found Sponson?”
The rest was even more garbled though I gathered he wanted to know how far away from El Paso we were. “Thirty miles, give or take,” I told him.
Arlen sounded like he was in a dentist chair, a drawer full of cutlery in his mouth. But I caught the key message: Get to Horizon Airport at El Paso and monitor the El Paso Sheriff’s Office radio in the meantime. “We’ll hurry. Call you when we get there,” I confirmed.
Just before the line went dead I heard him say, “Vin … slaughter. Jesus, some real bad shit.”
Our other runaway, Whelt’s pal Airman First Class William Sponson, had turned up in less than ideal circumstances. Arlen didn’t often swear. It had to be some extra fucked-up ass-burger to move him into four-letter-word territory. Unlike me. A wisp of steam escaped through the jeep’s grille. Fuck, shit and urination. This pile of spot-welded horse flop was going nowhere in a hurry. “Do you remember checking the insurance box on the rental agreement?” I asked Gomez as he walked back up the hill toward me.
A brutal massacre. A terrifying madman.
OSI Special Agent Vin Cooper is brought to the scene of an airport massacre in El Paso, Texas, to investigate the death of a USAF airman, AWOL from a nearby Air Force base.
When a survivor of the chilling massacre crawls out of the desert, Cooper comes to the obvious conclusion – with a major cartel just across the border in Juarez, this has to be about drugs.
As he begins to piece together the case, Cooper is drawn into a world of violence and treachery. Soon he finds himself on the run, framed for murders he didn’t commit. But being a fugitive just happens to be the perfect cover for his most dangerous mission yet – crossing the border and infiltrating the cartel.
Coming face-to-face with a terrifying madman, Cooper soon realizes that the airport massacre was just a dress rehearsal for something even worse …
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David Rollins is the author of ten international best selling novels, six of which feature OSI Special Agent Vin Cooper, OSI. He currently lives in Sydney, Australia. Want more? Visit davidrollins.net.