Only a fool flies a contraband-filled plane into a storm with the Feds chasing him.
We'd almost completed the long flight from Haiti to Florida, skimming the waves to stay below radar, when the starboard engine sputtered, coughed and died. The QueenAir shuddered like a dying animal, plunging us toward the waves below. I slammed the throttle forward on the port engine, just above stalling speed, and leveled off only a few feet above the sea.
Feigning coolness, I exchanged bored looks with my cargo 'kicker', Mando Hernandez, both of us pretending we were used to near death experiences.
"Pretty cool," he said, "I din' know we were gonna surf to Florida."
"Shut up! I'm just keeping us under the radar."
"Doing a good job, Man, but keep it up a little higher, OK? My old lady don' like to clean dirty underwear."
The problem was probably contaminated fuel I'd taken on in Cap Hatien. Running late, I hadn't checked the refueling like I usually do in third world countries. Hopefully the remaining engine would get us to the drop zone to complete the mission. Flying at night over the sea with one engine out is foolish--but that's what I get paid the big bucks to do.
Safe for the moment, I remembered my old Commander, Don Baker saying, "Jack McCready is a flying fool, but he always flies on the edge. One day it'll bury him--or put him in prison." I hoped this flight wouldn't fulfill his prophecy.
Approaching the Florida coastline, we encountered more trouble. We hit an inversion layer with storm clouds ranging from ten thousand feet down to a ground ceiling of fifty feet. The weather was below minimums for everything but emergency traffic, but the weather announcer's voice from Miami tower wasn't worried. Legitimate private traffic doesn't fly at 4:00 a.m. Only a fool like me.
I could fly over the storm, but that meant popping up on every radar in the Southeast. Without a flight plan or transponder signal, I might as well have been screaming on the radio, "Over here! Here I am! Check me! Check Me!"
I had to get this drop done quickly and somehow use the weather to get away. But the weather was a two-edged sword. When the GPS said we were over the drop zone in the Everglades, the clouds were too dense to spot the flare markers from Don Porfirio Andrade's men. I tried the radio.
"Lucky B, this is Smiling Jack. Over."
Maybe Lucky B figured the weather was too bad for a drop and went home.
"Lucky B. Do you copy?" I was desperate. It took two years to get this first gig for Don Andrade. I couldn't afford to screw it up.
Unless Lucky B was practicing his snake imitations, we were in trouble. I quickly reviewed my options. With one engine, I couldn't return to Haiti. And landing at the private strip near Orlando in this weather was out. An instrument landing at Miami International might be possible, but fifty-foot ceilings meant emergency vehicles and a lot of curiosity as to what brought me out on a night like this. I could hear them now:
"So nice of you to drop in, Mr. McCready. Do you have anything to declare in those containers with parachutes?"
The port engine coughed once.
Great. Another option heard from. In my calculations, I'd purposely ignored the possibility of both engines failing and causing us to crash into the Everglades.
Come to think of it, a crash wasn't nearly as life-threatening as losing Don Porfirio's thousand kilos of pure Columbian flake to the Feds. Given a choice, I'd rather risk the alligators. I remembered my first meeting with Don Porfirio in the office of his Little Havana nightclub.
I was ushered in to Don Porfirio Andrade's presence with all the ritual, pomp and circumstance that his high status entailed--in other words, I was frisked from stem to stern for weapons or a recording device. I told the guy doing the search, "I don't usually go this far on the first date. Does this mean we're engaged?"
He snarled a reply in Spanish which I chose to take as a Cuban oath of lifelong friendship. In the dark corners of the room, a number of Andrade's pistoleros lounged around in loose-fitting Guayaberas or Hawaiian shirts. It was comforting to know those shirts concealed enough firepower to take down a Soviet Hind helicopter in case we were attacked. Hey, I'm no novice in the biz: I'd seen Pacino in Scarface!
I was placed in a chair, facing Andrade across a huge desk made of marble and stainless steel. It reminded me of a slab in the morgue, so I decided to study Andrade instead. He wasn't much more reassuring.
Don Porfirio was a slim man in his fifties, dressed in a beige silk Armani suit. His black hair and mustache were streaked with gray, but instead of looking like a kindly grandfather, the effect was that of a battle-scarred veteran of the Cuban mafia. He sat quietly, rolling a Montecristo cigar in his fingers, while he slowly looked me over with the appraising and scornful eyes of a Castilian swordsman. Finally, he spoke.
"The boys tell me you got a plane and some big cojones...," he grabbed at his crotch as a translation in case I didn't speak Spanish, "...and wanna make a run for us."
"Yes, sir," I said politely. I kept my feet still and my hands folded calmly on my lap. I knew the drill for an employment interview. This was my shot at the big time, and I didn't want to blow it.
But I didn't think it necessary to volunteer that I'd picked Miss Daisy up at a DEA auction. She'd been in bad shape, needed a few bullet holes patched, and the engines redone. Even with the damage discount, she'd cost more than I could really afford. I did a lot of the repair work myself, but I was gonna be broke if this deal didn't come through.
"I don' usually give a new guy a big shipment right off, but this is special, and I ain' got no time to wait. You sure you wanna try it? You think you up to it?"
"My plane's a twin-engined QueenAir and has good cargo space if we tear out the seats. If any plane can do it, she can."
Don Profirio looked around at his assembled minions and laughed. He threw his hands up in a "whatareyagonnado" gesture that brought howls of laughter, and I joined in to be one of the guys. Then he made a sharp cutting gesture and their laughter stopped as though he'd slit their throats, leaving me as the only one in the room chortling away. My chortles were 'chort-lived' and died away into the silence as he spoke again.
"Estupido! I wasn't talkin' about the plane." I shivered as he gave me a heavy-lidded stare. "You know what happen to you if you run off with my load...," he paused for effect and added, "...or worse, you get caught and talk to the Feds?"
I gulped and nodded. Making the big time or not, this was a committment-- like taking vows in the Church. Except the penance for breaking my vows promised to be as long and painful as anything the Inquisition had devised.
"Bueno." He gave a small smile. I was relieved and overjoyed we were smiling buddies again. "On the other hand, you do right by me, I do right by you. If you get caught..." I started to open my mouth, but he raised a hand, and I shut it immediately, attempting to make it look like a cough. He used his hands like a music conductor's baton, and I was learning the rhythm. "As I was saying, if you get caught and keep your mouth shut, we take care of you inside and when you get out you'll find something stashed away for ya."
"I'm sure your pension plan is very generous, Don Porfirio, but I don't plan to get caught."
"Pension plan!" He laughed and his boys laughed too. After a wary look around to make sure I was on solid ground, I joined them. He looked around and waved his hand in a benediction. "I like this guy. Wha's you name?"
"MacKinnon, Jack MacKinnon."
"You a real smiley guy, MacKinnon. We gonna call you Smiling Jack." He paused. "Don' never screw up or you ain't never gonna smile no more, sabe? "
I 'savvyed' . The rule was: Don' never screw up!
I gave a little shiver as the memory faded and I realized I was about to test the rule.
"Mando, I don't wanna screw this first run up. I'm gonna make another pass over the drop zone," I said.
"Whatever you wan' to do, Man, but I don' think we gonna find them in this cacaloco." He shrugged with stoic Inca fatalism.
I banked right to reverse my course--and almost collided with a Coast Guard jet, flying in my blind spot. Totally surprised and freaked, my natural reactions took over and I dove into the cloud cover, gambling I could fly by the seat of my pants, using only the false horizon and altimeter.
"Unidentified QueenAir, this is the Coast Guard. Turn on your transponder and come to course 120. Proceed to Miami International runway 9L for boarding and inspection."
After a long pause, Mando said, "You gonna answer that?"
"Quiet! I'm thinking about it."
The Coast Guard flies Citation Tracker jets, all tricked out with special radar and Infra-Red for tracking drug planes. I couldn't out-run them, and I couldn't lose them. Even so, I gave it a try and banked back over the drop zone again.
"Queen Air. I Repeat. Set course for Miami."
"How much time we gonna get for all this cocaine?" Mando gestured to the rear compartment.
"For two thousand pounds, give or take?" I smiled maniacally. "After we die in solitary, they put our oldest child in jail for life"
"Whew!" Mando mimed brushing sweat from his forehead. "Gracias a Dios!"
Whattayamean by that?" I snarled.
"The joke's on theem. I ain't got no kids."
Idiot! My mind raced. Getting caught on my first run for Andrade wasn't gonna happen. I made up my mind the Feds wouldn't beat me.
"Mando! Off your ass and open the hatch. We're gonna drop."
I banked back to course 120 like a good boy while giving Mando instructions. They picked up my stratagem immediately.
"QueenAir. Radar shows you are jettisoning cargo. We have a fix on the position. We'll find it."
"You can try." I laughed. "Lots of water and alligators down there. I'll see you on the runway." I figured I'd pulled it off.
The port engine coughed like it was choking back an evil laugh.
Clouds and rain fogged the cockpit windows and completely cut off any visible signs of the airport. I called, "Miami Tower. QueenAir N5237 on instrument approach."
"We have you, QueenAir. Miami is closed to all but emergency traffic because of weather. Cloud ceiling is fifty feet."
This is an emergency. One engine out. And I've been ordered to land."
"Roger, QueenAir. We were notified of the circumstances by the Coast Guard. There's a big welcoming committee for you. Just letting you know it won't be a picnic down here either."
I made it to the glide path, a few miles out from touchdown, when the engine sputtered again, but all I needed was another couple of minutes. My eyes locked onto the instruments, and I concentrated on keeping the plane's image in the electronic square that was the glide path.
"Mando," I shouted. "We're over the airport right-of-way. Breaking out of the clouds any second. How you doin'?"
"No more time. Buckle up."
The engine coughed and died.
"Miami tower. QueenAir N5237. Lost my last engine at 1500 feet about a quarter-mile out. Have emergency trucks stand by."
"Roger, Queen Air." He paused. "Good luck." He didn't cut the mike and I heard him say, under his breath, "You'll need it."
"Thanks, Miami. QueenAir out."
I eased off on the flaps, stretching Miss Daisy's glide, hoping to make the runway. A yellow glow from the distance-marker pylons loomed through the clouds. I prayed I wouldn't hit one.
But I did. When we popped out of the cloud cover, a light standard was dead ahead, arms reaching clawlike for Miss Daisy. We hit hard, spinning off the ripping metal into a vortex of screeching tearing aluminum and darkness.
I woke up in an ambulance. Commander Baker sat beside me.
"Mando?" I asked.
"He's OK. Asked for asylum as a Haitian refugee." He snorted.
I smiled at the thought of that stone-faced Inca being a Haitian. He'd be deported, but without any evidence in the plane, he wouldn't be prosecuted. He'd report to Don Porfirio that we'd only dropped sheets of tinfoil over the Everglades. After that little ploy, I figured they'd quit monitoring me when we hit the airport glidepath, so we dropped the cocaine while still in the clouds about two miles out from the runway. If Andrade hurried, they could recover it while the feds scoured the swamps.
And the main thing is, I'd get paid. Baker misinterpreted my smile.
"As for you, MacCready, you're going to prison. We'll make something stick, even if it's smuggling aliens into the country. Your new friends won't see you for awhile."
"Prison! That wasn't part of the deal!" I gulped and started to sweat.
"Don't be such a crybaby. There's no way we're wasting two years of work, getting you undercover, Jack. You'll be their hero when you get out, and we can get you to the big boys in Columbia."
I lay back, thinking---hmmm---a vacation at Club Fed wasn't so bad. I could work on my backhand. And Don Porfirio rewarded stand up guys who didn't rat. I'd get monthly payments and a nice bonus paid to a Cayman account that Baker didn't know about. I smiled.
I might be a flying fool--but I'm not a complete fool.