When I can’t work on my long fiction, I use short exercises to keep my characters’ voice fresh in my head. This is a short piece I noodled around with last week. After all the cold/hard publishing business posts, it just seemed right to publish this piece as a reminder (to myself) of what the whole point is.
Sean watched the night sky for Coast Guard planes while fighting the need for a cigarette. The smell of brine, high-octane fuel, and who-knew-what else filled his nose and did nothing for his nausea. He gripped the flaking, corroded top hatch of the old Grumman.
A bobbing beam from the penlight in Memo’s teeth oscillated across the open left-engine cowl. Memo said the swells were only half-a-foot, maybe a foot. Only—like that did anything for Sean’s churning gut.
Thirty-million-dollars in cocaine, Sean thought, and the geniuses trusted transport to a thirty-year-old-Alaskan-Freight seaplane.
“What about now?” Weyland, the pilot, called from inside the rung out old wreck.
The weak light flashed and Memo called back. “Nada.”
How can I be this damn nauseous and still need a smoke this damn bad?
Light flashed on the western horizon and then disappeared. “We got movement.”
“¿Que?” Memo asked from the engine.
We’re way too far from our drop point for it to be the trawler.
“What?” Weyland said, popping up through the hatch. Even in the weak-beam flashlight lumination, worry played across his normally open, amiable face.
“I got movement on the west,” Sean said.
“Puede ser un barco de pesca,” Memo said.
“Maybe a fishing boat,” Sean said. “Maybe a Coast Guard patrol boat out of Port Aransas.”
“Mierda,” Memo said.
“How much longer to prime that pump and get this crate in the air?” Sean asked.
Weyland shrugged. “Could be seven minutes, could be another hour.”
Sean bellied down on the bobbing fuselage. “Get back inside and keep running that line. Memo, mata la luce.”
He counted for what seemed like a year and then the light flashed again. Maybe brighter? Then it disappeared. But an engine hum replaced it.
Small. Most likely a skiff attached to a patrol boat.
In less than two minutes, the light flashed again, disappeared and then flashed again. Definitely closer. The light and the hum carried over the water, painfully closer.
Sean turned and shimmied back to the hatch. “Memo, entra y ejecutar la linea de gas.”
“Si, jefe.” Memo crawled up the wing to the fuselage.
Sean called into the hatch. “Weyland, get up here and bring the fuel-pump assembly bag.”
“You just told me—”
Memo handed Sean his tool tray and dropped down the ladder into the plane. “¿Dame mis herramientas?”
“You’re a talker,” Sean said. He dug a half-handful of bearing grease from a can before he handed the tray down to Memo.
Weyland climbed the ladder and handed over the heavy plastic bag. “If I’m a talker, what are you?”
“If you talk fast enough, I’m just the listener,” Sean said, smearing the grease over his face and wiping the residue on his jeans. He unslung a Vietnam-War-surplus CAR-15 from his back and yanked the toggle bolt, chambering a round. He set the safety before pulling the bag over the near-useless rifle.
“Look, all this might not be necessary,” Weyland said, passing him a roll of speed tape.
Sean said nothing. My business partner—big as a plow horse and a combat vet to boot but scared to death of hurting someone.
“¿Debería iniciar el bloqueador de frecuencia ahora?” Memo asked.
“No,” Sean replied, wrapping the bag flap with the airplane tape. The oily residue on the bag made tearing the tape a hassle and it tasted like crap, to boot.
Weyland completed his thought. “Wait until they’re about 100 yards out. The transmitter will burn through the battery quick.” Then, to Sean, he asked. “What if it’s not Coast Guard?”
“Then there won’t be much for you to talk about.” Sean handed his ball cap to Weyland and slid off the plane and into the waves. Warm, oily seawater immediately permeated his sneakers, clothes, and the crack of his ass. If possible, bobbing in the swells, alongside the plane, made his nausea worse. He peddled as best he could to the tail, keeping the plane between him and the boat.
He pegged it at seven minutes from when he first heard the boat until it came alongside the plane. Massive spotlights lit up the horizon. The roaring outboard motors quelled to a thrumbing drone.
“Evening, boys,” Weyland said in his amiable Georgia drawl.
“United States Coast Guard, what is your—?”
Sean dived under the fuselage at the first sound of an official voice. One hand dedicated to the rifle hampered his swim-stroke but he cleared the plane. Spotlights lamplit the surface of the water, silhouetting both plane and boat. His lungs burned from the exertion and his eyes stung from the salty, oily water.
If they engage those motors— No, useless to worry about things out of my control.
He swam against the anxiety and broke the surface, two yards aft of what looked like a 30-foot lifeboat with a pilothouse. Radio squelch competed with the outboard-engine drone. Sean could almost hear Weyland but the distance and the noise sapped the power from his friendly demeanor and smooth Georgian charm.
“Say again, Chief?”
Silhouetted against the backwash from the spotlights, the chief, an ox of a man, shouted from the top of the pilothouse. “I said, I want to see everyone out on the wing, now!”
Weyland called back. “My copilot is sick. If I pull him up here, you’ll end up—”
“If I have to board, everyone’s going to jail,” the chief yelled.
Sean counted two others, on the forward bulkhead. Means there’s at least one more coastie somewhere on this bathtub.
“All that ain’t necessary, Chief,” Weyland called back, as Memo stuck his head out of the hatch. “I told you, it’s just the two of us. We dropped some guys from PMEX on a plat—”
“And you still ain’t shown up on any land-based radar from here to Corpus Christi or on Gulf patrol air radar,” the chief fired back. “We know what you are. Is he coming out or are we doing this the hard way?”
That’s when the fourth crewman stuck his head out of the pilot house.
Sean dog-paddled to an egress on the port-stern bulkhead, low enough to roll cargo off of a gangplank or allow divers easy boarding from the water.
“Why doesn’t the Chief use the PA?” One of the coasties asked, loud enough for Sean to hear.
Whatever the other said was lost in the engine-drone-and-radio squelch.
Our transmitter jams your radio and your PA, dumbass.
Sean sat the plastic-wrapped CAR-15 on the deck and used a grip bar to haul himself out of the water. He crouched in the shadow of the pilothouse.
“Damn it, Moretti!” The chief snapped over his shoulder. “Would you kill the radio? I can’t hear myself think up here.”
Moretti ducked back into the wheelhouse and the radio squelch died.
The chief cast his voice low. “Benton, when I say ‘now’ you put a bullet in that black son-of-a-bitch’s leg. I’m tired of his shucking-and-jiving.”
“Roger that, Chief,” one of the two at the bulkhead said.
Sean heard the safety snap. Shit.
Weyland called back. “What was that, Chief?”
Low to the deck, Sean moved as quickly as slick sneakers would carry him. As Moretti started out of the pilothouse, Sean grabbed the lifejacket collar, yanking the coastie off balance and over the bulkhead.
Moretti splashed as Sean flew at the two at the forward bulkhead. “What was—?”
Sean slammed the metal rifle stock into the first man’s head, catching him in mid-turned. The coastie collapsed like his strings were cut. Sean rifle-jabbed the second man, across the bridge of his nose. The coastie dropped his M-16, as he fell over the bulkhead.
Sean wheeled, flipping the safety through the plastic on the CAR-15 and sighting the chief in mid-draw. “Do it and you’ll be dead before you clear the holster.”
The chief weighed his chances for half a second before letting the pistol drop back and easing both hands to his shoulders. “You’re all kinds of stupid, there’s a cutter behind me with an 57mm cannon—”
“There’s no cutters in this neck of the Gulf,” Sean said. “You got a patrol boat behind you and by the time they find your ass, we’ll be gone and it won’t matter what size gun they got.”
“But there’s no need for you to go home empty handed,” Weyland said, friendly as ever.
“What are you offering?” the chief asked.
“We’re all friends here,” Weyland continued.
“Come down first,” Sean said.
“Wait,” the chief said. “I want to hear—”
“You come down or I’ll bring you down,” Sean said. “You won’t hear anything after that.”
“I got a shot at him, Chief!” A woman called around a mouthful of water.
Moretti is a woman. Fantastic.
Sean shouted without breaking sight on the chief. “You got a shot but did the seawater foul the primer in your ammo? Are you willing to cha—?”
“Moretti, we deal!” The chief bellowed. “This fucker will shoot me dead whether you got dry ammo or not.”
Not as stupid as he looks.
“Now, all that ain’t necessary. I have a kilo of pure coke here. I’ll just drop it right on your deck,” Weyland said as a plastic bundle thumped on the deck skid pads. “We just amble away and you got $10,000 to $15,000, wholesale. Not bad for a night’s work.”
“Make it a kilo apiece or I’ll take my chances that at least one of my six has a dry primer,” Moretti shouted.
Son of a—
“Done,” Weyland answered before Sean could say anything.
“Wait,” Sean called. “I want them all on the deck first.”
“Bullshit, I’m not giving up my pistol,” Moretti said.
“Keep it but you and that broke-nose asshole get on this boat where I can see you, now. Or we’re just gonna clip every last—”
“No!” Weyland shouted. “No, that’s not necessary and it’s not what we’re going to do.”
“Fine,” Moretti answered. “Benton, get over here before a shark bites off your ugly-ass face.”
They sloshed onto the deck, one at a time. Benton laid against the bulkhead. Even in the shadows Moretti’s hazel eyes flashed. She looked wary but excited and ready to fight. Looked right out of Maritime Law Enforcement School, too.
She won’t get taken by surprise a second time.
Sean motioned with his rifle and the chief dropped to the deck. In better light, the chief’s name patch read “Geary.”
“Sit with your back to the pilothouse, Chief Geary. Spread your legs out and put your palms on the deck, right next to your dick,” Sean said. “If you even think of touching that pistol, I’ll shoot your pecker off and then feed your brains to the fish.”
“We were told the smugglers were hiring military guys for security,” Chief Geary said. “You a Marine or a SEAL?”
Sean snorted. “I mugged a boy scout once.”
Moretti watched him like a seahawk. All the fight in Benton bled out of his nose and all over his hands. The pimply-faced kid worried Sean and he listened hard for any movement from behind.
At least I can feel the shotgun next to my left foot.
He called to the plane. “Limpia esas pinche gas líneas y prepara este avión para volar.”
“Si, jefe,” Memo called back.
“You need to ease up,” Moretti said. “We can smuggle four kilos of coke onto base or we can have a firefight with you. We can’t do both.”
She has a point.
Sean nodded and lowered the CAR-15.
“Won’t be long,” Weyland called. “We’re almost there.”
“You all got an even split, you’re all in, and no room for grudges or snitches.” Sean said, directing it to the Chief and Benton with no certainty he was any more lucid than the other kid, still out cold. With no intention of taking chances, Sean dropped the clip from Benton’s M-16 into the sea and then shucked the rounds out of the shotgun into the drink, as well.
He eased to the bulkhead and spoke lower for Moretti’s ears only. “Load dry rounds in that revolver, get into a vest, and keep your back to a wall until you’re well into port. Transfer out of this duty station as soon as you can.”
Shedding her lifejacket, Moretti showed her palms, and then reached into the pilothouse. In better light, her strong features complemented her hazel eyes. She showed six bullets before dumping the wet rounds from the model 19 and loading the fresh bullets into the cylinder. With a smirk, she stuck the revolver back into the canvas holster.
Sean stepped back as she pulled a Kevlar vest over her head.
“¡Lo tengo!” Memo called. Metal slapped on metal as he put the engine cowl back together. “!Pruebalo ahora!”
A ragged starter motor whined and then the number two engine caught, coughing to life. Seconds that seemed like a half-hour later, the number one engine hiccuped into a duet. Sean nodded to Moretti and jumped the bulkhead, back into the Gulf.
By the time he reached the Grumman, Memo had the side hatch open. He took the CAR-15 and Sean hoisted himself into the plane.
Memo turned back for the ladder to the cockpit. Sean secured the hatch as the navigation lights flashed to life at the wingtips and the Grumman began to wallow away from the Coast Guard skiff. He sloshed through seawater that had leaked into the flying deathtrap for the ladder to the cockpit.
The plane churned over the waves and Sean missed his footing twice. At the top of the ladder, he snatched his ball cap off of Weyland’s head. Then he collapsed onto the jumpseat and took a relieved breath as the plane finally bounced out of the sea and labored for altitude.
Career CPOs like Geary are a dime-a-dozen in the military but a light-skin black woman named ‘Moretti’ would be rare in any branch. Shouldn’t be hard to find at all in the Coast Guard. Good to have a line on a sharp asset.
After several minutes climbing, Sean leaned forward to Weyland. “Keep us below the radar.”
Weyland nodded. “We got an hour to make it to the next drop point but we’ll be there in 40 minutes, tops.”
“When we touch down, keep the engines running,” Sean said.
“The trawler captain won’t like that,” Weyland said.
“He’s getting paid for transport, not for what he likes,” Sean replied. “Unless he’s a better aircraft mechanic than you two, he’ll keep his mouth shut while we offload this shit or any delays will come out of his money.”
Memo, in the copilot seat shrugged. “¿Como si este espectáculo de mierda saliera de nuestro lado?”
Like this shit-show will come out of our end?
Sean wiped the grease off of his face with a shop rag.
That money would’ve gone a long way toward a new plane. The hurdles I jump through to maintain my cover without shooting some E2 Coast Guard bad girl in the face. He patted his pocket absently. And I still need a goddamned smoke.
The photo above, PHOTO OF A GRUMMAN GOOSE AT SUNSET WAS TAKEN BY “PARRDACC” AND IS USED UNDER LICENSE CC 2.0