A TWIST OF KATE - GERALD SO
Originally appeared on the late, lamented Hardluck Stories in Summer 2003
"C.J., where are you? Senor Salinas's people are waiting. You cost me a day!"
We were halfway over the Gulf of Mexico when Jock's radio call came in. It was unlike him to yell. He wasn't good at it; his voice cracked.
That aside, I had no idea what he was talking about.
I grabbed the transceiver, ready to yell back at him. Then it hit me; he must be in some kind of jam. "Sorry, Jock. Engine repairs. Be right there."
Final approach to Jock's Bimini Bar always makes me feel young. I first picked up his landing lights as a teenager piloting a modified Douglas Cloudster called Thunder--Zath McGrath riding shotgun. Half my training was helping Zath run Jock's rum up to Miami.
When Zath was grounded, Jock took care of his medical bills and gave him a fresh start. I'd never be able to pay that debt.
"No me gusta." My own trainee's voice brought me back to the present. "Maybe walking into 'nother fight." I met Johnny--Juan San Martin--in a bar fight at Jock's. Who saved who from a beating that night is still hazy to me.
"Maybe," I said as I unbuckled. "I'll go in first. You wait ten minutes."
Johnny gave me a look.
"Okay," I said, "five minutes."
Entering the bar I heard grunts. Too controlled for a brawl. More like arm-wrestling, but the look of the place wasn't right. Jock's patronage is almost exclusively male, and every man in the place had gathered around a center table.
Must be a woman, but even that didn't completely explain the mass interest. Most of the women I'd seen in places like Jock's can lay bricks, drive trucks, and break mustangs. Man magnets, they're not.
I looked for Jock behind the bar and didn't find him. That was a first. I remembered the radio call, but tried not to worry.
The woman's hair was long, somewhere between red and brown. Her opponent's position at the table kept me from seeing her face, but I did see her hand, small and white clinging to the brown, baseball mitt-sized fist of her opponent. It seemed certain she was going down.
"Shh. Take a seat, Johnny."
By the time he found a chair, she had recovered and won. The beaten man sat with his head hanging, rubbing his wrist in disbelief. The woman leaned in, gave his fingers a squeeze, and he walked away shaking his head.
She took a shiny file from her pocket. After whittling her unpolished nails, she made a scratch on the table to mark her most recent victory. Looking up, her eyes locked on mine, or so it seemed. I couldn't decide if the light in those eyes was warm or cold.
"Time for one more," she said.
No one stepped up.
"No one?" She sat back, arm folded across her chest.
"I'll give it a try," I heard myself say.
I wasn't as big or as strong as the last guy. I just couldn't let her leave.
I got to the table and counted fifteen scratches lined up in front of her. I caught her measuring me and returned the favor.
She gave me a half smile that showed off full lips and white teeth.
A neutral observer started us off. He wasn't really neutral, of course. Every man wanted to believe if he couldn't take her down, no one could.
I felt the lines of her palm. The sounds of the bar receded, and all sensation except for the feel of our hands locked together, faded away. Suddenly she shifted slightly and moved to her right and took my hand to within an inch of the table. Damn, she was quick.
I looked at my hand and imagined her etching me onto the table and dismissing me as she had the last guy. Slowly I fought her back to even. Her eyes looked small and hurt. Then I felt it. She was going down.
I kept the pressure on, didn't look at her. Johnny would tell me later that her arm stayed two inches from the table for three minutes.
I winced and she tried to give me the smile again. That's when I took her down.
The men let out a collective breath. Then the complaints started:
"Disappointed in you, honey."
"Gotta be kidding me."
We sat back rubbing our hands, keeping our eyes on each other.
"C.J. Stone," I said with pride.
"Kate. Kate Holden."
I felt a hand on my shoulder. "Ah," said Jock, "I see you've met my pilot."
Jock's office by the washrooms had a desk and chairs made from palm trees. Kate and I sat. There was also a big guy, very dark Mexican, who didn't sit or introduce himself. His eyes stayed on Kate.
Jock is a thin man with a slick black toupee he parts in the middle. His mustache also looks false, but as far as I know it's the real thing. He has survived forever on his ability to talk.
"Senor Salinas is very anxious to be my coffee supplier."
Coffee? Jock didn't use more than twenty-five pounds a week.
He looked at me. "You will bring Kate and--"
"Rod," Kate filled in.
"--back to Salinas's plantation in Chiapas and pick up my first shipment of beans."
"I'm only sorry C.J. was late," Jock said.
I hung my head on cue.
"No harm. It's been fun." She offered Jock her hand. He kissed it. "When will you be ready?" she asked me.
"Need to go over receipts with the boss, then top off the tanks," I said. "Fifteen minutes."
"I'll be at the bar," Kate said. She left, trailed by Rod.
The door swung shut, and I was up. "Gas is on you for this one."
"Merci, C.J.," Jock said, or maybe "Mercy."
I let him talk.
"Jaime Salinas cabled me last month, making the offer I talked about. A sweet deal."
"I checked around and found out...he has interests besides coffee."
I sighed. "Such as?"
"He also grows coca." Jock stared at the door. "He wants me to sell his dope for him. Rod says it will give Salinas control of the trade in the Bahamas."
"And you want no part of it?"
"I can't get involved with drugs." In one sentence, he went from confident operator to scared addict.
"What can I do?" I asked.
We were stuck on that for a minute. Then Jock held up a finger. He crossed to a metal file cabinet and pushed it aside, a feat of strength that put the lie to his slender frame. On his haunches, he turned the dial of a safe.
He straightened up and brought me a vial of clear liquid. "Small dose for sleep, large dose for--"
Jock looked past me to the door. This time, he undid his collar. Around his neck was the imprint of a large hand. "Rod did this," he said. "If I go along with what they want, I'll have trouble for a lifetime. But if I don't, they'll kill me."
I said nothing.
He said, "You're the only one who can get this away from me."
I pocketed the vial.
Jock took a map folder from the file cabinet, and we plotted a course.
"Salinas's plantation is near the capital, Tuxtla Gutierrez, a little over a thousand miles from Bimini. You can refuel in Cozumel and continue southeast."
Refuel, Jock said, tiptoeing around the word kill.
Walking out to the bar, I felt conspicuous with my new mission. I wanted to find Kate before she found me.
Kate looked at me over a man's shoulder. She had tucked her hair into a ponytail, showing off the shape of her face. She was one of those rare redheads who tanned well. A black suede jacket covered her white t-shirt. I preferred the other look, but this would do for now.
Kate drained her glass, and stepped forward. "Shall we?" she said to me.
"A Grumman Goose?"
"That's right," I said, "Miss Liberty."
"How patriotic," Kate said. "Red, white, and blue."
Coming through the hatch, she slipped on one of Johnny's pulp novels. I moved to catch her, but Rod beat me there.
"She won't bite," I said.
Kate rolled her eyes. Then she saw the padded seats, and the bar to the rear. "All this is yours?"
"Thanks to one hell of a game of poker."
Johnny climbed into the copilot's chair. "Ready," he said.
Kate grimaced when she sat, and I knew she'd caught a buckle in the ass. Maybe Miss Liberty was jealous.
We rolled down Jock's runway. I thought liftoff might scare Kate--realizing there's only air and water beneath you can be unsettling--but she showed no signs.
Rod sat one row behind her on the opposite side of the plane. He yawned and stretched and seemed more than ready for a nap.
Johnny was snoring when we leveled off at fifteen thousand feet. "How can he do that?" Kate asked.
"Just be glad he didn't take the first shift."
Her laugh was low, just right for the level of joke.
"I'm guessing you're not from Chiapas."
That part of Mexico was largely undeveloped jungle. The natives were hostile to outsiders. Salinas had to have cojones to do business in Chiapas, even if he were born there.
"I'm from Corpus Christi," she said with the first hint of a drawl. "My daddy worked with Salinas."
"And you've taken over the family business?"
"In some ways, yes. Also, I'm marrying Jaime." She said it evenly, begging for a reaction.
I let out a quiet breath. "Congratulations."
I thought of Sonia Grafer, whose husband bet his plane and his wife on a full house to my straight flush. I remembered Sonia's curves, but her face wouldn't come into focus.
Miss Liberty dipped through a cloud, and we were covered in silence. Nap time, I hoped, for everybody with time on their hands and nothing to do.
"I like it," Johnny said when I'd told him Jock's plan. Everybody liked it; I had to be the one to do it.
Approaching Cozumel, Kate was an hour into sleep. I made a water-landing at a place that airlifted scuba divers. The manager had just come in. A hundred-peso handshake got his gas pump working. Back aboard, Johnny took the controls. I made my way back to Rod.
I still couldn't tell if he were asleep. I got the vial from my pocket, and as I bent toward him, Rod's eyes snapped open. I stomped on his foot. He opened wide before the scream reached his throat, and I poured in half the liquid. A nose grab and another stomp made him swallow. He struggled a few seconds, then stopped.
I turned to Kate who had curled up with her face turned toward the window. She hadn't moved when I fed the poison to Rod. I maneuvered into the seat in front of her to look at her mouth. It was open, and her breath smelled sweet. I stared at her for several minutes, brought the vial out, but couldn't do it. Back in the cockpit, I strapped into the copilot's seat.
Johnny looked at me. "I like her, too," he said.
"Pick a spot to set down."
"Where are we?" Kate asked sleepily.
"A hundred miles northwest of Tuxtla Gutierrez," I said.
She twisted in her seat. "Where's Rod?"
I swallowed. Couldn't say just yet. "I don't work for Jock. I'm just trying to keep him out of trouble."
I explained Jock's poison and showed her the vial. I didn't mention it was meant for her.
"I dropped Rod off the coast of Cozumel for divers to find."
"You lost me."
Four breaths and then she said, "I lied before. Rod never sleeps. I didn't want him to hear...I had enough trouble getting to go with him. Jock said you were American. I told Jaime you'd need someone on the flight back who spoke English better than Rod."
"So what about you?" I said. "Why are you with Salinas?"
"My father was a drunk. He sold me to Jaime along with a string of horses when I was fourteen. He didn't tell me until I was seventeen, until I matured."
Her tone softened as she worked through her story, but never reached a point of self-pity. I believed her enough to want to hold her.
Johnny pulled back on the yoke for touchdown. Kate was startled out of her dreams, but recovered quickly.
"Salinas's airstrip," I told her. It had occurred to me that we might skip this part of the trip completely. Never let Salinas see Kate again. But that would leave Jock on the hook.
"There." Johnny pointed to an approaching jeep.
I was out of ideas when Kate unbuckled and ran aft.
What the hell?
It hit me before I could ask. I checked my pockets. No vial.
I gave up the copilot's chair and went after her. We met at the hatch, Kate holding a tumbler of clear liquid on the rocks.
"Trust me." With her free hand, she opened the hatch. "After you."
The driver's head was shaved to a shine. In a dirty white denim vest, he looked as though he had just come in from felling trees with his eye-teeth. The man in the backseat was my real worry. Dark skin and long hair, he wore black clothes and snakeskin boots, and apparently didn't sweat. He hopped out of the jeep ramrod straight, but the top of his head came no higher than Kate's breasts. When he smiled, I wanted to punch his teeth out.
"Welcome home, Princess."
Kate raised the tumbler in a toast, but didn't drink. "Jaime."
Salinas spoke with almost no accent. His manner, even on paper, had rattled Jock and I could see why.
"I have been lonely without you," he added.
Enough to forget about Rod, I noticed.
Kate brushed a hair from her face. She was blushing. "Oh, this is Jock's pilot."
"C.J. Stone," I said.
Salinas was slow to look at me. "Stone, would you agree? This woman does not know how beautiful she is."
Kate knew exactly how beautiful she was and what it did to men, but I said, "Yes, sir."
"Thank you for bringing Kate back to me. Your product is ready--"
He looked back. I did, too.
"You look thirsty."
He seemed to realize he was.
Kate offered him the drink, and he took it.
Whatever else she mixed in may have diluted it, but Salinas felt the poison soon enough. Kate gracefully took back the tumbler as he fell.
And seeing his boss fight for air, the big driver forgot about us. When he knelt to help, Kate cracked the tumbler across his skull, and I kicked him in the head.
Breathing hard, I said, "I'm guessing men with guns will be here."
She nodded. "Let's go."
I turned Miss Liberty around and cracked the whip. "We'll take it slow tomorrow, girl. I promise."
And, as I said the words, she lifted.
One day, I'd have to tell Jock I spared Kate. That would be an interesting day.
"Where are we headed?" Kate asked as she watched me bank and turn.
"Pedro's?" Johnny suggested. His belly shook with a quiet laugh.
"There's a hotel in Tijuana," I said, "where they don't ask questions."
"And once we get there, what happens?"
"I sleep for three days."
She leaned in close and whispered, "I was hoping you'd stay up a while."
BIO: Gerald So is fiction editor for The Thrilling Detective Web Site and co-editor of The Lineup: Poems on Crime. His other C.J. Stone stories have appeared in Shred of Evidence, Mysterical-E, Thieves Jargon, BURST, and Yellow Mama.