Saturday
May282016

Lady in Disguise

Lady in Disguise

is a novel in progress. I ask that you be respectful and not violate my copyright by using or distributing any part of this excerpt without my express written pemission.

 

ONE

Lee Kaskaukas pulled back on the stick, and the Citabria single-prop plane jumped off the grass airstrip into the summer sky. There was no window in the pilot’s door panel—a modification—and through the opening Lee watched the plane’s shadow race alongside, then drop away. It rippled over the remainder of grass runway and across the farm road and the adjoining cornfield and then ran unevenly across the treetops of the woods buffering the river. He applied a little aileron and a little rudder, and the Citabria banked in a smooth 180, reversing course.

            He checked the radio settings and pressed the transmit button. “This is 4-3-7 Papa Tango,” he announced to everybody in and controlling the air around him—crop dusters, pleasure fliers, commercial pilots and the towers at nearby Norfolk International Airport and Naval Air Station Oceana, “flying VFR on a banner tow run over Virginia Beach littoral.” Regulations required the notification, but just about everyone who heard it knew Lee’s voice and knew what he was up to. He’d been doing it three or more times a day for 13 years.

            Listening for a reply, he slipped one ear cup of his headset off and took up a small mobile radio. “Brad,” he said, “who am I flying, again?"

            His brother’s voice was thin against the soprano whining of the Citabria’s engine: “San Pablo Mexican Pizza. New place on 14th Street.”

            “Mexican pizza. Any good?” Lee said.

            “Don’t know. Never had it.”

            “So I’m risking tragic death and subjecting myself to two hours of boredom to advertise pizza we don’t know is any good.”

            Brad’s voice was deadpan. “You did it yesterday for the Komodo Dragon exhibit at the aquarium and they don’t pay for 45 days. These guys paid in full up front.”

            “That does show some confidence in their product—“

            “And ours.”

            “Yeah,” Lee said. “Let’s not disappoint them.”

            He had doubled back on his downwind leg and was now flying parallel to and 300 feet above the airstrip. Below and to his left passed the long main building of the Military Aviation Museum—owner of the strip—and beyond it the long grassy field that was his immediate destination. At the upwind end of the field stood a water tower built during World War II: an acorn-shaped tank on a structural steel stand, all painted in white-and-red checks. At the feet of the tower, the banner lay stretched out on the grass, a hundred feet long and fifteen wide, white with green and red lettering. At its end two safety orange pylons marked his target. Near the pylons stood his brother and Marcus, their mechanic and equipment wrangler, in their orange caps and vests.

            For Lee it was now just a matter of turning back into the wind, lining up between the two pylons, dropping a hook and cable out behind him, picking up with that hook and cable a 250-foot line attached to the banner, and hauling the whole thing into the sky with a fabric-covered 150-horsepower plane built in 1984.

            Simple.

He’d done it successfully thousands of times—and unsuccessfully four times—over his career.

            Lee rode downwind until he was about two miles east of the field, the Atlantic Ocean still four or five miles ahead, and below him the small cluster of upscale homes and swimming pools off Gum Bridge Road. He banked again, reversing his heading. When he leveled out, the red-and-white-checkered water tower was a speck in the distance. He picked up the two-way radio again.

            “You there, Marcus?” Lee said.

            Marcus’s voice came back right away. “I’m here, boss.”

            “How do we look down there?”

            “Lookin’ good,” Marcus said, matter-of factly. He was all business at times like this. Lee valued that.

            “Okay then, I’m heading in. Keep your eye on me.”

            “Roger.”

            On his approach, Marcus would be watching the plane through binoculars, ready to call off the pickup if anything Lee couldn’t see from the cockpit alarmed him. It was a precaution the team had learned from mistakes over the years.

            Between where he was and his target the terrain was farm fields broken by a few patches of trees. He began his descent to just above tree level, watching for birds, crop dusters, radio controlled model planes, those damned hobbyist drones, anything in the air. This was when Lee really loved the visibility of the little Citabria. He could see everywhere he needed to see.

The last patch of trees literally edged the pickup field, so 20 seconds before he cleared them, he radioed Marcus and his brother one more time. “Here she goes,” he said, and with a fluid motion developed from years of practice, grabbed the first of four grapple hooks attached to the plane’s window ledge and, with a glance out the missing window, flung it out as far from the wing and fuselage as he could. The hook, tethered by a cable extending from the plane’s belly, swung out and down, behind and below the plane. He heard no alarming sound, felt no effect on the controls that would indicate the cable had wound around his tail wheel or a control surface—something it shouldn’t have.

            To be sure, he looked out the window and behind to the tail, just as Marcus’s voice came over the radio. “You look good, boss,” he said. Sure enough Lee could see the cable and hook trailing free and clear.

            “A clean hard-on,” his brother’s voice beamed. “Come get her!” The pickup always excited Brad.

            Lee focused on the final seconds. He dropped altitude: 50—40—30 feet just high enough to clear those last trees. There was no wind, the rudder was steady, and he was riding the centerline between the low orange pylons—now less than a hundred yards away—like it was a steel rail. Brad and Marcus stood off to the side of the right pylon. Neither waved him off.

            He prepared for the shallow dive onto target and, once clear of the trees, pushed down the Citabria’s nose. The ground rushed up at him. He swooped over the pizza banner stretched out on the grassy airfield and a second before he passed the tow line stretched between the orange pylons, he pulled back hard on the stick and gunned the throttle. The Citabria lurched skyward, roaring like a chain saw.

            Lee looked out and behind again. In the morning sunlight the towline was a glowing thread stretching down to the ground, taut now, and the banner was peeling up off the grass like the pull-tab on an old soda can. He’d hooked it. Now he had to get it up 500 feet into sultry summer air. The engine screamed, the prop pulled fiercely. Lee kept his eye on his gauges, especially the oil temperature gauge, glad that last season he and Marcus had upgraded the oil cooler and modified the manifold. The Citabria was a slavish worker. She had been since Lee and Brad’s father bought her new thirty years ago, ostensibly for crop dusting but also for Dad’s off-the-books light transport business. At her age, the plane needed some extra help, and Lee was glad to give it. In return, she always came through, and in under a minute, Lee was at 500 feet, the banner settling in 250 feet behind.

            The two-way radio hissed. “You got it, boss,” Marcus said. “Bon voyage.”

            “Buene viaje,” Brad said. “Mexican pizza.”

            Lee banked again over the river branch and its wide wooded banks, but this time to the north. He was beginning his route. Now he needed to listen to air traffic and the air traffic controllers at Norfolk and Oceana. He stowed the handheld radio and slipped both Bose ear cups into place. The engine noise dropped to a hum, and he settled in. You need a good headset when you fly six to eight hours a day in a small plane.

            He resisted his pilot’s urge to ascend to at least 1500 feet for the 10-mile haul to the beach. It would save a little fuel, keep him farther away from low hazards and give him some added cushion for gliding to a landing site if something went wrong. But as brother Brad with his marketing degree insisted, these flights were about advertising, and if the aircraft was in good working order, as the Citabria was, the Federal Aviation Administration minimum altitude of 1000 feet over populated areas provided Lee with reasonable safety and the public with the best view of the advertising banner. And you never knew who’s looking up or from where. In Brad’s view it was short-sighted to think that only tourists on the beach wanted, say, Mexican pizza. There were customers for Mexican pizza and auto insurance and clothing boutiques and night clubs and seafood restaurants in local backyards and barnyards and around those glittering turquoise swimming pools. People who had the itch to get fed, drunk, laid, insured or dressed up were everywhere.

            It made sense, and Lee had to admit that it made money. Brad had a thick stack of customer comment cards, client surveys and company bank statements proving his hypothesis. So Lee flew at 500 feet the whole route. Carefully.

Brad had appeared unannounced three years ago after eight years without a word to anyone—not even showing up at their mother’s or father’s funerals, six months apart. Lee got the call one October afternoon, a rainy day, and they met at Stone House Lounge, a local watering hole too rundown for tourists but known for good, cheap drinks and great burgers. They drank beer. Brad was penniless and apologetic but said he had a new marketing management degree and a plan for turning the business, which Lee had run on his own for six years, into a goldmine. When Lee asked where he got his degree, Brad hesitated before admitting it was Thomas Nelson Community College. Thomas Nelson was right there in Hampton Roads, and when Lee, well into their third pitcher of beer, realized that Brad had been in the area, hidden and avoiding the family, for years, he stood, reached across the booth table, grabbed Brad by his ratty reggae t-shirt, and ploughed him with a punch that caught Brad under the jaw and sent him airborne out of the booth to land, wheels up, flat on the wood floor.

But Brad was Lee’s brother and all the family he had left, so Lee picked him up, they finished their pitcher, and Lee brought him back to the small house in Chesapeake that had been their parents’ and was now theirs. Over the following weeks they somehow mended fences. During the mending, over breakfasts and dinners and beers, Lee gritted his teeth listening to his younger brother’s ideas, but slowly he realized that Brad seemed to know some things that made sense.  Norfolk is a Navy town. Brad suggested repainting the Citabria in Blue Angel colors—deep blue and bright yellow. They had a Go Navy! banner made at their own expense and flew it the weekend of the annual Army-Navy game. It got them featured in an article in The Virginian-Pilot, the local newspaper. They had Navy-style flight jackets and caps embroidered with their company name—VK Aerial Advertising— and the image of their plane, and wore both everywhere they went. They joined the Hampton Roads Chamber of Commerce, and at the Chamber’s annual community festival they raffled off plane rides in the Citabria for three lucky kids, all proceeds going to the local For Kids charity for homeless families.

It worked. Where Lee had been scraping by, barely able to make a living, buy fuel and parts, and pay Marco to keep the plane running, he now was in the black. More than that, he did not feel so isolated from the community.  His and Brad’s dad, Vince Kaskauskas, had been a Hellcat pilot in the Pacific in World War II and had a name in the town because of it.  That built his business. But Lee didn’t have his own name in Hampton Roads. Brad made him realize he needed to establish that.  It wasn’t enough to have a plane and a service to offer; you had to be a member of the community. Brad’s marketing efforts, though exploitive on the surface, gave them that connection.  Now they had fourteen regular clients in Hampton Roads, all paid up, six on-and-off clients, and better deals with the company that made the banners. Lee had to admit that business was good and his brother was a Godsend. 

Now Brad was talking about Marketing 2.0. In part it involved a print campaign with trifold brochures and response postcards and using two attractive and personable local college women to deliver these materials to local businesses.  Brad even envisaged a VK Aerial Advertising calendar featuring the college coeds.

Lee wasn’t enthused.

But he was optimistic.

Norfolk skies were all about aircraft. Everybody on the beach looks up at planes flying over, whether it’s a pair of F-18 Super Hornets roaring like 500 knot dragons out to sea in search of a virtual target a hundred and fifty miles away or a high-wing Cita-Bug lugging a 100-foot commercial flag in a straight line along the beach at 60 knots. It’s all part of the Virginia Beach ambience, the story of summer vacations. Lee loved being part of it, not just for himself but for his father, who dizzily dodged Japanese Zeros in the Pacific and yet seemed happily challenged by the simple job of hauling advertising banners through the sky.

It was a single continuum that Lee was beginning to understand.

He suddenly realized he was daydreaming—a dangerous thing for a pilot—and snapped to. The ocean was in clear sight, its flat green-blue filling the horizon. He was coming in just south of Rudee’s Inlet. It was 1000 hours on the mark.

Between the inlet and the sea, on a stubby tongue of land, were some of Lee’s favorite places. One was the Lighthouse Restaurant, built in the 1950s and, in its faux-lighthouse weather-beaten glory, still served seafood the way he liked it best.  Jerry Kragin was the owner, a high-school companion of his, and Lee didn't need his binoculars to see Jerry’s silver Suburban parked in the lot, as it probably had been all night. Jerry’s wife, the notorious Nikki, would be lying in wait at home. Nikki had a hormone problem that magnified forgetting to take out the garbage into a felony battery offense and a betrayal like adultery into justification for mass murder. She had called Lee last week and, enraged and weeping, said she knew, flat-out knew, about Jerry and the "friggin' bleach-blonde teen-tittie cocktail hostess slut from Richmond." Her characterization wasn’t all that unfair. Lee’s girlfriend, Copper, described the curvaceous little cocktail waitress as something between a sand crab and rock slime.

Copper owned the shop on the Rudee Inlet pier that rented jet skis, and as Lee banked over the mouth of the inlet to head up the beach line, he looked down. There she was, a dot in her bright yellow windbreaker and yellow cap, helping a two tourists mount onto the 110-horsepower Kawasaki adventure of a lifetime. She looked up and he wagged his wings. She waved. He imagined her high-cheeked smile.

His heart skipped. Damn fine woman.

He turned his full attention to flying. The beach stretched like a white border between people and the sea for miles and miles ahead. This was just his first run of the day. He was going to be up here a long time alone. He peeled the headset cup off one ear and flipped on the plane’s Bluetooth sound system. He punched a music selection on his Galaxy 7 and Led Zepplin’s Whole Lotta Love punched through the noise of the engine. It paid to have music when you flew a small plane ten hours a day.

Not even July 4th yet. It was going to be a long summer.

 

TWO

Even through the bug-spattered windshield and wavy heat rising off the pavement, Jackie Devlin spotted the snake slithering across the oncoming lane. She didn’t check for oncoming traffic. She swerved across the white line and ran over the fucker. She barely felt the bump. In her Cherokee’s rearview mirror the snake was pinned to the hot asphalt, writhing around its crushed middle. She shuddered and quickly scratched the neck of the young beagle curled on the passenger seat.

“One less of those damned things in the world, Rosie.”

Rosie opened one eye. Jackie thumbed the button on the steering wheel to raise the volume on Patsy Kline’s “There He Goes.”

She hated snakes. Loathed them since she was a little girl. Michael insisted something must have happened to her when she was young, something traumatic involving a snake or an eel or even a big nightcrawler. Her first husband, Gary, had said the same thing. But there was nothing she could remember. As far as she knew, she was born hating them without need for rhyme or reason.

When she and Gary lived in Upstate New York, she once spotted a yellow snake slithering into the boxwood hedge along the driveway and made Gary cut the hedge down to stumps, pull the stumps, and plant a row of azaleas. Two years later, she saw a dark brown snake in one of the azaleas and made Gary tear them out. Then, on the stone wall he had built around the garden, she saw a snake sunning itself when she went out to water the garden, and the wall was gone. Her girl neighbor-friends shared her repulsion and sympathized with her, but her phobia was a sore joke between Gary and her until the day he died.

When he collapsed in their backyard garden Jackie suspected he had been bitten by a venomous snake. But the autopsy revealed he had collapsed from a heart attack. No snake bite. He was a good man.

Now, to her own disbelief, she lived on a cotton farm in Virginia where snakes were not once-or-twice-a-season horrors but persistent, vile neighbors. Black snakes, rat snakes, corn snakes, water snakes and Eastern rattlesnakes lay in ambush everywhere. She saw at least a dozen a month during the Snake Months—May through October—often twice that, and at least four of them surprised her bad enough to send her into a screaming panic. When she couldn’t see them, she could still feel their slithery presence. She didn’t park in the garage—what had been the barn—since one morning she found there a shed snakeskin at least a yard long, wedged under her front tire. She didn’t garden unless Michael was gardening with her or doing something else nearby, a practice that paid off several times but also explained the death by neglect their small patch of tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers and corn both years they lived there. She couldn’t be the first to step out onto the front porch on summer mornings or the last one in from the porch on summer evenings. And once the cotton, which was planted by a leasing farmer on every available square yard of suitable soil, sprouted and leafed and hid the open ground from her doorstep out a quarter mile in all directions—as it was doing now—it was all she could do to walk to her Cherokee, parked close beside the house. If she had to go to Michael’s workshop on the back edge of the 160-acre property, she drove with the windows rolled up tight.

Michael. More and more she realized he was the problem. He had brought her here to his late grandmother’s farm to pursue his dream, not caring that she would be living with nightmares. Michael. Michael and his dream. Michael and his toy.

She had met him over iced bourbon at an on-base party at NASNI, Naval Air Station North Island, San Diego. Gary had died the previous year, and with nothing left for her in Upstate New York—maybe anywhere—she moved to San Diego, where her only family, her older sister, Diana, lived. Diana and her husband, Tom, were gracious and unpitying. They gave her her choice of bedrooms abandoned by their three grownup daughters (two married, one in graduate school in Iowa) and didn’t once refuse her offers to clean house, cook or tend the neglected garden. She was as free as if she lived alone. The house was spotless. She learned to cook creatively again. The garden thrived.

But it was not her house, and when a vague sense of displacement and a nagging guilt set in, compounded by her dwindling bank account, Jackie almost panicked. But Diana and Tom handled that just as graciously. At her first mention of wanting to find a job, Diana offered to put her to work part time in the garden center she managed. But it was Tom—Navy thoracic surgeon Captain Tom—who made Jackie’s suitable employment his mission. He quickly got her interviews for civilian jobs at Navy facilities throughout the area. Jackie was qualified. Over 26 years, she had served as administrative assistant to the presidents of three private colleges and universities, and within five weeks she was administrative assistant to the NASNI Commanding Officer. When she met Michael, she had been on the job and part of Navy culture for all of eight months. He had been in the Navy 29 years.

“Bourbon rocks,” Michael said to the party bartender. He was one ahead of her in line. He watched the pour and then slid off to the side to test the drink.

“Bourbon rocks,” Jackie said to the bartender. She watched the pour and then slid toward Michael, who was already watching her. He was short, just taller than she, muscularly stout, and studying her with sensitive but undisguised interest. She was not accustomed to interest. She had been fairly attractive as a young woman. Gary had always found her attractive. But since then the pounds and the grief had disfigured her in her own eyes.

Yet here was a very passably attractive man eyeing her.  She was on her third bourbon.

“You can depend on the Navy for bad bourbon,” he said. She liked his voice.

“I didn’t think sailors were alcohol snobs,” she said, not looking at him.

“Not snobs, ma’am,” he said. “Sailors just know what they like.” He started to step away, but hesitated. She knew then.

“So do I,” she said, and with a sudden bright smile reached out her glass. He turned and their glasses clinked musically.

She learned that night, over more bourbons, that his first tour had been Vietnam. He fixed F4 Phantoms when they pancaked onto the deck of the USS Constellation or missed the deck and, if they didn’t sink, had to be pulled out of the drink, or sputtered, blinked or faltered during pre-mission tests. Now he was an E-8 Senior Chief Aviation Structural Mechanic responsible for the readiness of Hornet squadrons. The Navy’s top aircraft.

Michael was romantic in a sincere, out of practice way that endeared her and made her feel special and safe. He was eleven years older, but they laughed a lot and the gap narrowed. After the first party were movies and dinners and two Navy base picnics. He took his time, as she did. The night they first made love was after an air show, in her reception area in the base commander’s office. The effrontery of it thrilled them, and they laughed for days. After three months she moved into his house in South Park in the hills above San Diego. The front yard had two palm trees and looked over the edge of a mesa onto a three-mile stretch of the city and the harbor. It was spectacular. It was a  panorama compared to the little back yard she and Gary had loved.

From when she first knew she liked him, she tried to tell Michael about her phobia of snakes. She didn’t know why it was so important to talk to him about it, but it was. The topic first came up at a restaurant in San Clemente, a wonderful Italian place with a view of the beach, and she had never been more honest with anyone about her fear than she was that night. She told him something important, something going on inside of her that she did not understand herself. Something dangerous. She watched his eyes as she talked. He listened well. He felt and he reached out. He nodded, as though he understood, but she knew he didn’t really understand. He had so little fear, how could he understand someone like her who had so much?

She let it go.

In their six years together in San Diego, she never encountered a live snake, so the topic never came up again with the same seriousness, and all Michael learned in those years was that she shuddered and gasped when a snake flicking out its tongue on TV or in a movie, and that she had amusing stories from her life back East about ripped out shrubs and demolished stone walls.

How could he suspect what life would be like for her on a farm in rural Virginia? He couldn’t. She granted him that. But once they moved into what had been his Grammy’s home—a 1940s two-story with tiny rooms and narrow stairs, built by Michael’s grandfather and surrounded by open fields edged by thick woods--and snakes began crawling out of shadows and sent her running and shrieking, he should have realized. He should have done something. Especially that day in June, two years ago. The memory made her grip the Cherokee’s steering wheel so tightly her knuckles turned white.

Moving boxes were still stacked throughout a house. It was late May. Michael had come out to Virginia from San Diego in March to settle his grandmother’s estate and do the repairs and improvements that the Suffolk County building inspector insisted. It was a long list, and Jackie had added to it. Gary had been a contractor. She knew a thing or two about renovating a house. She made it clear to Michael that she would go along with his three-year Virginia scheme, but she would not live in a broken-down home.

On her way to Virginia from San Diego—a route through states she’d never been to before: Arizona, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Arkansas, Tennessee—she often stopped out of the joy of road freedom and the fat last paycheck in her purse but also in dread of what she might find in Virginia.

She arrived at the farm the week before Memorial Day. Michael had worked hard. He and the two neighbor boys he hired had repaired the roof, windows and doors. They had replaced rotted stairs and porch boards, sprung clapboards and water-warped drywall. They installed a new shower downstairs, a new bathtub upstairs, a new kitchen sink, refrigerator and stove, and shoehorned into the tiny kitchen a microwave and a small TV. In the laundry room off the back porch they installed a new washer and dryer. All the wood floors downstairs and about a third of the wood floors upstairs were stripped and varnished. The downstairs rooms had been painted, seemingly to her eye, in a rush. The upstairs was old paint or no paint.

It was not a broken-down home, but it was not what Jackie was used to. It was old, worn and not yet revived. A part of her resistance, too, was that she knew that while Michael and his two helpers were repairing the house they were also raising at the back edge of the property, from nothing, a hangar big enough for Michael’s project, his first love.

She could only blame herself. His project was why they moved to Virginia. She had agreed to it, to be in this old house for three years, so he could chase his dream. And once she reached Virginia she was so glad to be with him again—to talk, cook meals together, smell and feel each other, make love, laugh and laugh and sleep in each other’s arms, lazy and irresponsible, at all times of the day.

Then came June 10.

Jackie was in the kitchen making Michael’s favorite meal—herbal lamb stew—with the Basmati rice, organic chicken and fresh herbe she had driven all the way into Norfolk to get. She had plans for the evening.

She had just dropped the minced garlic into the olive oil in the skillet when Rosie barked on the back porch. The bark was persistent and alarming. Jackie left the stove and opened the back door. Rosie was facing away, the hair on her nape raised, and when Jackie followed the dog’s focus she saw on the edge of the weathered wood porch a snake as thick as her arm, coiled, all beaded brown and black, its tail buzzing, its pink mouth wide, fangs aimed. Torn between reaching for Rosie and leaping back into the house, Jackie screamed. And screamed again.  And again.  Rosie never stopped barking and the snake never stopped rattling. Magically Michael appeared glistening with sweat, shirt sleeves rolled to his elbows, and with a wide swing of their old garden shovel cleanly decapitated the snake. It was the most horrid, shocking, wonderful thing Jackie had ever seen. She scooped Rosie into her arms and crushed the pup against her chest, trembling, sobbing and wanting to vomit. She looked at Michael in his greasy denim work shirt, sleeves rolled to his elbows, and realized he was all powerful, all wonderful. Heroic. Her protector. Her man. Then he spoke and his feet turned to clay.

“A canebrake,” he said, staring at the still twitching evil. “You don’t see many around here. John Adams put one on the Continental Navy’s first Jack. We flew that Jack on Connie on my second tour.” That was it. She was still shaking and he just flipped the killing shovel onto his shoulder and walked away to whatever he’d been doing before. No hug. No glance. Duty done. And the only thought he had about it all was that a man 200 years dead had put a drawing of the fucking snake on a flag that flew n a ship be was on. It was the first time she’d ever doubted him and his understanding of her. The first time. There were many times since.

Fucking snakes and the fucking Navy, she thought at the time and she thought again now. Everything around her was Navy and snakes. Her life was full of Navy and snakes.

What kept her from going crazy was that the farm was only 40 minutes from the ocean and the resort town of Virginia Beach. The beach was her respite. There were no snakes there. Sure F18s thundering overhead every half hour or so and the occasion gray shape of a warship crossed the horizon—after all, the Hampton Roads area, stretching from Norfolk, Virginia Beach and Newport News south to Kill Devil Hills, is more Navy blue than San Diego could ever be. She decided right then, still ruffling Rosie’s neck fur after making road kill of the snake, that as soon as she got home she would call Corinne. Corinne was the young wife of one of the cotton farmer’s that leased Michael’s land. She was always up for lying on the beach and drinking Orange Crushes and eating lunch at Waterman’s. She’d definitely be up for it now, just before the Fourth of July and the arrival of crowds of tourists that made the beach too noisy and busy or the locals to enjoy.

Jackie continued along the curvy two-lane road, past the Commonwealth Cotton Gin, idle until September, and farm fields planted in peanuts and cotton. She’d been told that peanut farming was barely profitable the last several years, at least for small growers, but it was a tradition.  These farmers grew the big-seeded Virginia varieties that made the best snack peanuts, and if there was one thing she learned living in Virginia for two years, it was that tradition was tenacious.

As Jackie came up on Old Myrtle Road, Rosie came to life at the smell of home. She bounced up, front paws on the passenger door handle, hoping for a better smell. Jackie powered down the passenger window and Rosie poked her snout and floppy ears out into the sunshine, and the late-June heat poured in, challenging the air conditioner.

Old Myrtle Road marked the west edge of the farm, and as soon as she turned onto it the south field was on her right. She looked over the thickening low green that by fall would be white and almost waist-high with popped cotton bolls. There was, she had to admit, a beauty in this hell.

 Then she saw the plume of dust. It was moving along the farm’s gravel road, headed toward the road she was on. She squinted through her sunglasses and even at a distance recognized the familiar white shape of a box truck.

“Damn you, Michael!” she hissed and smacked the steering wheel, accidentally turning off the radio and clipping the Zac Brown Band into silence. Her jaw clenched. “Damn you!” She pressed down on the gas.

As she came up on the entrance to the farm, the white flatbed truck was pulling out, headed in her direction.

Jackie slowed and relaxed her face into a smile. The truck slowed. She recognized Jeremy Toggs driving but not the young man in the truck’s passenger seat. She glanced into her rearview mirror—there was no one behind her—and powered down her window as they both rolled to a stop, facing in opposite directions. The heat really hit her now, and Rosie bounded onto her lap, looking up at Jeremy.

“Hi, Jeremy,” she said.

“Hi, Mrs. Devlin.” Jeremy’s round face, framed by a bushy gray beard and a worn New Holland baseball cap, smiled down at her over a meaty elbow hanging out the truck window. He was in his late 50s and always polite. It was always Mrs. Devlin.

“I take it that’s not something for me,” Jackie said, pointing toward the farm and meaning whatever he’d just delivered.

Jeremy grinned. “No, ma’am, for your husband.”

She raised her sunglasses and squinted at Jeremy against the noon sun. “He there?“ she said.

“Yes, ma’am,” being polite through his discomfort.

Jeremy liked Jackie Devlin. She was a suburban woman from up North, a bit sharp but pretty for her age, and she fit in passably well without trying too hard. He liked Michael, too, though Michael kept to himself. Jeremy had been delivering stuff —crates and pallets of machine parts--to the farm for more than a year and still didn’t know what Michael had in that big workshop of his, although today’s delivery gave him a pretty good clue.

Yeah, Jeremy liked the Devlins, but since last fall he’d sensed that Mrs. Devlin was annoyed at the steady stream of deliveries to her husband. Now, for the first time, he saw a flash of real anger as she stared toward the farm. Jeremy took the cue.

“Have a good weekend, Mrs. Devlin,” he said, and set the gears and pulled away.

Jackie lost no time stomping the accelerator.

This was the last damn straw.

 

THREE

On a grand stone terrace overlooking the city of San Pedro Sula, servants were setting large round tables with white tablecloths, polished silverware and sparkling crystal, hanging green and gold bunting, and filling oil torches that lined the terrace and the wide stone stairs descending to the smooth lawn and lush garden below. They worked in silence, save the occasional necessary whisper, and with eyes down, for el Coronel was watching.

Looking as fit and disciplined in his casual white linens as in his usual military uniform, Colonel Majano Antonio Ortega barely noticed the servants or their preparations. He stood at the white stone balustrade, enjoying his cigar, watching air traffic over the city, and keeping a close eye on the road below.

Mahano expected to enjoy this evening. After four months, he was becoming accustomed to his palatial new home, and the party was the first he and Elise, his wife, hosted there. An important occasion: a celebration of both the closing days of La Feria Juniana, the city’s June Festival, and the Mahano’s assignment as Commander of Primer Grupo Táctico, Fuerza Aérea Hondureña (FAH)—the 1st Tactical Group of the Honduran Air Force. It would be the couple’s lavish introduction to the local elite. The mayor, the chairmen of the San Pedro Sula and Cortés Department business councils, the President of Centro Social Hondureno-Arabe, the curator of the Museo de Antropología y Historia, even the chairman of Club Deportivo Marathòn, the city’s wildly popular football team, would certainly attend, if only because General Antonio Garcia Pavón would be there.

General Pavón was a powerful man. He had been Majano’s mentor since he was a newly minted lieutenant, and now that he was  a colonel and air force commander, Majano still found it difficult to believe his good fortune in being associated with him. As a lieutenant, Majano had performed at a Honduran air show in a Cessna Dragonfly, a Northrop F5, and a Bell 412. The General, then a lieutenant colonel, was impressed with his aviation skills. He transferred Majano to his command and put him to work learning to lead. Through the general’s influence and his own loyalty and hardwork, Majano Ortega quickly rose through the ranks.

General Pavón rose too. In the military, he steeled the discipline of the FAH. He strengthened Honduran air assets. In the 1980s He commanded air attacks against Guatemalan rebels encroaching on Honduran territory, and his success raised him to chief command status. Along the way, he kept Majano by his side, and finally entrusted the younger man with a most sensitive assignment during the Zelaya affair and, before resigning 16 months later, promoted him to his own command.

General Pavón was even responsible, in part, for Ortega’s marriage. He selected Majano for a group sent to the School of the Americas at Fort Benning, Georgia, in 1999. There Majano met Elise.

It was General Pavón himself who had summoned him three weeks ago to Tegucigalpa, the capital, and offered him a different kind of opportunity—a part in a very profitable business venture. That opportunity was to be decided upon that evening, at the party, before the other guests arrived. It was the general’s car that Majano was watching for on the road that wound its way up the mountainside from the city.

            Colonel Majano Ortega was proud of his service to República de Honduras, proud of his reputation for efficiency and dedication to duty. Yet he was not blind. His predecessors had made considerable fortunes using the resources now available to him. General Pavón himself was an extremely wealthy man, and he certainly trusted the General. Yet Majano was apprehensive. In he weeks since the meeting in the capital, that apprehension had grown, and even as he smoked his cigar and looked out over the balustrade and watched for his mentor’s car, he was not sure what his decision was.

One of three wide French doors swung open and a line of servants streamed out into the hot sunlight, each carrying a crystal vase arranged with what Majano called Ocelot Lilies—yellow calla lilies patterned with orange spots that reminded him of the coat of the wild cat—and spikes of red ginger flowers. He despised red flowers on a dinner table, but they were his wife’s decision, and as he cringed at them, Elise appeared wrapped in her robe, fresh from a bath. He reddened. Having his wife appear to the servants in a bathrobe was humiliating. His scowl dared any servant to show any disrespect, but none seemed to notice. They were accustomed by now, and that deepened his embarrassment. For her part, Elise clearly felt no inhibition. She glided toward him, loosely robed, as cool and light as chilled tequila.

“Beautiful, aren’t they?” she said, not asking. She knew he hated the red flowers.  “Festive!”

The Colonel tried to be wise and read her mood and its implications for the evening. To his relief he found all signs positive. Elise was buoyant and unconquerable, charming and entertaining. She was, to use the American phrase “on for the evening.”

Elise was an American, years younger than he, tall and comfortably slender, with cinnamon hair and an iridescent smile. That smile beamed now. She was in her element. She loved to entertain, lived for it, and had been frustrated for months over not being able to christen their glorious new home with a proper party.

This occasion was more than proper.

She was not the kind of wife usually accepted as the partner of a rising officer in a rigidly conservative Honduras, but for nine years they had managed it. They adopted each other’s cultures in increments. He began by not demanding her obeisance in public, she by paying him in public the respect due a Honduran man of standing. She concealed her American naiveté and eventually mastered Honduran Spanish and Honduran etiquette. He gave up his mistresses. All the while they were sexually voracious for each other. He had no complaint.

Until they moved into the new house.

Since they moved in months ago, her talk had been entirely about decorating and parties and her plans for them. He had long loved her decorating demonstrations. She had wondrous ideas when they lived on a second lieutenant’s wages in a two-room apartment. When he was promoted to captain and they moved to a four-room, she made all their friends and guests comfortable and every gathering memorable. Now she had a staff and could hire anyone. But aside from servants to do what servants do, she hired no one.  No festivity planner, no company to cook and decorate. She had planned and was thoroughly managing this capital event in their lives, and her appearance in her bathrobe told of her confidence and complete control.

He did not command his battle unit with as much aplomb.

 “The centerpieces are beautiful—festive,” he said, kissing her on the cheek with genuine affection as she put her arms around him for a moment. She quickly released him and flitted away to change the rotation of a flower arrangement, so that its best side was displayed to the most important guests at the table. She was more comfortable with doing than with giving instructions to a staff. It was her middle-class upbringing in Kansas, USA. She did for herself. How could flowers possibly face the proper direction if she herself did not grasp the vase and turn them? To Majano, for whom command was second nature and delegation a natural tool, such behavior could arise only with an American wife.

“Father.” The voice surprised him, and Majano turned to see his son standing in the open French doorway, in his dress FAH uniform.

“Fernando,” the Colonel said, his mind racing. “You’re early.”

“Captain Ramirez released us. Two of the Dragonflys are still grounded. Parts haven’t arrived.”

Majano suspected that the said captain had released Fernando and his squadron as a favor, thinking his colonel would appreciate having his son available early for the visit by General Pavón, which everyone at the airbase and indeed most in the city knew about. A misguided favor, a presumptuous judgment. Majano would deal with him later. Now he had to deal with the situation at hand. He did not want Fernando present when General Pavon arrived early to do their business.
            Fernando was trustworthy. A good son, a competent pilot and a tough, decent soldier, but he was young and overly eager to please, and could be thoughtless and undisciplined. Not like his older brother, Miguel. Majano did not trust his younger son with delicate matters. He did not want Fernando knowing about his business with the General. He thought for a moment, then smiled, the problem resolved.

“It is good you are here, Fernando,” he said, “I have a task for you.”

Fernando came to attention, as much a lieutenant receiving an assignment from a commander as a son asked a favor by his father. “Absolutely, Father.”

“General Pavón arrives any minute. Leonard and two men are at the lower gate—“

“Yes, I saw them when I arrived.” Leonard was the Colonel’s personal chief of security, a former U.S. Marine. He was expert at his job and relentlessly single-minded when it came to protecting Majano and his family.

“The General will have his own security with him, and I’m sure one or two of them will want to stay at the gate as an added precaution. I don’t want any friction. Go down there and be an intermediary. Make sure Leonard accepts the General’s people. Stay down there until the other guests start to arrive and you’re certain any issues are resolved.”

The young man was disappointed. “I was hoping to meet the General—“

“Of course, and you will. He will be here most of the evening. But this is important—“

“Has there been a threat?”

“No. Nothing specific.“

“Leonard is not going to like me being there,” the young lieutenant said. Leonard and Fernando did not get along. Everyone knew it. There were many reasons.

“Tell Leonard I sent you. He is a professional, you are a professional. Work it out.”

            Majano heard in his own voice how flimsy all this surely seemed to his son, but he could not come up with a better idea. He had to get Fernando out of the way for the next hour.

From the east a familiar sound approached. Father and his son turned and looked out over the city. A Bell Iroquois helicopter was flying low and slowly toward them, a mile out and just below the altitude of the terrace. Majano knew it was following the road to the house, providing surveillance and air cover for General Pavón’s motorcade.

He stepped to the balustrade and looked down the valley. Four black vehicles—three SUVs and an armored Mercedes-Benz limousine—as small as ants at this distance, popped in and out of view in openings in the canopy of trees three hundred feet below, starting their climb up the mountain road.

“Time for me to get dressed,” Elise said, suddenly standing at his elbow.

“Yes,” the Colonel said. “I need some time in private with him.”

Elise frowned. “I don’t like that man, Majano,” she said, glided toward the open French doors.

“He likes you,” the Colonel said.

Fernando was at his other elbow, also looking down at the road. He had said nothing to his stepmother, and Majano ignored it. When a man was 25, one could not dictate his relationships. He was on his own.

“Father, there’s not time for me—“

“I know, Fernando. Stay here for a few minutes. Pay your respects to the General, then go down to the gate.”

Fernando smiled. He was pleased with the change of plan.

Colonel Majano Ortega certainly was not.