“You have no fucking clue as to the magnitude of what you’re asking me to do!”
None of the three gentlemen seated at the table as much as flinched. As a matter of deference Fatima and Ali looked to their boss. It would be a cold day in hell before either of them would speak without the approval of their leader, and presently Omar found no cause for words. Arms folded high across his chest spoke volumes.
After allowing ample time to telegraph his sentiment, Omar reached into the front pocket of his suit-pants to retrieve a pearl handled pocket knife.
He held it up to Mario and smirked, “American made.”
Omar turned his hand palm up and curled his fingers to examine the nails. Extending the blade he set about cleaning them while Mario continued to plead his case.
“Look fellas, this is your turf. Things in Afghanistan are significantly different than in Philly. Big city alleys are dark places full of darker deeds and every day I dance on razor’s edge for you. Bellizar is my major distributor. If he even smells a hint of betrayal on me, he’ll have one of his henchmen cut off my nuts with a butter knife. You DO NOT roll over on one of the biggest drug dealers in the city and live to talk about it!”
Omar seemed satisfied with his make-shift manicure and appeared ready to lay down his knife and honor Mario with his full attention. Instead the young Arab leaned forward in his chair, rolled hard left and seized a handful of his hair. When Mario placed his hand down for balance Omar plunged the knife through it pinning him to the table. He pulled Mario’s face until their noses touched.
“My pitiful American friend, you have forgotten who you’re talking to. As a matter of speaking it seems you have lost your head, and in my country figuratively can become literal upon one word from me.”
Omar turned to Fatima and Ali. Like trained puppets they burst into a continuous state of laughter until Omar signaled they should no longer find humor in anything. The raising of his arm instantly wiped their faces expressionless.
“Millions of dollars of opium hit the street daily in the US. My only concern is an uninterrupted flow from this country to yours. As you can imagine there are many Belizar’s and Mario’s, each of them expendable. Belizar uses more than he moves and a scrambled brain is of no value. You WILL begin delivering product to Kaboni Saavage. The complications related to rival drug lords are your own. Figure it out!! ”
Omar shoved his head back with enough force to move his body sideway. Like a dog hits the end of a chain, Mario yelped with his hand still crudely fixed of the table.
Mario nodded and gritted his teeth. In one fluid motion he removed the knife and whipped it across the room. The rotating knife split the distance between Fatima and Ali’s heads and found its mark in the wall behind them. Mario followed his bold move with bolder words.
“I understand you can have me killed by simply saying the word, but what you’re asking me to do amounts to suicide anyway. How about you find someone else to fly your shit to the states? I’m out!”
Mario gathered enough courage to turn for the door. He realized that with each step the odds increased that the next millisecond might see a bullet ripping through his brain separating him from his senses. What little remained. Thinking back Mario was at a loss to explain how a commercial pilot’s salary hadn’t been enough. Greed was the only answer. He was a fool for having ever entered the drug-running scene. Now he was nothing more than a rat trapped in a corner. High-stake, deadly games; where sometimes you find the only control you have left is the terms upon which you will leave the game.
Omar erupted with the ferocity of a lion.
“You ungrateful, son-of-a-bitch! You think you can just walk away from me?”
Mario paused and turned. It took everything he had to squelch the urge to defiantly lift his middle finger. Omar’s face was so contorted only slits remained for eyes. Even through the shadows fire leapt from them.
“Americans and liberty…useless sentiment! You want freedom— I’ll give you your freedom, but it comes with a price tag. Come back here and listen to my proposition.”
Mario returned, but stood outside of arm’s reach. Omar’s tone changed considerably.
“There is a monster shipment scheduled to leave for the US, much too large for one aircraft. We have arranged additional pilots, but they are not as skilled as you, Mario. You are a true professional, well-versed in the art of avoiding detection. You, my good friend, have never lost even one ounce in transport and Omar respects you greatly. If you take the lead and all three aircraft land safely at their destination you will have earned your freedom, as well as a $250,000 for work well done. ”
A refusal almost ensured his beheading by nightfall, and a quarter of a million dollars would cover changing his identity and moving his family to some tiny town on the other side of the country. Mario was ready to have his life back.
Mario extended his good hand to Omar and shook.
“I better get some rest if I’m flying tonight.”
As Mario left the room Omar returned to the table. He spoke to his cohorts in a hushed voice.
“Mario is the typical American fool; he knows too many names, faces, and location details. It is your job to make sure that his plane never arrives—explosion, navigational difficulties, mechanical failure—use your imagination. Surprise me, but don’t disappoint me!!”
Normally there were three cargo planes available, but with one undergoing an engine overhaul and the larger shipment Mario was in for a new experience. Climbing into the cockpit of an old F-14 fighter took him back to the jungles of Vietnam. He had no doubt the feel of a fighter would come back quickly. Omar arranged for Geary to do the pre-flight checks as he was better suited; an ex-Canadian fighter pilot for the Royal Air Force. Although it was their first meeting, Geary seemed capable of handling the C-23 Sherpa and generally a nice enough guy.
All of the aircraft used to transport were American made. Mario was uncertain of who was involved militarily and how high up the chain the corruption rose, but their final destination was the same landing strip on an Air Force base in the Nevada desert. Things of such magnitude didn’t happen without a good number of brass being actively involved or turning a blind eye. Rarely did an aircraft return empty; Opium came in by the ton and crates of weapons went back. Mario found it easier not to get mixed up in the details.
Nothing compared to the adrenaline rush that accompanies being pinned to the seat by such a powerful and awesome piece of weaponry. During the climb Mario glanced to the wings. The rails designed for bombs and missiles were empty. With the ascent now complete, he eased the stick forward and leveled out the aircraft, allowing time for the larger and slower C-23’s to catch up. It pleased him to see them find similar altitude and fall in line. Even on the first leg of the flight, the sheer amount of time spent airborne was mind-numbing.
Mario drifted back through the decades to the wheat fields of Kansas. As a young boy he never analyzed the nature of what called him, only that he must answer. With the rising sun as his witness he would sneak from his bedroom window still in pajamas. Specific destinations were not part of the equation. Mario would amble across the harvested fields until he felt the energy building beneath his feet. There he would stand until his soul filled up. With eyes closed, head tilted skyward, he would lift his arms like wings and spin in circles. There was a great degree of peace and freedom found in the lining of the sky—something that only a pilot, or perhaps an eagle, could fully comprehend. Mario lost himself, for hours he supposed, but the portal where he slipped into the heavens knew nothing of time and boundaries. He floated back to earth only when his mother stood in the distance calling his name. She was a precious and loving soul that passed too soon and Mario’s heart ached every time he thought of her. She never questioned what he was doing. He supposed a mother always knew her own boys heart. The sweetness of her voice sounded if she were very near.
“Mario, Mario, Mario, come with me.”
As if a hypnotist snapped his fingers sharply, Mario found himself in the here and now. A shiver climbed the length of his spine and he broke into a cold sweat. Eeriness filled the cockpit like poison gas—he sensed something very wrong. Mario stared long and hard at the panel of lights and gauges. During the few seconds he observed, the fuel pressure gauge dropped dramatically. The bottom of his stomach fell out. He banked the aircraft left then right and observed a trail of unspent fuel spraying from the right engine.
Mario screamed uselessly into the oxygen mask.
“Omar you heartless, sabotaging, son-of-a-bitch!”
The right engine sputtered twice before flaming out. Mario wrestled with the stick to stabilize the aircraft. It fluttered from side to side like a wounded bird, but was manageable. There wasn’t enough fuel to turn back and the image of slamming into the side of a mountain made his skin crawl. He’d take his chances punching out. Mario reached for the ejection lever, took a deep breath, and yanked upward—but nothing. Omar had closed off the obvious means of escape.
As quickly as fuel leaked from the aircraft a toxic combination of rage, fear, and regret was filling Mario. Of the millions of thoughts that might flash through a man’s mind when death is waiting around the next corner, Mario’s returned to his thoughts earlier that morning. Sometimes your decisions are so poor that the only control you’ve left yourself is to choose the terms in which you will leave the game. Mario knew what he had to do.
He banked right in a sweeping arc and came in from behind the Sherpa’s at a slightly higher altitude. Mario pulled just ahead of rear cargo plane and attempted to match its speed. He shadowed each of them as long as he could maintain stable. He forced the F-14 downward, back into the lead position, with no more than a hundred feet separating his tail and the nose of the Sherpa. Mario reached for the ignition switch for the right engine and flipped it forward. After the engine re-lit he kicked in the after-burner which sent his aircraft into an unmanageable state of chaos. Mario felt the repercussion of the first cargo plane’s exploding, and supposed the fiery shrapnel racing toward the second plane was more than the pilot could avoid as the second shockwave rattled the canopy.
A certain sense of satisfaction and peace washed over him, so much that he turned loose of the controls. The steel gray of his aircraft became only a blur of spins and tumbling as it hurdled toward the jagged mountainside. The ensuing ball of fire appeared like a firefly lost in a sea of night. But there was a sense of peace and freedom folded in the breeze—an image of a young boy twirling in a Kansas wheat field while his mother calls him home.