science fiction story about an alien encounter

High In The Sky Over Florida

 

(Very High)

 

 

A Madcap Adventure Comedy Classic, Set Back in The Day

by Jim Esposito

 

 

The Original Airplane Repo


An E Ticket


by Jim Esposito


Seven A.M. My phone starts ringing. That’s no big deal for most people, but I work in a nightclub. I don’t get home until three or four in the morning, and many times – take the previous night, for instance I’m not entirely sober.

“Hello, Dewey!” gruffed my father’s voice at the other end of the line. He was calling from Florida. “The trouble with young people today,” my Pop would lecture, “is they can’t add or subtract.” Yet he couldn’t look at his clock, deduct three hours, figure out what time he was waking me up in California.

“Yeah, Dad. What’s going on?”

“You know our neighbor, Jodi?” he asked.

“No,” I answered.

“I told you about her,” he explained. “She makes lots of money.”

I nodded. Force of habit. My old man only talked about two things. One was money, how much of it anyone made or spent or wasted. The other was how materialistic the world had gotten.

“She’s coming out to Los Angeles. I gave her your number. Maybe she’ll want to see a show or something.”

“Thanks, Dad.”

“I don’t know much about what she does,” he told me. “But maybe you can learn something.”

“I’ve already got a job, Pop.”

“Some job,” he grumbled. “You’re up all night. And what have you got to show for it?”

“I’m tired and I’m hung over.”

“Oh…” His voice tinged with sarcasm. “Would you prefer to continue this discussion some other time?”

“No, actually, I’d rather just drop it completely,” I replied. (For all it mattered.) “Nice hearing from you, Dad. I’m going back to sleep.”

I hung up. Except for the part about his neighbor, a fairly typical exchange. Which is the main reason I forgot about the conversation almost as soon as it was over. I didn’t forget completely, of course, but if this lady who lived next door to my parents in their condo in Fort Lauderdale gave me a call, I’d let her in to see a show at the rock ’n roll club where I worked. It didn’t cost me anything. I could play the gracious son.

I kinda remembered my father speaking about this woman before. She was a pilot or something, apparently doing pretty well financially. Guess she hadn’t retired yet. But since the subject was invariably introduced as a prelude to a lecture about how his son (me) was wasting his life away in pursuit of cheap thrills and good times (which had a nice ring to it) I hadn’t paid much attention. Frankly, I didn’t think it mattered much. If she was anything like the other little old ladies who inhabited my parents’ condominium she wouldn’t be especially thrilled at the thought of coming out to see some of that “loud” music. A Las Vegas revue was probably more her speed. Or the floor show at the Copa.

Was I in for a surprise.

Three nights later, B.B. King’s playing the Club. I’m standing outside talking to Willy, who runs our parking concession. He was having trouble: somebody had been ripping off cars in our lot. Not the whole car, just their stereos. I was telling him about one of my men, a black belt who’d been an assassin for the CIA in Vietnam. I could post him in the parking lot until word got around we were territorial.

While we’re talking, a Porsche Targa pulls in with the top down, a woman inside. We checked her out without interrupting our conversation. She was an older woman, about my age, and though she wasn’t any raving beauty she knew how to play to her strong points and the results were quite attractive: medium length brown hair, a breezy blue print dress flashing lots of leg as she swung out of her sports car, all stockings and high heels. Taking a claim check from the parking attendant, she asked a question. He pointed at me and Willy. We noticed, but didn’t think much of it, kept right on talking as she strode over. It wasn’t unusual for someone with a nice car to request special consideration, and since such favors involved a particular gratuity Willy was playing it cool, wasn’t going to open negotiations appearing eager.

She caught us by surprise, however, for as we broke off conversation at her approach it was me she addressed, in the sweetest Southern accent I’d heard in years:

“Hi! You’re Dewey Needham, aren’t you?”

I guess I did a bit of a double-take.

“I recognized you when I drove up,” the lady gushed with her honeysuckle drawl. “Your Mom’s shown me pictures.”

I realized then she must’ve been my parents’ neighbor. Needless to say, she was nothing like I’d imagined.

“I’m Jodi Watkins.” she smiled brightly, extending a hand. “I live next door to your parents.”

“Yeah. Yeah,” I managed, shaking the proffered hand. “My father told me you were coming.”

“I guess I should’ve called first,” Jodi apologized. “I had the number. But your father told me you worked at the Sunset Club. I got into town this afternoon, opened the paper over dinner, saw B.B. King was playing here, so I figured I’d pop in and surprise you.”

“Well, it’s certainly a surprise,” I replied.

“Why?” she giggled demurely. “Were you expecting one of the little old ladies? I hope you’re not TOO disappointed.”

It was my turn to laugh. I was back on my feet again, though. I could tell from my sinister chuckle. “Oh, the shark, babe… Has such teeth, dear…” Up, periscope. Range, bearing, mark...

Jodi smiled, almost wishing me luck. Then, nodding toward the front door, she inquired sweetly: “Y’all got anything to drink in there?”

“Sure, sure…” I declared, taking the hint. “C’mon in. I’ll get you a table. You’re on my tab tonight.”

Glancing at Willy, I asked: “Can you take care of her car?”

He nodded, smiling. There was one item on my tab already.

“So?” I asked, ushering her toward the entrance, “where’d you get the Porsche?”

“I rented it”

I had to smile as I opened the door. “Rather extravagant, isn’t it?”

She shrugged. “I’m on expense account. I don’t pay the bills, so why should I care?”

I just stood there for a moment after Jodi swept by. You know, I thought to myself, the old man might be onto something this time.

It was a great show that night, all the more enjoyable for me due to the intriguing presence of my parents’ neighbor. I got Jodi a table for two, sent her a bottle of Mumms champagne. B.B. King drew a well-behaved crowd, so there wasn’t much for me to do in the way of work. Though I made occasional swings through the Club to check how things were going, I was able to spend a nice chunk of time getting acquainted.

Jodi was flirting with me; that much was obvious. I couldn’t figure out why exactly, but had a feeling there was more to it than meets the eye. Now I’ve got no problems with self esteem. Everybody likes to think they exude a certain dashing charm. Granted, she knew my parents. But I could just imagine the build-up I must’ve gotten from dear old Dad: “My son? The bum. A wastrel. A hopeless libertine. All he thinks about is wine, women and song. Thirty-one years old and he’s got nothing. A bouncer in a nightclub. Out there in Los Angeles, living a life of unrepentant decadence...”

Maybe that’s what she found attractive. Maybe she had a steady relationship back in Florida; it was stable, but boring. She wanted to sew some wild oats. Or maybe SHE had problems with self esteem. That didn’t seem to be much of a possibility from the looks of her. But that was none of my business. I knew better than to start asking questions. If Jodi was looking for a little action in the big city, who was I to disappoint a lady? It was manna from heaven. My father might’ve sired a libertine, but my mama didn’t raise no fool.

We killed the first bottle dispensing with the preliminaries.

“My father told me you were a pilot or something,” I inquired. “Is that what you do?”

“Sort of,” she answered, sipping her champagne. “Actually, I’m an appraiser. Companies call me, they buy and sell used planes.”

“But you’re a pilot, too?”

“Yeah. I’m licensed to fly anything, almost, except commercial jetliners.”

I was impressed. “You must know a lot about the mechanical stuff.”

“Every pilot’s gotta know about the mechanical stuff,” she smiled. “Your life depends upon it. It’s not like a car. You can’t just pull over. Planes are maintained pretty well. I can read maintenance reports. That’s usually enough.”

She continued: “Technically, I’m a consultant. Companies call, fly me out to where the plane is. I look it over, tell them what it’s worth. Then I fly it back.”

“Sounds like a tough gig.”

She smiled again. “It’s fun. Most of the time, they’re private executive planes. Corporate jets. Big status symbols, you understand – a company plane. It’s a very active market. Companies are constantly upgrading, or going broke.”

I didn’t say anything. Jodi kept right on talking.

“I’m always after your father to come flying with me. He turns me down.”

I nodded. Sad to see the old man slipping.

Jodi asked: “You like to fly?”

“Yeah,. A friend of mine had a plane, took me up once. It was great.”

“What kind of plane?”

“I don’t know,” I shrugged. “A Piper Cub or something.”

“That’s like flying a lawn mower.” Jodi tried, without success, to contain her amusement. “I oughta get you up in a jet some time.”

I didn’t say a word, simply sipped my champagne demurely, sensing a reversal in the classic male/female pursuit. Perhaps I should’ve fluttered and blushed. Don’t think I didn’t know I wasn’t getting made. But, after all – how bad could that be?

Pouring the last of the Mumms into our glasses, I inquired: “What brings you out to L.A.?

“Business. I have to appraise a private jet up in Santa Ynez.”

“That’s nice up there.”

“So I’ve heard. But I’ve never been.”

“It’s a beautiful valley just over the big hill from Santa Barbara. Lots of money. Thoroughbred breeding ranches. Some real big spreads.”

I stuck the empty bottle into the ice bucket neck first, a dead soldier.

Examining the bubbly in her glass, Jodi inquired: “Is this the best champagne you’ve got?”

“It’s the best champagne I can get,” I explained. “We’ve got Dom and Cristal, of course, but it’s a hundred and twenty bucks a bottle. My boss would have to sign for that.”

“Well, then,” declared Jodi, flourishing a gold card, “the next bottle’s on my boss.”

I was gonna tell her that wasn’t necessary but fortunately caught myself in time. I may be easy but I’m not cheap. Dom Perignon will almost always do the trick. I flagged a waitress.

B.B. King took the stage, curtailing further conversation. We settled back to enjoy the show. I got up, made the rounds a few times, but there was nothing going on I couldn’t delegate. Jodi and I sipped Dom Perignon, listening to the great blues master himself, making eye contact over champagne glasses. It was strictly spider and the fly time. Only question was – who’s the spider? I wondered what my chances were. And she, of course, knew. By the time B.B. was halfway through his set I was wishing he’d shut the hell up and split so I could get down to the real business at hand.

Naturally, the SOB got called back for three encores.

When the band left the stage the first time I caught Jodi’s s eye. With a jerk of the head, I motioned for her to gather her personal effects. B.B. came out to do an encore. Carrying our glasses, me bringing the bottle, we threaded our way through the standing, cheering crowd. With me weaving a path through the throng (a field of my particular expertise) and Jodi tagging along, we headed to the backstage door, which I held open for her.

Inside, The Doctor – a big black guy with a shaved head (my backstage security and chief “anesthesiologist”) – sitting on a bar stool, glanced up from his Karate magazine long enough to ascertain Jodi was with me, shaking his head and smiling at the sight – me, with a glass in one hand, bottle in the other, a glow going and a brunette in tow.

We watched from there, looking out into the house from behind the stage, spotlights slicing through the smoky darkness. The band came to a climax and I backed Jodi out of the way as the musicians swept past, filling up the backstage, sweating and swearing as the audience cheered and hollered for their return. B.B. sipped a cool drink, wiped the perspiration from his face with a bar towel, then conferred with some of his players before giving the signal to take the stage again.

Jodi especially enjoyed her glimpse of life behind the scenes. Me? I could do it any night – though, admittedly, not always with an attractive brunette. Sometimes I had to make do with blondes or redheads or black girls. And now we had punk and New Wave, there was no telling what color a chick’s hair might be.

Eventually, I steered Jodi upstairs, through the dressing rooms and out onto the VIP balcony, looking out over the floor of the Club. Grabbing seats along the rail, we watched the show come to a close. The band left the stage. The audience cheered, but you could tell they’d had enough. House lights came on. People began filing toward exits.

I poured the remainder of the Dom Perignon into our glasses. Raising hers Jodi proposed a toast:

“Here’s to you, Dewey. You sure know how to show a girl a good time.”

We clinked our glasses together.

I pointed out: “This Dom’s on you.”

Smiling, we drank.

“So,” I began, closing the deal. “There’s a record company reception now. You’re welcome to hang out. Or we can grab a drink somewhere else. I know a couple nice places…”

(For instance, I thought, your hotel bar.)

Jodi entertained the notion for a brief eternity.

“I don’t know,” she demurred consulting her watch. “It’s almost twelve. And I’m still on Florida time. That’s three hours later.”

I nodded. I knew that.

Jodi inquired: “What are you doing tomorrow?”

“Nothing too important,” I admitted.

“Well,” suggested Jodi, “I have to run up the coast, check out that jet. I hear it’s a nice drive.”

“It is,” I nodded. “Especially in a convertible Porsche.”

“I’d rather have a guide, someone to talk to. Why don’t you come with me.”

“You’re on.” I accepted. “Sounds like fun. As a matter of fact, I was looking for an excuse to call in sick.”

“Good,” declared Jodi. “We’ll have a helluva time.”


♦                ♦                ♦


The next day started out great.

It was bright and sunny in the morning, with the usual haze that would clear once you got out of L.A., meaning we should have blue skies along the Coast Highway up to Santa Barbara.

I cruised up to Jodi’s hotel. She came down to meet me in the lobby, looking cool and casual in blue slacks and a white blouse, mirrored sun glasses pushed up into her hair and a leather shoulder bag over one arm.

The valet brought her Porsche up and she asked: “You mind driving?”

There was a rhetorical question if I ever heard one. I held the passenger door open for her, hopped in behind the wheel, threw the Targa into gear and off we went.

I took Sunset Boulevard through Beverly Hills (one of my favorite roads in any car) until it hit the ocean, turned north on Coast Highway One, went through Malibu, past Trancas and Pt. Mugu where Navy fighters sweep in over a broad expanse of farmland, picked up the 101 in Ventura. It took about three hours to get to Santa Barbara, where we stopped for a light lunch in an oceanfront lodge overlooking the blue Pacific. Then I hopped the big hill on Route 154, which brought us down the other side into the Santa Ynez Valley.

I’d been to Santa Ynez a couple times, so I knew what to expect, but Jodi perked up the minute we hit the peak, for it was an impressive vista: a picturesque valley with a river meandering through it, you sweep down off the wooded hillside past Lake Cachuma, a long think finger of deep blue water, its far shore formed by those dry sandy brown mountains that dominate the deserts of the great southwest. You find yourself on two lane country roads, bordered usually by stake and barbed wire fencing, winding through a rolling grass landscape dotted with clusters of shady trees. It’s ranch country. You can pick out the more affluent spreads by their elaborate fencing – white plank or redwood, every now and then the classic corral motif. Behind these you find impressive structures: Colonial Plantation was a popular style; others featured sprawling contemporary ranch houses and stables. Even the more humble lay-outs looked rather nice – a three or four bedroom home surrounded by 10 or 20 acres of the closest thing you’ll ever see to Austin this side of Texas. It was all you could do to keep from humming “remember the Red River Valley…”

Anyway, I always liked the place. Zipping down the mountain behind the wheel of a convertible Porsche, laughing and flirting with Jodi, her brown hair flying in the wind, I had a feeling I would remember this trip for quite some time.

Along the way, just making conversation, I asked about the jet she was going up to appraise, a short story involving terminology I didn’t understand. According to her, the plane’s owner was looking to sell and one of the companies for whom she consulted was interested in buying.

A few facts stuck in my mind, however: it was a Challenger, an eight passenger jet with a cruising range of 4,000 miles. It went about 550 miles an hour and brand new it cost around $13 million.

Jodi described it as “state of the art.”

Thirteen million bucks? All I could wonder was: “What art?”

“How come the owner wants to sell it?” I asked.

She shrugged. “Who knows?” And looked back out her window.

I guess she wasn’t interested in talking shop any more.

We hit a crossroads with a stop sign and I paused to get my bearings. Noticing a twin engine propeller driven plane apparently making a landing approach some miles to the west, I pointed in that direction.

“Look,” I said. “The airport must be thataway.”

Jodi shook her head. “The plane’s not at the airport,” she said, fishing out a paper with some directions. “They’ve got a private landing strip.”

We figured out which way to go.

“A private landing strip,” I declared. “This guy must be LOADED! Who is it? Anyone I might’ve heard about?”

Jodi replied: “Sheik FassuI.”

“Sheik Fassul?” I exclaimed. “No shit!”

Jodi didn’t say anything, just stared out her window at the mountains rising over the far side of the valley, but I was astounded.

I’d heard of Sheik Fassul; he was one of those deposed potentates Doonesbury called “The Yacht People.” He’d been the dictator of a small Middle Eastern country, Yoman, only had two things – sand and oil. Lots of oil. The U.S. had propped up his corrupt government for years until he’d been hounded out of power by an Islamic revolution. It was big news for two weeks. Then there’d been a controversy surrounding our State Department’s decision to let him seek exile in the U.S – some swarthy looking Arabs chanting slogans and waving picket signs. Eventually the media got bored with the story, but I remembered smiling at an item in the paper some time later: a lawsuit had been filed in Federal Court to freeze the Sheik’s assets, claiming it rightfully belonged to the people of his country, which I gather he left in the usual state of general poverty. I forget the exact figure the suit alleged, but it was billions. Fat lot of good it would do them; guys like that stashed their money in Switzerland and the West Indies.

Sheik Fassul had bigger problems anyway – he had like 60 wives. That made him a favorite target for TV preachers, who loved condemning him, in good Christian fashion. And I could imagine the schools of bloodthirsty divorce lawyers circling his estate like sharks in feeding frenzy. Sixty wives? A tactical blunder settling so close to Beverly Hills.

“The poor Sheik,” I joked. “He must be falling on hard times, having to sell his private jet.”

“Not hardly,” said Jodi. “He’s got three or four others. One’s a Lear Jet, I know. And helicopters.”

I laughed. “Probably needs a 727 just to tote his wives around.”

Jodi smiled slightly as we turned down another winding two lane country road.

I asked: “Are we gonna meet this guy?”

“You kidding? His WIVES have a hard time getting to see him. He has a business manager, Abdul Hassan, who handles his affairs. I’ve been talking to him. He knows we’re coming, otherwise we’d probably get shot.”

“Bummer. I have this great idea for a new sitcom starring Moammar Khadafy, the Shah of Iran and Fernando Marcos. They’re roommates in a swinging bachelor pad in Marina del Rey.”

“The Shah died.”

“I know. But I figure a shah, a sheik – what’s the difference?”

“Marcos is dead, too.”

“No problem,” I cracked. “We’ll just make it the ghost of Fernando Marcos. In Hollywood, they call that a high concept. You gotta be REAL high!”

Jodi smiled distantly, looked back out her window. I guess she was going into her business mode, getting serious.

“I think we’re getting close.” she told me.

It was my turn to smile; I presumed she was speaking in strictly a geographic context.

But she was right. We came over a rise and there was Sheik Fassul’s estate. Or perhaps I should say the Fassul Compound, because that’s what it looked like. Part airport, part country club and part Stalag, there was no telling how many thousands of acres it must’ve encompassed, for it was huge. You could tell where the Sheik’s land began: it wasn’t bordered by the usual stake and barbed wire. There was plenty of barbed wire, though – coils of it atop an eight foot hurricane mesh fence. It ran along the road for what seemed like several miles up ahead, and at the corner of the property it ran off into the distance so far you couldn’t see the other side. It might’ve gone all the way to the mountains, and they were a good two or three miles away.

The land itself was flat and uncultivated, rippling wild grass, rather devoid of trees. Some buildings were visible off in the distance, but you got the impression you were looking at the county prison farm. The place oozed security. No Trespassing signs warning violators would be prosecuted hung on the fence and I spotted two Jeeps patrolling the perimeter of the property. One came close enough for me to notice two dark-haired men in the front wearing green fatigues.

The most predominant feature was the airstrip: a long ribbon of gray concrete cutting diagonally across the front of the estate. Several hangars and subsidiary buildings clustered at the near end. The other end you couldn’t even see.

I’d never seen a private airstrip as long as that one, and I said so.

Jodi nodded. “The Challenger’s a large jet.” she explained. “It needs a 5,400 foot runway.”

“So?” I said. “He puts in the runway, now he’s gonna sell the plane?”

She said nothing, just made a startled face, but I caught a flash in her eyes that set my spine to tingling. I’d struck a nerve. What nerve? Going into a business mode was one thing, but Jodi was tensing up. I recognized the symptoms; I saw the same many times in guys I worked with, bouncers at the Club, handling security situations.

Fingers drumming on the Porsche’s armrest, Jodi began to fidget, heading down the road toward the entrance to Sheik Fassul’s estate. She caught me glancing at her, wondering what was going on.

“Listen, Dewey...” said Jodi. “This is serious business. There’s big money involved. Middle Eastern men are extremely Chauvinistic. I talked to the Sheik’s business manager, Abdul Hassan, before we left the hotel this morning, told him I was bringing a business associate. I’d appreciate it if you’d do me a favor and play the part. You’re a funny guy, but these people might not appreciate your sense of humor. So please, don’t be a wiseass. Let me do the talking.”

“Sure,” I agreed. “I understand. It’s your gig. I won’t screw up your play.”

“When this is over,” she promised, smiling weakly, “I’ll make it up to you.”

Perhaps it was a half-hearted attempt at flirtation. Still, it certainly seemed like a strange way to word it.

I didn’t have time to dwell, however, because the entrance to the estate appeared up ahead. I slowed down, turned in, stopped at a guardhouse by a gate manned by some Arabian looking guys wearing the same green fatigues I’d observed on those men in that Jeep.

It was an interesting lay-out. The fence topped with barbed wire had been replaced by a concrete brick wall extending about 100 yards in either direction. The black steel rod gate itself was not especially formidable, but if you crashed through it you’d have to drive down a narrow lane between a cluster of cottages and then cross a bridge, because the entrance was separated from the remainder of the estate by a stream connecting two man-made lakes. It was quite picturesque, but it looked a lot like a moat to me. Even if you got that far, it was a good miles over open ground before you got to any cover. I figured a full frontal assault might penetrate several hundred yards.

It seemed Sheik Fassul was a man who liked his privacy.

And Caligula was just a little kinky.

At any rate, while I was taking this all in a guy in green fatigues came out of the guardhouse.

Jodi explained: “I’m Jodi Watkins from North American Insurance, and this is my associate, Mr. Needhan. We’re here to appraise the Sheik’s Challenger jet. I have an appointment. Abdul Hassan is expecting us.”

The guard went back inside to check.

Turning to Jodi, I inquired: “North American Insurance? I thought you worked for some used plane dealer.”

“It’s a subsidiary of the insurance company,” she explained quickly. “They sell the plane and they carry the insurance. It’s part of the deal.”

I peered at her; it sounded fishy to me. But what did I know? Insurance companies were capable of almost anything.

She looked up as the guard came out.

“Leave your car there.” he instructed, pointing toward some parking spaces beside one of the cottages just inside the entrance. “We will bring up car.”

Jodi told him: “That’s okay. Just give us directions. We can find the airstrip.”

No shit, I thought. It’s only a mile long.

The guard shook his head. “No one is allowed to drive on Sheik’s land. You park. We will bring up car.”

The gate opened. I glanced at Jodi. She shrugged, nodded. Slipping the Porsche into gear, I headed for the parking space like we’d been told.

Jodi gathered her things together. “Better not leave anything in the car. I don’t trust these guys.”

“I know what you mean,” I replied. “You don’t know who you can trust these days.”

There was a slight edge to my voice. Jodi peered at me.

“What’s the matter, Dewey?”

“What the hell is going on? I don’t think you should be playing games.”

Looking me in the eye, Jodi said: “I am NOT playing games, Dewey. This is my BUSINESS, and I’m good at it.”

I didn’t say anything. I had the feeling I was the one getting the business.

Jodi smiled, mischievously. “C’mon…” she teased. “Where’s your spirit of adventure?”

A white Lincoln Continental limousine pulled up behind our Porsche.

Jodi opened her door to get out, then paused to caution me: “Now don’t you go saying nothing in the car. It’s probably bugged.”

I sat there for a moment once she was gone, alarm bells sounding in my head. But ultimately I thought, worst case scenario – what could possibly happen? I’d been escorted out of nicer places than this. So I followed along.

We were alone in the back of the limo with a partition between us and the driver. The windows were heavily tinted. I tried rolling one down but the button had no effect. The driver turned down another road toward the airstrip. I got a better look at the main house, still a ways off. It, too, was surrounded by a fence with another guardhouse at the head of the driveway.

We were “greeted” at the airstrip by a sanctimonious little twerp named Beshy, who introduced himself as the Sheik’s Chief Pilot. He was quite hospitable, I wanted to put him in the hospital from the first moment I met him.

He was standing outside an open hangar door as our limo glided to a halt. At first he was just a uniform, a light khaki jumpsuit, hands clasped behind his back as we approached. Jodi and I managed to get out without any of his assistance, which was fortunate, since none was offered. He was a medium-sized Middle Easterner, so clean and fastidious looking you could tell he put the anal in anal-retentive.

As Jodi introduced us he stood there, arms wrapped around his chest, copping this YuI Bryner attitude. It was a good thing we didn’t feel like shaking hands.

“I am Beshy,” he declared, as if his fame must’ve preceded him.

Jodi glanced at me to see how I was handling it. I just smiled; I be cool.

Addressing me, Beshy asked, pointedly: “You will please to tell me why plane is to be appraised again.”

I looked to Jodi. She’d said they were Chauvinistic.

“We went over that with Mister Abdul Hassan,” she explained, diplomatically. “I was under the impression he would be here to meet us.”

“I am Beshy, Chief Pilot,” exclaimed Yul, sticking a thumb in his own chest. I thought he was gonna rip his shirt open, reveal his red S. Instead, seeing that Jodi was doing all the talking, he tried addressing me once again, inquiring: “You are pilot?”

“We’re not pilots,” said Jodi. “We are appraisers.”

Both me and Beshy turned to look at Jodi now, though for different reasons.

Jodi told him: “Look… I went over this with Abdul Hassan. This is NOT a flight test. Merely a formality. We always re-appraise property any time one of our clients wishes to increase their coverage?”

Beshy seemed puzzled. “For why must we increase coverage?”

“I don’t know,” answered Jodi. “It wasn’t OUR idea. Abdul Hassan said the Sheik wanted more insurance on his Challenger jet. So I flew out here from Florida to re-appraise it.”

That took him back a bit. Me? I figured things would start making sense if I listened long enough.

Jodi let the news trickle down over the rocks, then with exquisite expertise she twisted the blade:

“Now,” she told Beshy, “if you are Chief Pilot and you insist you don’t need more insurance, we’ll be more than happy to get back in the car. We don’t mind. I’ve gotten a free trip to California. I’ll tell North American Insurance the Sheik decided against increasing his coverage.”

Beshy stood there, jaw clenched, trying to figure out some way to save face. He missed the time limit.

Pointing into the open hangar behind him, Jodi inquired: “Is that the Challenger we’re supposed to appraise?”

“It is only Challenger Sheik owns,” was Beshy’s huffy reply.

Jodi walked right past him. “Then let’s get started. I don’t know about you, but I’ve got a job to do.”

He turned and followed, me right behind, into the hangar.

I’d never seen $13 million before, so I was somewhat in awe of the aircraft I now found myself admiring. It was over 60 feet long. I’d seen Lear Jets and what have you, but this Challenger was bigger. It was sitting in the hangar with the door into its fuselage open. This door opened downward, creating a little staircase, maybe six steps up to the entrance.

Walking slowly once around, Jodi studied the exterior carefully, Beshy tagging along behind.

“How many hours do you have on this plane?” I heard her inquire.

Beshy answered, but I didn’t quite catch it.

“That’s not very much,” said Jodi. “How come it’s not flown more often?”

“Perhaps you should ask Sheik Fassul when you meet him,” sneered Beshy in haughty contempt.

Jodi seemed unaffected by his sarcasm. “Of course, you’ve got several other jets. I understand the Sheik also owns a Lear Jet. Do you fly that as well?”

“I fly all Sheik’s planes,” sneered Beshy. “I fly all planes well.”

“You sound like a handy guy to have around,” drawled Jodi. “One of these days, I may learn to fly myself.”

By this time she’d completed her circuit around the plane back to where I’d been standing, by the door into the cabin.

“Well...” Jodi suggested, “let’s see what the inside looks like.”

She stepped up the stairway into the plane. Beshy followed her, of course, and she motioned for me to come along, so I did. It was pretty nice inside; the cabin looked like a luxurious living room, all couches and coffee tables. It was designed with a short person in mind apparently, for I had to stoop a bit or I hit the ceiling, and I’m only six feet tall.

“Very nice,” said Jodi, complimenting Beshy on the plane.

He accepted with his usual grace, sneering at us with obvious contempt.

Jodi noticed me trying to move around without hitting my head. It puzzled her a bit.

“You know…” she remarked, “I’ve been in several Challengers before. This one doesn’t seem quite as roomy.”

The Chief Pilot shrugged. “The interior has been modified to Sheik Fassul’s personal specifications.”

I couldn’t help smiling. “My God, Holmes!” I thought to myself. “However did you deduce the Sheik was a short rotund fellow?”

Jodi seemed to pick up on what I was thinking, smiled also.

Beshy seemed to realize we found something amusing. I think it irritated him, but given his personality it was hard to tell.

“So?” the Chief Pilot inquired, pointedly. “Is appraisal complete?”

“Oh, no,” declared Jodi, sitting down, producing a clipboard from her shoulder bag. “We haven’t even started. First, you’ll have to pull the plane out of the hangar. Then I’ll want to see the maintenance records.”

Beshy objected. “You will please to tell me why plane must be taxied from hangar.”

Jotting notes, absently, Jodi answered: “We’ve got to inspect the fuselage, and we need to do that in the sunlight. I presume you have nothing to hide.”

“But to do this I must start engines.”

“Great,” declared Jodi, allowing herself a smile. “Because we’re certainly not going to insure this plane if the engines don’t work.”

Beshy went to argue.

Jodi cut him off: “Look... I was under the impression I would receive some cooperation here. If you’ve got a problem I’d suggest we get Mister Abdul Hassan on the phone.”

The Chief Pilot thought it over for a long time considering he really had no choice in the matter. I smiled at the notion of how little this would do to dispel that Middle Eastern prejudice toward women. Ultimately, however, Beshy had to grumble up into the cockpit, fire up the Challenger’s engines, taxi us out of the hangar.

Jodi and I watched from the cockpit doorway. The pilot hit a switch on the instrument panel. The little stairway door slowly closed as Beshy nudged the throttles forward and the Challenger began to inch forward.

“Now,” she instructed, jotting notes on her clipboard, “according to North American Insurance underwriting guidelines, the engines must idle smoothly for no less than 30 minutes.”

Cursing beneath his breath, Beshy complied, parking the Challenger in the daylight, leaving the engines idling.

Jodi told him: “Now I have time to check out the maintenance reports.”

“Records of maintenance are kept in hangar office.” said Beshy.

Jodi nodded as she sat down in the first seat in the cabin behind the cockpit. “That’s a very good place for ’em.”

It didn’t take Beshy long to figure out what he had to do next. Grumbling, he flipped the switch which lowered the little staircase door, stormed off to get the maintenance reports.

That meant we were alone. Now I wanted some answers. As soon as the Sheik’s Pilot was out of earshot, I turned on Jodi: “Okay, he’s gone. I wanna know what’s going on.”

“Anything you say, Dewey.” said Jodi, handing me her clipboard as she slipped by me into the cockpit.

“You said you were a pilot.” I began as Jodi took the seat Beshy had vacated.

“I am,” she answered, donning a headset, strapping herself in.

“But you told Beshy you weren’t.”

“I lied.”

While I watched, a bit bewildered, Jodi started flicking switches on the instrument panel. “Look, Dewey… I know I owe you an explanation. And I promise to tell you the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth, and I will, but I need you to do me one quick favor first.”

“What’s that?”

The door to the plane began closing. “Make sure that hatch is airtight.”

I was gabberflasted. “What the hell is going on? I want the truth!” I demanded. “Are we STEALING this plane?”

“No,” said Jodi, one hand reaching for the throttles as she glanced at me over one shoulder, grinning. “We’re repossessing it.”

She slid the throttles forward. The whine of the jet engines increased. We began to move.

“Are you kidding me?” I gasped, grabbing the doorway for support as we picked up speed.

“You wanted to go for a ride, didn’t you?”

I looked out the window. Beshy came running out of the hangar, waving his arms, screaming.

I gaped at Jodi.

“I’m an E Ticket, Dewey. I’ve ALWAYS been an E Ticket.”

“Oh, my God!” I exclaimed.

“Secure that hatch, Dewey,” ordered Jodi. “Otherwise, this will be a real short trip with an unhappy ending.”

Snapping to my senses I headed to comply. Speaking of having no choice, I knew which side my bread was buttered on at that point.

“There’s a lever you turn,” Jodi shouted from the cockpit. “It seals the compartment airtight.”

I managed to figure it out; instructions were printed on the door. When I got back to the cockpit Jodi was pulling the Challenger onto the runway, swinging it around so it faced down the length of the tarmac. I could see a bunch of people running around at the hangar. One of the patrol Jeeps came bouncing across the rough terrain. I was only halfway into the co-pilot’s seat as Jodi pushed the throttles to the max and the G forces hit.

“Buckle your seat belt!” Jodi shouted.

“What about the Porsche?” I asked, strapping in.

“It was a one-way rental.”

We went screaming down the runway. Jodi leaned back on the stick. The plane rose off the ground for a moment, then bounced back off the runway.

“Damn!” Jodi swore. “This sucker’s heavy.”

“You say you’ve flown before?” I exclaimed.

By now I could see the end of the airstrip approaching at a frightening rate. For one horrifying instant I wondered if we would make it. Then we were airborne, solidly airborne.

Jodi let out a wild whoop. “It’s the ONLY way to fly!”

I was ready to strangle the bitch. I wheeled on her. She laughed right in my face. I didn’t know what to say. Much as I could respect and admire Jodi’s spunk and audacity, had we been connected physically to solid ground I would’ve shot her on the spot. Still, it had been a while since anyone had run a number like that on me, and as we climbed higher and higher into the clear blue sky and it became more and more apparent that we had gotten away with it my adrenaline rush began to subside.

“I don’t believe you did that!” I declared.

“Yeah,” said Jodi, “Neither does Beshy, I daresay.” Twisting a dial on the radio, she chuckled. “Didn’t you love the way he kept talking to you? I told you how they were toward women.”

I said nothing; it was an attitude I could somewhat appreciate at the moment. Jodi was on the radio to an Air Traffic Controller somewhere, leaving me to ponder what might’ve happened if her little plan hadn’t come off quite so well. But, like I said, climbing into the sky my heart rate was slowly getting back to normal as it became apparent we had gotten clean away.

An electronic beeper sounded.

“What’s that?” I asked.

“Fuel alarm,” answered Jodi, matter of fact. “We’re almost out.”

Blood drained from my upper body. Three things hit the floor, only one of them being my jaw.

“Don’t worry,” said Jodi. “We’ve got enough fuel to get us to Santa Barbara.”

“Didn’t you check before you took off?”

“Of course. I could see the tanks were low. But I knew we could get to Santa Barbara. We’ll refuel, proceed to Los Angeles.”

I said nothing.

“What I don’t understand,” said Jodi, “is why this plane’s so heavy with empty fuel tanks. We needed damn near the whole runway.”

Looking out my window we were rising high above the mountains. I could see the sun glinting off the ocean in the distance. This was positively surreal.

“Flying,” Jodi sighed. “My second favorite thing in the whole wide world!”

Yeah, right. I could see what she was doing. Now we were safe away she was trying to divert my thoughts to the promise of physical delights. But I wasn’t buying into that quite yet.

“Okay,” I told her. “Now I’ll take that explanation you promised.”

Jodi looked at me. “What are you – slow on the uptake? At this point I would presume it was fairly self-explanatory.”

“How come Sheik Fassul is getting his plane repossessed?”

“Because he’s not making his payments.”

“You trying to tell me he can’t afford his payments?”

“No. He can afford them, all right. He’s simply refusing. A lot of these Middle Eastern guys have been pulling this. They borrow money, or they buy something on time, and they sign contracts, and then refuse to pay. Islamic law forbids collecting of interest. U.S. banks have been eating it royal in Islamic courts. But Sheik Fassul is different. He’s in the United States now. This case ain’t getting tried in no Islamic Court. He must really be an idiot.”

“So he stopped making his payments.”

“Yeah. Basically. Said he didn’t have to, because it was against his religion.”

“The Sheik said that?”

Jodi shrugged. “Through Abdul Hassan, his business manager. Nobody talks to the Sheik himself. At least that’s what I heard. They just called me to get the jet.”

“Who called you?”

“International Aviation. I do work for them.”

“Repossessing planes?”

“Occasionally. But mainly appraisals, like I explained before. Remember?”

“Oh, yeah. I remember. But how was I to know it was an isolated example of you telling the truth?”

“You’ve got to understand,” she continued, “this was an extreme case. They aren’t all this much fun. Usually repo’s are a pretty genteel affair. A company can’t meet its obligation, you negotiate a settlement, they surrender the plane. Sheik Fassul was being petulant. Poor baby, he’d gotten booted out of power. But I can’t believe he was stupid enough to think he was gonna get away with it. After all, this is America.”

“So all that stuff about the insurance was bullshit?”

“Not completely. They did request an increase in coverage. But all that stuff about re-appraisal, we made it up. I know people at North American Insurance. I do work for them, too. They were nice enough to set me up.”

“Professional courtesy.” I suggested.

“You gotta understand – a case like this inspires a lot of patriotism. Everybody wants to help. Like I say, American companies have been taking it in the shorts under Islamic courts. Once Sheik Fassul landed in this country, he was our meat. Nobody likes a deadbeat. It strikes at the very heart of the free enterprise system.”

“So once they asked to increase coverage…”

“It was a shot. We were waiting for one. I’d made inquiries. The Government was no help at all. The Sheik was a hot potato. He’d been pretty tight with the CIA, knew things that could embarrass the administration. You saw the set-up at his estate. With his security it was impossible to repo the plane unless we got an opening.”

“And as long as you were venturing into a potentially life threatening situation you figured you’d be nice and invite me to come along.”

Jodi peered at me. “You wanted to go for a ride, didn’t you? There really wasn’t any danger. I wasn’t taking any chances. If I couldn’t grab the plane I simply would’ve gone through the motions of an appraisal. But gimme a break... We get Beshy, the macho fool incarnate. Why I was just punching his buttons. The guy fires up the engines, taxies us out of the hangar, gets up and LEAVES! Talk about an engraved invitation. I’ll bet Beshy’s married. And henpecked.”

“Great. Now he’s undoubtedly unemployed as well. Or worse.”

I waited while Jodi went back and forth with an Air Traffic Controller. When she finished, I continued:

“So this is even better. In other words, you’re telling me you were winging it.”

She beamed. “If there’s one thing I’ve got, Dewey, it’s wings.”

“Swell. As soon as we touch solid ground, I’ll show you something I’ve got – FEET. I use ’em for walking.”

Jodi laughed. “Okay. Go ahead and walk. Me? I’m flying to L.A.”

I didn’t say anything.

“Don’t you think you’re getting a little melodramatic?” Jodi tried after a moment. “You knew this was a business trip for me.”

“You lied to me.”

“I’m sorry about that. I like you, Dewey, but I don’t know you very well, didn’t know how you might react. There’s big money involved. And I really didn’t think I had that great of a chance of pulling this off. I figured the odds were I was simply going to go through the motions of conducting an appraisal.”

“Yeah, well…” I grumbled. “There’s still some things that don’t quite add up.”

“Like what?”

“I don’t know exactly. Something doesn’t make sense. This deal stinks.”

Jodi shrugged. “It’s legal. I notified the authorities.”

She had another exchange with an Air Traffic Controller. The plane banked, began heading down. I watched us dip below the mountain tops. I had a real bad feeling about descending.

I told her: “You should’ve leveled with me.”

“Aww… C’mon, Dewey. Lighten up.”

“Know what it sounds like to me? You just wanted a man along in case the going got tough.”

She didn’t like hearing that. “I’m perfectly capable of doing my own job.” snapped Jodi. “I don’t need – a bouncer.”

I didn’t respond.

“Jeeze…” Jodi shook her head. “From what your father told me I thought you were a guy who got around. I thought you’d have some balls.”

“I do. But it’s my BRAIN that’s in charge.”

Jodi laughed. “Oh, really. Then – what are you doing here?”

“Funny you should mention it,” I retorted. “I was starting to wonder myself.”

That one scored, I could tell, for she shut right up, looking miffed, threw the Challenger into a steep bank that pressed me into my seat. We didn’t say anything else to one another as the Santa Barbara airport appeared up ahead and Jodi brought the jet in for a landing. It wasn’t until we got down toward the ground you could fully appreciate how fast we were going. Things were just whizzing by. Glancing at Jodi I could see her staring straight ahead, concentrating on piloting the plane.

We decelerated, slowing faster and faster down the runway until the aircraft came under control. We swung around at the far end, pulled off onto a taxi strip that ran alongside. On the ground, the jet eased along at a few miles per hour. I unbuckled my belt, got out of my seat, went back to the door. Instructions on how to open it in an emergency without a power assist were printed there as well; I’d noticed them earlier. First you start by breaking the seal…

Of course Jodi could tell what was going on once the door cracked. Air came whistling into the cabin and the engine noise increased dramatically.

“Hey, Dewey!” she yelled from the cockpit. “What the hell are you doing?”

Putting my weight behind it I pushed the door open. It was harder than I’d imagined, but I managed. The little stairway unfolded to just above the ground. We were only going maybe 10 miles an hour when I stepped off the bottom and onto solid Earth, trotting quickly out of the plane’s path before the jet exhaust hit me.

Glancing, I could see Jodi in the cockpit window, looking back at me. I stuck my hands in my pockets, started walking. The Challenger’s door began closing. I watched it continue on its way.

It was a long walk from way out there; I hadn’t quite realized. I watched the Challenger turn into the far part of the terminal complex, way up ahead. A few other planes went by me. I began feeling conspicuous.

An Airport Cop finally pulled up in a Blazer, wanted to know what I was doing out there.

“I just got off a plane,” I told him. “This lady friend of mine’s a pilot. She took me for a ride. We had an argument. So as soon as we landed I was out the door.”

The Airport Cop smiled. “At least she waited until you’d landed.”

“Look, man…” I offered. “How’s this for a plan? You give me a ride in to the terminal. I catch the next plane to L.A. You don’t see me anymore.”

“Okay,” he nodded. “Hop in.”

He dropped me by a door into the terminal. I found a courtesy phone, explained I was supposed to meet a private jet at the re-fueling station, and the lady on the other end was nice enough to steer me in the right direction.

I approached with caution, finding a window along the concourse from where I could observe the Challenger. A fuel truck was pulled up alongside, connected to the jet by a hose. The operation was overseen by a swarthy fellow of obvious Middle Eastern descent.

Jeeze, I thought, even the airport filling stations.

There was no sign of Jodi. Maybe she was powdering her nose. Slipping through a door marked “Authorized Personnel Only” I poked around for access to the rear of the terminal, locating a stairway leading down to a door that conveniently had a little window – the kind with the chicken wire in the glass.

Still no sign of Jodi, but the Arabian fellow soon began packing up. The Challenger’s door was wide open, only 30 yards away, and as the Middle Eastern guy got into the fuel truck, drove it back into its terminal bay, I strode briskly across the dirty concrete, up the little stairway into the jet.

There was Jodi – laying, face down, cuffed hand and foot, mouth gagged with a greasy rag.

Her eyes widened in surprise and relief at the sight of me. She struggled, trying to say something through her gag.

I laughed. “I had no idea you were into this bondage kink.”

(That was L.A. talk.)

She tried to answer; I couldn’t quite make it out.

“At any rate,” I continued, undaunted, “I would’ve figured you for the dominant. I guess it’s just something about these Middle Eastern men...”

Jodi barked at me impatiently. Too bad she was gagged.

Going into a Southern accent I gave her a quick chorus of her Greatest Hits: “I KNOW what I’m doing, Dewey! This is MY business, and I’m GOOD at it!”

She struggled, tried yelling at me. I couldn’t understand a word she was saying. I supposed the gag had something to do with that.

I went on in that Southern accent: “I don’t need no BOUNCER to do MY job!”

Jodi ragged at me some more, no pun intended. Through the cabin window I noticed that Arab looking guy heading back toward the plane, a camouflaged duffel over one shoulder.

“Here he comes,” I told Jodi. “I can’t UNTIE handcuffs, you know...”

With that I pulled the gag out of her mouth, said: “Scream for help.”

“HELP!” she screamed, so loud it scared even me. “HELP! HELP! HEELLLPPP!!!!”

The Middle Eastern gas jockey heard her. Running quickly he bounded up the stairs two at a time only to meet a well timed punch (with a three step running start behind it) that knocked him right back out the door, down the stairway and into the ground. Head first. unconscious. Out for the count.

I couldn’t help but admire my work for a moment. Then it hit me: You fool! Now you gotta carry him back up.

He was dead weight. I was afraid I might’ve killed him at first, but he was breathing, just out cold. I dragged him back up into the cabin.

“God, Dewey!” Jodi declared. “Am I glad to see you.”

“I would imagine,” I replied t going through the guy’s pockets. I found a piece of paper, a knife, a gun, and keys to the handcuffs.

“Good thing you decided to come back,” gushed Jodi. “I didn’t know what was happening. I open the door to talk to this guy, he pulls a gun...”

Her voice petered out as she realized something was wrong. I wasn’t doing anything, just sitting there, listening. Specifically, I was not releasing her.

Dangling the keys before her, I smiled. Her eyes clouded with suspicion.

“So...” I inquired, “how much we making on this deal?”

“Are you kidding me?”

“Hey...” I pointed out, “this is apparently not a pleasure trip for me either. You shanghaied me into this in case the going got tough, which means you have prevailed upon my professional services. As long as that’s the case I’d like to discuss my rate of compensation.”

“Cut the shit, Dewey. Uncuff me.”

“You lied to me. You teased me along, led me on. You manipulated me. Frankly, at this point, it’s deuced poor form to dicker. You look like a fur seal in a Greenpeace documentary.”

“I’ll give you a thousand dollars,” said Jodi.

“You’re only making two grand on this deal?”

“What I’m making is none of your business. You got a better offer, feel free.”

I made a big show of thinking it over.

“Get real, Dewey,” Jodi barked impatiently. “You only threw one punch. I admit, it was a beauty. Now I’m offering you a thousand bucks, which sounds like a pretty good rate of pay to me. I bet it’s more than you make at that night club. Now shut the hell up and uncuff me.”

Caving, I unlocked the cuffs.

“You’re not just paying for muscle, you know.” I explained, unlocking her hands, proceeding to her ankles. “You’re also getting my brain, my street sense.”

“Uh-huh,” said Jodi, somewhat unenthused, sitting up, rubbing her wrists. “I’ll do the thinking, Dewey.”

“A swell job you’re doing, too. You couldn’t even smell the set-up.”

Jodi looked at me.

“The plane’s got a range of 4,000 miles. They park it in the hangar with just enough gas to reach Santa Barbara.”

“But… But…” Jodi stammered, pointing at the unconscious Middle Eastern gas jockey. “This guy must work here. We weren’t airborne more than 20 minutes.”

“That just shows forethought.” I explained. “In fact, that shows A LOT of forethought. As a result, I would not suggest luxuriating in the peace and serenity of Santa Barbara for too much longer.”

“Good call,” Jodie concurred, getting up. “Let’s get the hell out of here.”

Unfolding the paper I’d gotten from the guy’s pocket I discovered a hand-drawn diagram with numbers scribbled around it, seemed aviational in nature.

I showed Jodi.

“This is a flight plan,” she said over her shoulder, heading for the cockpit. “Navigational notations. South, into Mexico.”

The Arab guy began moaning, regaining consciousness, so I bounced him back down the stairway, head first into the ground below. Jodi hit the switch, raising the door. I battened down the hatch. By the time I got into the cockpit, Jodi was firing up the engines. I slid into the co-pilot’s seat once again. She started flicking switches on the instrument panel. After what I presume was her pre-flight check she nudged the throttles forward. We started to roll.

The mere motion seemed to be the greatest relief, dissipating much of the tension in the air. I glanced at Jodi. She was looking at me.

“Thanks, Dewey,” she offered sincerely, donning her headset. “You really saved my ass.”

“True,” I accepted with all the grace and dignity I could muster. “But more about that later.”

Jodi grinned, knowingly, peering at me out of the corners of her eyes. I couldn’t help smiling: danger was only moments past, but already our thoughts were turning bedward.

“The sooner we get off the ground,” said Jodi, “the better I’ll feel.”

A third person agreed: “My sentiments exactly.”

Turning quickly Jodi and I discovered a man standing behind us in the cockpit door. He, too (surprise, surprise), was of obvious Middle Eastern descent, though clean-shaven and fair of feature. This I noticed after a second; at first the only thing that made a distinct impression was the Ouzi automatic machine pistol he was pointing in our direction.

Wheeling on Jodi, I demanded: “What the hell have you gotten yourself into?”

She gaped at me, bewildered – not the most encouraging sign to see on the pilot of the jet you’re in – and shrugged, at a loss for words.

The Challenger eased to a halt.

“You are surprised to see me,” concluded our intruder. “I took the opportunity to slip on board while you were otherwise engaged.”

“Dewey,” Jodi inquired. “How’d you like to make another thousand bucks?”

I glanced at the Ouzi, then at the Arab holding it.

“Your price,” I declared, “is going up.”

The Arab with the Ouzi said: “I mean you no harm. But I will kill you if you do not do as I ask.”

“Great,” I pointed out. “Nice to know we’re not dealing with one of those indiscriminate terrorists.”

“Brandishing the gun in my direction, he responded angrily: “I am NOT a terrorist!”

I said nothing. I didn’t mean to hurt his feelings, after all.

Jodi asked: “Well, whoever you are – what do you want?”

“I want you to fly me somewhere.”

I said: “There’s an unexpected twist.”

The intruder insisted: “I mean neither of you any harm. Once you fly me where I wish to be taken, I shall let you go.”

I wondered what the odds were he was telling the truth.

Jodi inquired: “Where to?”

“I shall tell you once we are in the air.”

Glancing at one another, Jodi and I shrugged. We didn’t seem to have much choice in the matter. Jodi got on the horn to Air Traffic Control. My mind was racing. This is what you get, I thought, for being an incurable romantic – or at least a reasonable facsimile thereof. I’d been seduced, shanghied and abandoned, come to the rescue and gotten hijacked, all within the space of the past hour. And bad as I wanted to believe this guy when he said he’d let us go once we got where he wanted us to take him, I knew the last thing we wanted to do was take off. We had to make our move while we were still on the ground.

The only question was: what move? The guy is standing behind us holding a machine gun; we were sitting down, facing forward, and he could hear every word we said.

Stall for time, I thought. We’ve gotta stall for time...

Jodi was talking back and forth with an air traffic controller in the meantime, but we hadn’t begun to move. The Arab with the Ouzi began to get impatient.

“I wish to take off now,” he prodded, waving his weapon for punctuation. “For why must we delay?”

“I don’t know,” Jodi replied. “Air Traffic Control is telling me to stand by.”

Good girl, I thought.

The Ouzi swung to aim directly at me. “You will take off immediately, or I shall kill your gentleman.”

WHOA! Let me re-phrase that. On the other hand it sure was fun to fly...

“We CAN’T!” countered Jodi. “Listen.”

She hit a switch on the radio, turning on the sound in the cockpit, enabling us to hear the Air Traffic Control.

“All traffic, please hold. We have an emergency situation on our main runway. Stand by. All traffic. Please hold.”

As he spoke I spotted fire trucks and emergency vehicles, lights a-flashing, scrambling toward the runway.

I pointed. The Arab jammed the muzzle of his Ouzi right into the back of my head, leaned forward to look out my window. Seeing it wasn’t any trick on our part, he straightened back up to think it over.

I had a sudden chilling thought. I asked Jodi: “If a plane crashes, they’ll probably close the whole damn airport, won’t they?”

Jodi nodded, slowly. We snuck glances over our shoulder at the Arab with the Ouzi. He didn’t seem too thrilled at the prospect either.

“Look!” I pointed out the window. “A plane!”

There was, indeed, an aircraft approaching, though still quite a-ways off in the distance, just becoming visible. Some kind of small jet.

Jodi turned a dial, apparently switching us to the emergency frequency.

An Air Traffic Controller was saying: “I have been advised we now have you in visual contact and there seems to be no apparent problem with your craft. Please state the nature of your emergency. Over.”

A moment’s silence followed as the Controller waited for the pilot to respond.

“N436,” continued the Controller. “Do you read me? Over.”

More silence.

Our buddy the terrorist pressed the barrel of his Ouzi into the back of my neck so he could look back out the window with me and Jodi as the plane approached. The Air Traffic Controller was right; there didn’t seem to be anything especially wrong with the aircraft, sweeping in straight and true. I started to get a funny feeling that was in no way connected to the muzzle of the gun sticking into the back of my head.

“N436, N436… Come in, please,” the Controller tried again. “You have requested emergency clearance. Please state the nature of your emergency. Over.”

Still the pilot did not respond.

I asked Jodi: “What kind of plane is that anyway? Can you tell?”

Peering intently, she replied: “Looks like a Lear Jet maybe.”

I shot a glance in her direction, rolling my eyes. Suddenly, she realized... Who did we know who owned a Lear Jet? Unless I missed my guess, it was Beshy – and I seriously doubted the boy would be alone.

This could get messy. Very messy.

“Okay... Look, man,” I began, addressing our intruder. “Could you pull that gun out of my head. I think it’s time we had a little talk.”

He responded by jamming the muzzle even harder into my neck, forcing me to lean forward. “I do not wish to speak.”

“Then listen,” I said. “I’ll do the talking. I’m afraid I’ve got some bad news for you, and I don’t want to get shot.

He thought it over. After a moment I felt the pressure of the gun ease off.

“I don’t know what the hell is going on, but I didn’t bargain for any of this. It was supposed to be a pleasure trip for me. But right about now I think it’s time you re-evaluated your position.”

Parked on the edge of the taxi-way, looking out over the expanse of the airport, we had a perfect view. The Lear Jet was clearly visible, sweeping in toward the runway. The Controller was still trying to raise the pilot, getting no response. The fire engines and emergency vehicles were racing toward the incoming aircraft.

I continued: “I don’t know what your scam is here, exactly, but the proverbial jig is up and if you’ve got any brains at all you’ll make like the breeze. Otherwise, none of us are likely to come out of this alive.”

He considered what I was saying. All I could think was Ronnie Van Zandt singing: “I’m telling you son, it ain’t no fun, staring straight down forty-four...”

“I do not understand,” declared the Arab.

“Allow me to explain. Sheik Fassul owns a Lear Jet, and I bet it looks a lot like THAT.” I pointed at the plane approaching the runway. “It’s probably loaded with a squad of his security troops, who are undoubtedly loaded for bear. They’re after our ass, and I daresay at the moment you’re not likely to rank much higher in their book.”

He didn’t shoot me, so I kept talking: “The only chance Jodi and I have right now is to haul ass for the authorities. They’ll protect us. Unfortunately for you, however, they do take a somewhat dim view of kidnapping, extortion, hijacking and terrorism. So, with all due respect, I would suggest you split, because any way you slice it we seem to be heading for some major league unpleasantness. We’ll be too busy saving our own ass at present to worry about you getting away. But then, at least, you’ll live to play some other day.”

The hijacker demanded: “What about the plane? What will happen to the plane?”

“Who gives A SHIT about the PLANE?” I exclaimed.

He jammed the barrel of the Ouzi into the back of my neck, forcing me forward again.

“We’re all gonna die,” I continued. “For what?”

“I will die for our cause.”

“Bully for you,” I said. “But speak for yourself. And there’s a big difference between dying and committing suicide.”

I glanced at Jodi, sitting rigidly beside me, staring in shock, fingers gripping her controls with white knuckles.

I told her: “If you’re got anything to add, you know, feel free to jump in anytime.”

The terrorist looked at Jodi.

Wetting her lips, she stammered: “He’s right.”

The pressure of the Ouzi eased off, allowing me to straighten up. I checked the Lear Jet, nearing the airport, then glanced over my shoulder at our intruder. He was getting nervous, showing signs of strain. All forethought, I concluded, no ad lib.

“While we’re on the subject,” I inquired, “exactly what IS your cause? Depriving deposed dictators of private jets? Kind of a Robin Hood type thing? I don’t understand. If you wanted a plane, there had to be easier ones to steal. Is this all you terrorist know how to do – take hostages?”

“I am NOT a terrorist!” he corrected me with vehemence. “I am a PATRIOT!”

“Excuse me for not being able to discern the difference – under the circumstances.”

“Sheik Fassul stole billions of dollars from our country!”

“I understand,” I told him. “But at this point politics are academic. The key question here is whether you want to die, go to prison, or live and be free to carry on some other day.”

We took a quick time out to watch the Lear Jet touch down. I was hoping it would crash and burn, but no such luck. Sweeping in for a perfect landing, it went rolling down the runway, decelerating, shooting right past the emergency vehicles which had come out to its aid. They wheeled, went after it.

Again, the hijacker demanded: “The plane! What will happen to the plane?”

Rolling my eyes, I cried: “What is it with you and this fixation on the PLANE! We’re talking life or death here! You guys wanna have the war of Yoman, go BACK to Yoman! No… You gotta screw up Santa Barbara! You know how much we CARE about YOMAN?”

Pissed, he went to jam me with the barrel of the Ouzi again. But I was ready this time. I jerked my head to the left. He missed. The gun came right up beside my ear. Grabbing it with both hands, I pulled while he was still off balance, jerking him forward. He tried pulling back, didn’t have the strength, size or position over me wedged in my seat. He pulled the trigger. The Ouzi fired. Jodi started screaming. I held on for dear life. The windshield disintegrated. Bullets riddled the instrument panel before me in a shower of hissing sparks as the Arab and I struggled for control of the weapon. Between gunshots exploding beside one ear, Jodi shrieking, not to mention the sound of the jet engines pouring through the now shattered windshield, the noise was deafening. But I wouldn’t let the hijacker lower or turn the Ouzi. Smoke filled the cockpit. Through it all I wondered how many rounds the Ouzi held, because as soon as this guy ran out of bullets I was gonna kick his little Middle Eastern ass.

It couldn’t have taken more than a few seconds all told, but it seemed longer before the gun finally ceased firing. The hijacker let go with one hand, tried flailing away at my head while I twisted the machine pistol from his grasp. Then I had it. He grabbed me around the throat as I realized I now held an empty gun. Still, it was metal so I beat him over the head with it until he let go. The Arab fell back. As I scrambled from my seat he was pulling a revolver from under his jacket. I grabbed his wrist, kneed him in the groin, knocked the gun loose by slamming his hand into the cockpit doorway. He tried gouging my eyes, but that left him open for an elbow into the face, which bought me enough time to wind up properly and put a good punch into the middle of his chest. Air from his lungs hit me in my face. He fell back and collapsed, gasping for air, grabbing his crotch.

I pulled the gun I’d taken from the first hijacker. “Now!” I exclaimed, breathing hard, “try anything, you’ll die for MY cause. ’Cause you PISS ME OFF!

I looked at Jodi, twisted around in her seat, chewing her knuckles. My side of the cockpit was smoking wreckage.

“That,” I declared, “has to be worth at least twenty-five hundred bucks!”

Jodi flopped back down with some incoherent epithet.

In the pause that followed we heard the Air Traffic Controller: “N436! N436! Come in. N436, please respond. You cannot taxi down the runway.”

Glancing out her window, Jodi cursed. “Here comes Beshy.”

I took a look. The Lear Jet that just made the emergency landing was rolling quickly up the runway with a parade of emergency vehicles in its wake. Airport security cars approached from different directions. We could hear sirens.

I told Jodi: “Let’s get out of here.”

“We can’t take off like THIS!” she argued, pointing at the damage.

“Well don’t just sit here waiting for ’em! Get your ass in gear, girl.”

Jodi hit the throttles. The Challenger began moving.

“And get on the radio,” I told her. “They’re gonna need a SWAT Team, pronto!”

Jodi hailed Air Traffic Control while I handcuffed our second hijacker.

“Oh my God!” Jodi shouted. “Dewey! DEWEY!

I looked out a cabin window. We were rolling down the taxi strip, a swale of grass between us and the runway. The Lear Jet was off our right side, maybe 50 yards behind, gaining steadily, the door on its side beginning to open – a preamble, I would presume, to the proverbial hail of gunfire.

Scrambling into the cockpit, I screamed: “Can’t this thing go any faster?”

“Not safely,” answered Jodi. “Not on the ground.”

Nodding like I understood, I reached for the throttles.

“No! DEWEY!”

“Would you rather get shot?” I asked, slapping her hand away, slowly nudging the throttles forward. A burst from a machine gun won her over. The pitter-patter of bullets danced across our fuselage as our speed increased. Jodi seized her controls with both hands.

We pulled away from our pursuers, ruining their gunner’s aim for the moment. It wouldn’t take long before they’d start shooting at engines or tires.

I shouted: “We’ve gotta get over on their other side!”

Jodi nodded. She was in favor of that idea. I pointed. We were approaching a lane cutting over to the runway.

Jodi told me: “Get ready to back off on the throttles!”

I grabbed the controls. Jodi shouted: “Now!” I pulled them back. She hit the brakes on one wheel, cut the rudder. Another burst of machine gun fire hit our fuselage, blowing out a cabin window as the Challenger hung a 90 degree turn.

“Hit the gas!” screamed Jodi.

I pushed the throttles back up to where they’d been before. The engines accelerated. We cut across the Lear Jet’s bow. For a moment it looked like they might ram us; we only cleared by a matter of yards, so close I could see Beshy behind the controls in the cockpit, face contorted in rage, shaking a fist, one of the security troops in the green fatigues hanging out the plane’s door with an automatic weapon, trying to squeeze off a shot in our direction. Behind the Lear Jet were all the emergency vehicles darting back and forth, lights flashing, sirens blaring.

On the other side of the runway was another taxi strip.

“Hang a Louie!” I screamed.

“Throttles!” Jodi yelled back.

I cut the throttles. She turned the plane. We were getting good at this. The Challenger headed down the taxi strip as I nudged the throttles back up as far as we dared go on the ground. Our maneuver put us on the opposite side of our pursuers, but it also cost us our lead. The Lear Jet was directly off our left flank, rolling down the runway, separated from our taxi strip by a swale of grass. The Lear Jet didn’t have a door on this side, though, so they couldn’t shoot at us.

Jodi asked: “Whatta we do now?”

A good question. We were heading toward a dead end, eventually, at the far end of the airport. Air Traffic Controllers were barking orders. Jodi kept shouting to get the police. Between the chorus of different sirens, the cacophony coming over the radio, and the loud whine of our jet engines pouring through the shattered windshield, the noise was deafening.

“Dewey!” screamed Jodi. “Dewey!”

A head popped above the fuselage of the Lear Jet. They were hoisting a man up onto their roof, from where he’d be able to shoot at us. He struggled to situate himself on the slick rounded metal surface, then reached down. Somebody passed him a weapon.

I pointed. We were passing another cut over to the runway.

“Brakes!” I screamed, pulling the throttles back. Jodi hit the brakes. The Challenger skidded to an abrupt halt.

As I hoped, Beshy matched our maneuver, hit the brakes in the Lear Jet. The gunner on the roof, unprepared for the sudden deceleration, slid right up the fuselage and off over the nose of the plane.

“Hang a Louie!” I cried, pushing the throttles forward.

We cut across the stern of the Lear Jet, through the confused assortment of emergency vehicles, which swerved and scurried to get out of our way. I felt the scorching wash of the Lear Jet’s engines through our shattered windshield; it shook the Challenger, for we were only 30 yards behind them.

“That-a-way!” I hollered, pointing back down the runway.

Beshy swung around to follow. I could see men in green fatigues scrambling around inside the open door. We were on full impulse power, though, and the Lear Jet had to stop a couple times, weaving through fire engines and ambulances blocking their way, so before they could gather any steam we’d opened up a good lead again.

This time Beshy didn’t try to parallel our course; he homed in on our ass. I directed Jodi to cut over to the right side of the runway. With the hatch on the Lear Jet located on its port side we tried to stay off his right flank so they couldn’t get an angle to shoot at us.

One thing was becoming obvious. I shouted: “They’re catching up!”

“I know!” screamed Jodi. “The Lear Jet’s lighter, more maneuverable. Throttles!”

I cut the throttles. Jodi hit the brakes, made a quick right onto a taxi-way which headed toward the terminals.

“What are you doing?” I hollered.

“It’s too congested back here.” Jodi answered. “They can’t risk shooting.”

“Are you kidding me? Beshy’s probably pissed he doesn’t have any heat seeking missiles!”

A burst of machine gun fire illustrated my point, blowing out another cabin window.

“This is not good,” I told her. “We might get someone else killed.”

I pointed at another taxi-way we were approaching.

“Hang a Roscoe!” I screamed, grabbing the throttles. We hung a right, cut down a lane between the terminal and some hangars until we had an opportunity to make another right, onto another taxi way which led back toward the runway.

Staying to the right of the Lear Jet they couldn’t get a good shot at us, though they did squeeze off a few rounds here and there when an opportunity presented itself. But we couldn’t lose them either. We turned right; they turned right. Let me tell you – it’s tough losing someone in a grounded jet. The damn thing’s 60 feet long, and we might’ve been doing 25 or 30 miles an hour, tops.

All the while Air Traffic Controllers kept screaming over the radio. Other planes were weaving and scrambling to get out of our way. Jodi was hollering for a SWAT Team. Airport Security cars, lights flashing and sirens wailing, cut in and out, around and between us, with fire engines and ambulances trailing in our wake. And the Sheik’s security troops were taking shots every time they had a chance.

Not wanting any innocent people to get shot, Jodi piloted the Challenger out toward open spaces. The Lear Jet followed.

Weaving back and forth down the main runway, dodging automatic weapon fire, the real police finally began to arrive in force. First some motorcycle cops. Then a black and white, lights flashing and sirens wailing. Then two more. Then some unmarked cars. Before long they seemed to be pouring in from every direction. A police helicopter appeared overhead.

They converged on us at the far end of the runway. Jodi swung the Challenger off onto the taxi strip. Beshy tried to follow. The cops cut him off. The Lear Jet rammed into a black and white, ground to a halt. There must’ve been 15 units surrounding the plane, policemen springing out with revolvers drawn and shotguns aimed, crouching behind open doors and fenders.

Another group of police cars converged on us. Not that we minded much. Jodi was already stopping, deflating with a giant sigh of relief as they surrounded the Challenger. I wanted to kiss the ground and we hadn’t even taken off.

Turning to Jodi, I concluded: “So... The way I see it your balance outstanding is up around five grand.”

She smiled: “You take American Express?”

Outside a bullhorn boomed: “This is the Police! You are surrounded! Come out with your hands up!”

Jodi killed the jets. I released the airtight seal so she could open the cabin door. As the little stairway lowered I peeked outside. A bunch of cops behind cars were pointing guns at us.

“Thanks, guys!” I waved cheerfully. “Be out in a second.”

The bullhorn boomed: “Do not make any sudden moves! Come out with your hands up!”

Jodi hit the button to Air Traffic Control: “Please tell the police WE are the good guys! We weren’t shooting at anybody! The Lear Jet was chasing US. We will surrender peacefully. We don’t want to get shot.”

I pulled Hijacker Number Two to his feet.

He asked: “What time is it?”

I just looked at him.

“I wish to know what time it is,” he insisted.

“Time for you to go to jail,” I said. “With any luck, it’ll be five to 10 before you even come up for parole.”

I shoved him toward the exit. Jodi hovered in the cockpit doorway.

“Like, Dude…” I asked, “what’s with you? You’re about to get killed, all you care about is the Sheik’s damn plane. Now you’re getting arrested, you wanna know what time it is.”

Not knowing how trigger happy the cops might be, we sent the hijacker out first, hands still cuffed behind his back. When he did not get shot on sight I tossed the gun I was holding onto one of the seats in the cabin and followed, hands high in the air. Jodi fluffed her hair, checked her makeup, then she followed also.

The bullhorn instructed us to keep walking until we got behind the circle of police cars, where a bunch of cops seized us, threw us to the ground, frisked us while a bunch others kept us covered. They emptied our pockets. I still had the knife I’d taken from the first hijacker. In another pocket they found the piece of paper with the flight plan to Mexico.

One plainclothes man asked: “Is there anyone else on the plane?”

Jodi answered: “No.”

Motioning to other officers, the plainclothes man ordered: “Check it out.”

“No!” cried the hijacker. “Wait!”

Everybody stopped.

“Do NOT go near plane!” the Arab insisted.

Everybody glanced at one another.

The hijacker asked: “What time is it?”

The Challenger blew up. KA-BOOM!! Actually it was more of a WHUMP!! BLAAMMM!!

I was still face down on the runway. At that first WHUMP!! everyone crouched instinctively, dove for cover behind the cars as the initial blast was followed almost immediately by an incredible explosion as the jet’s fuel tanks erupted. Shock waves blew out car windows. Cops cursed. I threw myself on top of Jodi as the force of the blast peppered my back with bits of gravel. Looking up a spectacular fireball billowed into the sky. Then, suddenly, it was raining. Things began to hit the ground. Debris. Tiny little pieces. I ducked, instinctively, noticed a shiny pebble in Jodi’s brown hair. It was oddly familiar, like a shard of clear glass. I sat up. Several other pebbles and stones were laying on the ground where’d they’d struck my back.

My eyes focused on the Arab, sitting upright, hands still cuffed behind his back, seeming quite pleased with himself as bit and pieces of debris and flaming wreckage hit the ground around us.

Our eyes met.

The hijacker told me: “It’s four o’clock.”


♦                ♦                ♦


Bumper stickers got it wrong: it doesn’t take a nuclear bomb to ruin your whole day. Almost any bomb will do. It was a lesson I learned the hard way, because before the dust from the explosion had settled the cops descended on us like we were personally responsible. These guys were STRESSED, Jack! For it was a BIG mess – Network News, film at 11 type stuff: Sheik Fassul’s $13 million jet going up in a puff of smoke in sunny Santa Barbara. The Challenger repossessed, then hijacked twice. A running gun battle through the local airport. We were talking FBI, State Department, FAA, Immigration, Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, the CIA and the PLO. And you could bet the folks in scenic Santa Barbara were going to love this. They’d be ringing up the Governor, who’d be on the horn to Washington. The Sheik needed this like the Middle Ages needed The Plague. It was gonna end up Movie of The Week.

Jodi and I were quickly handcuffed, stuffed into the back of one black and white. The hijacker got bundled into another. We were taken to the Customs lock-up, confined in separate interrogation rooms. Beshy and his crew, I found out later, were taken directly to the city jail.

Pulling away I turned, hands cuffed behind my back, to look through the rear window at the scene. It was bedlam. Emergency vehicles, flashing lights. Cops scrambling around, shouting and waving. Firemen rushing in with hoses. Paramedics helping policemen injured by flying debris. The mangled wreckage of the Challenger ablaze, flames spewing a thick column of oily black smoke into a clear blue sky...

I glared at Jodi, who shrank away at the sight of me.

Swallowing hard, she apologized: “I’m sorry, Dewey.”

Doing that Southern drawl I gave her another quick chorus of her greatest hits: “This is MY business, Dewey. And I’m GOOD at it.”

“Don’t worry,” Jodi told me. “I’ll take care of everything from here.”

“That’s tremendously reassuring.”

“C’mon, Dewey. I didn’t count on any of this.”

“Small world! Think of how I feel. I’ve been teased along and deceived, shanghaied and hijacked. I’ve been hounded and shot at, then almost blown up. Now I’m under arrest!”

We stared at each other for a long, tense moment, me swelled with indignation.

Jodi broke into a smile, laughed, right in my face. “I’m an E ticket, Dewey! I’ve ALWAYS been an E ticket.”

The Police car slowed to a halt.

“One way or the other,” I concluded, “this puts your balance for my professional services up around five thousand bucks.”

As they pulled us from the black and white, marched us off in separate directions, Jodi’s parting words were:

“Invoice me.”

They locked me, uncuffed, in an interrogation room with just a table and chairs. I took stock of the situation. The bad news was: I was apparently under arrest, possibly facing charges ranging from terrorism to littering. The good news was: I’d been lucky just to get that far.

At least, at last, I finally had some peace and quiet. No Jodi, teasing me through every hoop. No Middle Eastern maniacs appearing unexpectedly with automatic weapons. No turbines whining, no sirens wailing, no bullets whizzing by... (Sounded like the damn “Star Spangled Banner!”) Matters had been mutating far too fast. Now that no one was shooting at me I was able to collect my thoughts.

What we had here, I decided, was your basic boxes inside boxes scenario. There was some grand design behind it, though, and unless I missed my guess, we had a very big rat in Denmark somewhere.

After about an hour the door opened. Two white guys and a black guy came in. Man, was I relieved – at least it wasn’t anybody of obvious Middle Eastern descent. White guys, black guys – I could deal with it. But I’d had my quota of the Arabic race for quite some time, thank you.

One white guy was older, maybe 45, and he made the introductions; he was Captain Muldoon of the Santa Barbara Police, and the other two were Special Agents Wood and Nichols of the FBI. The Captain sat down across from me. The FBI men leaned against opposing walls to either side.

Captain Muldoon began: “Mr. Needham... We just got done talking to Miss Watkins. She told us a rather interesting story. The trouble is, we don’t know how much of it to believe.”

I laughed. “You’re new on the scene.”

They looked at me, awaiting elaboration.

“That was my first mistake,” I explained. “I started out believing her. Jodi invited me to run up to Santa Ynez, go for a ride in a jet she had to appraise.” Stopping, I held my hands up, indicating my the surroundings. “Now, here I am.”

They glanced at each other.

I asked: “Am I under arrest?”

The Captain answered: “Frankly, we don’t know. We’ve got a helluva mess here, Mr. Needham. We’re just trying to figure out what the heck it’s all about. You have the right to remain silent, and the right to an attorney, and if you wish to exercise those rights I guess you may consider yourself under arrest.”

I shrugged. “Fair enough, I suppose, under the circumstances. I can appreciate your position. And I’ve got nothing to hide. I haven’t done anything. At least, nothing criminal. I’ve been a chump and a sucker, but fortunately, that’s not against the law.”

The black FBI agent, Wood, said: “Tell us about it.”

“To start with,” his partner added: “What’s your relationship to Jodi Watkins?”

“Approximately,” I explained, “the same relationship which existed between P.T. Barnum and one of his customers.”

They just looked at me. They wanted my story, not jive. So I gave it to them. They could have it, as far as I was concerned. I gave it to them straight and factual, complete and unabridged, just the way it happened. I had no reason to lie. The only thing I’d done that might’ve been illegal was cold-cocking that first hijacker, and I could probably plea bargain that down to littering. Aside from which, he would have to sign the complaint himself and, oddly enough, they couldn’t find the guy.

I went through the whole story from start to finish, answering their questions, clarifying points along the way. They made me repeat it two more times, searching for inconsistencies. When I was done, they looked at each other, thinking it over.

Special Agent Wood declared: “There’s things about your story I don’t like.”

“Think how I feel,” I replied. “You’re new on the scene. It happened to me.”

Muldoon inquired: “Why’d you get off the plane at the end of the runway?”

“Because… I had a funny feeling. This Challenger has a range of 4,000 miles. But they parked it in the hangar with just enough gas to get to Santa Barbara.”

Nichols shook his head. “I don’t buy that.”

“Yeah,” concurred the other FBI Agent. “It sounds like something planned.”

Chief Muldoon said: “Jodi told us you had an argument.”

“There was that, too. I wasn’t too happy with the lady at the time. She suckered me into all this.”

“According to Miss Wakins…” began Nichols.

“Hey!” I cut him off. “I don’t even wanna HEAR what Jodi says. I just met her yesterday, and the only thing I can say for certain is you can’t trust a word comes out that bitch’s mouth.”

They seemed taken a bit aback.

I inquired: “Did Jodi really call the authorities up in Santa Ynez, inform them she was involved a repossession?”

They glanced at each other. Muldoon nodded. “Yeah.”

“So, finally,” I declared, “she was telling the truth about something. Oh, well,” I concluded, more to myself, thinking out loud, “at least it’s a place to start.”

The Captain stepped in. “Look, Mr. Needham… We have a job to do.”

I held a finger up, closed my eyes, let my thoughts trickle down.

“I know,” I declared after a moment. “But I might be able to help, point you in the right direction.”

Wood asked: “And what do you expect in return?”

“Nothing,” I answered. “Like I said, I didn’t do anything wrong. I defended myself. So I’ve got nothing to hide. This is basically just a big imposition. You think you’re upset? You just got here.”

The Captain got serious. “Dewey,” he began, using my first name, like we had developed some sort of rapport – a relatively transparent interrogation technique, “if you know something, if you have any information, this is the time to tell us. We find out later you’re holding out, and we will, you’ll be an accessory after the fact.”

“Look,” I tried again, “I know the score here. The sooner you get the truth, the sooner I get to leave. You might feel sorry for me, pity me, laugh at me for being such a gullible sap. But the last thing you’re going to do is charge me with anything.

“You’re trying to figure out what happened here,” I continued. “Well, I’m way ahead of you there. I KNOW what happened. I watched it unfold around me. To my horror and great dismay, I might add. Now you’ve got a real mess on your hands. You’ll be doing paperwork into next month. But none of this is my fault. And the sooner you clear this up, the sooner I’ll be outa here. So it’s in my own best interest to help you guys. Right?”

They glanced at each other. I was right. But I wasn’t telling them anything.

I asked: “Have you examined the wreckage of the jet?”

“Still too hot,” replied Muldoon, humoring me. “But the Bomb Squad’ll go through, find out what kind of explosive. And the FAA will have to make a full investigation. A case like this, you’re right about the paperwork. “

I said: “I was thinking more along the line of Customs.”

That piqued their interest.

“That second hijacker,” I went on, “All he cared about was the PLANE. Had a positive fixation. I mean, if they wanted a jet, there had to be easier ones to steal.”

They glanced at each other, like I’d touched on something.

“This second hijacker was spouting a bunch of Anti-Sheik rhetoric, indicating he was aligned with the people who hounded Fassul out of power. They’re suing him now, trying to recoup some of the loot he apparently absconded with.”

Agent Wood said: “You seem pretty well informed on the matter.”

“Yeah,” Nichols agreed. “For someone who’s only coincidentally involved.”

“Put your net away,” I retorted. “That’s all in the newspapers. Still, I think there’s more to this than politics.”

Muldoon asked: “Like what?”

“A plain old simple heist.”

“For what?” inquired Nichols. “The plane? What’s it worth? A couple million bucks? That’s a drop in the bucket.”

I asked: “Have you talked to this guy Abdul Hassan?”

Glancing at each other in some consternation, they started to get annoyed.

“The Sheik’s business manager?” Wood demanded: “Why should we do that?”

“Because he orchestrated this entire scenario. He stopped making payments on the Sheik Fassul’s Challenger, requested the increase in insurance coverage that gave Jodi the opening to repo the jet. The Sheik didn’t seem too happy about it. Otherwise why would he send Beshy and a squad of his security troops in the Lear Jet to take it back by force? Thirteen million dollars is a lot of money to you and me, but like you said it’s a drop in the bucket to the Sheik. Why would he risk an incident like this? It could jeopardize his asylum here in the United States.”

Irritated, Chief Muldoon asked: “Exactly what are you getting at?”

“Here’s Sheik Fassul,” I explained. “He got booted out of power, absconding with untold wealth. He’s got these Islamic revolutionaries after him like the Hounds of Hell. He’s living here under the most tenuous diplomatic welcome…

“Seems to me, a guy like this – he never knows when he might have to pick up stakes and split. So Sheik Fassul hops in his Challenger jet and WHOOSH – four thousand miles. The only problem is – landing. He’s a hot potato, who’s not especially going to be welcomed anywhere, for reasons which I presume at this point are fairly apparent. Wherever he goes, he brings heat. But look where he decides to settle – Santa Barbara. He heads south from here, things are negotiable.

“The bulk of his assets he’s undoubtedly stashed someplace like Switzerland or the Cayman Islands. But the Sheik’s a high roller. He’ll need a big stake wherever he comes down. And the people he’ll be doing business with don’t take checks, they don’t take American Express. So it’s gotta be in some universally liquid form…”

“Hold it, hold it,” Wood interrupted.

Nichols agreed. “We’re getting a little too theoretical here, Sherlock.”

“No, no, no,” I corrected him. “You got that wrong. Not Sherlock. Bond, James Bond.”

They simply gaped at me.

“Goldfinger,” I declared. “Didn’t Jodi tell you? The plane was really heavy, even with empty fuel tanks, when we tried to take off. Man, we BOUNCED! And the jet’s interior, it was 'customized' to Sheik Fassul’s requirements.”

The three crack investigators looked at one another. These guys were slow on the uptake.

Somebody knocked on the door of the interrogation room, interrupting us. It cracked open. Another clean cut guy, looked like more FBI, peeked in, beckoning Captain Muldoon and the two Agents. They had a hushed conference in the doorway.

They turned to peer at me, the strangest expressions on their faces.

The Captain told me: “We sent some men to Sheik Fassul’s estate. Mr. Abdul Hassan seems to be missing.”

“Bingo!” I declared. “If he got away he’ll be looking for protection. If he didn’t, he’s probably in a world of hurt.”

Captain Muldoon continued: “According to the Sheik, one of his wives is missing as well.”

“The old eternal triangle,” I concluded, nodding my head. This was all starting to make sense now.

“That’s not all,” said the Captain. “Turns out this wife is related to the hijacker we have in custody. They’re cousins.”

I smiled, feigning modesty. Inwardly I marveled at how lucky I’d been. Time to close the deal.

Standing, I asked: “Does that mean I can go?”

They glanced at one another, then at me. I started getting a bad, bad feeling.

“Have a seat, Mr. Needham,” said Captain Muldoon. “We’re gonna check a few things. Then we’ll want to talk to you some more.”

“Yeah,” concurred Agent Wood. “We want to know how you knew all this.”

“And we’ll want the truth this time,” added Muldoon.

“Right,” Nichols declared.: “Don’t expect us to believe you figured this all out on your own.”


♦                ♦                ♦


Three days later they let me go.

What a pain in the ass. They tried grilling me first, but I stuck to my story. It was the truth, after all. They offered me deals, told me things Jodi supposedly said, but I wouldn’t fall for any of it. They figured they’d make me sweat, threw me in a cell, left me there for 24 hours. That annoyed me. So when they went to work on me again I was absolutely no fun for them at all. I exercised my constitutional right to remain silent, said nothing.

What pissed them off most, though – I didn’t demand an attorney.

“You’re in a lot of trouble, Dewey,” they taunted me. “You better get yourself a real good lawyer.”

“I’m not paying any lawyer,” I replied. “Not ’til you arraign me. What can you possibly charge me with? All I did was defend myself. Eventually even you guys should be able to figure that out. Meantime, two words – habeus corpus. You’ve got 48 hours to arraign me or release me. You wanna be dickheads, hold me for the whole two days while you figure out what I told you in the first 15 minutes, well it was the best I could do without a blackboard. Meantime we have an old saying in the bar business: bullshit walks.”

They peered at me, hard. As Evil Eyes went, I’d seen better. But in the end I was right; they had to let me walk.

Still, they held me for the full 48 hours, then lost my paperwork for an additional 12, teach me a lesson about my Philip Marlowe attitude, but all told I’d been remarkably right on target. They found nearly a ton of gold bullion stashed in compartments under the what was left of the Challenger’s cabin floor. Other secret compartments held gems and precious stones. One had actually been ruptured by the explosions. They were going over that whole area now with a fine tooth comb, for there was no telling how far some of the jewels could’ve been blown. One account claimed the loot totaled an estimated $21 million

It was, of course, impounded as evidence and subsequently frozen by order of the court presiding over the suit Yoman’s new government filed against Sheik Fassul to recoup the untold wealth with which he’d allegedly absconded.

I had to smile at the thought. Those Islamic Courts were about to learn a lesson in American Justice. They’d probably win the case (in 10 or 12 years) but that $21 million in gold and gems (funny thing) would just about cover the fines and legal expenses…

They still hadn’t found Abdul Hassan, the business manager, or the missing wife, Jasmine, the second hijacker’s cousin.

Took a while before the entire story got pieced together, but the whole plot had been to steal the Challenger, and the fortune it contained, return it to Yoman. Hijacker #2, an Islamic Fundamentalist, had been part of the rebellion against the Sheik, apparently a real militant. The way it looked, Jasmine had become Fassul’s wife (Number 56) to act as a double agent, spy for the opposition. She seduced Abdul Hassan (or allowed him to seduce her) and he must’ve told her about the Sheik’s split stake on the jet.

Abdul Hassan probably believed he was eloping with Jasmine. He set up the scenario: refusing to make payments on religious grounds; requesting the increase in insurance to give someone an opportunity to repo the plane; ordering Beshy to park the Challenger in the hangar with just enough gas to reach Santa Barbara; arranging to have a confederate working at the refueling station to take it away from whoever showed up with it. The first hijacker had been identified as a former fighter pilot in the Sheik’s Air Force. Obviously, the plan had been to fly down to Mexico, where three people could live quite comfortably on $21 million for a long, long time.

Abdul Hassan didn’t know he was actually just a pawn in a bigger plot; his lover was betraying him. Hijacker #2 was going to take the Challenger away from Hijacker #1, then he and his cousin, Jasmine, would return it triumphantly to Yoman in full revolutionary fervor, be welcomed as heroes in their homeland.

Which only goes to show how unsophisticated some people can be. Give me $21 million and a private jet, I’d be dancing to reggae music in the Cayman Islands before the sun came up.

Now the lawyers in Beverly Hills would wind up with all the money. The Sheik would probably get kicked out of the country. The search would continue for Abdul Hassan, Jasmine, and Hijacker #1, though it would be difficult to pin anything major on any of them. Hijacker #2 was going to be in jail for quite some time, and Beshy and the Security Troops from the Lear Jet would get deported.

All because of me – who single-handedly (albeit unwittingly) and most reluctantly foiled the whole darn plot. Maybe Beshy gets an assist for his timely arrival in the Lear Jet, but it certainly wasn’t like the cavalry charging to the rescue.

And what did I get for it? Three days in police custody, getting sweated, before they finally let me walk without so much as a thank you or a we’re sorry.

The last thing I needed to see was Jodi.

So, naturally, the bitch had to be waiting for me.

I stepped out the door into the sunshine, free at last, was just starting to wonder how I was getting home when I heard her voice:

“Dewey!”

Every muscle in my body tensed. Slowly I turned.

She came running up, threw her arms around my neck.

I counted to 10, still wanted to strangle her.

“So?” I began, “is THIS how you’re planning to play it?”

Pulling back, she looked at me. “What’s the matter?”

“Where do you want me to start?”

Jodi seemed puzzled. “You’re not mad at me, are you?”

I simply stared at her, dumbfounded.

“C’mon, Dewey,” Jodi argued. “You can’t blame this all on me. Didn’t the Police explain what happened? Turns out this was all some great big intricate plot. These Islamic revolutionaries were trying to steal the Sheik’s Challenger jet. Turns out he had MILLIONS stashed on board in gold and gems.”

“The Police explained that to you, did they?”

“Yeah. It took them a couple days of investigation to dig out the whole story, but it looks like the Sheik’s Business Manager, Abdul Hassan, and one of the Sheik’s wives, were behind it all.”

“Yeah,” I concluded, “sounds like some top notch Police work, all right.”

Jodi just looked at me, hands out, like what’s the problem?

“They held me for THREE DAYS!” I told her.

“Me, too,” she explained. “I just got out last night. International Aviation had lawyers on the case, sticking up for us.”

“You lied to me. You manipulated me. You nearly got me killed. Then you got me arrested. The cops spent the last two days trying to make me confess. So I’m in no mood for bullshit.”

Jodi shrugged, like – okay, if that’s how you feel, handed me a check. Examining it I discovered it was a cashier’s check made out to me for $10,000.

I looked at her.

She smiled: “For professional services rendered.”

I said nothing. I looked at the check, I looked at her, I looked at the check. I wanted to hate her, but it didn’t seem to be working out that way.

Jodi’s smile broadened into that mischievous grin I’d come to know so well.

Uh-oh. En guarde…

“You’ve got to admit,” Jodi pointed out, “as first dates go, it was certainly more exciting than dinner and a movie.”

I shook my head, rolled my eyes, but she could tell I was softening. Now we’d officially survived, intact, we could look back, say we’d shared a real adventure.

After all, even if I didn’t have anyone to thank but myself, I hadn’t come out of this episode badly. I had a cashier’s check for 10 grand, and four uncut diamonds nobody seemed to know about in one shoe.

At least I was almost positive they were uncut diamonds, and one would presume they would be of the highest quality. I’d recognized them immediately, picking one from Jodi’s hair out on the runway after the Challenger blew up. Several others had peppered my back. The police had already frisked us. I stashed them in my pocket before we were cuffed and hauled away, moving them to my shoe later in the lock-up. I didn’t say anything about any gems to any cops, though it had set my mind to thinking at the time.

So it was a sunny day in Santa Barbara, I’d made a tidy piece of change, and Jodi’s standing there, beaming at me brightly. Once more, now the danger was past, I was starting to think we still had some unfinished business. I’ve had women tease me through the hoops before, but Jodi certainly took the cake, and it didn’t make much sense to go through all the trouble, not collect the reward.

Jodi was following my train of thought there, too.

“Look, Dewey,” she offered, twirling a lock of hair around one finger “what I’d like to do is go find a nice picturesque hotel along the ocean somewhere, where we can kick back and – you know… Unwind.”

I smiled sweetly, thinking: “Bitch’ll be walking bow-legged!”

Jodi took me by the arm. “C’mon… I’ve got a car.”

We headed for a parking lot. We were off in an ancillary part of the airport.

“Really pretty amazing, isn’t it?” she inquired. “The story the Police dug out.”

“Let me tell you something,” I told her. “The Police didn’t figure anything out. I told them what was happening the first time they talked to me.”

“Yeah, right,” Jodi scoffed. “Like you knew what was going on all along.”

“Not at the time. Things were happening too fast. I was simply reacting. But once I got some peace and quiet, I started connecting the dots.”

“You’re just a regular Sherlock Holmes, aren’t you?” Jodi chuckled, bemused.

“Not Sherlock Holmes,” I corrected her. “Bond, James Bond. The police made the same mistake.”

She didn’t understand, peered at me, puzzled.

Goldfinger,” I explained. “It was just like Goldfinger.”

“Whatta you mean? That was about Fort Knox.”

I shook my head; here’s someone else who needs a blackboard. “Remember how it started? He was smuggling gold. They were building it right into his Rolls Royce.”

Jodi nodded, like she remembered, but still wasn’t understanding.

“You gave me the first clue,” I continued, “talking about how heavy the plane was with empty fuel tanks. Couple that with the interior customized to the Sheik’s specifications…”

“Then...” I thought to myself but neglected to mention, “when you start picking uncut diamonds from a lady’s hair…”

“Dewey?” Jodi interjected. “Are you all right? You’re limping.”

“Yeah, I’m fine,” I replied. “Just a little stiff.”

I paused, shook my leg. It felt like one of the aforementioned diamonds had shifted in my right shoe.

Standing along the curb of a street between the building we’d exited and the parking lot we were heading for, a tow truck pulled up and stopped, blocking our path – one of those trucks with the hydraulic platform that lifted a car up onto its back – only there didn’t seem to be a car on it. The platform was covered by a canvas, and there was something underneath it, but it wasn’t very big – about the size of a refrigerator, maybe.

A guy in a white shirt and tie hopped out of the passenger seat, carrying a clipboard.

“Jodi Watkins?” he inquired.

“That’s me,” said Jodi.

“Arthur Robinson,” declared the shirt and tie. “Regional Manager for Executive Class Automobile Rental. We rented you a 911 Porsche Targa.”

Jodi nodded once again. “That’s right.”

“We went to the location you gave us to pick up our car,” said the guy, untying one corner of the canvas, pulling it back. “This is what we found.”

On the back of the tow truck was one of those crushed cars, like you see at the junkyard, that have been compressed into a little cube. Some of the metal seemed to be silver in color.

Jodi’s jaw dropped. She gaped, stunned, while the guy from the rental agency stood there tapping his clipboard with a gold pen.

I laughed, thinking: “I guess Sheik Fassul had seen Goldfinger, after all.”

Then I noticed the flies, swarming and crawling over the crushed remains of the Porsche. No oceanfront rendezvous for us now. Round Two with the cops.

I told the guy with the clipboard: “You better call the Police.”

Jodi looked at me.

“Abdul Hassan, and/or the Sheik’s missing wife.” I declared. “Apparently, someone had a 'pressing engagement'”





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