Okay, it ain't great literature and it ain't finished, but it's what you get when three people take turns writing and twisting the plot . . .
When you go to the Keys, stay clear of Fat Jack's Saloon, the grundgiest dive in south Florida. Hell, even the roaches know they're slumming. I only hang out there because I've won a year's free beer thanks to Jack's tendency to bet on the short end of a long-shot.
Fat Jack's has a dim corner where the rancid fumes of the deep-fryer are less overwhelming. Table there is under the only working ceiling fan in the joint, a big plus given the August heat which had me sweating more than the bottled beer I was sipping.
Leaning back with my flying boots on the edge of the table, I idly watched Jack carry on an animated discussion with one of the locals at the bar. I was pondering two questions. Should I chance the complimentary pretzels in front of me (can pretzels can give you food poisoning?) and more important, when would I get my next charter?
The latter question was actually gnawing at me more than my empty stomach. Airplanes cost money even tied to a buoy and Lucky Duck, my Grumman Goose, hadn't moved in so long a family of pelicans considered it their permanent home.
Approaching thirty five, I was too old to be living hand to mouth. And flying, like sex, is something you have to do every so often or it'll push you to something you could regret. My old man taught me everything I know and the way he put it was, "Flying is like sex. How bad you want to do it depends on how long it's been." In my case it'd been a long time on both accounts.
Five eight, long blond hair, and the longest legs I'd ever seen walked in the door. Suddenly the only sound was the tick, tick, tick of the fan. Even the jukebox had gone silent. Her blue eyes took one quick look around the joint and she walked straight over to me stopping just a tad too close for comfort. Sometimes even good things take a little getting used to.
"Hey sailor, wanna do some flyin'?" she said in a cool, clear voice that communicated a lot more than the words. She knew she was the center of attention in a dive way below her standards. She was in charge and she loved it.
"Maybe. Where ya headed?" I asked gazing at her with guarded but substantial interest from under the bill of my ball cap. Dressed the way she was in red high heels, very short cut-offs and a bikini top this was either a dream come true or trouble on the hoof.
"I'm thinking of buying some property 'round these parts, and figured the best way to get the lay of the land would be from the air. Least that's what my Daddy taught me."
Lay of the land indeed, I thought. Instead I said, "Your Dad a flyer?"
"Yup, taught me everything I know," she replied. Sounded familiar. "Flew fighters in the Pacific. Has a job herding a Twin Beech around the skies for some big shots up north now. Driving him nuts, but keeps him from getting the shakes from not enough flying. You know the feeling." It was statement not a question.
"Ah, yes, as a matter of fact I do. That was one of the things on my mind when you walked in."
Not to seem too eager I sidled up to the issue of charter fare. "Flying boats don't come cheap, but if you fly and know from Beech 18s, guess you understand that."
"I can pay the fare, pal. We goin' flying, or you just gonna sit there?"
A part of me wanted to be put off by her but a bigger part of me (getting bigger by the minute I might add) wanted to throw myself at her feet and tell her to have her way with me.
Fortunately, my thinking parts uncharacteristically won that all-too-frequent battle of mind over matter. But in this case, I wasn't sure which was which.
"Alright then, for $500 an hour I'll scour the coast 'til we find what you're looking for. Fortunately, you caught me just before I immersed myself in the elixir of the devil so we can leave right now if you're game. You got a name?
"My friends call me Chas. Yours?"
"Nick. At your service."
"Well Nick, I have a few things I need to take care of, but L.C. and I can probably be ready by 3. We'll meet you at the dock."
"Hmmm, you didn't say anything about another passenger. I mean, there's weight and balance to consider. How much does L.C. weigh?"
"L.C.'s less than average FAA 170. I've been around planes, your Goose can carry us."
She was right, FAA sez average guy weighs 170. Really pissed me off that she knew my mind was elsewhere, but I recovered nicely by adding that I needed the information for the flight plan.
"All set then, 1500 at the docks. See you there."
Jeez, story of my life. Here I'm thinkin', well never mind what I'm thinkin', but jeez. At least she didn't balk at the fare. More money than I've made in a while. And looks like easy money at that.
Ten to three, I'm standing at the dock, not another soul in sight. Don't tell me at the ripe old age of 35 I'm none the wiser and I've fallen for this old stunt again.
I made myself busy sorting charts, tidying up the cockpit. Tried not to look like a hormone-crazed teenager, even though that's how I felt.
I've got my head down in the cockpit, and tried to reach that lost chart that was stuck under the seat when red high heels appear.
It's okay, I'm a professional. I extracted myself from my contortion and there's a vision of loveliness, looking even more exotic then I remembered. She reached her hand out in traditional, but not very warm, greeting. I tried to restrain my, um, enthusiasm.
"I hear you're the best around. That true?" she says.
"Well, depends on who you talk to. But yeah, I'm good."
"Glad to hear it, 'cus unlike my Daddy, I'm not real comfortable with my feet off the ground."
Hah! When it finally comes down to it, she's a pussycat. My kind of girl!
"Where's your date?"
She gave me a funny look and helped herself to the copilot's seat, but said, "Just stopped to pick up a few things -- right behind me I expect."
I continued fiddling and made a feeble attempted to look important when I felt the bird heel over a bit.
"Must be him now," I said half under my breath. My heart stopped as I looked over my shoulder back toward the hatch.
"Chas, where'd you go?" my copilot said. "I came out of the head in the office and you were gone!"
My head was spinning! One moment Chas had been sitting next to me, then she was behind me entering the flight deck, but all the while still sitting to my right! And "Chas", my copilot, had called the apparition entering the flight deck "Chas" too.
I might be dumb, but I ain't stupid. The mental "a-ha" took only two beats. Twins. And my copilot was L.C. The ol' "switcheroo."
But why? Was it just playfulness? That'd be OK. I can take a joke. Or was it "one-ups-man-ship", an attempt to somehow put me in my place, maybe because of my assumption back at Jack's that L.C. was a guy. That would be less OK. I made a mental note that these two would bear watching. Fool me once shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me.
I decided to play it cool as if their little joke had been "water off a duck's back." Not worth noticing.
So, looking over my shoulder as coolly as I could I said, "Hi Chas."
Looking to my right, I said. "L.C., I'll leave it to you and your sister to decide who should fly copilot...I'm going to the line shack for a minute. When I get back, I'll give you a quick briefing and we can get going."
I didn't need anything from the line shack. Just a pause in the fast paced events. Plus, it put me back in charge, just like my "briefing" comment.
The look of the line shack, a rusty Quonset hut framed by emerald palm trees and crouching on blinding coral sand carried me back to Saipan at the tail end of the war. I had been a young Marine lieutenant thrilled to throw my Corsair across the sky at whatever patched-up aircraft the Japs could throw at us. They were pretty much done at that point and after just a few months my youthful adventure came to a close with the sudden, explosive arrival of Fat Boy over Hiroshima's fair city.
There's not much to say about my postwar "career", to use the term loosely. Let's just say it was a mixed bag of flying, leading up to a stint as an airline pilot where, as second officer, I was flying about as much as the passengers. Airline Captains don't have to let their copilots fly at all if they don't feel like it, and mine didn't. Never able to get him to release his death grip on the controls, I quit, went hip-deep into hock, made a down-payment on Lucky Duck and set out for the romantic life of a charter pilot. At least that was the idea.
I had killed enough time. As I reached the end of the pier, unneeded chart in hand, and stepped aboard, I called out to no one in particular, "Well, who gets the right seat?"
L.C., still in the cockpit, was putting away her lipstick and lithely slid out of the seat. As she came back and sat next to Chas I took the opportunity to climb into the cockpit and the left seat.
"Climb on up, you'll be more useful there than I will," L.C. said.
"No you go back up there with Nick," Chas said firmly as she fumbled in her bag, "I'll sit back here and take some pictures.
"Give me some room, flyboy, " L.C. said as she nimbly climbed back into the copilot seat. Her maneuver resulted in her her mane of sweet smelling hair brushing across my face, her ample breast rubbing across my shoulder, and a close-up view of the south end of a pair of very short shorts goin' north.
"Pay attention to business hot shot, " I said to myself, blinking my eyes. Out loud, trying to pretend I didn't notice, I said, "Okay, a quick pre-takeoff brief here ladies. " They both gave me an impatient 'oh, good grief' look.
"Please fasten your seat belts," I heard my self saying as I concluded the brief and pushed the mixture rich and signaled the dock hand to untie us. I felt like an imbecile giving my little speech, probably because L.C. already had buckled up and I knew Chas didn't need to be told. I heard buckles clicking behind me and new I was right.
"One of you gonna give me a hint where we're going," I asked while I primed the left engine?
"Take us up to about three grand after takeoff," Chas said from the back, "It'll be cooler, and..."
"Head southwest, " L.C. said, finishing her twin's sentence.
"Wilco." I stuck my head out the window and yelled, "Clear left!" as I flipped on the master switch and hit the starter button. I counted 4 blades on the Pratt 985, and switched the mags to 'Both'. The radial engine coughed, belched a puff of blue smoke, and settled into the familiar sound of nine big jugs getting ready to go to work. "Clear right!" I called, and repeated the cockpit arpeggio of switches and levers producing the same sweet music from the right engine. The Goose was coming alive.
As we slid away from the dock and a breeze began to waft through the cockpit windows I was back in my element. This was my world. This was where I live. This was where I understood what matters and what doesn't, what works and what won't. And usually I have a very clear idea of what's dangerous and what isn't. But I wasn't at all sure about these two women I had on board. Normally I'd just be thrilled to be able to go fly with two beautiful creatures, but something about them made me edgy. Maybe it was the little too overt sexual overtone I couldn't dismiss (or for that matter ignore). Maybe it was something else.
Taxiing downwind I checked the mags, cycled the props, and ran through the rest of my pre-takeoff checks. "Ready back there," I yelled over my shoulder? Receiving no response, I looked back and got a luscious grin and a dainty thumbs up from the Chas who had somehow managed to change into the tiniest bathing suit I'd ever seen. Now I try to keep up on beach fashion as much as the next guy, but in these postwar years I wouldn't say that the popular bathing suits would exactly knocked your socks off. I flashed my copilot a glance to which she said, "It's from Brazil." I pondered what my copilot's uniform might turn into, and the relative suitability of the cockpit as a dressing room. Seemed like the perfect place to me!
"Alrighty then, here we go," I motioned to L.C. to close her window as I closed mine, and advanced the throttles while I tried to clear the lascivious thoughts from my head and a growing urge from my loins. The building noise from the big radial engines as I got the big bird up on the step and the required concentration as I syncronized the props helped me focus on the job at hand. As we lifted off the water, I pulled the throttles back and then the props, setting climb power. I scanned the gauges and ran through the short post-takeoff checklist.
L.C. wriggled in her seat as she loosened her seatbelt and said, "I'm not the kind of flyer my sister is, but this could be fun." There was a twinkle in her eye that ruined my concentration again.
I heard a knowing giggle from Chas as L.C. intentionally brushed her supple body against me again leaving her seat. As the last but by no means least of her disappeared into the cabin Chas poked her head between the cockpit seats and noticing the sweat on my brow, offered iced tea. "Sounds good to me," I said trying sound captain-like.
A minute later a cold glass was served by the hottest bod I'd seen in a long time. L.C.? Chas? I really didn't know...or care. Only when they spoke could I tell the difference. They were both strong women, but L.C. had a soft edge that Chas lacked.
I gulped down the cool liquid and tried to focus on the job at hand. "O.K. girls, where to now?", I asked. From the back, I heard, "Just keeeeeeeep...."
The last thing I remember was things going black and a thump. Based on the knot on my brow, I knew it must have been my head hitting the yoke.
I woke up to the sound of water sloshing against the Goose's fuselage.
Where the hell were we? And how the hell did we get beached?
My head was spinning as I tried to recount the events. Okay...Fat Jack's Saloon. Long legged passenger. Twin sister. Skimpy Brazilian swimsuit. Heading southwest. Iced tea.
That's it! They'd slipped me a mickey! And here I thought I was gonna slip something in them. CHRIST! There I go again! I swear I will, never, NEVER, NEVER allow my lower half do the thinking again!
Okay. We seem to have landed safely, but where the hell am I, how can I get out of here? These broads are trouble!
I felt the plane heel over. Oh, sweet Jesus, it's one of the evil twins here to finish me off.
"Hey sailor, how's it hangin?" she said.
My head was still doing loops, but I was not about to take this lying down.
"You bitch! Who do you think you are. Where are we? What makes you think you can hijack my goddamn plane and fly it into God knows where? Are you insane? Don't answer that, of course you are! If I could stand up I'd punch you in the mouth. Do you know how much this little caper of yours could have cost me? You could have wrecked this boat."
Mickey or no mickey, I was pissed.
"Don't get your bowels in an uproar flyboy," said a female voice from the head.
"Your precious plane is safe and sound. The landing was a snap - probably better than you'd have made with your mind so possessed by other things."
Yup, that's Chas.
Then L.C. piped up, "What my sister means to say Nick, is that we're sorry we, well, uh...borrowed your plane. But if you'll give us a minute, I think you'll sorta understand, and maybe even be happy we did."
"Yeah, right", I said. "I have a hard time imagining that."
Chas, tired of the banter, threw a handful of hard shiny lumps in my direction. My focus was starting to improve, but I couldn't quite make out what they were.
"Oogle these for a change," she said, "If you can get your mind out of your shorts. Your cut is five percent. It WILL be worth it."
Looking down at my lap I saw that a hand full of grape-sized uncut diamonds had joined my "family jewels"
Or at last they looked like diamonds. I gathered them up in my hand and looked closely. Still pissed I said, "If you think a few pieces of cut glass will make me feel better about being drugged, hijacked and kidnapped, you're nuts."
Chas rolled her eyes. "Stop whining. And they're not glass, bub. They're diamonds and your ticket from Fat Jack's to Fat City , if you've got the cojones to grab the opportunity.
I looked at Chas and then L.C. They looked serious, but I had been fooled before. Remember when I said "Fool me once shame on you, fool me twice shame on me?" Well I was long past "twice" and the count was climbing at a furious pace.
"OK, I need some answers. If they are real, where did they come from?"
Chas said, "They came from deep inside the earth, having formed there under tremendous pressure millions of years ago."
I couldn't believe it. They were still screwing with me! But before I could say anything Chas said, "Sorry, I just like yanking your chain."
Damn! While I was going through the wringer, these girls were on a lark!
"You ever hear of General Yamura?," asked Chas, suddenly adopting a business-like tone.
"The Tiger of the Philippines?" I asked, taken back by the turn in the dialogue. Anybody who had served in the Pacific would recognize the name of that Jap general. His record of rape and plunder rivaled Genghis Kahn's. "Of course, what does he have to do the price of tea in China?"
"Then you've also heard of the lost Yamura treasure?", asked L.C.
"The only thing 'lost' around here is your mind" I said, "There was no treasure. The Allies and Philipinos settled that years ago, not long after they stretched Yamura's neck."
"Is that so?", said Chas with a slight smirk. "Well you're holding a tiny fraction of that 'nonexistent treasure' in your hand right now."
"My Dad was stationed in Cavite City across the bay from Manila for a while toward the end of the war," Chas said. "He help repatriate some of the Japanese POWs," continued LC. "There weren't very many compared to the huge number of Philipino and American POWs that had been imprisoned and tortured in Manila, nevermind Bataan and Corigedor. But one old Japanese man stood out because he begged my father to help him find a way to the Caribbean, of all places. Dad figured he was nuts until one day the old man slid one of those diamonds across the table during an out-processing interview. Turned out he'd managed to, um...retain them in a placed where the sun don't shine for over a month. A lot of weird stuff was going on at the end of the war and the old man managed to abscond with some diamonds and the knowledge that the rest of Yamura's treasure had been sent to the Caribbean. Or at least that's what he claimed."
L.C. continued, "Dad told him there simply wasn't any way he could possibly send him to the Caribbean, and...get this...gave the old man back his diamond! We'll never understand why he didn't keep it or at least turn it in, but he didn't. Anyway, about six weeks ago Dad received a small package by courier with several envelopes of diamonds (these are just a few of them) and a note of thanks from, who else, the old man, now an industrialist back in Japan. Included was a vague description of where to find the rest of Yamura's treasure."
"And that's where you come in," said Chas. "L.C. has a degree in Anthropology, and while she has a pilot's license she really earned it to make Dad happy and doesn't enjoy flying all that much except for the freedom of flitting around for sport on a beautiful day. Me, I've got it in my blood. Something about the challenge and precision of it attracted me from the very first time Dad let me take the controls. So I spent my time at the airport and got practically all the certificates the CAA offers. The guys always gave me a hard time, literally and figuratively, but I learned that good genes can be a curse and a blessing. I've never really had an trouble getting whatever I want."
"Okay, but I don't see what all that's got to do with me," I said.
"We were getting to that," said L.C. "Take a look down the other end of the beach, there behind us."
I gingerly pushed myself up through the hatch, my head still reeling from whatever they'd put in that iced tea. I looked back between the engines toward the big tail, and as I struggled to focus my eyes they slowly adjusted to the brightness of the white sand beach. I took a deep breath.
Bobbing at anchor a quarter mile away was a whole friggin' Navy! Three torpedo boats, a PBY, a seaplane tender, and what looked like some kind of research vessel. On the beach across from them was a perfect replica of a South Pacific control tower, an steel mat ramp with two Grumman Hellcats and a Japanese Betty bomber. Strewn around the area were spotlights, reflectors, boom mikes, and other assorted movie making paraphernalia.
Slowly it began to sink in. We were going treasure hunting using movie-making as a cover. As I pondered my role, a small boat pulled away from the PBY and headed our direction.
"Here comes Daddy!" both girls cried in unison.
My mind was still whirling with questions: These two certainly could have pulled this off by themselves. So where do I fit in? And why? Where are we? And why did they drug me to get me here. Things still weren't adding up. Do I beat feet and run? They've probably knocked out my navigating equipment, but I'm sure I could get myself back to somewhere if I had to. Well, maybe not right now, fact is my dead reckoning skills were pretty rusty, even when I can count all my fingers and right now I'm not sure I could do that. Maybe I'll lay low here for a bit. Perhaps "Daddy" will be a little easier to deal with than his spoiled progeny.
As the boat pulled up a slightly rotund figure bounded from his seat just in time to keep the craft from impaling itself into the side of my plane. "Kittens", he exclaimed, "So glad to see my two favorite girls. Glad your friend here decided to come along for the fun. Based on what I've seen so far, we're gonna need him."
"Charlie Gordon, pleased to meet ya'" he said, extending his hand in my direction.
Social norms and his easy going, full of life kind of attitude overcame my hostility and I shoved my hand back in his direction. "Nick Bailer", I responded. "We need to talk."
"Sure Nick. I'm sure the girls have given you some of the details, but I'll be happy to fill in around the edges. But first, we have to get back to the shoot. The villain is just about to cut from the air to the underwater research team. They'll get what they need from the planes later, so we'd better head over there now. They're countin' on me to tell them how long they can drag out the 'gasping for air' scene."
"Fill in around the edges, my ass", I said. "You're gonna have to fill in a lot more than that or I'm out of here." He shot me a look I understood, "shut up and you'll learn something."
But, God help me, only the lure of making a quick buck kept me in the game, so I more or less willingly stumbled into the boat with the "kittens" in trail. They were amazingly quiet now that Daddy was in charge.
Chas broke the silence, "How goes the shoot Daddy? Have you had a chance to sneak off by yourself to firm up the logistics?"
"You betcha, darlin'," he replied. "This Hollywood crowd is all about hurry-up and wait. By the time they're done their morning coffee break, it's practically time for their union lunch. What a joke. I'd have been done and out of here last Tuesday. I just can't get over how much they're paying me to do nothing. Not to mention the gourmet meals, a tent that rivals some of the better places I've lived, and all the quiet time I can stand. If I'd known gigs like this existed I wouldn't wouldn't have spent the last few years worrying about the lost treasure."
(to be continued)
Okay, it ain't great literature and it ain't finished, but it's what you get when three people take turns writing and twisting the plot . . .