The next morning, Tom got dressed and headed down to the kitchen. Beckett came down five minutes later. She was wearing a T-shirt and jeans. Her hair was in a pony tail.
“Morning, Jen. Got any ideas about breakfast ?”
“Cheese omelets ?”
“We have four eggs and plenty of cheese.” He grabbed the frying pan. “So, what are we doing for dinner ?”
“It’s a surprise, Tom.” He looked at her, but she merely smiled. “So, what are you going to do today ?”
“I don’t know, maybe spend some quality time with the Phoenix.”
“The manual only tells you that much. I want to get in touch with the plane. Feel the plane, smell it. Learn about the quirks, its moods and hear its sounds.”
“Okay. But I need you and the car back here by five.”
“You got it.”
They ate breakfast. After that, he took the key to the hangar from the kitchen drawer. It was time to go and make a friend.
Tom parked the car and walked to the hangar. He unlocked a side-door, then went inside. A whistle escaped his lips.
“Hello, sweetie.” He smiled. “You are one sexy lady, if you don’t mind me saying so.” He ran a finger along the fuselage. “And very clean as well.”
The Phoenix was painted green. It was only interrupted by the markings required by law. He looked up and saw there were three lights above the plane. Tom found the light switch and turned them on. Now, he could see that the letters were in silver.
“Even better.” He walked up to the plane. “Time to check inside.”
He walked to the door, opened it and climbed inside. The interior of the cargo section was as basic as it could be. Like the outside, it was painted green. He made his way to the cockpit.
“Here goes…” He said as he went inside the cockpit. “….Sweet.”
The cockpit was old style. It had not been upgraded once. A grin showed on Tom’s face. At heart, he was a romantic. And the less digital gadgets, the better. He sat down in the co-pilot’s seat.
“Sorry, girl, but the next upgrade will be re-stuffing these seats.”
He studied the gauges, dials and instruments in front of him. Tom ran his fingers across the yoke. It felt really old.
“Perfect. Just perfect.”
He gave the Phoenix one last smile. Then he got up and walked out. Before he left the hangar, Tom gave the plane one last look.
“Sleep well, you sexy thing.”
And then he was gone.
After his meeting with the Phoenix, Tom had parked the car back home and then gone out to explore Key West. It was a pretty town and he felt right at home. After his trek, he had walked home. He wanted to make sure he had done his homework properly. Tom was studying the manual for the third time when Jen walked into his bedroom.
“Time for dinner.”
“Lead the way.”
They got into the car and drove away. Jen was driving the small Panda. She took them onto Grinnell Street and then Waddell Street. Tom frowned.
“Louie’s Backyard ?” He guessed. “And how are we going to pay for that ?”
“Good guess. How did you know ?”
“I did my homework on this town before I flew over.”
“As for how we are going to pay…” She took out a piece of paper and gave it to him. “We’re not.”
Tom read the paper. It was the grand price of a charity lottery, which was a free dinner at Louie’s Backyard (for two). They reached the restaurant and parked the car. It was a beautiful white building. The structure was made out of wood and had a young feel about it. Tom gave the paper to the first waiter he saw.
“Jennifer Beckett. Mister LaMerre is my plus one.”
“Of course.” The man nodded. “Please, follow me.”
They were led to a table on the upper deck. It was at the very edge of the deck, so they had a perfect view of what lay beyond.
“Whoaw.” Tom said. “Look at that.”
Beyond the railing, they saw an ocean that was calm. It was glittering as if made of liquid silver.
“One hell of a view.” Jen said.
The waiter put two menus on the table, but neither paid attention to him. They simply stood there for a moment a looked at the sea.
“Let’s eat.” Jen said.
“Yes. Let’s eat.”
They sat down at the table. Jen ordered the Pan Seared Ahi Tuna, while Tom went for the Grilled New York Steak. The waiter nodded and left.
“So ?” Tom began. “What are we going to do about Cuba ?”
“Yes, that is a bit of a problem.” Jen paused. “We’ll have to keep close to the deck. But I have no intention of going around Castro’s sandpile.”
“That’s going to be risky.”
“Did you take this job to be safe ?”
“Well…” Tom sighed. “Across Cuba it is. But if Raeoul’s Air Force shoots us down and kills us, I’m never speaking to you again.”
“I can deal with that.”
“Now, what exactly is our cargo ?”
“Supplies for the local hospital, food and three reporters for WPBT. It’s a local TV-channel and they are going to do a story on the FARC. But it’s a low-budget, no-budget operation.”
“So we get to listen to their complaints for ten hours, wonderful.”
“Or snoring. And there is another potential problem.” The waiter arrived with their meals. “…the chance of what I call a Return Passage. The locals tend to commandeer visiting planes to things to Bogota. Last time, I ended up carrying a Meth-lab that the local cops had confiscated.”
“This just keeps getting better and better.”
“Yes.” Jen whispered something in the waiter’s ear. The man nodded and walked away. “And the packages are not always paid for.”
The waiter came back with a bottle of wine, which he handed to Tom. (Along with an opener.) Tom whistled when he took it.
“Penfold Grange. Red, dry, from Australia and the label says it’s from 2001. And very expensive. Back home, a bottle like this easily goes for three-hundred Euros.” Tom opened the bottle and poured two glasses. “You know, some people would consider this a bribe. But it’s not like I have any money or any other place to go. I’m going on this trip one way or another.”
Jen merely smiled at him. They ate dinner and drank wine. (Although Jen kept it to one glass, because she had to drive.) Afterwards, Jen reached into her pocket and pulled out to metal cylinders. She gave one to Tom, who screwed it open.
“You know these are…”
“I know, but I don’t care.”
Tom turned the cylinder upside down and took out the Cuban cigar that was inside. He took out a lighter and lit the cigar. Then he handed it to Jen. She studied it for a moment.
“Very pretty and very old.”
“It belonged to my grandfather. It’s a Zippo from 1933.”
Jen nodded and lit her cigar. Then she handed it back to him.
“We leave for the airport at o-five-hundred. It will take time to load the plane and run the checklists. Take-off will be a o-seven-hundred.”
“Anything else I should know ?”
They looked at the silver oceans as they smoked their cigars.
+ + +
Tom’s alarm clock woke him at four-thirty. He got dressed, then headed down. As he passed the front door, somebody knocked on it. Tom frowned and opened it. A friendly man with grey hair and brown eyes stood there.
“Ah, you must be Tommy. I’m Magnus Beckett.”
“Come in.” They shook hands. “So, what brings you here ?”
“Breakfast.” He held up two paper bags. “You two didn’t think I was going to let you two leave without the most important meal of the day ?”
“Dad ?” Jen walked out of the kitchen. “Is that…”
“Yes.” He handed one bag to Tom and the other one Jen. “So, have you come up with a plan for dealing with Cuba yet ?”
“Breakfast first, dad.”
They sat down in the kitchen and opened the bags. Tom found three sandwiches, a large cup or orange juice and three chocolate chip cookies.
“Excellent breakfast, Mr. Beckett.”
“Magnus, please. I’m not dead yet, Tom.”
“Okay, Magnus.” Tom began eating “What about you think about this ?” He took out a map and handed it to Magnus. “My plan for Cuba.”
Magnus unfolded the map and studied it, while Tom and Jen continued to eat. (The map showed where and how Tom planned for them to cross Cuba.)
“So you intend to dive to the deck and approach at high speed ?”
“That was Jen’s suggestion.”
“I see. And you intend to aim for Puerto Escondido as landfall point.” Magnus nodded. “Then Puerto Rico Libre and the rest of the crossing over Parque National Cenaga de Zapata.”
“It seemed to make the most sense. The park is unpopulated and cover half the island. And it we keep on that course, we’ll come over Little Cayman and Cayman Brac. Not to mention that we can reach Jamaica in a pinch.”
“I can see why Jen hired you. You are good.”
“Thank you, Magnus. But I still have a lot to learn.”
“Don’t worry, lad. Jen will have you caught up in no time at all.”
Tom smiled and hoped Magnus was right. Because he felt like he was jumping off a cliff. And all he could do was hope.
At o-five-hundred, Tom and Jen walked into the hangar. Magnus had stayed behind to clean up the breakfast clutter, while they raced to the airport. They began the pre-flight checklists. It felt good to do the checks. To Tom, it was his first real interaction with the Phoenix. (He got to check the landing gear, inspect the engines and do dozens of other things.) It was also the first time he and Jen were doing something together. (Other than eating, which it seemed they had done A LOT the last two days.) And that felt good. They had just finished the checklist when there was a knock on the hangar door.
“That’s half of our cargo.” Jen said. “Please open the door, Tom.”
“On my way.”
He went to the door. There was an airport employee there. He had parked five pallets in front of the hangar. Two were loaded with food and the other three were filled with medical supplies. The man handed him the paper- work, which he signed. Then he turned back to Jen.
“How are we going to get it aboard ?”
“Under there.” She pointed to the north-west corner, where there was something under a plastic sheet. “I hope you know how to drive it.”
Tom went to the corner and pulled the sheet away. There was a forklift under it. He climbed on it and checked for the key. It was in the ignition.
“Thank you, Bobby.”
“Did you say something, Tom ?” Jen said.
“No, just thinking out loud.” He started the forklift. “My brother Robert taught me how to drive a forklift a couple of years back.”
“I see.” Jen opened the main hangar door. “Drive away, Tom.”
Tom nodded and drove the forklift out. He picked up the first pallet and drove back in. In the meanwhile, Jen had opened the cargo door. Tom parked the pallet at the bottom of the cargo section., after which Jen used a winch-and-rope system to move to further into the plane. They loaded the remaining pallets and then secured all five.
“Now all we need is our camera crew and we are good to go.” Tom said.
“They should be here in about thirty minutes.”
“Fine by me. I’m going to take a nap in the cockpit.”
“I’ll wake you when they’re here.”
Tom nodded and headed for the cockpit. He sat down at the Engineer’s spot and closed his eyes. The world soon faded away.
“They’re here.” Jen said as she entered the cockpit. “Time to wake up.”
Tom opened his eyes, blinked twice and only then recognized the cockpit of the Phoenix. He got up and moaned.
“Au, I’m as stiff as a board.”
They headed for the tail. The cargo door was still open, so at least he wouldn’t have to wrangle with the stairs. Outside the plane were three people. There was an older man with sound equipment – his white hair was tied back into a pony tail and he gave Tom a hippy vibe – a young woman with a camera – the greenhorn of the three – and a female reporter. It was the reporter who walked up to them. She was African-American, with painted blond hair and brown eyes. Tom estimated her to be about thirty years old.
“I’m Leena Ballard, the gentleman with the microphones is Richard McDonnell and Denise Evertsen will be the camerawoman on this trip.”
“Nice to meet you.” Jen said. “Will you need help loading your gear ?”
“No, we’ll be fine.” Ballard said with a smile.
“Good.” She turned around. “Come on, Tom. Let’s get her ready.”
“Fine by me.” He headed back to the cockpit. “How long do we have ?”
They took their seats and began the final checks. (Because they didn’t have an Engineer, Tom also had to handle the Engineering checks.) Finally, Ballard came in.
“We’re ready to go.”
“We’re almost done.” Jen began. “Two of you will have to ride in the back. We don’t have an engineer, so one of you can ride in the cockpit.”
“That would be Rick. He flies one-engined planes in his spare time, so he has a grasp of this stuff.” She shrugged. “My boss insisted I take Rick because of it. It’s one of his safety measures, he said.”
“What other safety measures did he take ?” Tom asked.
“He wouldn’t say.” She shrugged again. “That’s men for you.”
“Well, he means well.” Jen said. “Tell Rick to takes his seat. We have to get going.”
“You’re the pilot.”
Leena went to the cargo section, while Rick came in and took the Engineer’s seat. Then Jen started the engines.
“Do you want to do the honors, Tom ?”
“Very much, boss.”
“Then take her away.”
Tom increased power. The Phoenix began to taxi out of the hangar. A smile grew on Tom’s face. They reached the waiting area at the start of the runway.
“Tower, this is Beckett Zero-One, requesting permission to take off.” Tom said. “Over.”
“Beckett Zero-One…” The radio crackled. “…you are cleared for take-off. Good luck, over and out.”
He took the Phoenix onto the runway. Tom took a deep breath, and then opened the engines even further. They gained speed and the tail gently left the ground. Then the forward landing gear left the tarmac. Tom grinned like an idiot. He retreated the landing gear, then turned to Jen.
“We’re up. And now comes the hard part.”
“The hard part ?” Rick asked. “Do I want to know ?”
“I don’t think so.” Tom said.
“Cuba.” Jen said. “We have to make sure that the folks in Cardenas don’t see us coming. It’s home to the twenty-third regiment.”
“Let me guess….fighters ?”
They waited until they were ten minutes out, then Jen took the Phoenix down. The cat-and-mouse game was about to begin.