The pilot, his features recast by reflection of the orange instrument lights from the otherwise black cabin, turned his head and welcomed them aboard in heavily accented English. He requested they attach their seat belts.
Paul set across the narrow aisle from Noir. He thought, like two tectonic plates, pushed and pulled towards each, yet one sub-ducting the other. To measure is to control, but Noir was not measureable. I would die for her, but would she for me?
Then the two began their own rituals, attempting to deflect the preflight pandemonium of the engine run-ups as the ship prepared to taxi to the tarmac. They pulled down into their individual cores, sensing the irreversibility of the moment, stewing in their uncertainties and anticipations, peering out the passenger windows because she had nothing else to do with the gratuity of time.
Noir froze the moment and roiled in what her senses were giving back to her. When she lay with Paul, she knew positively that their souls opened up to each other and shared their secrets. After – it was always the same – we both revolved back to the automatons our training had intended. Would it always to be this way, she asked herself. They were both textbook survivors. Noir knew her trauma, but still had no idea what had driven Paul to give up his associate professorship to work for the Company.
Paul began to parse his stream of consciousness, to savor listening to his soul. He watched, as the autumnal rain seemed to form an advisory, one that might limit flight possibilities. He tried to visualize the voyage of the moisture’s benign departure, the lightness of its free-fall from a soft bed of clouds, gaining a torrid and hurtful velocity upon arrival. Now when combined with the blast from the propellers, a pattern of wavelets fashioned across the black tarmac deforming the reflections of the precisely placed runway illumination lights, as though they were climatic table scraps. The skim of water rushing to drain from the runways gave the sensation of a hovercraft floating across the frothy webs. Paul tightened his seat belt with another pull. They both knew that once air born there could be no return. Jagged cold shards of the unknown filled their psyches … always the same; were they expendable; could their assignment be some office bound bureaucrat’s knee jerk reaction to preserve their own hide. There was a marble slab back at headquarters with the names of so many who never returned, would their names soon be chiseled into that stone?
His eyes diverted upward over the horizon, absorbing the blue of the lightening, coruscating to the north of the runway. Jagged volts seemed to act as a chaperone to Nimbus, as she peered down and pondered how these vagabonds had the effrontery to test the strength of her proclamation – these skies are my domain, tonight you are not welcome. Paul groaned; it would be a long flight. He sat ... not asleep, not awake ... his chin found sanctuary on his chest. His last thought unfolded with a soft buzz, I have been from nowhere, and nameless for much of my adult life, even the labels have been removed from my clothes. How is it that I’m placed in these times, on this plane, to do who knows what?
Paul abruptly pulled up his head; his hand shot to the back of his neck, a momentary sharp cramp brought him to full consciousness. He glanced at his watch and saw that he had been asleep for several hours. He looked over to Noir, the smile leaving his face as he saw the empty club bottle of Gin in her lap. Must have run into some turbulence while he dozed off.
He looked over his shoulder at the other passenger. His face wrapped in bandages was unsettling, his presence a mystery. Paul did not subscribe to mysteries; everything had a cause and effect, “Excuse me, but has the refreshment cart been around yet?” said Paul with a hint of charade in his voice.
There was no response. The fuselage’s interior was dark except for the isle lights. The plane dipped and bucked in minor turbulence. The bandaged head bobbled as did Noirs. Paul felt the pressure of the Glock against the small of his back. Not a useful placement for one seated for hours in this aluminum tube. In one rapid movement, he skillfully extracted the automatic and placed the weapon in his waistband. Now he relaxed in his seat; checked over his shoulder again; and then gazed at Noir’s profile, her antecedents must be Grecian in origin, thought Paul. Her coal black, shiny hair reached the collar of her white blouse.
Paul recalled a recent association on a project; assigned together, he and Noir searched through a stack of thousands of profiles. They had been working close to sixteen hours. He saw Noir yawning and carelessly flipping through the folders, “Noir, when you go over the dossiers, pay special attention to the downtrodden ones, the guys who have never had power, and suddenly get their hands on that aphrodisiac,” said Paul. “They become the new beasts and devour the old predators. Set those profiles aside and I guarantee our person will be in that stack.” She stared at him, and then grabbed half the discards from her stack, and smiling went over them again.
Its latch broken, the cockpit door annoyingly swung with the propelling and plunging motion of the plane. Paul could hear the pilot calling on the radio, getting back nothing but static. The cockpit’s windshield wipers were thrashing in a futile attempt to clear the panes of glass. The plane abruptly descended rapidly, the pilot still calling the control tower ...”Putumayo, Putumayo, este es vuelo quatro-quatro-tres, responde por favor. All the pilot had was the Radio Direction Finder for locating the landing strip and his own dead reckoning.
The dark interior of the fuselage unexpectedly lightened as outside visibility cleared when they broke beneath the cloud cover. Almost immediately, the craft touched heavily on the interlocked steel landing mats that made up the runway. The entire plane’s weight came down on the starboard wheel and the tip of the wing scraped against the metal mats. Sparks flew and Noir holler, “Hang of Paul we going to ground loop!” The pilot reversed the flaps to bring the plane upright.
The touchdown caused red mud to explode from between the metal grids; the engine’s blast acting like a spray gun covering the passenger windows. As soon as the plane slowed, the intense rain flushed the crimson sludge from the portholes. The DC-3 taxied to an abandoned and badly sagging hanger and cut its engines. The pilot, there was no copilot, walked down the steep incline of the tail dragger’s narrow isle, hatless and wearing a brown leather jacket, a kid of eighteen or nineteen. Paul saw his hands were shaking. From his seat, he looked at the pilot and gave him a nod. The pilot returned an awkward smile and opened the door. Noir stood and the bottle rolled from her lap down the carpeted aisle way and rattled to a stop at the pilots feet. He picked up the empty container, putting the club bottle into his jacket pocket. Paul reflected, we’re here … Tres Pais; the equator fifty kilometers to the south, Colombia to the west and north, Brazil under our feet, and just ten kilometers from Venezuela.The air constituents laden with Mesozoic humidity circulated; the odors of decaying vegetation, insects and wild life, grabbed the entire body as each passed from the plane. Close by and upwind, trash was burning. Vultures patrolled the area hopping on foot, rising to the sky only when they secured a meal. One’s personal awareness ratchets up, as breathing is no longer a reflexive action, but a task that requires focus. The environment wants to consume each invader – and will get them in a short enough time. Five minute ago they were dry and now they are sweat sodden; they were buoyant on the completion of the flight, and now they stand oppressed by the air’s complete humid saturation.
Paul waited for Noir to climb down the ladder.
“Paul, please give Dexter a hand,” said Noir.
The owner of the bandaged head pushed through the opening, and refused Paul’s outstretched hand.
“Thanks, but I can manage. I don’t remember it being this clammy,” said Dexter with a slight lisp.
“Paul, I’d like for you to meet Dexter; and as I’m certain you have already divined, is La Pina’s cousin,” said Noir. Earlier in the flight, she replaced her high heels with flip-flops.
“What are the bandages for ... to prevent someone from mistaking him for his cousin?” said Paul.
“Yes, and in case you’re wondering, he volunteered to have his face altered with plastic surgery. You remember I told you he was a ringer for El Presidente except ... he had no pock marks; well now he does, even the same pattern,” said Noir.
“So that’s what you’ve been working on since the last time we shared an assignment. Have you considered that we’ve now been associated, to some degree, on three contracts? We are, as far as I know, a first ... in the context of the Company’s prohibition against pairing employees on field projects more than once; the old ‘thou shall not permanently bond’ admonishment”.
“Here comes Dexter with our transportation. Okay Paul ... quickly, the tap is that we’ll treat Dexter like a research assistant and the bandages are for a face and neck burn,” said Noir.
“The poor bastard is going to be kept busy changing the bandages, what with sweating and keeping down the chances of a rash.”
“Two things Paul; first, we’re hiding him in plain sight by drawing attention; secondly, we won’t be in one place long enough for anyone to begin formulating questions.”
“But what if someone does become curious and starts making inquiries,” said Paul.
“Covered! I have a Photo-shopped copy of El Espectador, a foreign edition ... harder to trace, with before and after photos of Dexter Henry, and details of the accident. And if all that fails, as I know you’ll ask ... well, Dexter also has a Glock.”
“If someone is suspicious enough to ask enough questions, they’ll certainly check up on the El Espectador story. In three days they’ll have back the info that it’s a fake,” said Paul.
“We’ll be out of the country with La Pina by then; those are good questions Paul; are you okay with the procedure?”
“For now,” said Paul. He stepped out into the road to grab the door handle, as the seventies something Volkswagen van came to a stop in front of them. He laughed to see Dexter with his head completely wrapped, behind the wheel .Paul thought, Night of the Dead, and with any luck not a harbinger of what was to come, at least for us. Then the smile left his face as he recalled the Teleferico’s gondolas with the bodies hanging from them.
Noir stopped halfway into the van, and turned to Paul, “By the way, I know you saw and heard the bottle on the flight down here. You have every right to call for a cancellation; it was a violation of the Companies’ procedure. But, it’s not what it looked like; no dependencies, just flight fright – it won’t happen again, you have my word.”
“More important than the gin bottle, why did you pick this entanglement of rotting flora and fauna as the place to kick off the mission?”
“None of La Pina’s thugs would come within fifty kilometers of this place, and the landing strip was an old oil exploration company’s staging area. No one knows about it except us. We picked it up on a satellite reconnaissance. We didn’t tell the pilot it hadn’t been operational for thirty years.”
“Where did the radio signals the pilot used to locate the airstrip come from?” asked Paul.
“There’s a Padre upland a ways. We have managed to get support to his infirmary over the years. He got the single-sideband radio signal emitter along with the routine medication and food shipments. Father Juan merely had to raise the antenna and turn the ‘On- switch’. Oh yeah, the pilot got one hell of a bonus to fly us in and there are more assignments on tap, so he’ll be motivated to keep quiet,” said Noir.
At that moment, as if on cue, the DC3 taxied downwind on the steel mats, turned, brought the engines up to full rpm, and rolled down the runway, safely lifted off heading back to civilization. He wagged his wings.
“Let’s get the hell out of this sink hole and head upland to where we can breathe,” said Paul.
Paul settled into the passenger’s seat. He nodded to Dexter, then dropped his head, and pulled into himself. His first thoughts were to recall the events of the past several days; her word was all I have to go on at this point in time? This is our third association and I’ve had the cover of three safe houses taken down. There are no coincidences, but, and now tread carefully Paul; one can be easily mislead by a random synchronicity. So, no yardage to be gained by wasting time analyzing for causation, and too, the company exhaustively vets every project with the Six Sigma protocol; leaves no quirks to chance. Still and yet, I’m missing something....