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Tailspin

By:Sandra Brown

Tailspin - Sandra Brown
Chapter 1

9:42 p.m.



No. Not doing it.”

“When I called, you were Johnny on the spot.”

“But I didn’t know then about the weather. It’s socked in solid, Dash.”

“Fog ain’t solid. You can fly through it, you know. Like clouds. Or didn’t your online flight school teach that?”

The young pilot rolled his eyes. “They closed Atlanta. Closed it. How often does that happen? It must be bad, or the airport wouldn’t have been shut down the night before Thanksgiving. Be reasonable.”

Dash pressed his beefy hand over his heart. “I’m reasonable. I’m the soul of reason. The client, on the other hand…He don’t care the airport’s shut down. He wants this box here”—he slapped his hand down on top of the black metal container sitting on the counter behind him—“to get there”—he pointed in a generally southern direction—“tonight. I guaranteed him that it would.”

“Then you’ve got a customer relations problem.”

He was called Dash, first because the few who’d ever known his real name had forgotten it, and, second, because the name of his charter and airfreight company was Dash-It-All.

Older than he owned up to being, Dash had a potbelly that served the same purpose as a cowcatcher on a locomotive: Little could stand in the path of his stomping tread. Always under a deadline, his singular expression was a scowl.

As menacing as that glower was, however, thus far it hadn’t fazed the pilot who was resistant to taking off from Columbus, Ohio, for Atlanta, where, for holiday travelers, the weather was screwing with tight schedules and well-laid plans.

And if airfreight was your business, satisfaction guaranteed, it was screwing with your livelihood.

Frustrated, Dash clamped down on an unlit cigar and worked it between his stained teeth. Smoking was prohibited in the fixed base operator. His rules. But also, his cigars. So he gnawed on one whenever somebody was giving him a hassle he didn’t need. As now.

“No real flyer would get squeamish over a little fog,” he said.

The pilot gave him a look.

Okay. Only to himself, Dash conceded that it was more than a little fog. It was the likes of which no one alive had ever seen. People along the Atlantic seaboard had awakened this morning to find their cities and towns engulfed. The fog had created traffic hazards and general havoc over the eastern third of the United States and showed no signs of lifting.

The Weather Channel was getting a ratings boost. Meteorologists were practically giddy over the phenomenon, which one had described as “biblical,” and another had called “epochal.” Dash wasn’t sure what that meant, but it sounded grim. What the blasted fog meant to him was lost revenue.

At Hartsfield-Jackson and other major airports in a double-digit number of states, passenger flights and cargo carriers had been grounded on this Thanksgiving eve when it seemed that everybody in the nation was trying to get from wherever they were to someplace else. Dash figured it would take till Christmas for the carriers to unsnarl the mess, but that was of no concern to him.

His concern was keeping his fleet of airplanes in the air, shuttling stuff that people paid to have shuttled in the shortest amount of time possible. Birds nesting in the hangar didn’t make money. He needed this pilot to grow a pair, and quick, so he could back up the guarantee he’d made to his client, a Dr. Lambert, that this box would reach Atlanta before morning.

Hoping to shame the young aviator into taking off, Dash looked him up and down with unconcealed scorn. “You could make it fine if you wanted to bad enough. Scared of the fog, or scared you won’t be back tomorrow in time for your mama’s turkey dinner and pumpkin pie?”

“I’m waiting it out, Dash. End of discussion.”

The pilot was on the shy side of thirty. Even at this time of night, he was clean-shaven and smartly dressed in black slacks and white shirt. His eyes were clear, like he hadn’t violated the FAA’s bottle-to-throttle minimum of an eight-hour abstention from alcohol before flying, and also had gotten that many hours of sleep.

Dash had years of experience sizing up flyers of every caliber, from top guns to crop dusters. He gauged this one as an uptight stickler who flew by the book and wouldn’t know an aeronautical instinct if it bit him in the ass. He abided by the rules no matter what. All the rules. All the time. No exceptions.

Dash wanted to strangle him.

Curbing that impulse, he tried again. “You’ll be jockeying the Beechcraft. Just had it overhauled, you know. All the latest technology. New seats. Cushy as they come.”

The pilot stood his ground. “When the weather in Atlanta clears, and the airport reopens—”

“A decade from now!” Dash interrupted in a shout. “If they reopened right this minute, it’d be hours before they work through the stack-up. By then your tuna fish sandwiches will have spoiled.” The client had agreed to pay for a catered box lunch for the “crew.” It had been delivered wrapped up all nice in a white pasteboard box. It, too, sat on the counter behind them.

In an ominous mutter, Dash added, “They’ll have spoiled or been snatched.”

He cast a look across the lobby toward the sofa against the far wall. The couch was an eyesore. Its turquoise-and-tan plaid upholstery was lumpy, stringy, greasy in spots, and stained with not even God knew what.

But its condition seemed not to matter to the man stretched out along it. He lay on his back, hands linked over his stomach, a years-old aviation magazine with curled pages tented over his face while he slept.

Dash came back around to the pilot. Still speaking in an undertone, he said, “We get all kinds passing through here, you know.”

“I’ll guard my lunch until I can take off.”

Dash exhaled with agitation. “It’s not like your cargo is a rodeo bull.”

He had actually flown one such snorting mean bastard from Cheyenne to Abilene in a DC-3. Damn thing had bucked all the way there. The bull, not the plane, which had been a sweetheart. That was 1985, if he was remembering right. Back when he was young and wild and thin. Well…thinner.

He sighed with nostalgia for the good ol’ days then resumed his argument with the pilot. “All you’ll be carrying tonight is this fancy tackle box.”

“The airport is closed, Dash.”

“The big mama, yeah. But—”

“And so is every FBO in a two-hundred-mile radius of Atlanta.”

Dash shifted the cigar from one side of his mouth to the other, then held up both hands in surrender. “Okay. You win. I’ll cut you in for a larger share.”

“I can’t spend extra pay if I’m dead.”

Dash bit off the soggy end of his cigar and spat the wad into the trash can. “You’re not gonna get dead.”

“Right. Because I’m not flying until the fog dissipates and the airport reopens. The plane is fueled and ready to roll when we get the thumbs-up. Okay? Can we drop it?” He pulled himself up taller. “Now, the crucial question. Is the popcorn machine still busted?” With that, the pilot turned and followed the odor of scorched corn kernels toward the hallway that led to the pilot’s lounge.

Dash’s cell phone rang. “Hold on. Maybe this’ll be your thumbs-up.”

The pilot stopped and turned. Dash answered his phone. “Yeah?” When the caller identified himself, Dash held up an index finger, indicating that it was the call he’d hoped for. It was his counterpart who’d brokered the charter at a private fixed base operator attached to Hartsfield-Jackson.

“Yeah, yeah, he’s ready. Good to go. Chomping at the bit,” he added, skewering the pilot with his glare “Huh? Divert to where?” His frown deepened as he listened for another half minute. “No, I don’t think that’ll be a problem.” Even as he said that, he knew better. “No PCL system? You’re sure somebody’ll be there to turn on the lights?”

The pilot flinched. A pilot-controlled lighting system would have enabled him to turn on the runway lights from his cockpit.

“Okay,” Dash said. “Email me the particulars. Got it.” He clicked off and said to the pilot, “We’re in luck. There’s an FBO outside a small town in northern Georgia. The client will meet you there. He’s leaving Atlanta now by car. It’s a two, two-and-a-half-hour drive, but he’s willing—”

“Northern Georgia? In the mountains?”

Dash made a dismissive gesture. “Not big ones. Foothills.”

“Is it controlled?”

“No. But the landing strip is plenty long enough for this aircraft if you, uh, set down at the very end of it, and the crosswinds aren’t too strong.” Reading his pilot’s dubious expression, he snapped his fingers. “Better idea.”

“I wait for Atlanta to reopen.”

“You take the 182.”

The pilot sputtered a laugh. “That bucket? I don’t think so.”

Dash glowered. “That bird was flying long before your daddy was born.”

Which was the wrong thing to boast because the pilot chuckled again. “My point exactly.”

“Okay, so it’s not as young and spiffy as the Beechcraft, and it’s seen some wear and tear, but it’s reliable, and it’s here, and you’re going. I’ll gas her up while you file your flight plan. Name of the place is—”

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