Pilot Error – Chapter One

Wilson didn’t want to kill the guard. That would leave a mess behind. Someone might get curious, nose around, ask questions. No, the job tonight required stealth.

He loved that word. And the synonyms, like furtiveness. That just sounded right, especially when whispered. It slid off the tongue. He’d prolong the “s” and think of himself as a viper in the night, coiled like a spring, silent and deadly.

From his hiding place near the edge of the dark, woody greenbelt, he peered through the airport perimeter chain-link fence at the hangar thirty yards away. Raindrops slapped on the hood of his parka and the blanket of leaves around him. Cold wind rustled the branches above his head. He preferred working with nature’s white noise as an ally, but tonight it favored the guard, all the more reason for caution.

Wilson had initially accepted this assignment on contingency because he’d never tried to penetrate the secure area of an airport. Especially after 9/11, it seemed far too risky. But his concern proved to be groundless. Of the 19,000 airports in the US, only a small percentage received the security upgrades designed to prevent aircraft from being used as weapons of terror, and for good reason. To fly the largest airplane based here into a skyscraper would be like a suicidal bug smashing into the windshield of a Mack truck.

Earlier that day, he had masqueraded as a salesman for an alarm company and offered the owner of the hangar a security survey. The man laughed him out of the office. Said he couldn’t afford it, especially to prevent something that had never happened. Besides, the airport authority paid for a night watchman. Didn’t cost him a penny. Now, Wilson understood why.

The guard, a typical rent-a-cop “door rattler,” sang country music while walking his rounds. The fool announced he was coming. And he never varied his routine. Every half-hour since midnight, he’d stood under the awning above a door on the back side of the hangar for a smoke break. Atomic-clock predictable.

Wilson peeled back the cuff of his parka and glanced at his watch: 2:47. The guard was taking his nicotine hit fifteen minutes early. Wilson needed less than ten minutes and could still do this without bloodshed unless the idiot started chain-smoking.

He pulled the pistol from his waistband through an opening in the outer pocket liner of his parka and screwed the silencer into the barrel. Then he checked for a round in the chamber, a full magazine, and slipped the weapon in his parka’s belt. Eyes on the guard, he waited.

Two minutes later, the guard dropped the butt on the ramp, ground it out with his boot and began walking toward the far end of the hangar. Wilson stepped up to the fence, reached above his head and shoved his fingers through the links. Lucky for him, it had no topping of razor wire and served primarily to keep deer off the runway. Just like his airport at home. He’d seen what colliding with a full-grown Bambi could do to an airplane on takeoff or landing, and it wasn’t pretty.

As the guard turned the corner, Wilson climbed over the fence, ran across the ramp, unlocked the door with a battery-powered pick gun and stepped inside. A row of ceiling lights bathed the cavernous interior in ghostly white. Airplanes, portable worktables, and wheeled tool boxes were jammed together like a jigsaw puzzle. Faint odors of aviation maintenance lingered: fuel, oil, paint, heavy-duty cleaning chemicals. Comforting, in a way. Reminded him of his hangar.

Weaving through the maze, he made his way to a cabinet mounted on the opposite wall. Aircraft tail numbers identified the open, partitioned sections in the cabinet as distribution boxes for each of the airplanes based at Schiller Aviation. The section labeled N924DP held two tattered cardboard containers sitting side by side on a shelf.

He removed the one marked IN, knelt, and placed it on the concrete floor. In the beam of a small flashlight held in a nylon pouch sewn on his watch cap, he thumbed through the contents: two eight-by-ten-inch envelopes imprinted with the logo of a navigation chart provider and addressed to Larchmont Enterprises, LLC, one business envelope from the Golden Aircraft Company, and a small electrical part in a plastic baggie with a green SERVICEABLE tag. The innocuous, everyday items of aviation on their way to an airplane.

And inside his parka, an addition. He lifted out a padded mailing envelope and took one final look at the postage, address, and return labels. No one would ever guess it hadn’t gone through the US mail. He placed the mailer in the container, returned it to the shelf and retraced his route across the hangar.

With his face close to the glass, he peered through the small window set into the door. No sign of the guard. Wilson eased the door open and looked to his left where the guard had always appeared from around the corner of the hangar, then to the right. Nothing. He took one step outside and froze.

Embedded within the sounds of rain and wind, something foreign drifted on the gusts. He closed his eyes and tuned out the background. After a few seconds, he retreated into the hangar and let the door close gently. Way early, the karaoke guard had suddenly turned even more unpredictable. Wilson pulled out the pistol, heavy in his hand, comforting. Like an addiction. The anticipation ratcheted up his heart rate just enough to heighten his senses and add another layer of alert. He sidestepped left past the hinge edge of the door.

After a moment the guard appeared in the window and stopped under the awning, two feet from the door and facing the forest. Wilson leaned to his right, took a quick peek down, noted the guard’s duty belt with a radio and a flashlight carrier. No weapon. He relaxed a bit. All he had to do was wait a few minutes, watch the door handle for any movement to warn him—damn it! The door rested against the latch bolt and hadn’t closed all the way. If the guy turned around and saw that . . .

Wilson flattened himself against the hangar wall, raised the pistol to the level of the guard’s head and took up the tiny bit of slack in the double-action trigger. One step inside, he’d have to put the guy down. So much for an easy in and out.

After a few seconds, barely audible over the wind and rain, a click, a rasping snap, pause, another click. A Zippo lighter. Cigarette smoke drifted through the slim crack between the door and jamb. Wilson eased his pressure on the trigger and took a deep breath. The smoke awakened a familiar hunger that had never really left him.

He’d quit over twenty years ago. For his health, although fear of cancer had nothing to do with it. On that night, two steps from the mark, Wilson’s knife poised to strike home, the guy had ducked, swiveled, came in low, hard, and fast. Wilson almost died, and the man’s last words remained with him still: I smelled you.

He enjoyed a second-hand smoke until a boot wet-grated on concrete, stubbing out the cigarette. The guard began singing a recent country hit, something about being unlucky in love. Not bad, actually. He ought to turn in his flashlight for a microphone. The voice faded away as the guard continued his rounds.

Wilson lowered the pistol. Jesus. That was close.

Over the years, in spite of all the planning and preparation for countless jobs, it so often came down to something as simple as this. One small coincidence either passes into history as a freebie or changes the complexion of future events. Tonight, he gladly accepted the gift.

Wilson opened the door and checked both ways. He slipped the pistol in a jacket pocket, stepped out, closed the door, and sprinted for the fence. Ten minutes in the greenbelt at a fast walk put him at the edge of the woods along a deserted street. On the other side in a motel parking lot sat his rental car, inconspicuous among many. Just the way he liked it. He closed his eyes to listen and zone in on the night. Nothing. He strode to the car and climbed in.

With the heater on high, he poured a cup of coffee from a thermos, wrapped his hands around the cup, and after a moment drained it in a few swallows. He shook the empty thermos, wishing for more. It felt like he’d never warm up. Getting too old for this field work.

He yanked off his gloves and blew into his hands, then took a small piece of notepaper from an outer pocket on his cargo pants and set it between his legs on the seat. He removed the flashlight from the pouch on his watch cap, held it close to the paper to shield it and focused the beam.

Holding his cell phone in the other hand, he entered the ten-digit sequence with his thumb, pausing after each number to concentrate before pressing the next one. When the complete phone number was displayed, he carefully compared each digit on the paper with the screen before he pressed TALK. After three rings and a beep, he said to the silence, “Operator Forty-One, activate, one hour,” and turned off the phone.

So much for the groundwork. The time had come to watch and wait, to be there just in case. The anonymous voice would soon begin calling on the secure line, pestering Wilson about when it would happen. He would ignore the inquiries as he always did. Contact with clients occurred at his convenience. The next time they spoke, the topic would be money. Lots of it. Enough to call it quits.

And he was so ready. Ready to abandon the double life. Ready to live in the light. And maybe one day he’d be able to stop looking over his shoulder. No more nightmares with the eyes of the dead staring at him. Put his head on a pillow and leave it all behind for longer than a few hours.

A check in the rearview, both side mirrors, and all around the parking lot found nothing but dark rooms, sleeping cars, wet asphalt, and pale shafts of rain under yellow streetlights. He pulled the pistol out of his jacket and laid it in the seat by his leg, then eased the car out of the lot and accelerated into the night toward a rendezvous with someone else’s death.

Author’s note: If this excerpt intrigues you enough to consider purchasing Pilot Error, links in the Where To Buy My Books page take you online bookstores where you will find both paperback and eBook editions for any e-reading device. If you still aren’t quite sure, check out the Review page on this site to see what readers are saying.  In any event, thank you for visiting my blog. I hope you will come again soon, and I appreciate your interest in and support of an indie author.

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