A Free Man by James White

Waiting for takeoff instructions at the end of runway 31, Pete Canter strummed his fingers on the vibrating control wheel. After five minutes, the aircraft controller at the Palo Alto airport answered with, “Learjet niner three bravo clear for takeoff. Maintain runway heading to twelve thousand feet.”

“Roger, twelve thousand,” Pete replied as he moved the two throttle controls forward. The jet’s engines responded with a reassuring rumble. He was moving through thick fog, the control panel lit up with colorful dials and gauges that Pete ignored. The only ones that mattered were the air-speed indicator, altimeter and the compass. The weather report promised clear skies above two thousand feet.

He sat alone in the cockpit, the custom-made seat extra roomy, built for a larger pilot than his skinny frame. The rear passenger seats were empty except for a briefcase strapped to seat number one, behind the copilot’s seat. Pete took a quick look over his shoulder at the briefcase as Learjet niner three bravo accelerated, its landing lights boring a hole through the surrounding dark shroud. As the nose gear lifted off the runway, Pete cut off his mic’s transmit button and gave in to a smile. “In five minutes I’m a free man with twenty-five million in negotiable promissory notes and Mike’s Learjet.” The smile turned into a reflective frown. “Too bad about Mike.

Landing gear up, power setting adjusted, and, after a final send-off to the tower, the Learjet broke through the ceiling into a brilliant morning. The fog below him now, Pete climbed toward a V-shaped cloud high above that pointed toward Cancún. He leaned back and thrust both fists above his head in celebration. “Yes!” he cried, relief rippling across his aching neck and back.

*   *   *

The day before had been a wild drama of nerves and adrenaline played out in the streets of San Francisco from the financial district to Mike’s house in the outer Richmond. The heist went smoothly until Mike got cold feet. One minute the dude was all hyper vigilant and gung-ho, then he lost his nerve while we slogged through an unexpected traffic tie-up on Geary Boulevard. He kept snapping the briefcase locks open and closed until I wanted to rip his head off.

“We’re going in the wrong direction,” he had whined. “We should be at the airport by now.”

“Shut the fuck up,” I shouted. “And quit snapping the goddamn locks.” At the next stoplight I took a breath. Mike stared at the taillights of the car ahead of us. Take it down a notch, Pete, you’re being too hard on him. “It’s okay,” I said after a long sigh. “Everything’s fine. Just chill.”

Only it wasn’t fine. I had planned to change cars at the Jiffy Lube near Mike’s house then proceed to the Palo Alto airport on city streets, avoiding the freeways. Mike’s jet was fueled and ready to go at the jetport terminal. It was a good plan and the hard part was over. Twenty-five million. Slick as a kitty’s ear. Trouble was, I forgot to bring along the extra car keys. That meant I had to take extra time and get back in Mike’s house where the keys sat on the kitchen counter. There were just too many damn keys to keep track of. That one bit had slipped through the cracks.

I saw a suspicious-looking car as soon as we turned off Geary at 25th Avenue. Mike’s house was three doors down from the corner and the car was parked another three houses farther down the street on the opposite side. Could be a cop. I wonder how they found us? I asked myself as I pulled into the corner deli’s parking lot. “I don’t like the looks of that car,” I said, pointing down the street. “Just to be safe, I’ll walk down 24th, go through the neighbor’s back yard and get in the house from the back door. You wait for me at the deli.”

Mike shrugged and frowned. “Why do you need to go in the house?” He snapped the briefcase locks open and closed.

“Because the keys for the other car are in the house, that’s why.” I kept talking hoping to distract Mike from realizing my mistake. “They got witnesses who’ve probably ID’d this car already. It’s hot as pancakes. Unless you want to walk to the airport.” It was hard to imagine Mike walking anywhere. His shiny, tasseled patent leather shoes weren’t made for carrying his ample girth any farther than he could throw. I took a risk leaving him and the money at the deli, but I kept the keys to his jet in my possession as collateral. He was a fat, whiny sonofabitch, but he wasn’t stupid.

I turned off the engine and grabbed my jacket and hat from the back seat. “Order us some sandwiches for the trip.” I tucked my Beretta 92 into my jacket pocket and exited the car. “No onions.”

Mike struggled to undo his seatbelt. “So you forgot to bring the extra car keys? Well, that sucks,” he wheezed, out of breath when the seatbelt finally clicked free. “While you’re at it, bring me back a pack of cigarettes. They’re on my dresser.” He opened the car door. “Don’t forget. I’m a sittin’ duck here. You better not fuck this up any more than you already have.”

My embarrassment at being found out kept my temper in check. When I looked back, Mike’s  pink, sweaty face loomed over the top of the car like a full moon. “Everything’s fine, Mike,” I said. “Just chill.”

“Fine my ass.”  

I fingered my Beretta as I walked across the parking lot. What a freaking jerk. Sure, the guy’s a genius, single-handedly transferring twenty-five million from under a Morgan Stanley’s stock dispersal manager’s nose into our briefcase, but I was feeling antsy. Was my genius partner hiding something from me? I knew how to fly his jet, well enough to get off the ground anyway. Maybe I could turn my unfortunate mistake to my advantage.

I got the keys and cigarettes out of the house unseen, and the other car was waiting for me at the back of the Jiffy Lube on the other side of Geary on 25th. It was all good until I arrived back at the deli and saw Mike through the front window talking to a well-dressed gentleman at the counter. The briefcase was on the floor, between Mike’s legs. I couldn’t see Mike’s face, but I could tell he was animated, doing his jive smooth talking shtick. The Suit was too well dressed to be a cop. A lawyer? A reporter? Something was going down and I wasn’t invited. That goddamned double crosser. I parked the car one block down Geary and thought about a new plan. All I knew for sure was I wanted to climb out of Mike’s Learjet at the Cancún airport with a briefcase full of money. Between now and then was a deli full of unsuspecting chumps who would do anything to avoid getting hurt.

The main thing was surprise. Everything had to go down quick. Somebody will see the car, but I hoped the second car’s different make and color would confuse the cops and buy me some extra time.

I made a U-turn, parked at a bus stop in front of the deli and left the motor running. “It’s showtime,” I muttered, and pulled open the deli’s front door. The Suit was looking at me over Mike’s shoulder. Fuckin’ Mike, big as a mountain with a hoagie in one hand, sheltered the dude so I couldn’t get a clear shot. I had no choice. “Sorry Mike,” I said as I put two holes in his back. As Mike dropped to his knees, still gripping his hoagie, the dude had already got out a gun and was lining it up, but I got the jump on him and he went down on top of Mike after firing a wild shot that missed me and shattered the glass door. The two of them were lying on top of the briefcase, four hundred pounds of dead meat, bleeding all over it. Sonofabitch.

I pulled the dude off Mike and stared into Mike’s pink, porcine eyes. He blinked, his long blond eyelashes waving at me, then he gurgled something before he choked on a mouthful of salami and went limp. It sounded something like ‘meechew . . . meechew. . .’ It didn’t make any sense.

Sirens. I squeezed off another round into the ceiling to keep the bystanders down and pushed Mike with all my strength. It was an awkward angle. In my haste I slipped on the wet linoleum and fell, banging my knee. Then I wrenched my neck before I managed to get five fingers under Mike and around the briefcase handle. Time to go, Peety.

Scrambling across a bloody floor full of glass shards I pushed open what was left of the door to see a squad car race by, heading west on Geary, passing the deli at high speed, ignoring me. “Good luck has just stung me!” I said, waving my Beretta at cowering pedestrians and climbing into my car.
The Geary Express bus replied with a loud blast. In my rearview, all I could see was grill, headlights and a bicycle rack as the bus swung around from behind and stopped next to me to let off passengers. The driver glared at me and I smiled back, shrugging my shoulders while two more black and whites screamed past. “Pardon me,” I shouted through my window.

I jammed it, fishtailing around the front of the bus, crossing 22nd on a red light and ducking into the self-serve parking lot at 21st Avenue. It was time to catch my breath and do a damage assessment. I chuckled thinking about Mike as I snapped open the briefcase locks. Yup, the notes were still there. Snapping the locks back I remembered Mike had said something like ‘meechew.’ Probably meant nothing, the raving thoughts of a dying fat man. The bad news was I was banged up, blood stains all over and the cops were on full alert. I didn’t dare get out of the car because I looked like an axe murderer. I’ll lay low for now, get to the airport crack ‘o dawn tomorrow morning and fly outta here while the cops are still in bed.

There was a half-cup of old coffee in the car. I removed my shirt and splashed it on all the blood stains. Dressed in a soiled tee shirt and trousers, I tip-toed to the Ross Dress for Less on 16th Avenue for new threads. I looked like hell when I approached the cash register, but I hoped I passed as a derelict as I handed over a wad of bills and asked for the tags to be cut.  
I changed in the car and nodded off, exhausted. At first light I drove through the morning fog and stayed on the side streets, joining the early morning commuters and slipping through the dragnet. At the jetport terminal I gave Buddy, the security guy, a cheery smile as he looked at our flight plan.

He returned the smile with a question. “Good morning Mister Wilkins. Weren’t you and Mister Johnson supposed to leave yesterday?”

“Mike got waylaid,” I replied. “Same plan, only now I have to schlep there all by myself.”

“No problem,” Buddy said. “I’ll enter the new departure date in your flight plan.”

As the security door to the tarmac opened I told myself this heist was destined to be mine.

*   *   *

When I reached cruising altitude, I switched on the auto pilot, but instead of a reassuring beep of acknowledgment, an annoying alarm interrupted my jubilation. My neck complained when I twisted around to investigate the control gauges in the overhead panel. What’s this? Two bare wires stretched from a blinking light through a hole into a compartment that was partially open. That wasn’t there before. When I jiggled one of the wires Mike’s voice came from the intercom. “I’ll meet you in hell, Pete.”

Cabin pressure plummeted. My vision got blurry while I fumbled with the controls feeling for the ‘Auto’ switch, hoping to disengage whatever Mike had rigged up. Smoke blew into my face, blinding me and I gasped. “What the Fuck!”

Photo by Alex Azabache on Pexels.com

About the Author:

Jim White is a California-based writer of historical, literary and science fiction. He earned an MA in U.S. History. His professional career has included military service, teaching, research librarian and technical writing. Jim is currently serving as President of his town’s literary society, Benicia Literary Arts. Jim’s stories have appeared in Datura Literary Journal, The Wapshott Press, Remington Review and Adelaide Books. His latest novella, Carp Cafe launches later in 2020 through Black Opal

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