At 52 years old Hernandez Holanda could be considered a veteran.
In fact the current life expectancy for his colleagues was a little under two years. Hernandez, or Paco as he was generally known, had been working for the cartel since retiring from the Mexican air force at the age of 35. Paco was a survivor and fully intended to live long enough to see out his retirement. The current vibrations in the converted Cessna Titan gave him some cause for concern though.He had been flying the ex-corporate jet for ten years and the vibrations had started a week, or two flights, ago. He made a mental note to have the plane fully serviced after he returned, he would ask the mechanic to focus on the right side engine where he thought the vibrations were coming from. Normally this would be the point where he would engage the basic autopilot and try to figure it out himself but with only 2,000 feet between the plane and the desert floor Paco was staying exactly where he was, sat behind the worn controls of the old workhorse of a plane.
Behind him his passenger sat looking out of the only available window, she swayed from side to side with the airplane but didn’t try to stand up or move around the empty space. On a normal flight the stripped fuselage would be filled with cargo, jam packed right up to the cockpit. Today it was empty except for the 10 year old girl strapped into the only seat which was roughly welded to the steel bulkhead. A four point harness pressed into her skinny body and she twisted her head to look out of the small dirty window. Paco didn’t question the job or ask why, he never did. He just did as he was told and was happy that this was a daytime job. Most of his flights were conducted under the cover of darkness but tonight he would be home for dinner. This pleased Paco immensely.
Ahead the desert stretched as far as he could see, a bland and basic world of sand and scrub. He skimmed this lifeless world with the airspeed indicator sitting at 150mph. The turboprop noise, the vibrations and a heavy smell of aviation fuel filled his senses as his hands gently caressed the plastic controls with knowledge. This was Paco’s world. He checked for the third time since taking off that the transponder was definitely off and then relaxed letting his mind wander ahead.
Pretty soon he would need to be more alert. Air traffic control at Santa Teresa might pick him up. He felt confident the altitude was enough to bypass their interest however he knew his nervousness was the main reason for his longevity. He always checked everything, double and triple checked and never ever ignored the feelings. His landing spot was five miles north of Highway 9 which meant he had to cross the highway and at such low altitude this could present him with another problem. He could climb to cross the highway but dismissed the thought immediately. It’s a little used highway so the chances of being seen were very low and even then being spotted didn’t necessarily constitute an emergency for him.
He was sweating even with the side window open and wearing nothing except for blue overalls and his boots. He removed his plastic sunglasses, pulled a sleeve down and dabbed the sweat from his face. He could smell oil and grease from the fabric. El Paso and Las Cruces were an hour away so he just sat there watching the barren landscape fly past, sweating. His mind was clear and relaxed for the time being.
Two hundred miles north of Paco’s position a caravan of three black Mercedes SUVs wound their way along an old unmarked track. Thick gorse scraped the sides of the supposed all-terrain vehicles and their respective drivers, more used to tarmac, struggled to keep them upright as they lurched along the deeply rutted track. They awoke what little life there was in the new Mexico plain. Prairie dogs startled from their afternoon siesta scrambled out of their way and a pair of hungry buzzards circled above hopefully following their progress.
The satellite navigation system Paco used was basically the same as the systems used in a modern road car. It used the same satellites, it used the same software, the only difference was the addition of a basic topographical overlay and the choice of voice was restricted to one per language. Paco’s box of tricks told him he was fifty miles away from his destination so he sat upright in his seat and started to pay attention. Below him the landscape was identical. He knew he was ten miles away from the US border but in reality the imaginary line somewhere ahead of him was exactly that; an imaginary line which only existed on maps. The landscape never changed. Two hundred years ago Paco could have travelled all the way up to the California/Canadian border without leaving Mexico. Today they were squashed into 45% of what once was his country. He was fast approaching the line which most of his countrymen wanted to cross. He never quite understood this.
Today the line was marked by nothing, same landscape either side of the line. Eventually a fence will extend from west to east but today for Paco his interest was less in the border and more in the air traffic controllers sitting in their tower at Santa Teresa and perhaps an observant truck driver on Highway 9.
Bryant sat slouched on a dirty white plastic chair next to his equally dirty Toyota pickup. A Fuel bowser was attached to the back. He had parked in the middle of the makeshift runway and waited, watching them approach. A cloud of heat-hazed dust marked their meandering route, a slow, gradual sandstorm winding its way towards him. He checked his watch and then leaned over to flick the switch on a black box sat next to his chair. The single red light fixed to the top of the box would have lit up had the bulb been working, but it wasn’t and in any event Bryant didn’t even look down to check. He just sat there watching the dust storm approach and pulled his cap further down over his face.
Paco’s box beeped alerting him that the beacon had been turned on, the satellite told him he was three degrees off course so he gently adjusted his direction and the Cessna responded, tilting slightly before leveling off again. He was now heading directly for the beacon. The highway was in sight, a single line breaking up the continuous desert in front of him. He increased the speed to 180mph and felt the reassuring pull on his chest and neck. Nearly there he thought to himself as he crossed the highway without a vehicle in sight.
At four miles out he slowed his airspeed to 120mph and scanned the horizon for something which might approximate a runway. Within thirty seconds he spotted the SUVs and then the level set desert strip which would double as a runway this afternoon. The three vehicles were drawing up level with Bryant’s truck. He could see two men climbing out of the first vehicle. Paco kept the plane level and overshot the runway climbing away. It was another normal double check. Never, never, just land.
The first man walked up to Bryant and nodded at him, he wore sunglasses, jeans and a dark leather jacket. His hair was grey and his face lined. He stood next to Bryant watching the Cessna fly overhead.
“Hate the desert” He said squinting into the sun.
Bryant looked up at him unsmiling “Probably in the wrong place then”
The man watched the plane climb, turn and prepare to land.
“Friend of yours?” he asked nodding at the plane
“Am just doing what I’m told” Bryant said shaking his head and spitting into the sand
The second man arrived and stood next to the first. They both watched the plane approach the runway. He was equally inappropriately dressed in a dark business suit.
Samantha or Sammi Bowman sat and stared out at the blue sky as the plane banked. She knew it was over, or close to over. With her one good hand she gripped the seat, her other rested loosely on her lap. Bandages covered the two bloody stumps of what were, two weeks ago, perfectly healthy fingers. She used to be scared of flying, she hated accompanying her father on his official trips around the state. His plane was tiny and would buck and lurch violently with even the slightest hint of turbulence. Sammi would grip her fathers hand and pray quietly for a safe landing. Today inside the bare aging turboprop she just sat there quietly, not scared, not feeling anything as the engines flared, the undercarriage deployed with a thump and the whole plane vibrated heavily as Paco slowed it down for landing. She just sat there and waited for it to be over. Her hand throbbed in time with her heart.
Bryant stood up and kicked the dust.
“Gotta go to work” he said as he climbed into the cabin of the Toyota and turned the engine over. It growled into life and he pulled away.
Paco lifted the nose up slightly and felt the wheels beneath him connect with the hard desert floor. He engaged the reverse thrust and pulled the aircraft around at the eastern end of the strip. Through the dirty windscreen he saw Bryant pulling the petrol bowser towards him, the SUVs followed close behind.
He unbuckled himself and pulled his dirty denim cap from behind his seat. As he clambered out of the cockpit he nodded at the girl, she was watching him, still not moving.
“Bueno-fin de viaje” he said as he opened the door.
Five minutes later he stood next to Bryant as he refueled the plane. There was a breeze here but apart from that the landscape in the United States of America was identical to the one he had left two hours ago. This was still Mexico to Paco, regardless what the maps told him.
“Cómo fue?” How was it? Bryant asked him
Paco looked around. He saw a lady hugging his passenger as they walked away from the plane. There was another man standing at the side of the middle vehicle. He was tall, well dressed and looked horribly out of place. Paco thought he recognized him. Governor, mayor or whatever it is they call them this side of the line. He idly wondered why there were no police here but assumed the man must have agreed to whatever it was his boss had asked of him. His boss could be very persuasive.
He watched as the girl wriggled free from the woman and sprinted towards the well dressed man. Her bandaged hand flopped limply at her side. She threw herself around his slender frame.
The man was crying.
“Bien” Paco replied.
I am a 42 year old Scotsman living and working in Zurich, Switzerland. Writing is a hobby of mine, my blog: www.mikeshanks.blogspot.com. I am also putting the finishing touches to my first novel 'Dark Orchid' which will be published through Roundfire books in early 2013.