The pounding rain of the tropical storm bouncing around the Gulf of Mexico like a hazy but powerful ball in a giant pinball machine had long since lulled me into a deep and restful sleep. During that time I have vague recollections of some amazingly vivid dreams that were always interrupted with the ringtone from my cell phone. During the blaring music, which in truth was designed to be irritating enough to wake someone out of a deep sleep, everything in my wonderful pseudo-reality would be thrown totally out of whack.
When the music stopped though, the dream pieces would reassemble and I would find myself in some other place and time. Only to have the music return and disrupt whatever wild adventure or intimate interlude I was having with some beautiful lady. Eventually my tortured subconscious mind gave up and kicked me out of dreamland, just in time for the cell phone to start freaking out again.
“Yeah,” I groggily said into the phone while nursing a child-like anger for having my threesome with two former Sports Illustrated cover models interrupted. “You've reached Samuel Archer, what can I do for you?”
“Sammy my friend,” the booming voice of Hector Belmontes said, “I need you to meet me at Lost Horizons as soon as you can either shake the cobwebs out of your head or break away from the woman you picked up here last night.”
“What woman...?” I said trying to make sense of his words until my brain rebooted. I soon remembered I had spent the better part of last evening smooth talking to a newly divorced lady, only to have her cruelly shoot me down. “Oh, yeah, you know Hector you can be a real dick sometimes. This better be about a job or I'll put my foot up your ass, of course only after I gain fifty pounds and can bench your weight.”
Hector thought my words were so funny I worried the guy might be having a heart attack from laughter. Hector was a linebacker for the Miami Dolphins for a couple of seasons back in the late 80's and still looked like a guy who could easily pinch off a regular guy's head from his neck with one of his thumbs and index fingers. “Listen Sam, just get down here before the city floods. This is good, easy money and I know you need every bit of help that comes your way.”
“Yeah, I'm on the way.” I said resigning myself to my dark financial reality.
During the time I spent rummaging around my spartan apartment for things like a clean pair of pants and my wallet I discovered it was almost one o'clock in the afternoon. At least that explained Hector picking the Lost Horizon instead of something sensible like the local IHOP or even Waffle House.
After making myself presentable, to my sorry standards, I stepped out of my apartment. The clouds from the annoying tropical storm had cast a seriously dark pall on the Tampa Bay area leaving the impression of that the world was about to end.
Luckily the drive to Lost Horizon was mostly uneventful. Putting it a better way, as I left the Bay Pines area of St. Petersburg heading towards the strip mall close to the Albert Whitted Airport where Lost Horizon was located, the area hadn't flooded to the point that sharks were cruising the streets. An event whose truth is a subject of intense debate by local residents but I saw one of the damn thing swim by me as I stood on the steps leading up my apartment during a previous storm. But then again, I had endured a meeting with my ex-wife hours earlier and was probably transferring my fear and anger to something other than an evil, supernatural being.
Lost Horizon sat between a tanning salon whose claim to fame was that some reality television star stopped by for an emergency session and a frozen yogurt store that seemed to be staffed with just one person. Every time I walked into Lost Horizon the same 40-something guy would be standing in the same exact spot next the counter with a blank expression on his face. Occasionally, I think about going inside to try and talk to the guy just to make sure that he is alive but in all honest he sort of scares me.
Despite its strip mall disadvantages, Lost Horizon does have an interesting feature, an outside tiki bar complete with a grass hut-like overhang that extends out far enough to shelter several patio tables. After parking my car, I ran up to the empty bar wondering where the hell Hector had gone. I sat at the bar alone for several minutes before the beautiful Gillian Altman decided to leave the warm and dry confines of the interior to take my order.
“What the hell do you want Archer,” she said in a clearly demeaning tone that reminded me of my lovely ex-wife. Gillian is a curious creature, she looks exactly like the actress from the famous television show, so much that when she started working at Lost Horizon most guys who frequented the place developed a crazy theory that she might be the Anderson-type researching a role. An allegation she denied so strongly that three guys who stupidly made a pass at her came back sporting various broken bones. Like the actress, Gillian Altman sports a shapely feminine body, but unlike her doppelganger she also possesses a temper along with enough muscle strength and fighting skill to emasculate the vast majority of men on the planet. The standing rumor now was that she was an ex-CIA agent living with a new face and fake identity while hiding from any number of enemies.
“Just a beer, please,” I responded meekly. “Any idea where Hector might be,” I also asked quickly instinctively lowering my body to partially hide behind the bar.
“He went out to get someone, told me to tell you sit and wait for him.” She said clearly annoyed before stepping back inside.
She returned so quickly with the beer that I almost wondered if she had poisoned the thing. But I shrugged off that idea because if she wanted me dead, her biggest concern would be how to dispose of my body.
Minutes ticked by as I sipped my beer and waited, the rain and occasional clap of thunder my only companions. During this alone time I pondered my relationship with Hector. See I repossess airplanes whose owners have, for whatever reason, failed to make the required payments. People like me don't wallow in the dirty reality show glamour like the chumps who repossess cars, our deadbeats are usually high-end types who wear suits and ties and have college degrees. Which often makes them far more difficult to track down and quite a bit more dangerous. I started tracking one pilot down in Mexico only to end up on an Alaskan island so far in the Bering sea that I could hear some punkass Russian talking on the radio as I flew the newly reacquired plane back to the lower forty-eight.
Because pilots like me are few and far between once you get involved in this racket you eventually develop a relationship with someone who acts as your agent. That turned out to be Hector, who I ran into as both of us were searching for a plane in Jamaica that the owner said had been stolen. He was tired of all the crap involved with the business but wanted to stay close and I was losing assignments because I couldn't juggle the paperwork and find the planes.
Just when I had begun to think Hector might have forgotten about me, a car suddenly pulls up close to the overhang allowing Hector and another guy quickly jump out. After going through the usual motions of introductions Hector, the new guy, and myself settle down to discuss business.
“Mr. Belmontes tells me that you're quite talented at repossessing aircraft.” The new guy said who Hector introduced as Mr. John Black. Right off the bat, Mr. Black had the smell of trouble. Dressed in a suit that looked stolen from one of the Men In Black movies, the guy also possessed such average characteristics of height, face, hair color, and build that if he suddenly walked away I definitely wouldn't recognize him upon his return. While Mr. Black said he worked for a simple aviation finance agency, he reeked of government or, more than likely, corporate espionage spook looking for some fool to do his dirty work.
“Yeah, I'm qualified to fly anything up to the high-end luxury jets, ” I said walking into this situation fully aware of the possible disaster it could end up. No, I'm not a complete fool, but if they guy was willing to pay my price I'm give it a go.
Mr. Black chuckled, “No, nothing that glamorous I'm afraid. I need you to repossess a simple Cessna Caravan seaplane whose owner owes the people I represent quite a bit of money.”
“Awesome,” I said, “I known Caravans like my ex-wife's inner thighs, just where is this bird?”
“Aren't you curious as to why my people are looking for someone like you to find this plane?” Mr. Black asked in a way that almost contorted his face to the point it had the hint of an expression.
“Look Mr. Black,” I said wanting to get past all the usual bullshit, “if you pay the amount I ask, I don't give a rat's rear end about the details. Hector can tell you I've dealt with Central American drug lords, guerrilla fighters, and totally sleazy exiled mafia types who just can't give up that last perk of their former power. You want this plane, all I need to know is the serial number on the engine block, the name of the deadbeat who has it, and his or her last location. The only questions is the price, and I'll be honest, if you've come to me I know you're desperate and that means my fees will be high.”
I guess Mr. Black liked my answer because he smiled, not like a normal human being would but in the way some undead zombie might after stumbling across a group of stupid teenagers in the woods at night. Now, I did get slightly concerned when I told Mr. Black how much I was going to charge him to find this plane and he just shrugged. His one condition was that I could not attract the attention of the press in any shape or fashion. It wasn't an uncommon consideration given the notoriety of some of the deadbeats so I agreed.
After that we all shook hands with Mr. Black giving me the folder holding all the information on the person who had the plane. I had just enough time to read the name of the deadbeat then to look up and see Hector and Mr. Black drive off in his car. Just as the car disappeared in the pouring rain I saw Black looking my way with a mysterious Cheshire cat smile on his face.
The person I had to find was one Singapore John Smalls, scientist, adventurer, inventor, and billionaire who by all accounts was supposed to have died ten years before. “Oh crap,” I said out loud to myself, “this is going to be fun.”
End of part one