Read an ExcerptKiller Cargo
By Dana Mentink Steeple Hill
Copyright © 2008 Dana Mentink
All right reserved.
The phone shrilled, slicing through the patter of rain. With clumsy fingers Maria fumbled through her backpack to find it. "Hello?"
Silence. "Is anyone there?"
A sudden crack of thunder left her ears ringing. "I said, is anyone there?"
Still no answer, but Maria heard, barely, the sound of breathing. A man's breathing.
The hair stood up on the back of her neck. "Who are you? What do you want?"
Click. The phone went dead in her cold hand. Fear bubbled through her body until she shook it away. Now was not the time to let her imagination run amok. It was just a wrong number. Someone would be along in a minute.
Maria peered out at the view from her plane's front window. Scrubby trees and boulders hemmed in the remote landing strip on either side. She had killed the engine to preserve the meager fuel supply and had spent the past hour anxiously watching an approaching storm that now hurled branches and leaves across the tarmac.
She checked her watch. Where could they be?
The only hint of civilization in this forgotten airport in the wilds of Oregon was a tiny metal shed in the distance. There was no trace of the people that were supposed to meet her and transfer the pet supplies to their vehicle. The idea had been to drop the cargo, collect the paycheck, refuel and fly back home. Now as she continued to scan the landing strip, she felt her plan slipaway like fog in the sunshine.
Her foot tapped a nervous rhythm on the floor as the rain tapered off slightly. Though she didn't feel very hopeful, she decided to check the shack to see if someone had left a message.
Maria unstrapped her small frame from the seat and pulled on her windbreaker. Easing the door open, she climbed down. Immediately the wind grabbed her black hair and sent it flying in all directions. She skidded on the slippery asphalt.
Still no sign of people.
Goose bumps prickled to life on her neck. "Get moving, Maria," she scolded herself. The moment she left the shelter of the plane the storm intensified. A strong wind buffeted her and overhead a crack of thunder shook through the clouds. She had barely enough time to scramble back on board as the lightning let loose with a horrible sizzle.
Heart thumping, she flopped back into the pilot's seat. Great. If the men were running late before, they'd be slowed down even more now. Feeling the need to move, she ducked into the back. Bags of dog food, buckets of kitty litter and boxes of rawhide chew strips were secured in neat stacks. Every square inch was filled with all that a happy pet could require.
Martin Shell often hired her to transport goods from his pet supply business and occasionally to carry along a crate or two of his prized honey. The pay was good. Two hundred dollars at pickup and eight hundred more when the delivery was signed for.
Money. When had that item become so high on the priority list? Right about the time she sank every last dime into purchasing her beloved plane. She would be paying off that one-hundred-fifty-thousand-dollar loan until the day she died, but it was hers, as long as she made the payments, and she was free to fly wherever she wished, even to remote corners of nowhere, free to make her own way.
Rain slammed the sleek white sides and glass canopy of the airplane as thoughts chased each other around her head. Why would anyone send a shipment of pet supplies to the boonies? How many pet stores could there be in a place where even the people were few and far between?
She pulled her wet hair into a ponytail and crouched next to her only passenger. The miniature bunny on the rear seat regarded her through the mesh sides of his cage. His tiny eyes looked as though they'd been ringed in mascara. He was no bigger than a meatball sandwich. The small cage was a crude affair, a wood crate with a few slats missing, chicken wire stapled over the space and an aluminum pan to catch his droppings. A metal strap nailed to the top served as a carrying handle.
"You're not exactly flying first-class. I wish I had something to give you, little guy."
The bunny shook his head, sending the long white ears flapping. He took a half hop toward her and fell over.
Maria gasped, looking anxiously through the slats. "What happened? Are you all right?"
The animal righted itself and Maria saw the cause of the mishap. He only had three legs. Where the left front one should be was a small fuzzy stump. Then she read the handwritten tag on the top of the cage: Snake.
"Uh-oh. I don't suppose they named you Snake?" That was highly unlikely. "Oh, man. You're born without a leg and you wind up lunch for an anaconda. Where is the justice in that?"
The rabbit turned its gaze on her and hunkered into a tight ball. Its fuzzy sides trembled, the pink dot of a nose quivering. Did those eyes really have a sheen of desperation in them or was it another set of eyes she remembered? With a shudder, she got up and looked again at the contents of the cargo area, noting with displeasure that her plane was beginning to smell like a bowl of chicken-flavored Alpo.
She checked the packing list again. She was at the right location, as far as she could tell.
The earlier jobs for Martin Shell ended with no problems, though none had terminated at this particular airstrip. Shell had even taken her to dinner a few times when he was in L.A. He was a sweet old guy, round and ruddy-cheeked. With his shock of white hair and booming voice she could easily picture him in lederhosen on the top of a mountain, blowing into a giant horn. Martin would come through. She was sure of it.
She opened her cell phone again and dialed his number. After five rings the answering machine picked up with Shell's booming baritone. "Hello, Mr. Shell. It's Maria. I'm sitting at the airstrip in Oregon waiting for your guys to pick up the shipment." She checked her watch. "I'm on time but so far, nobody's here. It's the right delivery point so maybe there's been a delay on your end? Someone tried to call me but we had a bad connection. Please call my cell and let me know if the plan has changed, okay? Thanks."
Two minutes later her phone shrilled. She started and it clattered to the floor. "Hello?" she managed to say on the third ring.
"Maria, dear. Marty Shell here."
Relief coursed through her. "Hi, Mr. Shell."
"Sorry I missed your call. I was smoking the hive."
She could picture the huge guy in his white bee suit, like some enormous cheerful snowman. "How is the honey today?"
"Oh, perfect. I wish you could see it, liquid amber and perfect on the tongue. I know Mrs. Shell will relish it on her toast in the morning."
"Is she feeling all right?"
He exhaled into the phone. "Ah, well. Good days and bad, you know."
Maria had only seen pictures of the tiny Asian woman who suffered with debilitating bouts of lupus. "I really enjoyed the honey you sent for my birthday," Maria said. "It was amazing."
"You need to come to my place in Palm Springs, Maria. When you see those combs emerge from the wax, you won't believe it." He paused. "My stars. I've got another phone call coming in. I'm sorry my people are late meeting you. I'm not sure how to correct them of this terrible habit other than hanging them by their thumbs." He chuckled. "Stay put, dear. They'll be along shortly."
She disconnected with a happy sigh. All was as it should be. Shell's people would be along in a jiffy. As usual, it was merely a case of her overactive imagination. The bunny hopped around in his cage, sniffing for food. She decided to try to locate some rabbit pellets from the stacks of supplies. Poking around the bags and boxes, she wondered how they made dog treats in the shape of tiny T-bone steaks. She pictured an assembly line of elves with cookie cutters stamping out thousands of the things. A cardboard box caught her attention. It was securely wedged in the space between the Savory Snacks and the Kibble Krunchies. She reached over the rear seat, pulled it out and set it on her lap.
It was the size of an ordinary shoebox, wrapped in brown paper with no label or writing of any kind. She sniffed it. No telltale scent of kibble or alfalfa. She shook it. No movement from inside. It was probably some flea medicine or something. Or some of those squeaky toys for dogs they had just forgotten to label.
The only sound in the plane was the quiet drumming of rain on the roof and the grinding of the rabbit's teeth chewing on the bars. She looked at him. "You know, we really should come up with a name for you. Oh, sure, you're destined to be swallowed whole, but everything deserves to be named, doesn't it?" She opened the top of his cage and scratched between the silky ears. He flattened against the floor in bliss. "Peter? Fluffy? Nah. Let's just go with Hank. How does that grab you?"
Hank spread out even more and flopped over onto his side. "Hank it is. I wonder why they didn't label this box? Weird." She should put it back and walk away but some instinct wouldn't let her. It wouldn't hurt anything to take a quick peek. Besides, there might be rabbit munchies inside. "I can always wrap the box back up, when it turns out to be flea medicine or rubber hot dogs, can't I?"
Maria eased open the tape. She ignored the guilty pang and pulled the box out of the paper. Mr. Shell would understand. He wouldn't want a rabbit to go hungry, either. The cardboard box top came off easily and she stared inside.
Ice-cold terror hopscotched through her chest and constricted her throat. She blinked hard.
When she opened her eyes, the stuff was still there.
It was not possible. Not from a man who made honey and tended his sick wife. There had to be some mistake. They'd both been double-crossed.
"Hank," she said, nausea washing over her in cold waves,
"I've got a bad feeling we're both gonna be snake food." A distant rumble of thunder made her stomach jump.
Wrap up the box and leave it. Pretend like you never noticed the thing.
No. Then she would be an accomplice to the crime.
Call the cops.
She ripped her phone open, horrified to see the battery light indicate it was all but depleted. There was no choice but to call when she was safely away from this isolated spot. She shoved the box back where she'd found it, bolted to her feet and jumped into the cockpit. The blood rang in her ears. Her fingers instinctively scrambled over the controls, prepping the engines for takeoff, praying the storm would disappear as quickly as it had arrived.
Then she remembered an important detail. She needed fuel if she was going to fly out of this no-man's-land. A quick calculation reminded her she had only two hundred dollars in her wallet. Sweat beaded on her forehead. Through the drops of moisture on the windshield she saw a man in the window of the distant shed on the end of the tarmac. She was going to have to try to convince the guy to come into the storm to sell her a couple hundred bucks worth of fuel, pronto.
Maria slammed into action. She grabbed a backpack, tossed in her wallet and pulled on a baseball cap. "I'll be right back," she told Hank as she popped open the hatch. He pressed his pink nose against the bars.
Simultaneously, through the pounding rain, she heard a sound that made her breath freeze: the distant rumble of a car. She could barely see the outline of a black sedan and the two male figures in the front seat.
Her stomach turned upside down. There was no way she could fuel up and get in the air before the car reached them. She was going to have to improvise. One step out of the plane and she could hear Hank thumping around in his cage. He was as alone and friendless as she was. A crazy thought formed in her mind.
It was ridiculous. The unwieldy cage would only slow her down. They would catch her and kill her, and kill the rabbit, too. She continued down to the asphalt.
But Hank was helpless and alone. She knew what that felt like. Too well.
After a moment of paralyzed indecision, she raced back up and grabbed Hank's cage. It was all she could do to hold on to it and jog along the slippery ground. Thanks to the mountainous roadway, the car was still making its way down the winding path toward the airstrip when she burst through the doorway of the shed.
The young guy standing on a chair playing the air guitar didn't look up. The sound of hard rock emanated from his ear piece and a red licorice rope dangled from his lips. He stomped his feet on the cracked vinyl of the chair seat.
"Hey," Maria said. "I need some help."
The kid continued to play, flipping his long hair out of his face with zeal. He switched from air guitar to drum solo.
Maria put the cage on the floor and pulled on the guy's sleeve. He looked down with a start and fell off the chair. When he righted himself, the hair drooped over his eyes like a curtain. "Man. You scared me. I think I might have had a heart attack. Where did you come from?"
She suppressed the urge to shake him. "From the plane that landed an hour ago on your runway over there. Do you have a phone?"
"Uh, yeah. But it doesn't work. You don't have a cell?"
He chewed a section of the candy rope and gestured to the mountains. "Doesn't matter anyway. Probably wouldn't get a good signal here. It's like living in the bottom of a well."
She looked out the filthy window. The black sedan pulled onto the runway. She turned back to the kid, reading the name tag on his jumpsuit. "Look, Jacko. I'm in a lot of trouble and I've got to get out of here now. I need a car, truck, motorcycle, anything. Can you help me, please?"
His eyes widened. "You must be in deep. I can give you a ride on my moped at quitting time. How 'bout that?"
Out of the corner of her eye she saw the two men get out of the car and head toward her plane.
"No, no. I need to take off right now. Please. Isn't there a car I can borrow? I thought I saw one out back. It's really important. I promise I'll return it." Her voice trembled.
"Out back? Oh, you mean the Demon."
Maria's breath became shallow and her hands started to sweat. The men were entering her plane and when they figured out she'd opened the box they would head for the shack. She knew their secret. There was no way they'd let her get away. She looked around frantically. Where could she hide? There was nothing but an old card chair and a two-drawer filing cabinet overflowing with papers.
Jacko extracted a bottle of Gatorade from a foam cooler and took a slug of the green liquid. "Let me think a minute." His eyeballs did a 360. "Yeah, that might work. That's my cousin Duke's car out there. He's in jail for another six months, probably, not likely to get paroled early on account of he's not a model prisoner. Maybe you could borrow it, if you get it back here by November."
Her excitement soared. "Yes, yes. I'll take anything." His eyes narrowed. "Wait just a minute. You got some money? Duke would want something for his wheels. He's gonna need some start-up cash when he gets out of the joint. The car's a collectible you know. It's a '72 Dodge Demon. Sweet ride, great interior, the works."
She dug into her backpack with trembling hands and came up with a hundred-dollar bill. "How's this?" Out of the corner of her eye she could see bags of kibble and kitty litter hurtling out of the open plane hatch. They split open on impact, sending debris flying everywhere.
"Oh, I don't know. A hundred bucks? That doesn't seem like much for a classic automobile. Plus gas. Gas ain't cheap now, lady. Fortunately, Duke filled it up right before he got arrested. He's gonna expect it that way when he shows up. And then there's wear and tear, of course, and the oil will need to be changed when you return it."
She tossed another fifty. Her voice rose to a near scream. "Please. That only leaves me a few bucks. You don't want the rabbit to starve, do you? The poor guy only has three legs."
He twirled the red rope thoughtfully as he regarded Hank. "Three legs? Weird, man. Reminds me of my uncle Vic. He's only got three fingers on his left hand. Great bowler though. The league champion in Chauncy. I watched him last weekend and he was smokin'. Won a trophy and everything. I guess one hundred fifty will be okay."
Jacko fished around in a desk drawer. "Here are the keys. Have a nice trip, lady. Don't forget to bring it back before November."
Excerpted from Killer Cargo by Dana Mentink Copyright © 2008 by Dana Mentink. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.