In our line of work it’s a good idea to fly under the radar. Unless you’re in the fog. In the Andes.
I don’t know if we clipped another plane’s wing or hit an outcrop—it was too high up for trees. At any rate, we got slammed hard. Somehow Carl kept us out of a spin and banged in a landing on a pass with a dusting of snow and hardly enough grass to support a decent-sized llama.
That didn’t keep us from eating him first, though. He’d gotten us into this mess by deviating from the flight plan without telling us so he could get to his sidepiece faster. Dude might have started out with God as his co-pilot, but it looked like the Almighty had decided to bail out and fly instead with somebody who wasn’t a complete jackass.
Gamy bastard, too. No idea what he’d been living on.
Mostly he tasted like frustration. By this point I should have been blowing through my cut in Miami, knee-deep in Cuban sandwiches and Colombian escorts. We’d planned for a clean run, out and back overnight, so we didn’t pack many provisions. Not when we could fit in more guns.
But now it’s been a couple days since we cracked the last marrow bone. All four of us wanted to hold off on the hard choices because the transponder might still be working and the deal could still get done, and the weather might clear in time for one of us to go and look for help, the kind that wouldn’t ask many questions. Abandoning the cargo wasn’t an option. Things a lot worse than dying could happen if we made our way back empty-handed.
The time had come, though. Somebody had to go next if anybody was going to make it.
“How are we gonna do this?” I asked. We’d all done the thing when there were no questions about who had to go. Jaime—and I didn’t know they made Peruvians that big—suggested a friendly game of Russian roulette.
There was just one problem. For all the iron in the crates, and all the pieces we were strapped with, there wasn’t a single revolver on board.
“How about rock-paper-scissors?” I said.
Ex-Ranger Kenny took a dim view of my proposal. “You are talking about someone making the ultimate sacrifice,” he drawled from some background deep in the heart of Texas. “You can’t make that kind of decision on the basis of a game played by children.”
I agreed with him, but I wanted to get the bad ideas out of the way so somebody else could bring up the one I preferred.
“Anybody have cards or dice?” Albert asked. Some men are Als, short for Albert or Alfred or Alexander, somebody cool you can shoot the shit with at a bar about whatever comes up without it turning into a fight. Then there are Alberts. You see them at the end of the bar nursing a drink alone, or talking up somebody and waiting for an excuse to get offended and come up with a fist or worse.
Albert was definitely an Albert, but he had the skills for our work, wherever he’d picked them up. He went on, and a spot under his left eye started to twitch. “We could pick a card, maybe throw for a high or low number. What do you think?”
There was the opening for him to take something the wrong way.
“If I had any I would have brought them out by now,” Jaime said. “It would have helped pass the time.”
“Same for me,” Kenny said.
“I’ve got nothing,” I said. Neither did the pilot. We’d gone through his things.
“How should we handle this then?” Albert said.
“Well,” Kenny said, “it’s kind of a cliché, but we could draw straws. Any on board?”
I didn’t want to rush into things, but I had to tell the truth.
“There’s an open box of them in the cockpit.” Maybe Carl had been dipping into one of the boss’s other product lines and didn’t like to lose powder on a rolled-up bill. That would explain why there hadn’t been much fat on him. “They’re in the console next to a girlie mag.”
“We need to come up with a process we can agree on up front,” Jaime said. “We can’t have anybody freaking out when it’s decided.”
“Anybody ideas?” Kenny asked.
Albert seemed to be mulling over something but couldn’t find the words yet. It seemed like a good time to speak up again.
“I knew where they were, so I probably shouldn’t be touching them again. Maybe one guy gets them, another guy cuts them and a third guy hands them out.”
Nobody was going to cheer for that kind of suggestion, but they nodded in agreement.
Jaime came back with the straws. I’d left out a detail or two: they were the bendable kind with a clown on the box. Not much more dignified than rock-paper-scissors.
“Sorry,” I said. “I know it doesn’t exactly fit what we’re doing.”
“Nothing would,” Kenny said. “We’ll be getting rid of the bendy parts anyway. Who wants to cut?”
“I can do that,” Albert said, and nobody minded. He could shoot as well as he needed to, but with a knife he was an artist. He kept his blades sharp, and he’d gotten every shred of meat off of Carl. His hand-to-hand work in Ciudad del Este a couple of years back had gotten him a big bonus that nobody begrudged.
He plucked out four straws and took them over to a tray table. He came back with them in a row, the tops even like fenceposts, and turned them over to Kenny.
“Okay, gentlemen,” Kenny said. “We didn’t go through much ceremony before because Carl brought his fate on himself, but this time none of us has this coming. We need to give this occasion the gravity it deserves.”
He took off his hat and drew in a deep breath.
“Let’s just have a moment of silence here. If there’s a God in your life this would be a good time to make your peace in light of what you might do or have done to you.”
He closed his eyes and bowed his head like somebody who had chosen a different line of work, say the kind where people have a reasonable expectation of retirement and plan accordingly. Albert and Jaime followed his lead, and there was a little hand-folding and cross-signing. Out of courtesy I looked down—getting right with whatever might or might not be out there seemed like a reach at the moment—and I just put my hands in my pockets and until the other guys were done.
“It’s been good to work with you, in any case,” Kenny said. “Let’s show our hands.”
We all spread out our palms—it was time to tear off the bandage and get this over with.
Jaime had the longest straw by far—it hadn’t been cut far from the bend. Mine was a distant second.
Albert’s and Kenny’s took a little eyeballing, and we had to lay them side by side, each man keeping a finger on his own to avoid any confusion.
By about three-eighths of an inch, Albert lost.
“Sorry,” Kenny said, and he seemed to mean it.
“You are a hero, man,” Jaime said. “If we get out of this we’ll find a way to take care of your family. They won’t have to hear about the details.”
“Dude, I’m sorry it had to turn out this way. You always had our backs, and we’re never going to forget that. I know I sure as hell won’t”
Albert stayed quiet for a few seconds, and you couldn’t blame him.
But he finally gathered his thoughts and straightened up to say his final words.
“God DAMN it!” Albert yelled at the top of his lungs. “That is not the shortest straw.”
“Nobody wanted this, man,” Jaime said. “Let’s not make this any harder than it has to be.”
“No, God damn it. I cut those sons of bitches and one of them was shorter than this. One of you is a God-damn cheat.”
“We won’t let you suffer, Albert,” Kenny said. “That’s the best we can do.”
“Damn right I won’t suffer,” Albert said, and before anybody could answer he’d whipped out one of his high-tech tactical knives and lunged at Kenny.
Even an ex-Ranger can have an off day. Kenny was spurting blood in a couple of places, and the blade was up to the hilt in his liver before Jamie and I could pull Albert off of him. Kenny had some fight left in him, though. He tried to stanch a carotid with one hand as he drew with the other and put a .32 round in Albert’s face. His knees buckled, but we didn’t let him drop until he’d twitched a few times and went slack. That sort of thing can’t be faked.
I tried to stabilize Kenny while Jaime went for the trauma bag, but time wasn’t on his side. His breath rattled, and he flinched from the twinges of pain in his gut. He clenched his jaws and I heard a tooth crack from the pressure.
“Don’t waste too much effort on this,” he said between grunts. “You need to hang onto your supplies.”
He must have meant what he said, because he started to fade faster then, and by the time we could unwrap a bandage he was gone.
Jaime and I didn’t say anything. We just went off to sit in separate places. A bottle of something, anything, might have helped, but the plane was dry.
You can only spend so much thinking before you go crazy with it, so after a while we did what had to be done, but twice the work now and only half as many hands, all weaker now. We couldn’t afford to wait, though, and went through the same steps as with Carl: field dressing, cold storage away from sleeping quarters and out of any scavengers’ reach.
We’d bought ourselves some more time, but we ended the day weaker still. In the middle of the night I could barely get up to go out and take a leak.
The cold air woke me up more than I wanted, and I realized I still had a couple of reminders of what had happened. Nothing good could come of keeping them. I reached into my pockets and pulled out two straws: the one I had shown, and the one that Albert had cut. I tossed both and let the wind take them.
Jaime was benefiting, too, but he didn’t need to be saddled with that knowledge. He was a nice enough guy, and I liked him alright.by