The plane touched down on the shimmering cracked runway and taxied toward the ramshackle hodgepodge of buildings that served as the airport. It was a defunct WWII airfield, abandoned by all except those who prefer to travel and transport relatively unobserved. Located in the middle of Texas ranch land, the only witnesses to activities here were herds of sleepy steer and the nodding iron mantises sucking crude from the parched earth.
Cabrera brought the plane to a halt at the end of the runway. He opened the door to the scorching Texas heat. and climbed down to meet the flatbed coming out to meet them. Close behind the truck was a government-issue black sedan carrying US Customs, Immigration and Public Health officials. El Comandante’s customer would have to wait a bit longer to take possession of the large crated stone in the plane’s cargo hold.
All cargo coming into the US was subject to Customs examination. Because his plane flew under foreign registration, US Immigration and Public Health always stuck their noses in too, even though he and Muñoz would leave immediately after off-loading the crate and refueling.
It was all a bit of a hassle, but one Cabrera was happy to tolerate. It was far easier on the nerves than the alternative.
It wasn’t mere luck that had enabled El Comandante to traffic goods in and out of the US undeterred for so long. He made a point of following the letter of the US law. Electronic waybills and cargo disposition documentation were filed in advance according to US Customs requirements, and he insisted the customer pay any duty tax before the shipment arrived. The Customs official meeting the plane was there to inspect the cargo, and verify that the filed declarations were accurate. Thanks to some clever packaging, what the government man saw was not quite all that the customer was getting. There was no question that the duty tax the customer had paid was far from adequate, but Customs would never know that.
Cabrera had flown into the US under the radar many times, moving more kilos of cocaine that he cared to remember. But he hated it. He was too old for such risk-taking, and was glad to be out of it. Though he was well aware that El Comandate’s compliance was largely a sham, he was grateful that the old man pulled it off so well. Not once had he been questioned beyond the routine.
Questions answered, documentation examined, the crate opened and resealed, the flatbed backed up to the cargo door and positioned its attached conveyor belt in the opening. With the help of a winch inside the plane, Cabrera and Muñoz moved the crate to the belt. The hunk of marble was soon secured on the bed of the truck and on its way.
And after refueling, so were Cabrera and his plane.
Back in Medellin, the old man savored the anise flavor of his aguardiente liqueur, and mentally counted the money he’d made from his latest “export” into the United States.
“I think the statue’s magnificent, Kate. What else could I think?”
As I say the words, a flash of satisfaction appears on Kate’s face and is gone just as quickly. I could have imagined it, but… No, I’m sure I saw it.
“Want to take a look at ‘the scene of the crime,’ Marty?” Without waiting for my answer, Kate is already walking toward the back.
“I do.” My eyes linger on the statue for a long moment, then I turn to follow her into the office. “But don’t even joke about that, Kate. The cops have a way of being awfully literal.”
She doesn’t go into the office, though. Behind a decorative screen at the back of the gallery, she presses a nearly hidden button. A panel illustrated with a fresco of Charon on the river Styx slides back to reveal a small elevator. Clever.
After a short ride, during which I fight the enticement of the heady perfume that embraces me in the close quarters of the elevator, the doors open to an apartment foyer.
“Well, this is quite a change from The Garret,” I comment as I step onto the gleaming black and white tile flooring. The tiny apartment Kate and I shared in the Village during college wasn’t much larger than this foyer, and it was a whole lot drearier.
“Thank goodness. What a pit that was.” Kate tosses a smile over her shoulder as she shrugs out of her coat. It goes into the coat closet, and she holds out her hand to take mine.
It’s irrational, I know, but I feel a little hurt by her response. That Village apartment may not have been anything to write home about, but my memories of sharing it with the girl I loved are positive. A silly adolescent romantic notion, I suppose, one Kate apparently didn’t share.
I follow as she leads me into the living room, noting with admiration the sensuous roll of her shapely hips under the clinging knit dress. Easy, boy, I think to myself.
She gestures to the couch sitting perpendicular to a small fireplace. Several colorful throws completely cover its upholstery.
“I couldn’t stand to look at the blood stains, and the police told me I couldn’t get rid of it yet. So…”
I lift the throws to look at the stains as Kate escapes into the kitchen. As she had mentioned, there isn’t a lot of blood, but the small spots that are here spread in a wide spatter pattern. This was no accidental nick with a pocketknife. I can see why the cops are suspicious. Probably the result of a deliberate blow, it looks like the “arterial spatter” the CSI shows on TV love to feature.
The white carpet beneath my feet is spotless.
I call to Kate in the kitchen. “Didn’t you say there was blood on the rug, too?”
“Yes, but the cops said I could clean that up. They took pictures of the spots before they left.” Kate emerges from the kitchen, snifters containing a rich amber liquid in hand.
“The crime scene guys were barely out the door before I called a carpet cleaning service. Ugh, it was gross,” she says as she hands me the cognac.
“Let’s talk over here.” Kate moves toward two overstuffed chairs positioned in the gentle curve of a bow window on the other side of the fireplace. “I just can’t sit on that couch.”
She picks up a remote from the mantle, and with the click of a button, the fireplace springs to life, filling the room with a warm glow.
After setting her glass down on the small table between the chairs, she turns and heads toward a short hallway. “I’ll be right back. Make yourself at home.”
Uh-oh…When a woman said that to Philip Marlowe, it usually meant she was going “to get into something more comfortable,” and that always led to trouble.
As I take a sip of the cognac – the excellent cognac, I might add – I settle in one of the chairs and look at the lights of Madison Avenue outside the window. I can see the Ralph Lauren building on the corner. Even at this hour, it’s beautiful, arched windows glittering. Kate landed in a pretty grand neighborhood, I’d say.
“Marty, could you help me for a minute?” Kate’s voice reaches me from down the hall.
“Sure.” I set my glass down next to Kate’s and head in the direction of a lit doorway at the end of the short hall.
As I turn the corner, I see that she has called me into her bedroom. There is one small lamp lit in the room. Kate is standing just inside the door, silhouetted against the lamplight. She’s wearing a silky peach-colored robe that perfectly complements her fair complexion and chestnut hair. From the outline of the shape beneath, I doubt she’s wearing much else.
Taking a step forward, she reaches up and kisses me very gently, just at the corner of my mouth. Her fingertips barely touch as they slide under the hair at the nape of my neck, and despite myself, I groan. That has always driven me crazy.
I can’t help myself. I put my arms around her, pull her hard against my chest, and kiss her hungrily. Lost in the kiss, I’m transported back in time. I’m twenty-one again, kissing my girlfriend in our shabby but romantic garret.
Kate breaks away for a moment and unties the sash on her robe. As it falls into a silky puddle at her feet, she wraps her arms around me and molds her naked body against mine.
Oh. my. God. I may just have a heart attack right here.
“Ah,” she murmurs with a smile in her voice as her lips move to meet mine again, “you’re glad to see me.”
To be continued
Written for The Tenth Daughter of Memory .