**The following story has appeared previously here and at TPC, being one of the first shorts that converted an otherwise dull nonfiction tome into one heck of a novel. Please find it below, modified slightly. A tale of Tom with the little kids and a CIA flashback to beat the band. other chapters reveal that the connection between international criminals and elementary schools is closer than one would think.**
Shades of Cuba
The following day, a Wednesday was interesting. He was supposed to have a morning only at L.B. Jever elementary, on the extreme further side of Hammond. The first half of the day was teaching fourth grade, which Tom found quite similar to the fifth. The kids were interested in him and pried about lady friends. When Tom’s evasion didn’t suit them, a little boy walked to the board and scribbled out: “Mr. Ironsides has a girlfriend.” Tom waltzed over and modified it (truthfully): “Mr. Ironsides has [hot] girlfriend[s].” His popularity soared – and not just with the youngsters.
It was mid-morning when an assistant principal approached and begged Tom to stay the whole day and to immediately take over for an ill music teacher. Figuring he had nothing to lose (though also nothing to offer) he agreed. He had a variety of classes and ages. And for them, he devised a plan: they got to color on some Christmas-themed paper he found, then they played “fishball,” a game he invented on the spot that was played like indoor football but with a stuffed fish (found near the art papers). Finally, they watched a short version of Peter and the Wolf. It all seemed to entertain – particularly fishball – for which Tom became an instant legend.
It was probably watching the happy kids running around tossing the stuffed fish that caused him to wander back in time again. It happened when he was going to the lunchroom. Sometimes the mind wanders. In daydreams, a man can relive what he found harrowing as well as those pleasant times that feel now, as they did then, just like dreams. Sometimes, if one isn’t careful, the two meld together. Tom’s brain turned back the calendar to another stage in his life’s journey.
Cuba, Early Spring, 2011, 00:44 Hours…
Tom stood in the door of “his” Dassault Falcon 7X, peering into the gloom above a dark, tropical landscape. The absence of the sun (and the moon) rendered the ordinarily green fields of cane a deep shade of midnight blue. It was after midnight. Technically, it was very early on Friday morning – Tom had just consulted his Submariner around midnite. And, technically, he did not like the feel of this particular night.
The cane…, Tom muttered in his mind, They cut down every cane in the fields.
And, they had, except for two narrow strips, one on each side of the rural roadway. He saw it, even in the dark, as he landed, smoothly, on crumbling, gravelly, barely-there asphalt just South of Sierra Morena, Cuba. The wingtips were literally touching the closest stalks on either side. Now Tom kicked himself for the placement – those cane screens and several stands of trees – out there, just a little, but just a little too close.
‘Why do I feel like this is a setup?’ Tom asked aloud to the night air.
‘These are the coordinates, boss,’ came an answer from the bottom of the stairs, barely audible over the three idling Pratt & Whitney turbofans. The answer came from “Oak,” a giant of a Team Six NCO, with a beard, biker tattoos, and the Devil’s poker face. He wore his shades despite the near-total darkness. ‘Give the boy a few minutes. He knows what he’s doing.’
The “boy” was Clandestine Services’ new wunderkind, some dazzling experiment out of Air Force Special Ops. He was good with computers. He was twenty-six, good-looking, and gregarious. He did something in Afghanistan. And, he spoke Spanish.
‘They were supposed to be waiting for us. Damn! This baby makes a lot of noise. Castro, hear us roar,’ Tom grumbled to no-one in particular. Then, he cocked his head and spoke over his shoulder, ‘Birch, how long have we been sitting here wailing like a Banshee?’
“Birch” was Tom’s own guy, picked out of Recon support and run into logistics for the Special Activities Division. He was the only man on the team older than Tom; they had to bend some rules to get him the job but it all worked out very well. The least Jarhead-looking and least Company-looking person imaginable, Birch was a lifesaver.
‘Six minutes, Tom,’ Birch replied with his usual nonchalance. He then called to the remaining support team in the back, ‘We got FLIR onboard? I think we should scan the hedge and the fields.’
As the men began searching for heat-ID equipment, Tom scanned the horizon. He had a pretty good view from the hatchway. He went over the mission in his head, still confounded and, if he admitted it, a little shaken. This is the damndest and sickest waste of resources I’ve ever even imagined, he thought, engines running on an open road, in a hostile country, boxed in by sugar cane … all of our lives on the line for what?
The “what” behind this particular overnight excursion into danger bothered Tom to his core. He strongly considered the short time he had left before they could magically blend retirements together and let him walk.
The plan, as best he understood it, was a simple prisoner exchange – an exchange organized at the behest of friends of the current administration. The Company, for its part, was in country to return a convicted terrorist, maybe the last of the anti-Carriles gang, based on the personal request of Senor Presidente Castro. He had been convicted in, was serving a life sentence in, the US, for terroristic activities against the people of America. The low-life they were picking up was wanted in both countries. The Cubans currently held him on substantial charges of child sex trafficking and some of the vilest allegations of child sex abuse Tom had ever heard. And, Tom had spent the past 25 years hearing the worst the world had to offer.
The pedo-queer, as Tom called him, was wanted in the US in connection with a notorious Florida billionaire’s sex slave island. A few years back, Sugar Daddy Warbucks had been given a light criminal slap on the wrist and sent on his way to the Virgin Islands. It paid to call a former President your buddy and alleged “customer.” Tonight’s loser was wanted for the civil trials, just heating up if the news was to be trusted – a huge if. The thing that kicked Tom hard in the guts was that Mr. Pedo Bear was wanted as a material NON-witness. Someone wanted this degenerate so he would NOT have to testify about the island nor stand trial on his own! Wanted so “they” could keep him out of court and, consequently, out of the reach of true justice.
Cuba was getting a hero back, to keep in cigars and rum through his old age, a dangerous hero released from lawful US custody. In exchange, America’s crooked elites, via the Company, were getting a disgusting threat to children hemisphere-wide that the Cubans probably planned to hang. Both men were escaping justice. Bullshit! doesn’t even come close, thought Tom as he white-knuckled the hatch flange.
Two men descended the stairs and went to either side of the plane. They had found the FLIR scopes. But, maybe there would be no need… Before they even took up positions in the cane rows, Oak rapped on the side of the stairs. Tom followed the big man’s outstretched fingers and his bellow of ‘ten o’clock.’
Just beyond the tip of the port wing, just off the road, came a rustle and some voices through the hedge. Oak leveled an AK-74 in the voices’ direction. Tom fully cocked his H&K .45 and dropped the safety. From behind, Birch flipped the fire selector on an MP-5.
Out of the cane walked four men. “The Kid” led the way, followed by a disheveled heap of a bearded, Berkeley professor-looking fellow in a worn tweed sportcoat. Professor Tweed, aka Dr. Shalom Kahneman, was flanked, closely, by two slightly smaller, plain-clothed cookie-cutter copies of Oak.
Wunderkind spoke (yelled), a little too loudly even over the whine of the engines, ‘Don’t shoot! Don’t shoot! We’re the good guys.’
‘You’re the loud guys,’ Tom growled, ‘Get that piece of shit on the plane and let’s get the hell out before hell breaks out.’
The young Opium War hero stopped at the bottom of the stairs. He called up to Tom, who was just turning towards the cockpit, ‘It was a lovely place. Nice folks too. None of them seemed to work for the regime. Ha! But, they didn’t have your Belicosos finos; I did score you some Soberanos.’
‘Great,’ snorted Tom, ‘you did good kid. Now, get everyone on board. Now!’ He thought for just a moment and added, staring hard at Dr. Pedo who was being led up to the door, ‘Make our guest comfortable. We’re forbidden to interrogate him about … what he knows. But, I want to know everything about him. If I ever need to look, I want to know where to find him anytime, anywhere on God’s Earth.’
The younger man looked confused and almost defensive. He replied, ‘We … we weren’t supposed to…’
‘Oak!’ shouted Tom, ‘Find out for me. And only for me.’
‘You. Got. It. Boss.’ Oak both said to Tom and sneered to the Tweed Dweeb. When Oak had first read the mission dossier, he had left a basketball-sized dent in a steel file cabinet. Tom half hoped for a repeat performance with a living object.
Just then, hell broke out.
‘We’ve got company!’ screamed the FLIR man off the left wing, on the side the boarding party had just come from. Over the JP-fueled noise of whirling aluminum and steel, he had caught multiple voices, maybe a vehicle engine revving. Here and there, lights shone out in the field.
Yep, a trap. They’ve double-crossed us, Tom thought, can’t blame them one bit.
‘Move your asses! We’re going, now!’ Tom thundered as he raced to the cockpit. Birch was right behind, slamming himself into the right seat. Tom didn’t even wait for the door to close. As soon as he heard “all in,” he pushed the throttle forward, flipping switched deftly but madly.
Lurching, then rolling steadily forward, they were departing in a hurry for Tampa. Maybe it wasn’t hurrying enough.
BOOM! BOOM! BOOM! CRACK! CRACK! CRACK!
It seemed that “customs” didn’t approve of something in their departure plan, or, maybe, their cargo. Tom was painfully aware that his aircraft was taking small-arms fire. The hiss to his immediate left told him the bird’s skin was compromised. The burning in his left arm, just above the elbow, told him that his was as well.
‘GAH! Hang on!’ He looked down. Blood on his arm. Blood on his shirt. His lap. Some on the controls too. He didn’t feel pain, just a hot, numb sensation spreading from his shoulder to this fingers. Despite whatever was the damage, he gripped the yoke, firm but steady, with his left hand. His right rammed the throttle ahead all the way – actual balls to the bloodied wall.
They were off the ground before the door was fully shut. A few more ominous CRACKS reverberated through the cabin but it appeared they had escaped. But, at what cost?
‘Everybody okay? Anyone hit? Is anyone hit?’ Tom yelled back through the cabin, his voice drowning the automated alarms that broke out at almost the same moment.
Birch quickly scanned the cabin. ‘We’re good. It’s just you, Tom,’ he said, leaning over to take a better look at the latest addition to Tom’s work-related injuries. ‘That doesn’t look good,’ he said, the nonchalance easing just a tad. He turned back and shouted, ‘Bleeding kit up here now!’
‘I’ll live. Gotta bigger bird to fry at the moment,’ Tom said with a slight wince, his eyes alternating between the dark horizon and the instrument panel.
The Falcon leveled off as it crossed the beach. Florida in a flash but alive too, thought Tom as he adjusted the trim and eased back on the throttle. He had climbed to almost five-hundred feet over land. Within a few seconds, now that the Straits of Florida streamed darkly below his windshield, he dropped. Two-hundred feet. One-fifty. One-hundred. Accompanied by further electronic cries of impending disaster, he stopped the descent at what he reckoned was about seventy-five feet. Low altitude came with increased danger but it cut radar visibility. Now, he had to address all the alarms…
Triage, normally a welcomed rite on the battlefield, was a severe inconvenience at the moment. The team medic visually assessed the wound. He leaned around, forcing himself between Tom and the seatback, a fit tight and awkward. ‘I need to get a tourniquet on,’ he said matter of factly.
‘I need to keep us in the air,’ Tom replied as he worked through a list of automated warnings, he added to himself (maybe to Birch), ‘this thing isn’t as pitch trim friendly as you’d expect.’
A few grumbling protestations from the pilot and his blood stopped squirting out. ‘I’m gonna hit it and then give you a shot, sir,’ said the medic.
‘Fine. Make it quick,’ Tom replied without looking, ‘Birch, we got a problem. Left nacelle’s been hit. Hard. Think I’ve got a fire. No power. … Number two doesn’t seem happy either. … Right is … right, fine. Get out the emergency procedures manual. Somewhere over by you. Book.’
‘Got it,’ Birch said after a short search. He turned on a custom red map light and started thumbing – for what he wasn’t sure.
‘Gotta cut out number three. I can’t risk dragging a flare behind us,’ Tom half said to himself. Without glancing over he started a series of orders to Birch, ‘Engage the A-P-U. Start with the overhead and then operate off the fire control panel,’ he said, pointing up and then forward for the benefit of his confused co-pilot. ‘Just read through it and listen to me.’
In a remarkably short time, the medic still hovering over his shoulders, Tom stopped fuel to his dead port engine. Satisfied it was off, he managed to bleed out and restart the central fan – something was jamming the intake or the s-duct. Without any ability to properly diagnose it, he decided to get it running and open it full blast. ‘I’ll make her happy. Use her for full thrust and steer with number one if I have too,’ Tom informed Birch. Without understanding much beyond the severity of the situation, Birch concurred. He relied less on Tom’s limited aviation experience and more on his confidence. Knowing Tom wouldn’t break radio silence – for anything – until they were on approach (to somewhere), it was in their hands and God’s.
After a minute or three, they thought they had salvaged the flight. Tom shouted to the rear, ‘I need eyes left and behind! I’m gonna jink. Gotta tell me if we’re burning.’ He knew, even in the absence of radar, open flames make for excellent air-to-air, SAM, or gun targeting. A few herky-jerky turns later he was informed (and satisfied) that they might be trailing sparks and smoke but no open flame.
The pilot almost cracked a smile. Then, he turned and yelled to Oak, ‘Start getting me some information out of that hobo.’ Oak commenced in expert fashion. A few thumps and screams later and Tom heard their passenger begin to excitedly speak.
The kid called up to the cockpit, ‘He says he wants a lawyer. Says he wants to see the Israeli ambassador.’
‘Check the overheads! See if we have some of those,’ Tom said sarcastically, ‘Oak! Tell that child-molesting faggot if he doesn’t start talking, he’s going to take a high dive at five-hundred miles per hour!’ Oak said more than that. Whatever it was, it got some results – discreetly recorded for Tom’s use only.
‘We’re not going five-hundred,’ Birch informed, over the still screeching warning alarms, ‘Maybe holding two-seventy … two-eighty.’
‘And, that’s all we’re gonna get, man,’ said Tom, just as his eyes settled on a new warning message. He scanned the gauges several times. ‘Well, hell,’ he almost chuckled, ‘Losing fuel. Our gate crew did some fine shooting. Okay, MacDill is out of the question. Homestead might… Hey, everybody, we’re going to Key West!’
At their present speed – if the gas (and their luck) held – Naval Air Station Key West was a little under one-hundred miles away. The Fates relented and both fuel and luck held. When he was confident he was approaching American waters and airspace, Tom climbed a little. Then, he gave Birch the go-ahead to radio for an emergency landing.
Maybe a newbie, the airman in the tower didn’t quite understand Birch’s classified code speak. But, he did gather there was a serious problem with the aircraft that had just magically appeared on his radar. They got a few warnings, some confusion, and then permission to land.
A minute or two later they could see runway lights ahead; Tom swung out a little right so as to approach North by Northwest. Key West, famed Southerly end of America, shone brightly to their left. A distant glow to the right told them the juice was still on in Miami.
Tom prepped for landing and addressed one final alarm – something was wrong with part (or all) of his landing gear. ‘El revolucionarios are pretty damned good,’ Tom sneered through a grimace, ‘Brace for a crash! Now!’
As the whole team did their best to brace, Tom counted down the altimeter, synching it with the rapidly growing ground outside. Final adjustments. Power back. Nose up. Three. Two. One… With a thud and a grinding, whining sound they were back on Earth. The Falcon jerked and jolted. It wanted to drift left. With Birch’s assistance, Tom held her straight and tried his best to brake. Those boys shot the shit out of us, he thought, saaalute, commies.
In the end, they rolled almost the length of the runway before coming to a shuddering stop. Outside, a small armada of firetrucks and military police vehicles converged on the wreck.
The stairs opened and settled on the ground with a clang. They were listing considerably to the left, one rear landing gear assembly was destroyed and the corresponding wingtip was almost touching the composite surface of runway 14-32. Birch was the first off and immediately talking to MPs and then an officer. It was now understood they were to be unhindered. Exactly who they were and what they were doing was speculated over but not asked about. The fire crew ordered all parties out. An ambulance came for a reluctant team leader.
Tom was the last off. He walked slowly towards Birch, the kid, Oak, and the paramedics. As he closed in on Professor Pedo he couldn’t help himself. He drove his right foot forcefully into the back of the man’s left knee and rode him down. In a flash, he delivered a powerful forearm strike to the shrieking non-witness’s head, the head which literally bounced on the tarmac. As the friend of a friend of a former president spit blood and teeth and whimpered, Tom casually spoke as he passed, ‘I’ll see you again one night, my friend.’
As he climbed into the back of a waiting ambulance, the kid leaned in with words to lionize, ‘That was excellent flying, sir. I’ve been meaning to ask. How long have you had your pilot’s license?’
‘What license?’ Tom answered just as the doors closed.
Late that afternoon an exhausted paramilitary operations officer walked into the reception area outside a briefing room in the CENTCOM bunker at MacDill Air Force Base. His jacket loosely draped over his shoulder, hid a brand new blue sling. He stopped at a little concierge table. After adding two fingers of Scotch to his styrofoam coffee cup he fumbled with his flask.
‘Can I help you with that contraband, sir,’ came a semi-sultry voice from behind. Tom glanced over at a very attractive, very young woman in uniform.
‘Well, hey there, darling,’ he started as he scanned for insignia and what might lie beneath, ‘…Lieutenant. Can you help me get this back in my coat pocket? This sling makes it difficult … I was playing polo and… It’s Bowmore, the best your BX had. Don’t want to lose it. I’ve got the rest in my car if you’re free in an hour.’
With a polite word (maybe a sarcastic threat) the woman with short blonde hair eased the flask back where it belonged. She gave Tom a pat on his chest and then a knowing, sadistic tap on the left arm. As she walked away, he noticed that she looked back. She looked but she didn’t catch the kiss he blew.
A no-nonsense-looking Air Force one-star hailed Tom from an adjoining room, ‘Commander Bond, if you’re done harassing my officer, we’re ready to get started in here. Langley’s on screen.’
Tom entered and rattled off his report, expressing plenty of not-so-subtle disdain for the mission and for those who had requested it. He especially wanted to know why their “guest,” after a visit to the emergency room, was turned over to the private security firm of the Federal Reserve. He received no answers. He was upbraided for wrecking the plane (‘What plane?’ defied Tom) and for brutalizing an important NON-witness (‘I’m not responsible for anything the Cubans did,’ was all that got them). Then, at last, the conversation turned pleasant. As he expected, the bean-counters were cobbling together about 28 years worth of retirement (of one kind and another) for services rendered to a grateful, if uninformed, nation. His coming trip to Headquarters would likely be his last.
On his way out of the office, as he scanned for the Blonde Sadist, his new one-star friend walked up to him and spoke, ‘Colonel, my boy mentioned something about a cigar mix up in between what “the Cubans did” and the here and now.’ He offered Tom three Belicosos finos from his pocket. America still had some decent brass.
Way too late that evening, Tom slumped over the bar at Steak O’Brien’s, Palma Ceia’s finest watering hole. Michelle, the twenty-something Barbie doll bartender in the low-cut white t-shirt, leaned towards him as she had the past two hours. Thirty minutes later, as they left together, she cooed, ‘So, again … what’d you do to your arm?’
‘Like I told you, I’m a drug dealer. Had a shootout with the police,’ Tom said flatly as he tightened his grip on her waist.
‘Bullshit! You are the police.’
‘Well, I do have some handcuffs.’
Despite his not sleeping for the past forty-eight hours, 00:44 Saturday morning was considerably more enjoyable than the same time the previous day.
Seven-plus years later, at Jever Elementary, the lunchroom…
Tom stared ahead at nothing. Michelle had been fun. Now, which breakup was she? Did she ever still text? Call? He pondered hard; it was difficult to keep count. Maybe, maybe it was best to finally leave the college girls back in college. Was thirty the new floor? Young Ms. Tomlinson, here, she was probably just about right… Then, he saw the glimmer on her left hand. Ah, well, it wouldn’t work anyway.
MRS. Lucie Tomlinson sat at the other end of the lunchroom table. He had just returned to her nineteen Kindergarteners after a rousing music class. He was graciously invited to dine with the young academics and their lovely leader. This being December, the wonderful lunch ladies at L.D. Jever Elementary, a South Carolina blue ribbon award winner for increasing STEM diversity or something, had prepared turkey, gravy, and mashed potatoes. Following confusion about how to make change for a Ten, Tom’s turkey was free. And, it was pretty good.
To Tom’s right, a little girl with long, curly brown hair approved of the mashed potatoes. In fact, she was wearing them on her shirt sleeve. After the claymation video of “Peter and the Wolf” concluded – Tom’s second screening of the day – little Ms. Macey Somebody had crayoned a picture of Santa for her parents. Tom received a half-finished, nearly all green drawing of Rudolf.
She recounted the various adventures of her cat. She did not like red peppers. Mr. “Eyesnides” looked like a giant Christmas elf. Then, she exclaimed about the mashed potatoes on her sleeve.
Tom acknowledged, ‘Hey, little lady, you’ve got mashed potatoes on your sleeve.’
He also, silently, acknowledged the good he had done two Decembers before on his Mediterranean “vacation.” What were the odds of finding Professor Pedo in Sicily, at that hotel, at that time of the night? Tom remembered it, heard it again with lucid clarity – that sweet, soft sound of success – of justice: Pfwoot! Pfwoot! Pfwoot! He had almost left an apologetic note for room service; he had left a drop knife and some photographs for the inspectors.
He smiled. What he had done, he had done for this little girl and so many others just like her. It was a darn good day. But, he had no idea how sometimes the past can still catch up with the present. He’d find out…
The Substitute hits bookshelves soon…
(Cover, formatting, and some details subject to change).