CHAPTER 1--AVIA AND BENTON
Avia coughed, choked and gagged before hanging her head over the hotel toilet and vomiting. Once her stomach was empty, she laid with her back across the stone tiles and looked up at the ceiling while she tried to catch her breath.
In the other room, she could hear her cell phone screaming, alerting her to the fact that she needed to shower, dress and get the hell out of the door so that she could fly to Texas. She groaned. The noise did nothing for her heroin and alcohol-induced headache.
Avia crawled out of the bathroom and grabbed her cell phone off the bedside table before pressing every button to get it to shut up. She then yanked open the bedside drawer and fumbled for her pack of cigarettes.
After pulling one out, she checked the end. Avia barely remembered turning half of them into coco puffs before shooting-up and drinking far too much whiskey. She fumbled the lighter, nearly dropping it before she finally lit the damned thing and inhaled deeply.
Her lethargy and mental fogginess dissipated immediately, having been replaced with the chemical alertness offered by cocaine.
Avia picked herself up off the floor and looked around the hotel room. She was alone. For half a second, Avia couldn't remember why. Then, she remembered the argument. Benton had stormed off to get a separate room under the guise of sleeping.
“Fuck my life,” she muttered before turning and exiting the bedroom for the bathroom.
She needed to shower, dress, pack and get to the airport. She doubted Benton would show. Knowing him, he'd book a commercial flight and arrive in Texas hours after her just to avoid traveling with her.
As she stepped into the shower, Avia decided it was fine. She'd fly by herself. It'd make things easier since she wouldn't have to explain the condition of the Seneca or why it wasn't fixed.
Going down to Texas meant dealing with L, and Avia was not in the mood. Being ordered to travel down there today put her in even less of a good mood. There was a vacation in her immediate future, and she was tempted to take it by herself.
Avia finished showering. She wrapped a towel around her hair and one around her body before walking into the bedroom. Her suitcases were on the floor. She lifted the largest one onto the bed and opened it. Jeans. T-shirts. Socks. Underwear. Avia opted for a light summer dress and sandals. She tied her hair back in a sloppy ponytail and called it good enough. She wasn’t going to a party. She was flying a beater Seneca for 13 hours.
After dressing, she packed her clothes and took one last look around the room for anything she had forgotten. Her black zippered case was inside the bedside table drawer next to the hotel-issued Bible. Forgetting it was not an option.
She reached for it. Avia was 90 percent certain Benton would take a commercial flight. However, the 10 percent chance that Benton would join her stopped her from opening it. Instead, she slid the black zippered case into her bag. If he didn't show, she'd shoot-up in the air after setting the autopilot.
Avia grabbed her bag and walked out of the hotel room. There was no line at the front desk. Avia slid her card. Normally, Benton would have paid, but Avia didn't see him in the lobby and when the elevator doors opened, two elderly couples exited, embroiled in a debate over the best pain relieving muscle cream.
“The gentleman in the room with you?” the desk clerk asked.
“He rented a different room last night,” Avia said as she signed the credit card slip with the name that appeared on the card – Tasha Quade.
She crumpled and trashed the receipt on her way out the lobby doors. The weather looked good. It was still slightly chilly but nothing intolerable. By the time she arrived in Texas, it’d be 80 degrees.
Standing under the carport, Avia scanned the lot for the car before it occurred to her that she'd arrived with Benton. The car in the lot was Benton's, and if she stole his $80,000 Corvette, he’d kill her the next time he saw her.
Avia rolled her eyes. It occurred to her to call a cab to drive to the Dodge Stratus she'd left on the side of the highway, but that was weeks ago. If no one had bothered to steal it, it was impounded somewhere, which was fine with Avia. If it was impounded, no one would find it for years, and it was guaranteed the tow yard would eventually auction it to recoup their storage fees.
Avia walked out of view of the hotel cameras. Most of the cars in the lot were new, which meant automatic, preinstalled, car alarms. None of those would help her this morning.
She started to set her bag on the ground when a 1991 Chevy caught her attention. It was located at the back of the lot but closer to the street than she would have liked. At least, it was dark.
Avia stepped off the curb and walked across the lot, paying attention to any footfalls that might be behind her and sounds of the lobby doors opening. She didn’t hear anything as she approached the car.
She tested the door handle, betting the car was so old the door locks no longer worked. Avia grinned when it opened and tossed her bag into the passenger's seat.
Now, she needed a screwdriver. There was one in her airplane, but it didn't help her here. Avia opened the glove box. Car registration. Pen. Miscellaneous paperwork and a metal nail file. The file would work in a pinch, but she preferred to have the durability of a screwdriver, especially if she had to crack open the underside of the steering column. The nail file was more likely to break in the ignition than start the car.
Avia slid the switch on the dash for the trunk and heard it pop open. She stepped out of the car and walked around to the back. Opening the trunk farther, she noticed it contained a set of jumper cables, an emergency flashlight that plugged into the cigarette lighter, oil, antifreeze, windshield washer fluid and no immediate sign of a toolbox or a screwdriver.
In a car this old, there had to be a screwdriver. Even a rusty one would work. Avia dug a little deeper in the trunk and found a small box. When she reached to grab it, her hand was immediately assaulted by grease, spider webs and God knew what else. Avia gagged as she moved the box to the front of the trunk. She flipped the lid and immediately found the screwdriver she desired.
Avia closed the trunk and walked back to the driver's side of the car. She slid in and closed the door. She had two choices. She could jam the screwdriver into the ignition or break apart the underside of the console. She decided jamming the flathead into the ignition was the better option. Avia turned the screwdriver and listened. The car cranked once. Twice. Three times before the engine roared to life.
Someone was going to miss this later today. She wiped her nasty hand on the passenger’s seat, put the car in gear and backed out of the parking space.
The airport was a 30-minute drive, and soon she was walking around her Seneca with a flashlight, performing a needless preflight. These checks and tests were designed to ensure the plane was safe to fly. Avia already knew it wasn't. They were going to crash in the middle of a tumbleweed and cactus field. There would be an FAA investigation to determine the causes of the bullet holes and other suspicious damage. Technically, Avia needed a ferry permit for this mess, but she didn't want to deal with the paperwork or the fucking A&P who would sign off on it.
Avia walked back to the car. She pulled out a roll of duct tape out of her bag and started retaping the holes in the sheet metal. They didn't call it 500 mile an hour tape for nothing. When she was finished, she checked her watch. It was 4:30AM with no sign of Benton.
She pulled out her pack of Pall Malls and lit one, taking a deep drag. When she felt the rush of cocaine, she dropped the cigarette onto the tarmac and crushed it. She wanted to calm down not amp up. Avia made sure the second one was plain before lighting it and inhaling deeply.
She still needed to fill the hydraulic lines with a bottle of water. She had a second bottle for the landing. While gravity was great for getting the main gear down, it almost never locked the nose wheel into place, and Avia wasn't in the mood to wait for new propellers when she spun hers into the ground.
Avia crushed the half-smoked cigarette under her sandal and picked her bag up off the tarmac. She threw it in the aft cargo hold and put the bottles of water on the front seat. She was ready to climb in when she saw headlights coming towards her from across the tarmac. Avia hoped to hell it wasn't a cop or airport security. Though, she was confident she could talk her way out of both situations by showing her pilot's license or offering a blow job. She didn't care which. Whatever got them off her back and onto someone else's.
As the car approached, Avia realized it wasn't a cop. It looked like Benton’s new Corvette, but under the haze of the airport lighting, she wasn’t certain. Avia stepped down off the wing and walked around to meet the individual in the car. She was alone out here. There was no way they were here for anyone else.
When the man stepped from the car, she realized it was Benton. He hadn't opted for a commercial flight after all. Avia couldn't decide if she was happy or angry.
“Where'd you get that?” Benton asked as he stepped out of the car and motioned towards the 1991 Caprice.
“I wasn’t going to walk here,” Avia said. “And since you decided to leave last night, I didn’t expect you to be here.”
Benton sensed a continuation of last night’s argument and decided to avoid it. If she pushed the point, they could stand here and argue, but arriving in Texas at midnight was not preferable. “Is the plane ready?”
“Yeah,” she said. “If we want to land in Texas at some point today, we need to take off now.”
Benton nodded and walked around to the copilot's side door, which was misleading. It was the only door that led directly into the cabin. “Up and in, Captain.”
Avia stepped onto the wing with a butt-boost from Benton. She slid into the pilot's seat and started her preflight checks as Benton made himself comfortable.
Once the door was closed, Avia started the engines and taxied towards the runway. Since it was an uncontrolled runway, all she needed to do was make sure no one was landing behind her or at the other end of the runway. She also needed to stay below 1,500 feet, or she'd have to talk to ATC at the controlled airport.
Avia saw nothing ahead of her or behind her in the night sky or on the runway, so she pushed both throttles forward along with the propellers and stood on the breaks until the engines reached full speed.
She released the brakes. They were in the air and climbing 20 seconds later. Avia set the autopilot and leaned back in the seat. “Get comfortable. It's a long flight.”
“Shorter than a commercial flight,” Benton said.
“Just because there are no layovers,” Avia said. “The flight time is longer.”
Flying was notoriously boring at night. There was nothing to look at but lights. Small lights in straight lines and predictable curves indicated highways. Large batches of lights were towns and cities, and over the years, they had simply grown larger. Avia remembered when Indianapolis and Plainfield were two different sets of lights. Now, they were continuous, and the map indicated it.
Like most pilots, Avia found flying to be a serious exercise in not falling asleep interjected with moments of mortal terror, and given the status of her plane, she expected terror at some point along this flight. She hoped it wasn't until they crossed into Texas.
As they traversed across the early morning night sky, she could see Benton glancing at her periodically, but he wasn't saying anything. Avia didn't want to talk. What she wanted to do was keep an eye on the gauges, listen to the engine and pump crap through her veins until she passed out, but Benton's presence made the latter impossible.
To her surprise, the Seneca flew well enough. It wasn't perfect, but the autopilot seemed to be able to compensate for the increased drag and other factors that kept their airspeed low and the engines revved high, but Avia couldn't complain. They weren't crashing, and they were almost to L's ranch.
Landing at L’s didn't fill Avia with exuberance either, but staying in the air was not a possibility. They had flown the entire flight without refueling, and the extended tanks were almost empty. She'd get one, maybe two attempts to land before the engines shuddered and choked from lack of fuel.
Avia lined up her black and maroon Seneca for the straight approach into L’s private runway – airspeed 70 knots, flaps 10 degrees, gear down.
Forty-five seconds until touchdown.
She flipped the landing light switch. It flickered. Something was sizzling in the dash. Under ordinary circumstances, she would have turned off the lights, but L’s runway contained zero runway lights, and after a 13-hour flight, the sun was setting.
“The minute this plane lands, L is dead,” Avia said.
“You can’t kill him,” Benton said.
“There’s a 45 under your seat,” Avia said. One headshot was all it would take.
“No,” Benton said.
“Then you kill him,” Avia said as she compensated for the crosswind and added a second notch of flaps while checking the hydraulics’ gauge. Zero pressure. She had the water bottles, but it was too late to fill the reservoir.
“We’re not talking about this right now,” Benton said as he watched her. She was staring at one of the gauges. He couldn’t determine which from his angle.
“We are,” Avia said.
“Land the damned plane,” Benton said as he looked out the windscreen. The runway was approaching too fast and too crooked for his liking.
“It's a crosswind,” Avia said. “Be glad it isn't covered in tumbleweeds.”
She trimmed the plane for 60 knots, pulled the throttle back and watched as the airspeed decreased to 55kts. She pushed the throttle forward. Pulled it back. Fucking wind. Fucking short runway. Ground effect was not her friend this evening, and Avia watched as half the runway disappeared behind them.
Finally, the left wheel touched down followed by the right. Avia pulled the throttle all the way back and pulled the yoke to her chest in an effort to keep the nose wheel off the ground for as long as possible.
She suspected it was down but had no way to determine if it was locked.
The short runway had her slamming on the brakes much sooner than she would have liked. The nose of the plane dropped. Avia cringed, waiting for the nose down angle and grinding and shuddering that indicated her propellers were being destroyed by asphalt.
When it didn't happen, she breathed a sigh of relief. Avia kicked the right rudder peddle and revved the
engines, spinning the plane around and back-taxiing to the hangar. She turned the engines off for the last 10 feet.
They rolled to a silent stop in front of the closed hangar doors. The mechanics had long since gone to their cabins for the night. Avia was tempted to take a Jeep out to see if any of them were still awake. It wasn't that late – not yet.
Avia turned her head when she heard the door open. Benton was getting out. Avia was tempted to grab the 45 under the seat but knew Benton would confiscate it.
She moved over to the copilot's seat and waited for Benton to get off the wing-step. Avia was halfway out of the plane when she felt his hands around her waist, lowering her onto the dull-gray asphalt tarmac.
“They need to repave this,” Avia said.
Benton slid an arm around her petite waist as they walked toward the Jeep. “Money he doesn't want to spend.” He cast his gaze to the Jeep near the hangar. No driver. That was typical. The keys were under the floor mat. He’d drive.
Avia glanced at the hangar. “I need to talk to the mechanics.”
“Yes. Tonight,” Avia said. “It needs parts. They have to order them.”
“We need to talk to L and get settled. Do it tomorrow morning.” Benton tightened the arm around her waist and guided her towards the waiting Jeep.
Avia broke away from Benton’s grip. “It'll take days to get the damned parts if they don't order them tonight.”
“And just how are they going to do that?” Benton asked. “It's almost 8:30PM. None of our suppliers are open.”
“They can order them online, and the supplier will see the order in the morning,” Avia said.
“There's no online order form. They have to call. The guys have to pull the parts, and we have to pick them up,” Benton said. “There's no UPS in our line of business.”
“That is bullshit.” Avia opened her own door and stepped into the Jeep, making herself as comfortable as possible on the barely padded seat. Both doors slammed in unison. “Then, what are we doing here?”
“Probably that damned run L keeps talking about,” Benton said. “But seriously, whatever the fuck he wants.”
“You have got to be kidding me,” Avia said.
“Not kidding. The sooner we get this shit done, the faster we can leave.”
Avia grumbled and leaned back in the seat. “Fine.”
Benton resisted the urge to roll his eyes. It was a damned argument every time they came down here.
“What the hell is wrong with you?”
“Let's just get to the damned house,” Avia said.
Benton watched her cross her arms and shook his head. She was mad because he didn't want to fuck, left and got his own room. “Sometimes, people need to sleep. Your overactive sex drive can wait.”
“Then, we can wait the entirety of this trip,” Avia said. “I'm sure that would make L happy.”
“You're impossible.” Benton downshifted and turned the Jeep off the dirt road. If they were going to have this discussion, they were doing outside the view of the cameras and any patrols.
“What are you doing?” Avia asked.
Benton gave no answer as he parked the Jeep behind a line of trees. He grabbed the emergency brake and yanked. This was far enough from the mansion to avoid the cameras. It was outside of the patrol areas, and L seldom ventured out back.
Benton slid his seat back with one hand and unfastened his pants with the other. “Come here.” He grabbed her waist and spun her into his lap. His level of frustration was enough to give him a raging erection.
“Benton!” Her right leg slid between the door and the seat. The other settled somewhere near the emergency brake.
Benton silenced her protest with a deep kiss as he dropped his seat back. He clenched her hips and thrust. He expected a tight, angry membrane that would leave his cock sore for days. Instead, she was damp and yielding. “Ride it, and calm down.”
Avia shifted her hips. The feel of cold steel was not comfortable. “Buckle.”
Benton pulled it out of the way.
He lifted and lowered, sliding her along the length of his erection. They needed to remain somewhat controlled. The summer-ready Jeep offered no cover or sound protection.
Avia panted. He needed to thrust harder. “Benton.”
“No screaming.” His words were a whisper.
Her hands clenched his shoulders, mirroring the tension between her legs. Avia moaned, pressed down and undulated her hips until she could feel the head of his cock deep inside her.
Her eyes rolled to the back of her head. A tingling sensation spread through her body moments before every pleasurable nerve simultaneously fired. Avia screamed.
Benton cringed, grabbed the back of her head and pressed her mouth against his shirt. He should have known better. She always screamed.
Benton tensed and grunted as he came.
After a moment of recovery, Benton kissed her. He slid his hands along her sides. She was content now, and he wrapped his arms around her body. It was a quiet moment, a rare moment in their line of work.
“You are horrible,” Avia said.
Benton felt a mock slap and laughed.
“I am a product of my environment.” He kissed her again even as his eyes scanned the surrounding area. He didn’t see any guards – yet. “Are you ready?”
“No, I’m not ready to deal with L’s stupidity. We just walked away from a murder trial.”
“I know,” Benton said. “We’ll just have to deal with it as best we can and leave as soon as we can.” He had a feeling they had bigger problems than L. They’d left Michigan sooner than he would have liked. He had wanted to make sure they had tied up all their loose ends, and he was certain they hadn’t. He just needed to remember what they were so he could make the appropriate phone calls to have it handled in his absence, which meant paying for it.
Benton looked around. Still no guards, but they needed to get moving. “Come on.” He patted the side of her bare thigh. “The asshole is expecting us.”
Avia slipped out of his lap and straightened her dress.
Benton reached into his bag and pulled out a hand towel. “Here.”
Avia laughed and deslimed herself as Benton started the engine and backed them onto the path that would lead them to the two-story house.