Pinnacle of the Pink Pyramid
A low buzz of anticipation ran through the halls of the hospital. Reporters checked the batteries in their microrecorders and cell phones. Orderlies and nurses lingered in the hallways in hope of getting a glimpse of the celebrity. The FAA men straightened their ties and shot their cuffs. One receptionist in administration, who was only two distributorships away from earning her own pink Oldsmobile, ducked into an examining room and sucked lungfuls of oxygen to chase the dizziness that comes from meeting one's Messiah. Mary Jean was coming.
Mary Jean Dobbins did not travel with an entourage, bodyguards, or any other of the decorative leeches commonly attached to the power-wielding rich.
"God is my bodyguard," Mary Jean would say.
She carried a .38-caliber gold-plated Lady Smith automatic in her bag: the Clara Barton Commemorative Model, presented to her by the Daughters of the Confederacy at their annual "Let's Lynch Leroy" pecan pie bake-off, held every Martin Luther King Jr. Day. (She didn't agree with their politics, but the belles could sure sell some makeup. If the South did not rise again, it wouldn't be for lack of foundation.)
Today, as Mary Jean came through the doors of the main lobby, she was flanked by a tall predatory woman in a black business suit - a severe con-trast to Mary Jean's soft pastel blue ensemble with matching bag and pumps. "Strength and femininity are not exclusive, ladies." She was sixty-five; matronly but elegant. Her makeup was perfect, but not overdone. She wore a sapphire-and-diamond pin whose value approximated the gross national product of Zaire.
She greeted every orderly and nurse with a smile, asked after their families, thanked them for their compassionate work, flirted when appropriate, and tossed compliments over her shoulder as she passed, without ever missing a step. She left a wake of acutely charmed fans, even among the cynical and stubborn.
Outside Tucker's room the predatory woman - a lawyer - broke formation and confronted the maggotry of reporters, allowing Mary Jean to slip past.
She poked her head inside. "You awake, slugger?"
Tuck was startled by her voice, yanked out of his redundant reverie of unemployment, imprisonment, and impotence. He wanted to pull the sheets over his head and quietly die.
The makeup magnate moved to his bedside and took his hand, all compassion and caring. "How are you feeling?"
Tucker looked away from her. "I'm okay."
"Do you need anything? I'll have it here in a Texas jiffy."
"I'm fine," Tucker said. She always made him feel like he'd just struck out in his first Little League game and she was consoling him with milk and cookies. The fact that he'd once tried to seduce her doubled the humi-liation. "Jake told me that you're having me moved to Houston. Thank you."
"I have to keep an eye on you, don't I?" She patted his hand. "You sure you're feeling well enough for a talk?"
Tucker nodded. He wasn't buying the outpouring of warm fuzzies she was selling. He'd seen her doing business on the plane.
"That's good, honey," Mary Jean said, rising and looking around the room for the first time. "I'll have some flowers sent up. A touch of color will brighten things up, won't it? Something fragrant too. The constant smell of disinfectant must be disturbing."
"A little," Tuck said.
She wheeled on her heel and looked at him. Her smile went hard. Tuck saw wrinkles around her mouth for the first time. "Probably reminds you of what a total fuckup you are, doesn't it?"
Tucker gulped. She'd faked him out of his shoes. "I'm sorry, Mary Jean. I'm..."
She raised a hand and he shut up. "You know I don't like to use profanity or firearms, so please don't push me, Tucker. A lady controls her anger."
Mary Jean pulled the Lady Smith automatic out of her purse and leveled it at Tucker's bandaged crotch. Strangely, he noticed that Mary Jean had chipped a nail drawing the gun and for that, he realized, she really might kill him.
"You didn't listen to me when I told you to stop drinking. You didn't listen when I told you to stay away from my representatives. You didn't listen when I told you that if you were going to amount to anything, you had to give your life to God. You'd better damn well listen now." She racked the slide on the automatic. "Are you listening?"
Tuck nodded. He didn't breathe, but he nodded.
"Good. I have run this company for forty years without a hint of scandal until now. I woke up yesterday to see my face next to yours on all the morning news shows. Today it's on the cover of every newspaper and tabloid in the country. A bad picture, Tucker. My suit was out of season. And every article uses the words 'penis' and 'prostitute' over and over. I can't have that. I've worked too hard for that."
She reached out and tugged on his catheter. Pain shot though his body and he reached for the ringer for the nurse.
"Don't even think about it, pretty boy. I just wanted to make sure I had your attention."
"The gun pretty much did it, Mary Jean," Tucker groaned. Fuck it, he was a dead man anyway.
"Don't you speak to me. Just listen. This is going to disappear. You are going to disappear. You're getting out of here tomorrow and then you're going to a cabin I have up in the Rockies. You won't go home, you won't speak to any reporters, you won't say doodly squat. My lawyers will handle the legal aspects and keep you out of jail, but you will never surface again. When this blows over, you can go on with your pathetic life. But with a new name. And if you ever set foot in the state of Texas or come within a hundred yards of anyone involved in my company, I will personally shoot you dead. Do you understand?"
"Can I still fly?"
Mary Jean laughed and lowered the gun. "Sweetie, to a Texas way a thinkin' the only way you coulda screwed up worse is if you'd throwed a kid down a well after fessing up to being on the grassy knoll stompin' yellow roses in between shootin' the President. You ain't gonna fly, drive, walk, crawl, or spit if I have anything to say about it." She put the gun in her purse and went into the tiny bathroom to check her makeup. A quick primping and she headed for
the door. "I'll send up some flowers. Y'all heal up now, honey."
She wasn't going to kill him after all. Maybe he could win her back. "Mary Jean, I think I had a spiritual experience."
"I don't want to hear about any of your degenerate activities."
"No, a real spiritual experience. Like a - what do you call it?-an epiphany?"
"Son, you don't know it, but you're as close to seeing the Lord as you've ever been in your life. Now you hush before I send you to perdition."
She put on her best beatific smile and left the room radiating the power of positive thinking.
Tucker pulled the covers over his head and reached for the flask Jake had left. Perdition, huh? She made it sound bad. Must be in Oklahoma.
Our Lady of the Fishnet Stockings
The High Priestess of the Shark People ate Chee-tos and watched afternoon talk shows over the satellite feed. She sat in a wicker emperor's chair. A red patent leather pump dangled from one toe. Red lipstick, red nails, a big red bow in her hair. But for a pair of silk seamed stockings, she was naked.
On the screen: Meadow Malackovitch, in a neck brace, sobbed on her lawyer's shoulder - a snapshot of the pilot who had traumatized her was inset in the upper-right-hand corner. The host, a failed weatherman who now made seven figures mining trailer parks for atrocities, was reading the dubious r��sum�� of Tucker Case. Shots of the pink jet, before and after. Stock footage of Mary Jean on an airfield tarmac, followed by Case in a leather jacket.
The High Priestess touched herself lightly, leaving a faint orange stripe of Chee-to spoor on her pubes (she was a natural blonde), then keyed the intercom that connected her to the Sorcerer.
"What?" came the man's voice, weary but awake. It was 2:00 A.M. The Sorcerer had been working all night.
"I think we've found our pilot," she said.
Who's Flying This Life?
At the last minute Mary Jean changed her mind about sending Tucker Case to her cabin in the mountains. "Put him in a motel room outside of town and don't let him out until I say so."
In two weeks Tucker had seen only the nurse who came in to change his bandages and the guard. Actually, the guard was a tackle, second-string defense from SMU, six-foot-six, two hundred and seventy pounds of earnest Christian na&iuml;vet�� named Dusty Lemon.
Tucker was lying on the bed watching television. Dusty sat hunched over the wood-grain Formica table reading Scripture.
Tucker said, "Dusty, why don't you go get us a six-pack and a pizza?"
Dusty didn't look up. Tuck could see the shine of his scalp through his crew cut. A thick Texas drawl: "No, sir. I don't drink and Mrs. Jean said that you wasn't to have no alcohol."
"It's not Mrs. Jean, you doofus. It's Mrs. Dobbins." After two weeks, Dusty was beginning to get on Tuck's nerves.
"Just the same," Dusty said. "I can call for a pizza for you, but no beer."
Tuck detected a blush though the crew cut. "Dusty?"
"Yes sir." The tackle looked up from his Bible, waited.
"Get a real name."
"Yes, sir," Dusty said, a giant grin bisecting his moon face, "Tuck."
Tucker wanted to leap off the bed and cuff Dusty with his Bible, but he was a long way from being able to leap anywhere. Instead, he looked at the ceiling for a second (it was highway safety orange, like the walls, the doors, the tile in the bathroom), then propped
himself up on one elbow and considered Dusty's Bible. "The red type. That
the hot parts?"
"The words of Jesus," Dusty said, not looking up.
Dusty nodded, looked up. "Would you like me to read to you? When my grandma was in the hospital, she liked me to read Scriptures to her."
Tucker fell back with an exasperated sigh. He didn't understand religion. It was like heroin or golf: He knew a lot of people did it, but he didn't un-derstand why. His father watched sports every Sunday, and his mother had worked in real estate. He grew up thinking that church was something that simply interfered with games and weekend open houses. His first ex-posure to religion, other than the skin mag layouts of the women who had brought down television evangelists, had been his job with Mary Jean. For her it just seemed like good business. Sometimes he would stand in the back of the auditorium and listen to her talk to a thousand women about having God on their sales team, and they would cheer and "Hallelujah!" and he would feel as if he'd been left out of something - something beyond the apparent goofiness of it all. Maybe Dusty had something on him besides a hundred pounds.
"Dusty, why don't you go out tonight? You haven't been out in two weeks. I have to be here, but you - you must have a whole line of babes crying to get you back, huh? Big football player like you, huh?"
Dusty blushed again, going deep red from the collar of his practice jersey to the top of his head. He folded his hands and looked at them in his lap. "Well, I'm sorta waitin' for the right girl to come along. A lot of the girls that go after us football players, you know, they're kinda loose."
Tuck raised an eyebrow. "And?"
Dusty squirmed, his chair creaked under the strain. "Well, you know, it's kinda..."
And suddenly, amid the stammering, Tucker got it. The kid was a virgin. He raised his hand to quiet the boy. "Never mind, Dusty." The big tackle slumped in his chair, exhausted and embarrassed.
Tuck considered it. He, who understood so much the importance of a healthy sex life, who knew what women needed and how to give it to them, might never be able to do it again, and Dusty Lemon, who probably could produce a woody that women could chin themselves on, wasn't using it at all. He pondered it. He worked it over
from several angles and came very close to having a religious experience, for who but a vicious and vengeful God would allow such injustice in the world? He thought about it. Poor Tucker. Poor Dusty. Poor, poor Tucker.
He felt a lump forming in his throat. He wanted to say something that would make the kid feel better. "How old are you, Dusty?"
"I'll be twenty-two next March, sir?"
"Well, that's not so bad. I mean, you might be a late bloomer, you know. Or gay maybe," Tuck said cheerfully.
Dusty started to contract into the fetal position. "Sir, I'd rather not talk about it, if you don't mind," he whimpered. There was a knock on the door and he uncurled, alert and ready to move. He looked to Tucker for instructions.
"Well, answer it."
Dusty lumbered to the door and pulled it open a crack. "Yes?"
"I'm here to see Tucker Case. It's okay, I work for Mary Jean." Tuck recognized Jake Skye's voice.
"Just a second." Dusty turned and looked to Tucker, confused.
"Who knows we're here, Dusty?"
"Just us and Mrs. Jean."
"Then why don't you let him in?"
"Yes, sir." He opened the door and Jake Skye strode through carrying a grocery bag and a pizza box.
"Greetings." He threw the pizza on the bed. "Pepperoni and mushroom." He glanced at Dusty and paused, taking a moment to look the tackle up and down. "How'd you get this job? Eat your family?"
"No, sir," Dusty said.
Jake patted the tackle's mammoth shoulder. "Good to be careful, I guess. Momma always said, 'Beware of geeks bearing gifts.' Who are you?"
"Jake Skye," Tuck said, "meet Dusty Lemon. Dusty, Jake Skye, Mary Jean's jet mechanic. Be nice to Dusty, Jake, He's a virgin."
Dusty shot a vicious glare at Tuck and extended a boxing glove size mitt. Jake shook his hand. "Virgin, huh?"
Jake dropped his hand. "Not including farm animals, though, right?"
Dusty winced and moved to close the door. "You-all can't stay long. Mr. Case isn't supposed to see no one."
Jake put the grocery bag down on the table, pulled out a fourinch-thick bundle of mail, and tossed it on the bed next to Tucker
Tucker picked it up. "It's all been opened."
"I was bored," Jake said, opening the pizza box and extracting a slice. "A lot of death threats, a few marriage proposals, a couple really interesting ones had both. Oh, and an airline ticket to someplace I've never heard of with a check for expenses."
"From Mary Jean?"
"Nope. Some missionary doctor in the Pacific. He wants you to fly for him. Medical supplies or something. Came FedEx yesterday. Almost took the job myself, seeing as I still have my pilot's license and you don't, but then, I can get a job here."
Tucker shuffled through the stack of mail until he found the check and the airline ticket. He unfolded the attached letter.
Jake held the pizza box out to the bodyguard. "Dopey, you want some pizza?"
"Dusty," Dusty corrected.
"Whatever." To Tuck: "He wants you to leave ASAP."
"He can't go anywhere," said Dusty.
Jake retracted the box. "I can see that, Dingy. He's still wired for sound." Jake gestured toward the catheter that snaked out of Tucker's pajama bottoms. "How long before you can travel?"
Tucker was studying the letter. It certainly seemed legitimate. The doctor was on a remote island north of New Guinea, and he needed someone to fly jet loads of medical supplies to the natives. He specifically mentioned that "he was not concerned" about Tucker's lack of a pilot's license. The "need was dire" and the need was for an experienced jet pilot who could fly a Lear 45.
"Well," Jake said, "when can you roll?"
"Doctor says not for a week or so," Tucker said. "I don't get it. This guy is offering more money than I make for Mary Jean. Why me?"
Jake pulled a Lone Star from the grocery bag and twisted off the cap. Tuck zeroed in on the beer. Dusty snatched it out of Jake's hand.
"The question is," Jake said, glaring at Dusty, "what the fuck is a missionary doctor in Bongo Bongo land doing with a Lear 45?"
"God's work?" Dusty said innocently.
Jake snatched back his beer. "Oh blow me, Huey."
"Dusty," Dusty corrected.
Tucker said, "I'm not sure this is a good idea. Maybe I should stay here and see how things pan out with the FAA. This guy wants me right away. I need more time."
"Like more time will make a difference. Damn, Tucker, you don't have to sink eyeball deep in shit to know it's a good idea to pull yourself out. Sometimes you have to make a decision."
Tucker looked at the letter again. "But I..."
Before Tucker could finish his protest, Jake brought the Lone Star in a screaming arc across Dusty Lemon's temple. The bodyguard fell like a dead tree and did a dead-cat bounce on the orange carpet.
"Jesus!" Tucker said. "What the fuck was that?"
"A decision," Jake said. He looked up from the fallen tackle and took a pull on the foaming Lone Star. "Sometimes this high-tech world calls for low-tech solutions. Let's go."
"I can't believe you hit him," Tucker said. He was in the passenger seat of Jake Skye's camouflaged Land Rover. It was much more car than was re-quired for the Houston expressway, but Jake was into equipment overkill. Everything he owned was Kevlar, GorTex, Polarfleece, titanium alloy, graphite-polymer composite, or of "expedition quality." He liked machines, understood how they worked, and could fix them if they didn't. Sometimes he spoke in an incomprehensible alphabet soup of SRAM, DRAM, FOR-TRAN, LORAN, SIMMS, SAMS, and ROM. Tuck, on the other hand, knew most of the words to "Mommas, Don't Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Cowboys" and could restore burned toast to new by scraping off the black stuff.
Of the two, Jake was the cool one. Tucker had always found being cool a little elusive. As Jake put it, "You've got the look, but you can't walk the walk or talk the talk. Tucker, you are a hopeless geek trapped in a cool guy's body, but out of the goodness of my heart, I will take you on as my student." They'd been friends for four years. Jake had taught Tuck to fly.
"He'll be fine. He's a jock," Jake shouted over the buffeting wind. He hadn't bought a top for the Land Rover, opting instead for the Outback package with the "patented rhinoceros poking platform."
"He was just a kid. He was reading the Bible."
"He would have ripped my arms off if I'd let him."
Tuck nodded. That was probably true. "Where are we going?"
"The airport. Everything you need is in that pack in the back."
Tucker looked into the back of the Rover. There was a large backpack. "Why?"
"Because if I don't get you out of the country right now, you're going to jail."
"Mary Jean said she had that handled. Said her lawyers were on it."
"Right, and I go around smacking kids with beer bottles for recreation. The hooker filed a civil suit this morning. Twenty million. Mary Jean has to throw you to the wolves to save her own ass. She has to let the court prove that you fucked up all on your own. I grabbed your passport and some clothes when I got your mail."
"Jake, I can't just take off like this. I'm supposed to see a doctor tomorrow."
Tuck pointed to the lump of bandages in his lap. "What do you think? He's supposed to take this damn tube out of me."
"We'll do it in the bathroom at the airport. There's some antibiotics in the first-aid kit in the pack. I confirmed you for a flight to Honolulu that leaves in an hour. From there you go to Guam, then to someplace called Truk. That's where this doctor is supposed to meet you. I've got it all written down. There was an e-mail address at the bottom of the letter. I sent him a message to expect you tomorrow."
"But my car, my apartment, my stuff."
"Your apartment is a pit and I put your stuff worth keeping in a ministorage. I've got the pink slip for your Camaro. Sign it over to me. I'll sell it and send you the money."
"You were pretty fucking sure I'd want to do this."
"What choice do you have?"
Jake parked the Land Rover in short-term parking, shouldered the pack, and led Tucker into the international terminal. They checked the pack and found a rest room near Tucker's departure gate.
"I can do this myself," Tucker said.
Jake Skye was peering over the door into the stall where Tucker was preparing to remove his bandages and, finally, the catheter. A line of businessmen washed their hands at a line of lavatories while trying not to notice what was going on behind them in the stall.
"Just yank it," Jake Skye said.
"Give me a minute. I think they tied a knot inside it."
"Don't be a wuss, Tucker. Yank it."
The businessmen at the sinks exchanged raised eyebrows and one by one broke for the rest room door.
Jake said, "I'm going to give you to five, then I'm coming over the stall and yanking it for you. One, two..."
A rodeo cowboy at the urinals hitched up his Wranglers, pulled his hat down, and made a bowlegged beeline for the door to get on a plane to someplace where this sort of thing didn't happen.
Security guards rushed through the terminal toward the screaming. Someone was being murdered in the men's room and they were responsible. They burst into the rest room with guns drawn. Jake Skye was coiling up some tubing by the sinks. There was whimpering coming from one of the stalls. "Everything's fine, officers," Jake said. "My friend's a little upset. He just found out that his mother died."
"My mother's not dead!" Tucker said from the stall.
"He's in denial," Jake whispered to the guards. "Here, you better takes this." He handed the tubing to one of the guards. "We don't want him hanging himself in grief."
Ten minutes later, after condolences from the security staff, they sat in the departure lounge drinking gin and tonics, waiting for Tuck's boarding call. Around them, a score of men and women in suits fired out phone calls on cell phones while twenty more performed an impromptu dog pile at the bar, trying to occupy the minuscule smoking area. Jake Skye was cataloging the contents of the pack he'd given to Tuck. Tucker wasn't listening. He was overwhelmed with the speed with which his life had gone to shit, and he was desperately trying to sort it out. Jake's voice was lost like kazoo sounds in a wind tunnel.
Jake droned, "The stove will run on anything: diesel, jet fuel, gasoline, even vodka. There's a mask, fins, and snorkel, and a couple of waterproof flashlights."
The job with Mary Jean had been perfect. A different city every few days, nice hotels, an expense account, and literally thousands of earnest Mary Jean ladies to indulge him. And they did, one or two at each convention. Inspired by Mary Jean's speeches on self-determination, motivation, and how they too could be a winner, they sought Tucker out to have their one adventurous affair with a jet pilot. And because no matter how many times it happened, he was always somewhat surprised by their advances, Tucker played a part.
He behaved like a man torn from the cover of some steamy romance novel: the charming rogue, the passionate pirate who would, come morning, take his ship to sea for God, Queen, and Country. Of course, usually, sometime before morning, the women would realize that under the smooth, gin-painted exterior was a guy who sniffed his shorts to check their wearability. But for a moment, for them and for him, he had been cool. Sleazy, but cool.
When the sleaze got to him, he needed only to suck a few hits of oxygen from the cabin cylinder to chase the hangover, then pull the pink jet into the sky to convince himself he was a professional, competent and in control. At altitude he turned it all over to the autopilot.
But now he couldn't seduce anyone or allow himself to be seduced, and he wasn't sure he could fly. The crash had juiced him of his confidence. It wasn't the impact or even the injuries. It was that last moment, when the guy, or the angel, or whatever it was appeared in the copilot's seat.
"You ever think about God?" Tucker asked Jake.
Jake Skye's face went dead with incomprehension. "You're going to need to know about this stuff if you get into trouble. Kinda like checking the fuel gauges - if you know what I mean."
Tucker winced. "Look, I heard every word you said. This seemed important all of a sudden, you know?"
"Well, in that case, Tuck, yes, I do think about God sometimes. When I'm with a really hot babe, and we're going at it like sweaty monkeys, I think about it then. I think about a big old pissed-off Sistine Chapel finger-pointin' motherfucker. And you know what? It works. You don't come when you're thinking about shit like that. You should try it sometime. Oh, sorry."
"Never mind," Tucker said.
"You can't let that kid with the Bible get to you. He's too young to have given up on religion...doesn't have enough sin under his belt. Guys like us, best bet is that it's all bullshit and we go directly to worm food. Try not to think about it."
"Right," Tucker said, totally unsatisfied. If you had a question about any piece of gadgetry on the planet, Jake Skye was your man. But spiritually, he was a hamster. Which, actually, was one of the things Tucker used to like about him. He tried not to think about it and changed the subject.
"So what do I need to know about flying a Lear 45?"
Jake seemed relieved to be back into the realm of technology. "I haven't seen one yet, but they say it flies just like Mary Jean's old Lear 25, only faster and a longer range. Better avionics. Read the manuals when you get there."
"What about navigation equipment?" Tucker's navigation was weak. Since he'd gotten his jet license, he'd depended completely on automatic systems."
"You'll be fine. You don't buy a four-million-dollar plane and cheap out on the navigation and radios. This doctor's got an e-mail address, which means he's got a computer. You'll be able to access charts and weather, and file flight plans with that. Check the facilities at your destinations, so you'll know what to expect. Some of these Third World airstrips just have a native with a candle for night landings. And check your fuel availability. They'll sell you sewer water instead of jet fuel if you don't check. You ever deal with Third World airport cops?"
Tucker shrugged. Jake knew damn well he hadn't. He'd gotten his hours flying copilot in the Mary Jean jet, and they'd never taken that outside of the continental United States except for one trip to Hawaii.
"Well," Jake continued, "the catchword is 'bribe, bribe, and bribe.' Offer the highest amount you can at the lowest level of authority. Always have a thick roll of American dollars with you, and don't bring it to the table if you're not willing to lose it. Keep something stashed in your shoe if they tap you out."
"You think this doctor is going to have me hauling drugs?"
"Good chance of it, don't you think? Besides, it doesn't matter. These people are brutal. Half the time the government guys have the same last name, so if you move up the ladder, you're just talking to the uncle of the last one that hit you. He has to charge you more out of pride."
Tucker cradled his head in his hands and stared into his gin and tonic. "I'm fucked."
Jake patted him on the arm, then drew back at the intimacy of the act. "They're calling your flight. You'll be fine."
They rose and Jake threw some cash on the table. At the gate Tucker turned to his friend. "Man, I don't know what to say."
Jake extended his hand. "No sweat, man. You'd have done it for me."
"I really hate flying in the back. Check on that kid from the motel, okay."
"I'm on it. Look, everything you need is in the pack. Don't leave it behind."
"Right," Tucker said. "Well..." He turned and walked down the ramp to the plane.
Jake Skye watched him go, then turned, walked to a pay phone, dialed some numbers, and waited. "Yeah, it's Jake. He's on his way. Yeah, gone for good. When can I pick up my check?"