“Fresh Start”

Fiction by Peter Bar

When the right engine of his Cessna 310 sputtered and quit, Nick Melon wasn’t thinking about the $10 million he had stacked in the back of his plane. He wasn’t thinking about the shark-friendly waters of the Gulf of Mexico below, nor was he thinking about the fact that absolutely no one knew where the hell he was, because he was flying below radar to avoid the Feds.

He was thinking about Sharon Wright. The way she’d looked curled up in his bed earlier that morning, the predawn sky still dark, the moonlight behind the fast moving clouds rolling across her body in pale waves. Her hair splashed around the pillow. The soft sound of her breathing.

He’d watched her sleeping for some time, couldn’t pull himself away, his mind rolling back over the last four months they’d been together. The long walks, the dinners, the way she laughed, her sense of adventure, the way she embraced life. He wanted to remember it all.

When he slipped out of the bedroom, silently closing the door behind him, he was absolutely certain he was making the biggest mistake of his life.

Once in the kitchen, he struggled to write her a goodbye note, crumpling up a half-dozen attempts before settling on the incredibly lame “I’m sorry.”

He could have written more, taken the time to explain himself, or he could have just stopped and cooked her some breakfast, while trying to figure a way out of his mess, but he didn’t. He just stepped out the back door, closing the latch, and the book on the best chapter of his life.

“Stick to the plan,” he repeated to himself, as he walked through the field to the far side of his property. The crickets in the swaying grass were protesting and the wind seemed to be holding him back, but he’d made his decision. He was back in the game. The cartel had been trying to re-enlist him for some time, but he’d kept refusing — that is until they asked him to transport six duffel bags of cash down to Mexico. He’d agreed. Just one flight. Only he neglected to mention it wouldn’t be to Mexico. He’d refitted his Cessna with extra fuel tanks, enough to get him to Honduras, and once there he would disappear.

Sharon would no doubt move on, he told himself, she’d have no shortage of suitors, there’d be another guy, a better guy, after all he was just a drug smuggler.

When he reached the edge of his property he went into the barn. After prying up the floorboards and loading the bags of cash into his pickup, he drove the back roads out to the abandoned airport. Didn’t stop thinking about Sharon the whole way.

 Sharon awoke after sunrise, reached over for Nick, and realized he was gone. At that point she knew she’d be demoted. Or suspended. Or fired.

 She knocked over an empty wine glass while reaching for her phone on the nightstand. The dinner with Nick had been all laughs, they’d closed the place, spoon feeding each other dessert like a couple of first-crush teenagers.

When Nick went to get the car, she’d dialed her surveillance team and pulled them off his house. “Okay,” her audio engineer chuckled. “No need for the cameras and microphones recording everything — you’ll be on top of Nick all night. Check.”

Heading into the kitchen she began to mentally rehearse for the meeting she’d be having with her new station chief. She didn’t dread it as much as loathe it. She’d been butting heads with him ever since he’d gotten the promotion. Over her. It wasn’t jealousy, he was simply inept, everybody knew it. Everybody also knew the regional director had pulled strings to get his cousin the job — a twice removed cousin, she reminded herself, which only made the blatant nepotism worse.

When she walked into Nick’s kitchen she immediately saw the goodbye note. While slowly tearing it into minuscule bits she noticed his truck keys were gone. Then she saw the clothes they had peeled off one another the night before, her panties, his boxers, her bra and blouse all neatly Boy-Scout folded over the back of the kitchen chair. She caught herself smiling.

When she saw the empty bottles of wine on the counter she heard herself say “Did that little shi. . . ?” No longer wondering why she had slept so soundly. Nick had been topping off her glass all night. She smiled at that as well. He was one of the brightest criminals she’d ever tried to entrap. And fun too, she somewhat reluctantly admitted, pulling her clothes off the chair.

After dressing she made nine phone calls to surveillance units at nine different airports. “Nick of Time Air Service” had planes scattered all over Louisiana. Purposely.

“Did any aircraft move?” she asked. She got back nine negatives.

“That bastard had another plane stashed,” she heard herself say to no one in particular in his now quiet, now very empty house.

She popped a couple of aspirin, pulled a Diet Coke from the fridge, and stood looking at the photos on the door, all affixed with little plastic fruit magnets. Under the banana was a photo of their weekend at the shore, under the apple they were riding horses together, under the peach they were fishing together, the county fair, the antique auction up in Clinton, a bountiful basket of memories — only Mr. Melon now seems to have skipped town in his plane. She pulled down a photo of Nick hugging her from behind: Her head was tilted back and she was laughing. He did make her laugh. All the time.

She stuffed the photos in her bag and walked out the front door, slamming it with a little extra umph while briefly flirting with the idea of burning down his house.

After 15 minutes in the car she realized she’d miss him. After 20 minutes she asked herself if she was really ever going to bust him? Didn’t a small part of her want him to get away? When she reached the highway she admitted to herself what she’d known all along. She’d fallen in love with him.

When she finally pulled into the D.E.A. parking she began to mentally deconstruct the Good Nick and reshape him into the Bad Nick. The lawbreaking Nick she’d be discussing with her new boss. Her job, after all, was to put him behind bars.

“Pull yourself together,” she whispered while adjusting her hair in the rear view mirror. “He’s a drug smuggler.”

When searching her bag for her lip gloss, however, she found herself cutting him a break. “Actually only a pot smuggler, never any hard drugs.”

She remembered electronically eavesdropping on that one, Nick surrounded by a bunch of cartel members, while they swapped tales about his “derringer-dos” in his Cessna, laughing about his refusal to transport anything but marijuana.

A bit ballsy dictating terms to the cartel, she’d remembered thinking. Fortunately they liked him. One last cash run. For old times’ sake.

When she walked into the D.E.A. lobby, the air-conditioned chill felt like a splash of water in the face, snapping her into Sharon Wright, the hard- charging, smuggler-busting, scalp-collecting D.E.A. task force agent she had a reputation for being.

Alone in the elevator however, she pulled another photo from her bag and found herself thinking about the Good Nick. The kind, considerate, caring, albeit mixed-up, maybe more than a tad misguided Nick.

The Good Nick and the Bad Nick spent most of the time wrestling in her head during her meeting with her boss. They only stopped when he shouted “Are you even listening to me?”

Then came the “Let me get this straight, you pulled back surveillance so no one would know you were jumping bones with the guy you spent four months building a case against?” He then went off on all the man hours and resources spent . . . wasted, while both Nicks dissolved in her head, as she waited for the demotion, or suspension, or her termination.

When the meeting ended she almost told her boss to F- off, and he almost fired her, settling on suspending her for a week instead. Pending review.

Back in the car, she called her sister in Florida and left a long voicemail explaining everything, adding that she was going to take some time, use the suspension to rethink her life. Maybe come down for a visit.

She stopped at a small riverside restaurant on the way home, putting on her don’t-F-with-me look for the half-dozen male patrons at the bar who might have considered hitting on her. Sitting alone, sipping a bourbon, she looked at the river and thought about life flowing by. At 33 there had been plenty of guys, near-guys, maybe-guys, almost-guys. Nick however, had gotten inside her head. And her heart.

When the Cessna’s other engine also began to cough, Nick Melon knew he had to climb, give himself a few thousand feet of altitude in order to safely bail out. He also knew that by climbing he’d reveal himself to the Federal Aerospace Defense Radar Network monitoring air traffic over the Gulf.

As the Cessna chugged skyward he reached behind his seat, unzipped the duffel of cash, and stuffed a dozen packs of tightly banded bills into his jacket, not enough to sink him when he hit the water, but enough to keep him afloat for a little while if he actually made it to shore.

When he reached 2,000 feet, he popped the cabin door, pushed out a small life raft, and bailed, saying a quick prayer and promising to light a candle — and leave a ten grand packet of cash — in the first church or temple he came across — if his chute actually deployed.

Fortunately for Nick, perhaps as an advance from God, when his Cessna momentarily appeared on Aerospace Defense radar, the young technician charged with monitoring Nick’s section of the Gulf was turned to his co-worker describing the winning three-pointer in last night’s Miami Heat game. By the time he mimicked the shot with a “Swissssssh” and turned back to his screen, Nick’s now pilotless Cessna had fallen back below radar heading to a watery grave. Game over.

The Gulf of Mexico was bathtub warm. After splashing down Nick pulled the tab on his lifejacket then powered on his handheld GPS, marking the spot where his plane had sunk. With the right scuba gear he could dive on it. He checked his GPS again and saw that he was 19 miles from the Dry Tortugas. After climbing aboard the raft, he measured his drift and wind direction. With any luck he’d reach the islands after nightfall. He’d been to the Dry Tortugas before, had camped in the National Park campground with an old girlfriend. As he gathered his chute, a plan formulated in his soggy brain. Once ashore he’d bury his raft, lay low till the morning, then mix in with the campers boarding the ferry back to Key West.

As the afternoon sun dipped toward the horizon, Nick lay back in the raft thinking about Sharon. He knew he loved her. Had from the start. When he made it back to the mainland he would call her, apologize, and explain everything. If she’d have him back, he’d ask her down to Key West. He’d buy a boat and take her hunting for sunken treasure, then sail around the world with her. A fresh start.

Sharon was getting out of the shower when she saw the message on her phone. She hit play and her sister told her to “pack up the car and come to Key West. Screw the boss. Screw the D.E.A.,” she’d said. “Forget about that guy. Plenty of guys down here, you never know who you’ll meet.”

Peter Bar is a web designer who spends summers in Montauk. His fiction has been published previously in The Star.