Wednesday, 9 November 2011

Partners by Gerald So

I was back in Miami for the first time in six months, drinking coffee at Frank's, when the stout, brown, flat-nosed man stepped in front of me. I spit my coffee, but kept my mug up so he couldn't see.

"Hi, Johnny," I said.

Six months before, I'd taken off from Frank's in a Grumman Goose that belonged to a movie star. Johnny had stolen it first. I only stole it from him when he threw himself into a brawl protecting the movie star's wife, a movie star in her own right.

Switching to Spanish, I said I felt guilty about that. That's why I'd come back.

He didn't accept my apology. He just showed me the gun on his hip, and said, "I need the plane. And your help."

"Hey, sure. Whatever I can do."

He reached into his coat and came up not with the gun, but a girlie magazine.

"I prefer real women," I said.

"On the cover, that's my sister Lala. A few weeks after Mr. Gray fired me, I got a letter from her: 'Don't worry, big brother. I'll take care of the family.'"

Of course, Robert Gray fired him for stealing the Goose, which I had then stolen from him, so I was partly responsible for Lala's modeling career. Nothing in his voice made these points. I made them all to myself.

"So you're going to bring her home?" I asked.

"Yes."

"Does she want to go home?"

"She will."

I looked at the cover again, which showed a cartoon woman, bound and gagged. "I guess she will."

Most people I've crossed, guns made them jumpy. Even people who knew how to shoot. I learned in the Service in case I was ever downed behind enemy lines. We were between wars, so it never happened, and I haven't touched a gun since.

Johnny didn't seem jumpy as he followed me outside. I stepped toward the fuel pumps, but Johnny said, "Already done."

"Thanks."

He followed me aboard the Goose, repainted and renamed Miss Liberty. A girl, maybe sixteen, sat in the cabin's first row. She didn't look much like the girl on the cover. They never do. I saw the resemblance in their eyes. Maybe their noses, too, before Johnny's was broken.

My instinct was to go for the captain's seat. Johnny seemed fine with that, but I froze.

"You take her," I said.

Cautiously, he stepped around me. I took the copilot's chair.

Johnny went through the preflight checklist as carefully as I would.

Lala said, "Juan told us Mr. Gray fired him. Juan's supported us so long, I just wanted to do the same."

"Sure," I said.

"When did you and Juan become partners?"

"Officially?" I said. "Not too long ago. We haven't had a client yet. That's probably why he hasn't mentioned me." I smiled. "But I met him right after he left Mr. Gray, and could tell he was a stand-up guy."

She nodded. "He is."

"Do you believe me now?" Johnny asked. "Will you go back home and be a doctor?"

"Yes, big brother."


* * * *


Johnny flew so smoothly, I almost fell asleep. He took a cab home with Lala, and I waited at Safe Harbor in Havana.

I caught relief in his eyes when he got back to the club and saw me.

"What are you drinking?" I asked.

"Hatuey."

Two bottles in, Johnny told me how he and Lala wound up at Frank's.

"I would have told her I was Frank's partner," he said, "or I would have taken another plane or boat. When I saw the Goose--"

"Sure." I gave it a minute, then said, "If we're gonna be partners, I should know your last name."

"Martí."

"That's a relief."

"Why?"

"I'm not sure anyone would fly Stone Air."

I made a fist and dropped it like a rock.