(Excerpt from the novel Fiona’s Guardians by Dan Klefstad)
“You count the money. I’ll count the blood.” Daniel pushes the open case of dollars toward Jesús who in turn opens a large cooler releasing a cloud of mist. The cooler is tied to a dolly. Daniel’s gloves lift blocks of dry ice, revealing pint bags labeled O negative, A negative, A positive, B positive, etc. All will be consumed during a single meeting of Fiona’s extended family. The O negative is for her.
“All good.” Daniel replaces the ice and shuts the lid. “Let’s do this again sometime.”
“You got it.” Jesús shakes hands and nods toward the twin-engine plane fronting a skyline of red rock formations. “Baron, huh? What’s it cruise, 200 knots?”
“I’m not a pilot.” Daniel grins. “I just hire them.” He tilts the dolly back while Jesús opens the door. “I need a steady source for O negative. What can you get me every other week?”
Jesús shrugs. “80 or 90 pints. Maybe 100.”
“Get me 100 and I’ll pay 200 bucks a bag.” Daniel pushes his cargo into the morning sun. “See you in two weeks?”
“You got it. I’ll have 100 for you.”
Outside, today’s pilot – Bud — opens the baggage door. When Daniel unstraps the cooler, each grabs a handle and lifts. Bud groans. “This feels heavier than what we agreed.”
“131.5 pounds, like I told you.” Daniel grunts through his teeth.
Bud puts his end into the cabin. “Same as my daughter who flew with me yesterday. Course, she’s at the age where she’d kill me for telling. You got kids?”
“None that I weighed recently.” Daniel looks at his watch. “It’s after six. Let’s go.”
Bud starts the engines. “Sedona traffic, this is Baron One-One Two-Two Alpha taking off runway Two-One, left turnout.”
“That you, Elevens? It’s Boxcar on your six. Where you headed?”
“Goin’ to Chicago with all that money I won last night.” He turns onto the taxiway.
“Uh, I recall you leavin’ more than you came with.”
“I meant Chicago. And I was doin’ all right until you dropped triple Jacks. I’m staying at the downtown Hilton. Sure would love a chance to get my five hundred dollars back.”
“Game on!” A smile creeps across Bud’s face. “Of course, we could bet that five hundred on a race to Chi-Town.”
“Hmm. Where you stopping for fuel?”
“Garden City, Kansas.” Bud enters the runway. “Wanna make it double or nothin’?”
“That’s a Texas-sized 10-4.”
Bud opens the throttle and the engines roar in stereo. Seconds later they’re airborne, white wings disappearing into a cerulean panorama. He looks in the mirror at Boxcar’s Mooney lifting off. “So, Mr. Strange, what’re we haulin’ today?”
Daniel is so entranced by the Mars-red surface he almost forgets his “business” name, Robert Strange. “Uh, lab samples. Tissue. Can’t say much beyond that.”
“Long as it ain’t stem cells – or clonin’.” Bud shakes his head. “So sick of people playin’ God when they should be worshipping Him. You a church-goer?”
“It’s been a while. I might come back.”
“Don’t wait too long. Never know when Judgement Day will arrive.”
“So why do they call you Elevens?”
“My lucky number. Born November 11. On my eleventh birthday I went to church for the first time and got moved by the Holy Spirit. At twenty-two, I became a father for the first time. And at the age of thirty-three, after wandering in the desert so to speak, I came back to Jesus. Yessir, born again.” He pauses. “Of course, you heard about my last winning hand.”
“Which was the eleventh hand of the game.” His right hand goes up. “God as my witness, I kid you not.”
Daniel wrinkles his forehead. “I’m trying to remember the significance of eleven in the Bible. All I remember are twelves.”
“Right, the number of apostles, and the age Jesus was when he questioned scholars in the temple. Plus, twelve sons of Jacob who formed the twelve tribes of Israel. Yep, the good book likes an even dozen. But eleven is connected to the main event for people in my church – hold on.” Bud listens to frequency traffic for several seconds. “Chatter on the east coast. Reports of a plane crashing into a skyscraper.” He shakes his head. “Where were we?”
“Eleven in the Bible.”
“Right. Eleven appears less often in scripture but when it does, it usually signifies judgement. Take the Book of Genesis. In Chapter 11, mind you, mankind rebels against God and builds the tower of Babel. God responds by confusing their language – literally, they start babbling, and the result is chaos.” He pauses to listen again. “The apostle John had eleven visions in connection with the final judgement. And the Gospel of John tells of eleven promises God makes to mankind, beginning with everlasting life if you believe in Christ and ending with a call to obey Jesus. My takeaway: Eleven is a sign to get right with the Lord before Judgement Day.” Listening again. “For the sake of completeness, I’ll note that our savior was 33 when he was crucified.” He presses a headphone tight against his left ear. “Another plane hit the World Trade Center – South Tower this time – and now they’re saying both were airliners. Looks like an attack of some sort.”
“Let me hear.”
Bud switches to an AM channel and they listen silently for several minutes. The news gets worse as reports come in about another airliner crashing into the Pentagon. Even the distance of two time zones can’t deaden the reality that the nation is under attack. There’s confusion about a fourth plane which, at first, was headed for the White House but now lies burning on the ground in Pennsylvania. Aboard each plane, the hijackers shouted “Allāhu akbar” – 11 letters spelling “God is greatest” — as they used boxcutters to slit crewmembers’ throats. Now the media is sharing voice messages from those trapped in the burning towers. Daniel keeps swallowing to quell the emotions rising in his throat. Bud just lets his moans, groans, and tears flow unchecked. He improvises a prayer:
“Dear Lord, it’s Elevens here, your perennial sinner. I know we haven’t spoken directly about my little gamblin’ problem, but I’d like to make sure we’re square. If this is your Final Judgement, please have some mercy and take this flawed but well-meaning servant to sit by your side. If, however, this is a trial you’ve set for us, I’m ready to show my devotion by givin’ up cards. Just, please, give me a sign. Show me the way.” He turns to Daniel. “If you need help prayin’ – maybe you forgot some of the words – I can help.”
“I’m sure my fate has already been decided.”
Bud looks forward. “And Lord, let’s not forget our quiet friend here, Mr. Strange. He may be a mystery, but I’m guessin’ his intentions are just as noble as mine. That, I believe, makes him worthy of your protection. Amen.”
Albuquerque Center to all aircraft: All flights are to immediately land at the nearest facility. This is a nationwide order from the FAA. Repeat: Land immediately.
“Ask for a sign, receive one.” Bud clears his throat. “Albuquerque Center, this is Baron One-One Two-Two Alpha. Message received. Over.” He spreads a chart across the control wheel. “No long runways in front of us, so we’ll have to turn around.”
“No.” Daniel holds a pistol in his right hand. “Keep going.”
“You out of your mind? I’ll lose my license – and my livelihood.” Bud’s eyes land briefly on the gun. “Careful with that trigger. We’ll both die if you pull it.”
“I’m not pulling anything so long as you keep flying.”
Bud sighs. “Mr. Strange, you’re makin’ a big mistake. And it’s a hell of a thing to do, dragging me into whatever scheme you got going on.” He glances back. “I’m guessin’ that’s not lab samples, is it? What are you into, drugs?”
“The less you know, the safer we both are.”
“Sounds like you’re in deep.” Bud softens his voice. “Look, man, it’s not too late. I’ll testify in your favor if you just give me the gun and let me follow orders.”
“We’re all obeying someone, Bud. Just get us to Garden City.”
“And then what? You can’t take off. All flights are grounded!”
“Let me worry about that.”
Barron One-One Two-Two Alpha, Albuquerque Center. Turn around now and land at Sedona. That is an order.
Daniel pushes the gun closer. “Don’t acknowledge.”
Bud exhales and puts both hands on the wheel. After several seconds, he shakes his head. “The Lord is testing me today. With signs I do not like.”
“When we land,” Daniel adjusts his tone, “I’ll pay your second installment early, and we’ll part ways. The world has no time right now for this little problem between us.”
“Problem? You hijack my plane and call it a ‘little problem’? That is a breach of trust, my friend, and comes at a time when my very identity is shaken to its core.”
“Eleven has always been my number — whether it’s cards, horses, or life events. Then this morning happened. I woke up and said, ‘It’s the 11th of September, gonna be a good day.’ But clearly, it’s not. It’s a shitty day for everyone – possibly the worst in our nation’s history. That’s one sign.” He points at the gun. “Next, I’m held up by a Colt M1911. And now,” he punches his door, “111 miles from Sedona, we get intercepted.”
“LOOK OUT YOUR GODDAMN WINDOW.”
Daniel’s jaw drops when he sees an F-16 with its flaps open and gear down, slowing into formation. Its pilot raises a hand, finger pointed down.
Barron One-One Two-Two Alpha, this is Captain “Spike” Ripley of the United States Air Force. I’m in visual contact and will shoot you down if you fail to comply with the following order: Land immediately. Repeat: Land immediately.
“There’s nowhere.” Bud is sweating. “NOWHERE TO FUCKING LAND!”
Daniel snatches the chart. “There’s a private strip on a mesa up ahead.”
“What’s the heading?”
“25 miles straight ahead.”
“What the mesa?”
Bud snatches it back. “Shit, that mesa looks half the size of Sedona. It’ll be like landing on an aircraft carrier – which I’ve never done before.”
Baron One-One Two-Two Alpha, this is your final warning. Land immediately.
Bud’s voice cracks. “Don’t shoot, Captain! Gimme two seconds.” He switches on the landing lights, decelerates, and snaps his fingers at Daniel. “Airport elevation.”
“FEET ABOVE SEA LEVEL.”
Bud clears his throat. “This is Baron One-One Two-Two Alpha, descending. God bless you, sir, and God bless the United States of America.” He glances over. “I’m assuming there’s no tower at this little outpost we’re shootin’ for.”
“Well, brace yourself, because crosswinds are gonna be a problem.” He scowls when he notices the gun again. “Put that away.”
“Are you calm now?”
Daniel complies and settles into his seat as the runway comes into view, sitting atop a block of crimson stone. The approach is fairly calm until a quarter mile out, when a gust knocks them off target. Bud’s knuckles are white as he raises the nose and straightens out against the crosswind. Back on track, he finally lowers the wheels, adjusting for the extra resistance which now appears to come from everywhere. At 500 yards, the plane shakes violently while Bud struggles to stay on target. At 200 yards, he pulls back on the wheel, keeping the nose up, while gunning the engine to stay above the rim. At 50 yards, a giant gust pushes the plane below the runway. Bud yanks back again and accelerates sharply as the rocky face grows bigger. Nearly above the rim, Daniel sees another plane above them.
“Shit, that you Elevens? I’m on top of you.”
“THE FUCK, BOXCAR. ABORT LANDING.”
Too late. The Baron’s wheels catch the rim and collapse, causing them to skid diagonally across the runway. They knock aside a parked helicopter, then hit another plane before smacking into a hangar. As he slowly regains consciousness, Daniel hears a gurgling sound. Turning his head, he sees Bud’s eyes staring down at a long piece of metal in his throat. The gurgling slows to intermittent choking before Bud finally goes silent. Next, Daniel turns to the right and sees his arm hanging out the window, bent the wrong way. A piece of bone sticks out through his bicep.
“Daniel.” A familiar voice, but not the one he hoped for. His eyes open to see Søren Fillenius leaning over him, eyes piercing the narcotic haze. He snaps his fingers and waves his hand in front of Daniel’s face.
“There he is.” The hand withdraws. “That must be powerful stuff they gave you.”
Daniel looks at the tubes hooked up to his left arm. “Where’s Fiona?”
“Really? I come to your rescue, and she’s all you think about?” He shakes his head. “She’s not coming.”
“Rescue? Bullshit. You’re here for the cargo.”
“I did salvage some A positive. The rest will go to waste because the elders canceled the meeting. I suppose you’ll blame the pilot for our having to reschedule.”
“Waste? Take the O negative to Fiona.”
Søren looks indignant. “I’m not your mule – or hers.”
“You piece of shit. I nearly killed myself to deliver that.”
“Well well, the truth comes out.” Søren’s face comes closer. “I’ve got some truth of my own to share.” Two icy hands grab Daniel’s face and turn it to the right. “Look at what’s left of you and tell me you’re still useful.”
Daniel’s breathing accelerates when he sees the stump wrapped in bandages. “That’s up to Fiona…”
“She and I have already spoken.” Canines appear as Søren’s voice changes to a snarl. “I’m to estimate your value and decide whether you stay employed or remain here. Permanently.”
“I have a new source.” Daniel struggles to speak. “100 bags of O negative every two weeks. That, plus Atlanta and Cleveland, and Fiona is set.”
“Where is this new source?”
“Sedona. All we have to do is hire a new pilot.”
“All the planes are grounded.”
“For just a few days. The economy would collapse.”
“100 bags of O neg, huh?” Søren regards him carefully. “Add 100 of A positive to each flight and I’ll let you live.”
Daniel’s vision fades as the drugs take hold again. A warm, fuzzy feeling spreads throughout his body, and the pain that was rallying begins to recede. At this point, he could care less if Søren brought him home or drained him dry. He wonders if heaven feels this good, and kind of wishes he could slip away forever. Would Elevens be there? His prayer for protection should carry weight, right? With St. Peter or whoever guards the gates? If, however, he must stay here it better be with a steady supply of this shit. The label on the drip bag was hazy but it might’ve said Dilaudid. Maybe Jesús could add a few bags of this, too. Get rid of the bad dreams. Allow him to forget everything.
The shadows gather again. Søren’s voice sounds like it’s coming from an old phonograph. Soon, all Daniel can hear is his own shallow breathing. Sure ain’t hell, that’s for certain…