- Publisher: Grand Central Publishing
- Release Date: August 2018
- ISBN: 1455572160
- ISBN-13: 978-1455572168
- Available Formats: Audio, e-Book, Print
Rye Mallett is a ‘freight dog’, a pilot who’ll fly anywhere in the world, at any time, at a moment’s notice, through the worst weather. As a fighter pilot in Afghanistan, he escaped death once. Figuring that it’s only a matter of time before death catches up with him, he tempts it by taking risks. But one night he takes to the air, when no other pilot would, to deliver a black padlocked box. What awaits him at his destination is a near crash … and a run-in with Dr. Brynn O’Neal. Brynn, a dedicated physician, is under a forty-eight hour deadline to save a patient. She’s lovely to look at, but Rye doesn’t trust her. He’s volatile and a threat to Brynn’s plan. But soon they’re reluctantly teamed in a mad race against the clock, the law, and the ruthless men who will stop at nothing to get what they want.
“No. Not doing it.”
“When I called, you were Johnny-on-the-spot.”
“But I didn’t know then about the weather. It’s socked in solid, Dash.”
“Fog ain’t solid. You can fly through it, you know. Like clouds. Or didn’t they teach that in your online flight school?”
The young pilot rolled his eyes. “They closed Atlanta. Closed it. How often does that happen? It must be bad or the airport wouldn’t have been shut down the night before Thanksgiving. Be reasonable.”
Dash pressed his beefy hand over his heart. “I’m reasonable. I’m the soul of reason. The client, on the other hand . . . He don’t care the airport’s shut down. He wants this box here”—he slapped his hand down on top of the black metal container sitting on the counter behind him— “to get there”—he pointed in the general direction of Atlanta—“tonight. I guaranteed him that it would.”
“Then you’ve got a customer relations problem.”
He was called Dash, first because the few who’d ever known his real name had forgotten it, and, second, because the name of his charter and air freight company was Dash- It-All.
Older than he owned up to being, he had a pot belly that served the same purpose as a cow catcher on a locomotive. Little stood in the path of his stomping tread. Always under a deadline, he wore a singular expression—a scowl.
As menacing as that glower was, however, thus far it hadn’t fazed the pilot who was resistant to taking off from Columbus for Atlanta where, for holiday travelers, the weather was screwing with tight schedules and well-laid plans.
If air freight was your business, satisfaction guaranteed, it was screwing with your livelihood.
Frustrated, Dash clamped down on an unlit cigar and worked it between his stained teeth. Smoking was prohibited in the Fixed Base Operator. His rules. But also, his cigars. So he gnawed on one whenever somebody was giving him a hassle he didn’t need. As now.
“No real flyer would get squeamish over a little fog,” he said.
The pilot gave him a look.
Okay. Only to himself, Dash conceded that it was more than a little fog. It was the likes of which no one alive had ever seen. People along the Atlantic seaboard had awakened this morning to find their cities and towns engulfed. The fog had created traffic hazards and general havoc over the eastern third of the United States and showed no signs of lifting.
The Weather Channel was getting a ratings boost. Meteorologists were practically giddy over the phenomenon, which one had described as “biblical” and another had called “epochal.” Dash wasn’t sure what that meant, but it sounded grim, and what the blasted fog meant to him was lost revenue.
At Hartsfield-Jackson, and other major airports in a double-digit number of states, passenger flights and cargo carriers had been grounded on this Thanksgiving eve when it seemed that everybody in the nation was trying to get from wherever they were to someplace else. Dash figured it would take till Christmas for the carriers to unsnarl the mess, but that was of no concern to him.
His concern was keeping his fleet of airplanes in the air, shuttling stuff that people paid to have shuttled in the shortest amount of time possible. Birds nesting in the hangar didn’t make money. He needed this pilot to grow a pair, and quick, so he could back up the guarantee he’d made to his client, a Dr. Lambert, who had insisted on this box reaching Atlanta tonight.
Hoping to shame the young aviator into taking off, Dash looked him up and down with unconcealed scorn. “You could make it fine if you wanted to bad enough. Scared of the fog, or scared you won’t be back tomorrow in time for your mama’s turkey dinner and pumpkin pie?”
“I’m waiting it out, Dash. End of discussion. The plane is fueled and ready to roll when we get the thumbs-up. Okay? Can we drop it?” He pulled himself up taller. “Now, the crucial question: Is the popcorn machine still busted?” With that, the pilot turned and followed the odor of scorched coffee and corn kernels toward the hallway that led to the pilots’ lounge.
Dash’s cell phone rang. “Hold on. Maybe this’ll be your thumbs-up.”
The pilot stopped and turned. Dash answered his phone. “Yeah?” When the caller identified himself, Dash held up an index finger, indicating that it was the call he’d hoped for. It was his counterpart who’d brokered the charter at a private FBO attached to Hartsfield-Jackson.
“Yeah, yeah, he’s ready. Good to go. Champing at the bit,” he said, skewering the pilot with his glare. “Huh? Divert to where?” His frown deepened as he listened for another half minute. “No, I don’t think that’ll be a problem.” Even as he said that, he knew better. “You’re sure somebody’ll be there to turn on the runway lights?”
The pilot flinched.
“Okay,” Dash said. “Email me the particulars. Got it.” He clicked off and said to the pilot, “We’re in luck. There’s an FBO outside a small town in northern Georgia. Howardville. The client will meet you there. He’s leaving Atlanta now by car. It’s a two, two-and-a-half-hour drive, but he’s willing—”
“Northern Georgia? In the mountains?”
Dash made a dismissive gesture. “Not big ones. Foothills.”
“Is it controlled?”
“No. But the landing strip is plenty long enough for this aircraft if you, uh, set down at the very end of it and the crosswind isn’t too strong.” Reading his pilot’s dubious expression, he snapped his fingers. “Better idea.”
“I wait for Atlanta to reopen.”
“You take the 182.”
The pilot sputtered a laugh. “That bucket? I don’t think so.”
Dash glowered. “That bird was flying long before your daddy was born.”
Which was the wrong thing to boast because the pilot chuckled again. “My point exactly.”
“Okay, so it’s not as young and spiffy as the Beechcraft, and it’s seen some wear and tear, but it’s reliable, and it’s here, and you’re going. I’ll gas her up while you file your flight plan. Name of the place is—”
“Hold on, Dash. I signed on to fly into a controlled airport, not chance it in uncontrolled airspace over mountainous terrain, in pea soup, and landing on a short strip where there’s likely to be strong crosswinds. And hoping that somebody will be there to turn on the lights?” He shook his head. “Forget it.”
“I’ll pay you triple.”
“Not worth it. I’d have to be crazy. Up to you to head off the client and make him understand that nobody can deliver tonight whatever is in that box. He’ll get it when the weather improves. I’ll continue to monitor it and get on my way as soon as I can.”
“You pass on this, you’re history with my outfit.”
The pilot snuffled. “Not so. You need pilots too bad.” He crossed the lobby and headed down the dimly lit hallway.
Dash swore under his breath. He’d issued an empty threat, and the smug son of a bitch knew it. He needed pilots rated in several categories, classes, and types of aircraft, who could climb into a cockpit and fly at a moment’s notice.
This one was an asshole, but he was a bachelor, and therefore more available than the pilots with families. He was eager to chalk up hours that he later could peddle to a commercial passenger carrier.
And, truth be told, to fly into that backwoods FBO under these more-than-iffy conditions, he would have to be altogether crazy. He wasn’t. He was a levelheaded pilot who didn’t take unnecessary risks.
Dash needed the other kind.
He cast a look across the lobby toward the sofa against the far wall. The couch was an eyesore. Its turquoise-and-tan-plaid upholstery was lumpy, stringy, greasy in spots, and stained with not even God knew what.
But its condition seemed not to matter to the man stretched out along it. He lay on his back, hands linked over his stomach, a years-old aviation magazine with curled pages tented over his face while he slept.
Dash shifted his cigar again, hiked his pants up beneath his substantial overlap, and took a deep breath. “Uh, Rye?”
The man lying on the sofa didn’t respond.
“Rye,” Dash said more loudly, “you awake?” The sprawled form remained motionless, but Dash continued. “I’ve got a situation here. Rotten kickoff to the holiday season, and you know that’s when I make half my year’s income. This guy’s turned pussy on me, and—”
Dash stopped talking when Rye Mallett lifted the old magazine off his face. He rolled up and swung his feet to the floor. “Yeah, I heard.” He stood, tossed down the mag- azine, and reached for his bomber jacket and flight bag. “Where am I going?”
Dash put the Cessna through its preflight check while Rye went into the briefing room. Using the computer there, he went onto a web site that provided aerial photos of airports. He studied the bird’s-eye picture of the Howardville County Airfield, made note of the lay of the land and how the FBO fit into the landscape, then printed out the photo to take with him.
He filed his flight plan using Instrument Flight Rules. He would be relying on instruments from takeoff to landing. Nothing unusual about that, but the fog was.
Wanting to get the skinny, and not from someone in a TV studio with capped teeth and cemented hair, he logged onto several flight-related blogs to see what the chatter was. As expected, nearly all the messages posted today were about the fog and the hell it was creating. The pilots who’d flown in it were warning others about vast areas of zero visibility.
Typing in his anonymous user name on one of the sites, Rye posted a question about Howardville. He received a flurry of replies, the first of which was, “If ur thinking of flying into there tonight, what color flowers do you want on your casket?”
Another: “Beware the power lines. IF u make it as far as the landing strip alive, brace yourself. That bitch is a wash- board.”
Similar posts followed, words of caution spiced with graveyard humor and the irreverent quipping that was universal among aviators who didn’t wear uniforms. The upshot of the online conversation was that one would be wise not to fly into Rye’s destination tonight.
But Rye often received such warnings, and he flew anyway.
Even Dash seemed uncharacteristically concerned when he escorted Rye out onto the tarmac where the Cessna workhorse sat ready. He grunted as he bent down to remove the chocks from the wheels, and, after grumbling about his damned trick knee, said, “The box is buckled into the copilot seat.”
Rye nodded and was about to step up into the cockpit, but Dash cleared his throat, signaling that he had more to say.
“Did you schedule a refueling stop?”
“No. It’ll go the distance on full tanks.”
“If nothing goes wrong.”
Dash removed the cigar from his mouth and regarded the tip of it. “You know, Rye, I wouldn’t be asking you to fly tonight except that it’s the holiday season and—”
“You already said that.”
“Well. And, anyhow, you’re the best pilot for this type of flying.”
“Skip the flattery. Pay me a bonus instead.”
“Besides,” Dash continued without addressing the mention of a bonus, “I doubt it’s as bad as they’re letting on.”
“I doubt that too. It’s probably worse.”
Dash nodded as though he also feared that might be the case. “After you make the delivery, don’t worry about flying right back.”
“You’re all heart, Dash.”
“But if you could return her by noon tomorrow—”
“I know that’s a quick turnaround, but you don’t require a lot of sleep, do you?”
No, he didn’t. Rye had conditioned himself to function well on as little sleep as possible, not only because that particular skill made him more flexible when it came to FAA regulations—and cargo carriers appreciated flexibility in their freelance pilots—but also because the less he slept, the less he dreamed.
Dash worried the cigar between his teeth. “Look, Rye, you sure you’re—”
“What’s with the hand-holding, Dash? Are you working up to kissing me goodbye?”
Dash’s comeback was swift and obscene. He turned and lumbered back into the building. Rye climbed into the cockpit and, after a short taxi, took off.
When he was only a few miles from his destination, Atlanta Center cleared him for the VOR approach. Rye told the controller he would cancel his IFR flight plan once he was safely on the ground. “Good luck with that,” the guy said, sounding very much like he meant it.
Rye signed off and tuned to the FBO’s frequency. “This is November nine seven five four three. Anybody home?”
There were crackles in Rye’s ears, then, “I’m here. Brady White. You Mallett?”
“Who else have you got coming in?”
“Nobody else is crazy enough to try. I hope you make it just so I can shake your hand. Maybe even scare up a beer for you.”
“I’ll hold you to it. I’m on VOR/DME approach, ten miles out at four thousand feet, and about to do my first step down. Go ahead and pop the lights.”
“Lights are on.”
“Descending to thirty-two hundred feet. Still can’t see crap. What’s your ceiling?”
“It’s whiteout almost all the way to the ground,” Brady White told him.
“Got any more good news?”
The man laughed. “Don’t cheat on the last step down, because there are power lines about a quarter mile from the runway threshold.”
“Yeah, they’re on the chart. How bad are the crosswinds?”
Brady gave him the degree and wind velocity. “Light for us, but it’s a mixed blessing. A little stronger, it’d blow away this fog.”
“Can’t have everything.” Rye kept close watch on his altimeter. “Dr. Lambert there yet?” he asked, remembering the name of the client on his paperwork.
“Not yet, but due. What are you hauling?”
Rye glanced over at the black box. “Didn’t ask, don’t know.”
“All the hurry-up, I figure it must be a heart or something.”
“Didn’t ask, don’t know. Don’t care.”
“Then how come you’re doing this?”
“Because this is what I do.”
After a beat, Brady said, “I hear your engine. You see the runway yet?”
Brady chuckled. “Make that two beers.”
His windshield was clear but he couldn’t see anything through it except fog. If conditions were as Brady described, Rye probably wouldn’t see the landing strip lights until he was right on top of them and ready to set down. Which made him glad he’d elected to fly the smaller plane and didn’t have to worry about overshooting the end of the runway and trying to stop that Beechcraft before plowing up ground at the far end. Also, he had near-empty fuel tanks, so he was landing light.
No, he wasn’t nervous. He trusted the instruments and was confident he could make a safe landing. As bad as conditions were, he’d flown in worse. He’d flown drunk in worse.
All the same, he was ready to get there and hoped that Dr. Lambert would show up soon. He looked forward to having the doctor sign off on the delivery so he could raid the vending machine—assuming Brady’s outfit had one—then crawl into the back of the plane to sleep. Dash had removed the two extra seats to make room for more cargo space. To save him the expense of a motel room for overnighters, he’d provided a sleeping bag. It stank of sweat and men. No telling how many pilots had farted in it, but tonight Rye wouldn’t mind it.
The nap he’d taken at Dash-It-All was wearing off. Sleeping wasn’t his favorite pastime, but he needed a few hours before heading back tomorrow morning.
He reminded himself to make sure Brady didn’t lock him out of the building when he left for home. Otherwise Rye wouldn’t have access to the toilet. Assuming there was a toilet. He’d flown into places where—
He saw the runway lights flicker through the fog. “Okay, Brady. I’ve got a visual on your lights. Is that beer good and cold?”
“Brady, did you nod off?”
In the next instant, a laser beam was shone into the windshield and speared Rye right between the eyes.
Instinctually he raised his left hand to shield his eyes. Several seconds later, the piercing light went out. But the damage had been done. He’d been blinded at the most critical point of his landing.
He processed all this within a single heartbeat.
The ground would be coming up fast. Crashing was almost a given, and so was dying.
His last thought: About fucking time.
A Note From Sandra
A couple of years ago, my son Ryan asked, “Mom, do you know what a ‘freight dog’ is?”
“No. What’s is it?”
He said, “A Sandra Brown hero.” That certainly grabbed my interest! Ryan continued by telling me about a nonfiction book he’d read on the subject of pilots who fly freight. The moniker applies to the spit-and-polish pilots who fly for widely known carriers such as Federal Express and UPS, among others. But within the air cargo industry, the name largely pertains to a more ragtag brand of pilot, who will fly anything, in any aircraft, to anywhere, at any time, through any weather.
To get a better idea of what I’m talking about, check out the blog post “You Might Be a Freight Dog If…” This was the first of many blogs and aviation websites on which I lurked for several months following that conversation with my son. I read countless personal accounts of aviation exploits, some harrowing, some hilarious, occurring in converted 707s or single engine prop planes. Many, I’m sure, were heavily exaggerated, but I didn’t care. I devoured them and became fascinated with this subculture of aviators that I knew nothing about. That was the origin of TAILSPIN.
Although my protagonist Rye Mallet is a graduate of the Air Force Academy and served several tours in Afghanistan, he’s now a freight dog, living the life of a nomad. His only home is the sky. He flies. Period. Despite the weather, or his destination, or his cargo, he goes. Which is why he accepts a charter on Thanksgiving eve, when the entire eastern third of the country is blanketed in dense fog, and all major airports are closed. Rye agrees to fly a padlocked box – think fancy tackle box – to a remote airfield in northern Georgia. The box (the McGuffin of the story) MUST get there that night. Waiting for the delivery is Brynn O’Neal, a savvy and smart, but disingenuous, lady, who refuses to disclose what’s inside the box…even after the bad guys intentionally try to crash Rye’s plane because of it.
Naturally, this doesn’t set well with Rye, who, despite his bad attitude, has absolute confidence in his flying skills and has never had so much as a hard landing prior to that night. He managed to glide the plane down and walk away from the crash, but he’s mad as hell at the evasive Brynn and the unidentified would-be saboteurs. At the crux of all the resultant conflict, is the black box. Everyone wants it: law enforcers, law breakers, and law benders, which Rye and Brynn are forced to become in order to retain possession of the box. And to make the mind games and hectic chase more interesting, I built in a countdown of forty-eight hours. Brynn must get it to its final destination within that time frame. When the outcome is a matter of life or death, every second counts. This is especially true for Brynn and Rye, who must keep one step ahead of their pursuers, while also coming to terms with their individual demons, and fighting their intense sexual attraction to each other. (That’s one battle they lose.)
The story has many twists and turns which kept me in a TAILSPIN while writing it. I hope you derive as much enjoyment out of reading it. It goes on sale August 7, 2018. TAILSPIN is my 80th published novel. Allow me to express how deeply my gratitude runs for you Readers. For decades you’ve enabled me to do the work I love. From the bottom of my heart, thank you!