The Summons - Page 18

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The estimated flying time to Atlantic City was eighty-five minutes in the Bonanza, which was exactly thirty-five minutes faster than the Cessna Ray had been renting. Early Saturday morning he and Fog did a thorough preflight under the intrusive and often obnoxious supervision of Dick Docker and Charlie Yates, who walked around the Bonanza with their tall Styrofoam cups of bad coffee as if they were flying instead of just watching. They had no students that morning, but the gossip around the airport was that Ray was buying the Bonanza and they had to see things for themselves. Hangar gossip was as reliable as coffee shop rumors.

"How much does he want now?" Docker asked in the general direction of Fog Newton, who was crouched under a wing draining a fuel sump, checking for water and dirt in the tanks.

"He's down to four-ten," Fog said, with an air of importance because he was in charge of this flight, not them.

"Still too high," Yates said.

"You gonna make an offer?" Docker said to Ray.

"Mind your own business," Ray shot back without looking. He was checking the engine oil.

"This is our business," Yates said, and they all laughed.

In spite of the unsolicited help, the preflight was completed without a problem. Fog climbed in first and buckled himself into the left seat. Ray followed in the right, and when he pulled the door hard and latched it and put on the headset he knew he had found the perfect flying machine. The two-hundred-horsepower engine started smoothly. Fog slowly went through the gauges, instruments, and radios, and when they finished a pre-takeoff checklist he called the tower. He would get it airborne, then turn it over to Ray.

The wind was light and the clouds were high and scattered, almost a perfect day for flying. They lifted off the runway at seventy miles per hour, retracted the landing gear, and climbed eight hundred feet per minute until they reached their assigned cruising altitude of six thousand feet. By then, Ray had the controls and Fog was explaining the autopilot, the radar weather, the traffic collision avoidance system. "She's loaded," Fog said more than once.

Fog had flown Marine fighters for one career, but for the past ten years he'd been relegated to the little Cessnas in which he'd taught Ray and a thousand others to fly. A Bonanza was the Porsche of single engines, and Fog was delighted for the rare chance to fly one. The route assigned by air traffic control took them just south and east of Washington, away from the busy airspace around Dulles and Reagan National. Thirty miles away and more than a mile up, they could see the dome of the Capitol, then they were over the Chesapeake with the skyline of Baltimore in the distance. The bay was beautiful, but the inside of the airplane was far more interesting. Ray was flying it himself without the help of the autopilot. He maintained a course, kept the assigned altitude, talked to Washington control, and listened to Fog chat incessantly about the performance ratings and features of the Bonanza. :

Both pilots wanted the flight to last for hours, but Atlantic City was soon ahead. Ray descended to four thousand feet, then to three thousand, and then switched to the approach frequency. With the runway in sight, Fog took the controls and they glided to a soft touchdown. Taxiing to the general aviation ramp, they passed two rows of small Cessnas and Ray couldn't help but think that those days were behind him. Pilots were always searching for the next plane, and Ray had found his.

Fog's favorite casino was the Rio, on the boardwalk with several others. They agreed to meet for lunch in a second-floor cafeteria, then quickly lost each other. Each wanted to keep his gambling private. Ray wandered among the slots and scoped out the tables. It was Saturday and the Rio was busy. He circled around and eased up on the poker tables. Fog was in a crowd around a table, lost in his cards with a stack of chips under his hands.

Ray had five thousand dollars in his pocket - fifty of the hundred-dollar bills picked at random from the stash he'd hauled back from Clanton. His only goal that day was to drop the money in the casinos along the boardwalk and make certain it was not counterfeit, not marked, not traceable in any way. After his visit to Tunica last Monday night, he was fairly certain the money was for real.

Now he almost hoped it was marked. If so, then maybe the FBI would track him down and tell him where the money came from. He'd done nothing wrong. The guilty party was dead. Bring on the feds.

He found an empty chair at a blackjack table and laid five bills down for chips. "Greens," he said like a veteran gambler.

"Changing five hundred," the dealer said, barely looking up.

"Change it," came the reply from a pit boss. The tables were busy. Slots were ringing in the background. A crap game was hot off in the distance, men were yelling at the dice.

The dealer picked up the bills as Ray froze for a second. The other players watched with detached admiration. All were playing five -  and ten-dollar chips. Amateurs.

The dealer stuffed the Judge's bills, all perfectly valid, into the money box and counted twenty twenty-five-dollar green chips for Ray, who lost half of them in the first fifteen minutes and left to find some ice cream. Down two hundred fifty and not the least bit worried about it.

He ventured near the crap tables and watched the confusion. He could not imagine his father mastering such a complicated game. Where did one learn to shoot dice in Ford County, Mississippi?

According to a thin little gambling guide he'd picked up in a bookstore, a basic wager is a come-bet, and when he mustered the courage he wedged his way between two other gamblers and placed the remaining ten chips on the pass line. The dice rolled twelve, the money was scraped away by the dealer, and Ray left the Rio to visit the Princess next door.

Inside, the casinos were all the same. Old folks staring hopelessly at the slots. Just enough coins rattling in the trays to keep them hooked. Blackjack tables crowded with subdued players slugging free beer and whiskey. Serious gamblers packed around the crap tables hollering at the dice. A few Asians playing roulette. Cocktail waitresses in silly costumes showing skin and hauling drinks.

He picked out a blackjack table and repeated the procedure. His next five bills passed the dealer's inspection. Ray bet a hundred dollars on the first hand, but instead of quickly losing his money, he began winning.

He had too much untested cash in his pocket to waste time accumulating chips, so when he'd doubled his money, he pulled out ten more bills and asked for hundred-dollar chips. The dealer informed the pit boss, who offered a gapped smile, and said, "Good luck." An hour later, he left the table with twenty-two chips.

Next on his tour was the Forum, an older-looking establishment with an odor of stale cigarette smoke partially masked by cheap disinfectant. The crowd was older too because, as he soon realized, the Forum's specialty was quarter slots and those over sixty-five got a free breakfast, lunch, or dinner, take your pick. The cocktail waitresses were on the downhill side of forty and had given up the notion of showing flesh. They hustled about in what appeared to be track suits with matching sneakers.

The limit at blackjack was ten dollars a hand. The dealer hesitated when he saw Ray's cash hit the table, and he held the first bill up to the light as if he'd finally caught a counterfeiter. The pit boss inspected it too, and Ray was rehearsing his lines about procuring that particular bill down the street at the Rio. "Cash it," said the pit boss, and the moment passed. He lost three hundred dollars in an hour.

Fog claimed to be breaking the casino when they met for a quick sandwich. Ray was down a hundred dollars, but like all gamblers lied and said he was up slightly. They agreed to leave at 5 P.M. and fly back to Charlottesville.

The last of Ray's cash was converted to chips at a fifty-dollar table in Canyon Casino, the newest of those on the boardwalk. He played for a while but soon grew tired of cards and went to the sports bar, where he sipped a soda and watched boxing from Vegas. The five thousand he brought to Atlantic City had been thoroughly flushed through the system. He would leave with forty-seven hundred, and a wide trail. He had been filmed and photographed in seven casinos. At two of them he had filled in paperwork when cashing in chips at the cashiers' windows. At two others he had used his credit cards to make small withdrawals, just to leave more evidence behind.

If the Judge's cash was traceable, then they would know who he was and where to find him.

Fog was quiet as they rode back to the airport. His luck had turned south during the afternoon. "Lost a couple hundred," he finally admitted, but his demeanor suggested he'd lost much more.

"You?" he asked.

"I had a good afternoon," Ray said. "Won enough to pay for the charter."

"That's not bad."

"Don't suppose I could pay for it in cash, could I?"

"Cash is still legal," Fog said, perking up a bit.

"Then cash it is."

During the preflight, Fog asked if Ray wanted to fly in the left seat. "We'll call it a lesson," he said. The prospect of a cash transaction had raised his spirits.

Behind two commuter flights, Ray taxied the Bonanza into position and waited for traffic to clear. Under the close eye of Fog, he began the takeoff roll, accelerated to seventy miles per hour, then lifted smoothly into the air. The turbocharged engine seemed twice as powerful as the Cessna's. They climbed with little effort to seventy-five hundred feet and were soon on top of the world.

Dick Docker was napping in the Cockpit when Ray and Fog walked in to log the trip and turn in headsets. He jumped to attention and made his way to the counter. "Didn't expect you back so soon," he mumbled, half-asleep, as he pulled paperwork from a drawer.

"We broke the casino," Ray said.

Fog had disappeared down into the study room of the flight school.

"Gee, I never heard that before."

Ray was flipping through the logbook.

"You paying now?" Dick asked, scribbling numbers.

"Yes, and I want the cash discount."

"Didn't know we had one."

"You do now. It's ten percent."

"We can do that. Yep, it's the old cash discount." He figured again, then said, "Total's thirteen hundred and twenty bucks."

Ray was counting money from his wad of bills. "I don't carry twenties. Here's thirteen." As Dick was recounting the money, he said, "Some guy came poking around today, said he wanted to take lessons and somehow your name came up."

"Who was he?"

"Never saw him before."

"Why was my name used?"

"It was kinda weird. I was giving him the spiel about costs and such, and out of the blue he asked if you owned an airplane. Said he knew you from someplace."

Ray had both hands on the counter. "Did you get his name?"

"I asked. Dolph something or other, wasn't real clear. Started acting suspicious and finally left. I watched him. He stopped by your car in the parking lot, walked around it like he might break in or something, then left. You know a Dolph?"

"I've never known a Dolph."

"Me neither. I've never heard of a Dolph. Like I said, it was weird."

"What'd he look like?"

"Fiftyish, small, thin, head full of gray hair slicked back, dark eyes like a Greek or something, used-car-salesman type, pointed-toe boots."

Ray was shaking his head. Not a clue.

"Why didn't you just shoot him?" Ray asked.

"Thought he was a customer."

"Since when are you nice to your customers?"

"You buying the Bonanza?"

"Nope. Just dreaming."

Fog was back and they congratulated each other on a wonderful trip, promised to do it again, the usual. Driving away, Ray watched every car and every turn.

They were following him.

Tags: John Grisham Thriller