Stepping out of the tropical heat and into the cool air of the private airliner, Jamal was surprised by the expensive furnishings. Silken drapes covered the small oval windows, and faux gas lanterns had been hung for lighting. It’s a damned flying casino, he thought. No wonder Darren is operating out of Mexico.
Cameras mounted around the cabin caught every angle to prevent cheating. Four couples chatted excitedly at the back of the airplane, sitting in the few actual seats.
“May I take your bag, Sir?” A smartly dressed woman with a strong accent held out her hand.
Jamal handed over his duffle, surprised the woman was Asian, not Mexican. He looked around for other employees; one woman served drinks while two men stood ready, one at a poker table, the other by a roulette wheel. All were Asian.
Is Darren in with some Asian gang?
“Jamal.” A well groomed man stepped out of the cockpit area and waved for Jamal’s attention.
It took Jamal a moment to recognize him. “Keif? You’ve… certainly come up in the world.” Keif was known for wearing the same sweats for weeks while pushing drugs from his run-down tenement.
Keif grinned and showed off his suit with a gangsta pose. “Darren hooked me up. He’s anxious to see you.”
The last time Jamal had seen Darren, Jamal had been forced to decide whether or not it was worth breaking two years of cover to arrest him. Being invited into this new venture testified to all Jamal had given up to go deep cover. Whatever Darren was into, it would be big, dirty, and worth the wait to take him down.
“I think Darren’s going to ask you to join us,” Keif confided. “It’s gonna be just like the old days.”
“You’re working for Darren?”
“Yeah. It's my first day.”
“Ladies and Gentlemen,” the overhead speaker crackled, “this is your Captain speaking. We are ready for departure. Please make sure you are buckled securely, and as soon as we are over international waters, the party can begin.”
Jamal followed Keif into the cockpit just as a small, wiry man put away the microphone.
“You’re a pilot now, Darren?” Jamal asked.
“Jamal, good to see you.” Darren turned and smiled. “No, I’m no pilot. I just like to pretend. Carl is the real pilot.” Darren gestured to the large man in the next seat who glanced back and nodded.
The engines roared to life, shaking the jet under Jamal’s feet.
“Sit.” Darren pointed to the seat behind Carl. “I assumed you’d want to see what it’s like up here. You too, Keif. And get the door.”
Keif shut the cockpit door, setting the lock solidly.
“This your new thing?” Jamal asked as he buckled in. “A flying casino? I never figured you to give up the streets. It fit you too well.”
“Everything is a means to an end,” Darren looked back from where he was pretending to co-pilot.
“What are all of these?” Keif pointed to computers and screens around his seat.
“Don’t touch,” Darren cautioned as the plane picked up speed. “I’ll show you in a minute. You’re gonna love it.”
Jamal recognized the wicked grin spreading across Darren’s face. He had seen it twice before, both times someone had ended up dead. Unfortunately, Darren hadn’t left enough evidence Jamal could tie back to him.
“So this pays better than dealing?” Jamal asked. “Seems like a lot of overhead expense.”
“Oh, there is. But the return is worth it.”
“Is that what the cameras are for? You fleecing the marks?”
“Always in a hurry to see behind the curtain, Jamal.”
As the plane ascended, Darren turned to Carl. “We on auto pilot yet?”
“Almost,” Carl nodded. The slightest twitch of a smile pulled at Carl’s lips. It made Jamal feel queasy. Darren and Carl were cut from the same, stained cloth.
Darren climbed out of his seat, asked Keif to trade him places, then went to work turning on the bank of computers and monitors. Most of it came to life instantly.
“That’s pretty fancy stuff,” Jamal noted.
“Didn’t I ever mention I was a tech-head? No. That wouldn’t have come up when you were getting drugs would it?” A tone of contempt crept into Darren’s voice.
“We’re ready,” Carl announced.
“Excellent. We’re up and running here, too.” Darren leaned back from the screens and admired his work.
Jamal tried to make out what was on them, but it was confusing. At first it looked like security cameras, some focused on the seated couples, some on the Asian staff. But other screens had photos of the staff as well as the couples he had seen chatting when he boarded. The photos had biographies and scrolling numbers underneath.
“Are those odds numbers?” Jamal asked. “You’ve got people online betting on what’s happening?” Jamal asked.
“My, you are the bright boy today, Jamal.” Darren patted him condescendingly. “I am so glad you came!”
“What’s that mean?” Keif asked trying to see the screens. “People somewhere else are betting on these people?”
“Two bright boys! Oh, today is going to be the best one yet, don’t you think, Carl?” The smirk did crawl across Carl’s face this time, and it made Jamal’s blood run cold.
“This is cool,” Jamal tried to cover his nervousness. “And it’s all legal because you go out over international waters, right? Did you go legit? Damn! I bet you even pay taxes!”
“Keif?” Darren asked. “Would you reach under your seat there and…Excellent.”
Keif came up with a .9 mm Glock.
“Please point that at Detective Jerome White there.” Darren indicated Jamal.
Jamal’s poker face didn’t reflect the shock of his cover being compromised, but Keif’s eyes went wide and the gun shook in his hand as he trained it at the undercover cop.
Jamal put his hands up. “Don’t point that at me, Keif! I don’t know what game Darren is playing, but you know me. We’ve done a lot of shit together.” He tapped his chest. “You know me.”
“Yeah, yeah. Whatever.” Darren turned his back to Jamal and typed. As another profile appeared on the screens, chills ran down Jamal’s spine. This one had Jamal’s real identity and service record.
Tonight’s buy-in has been raised. Full refunds available for anyone who chooses not to agree with new buy-in. Special guest tonight, Detective Jerome White, LAPD, will be participating as KNOWING/ABSTAINING.
“What’s that mean?” Keif’s gun hand shook. “Knowing/abstaining?”
Darren grinned. “We have our own lingo here. That way everyone knows what they are betting on. See, some are easy. Like the Firsts.” He pointed to the screens showing the guests getting out of their seats and being handed drinks by the wait staff. “Which woman will be the first? Will the old lady be first, or will the black lady? Will it even be one of the women who are first, or one of the men?”
“The first what?” Keif asked.
Darren ignored him and continued. “Other things are harder to bet on, so my clients like background information. Like this couple. They’re from Kansas. For some reason people from the Mid-West seem to last longer. We were supposed to have an Indian couple this time, but they cancelled last minute. Too bad. We haven’t ‘hosted’ anyone from there before.”
Jamal’s hands dropped, personal safety forgotten. “You’re going to kill these people?”
“Oh, no. Not me.” Darren grinned wickedly. He shared a knowing glance with Carl, whose eyes glittered evilly. “Well, maybe someday. For now though, this is good. I like this. A lot.”
Darren glanced at Keif. “You don’t look so well. Carl? Hand him some water, would you?”
Carl traded Keif a bottled water for the gun. Keif opened it shakily and drank deeply.
“You really a cop, Jamal?” he asked as he re-capped it.
Jamal was saved from answering by the screaming. They could hear it through the closed cockpit door as well as from the monitors surrounding Darren.
“Ha! I knew she was sneaking drinks!” Darren pointed at a screen showing one of the Asian women screaming at the top of her lungs. She held her face in her hands and screamed at one of the windows.
The guests and other servers all stood frozen, staring at her. Then the oldest man clutched his chest and fell to his knees. His elderly wife grabbed at him, trying to break his fall, but instead went down with him.
Darren clapped with glee. “And we’re off! Didn’t see the heart-attack coming, did they Carl?”
“What’s going on?” Keif wiped at the sweat building up on his forehead with his sleeve.
“Look at the bets.” Darren pointed at the monitors. “They’re insane this time! Three hundred thousand the screamer rips her eyes out! Five hundred thousand she doesn’t stop screaming until someone kills her!”
“What the hell are you doing?” Jamal jumped up.
Carl came up with him, gun leveled at Jamal’s face. “Sit down,” Carl growled.
Jamal glared at him, hatred pulling his lips into a snarl.
“Wait!” Darren interrupted. “Carl don’t hurt him unless we have to. We promised our audience. Please sit down, Officer White. We really don’t want to shoot you.”
“You’re killing random people?” Jamal shouted in disbelief as he sank back to his seat.
“Not so random. We’re very careful who we pick. The flight crew were all prostitutes in Korea. I paid them more than they could earn in ten years, and none of them would have lived more than two. All of the other people are burdens on society in their own rights. The old man? He collects his dead brother and sister’s Social Security checks. The Kansas people? Living on Farm Subsidies for ten years, haven’t grown a goddamned thing. As bad as Welfare slugs.”
“And that makes it okay to kill them?”
“We don’t kill them,” Darren grinned gleefully. “They kill each other.”
The screaming stopped abruptly and Jamal’s eyes flicked to the screens. The black woman, wild-eyed with a bloodied bottle of champagne in her hand, stood over the body of the now silent Asian woman. Her husband gaped in shock as he tried to pull the bottle from her hand.
“Good call Ripper2020. Bonus prize for you.” Darren muttered as he quickly typed a response into the computer chat room.
“How are you making them kill each other?” Keif’s voice was hoarse as nervous sweat dripped off his nose.
“Bath salts. You know. Bubbles? Banzai fertilizer?”
“The zombie drug that makes you eat people’s faces?”
Darren tapped the end of his nose and winked. “Got it in one.”
“That takes repeated exposure. A couple of weeks at least.” Jamal shook his head.
Darren grinned wickedly. “They’re always working on new formulas to stay legal. I met a guy who found one that induces complete and permanent psychosis within half an hour. Maybe less. Speaking of time…” He turned back to the keyboard and typed.
New participant entering field as KNOWING/USING/AWARE.
“What’s that mean? You putting Jamal out there now?” Keif asked.
“Don’t you think I should? I mean, he lied to us. He’s a cop. He’s a rat and rats gotta pay.”
“I d-don’t know…” Keif was shaking.
Darren hit another key and a new profile popped up. He stood up, blocking the view so Keif couldn’t see his own profile profile.
“Keif? You got a fever?” Darren put his hand on Keif’s forehead. “You’re burning up, son. Finish your water.”
Keif finished the water and Darren took the bottle from him.
“First topless,” Carl muttered and pointed at the screens. While most of the people were in a circle arguing, the Kansas man had taken off his shirt.
“Why’d he do that?” Keif wiped at the sweat on his forehead again.
“Bath salts increase your metabolism. Make you hot.” Darren answered. “You feeling hot?”
“Yeah. Damn hot.”
“Good. They’re working.”
“The salts I put in your water.” Darren smirked as he opened the cockpit security door and shoved Keif through. “That’s for skimming from me, Keif.”
Jamal lunged forward, but Carl caught him by the shoulder and put the gun to his head.
Darren relocked the door as Keif pounded on it, screaming to be let back in.
On the monitors, the people turned their attention from the black woman to Keif. Within seconds, they surrounded him and began demanding answers.
Keif covered his ears and dropped to the floor, squirming like a snake. “Don’t eat me!”
“I’m thinking he’s used salts before, what do you think, Carl?”
“Kicked in pretty fast.”
“That’s what you’re going to do to me? Feed me bath salts and toss me out there, too?” Jamal asked. On the monitor, Keif still screaming not to be eaten, ran to the back of the airplane.
“No.” Darren hit him with an icy gaze. “As you fight off those poor, deranged souls, I want you to be perfectly aware of what you’re doing, knowing they can’t help it, and that you’re hurting innocent people to protect yourself. If you’re the last one alive, I’ll let you take your chances with the sharks when I dump the rest of their bloody bodies into the ocean. That’s what you get for spying on me, Detective.”
Carl grunted, “Pig.”
Someone screamed outside the door again and crimson sprayed across one of the monitors. Darren and Carl were enthralled.
Jamal attacked, going for Carl’s gun hand. Carl punched Jamal in the side of the head with his other hand. Two more punches and Jamal went weak in the knees.
Darren typed quickly on the keyboard.
New participant entering field as KNOWING/ABSTINING/AWARE.
Carl was a big man. He lifted Jamal easily and carried him to the door. Darren unlatched it.
“Ready?” Darren asked.
Darren opened the door and Carl threw Jamal out.
Jamal grabbed at Darren as he was tossed, catching at the smaller man and pulling him along into the pile of people tearing at each other. Struggling to stand up and get Darren in a choke hold, Jamal tripped over the Asian woman’s body. Then Carl was on top of them, smashing Jamal in the face and beating people back. In a heartbeat, Carl drug Darren safely back into the cockpit and Jamal heard the heavy lock fall into place.
Jamal found himself surrounded by blood covered people.
Keif, wildly waving a broken champagne bottle, was screaming. “Don’t fucking eat me!”
Everyone’s eyes were on Keif, except the black man who was looking at something on the ground. Jamal followed his gaze to the gun Carl had dropped.
I wonder what my odds are now? Jamal wondered as he leaped for the gun.