I've done a lot of stupid things in my life, and it would be hard for me to list them in order of stupidity. Except for Number One. Skydiving. What was I thinking? And I couldn't even blame this one on my dick.
But I could blame my wonderful wife, Kate. When I'd married her three short and happy years ago, I didn't know she had once been a skydiver. And when she confessed this to me about six months ago, I thought she said, "streetwalker," which I could forgive. What I can't forgive is her getting me to agree to take up this so-called sport.
So, here we were --- Mr. and Mrs. John Corey --- at Sullivan County Airport, which is basically in the middle of nowhere, in upstate New York, a long way from my Manhattan turf. If you're into nature and stuff, the Catskill Mountains look nice, and it was a beautiful Sunday in May with clear skies and temperatures in the mid-sixties. Most important for what lay ahead, it was a nearly windless day; a perfect day to jump out of an airplane. Whoopee.
Kate, looking good in a silver jumpsuit, said to me, "I'm excited."
"Good. Let's go back to the motel."
"This is going to be a beautiful jump."
"Right." I'm really not a pussy or anything like that --- in fact, I'm a former NYPD homicide detective, now working as a special contract agent with the Federal Anti-Terrorist Task Force, and I've exchanged gunfire with all kinds of interesting people without breaking a sweat. Also, I don't mind flying. I don't, however, like jumping. But, you know, you do these things in the interest of marital togetherness. That's why Kate drinks. So, the least I could do --
"This is my first time jumping from a Douglas DC-7B," she said.
"This is a fabulous addition to our jumper's logbook."
"This is the last flying DC-7B in the world."
"I'm not surprised." I looked at the huge, old four-engine propeller aircraft taking up most of the blacktop ramp. It had apparently never been painted, except for an orange lightning bolt running along the fuselage, nose to tail. The bare aluminum had taken on a blue-gray hue, sort of like an old coffee pot. To add to the coffee pot image, all the windows of this former luxury airliner had been covered with aluminum --- except, of course, the cockpit windshield, which I guess could be thought of as the little glass percolator thing...well, anyway, the plane looked like a piece of crap. I asked my wife, "How old is that thing?"
"I think it's older than you." She added, "It's a piece of history. Like you."
Kate is fifteen years younger than me, and when you marry a woman that much younger, the age difference comes up now and then, like now when she continued, "Certainly you must remember these planes."
In fact, I had a vague memory of seeing this kind of aircraft when I went to Idlewild --- now JFK --- with my parents to see people off. They used to have these observation decks, and you'd stand there and wave. Huge thrill. I reminisced aloud and said, "Eisenhower was president."
A word here about Kate Corey. When I met her about three years ago, she showed no tendency toward sarcasm, and she had once indicated to me that this was one of several bad habits that she'd picked up from me. Right, go ahead and blame the husband. Also, when I met her, she didn't swear or drink much, but all that has changed for the better under my tutelage. Actually, she'd made me promise to cut down on drinking and swearing, which I had. Unfortunately, this has left me dim-witted and nearly speechless.
Kate was born Katherine Mayfield in some frozen flyover state in the Midwest, and her father was an FBI agent. Mrs. Corey still used her maiden name for business, or when she wanted to pretend she didn't know me. Kate's business, FYI, is the same as mine: Anti-Terrorist Task Force, and we are actually partners on the job as we are in life. One of our professional differences is that she's an FBI agent, like her father, and a lawyer, like her mother, and I'm a cop. Or I should say, a former cop, out of the job on three-quarter disability, which is not actually disabling, but good enough for a steady check every month. This disability, for the record, is a result of me taking three badly aimed bullets up on West 102nd Street almost four years ago. Actually, I feel fine, except when I drink too much and Scotch spurts out of my holes.
Kate interrupted my thoughts and said, "The ATTF should give us jump pay, like the military does."
"Write a memo."
"This is an important skill."
She ignored my question and turned her attention to the sixty or so skydivers who were milling around aimlessly in silly colored jumpsuits, giving each other dopey high fives, or checking one another's packs and harnesses. No one, and I mean no one, touches my rig, not even my wife. I have literally trusted her with my life, and she's trusted me with hers, but you never know when the ladies are having a bad day.
Kate belatedly replied to my question and said, "My theory is that mastering difficult skills like skydiving or mountain climbing gives you confidence on the job even if the skill is not directly related to your work."
My theory was that the FBI should first master some basic police skills, such as how to use the subway system or how to follow a suspect without getting hit by a taxi. But I didn't verbalize that. Regarding our jobs, the New York Anti-Terrorist Task Force is made up mostly of FBI agents and NYPD, who are special contract agents like me, or active duty personnel. The concept of the joint task force is to create synergy by joining Federal agents --- who all seem to be from Kansas, and who think mass transit means driving to church --- and NYPD, who know the city intimately and who do a lot of the street work. The concept sucks, but the Task Force in practice actually works in some weird way. There is, however, some tension and a few small misunderstandings among the men and women of these two very different cultures, and that, I suppose, is reflected in my marriage.
Anyway, while Kate was checking out our fellow skydivers, I looked at the pilot standing under the wing of the DC-7B. He was peering up at one of the engines. I don't like it when they do that. I observed, "The pilot looks older than the plane. And what the hell is he looking at?"
She glanced toward the aircraft, then asked me, "John, are you getting a little...?"
"Please don't question my manhood." In fact, that's how she got me to agree to skydiving lessons. I said to her, "Be right back."
I walked over to the pilot, who had a close-cropped beard the color of his aluminum plane. He looked even older up close. He was wearing a Yankees baseball cap that probably covered a bald head, and he had on jeans, and a T-shirt that said, "Beam Me Up, Scotty." Funny.
He turned his attention away from the possibly problematic right outboard engine and asked, "Help ya?"
"Yeah. How's your heart?"
"Do you need a part?"
"Huh? Oh...no, just checking something." He introduced himself as Ralph and asked me, "You jumpin' today?"
What was your first clue, Ralph? The black and blue jumpsuit? Maybe the parachute rig on my back, or possibly the helmet in my hand. I replied, "You tell me."
He got my drift and smiled. "Hey, don't let the looks of this old bird fool you."
I wasn't sure if he was referring to the aircraft or himself. I pointed out, "There's oil dripping out of the engines." I drew his attention to the puddles of oil on the tarmac.
Ralph agreed, "Yep. Oil." He informed me, "These old prop planes just swim in oil." He assured me, "When it's time to add more, we just pump it up from fifty-five gallon drums. Problem is when you don't see oil."
"Are you making that up?"
"Hey, you people have parachutes. I don't. All you got to worry about is getting up there. I got to land this damn thing."
He further informed me, "This was once an American Airlines luxury liner."
"Hard to believe."
"I bought it for peanuts and converted it to haul cargo."
"This is my first time hauling skydivers."
"Well, good luck."
"You weigh less, but cargo don't ask questions."
"And cargo doesn't unload itself at fourteen thousand feet."
An even older guy ambled over, and Ralph and he spoke for a minute about things I couldn't understand, but which didn't sound good. The older gent shuffled off, and Ralph said to me, "That's Cliff. He's my flight engineer."
I thought he was Ralph's grandfather.
Ralph further informed me, "No computers on this aircraft so it takes three cockpit crew to fly this old bird." He joked, "One to fly, and two to flap the wings."
I smiled politely.
He continued, "Cliff works the engine throttles, the mixture controls, and all that stuff. He's a dying breed."
I hoped he didn't die after takeoff.
Before I could ask him if he and Cliff had new batteries in their pacemakers, a girl wearing jeans and a sweatshirt, who looked about twelve years old, came up to us and said to the pilot, "Ralph, Cliff and I did the walk-around. Looks okay."
Ralph replied, "Good. I'm gonna let you do the takeoff."
Ralph remembered his manners and said to me, "This is Cindy. She's my copilot today."
I must have heard him wrong so I ignored that and walked back to Kate, who was in a conversation with one of the guys in our so-called club, a putz named Craig who desperately wanted to fuck my wife.
His stupid smile faded as he saw me approach, and Kate said to me, "Craig and I were discussing the scheduling for our jumps in the next few weeks."
"Is that what was making Craig laugh?"
After a moment of silence, Craig said to me, "Kate was just telling me that you had some concerns about the plane."
"I do, but I could reduce the takeoff weight by sending you to the hospital."
Craig thought about that, then turned and walked away.
Mrs. Corey said to me, "That was totally uncalled for."
"Why did you tell him I was concerned about the plane?"
"I...he asked why you were talking to the pilot, and I..." She shrugged, then said, "I'm sorry."
I was really pissed off, and I said, "We'll discuss this after the jump."
She didn't respond to that and said, "We're starting to assemble for boarding."
I saw that our group was drifting toward the big aircraft. They seemed like a happy, excited bunch of idiots in stark contrast to paratroopers who look appropriately somber and purposeful as they form up to board. Paratroopers have a mission; skydivers are having fun. I'm not having fun. So I must be on a mission. If there were terrorists in the drop zone, I could pull my gun and show these clowns --- including Craig --- how a real man handles danger.
On that subject, I was carrying my Glock 9mm in a zippered pocket and Kate was carrying her .40 caliber Glock. Someday, someone will explain to me why the cops and the FBI agents carry the same make of gun, but in different calibers. What if I ran out of ammunition during a shootout? "Kate, can I borrow some bullets?" "Sorry, John, my bullets are bigger than yours. Would you like some gum?"
Anyway, there were two reasons for us to be carrying our guns --- maybe three. First, neither Kate nor I could leave our weapons in the motel, or even in the trunk of our car. If you lose a weapon or it's stolen, your career is in serious trouble. The second reason for carrying is that your creds should never be separated from your gun, and you should never be separated from your creds. If you need to show your badge, then you may need to draw your gun. So these were reasons enough for us to be packing heat.
But if I needed another reason, it was this: If I missed the drop zone and landed in the woods, I could possibly encounter a bear. I'm a city boy, and I don't like woods or bears. I mean, I have no irrational fear of eight hundred pound black bears with big teeth and sharp claws that could kill you and eat you. No fear at all. I don't even know what the word ursaphobia means. Well, maybe I do. But I don't have it. And if I did, my 9mm Glock should be able to drop a bear. Well...maybe scare him. I patted the Glock in my pocket.
We continued toward the aircraft, and Kate took my hand and said to me, "Let's just make this one jump and pass on the next two."
"We paid for three, we'll make three."
"Let's decide when we get on the ground." She suggested, "I think I'd rather go antiquing."
"I'd rather jump out of an airplane than go antiquing."
She smiled, squeezed my hand and said, "I want you to blow me a kiss while we're free-falling."
She knew I was still pissed, and she was trying to put it all in perspective for me, i.e., we should kiss and make up in case one of us splattered on the ground.
Sometimes you milk these things for all they're worth and hold out for a blow job. Other times, like now, you just let it go. So I said, "Okay." On a related subject, I asked, "Hey, has anyone ever had sex while free-falling?"
She rolled her eyes, but replied, "From fourteen thousand feet, you have only about sixty seconds before you pop the chute."
I nodded. "That leaves only thirty seconds after sex for a cigarette."
She smiled, then informed me, "I have heard that people have actually done it with the chute deployed during a tandem jump."
"A fabulous addition to their logbook."
Kate changed the subject and said, "If you have any hesitation while we're up there --- a bad feeling, or anything --- we'll fly back, get in our car and leave." She assured me, "You wouldn't be the first person not to jump, and no one will say anything."
"Oh, I'm sure Craig will say something." In fact, I did have a bad feeling about the jump, but I didn't know why. The aircraft? Not really. It had obviously survived a half century of takeoffs and landings, and today wasn't going to be any different. The weather was fine, the wind was light, and the drop zone was huge. Plus, of course, I had a reserve chute, and I'd packed my own main chute. I mean, I didn't want Craig packing my chute, did I? More importantly, all reserve chutes are packed by a certified parachute rigger, who you should tip generously.
"Let's swap chutes."
A guy from the skydiving club was standing on the tarmac marshalling people into their jump groups. As I understood this, there would be two large groups exiting en masse to attempt some sort of prearranged join-up formation. They were trying for some sort of record. Like Biggest Circle of Flying Assholes.
Kate had enough experience to join either of those groups, but I did not, so Kate and I would be jumping together along with some single jumpers and a few groups of two or three. Although I technically didn't require a jumpmaster any longer for my solo jumps, Kate would be my jumpmaster so we could practice some relative work during the free falls. Some day, I would be qualified to be part of a big hook-up formation that looked like a flying eggbeater.
I actually enjoyed the free fall without the work and concentration of trying to maneuver to hold hands with strangers. The air resistance as I fell at over a hundred miles an hour allowed me to position my body and arms to slow myself, or speed up, even do loops and rolls, and it felt more like flying than falling. In truth, it made me feel more like Superman than I already did. In fact, I was thinking about buying a blue jumpsuit with a red cape.
The guy from the skydiving club was now standing at the rolling stairs that led to the big cargo opening in the rear of the fuselage. He was holding a clipboard, checking off names as the jumpers assembled.
As we walked toward the clipboard guy, I asked Kate, "Are we in first class?"
"We are, until we step out of the plane."
We approached the clipboard guy and I announced, "Corey. Mr. and Mrs."
He consulted his chart and said, "Okay...here you are. A third stage, two-jump. You can board now. Go all the way forward. Row Two."
"Is this a lunch flight?"
Clipboard guy looked at me, but did not respond to my question. He said to me, "Have a good and safe jump, Mr. Corey."
"Now you put the hex on me."
"John. Let's go."
Kate led the way up the portable metal stairs, and I followed her into the dark cavernous cabin.
When I'm flying in a commercial airliner, it's at this point that I usually put the bad thoughts out of my head. You know, smiling flight attendants, cheery pilots, comfy cabin, dopey kids running up and down the aisles and all that. I always like to see nuns and clergy on board. But whatever was bothering me before I boarded was still bothering me. I've been in law enforcement for thirty years, and it sounds clichéd, but I've developed a sixth sense for trouble and danger. And that's what I felt now.
Excerpted from THE LION © Copyright 2010 by Nelson DeMille. Reprinted with permission by Grand Central Publishing. All rights reserved.