Contraband (Stone Barrington #50) - Stuart Woods


Stone Barrington lay, naked and dozing, on the upper deck of Breeze, the large motor yacht he co-owned with his business partners, Mike Freeman and Charley Fox. His friends Dino and Vivian Bacchetti drowsed on nearby deck chairs. They were anchored, late in the day, in the harbor of Fort Jefferson, the pre–Civil War installation that had been a prison for Confederate soldiers during what Southerners still liked to call the War Between the States. Seventy miles east of Key West, the anchorage was gin-clear and usually occupied by a few yachts, but now all was quiet; the last boat and seaplane of the day having departed, and the lagoon was theirs.

A distant buzzing noise penetrated Stone’s semiconsciousness, then it stopped and started again. Stone opened an eye—which was pointed to the east, away from the low sun—and found a black, insect-like spot in the air, getting larger. As it approached, it grew in size until it was clearly a small, high-winged aircraft—probably a Cessna—equipped with floats. Except something was wrong.

Stone sat up on his flat deck chair and looked at the plane with both eyes. One of the floats, the one affixed under the left wing, was no longer affixed, it was dangling. And one other thing: the buzzing had stopped completely, and so had the propeller, as the pilot wisely feathered it to give himself less drag and more glide distance.

Dino sat up and looked around. “What was that noise?” he asked.

Stone pointed. “It isn’t noisy anymore.”

The airplane grew closer and lower. “What’s that thing hanging off the left wing?”

“It used to be a float,” Stone said, “like the one under the other wing, but now it’s just a hazard.”

“How can he land it like that?” Dino asked. Viv was now awake and also looking at the airplane, perhaps a quarter mile out.

“With difficulty,” Stone said. “Dino, please ask Captain Todd to launch the rubber dinghy right now.” Dino ran down the stairs to the main deck, while Stone stood up and followed the flight path, forgetting that he had been naked under his small towel.

Luckily, Viv’s gaze was on the airplane’s equipment, not his. “That looks awful,” she said.

Stone watched the airplane—probably a Cessna 206, a kind of flying station wagon—turn left, then right, and finally straight in for an apparent attempt at landing in the harbor.

Captain Todd ran up to the top deck, followed by two of his girl crew members, and began clearing away the RIB, a rubber dinghy with a fiberglass hull and two outboards.

Stone’s gaze was still fixed on the airplane: a pilot, no visible passengers. He could see that there was no belt across his chest, as there should have been, just a yellow shirt. The airplane touched down lightly on its good, right float about a hundred yards ahead of the yacht. The pilot was cheating right with the rudder and ailerons, in an effort to keep the bad float out of the water for as long as possible, which wasn’t long. The left wing came down and its tip slammed into the water, spinning the airplane around 180 degrees while separating the wing from the fuselage, and coming to a halt amidships of the yacht, about thirty yards out. It immediately began to sink.

Stone, without really thinking, backed up to the rail behind him and began running across the deck. He got a foot on the opposite rail and propelled himself over it, missing the main-deck railing by a few feet. He finished in a not-too-bad dive and grabbed the biggest breath he could before his hands struck the sea. He leveled off a few feet below the surface and began swimming toward where he remembered the airplane to be, while blinking rapidly to get his eyes accustomed to the salt water. He didn’t have far to go. He reached the aircraft as it struck bottom with the right wing, and he got hold of the handle on the pilot-side door before the fuselage could settle on the bottom. He worked the handle and tried to yank the door open. It came slowly, helped by the fact that the pilot’s window was open, allowing water to rush into the fuselage and taking some of the pressure off the door. The pilot’s chin rested on his chest, and blood was flowing from a cut high on his forehead.

Stone braced a knee on the fuselage and slowly forced the door wide open. The pilot was fastened to his seat by a lap belt,