Title: WHEELS UP: A NOVEL OF DRUGS, CARTELS, AND SURVIVAL
Author: Jeanine Kitchel
Layla always wanted to run the family business. But is she willing to kill for it?
When her notorious drug lord uncle is recaptured, Layla Navarro catapults to the top of Mexico’s most powerful cartel. Groomed as his successor, Layla knows where the bodies are buried. But not all the enemies. She strikes her first deal to prove her mettle by accepting an offer to move two tons of cocaine from Colombia to Cancun by jet. Things go sideways during a stopover in Guatemala whe Layla unexpectedly uncovers a human trafficking ring. Plagued by self-doubt, she must fight off gangsters, outsmart corrupt officials, and navigate the minefield of Mexican machismo. Even worse, she realizes she’s become a target for every rival cartel seeking to undermine her new standing. From her lush base in the tropics, she’s determined to retain her dominant position in Mexico’s criminal world. If she can stay alive.
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Yucatan Peninsula, Mexico
The Gulfstream jet, loaded with two tons of Colombian cocaine, careened over dense Yucatan jungle as Layla stared out the compact window, horrified. If they weren’t running on empty and destined to crash, it might have looked lush to her, even beautiful.
Without fuel, the engines starved into silence, she heard only the whooshing sound of the aluminum plane as it cruised over mangrove swamps and fast-approaching mahogany trees. All thoughts of her hasty departure from Guatemala to escape Don Guillermo’s wrath had vanished along with any hopes of safely landing in Cancun. They were going down.
Layla gripped the armrests, dropped her head between her knees, and prepared for the worst.
Three weeks earlier, Layla was sitting at the crowded bar in Bucanero’s Cantina in Ensenada, on Mexico’s west coast, while she waited for Clay Lasalle, Canada’s biggest pot dealer, to show up. Carlos, her bodyguard and sometime lover, was with her, but rather than relieving the stress, his overbearing presence just added to the pressure.
With the recent recapture and imprisonment of El Patrón, her notorious uncle, Layla had catapulted to the top of the Culiacan Cartel as his replacement. Now she was facing her first deal without her uncle’s guiding hand. To calm her jitters she resorted to the one thing that never failed her: tequila shots.
“Don Julio, por favor!” Layla called to the paunchy bartender over the clamor of the rowdy, alcohol-fueled crowd—mostly tourists in shorts and Hawaiian shirts. Above the polished mahogany bar a framed poster-sized photo showed a nude blonde being ushered out of the century-old watering hole by two Mexican policia. Of course it’s a gringa, Layla thought, Mexicans treaded more carefully in shark-infested waters. She waved a two-hundred-peso note as the bartender passed by with a tray of margaritas.
“Momentito!” he promised.
Carlos stepped away just as she downed her second shot. Though he’d given her his “cuidado” or “be careful” look before heading to the restroom, she ignored it. When a handsome gringo sat next to her and started talking, she was all in.
By the time Carlos returned, Layla was too busy chatting with her neighbor to worry about her bodyguard’s glare. Carlos hated outsiders as much as seeing her drink, but she needed to chill. Tequila shots and flirting were a mindless diversion. The agave centered her, allowing her to distract herself without losing her edge before the meeting.
“You’re from Chicago?” she asked. “I’ve been there.”
The man gazed at the dark-haired Latina by his side. “What did you think?”
She gave a dismissive shrug. “Too cold.” Her intelligent almond-shaped eyes were the color of charcoal. “I prefer Mexico.” A sardonic smile highlighted her cheekbones, making her face even more appealing.
Layla turned back toward her bodyguard and focused on the shot glass the bartender placed in front of her. Poor Carlos. Coming to Baja always rattled him. It wasn’t only the jaw-breaking drive from Culiacan on dodgy Mexican roads. It was Ensenada—far from the safety of Sinaloa, well out of their comfort zone. But for Layla, Bucanero’s Cantina qualified as northern Baja’s one saving grace. The dive bar brought back memories of her wild, reckless early years. At thirty-five, Layla still had plenty of the right stuff. Her five-foot-six frame seemed mostly legs and Carlos’s rare compliments always focused on her tiny waist. She emphasized her striking physique by wearing low-cut tops but her most notable feature was the cascade of curly dark hair that spilled over her shoulders.
She downed her last tequila shot, scooted off the wooden bar stool a step ahead of Carlos and moved towards the empty dining room. The cantina was not the best place for a meeting, but it suited their needs: an easy landmark near the border with a back room for business. Layla slipped into the barely lit room, accepted a menu from the waiter, and handed him a two-hundred-peso note.
“Our associate arrives soon. We need privacy. Close the restaurant,” she ordered. “Your manager knows.”
He nodded, pocketed the bill, and turned towards the kitchen.
Layla walked across the worn wooden floor to a corner table in the back. She took a deep breath to steady herself before sitting down. Things would escalate into a full-scale argument once Carlos reached the table. She could already hear him scolding, “Bosses keep to themselves, especially in public.”
When Carlos had a bad day, everyone had a bad day. He could easily vie for title of most miserable man on the planet. Too bad the sex was so good. Hijole! He had the body of a male model but two sizes larger, with café au lait skin. So handsome, but so disagreeable. Granted she shouldn’t have given that gringo the time of day, but tequila made her bold.
Layla opened the menu, waiting for her bodyguard’s interrogation to begin.
Carlos banged a cheap wooden chair against the table before sitting down. “What the hell do you care about Chicago? It’s not Madrid, not even Barcelona! That guy was boring! Are you so starved for conversation you have to talk to a gringo?”
Layla silently perused the bill of fare.
“I’ve had it,” he said, his voice rising. “I’m tired of my life. Am I just your bodyguard and nothing more? Everyone, everyone, told me to keep it strictly business, even your uncle. But I didn’t listen. I thought it would be that one drunken one night stand, and now I’m fucking chained to you because of this goddamn job!”
His powerful hands clenched into fists as he rubbed them over his knees. “If only I could’ve left you in Guadalajara. But I’d have never made it out of the city before taking a bullet from your uncle.”
That was accurate: You didn’t quit the cartel, the cartel quit you. She looked at the menu, avoiding eye contact, glad the waiter hadn’t yet returned. “Should we order?”
He glared at her. “Are you acting like this conversation isn’t happening? Do you want me to walk out of here, meeting or no meeting?”
Best not to test him. He’d do it, and then she’d be without a bodyguard. The drone of his voice, the bullying, started to sink in. Chinga! She had no trouble working the cartel mob, but Carlos ran her. He was as overbearing as her two brothers. Reynoldo who should have been running the cartel had died trying, and Martín, her other brother, wasn’t up to the task. Now with one brother and two cousins dead, Layla found herself atop the Culiacan Cartel.
She looked up and said in as soothing a tone as possible, “Carlos, let’s not fight, okay? We’re here for business. I need you with me. You’re not only the man who protects me. I love you.”
She did love him, though his bad attitude and barking complaints—usually aimed at her—were tiresome. He shifted his perfectly-proportioned body forward, staring at her with eyes she’d been lost in a hundred times. He surprised her by grabbing her hand, a little harder than necessary. They never touched in public.
“After this meeting, we’ll talk about you and me.” He scowled. “I don’t know why you drink so much—and with strangers.”
These macho men! “Okay, okay. I’ll let up on the shots. One last Pacifico while we wait.”
The waiter came and they ordered. She checked her watch, 10 p.m. Lasalle would be showing up soon. She’d met him once before in Miami and sparks had flown—there was no denying they had chemistry.
Layla changed topics. “So, what does he want?”
“Chinga! Who cares?”
She backpedaled. “Carlos…”
He gave her a cold look but couldn’t hold back his opinion. “Routes for coke or pot.”
The meal went smoothly. Layla pushed an enchilada around her plate and watched Carlos demolish an order of chilaquiles, three tamales, and a couple chicken enchiladas. As he piled it in, a rare calm settled over him. He was well into his second beer when Clay walked into the restaurant. Layla saw him first, but Carlos looked up the moment Clay crossed the threshold. As a bodyguard, Carlos’s instincts were flawless.
The thirty-something Canadian smuggler was six feet two, a looker with brown shaggy hair and an easy smile. Though his frame was solid, almost hefty, he moved like a cat. Spotting Layla, he gave a nod as his long strides brought him across the room.
He let his knuckles graze the table as he flashed her a warm smile. “Layla, it’s been a long time. Good to see you again. And this is…”
“Carlos, hola. Clay.” The Canadian extended a hand.
Carlos rose from the booth. “A pleasure.” He spoke in Spanish. “I’ll be close by,” he said to Layla.
“Have a seat.” Layla slid over to allow room for Clay. Not much had changed about the northern grower since she last saw him—still that laidback air even though he controlled the lion’s share of Canada’s pot sales.
“Something to eat?” Layla continued in English, though she knew Clay spoke passable Spanish.
He shook his head. “Just a Pacifico.” She gestured toward her beer and the hovering waiter sprung into action.
“Not bad. Been waiting long?” Clay asked.
They silently watched the waiter set down the bottle of beer and retreat from the room.
“Salud,” said Clay, raising his bottle. “Layla, I’m glad you could meet with me. I’ll get right to the point. I want a partner to move a couple tons of coke to Cancun by air—a regular run. I heard you lost a yacht recently, so a partnership could work out well for both of us.”
How did Lasalle know about the navy seizing their yacht?
“Boats are fine, but flying’s faster and we can carry more. Plus I’m dealing directly with FARC. Gotta hand it to ’em. For a guerrilla army in the Colombian jungle, they know how to run those cocaine fincas. And we can get better prices from them than anyone’s gotten before.”
He took a swig of beer.
“Interesting,” she said without emotion. “How will you manage those good prices?”
“A combined order with you.” He paused and waited for her reaction.
She said nothing.
“The airport manager’s on board,” he said, “Already allowed some of my flights through.”
She leaned back against the worn naugahyde booth, settling into the game of cat and mouse. “What kind of planes?”
“A Gulfstream and a DC-9.”
Layla raised an eyebrow. “Who owns them?”
“A couple guys in Lauderdale run a shield for drug planes by providing American registration to the cartels. It’s complicated—big money down, more than what the plane’s worth. In return these guys maintain the plane registration, and hire Vietnam vets to do the cartel runs.”
“If the plane’s seized, the pilots deny responsibility. These hooked-up guys can reclaim the plane because their corporation holds the lien,” Clay said.
Layla slid forward, placed her elbows on the table and picked at the label on the empty beer bottle in front of her. “How can they do that? Someone must hold the original papers.”
“They disguise ownership by sheep-dipping it—you know, a fake identity—and pass it on to straw owners. It’s a slick process, an old scheme used by the CIA.”
“The CIA? Come on, Clay,” she said with a slight frown. Do I look naïve? She flipped her dark hair over one shoulder. Clay’s gaze shifted to Layla’s long elegant neck.
He caught himself, looked away, and readjusted his long legs under the table before speaking. “These vets couriered traffickers from Colombia to Miami for the CIA. Talk about walking the line. They did time for trafficking, but they’re back, and they’re hotshot pilots.”
“Your shipments came in with no problem?” Layla asked.
“Like I said, I have connections, and the players, they’ve worked it out.”
“Does that include the Gulf Cartel?”
“Hmm. I’ve got to think things through,” Layla said. “When’s your next run?”
“Got a few details to sort out. I hear you’re growing the European market—this’ll get you a lot closer to that trip across the pond.”
Layla gave him a cool smile. “If I didn’t know better I’d think you were spying on me.”
“Layla,” Clay said with a chuckle. “I’m just trying to keep up with you.”
She looked at him a second too long before she continued. “Can I get back to you?”
“Sure.” Clay finished off his beer. “Let me know where and when.”
Layla and Carlos left Ensenada immediately after the meeting, heading out on the road to Culiacan. Carlos high-powered the black SUV through the moonless night while Layla closed her eyes and imagined the impact of bringing in new business on her own. In a four hundred billion dollar global industry, she could begin to stake out her territory.
“By working with us, FARC will see Clay as a real player,” she confided to Carlos.
“Basta! Always business!” Carlos said, still in a huff.
Layla composed herself before responding. “Yes, it is. Business that allows you to drive a new Escalade, wear expensive suits and five thousand peso boots, and drink Don Julio and Dom Perignon. Let me remind you: My uncle’s in prison and he’s left me in charge. Get used to it!”
She leaned against the window, pulling as far away from Carlos as possible.
Always fighting. She turned her attention to the darkness outside. It was a lonely two-lane road, not used much even in the daytime. Though she couldn’t make out the mountains that surrounded them she knew they were there.
They rode in silence, absorbed in separate thoughts. Carlos concentrated on dodging potholes. Layla contemplated moving powder with Clay.
The rules were changing and in this game they all had to stay ahead of the curve. She was anxious to run the idea by El Patrón. But they had a long drive ahead.
About the Author
Jeanine Kitchel, a former journalist, escaped her hectic nine-to-five life in San Francisco, bought land, and built a house in a fishing village on the Mexican Caribbean coast. Shortly after settling in she opened a bookstore. By this time she had become a serious Mayaphile and her love of the Maya culture led her and her husband to nearby pyramid sites throughout southern Mexico and farther away to sites in Central America. In the bookstore she entertained a steady stream of customers with their own Maya tales to tell—from archeologists and explorers to tour guides and local experts. At the request of a publisher friend, she began writing travel articles about her adopted homeland for websites and newspapers. Her travel memoir, Where the Sky is Born: Living in the Land of the Maya, and Maya 2012 Revealed: Demystifying the Prophecy, are available on Amazon. She has since branched into writing fiction and her debut novel, Wheels Up—A Novel of Drugs, Cartels and Survival, launched May 2018.
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