Friday, August 17, 2018

WHEELS UP: A NOVEL OF DRUGS, CARTELS, AND SURVIVAL by Jeanine Kitchel


WHEELS UP by Jeanine Kitchel, Thriller, 294 pp., $13.95 (paperback) $3.99 (Kindle)




Title: WHEELS UP: A NOVEL OF DRUGS, CARTELS, AND
SURVIVAL

Author: Jeanine Kitchel

Publisher: Independent

Pages: 294

Genre: Thriller


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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Excerpt:


Chapter 1
Yucatan Peninsula, Mexico
Present
Day
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.”
“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.
“Long
drive?”
“Not bad.
Been waiting long?” Clay asked.
“No.”
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
?
“Cocaine…”
“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.”
She
nodded.
“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?”
He
nodded.
 “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.




















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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Interview with Jeanine Kitchel

How did you come up with name of this book?
Thank you for this opportunity! My title, Wheels Up—A Novel of Drugs, Cartels and Survival, came about through banter between my husband and myself when we lived in Mexico. In 1997, after finding our own personal Margaritaville and building a house in a small fishing village on the Mexican Caribbean coast, we left the US behind and headed south. Life as an expat was not without challenges, especially as a homeowner. We’d head north to visit family a couple times a year and each time we got on the plane, and it was in the air, he’d say, “Wheels up!” But planes play a big role in the novel, and I thought it made a good title, especially with the sub-title that gives further explanation on what’s in store.

Do you read yourself and if so what is your favorite genre?
I read many genres, from general fiction and thrillers and mysteries to books on writing and publishing, how-to stuff. My very favorite books in fiction tend to be those that appeal to the masses, like Gone Girl or The Da Vinci Code. Ones with popular appeal.

Do you prefer to write in silence or with noise? Why?
I write in silence. We live in a quiet place and for me, there’s solace in that. I can concentrate better. Often when I’m writing if I don’t concentrate I can lose my train of thought or decide I have to do some mundane household thing—avoidance issues I’m sure. Music or noise further distracts me and I have to trick my mind into staying the course.

What do you feel you can accomplish with this book?
That’s a biggie. Living in Mexico for 15 years gave me an insider’s insight into the country’s multi-faceted culture plus I witnessed the creeping dominance of the cartels and their effect on that society and how the average person trying to live a normal life copes, or doesn’t. I wrote non-fiction as a journalist and then author for years, but branched into fiction with this novel because I believe I can reach a wider audience and still address some big ticket issues, like corruption, cartel dominance and human trafficking—all very real problems in Mexico. By telling a story instead of reporting, I believe you can get through to people. My Latina protagonist goes from sitting behind a desk as cartel accountant to inheriting top spot in Mexico’s most powerful cartel when her drug lord uncle is recaptured. She faces an impossible challenge; the story shows how she struggles to survive in one of the cruelest institutions the world has ever seen.

What is your next project?
I just finished a prequel to Wheels Up titled Before Wheels Up, out in the fall, and have begun my second book in the Wheels Up trilogy, Layla’s Law, which will be out in 2019.







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