The reading was off. The altimeter indicated we were cruising just above sea level, but it had to be bad data, since minutes before I had flown over the last of the mountains that flanked the entrance to the bay. That meant I had to be flying at least 5000 ft. I pressed(more) the reset button, hoping the instrument would recalibrate and start working again. The display blinked then came back online. Nope, still garbage.
I told the tower about my problem and indicated I would need verbal updates as I approached my destination. Wilco, came the tower's reply.
I needed a new instrument cluster, but I couldn't afford the upgrade until I made a few more runs and deposited a few more checks. I glanced at the cooler buckled into the passenger seat on my right. Successful delivery would recoup the cost of the flight and make me 5000 bucks. That would pay my rent and expenses for a couple of months, and maybe put a down payment on a new altimeter. The rest was gravy.
I got the job from a friend of a friend who had contacts within the Chinese government. My having a pilot's license and a plane got my foot in the door, but it was my Chinese heritage that sealed the deal. I never asked what it was I was carrying for them, I knew better. At various times, I've thought it could be human organs, contraband wildlife, sensitive information, drugs. But the quantities of whatever I'm moving have always been small enough to fit in the same plastic cooler taped shut with duct-tape.
That I never know what I'm moving, I'd like to think contributes to my own security, but I could be fooling myself.