Authors: Don Porter
Tags: #FICTION / Mystery & Detective / General
“Well, we know he drives a black Cadillac.”
“Yep, and the campaign manager does that, but so do a couple of thousand other people in Fairbanks.”
“Want to search some more?”
“I want a drink. What time does the bar at the River’s Edge close?”
“Doesn’t matter, we have our own in the room. Me heap big Indian bartender.”
Sunshine warmed the edge of our table in the restaurant. The Chena raced by almost below us beyond the plate glass windows. I find rivers endlessly fascinating. The movement is constant but changes minute by minute. Rivers have unlimited power, they’re unpredictable. Certainly rivers have made the populating of Alaska possible, both for the ancients and moderns. Fairbanks itself was first a fish camp for the indigenous people, then a river port for stern-wheelers.
That’s changed with the arrival of the railroad, the highway, the airport. We were enjoying a breakfast that underscored the impact of jets on Alaska. Lox and bagels fresh from New York, cream cheese from Philadelphia, butter from Wisconsin, orange juice that still bore the tang of Florida, and Maui onions and Kona coffee from Hawaii. Life in Alaska was very different before the first Boeing 707 landed at Ladd Field fifty years ago. Angie and I were thoroughly enjoying the fresh lox, and an onion you could eat like an apple was beyond description.
Still, I was fascinated by the river. Apparently a swarm of gnats had dipped too low and foot-long silver grayling were leaping out of the water for their breakfasts. Mini-whirlpools came swirling by, then part of a wooden dock that had escaped from somewhere. Perhaps there’s some Huckleberry Finn in me, but I couldn’t help thinking that the drops of water going past our window would be in the Tanana tomorrow, the Yukon next week, the Bering Sea by next month, and then, who knows?
I was six years old when I first answered that call. A small creek flowed through our pasture outside Seattle. I built a raft of cedar fence posts, set a chair on it, stocked it with sandwiches, apples, and a mason jar of water, and set out for Zanzibar. That voyage ended two miles later when I came to a culvert under a highway and the raft wouldn’t fit.
I still haven’t been to Zanzibar, but the river was reawakening the urge. Angie pulled me back to Fairbanks by clearing her throat and pouring more orange juice.
“Is Sunday your day of rest? We could while away the hours by reading the tracts from Maranatha.”
“Angie, remember the famous Sherlock Holmes quote, ‘Come Watson, the game’s afoot’? Well, you can think of this as a game we’re in up to our eyebrows, it’s just that the stakes are higher than usual. And no, I wasn’t thinking of resting. Actually, I’m considering making the ultimate sacrifice.”
“You mean letting me have the last of the salmon?”
“That, too, but you have no idea what lengths I’ll consider to get information out of Interior.”
Angie pounced on the last slice of salmon, slathered it with cream cheese, rounded up a few errant capers, and the last sliver of onion. She waved the saltshaker past it and closed her eyes while she savored. I had to content myself with finishing the orange juice, and we both sat back with coffee.
Cat Woman had turned into a contented kitten. Angie was almost purring. “You want to go back tonight and hit that computer again?”
“No point. Angie, there were a thousand files, and they all looked alike. Black Oxfords knew exactly what he was doing and copied only one file, so I’m more convinced than ever that the answer is in that computer, but there ain’t no way we’re going to find it.”
“So, you have a more brilliant plan?”
“Angie, who knows everything that goes on in an office?”
“Oh no, don’t tell me you’re considering dating cheap perfume?”
“I said I was willing to sacrifice myself, and don’t be selling her short. She’s gorgeous, and
not the least bit sarcastic. I don’t have any better ideas, unless you’d like to date the new campaign manager?”
“No, you go right ahead. I’ll stay home and read the tracts we got from Maranatha so I can save your soul, when or if you survive.”
“Hi, Celeste? Alex. Listen, I can’t get you out of my mind. I keep thinking about the way your fascinating blue eyes sparkle and the darling little dimples when you smile, and it’s driving me nuts. Would you consider having dinner with me tonight?”
Angie rolled her eyes and made gagging noises, then turned over on her bed and pulled a pillow over her head. Our beds had big white comforters and three pillows each and she burrowed down almost out of sight.
“That’s wonderful. How about seven o’clock? Any restaurant you fancy is fine with me.
“Great. Sure, you make the reservations. I appreciate that. I’ll pick you up at six-thirty? Perfect, what’s your address?” I wrote down the house number. It was on Wendell Street, a block from the bridge.
“See you then. You just made my day.” I hung up the phone, reached over and gave Angie a whack on her cute little backside, the only part visible under the covers.
“Is it safe to come out?” she asked.
“What are you worried about? I’m the one sacrificing myself.”
“Yeah, but it was getting pretty deep in here. Is that the way you always ask for dates?”
“Trust me, it works, and may the punishment fit the crime.”
Celeste was out the door and striding down the walk the moment I parked. She wore a short red cocktail dress, and when she got close, her perfume smelled good to me. The earrings that peeked from under her blonde bob were blue stones that matched her eyes, and both were sparkling, but she stopped and stared at my new bandage.
“Alex, what happened to your cheek?”
“I got so excited when you agreed to go out with me that I cut myself shaving. Remember how it was in high school? We always got zits just before a big date? This is the adult version.”
She didn’t look convinced, but I opened the car door and she slipped in. She’d made reservations at Club Eleven, so named because it’s eleven miles out of town on the Richardson Highway. It’s not the most expensive restaurant in the area, but close enough, and the dining room is lighted for seduction, not eating.
She settled down just a little too close and crossed her knees under that short skirt. It was close, but I didn’t drive off the road. From her smile, I think she noticed the swerve. “How did the Valdez charter go?”
“Educational. I had had the impression the pipeline carried oil, but now I think it may be Scotch whisky. Are those guys regular customers?”
“Yeah, pretty often. Weird bunch of ducks, engineers or something.”
“Well, they kept me up past my bedtime. I dropped the key off yesterday and was confronted by that brunette who sits beside you. Does she hate all men, or just me?”
“Oh, Marlene? You didn’t make a pass at her, did you?”
“Certainly not. Since I met you, other women are invisible.”
“It’s just as well. Don’t quote me on this, but she belongs to Freddy. It’s pretty interesting because they avoid each other like the plague at work, except when she goes into his office and closes the door. She finds about twenty excuses a day to do that.”
“She gets lipstick on his collars?”
“No, but she sure looks happy when she comes out. That’s the club on the left.”
A maître d’ bowed us to a table beside the dance floor. Several tables were occupied, some patrons in evening dress, some in Sunday duds. Celeste in her red cocktail dress fit right in. I was a little underdressed, but with Celeste at the table, no one was going to notice. A waiter in a tuxedo brought menus and asked if we’d like a cocktail. I let Celeste set the pace, and she ordered a margarita. That was a pace I couldn’t match, so I ordered Captain Morgan and Coke. It’s not that I don’t like tequila. I love it. It may be the greatest flavor of all liquors and my mouth waters just thinking about it. The problem is that after a couple of margaritas I tend to go outside and bay at the moon, and I did have ulterior motives for this date.
Gazing into Celeste’s baby blues by candlelight almost sidetracked me, but I forged ahead. “How long have you lived in Fairbanks?”
“Starting my third winter, and sort of looking forward to it. You know, this time of year is like the pause before you jump into a cold shower. You have to take a deep breath and force yourself, but once you’re in, it isn’t so bad. After that, it gets really lovely, you know? Beautiful white frost on everything, then Christmas lights reflecting in ice fog. In a weird kind of way, it’s like living in a cocoon.”
“Yep, know just what you mean. You bundle up, keep doing your thing, and every day is different.”
“Is Bethel very beautiful, Alex?”
“On rare occasions, some storms are spectacular, but no, Bethel is flat bare tundra. Fascinating maybe. Beautiful, not likely.”
“Then why do you stay there?”
The waiter brought our drinks and we hadn’t yet consulted the menus. Celeste solved that problem. “Alex, they do a filet mignon that’s out of this world.”
“Terrific, let’s do it.”
She ordered salad with Roquefort, a baked potato with everything, and the filet rare, so when it came my turn I just nodded.
“Alex, why don’t you pick the wine?”
“Sure. I’ve been thinking that a good Côtes du Rhône would hit the spot.” Everyone nodded and the waiter bustled away.
“So, then why do you live in Bethel?”
“If you’re not smart enough to get a real job and have to fly charter for a living, Bethel is the best place to do that. We have no roads, no connection with the outside world. There’s only the Kuskokwim River between villages, and then only a few of the villages. Our area includes Nelson and Nunivak Islands, and half our customers live on the Yukon. Their choice is between a four-day snow machine trip or a one-hour charter, and in summer, they have no choice at all.”
“So, it really is busier than Fairbanks?” She was sipping tequila with obvious relish and I almost envied her.
“Before the pipeline it certainly was. Bethel was the second busiest airport in America, no joke. Only Chicago’s O’Hare had more takeoffs and landings in a year.”
“Wow, I had the impression that Bethel was a small town.”
“Oh, you are so right, and that’s the rest of the story. The planes leaving O’Hare probably average a hundred passengers each, the planes leaving Bethel have one or two passengers. Still, if you’re the driver, the pay is the same. So, you’ve been working for Interior for three years? I’m really impressed with your operation.”
Our salads arrived. Celeste had finished her drink and pointed to her empty glass. The waiter caught the gesture. If I’d been bent on seduction, that would have been a very good sign. Come to think of it, seduction was not a bad idea, but remained secondary. We plowed into salads, and the Roquefort was sublime. It had hunks of cheese in it, but enough sauce to keep the tang manageable.
“So, how do you like working for Interior? It must be exciting working for a guy who’s running for governor.” A waiter brought Celeste a second margarita, followed immediately by another waiter with our wine. I sampled the wine, nodded approval, and he poured, so Celeste had a drink in each hand. I sent a silent vote of thanks to Angie for the red wine expertise. Celeste drank down the tequila as if it were water and shoved the glass aside. I finished my salad, and the waiter cleared plates and cocktail glasses.
Musicians came trooping in and started setting up on the stage. Celeste seemed to be contemplating my question.
“Well, Reginald is a stuffed shirt, you know? Pardon my French, but he can be a pompous ass. Thing is, the pay is good…and, I do meet some very exciting people.” She toasted me with her wineglass. Our knees accidentally met under the table, lingered for a delicious second. I was pretty sure I hadn’t moved mine.
Our steaks arrived, and Celeste had been right. Miniature filets two inches thick, tender enough to cut with a fork, and wrapped in bacon.
“What do you think of Reginald’s campaign manager, what’s his name?”
“Oh, you mean Dave Marino? Interesting character.” She frowned, “He reminds me of a runaway bulldozer, but can’t say I really know him.”
“Isn’t he a local character?”
“Nope, he showed up a few weeks ago, convinced Reginald that he needed a campaign manager, and took over advertising and stuff.”
We had to stop talking, that beef was the clichéd melt in your mouth. It was ten minutes of ecstasy. Mostly the ecstasy was beef and the potato, but it included a couple of knee rubs before I got Celeste back to the subject of Dave Marino. In the meantime, the band eased into elevator music from the Sixties. The Côtes du Rhône was the perfect complement to the food and the music.
We finally sat back and sipped. “Do you think Dave is taking advantage of Reginald?” I asked.
“It’s hard to imagine anyone doing that, but he certainly is pushy.”
“And you have no idea where he came from?”
Celeste finished her wine. I picked up the bottle to pour more, but it was empty. “Shall we order another?”
“Let’s not. It was perfect for dinner, but I’m ready for dessert. How about a Grasshopper? And mostly, I want to dance.”
Our waiter descended, swiped away empty bottle and glasses. He’d caught the Grasshopper request, but I couldn’t go along with that, either. I ordered another Captain Morgan. Crème de menthe probably has its uses, but imbibing isn’t one of them.
The band struck up a cha-cha. Celeste was dancing in her chair, top half swaying to the beat, and I noticed some interesting movement inside her bodice. I did the gentlemanly thing and asked, “Care to dance?” She grabbed my hand and pulled me onto the floor.
Cha, cha, cha-cha-cha. We did the face-to-face with deep knee bends, then got creative, and Celeste danced like a dream, no bones in her body. When she twirled, I did notice that she was wearing garters and her panties matched her dress.
We segued straight to “Hey mambo, mambo Italiano, hey mambo…” Who cared if Dave was stealing the company?
We came back to a fresh tablecloth, a new candle, and our drinks sparkling in the light. Her green Grasshopper was beautiful, just not potable, but she seemed to like it.
“Oh, Alex, that was heavenly. Do you tango?”
“Not since my last one in Paris. I’ll follow you. Did you say you think Dave is up to no good?”
She sipped and thought, and the colors were striking, sparkling sapphire eyes and earrings, spun gold bob, emerald drink and ruby lipstick, all reflecting the flickering candlelight. The dimples were there, and I’d been right to extol their allure.