Authors: Don Porter
Tags: #FICTION / Mystery & Detective / General
The vet condescended to talk to us. “I should keep him for a few days’ observation. He just might have a concussion, and we don’t want any infection.”
Angie was nodding. She knelt and gave Turk a hug. He licked her face, but in slow motion. He seemed to sag against the vet’s leg.
I pulled Angie back to the car. Turk apparently understood that he wasn’t being abandoned. His tail was wagging, but with a beat suitable for Brahms.
“Angie, have you noticed that we haven’t slept in a while?”
“Yep, a bed sounds good, but now that I have my girl things I need about two hours in the bathroom.”
“Whatever for? You’re the most beautiful girl God ever made, just as is.”
“Yeah, that’s fine for you bushmen to say, but we’re in the city now. Never mind why, just take me back to the room. The hairbrush alone will be thirty minutes.”
We tooled back to town, no one following us, and no lurkers in the hotel parking lot. The stairway was clear. I carried the overnight case in my left hand, pistol casually in right hand beside my leg, but the upstairs hallway was vacant. We ducked into our room.
I put the chain on the door, but decided that sliding the dresser in front of it would be overkill. I kept telling myself that two deadly professionals were out to kill us, but they wouldn’t know where we were. I set the magnum on the nightstand and stretched out on the big bed. It was like floating on cloud nine. Angie had run straight to the bathroom, and I could hear water rushing into the tub.
The TV remote was beside the phone so I punched the set to life and ratcheted through the cartoons to the Channel Two noon news. I was slapped in the face with a picture of Stan’s truck, and was glad Angie hadn’t seen it. Next, a long commercial for Friendly Ford, then a talking head pontificating about the upcoming Governor’s race. I recognized both frontrunners. The incumbent has been a personal friend for years. Alaska is a very large place geographically, but thousands of unpopulated square miles don’t count in elections. Population-wise, you could fit us all into Rhode Island and it would seem deserted. The population is small enough that almost everyone knows the gov, and most of us call him Bill.
The challenger had been in Bethel on the campaign trail and I’d flown him to a few of the larger villages. I vaguely registered that he was the owner of Interior Air Cargo, and somehow that seemed significant, then my eyes closed.
I awoke to twilight. The TV was off, the curtains open, and it was getting dark outside. Angie was sprawled out on the other bed, wearing a robe over pajamas, with little pink twists caught in her hair. She was breathing deeply, regularly, a comfortable homey sound. I thought it must be nice to wake up to a scene like that every day. Maybe when I get back to Bethel I should try again to weasel Connie into marriage. She seems to like me well enough, but she wants a man who’s home at six every evening. That’s understandable. Her ex-husband was a long-haul truck driver who turned out to have a girl in every town. She’s still smarting from that, and my schedule is too erratic for her. Maybe it’s best that I didn’t have to explain why I’m absent without leave and sharing a hotel room with an extremely attractive young lady.
I made a backrest of the pillows and sat against the headboard. It seemed like there was something I should remember, but it wasn’t coming to the surface.
I went back over the conversation with Stan, every word and nuance, but it seemed hopeless. Two guys, one he didn’t know, one he didn’t see, talking about something he didn’t hear. Then the blast at the club. Clearly, someone was smart enough to listen to the CB radio, but channel nine is the Fairbanks calling frequency so that didn’t require special knowledge of Stan. I was calling from two thousand feet up, so my half of the conversation would have been heard anywhere in the area, and I had mentioned the Rendezvous and the time frame. Still, getting to the club within an hour and with a bomb required some organization. A bomb that didn’t leave evidence for the police must have been sophisticated, unless there was a cover up. Having police uniforms handy screamed
“You awake?” Angie asked.
“I hope not. I hope I’m having the worst and most convoluted nightmare on record, but probably not.”
“Is it against your religion to feed a girl twice in one day?”
“Not if she’s a very good girl. Do you want room service? Your PJs are cute, but they might cause a stir in the restaurant.”
“Give me thirty seconds.”
“Want to go to the Wagon Wheel for barbecue?”
“No, not tonight. I don’t want to hear music or see happy people dancing. I just want to eat something, have a glass or two of wine, and go right back to sleep.”
“The perfect agenda—twenty-nine seconds left.”
In five minutes we were seated in the restaurant downstairs, dark, intimate, but no music and no dancing. The pistol in my belt felt reassuring and the other patrons were mostly the dregs of the tourist trade, poised to head south and causing no trouble. I got a shock when I noticed it was nine o’clock, twenty-four hours since Stan’s death. It didn’t seem right that we were still alive, ordering dinner. How could we be doing normal things, looking like normal people? Angie’s world had just been ripped apart, mine had a terrible hole in it, and yet I was calmly asking the sommelier the vintage of their Pouilly Fuissé. I decided not to think. I’m pretty good at that. Angie was obviously struggling, emotions flitting like a kaleidoscope show, but she bit her lower lip and studied her menu. Life must go on, food must be ordered and eaten. Stan was there at the table with us, we just didn’t mention it.
The lamb chops béarnaise were perfectly done, spicy crisp crust around pink centers, but somehow I didn’t seem to taste them. Angie was toying with her salmon steak. We were washing the food down with a bottle of the 1973, which should have been pure ecstasy, and Angie was surpassing her two-glass estimate, but she didn’t appear to be enjoying the wine either.
I know, it’s utterly gauche to drink white wine with red meat. I don’t know who makes up those rules, but I suspect they’ve never tried it. I think it’s one of those truisms with no truth to it, but perhaps I don’t have a sufficiently educated palate. In any case, no wine police showed up to arrest me. It occurred to me that even though Angie appeared poised and sophisticated, she probably wouldn’t know the finer nuances of wine.
Our little candle in its glass bowl made a soft flickering light across Angie’s features. Large, Kahlua-colored eyes reflecting candlelight, long black lashes that had not come from her makeup kit, high cheekbones and overall symmetry and harmony—she was exquisite. That thought led to how much Stan had to live for, and then to our campfire on the riverbank, the slender strength of her leaning against me for warmth and comfort.
“Whatcha thinking about?” Angie was watching me over the rim of her wineglass, and I hoped she hadn’t caught me staring.
“I’m thinking that we can’t wait around for killers to find us. We need to find them. Our best clue must be at the freight office. Tomorrow, I’ll try to wangle my way in, maybe ask for a job handling freight or something. If we knew who was picking up or dropping off freight at closing time last night, it might give us a starting point.”
At breakfast, I scanned the dining room and decided I was being paranoid. Threats never seem quite real on sunny mornings in happy crowds. Angie had wrinkled her nose and announced her intention of buying me some clean clothes. I handed her three twenties and she made that come-on gesture, like “hit me” in blackjack. I added another twenty. She kept waggling fingers. One more twenty. She nodded and folded the bills into a pocket.
I started down Cushman toward Second Avenue, but turned right after two blocks, circled a block, and came back to Cushman. We were definitely not being followed. Angie spurned my suggestion of the Alaska Commercial Company so I dropped her at Monty’s upscale haberdashery. She waved and the store sucked her inside. I drove out to the airport.
I parked in front of Interior Air Cargo. An office with large windows and an entrance was on the right. The rest of the building appeared to be a warehouse with an overhead door that could admit a truck, and beside it a pedestrian door into the freight area. That was the door Stan had used. I turned away from it, and entered the office.
A gray Formica counter reached from wall to wall, with a hinged section at the left end for employees to go through. Two sharp, attractive young women sat at desks, a no-nonsense brunette at a computer, a breathtaking blonde working on a ledger. The back of the room had two doors, apparently to two private offices, and to the left of them was the fateful door into the freight area. The ledger lady gave me a smile and came to take my shipping order. Time to think fast.
“Hi, I’m in town for just a few days, but I’m running short of cash and wondered if you happen to have a temporary opening? I’m familiar with shipping, but I’m also good with a broom and a mop.”
“No, I’m sorry, we’re fully staffed, and we use Pierson’s janitorial service. I really don’t think….”
The door of the private office on the right popped open and the shout startled both of us.
“Hey, Alex, what’s happening, man?” It was Freddy. We’ve known each other since he was dispatching for Hawley Evans at Fairbanks Air Service and both of us were flying for the Tanana Valley Air Search and Rescue. We were flying free, building up hours. That’s not an FAA requirement. We both had our commercial licenses, and the required hours for those are laughable. In Alaska, it’s the insurance companies that rule the charter business, and their mandate is two thousand hours before they’ll even talk to you.
“Hi, Freddy, in town for a few days and looking to starch up the bankroll.”
“Oh, oh, let me guess. Was the problem named Jody?” He’d come to the counter and plunked his elbows down to make a chin rest of his hands.
“A gentleman would never tell, but yeah, I do need to earn a few hundred bucks to support my lavish lifestyle.”
“Alex, I never thought you were the type, but you must have been sent from heaven. Pipeline is running us ragged. How the devil did you get time off in the fall? Everyone here is trying to beat winter with last summer’s projects.”
“Yeah, well, you guys have a pipeline. All Bethel has is a pipe dream, but I really do have just a few days off. Do you have something?”
“Show me some paper.” He pulled a big ledger-type logbook from under the counter. I handed him my license and medical. He started copying numbers. “You’re current on the turbo-twin Otter, of course.”
“Good.” He didn’t want to hear me say no. What he was proposing isn’t quite kosher, but it is standard procedure. In theory you have to stay current in each aircraft you fly, but in fact, it’s sort of like renting a car from Avis. You don’t care who made the car. Switches may be a little strange; it might take a minute to figure out the wipers and the AC. The gearshift may be different from the Masserati you drive at home, but you get in and drive with no lessons. With thirteen thousand hours in the air, and experience in at least twenty different aircraft, you can do the same with airplanes.
“There’s a new turbo-twin out front with a load of pipe fittings that they’re screaming for in Wiesman. I was going to send Tommy up when he gets back from Prudhoe, but if you’ll run it up, it’ll save a lot of arm twisting.”
“It’s already loaded?”
“Yep, actually about five hundred pounds overloaded, but I promise it’s perfectly balanced.” He closed the ledger and stuck it back under the counter. Apparently I was now employed. He handed me a ring with two keys. “Second key is to the office. It may take a while to connect with their people and get off-loaded. If the office is closed when you get back, just fill out a flight ticket and put it on Celeste’s desk.” He indicated the pretty blonde ledger lady who was still standing at the counter. We gave each other little waves to acknowledge our introduction, and I tried not to stare at her fetching dimples when she smiled.
I snapped Freddy a military salute, an old joke from the Air Search days, and took the keys. If I’d been writing the scenario, it couldn’t have been better, and I was very sure the office would be closed when I got back.
“Alex, the Otter is a cinch. Like driving a baby buggy with rubber bumpers. If you have any questions, give me a shout on the Unicom.”
“Yes, sir.” I started for the door.
“Oh, and if you could drop by about noon tomorrow? Another load for Atigun Pass, but half of that won’t be up from Anchorage until eleven.”
“Why don’t I remember an airstrip in Atigun Pass?”
“You land on Chandalar Shelf, no problem.”
“Oh, you mean I’m using a helicopter tomorrow?”
“Just wait until you’ve tried that Otter.” He gave me a wave, dismissive this time, and I strolled out to the flight line to see what I’d gotten into.
Geoffrey de Havilland was twenty years old when he started designing the aircraft that tipped the advantage to England during WWI, and he, or at least his company, has never stopped. He built a four-passenger airliner in 1919, an eight-passenger in 1921, and in 1925 he built the Hercules that carried mail and passengers throughout Europe and Africa. At the same time he built his Moth, then the Gypsy Moth and the Tiger Moth that set the standard for light aircraft.
It was de Havilland Aircraft of Canada Ltd. that built the Beaver, then the Otter, then the Twin Otter. They were built for bush work. They’re slow, but consummate flying machines when strips are short and quarters tight. Equally at home on wheels, skis, or floats, they set the standard that others strive for. When they took the reciprocating engines off the Twin Otter and replaced them with turbines, they lightened it by three hundred pounds and almost doubled the horsepower.
Nine-Two Bravo was like new. It even had a hint of the new-plane smell in spite of the boxes that were netted down from the back of my seat to the rear bulkhead. The turbines started instantly. I taxied to the end of runway one-eight and was cleared for takeoff. It’s a little disconcerting to wind up the engines and hear a whine instead of a roar, but she was chomping at the bit. I released the brakes, and we were gone. Overloaded or not, that sucker took off like an over-inflated dirigible.
The strip at Weisman is eighteen hundred feet long, but I was remembering Chandalar Shelf as half that, so I used the landing for practice. The flaps came down like barn doors, airspeed dropped to sixty, still no shudder of impending stall. Fifty-five, still solid. Fifty, slightest tremor. Touch of power, and solid again. It was like landing a parachute. When Bushmaster gets rich, we’ll buy a turbine Otter.
Since getting home late was the agenda, I wandered over to the portable cook shack after the valves were offloaded. One thing you can always count on at remote camps is excellent food, lots of it, and always available. I helped myself to two pieces of apple pie that had just come from the oven. I figured an hour and a half back to Fairbanks. Stan had said the office was officially closed at six, but no reason to cut it close. I settled down on a green vinyl-upholstered love seat in the lounge with a cup of fresh Yuban coffee and watched videotapes of
I Love Lucy
until five. Television has turned colored and seems faster, but it isn’t any better. It was hard to leave the lounge.
I drifted down over Farmer’s Loop Road at six-thirty and was cleared for a straight-in approach to runway one-eight. The rented Dodge was the only car in the lot, and the office was dark. I tied the Otter to the cable, gave it a pat like the faithful horse it was, and opened the office door with my key.
The light switch was beside the door. Fluorescent tubes flickered on until I felt like I was in a spotlight. My problem was that there were no window shades, and once the lights were on, I couldn’t see much outside, but I would sure be visible in the office. Freddy had left a flight ticket on the counter for me, numbers already filled in. All I had to do was note the arrival time and sign it. I carried it back to Celeste’s desk, sat in her chair, and dug a pen out of her center drawer. A whiff of perfume reminded me of the dimples, altogether pleasant.
Two large drawers on the right side were labeled
. I pulled the
drawer and finger-walked to the front. Several invoices were loose, then a folder, and the tab was dated yesterday. The next file was the day I wanted. I tried to look down and riffle pages without being terribly obvious. Pages were in reverse order, the earliest pickups at the back, latest in front. The final pickup of the day was the Nevada Kid grocery store, four hundred pounds of perishables at four-fifty. Before that was Fairbanks Building Supply, a thousand pounds of hardware picked up at four-twenty. Neither seemed likely to be hanging around after six. I moved down to the bottom drawer.
I had just opened the drawer when a pickup stopped outside and two doors slammed.
Conscience doth make cowards of us all
. I pretended to study the flight ticket while I shoved the drawer closed with my knee and cursed myself for leaving the pistol under the car seat.
The door burst open and two cops came in. One held a big, ugly .45 pointed right at my face, but this cop was wearing a badge and it said Airport Security.
“Keep your hands on the desk and don’t breathe. What are you doing here?”
“Filling out my flight ticket.” I tried for an innocent smile. “I just got in, you must have seen me land the Twin Otter.”
“Maybe, but I haven’t seen you around before.”
“New hire, just started today.”
The partner had picked up the phone from the counter and consulted a list from his pocket. He dialed, and turned away so I couldn’t hear his conversation until he looked up and spoke to me. “What’s your name?”
He nodded and waved his partner to put the gun down. That was a relief. Staring down the barrel of a .45 automatic is decidedly uncomfortable and sweat inducing.
“Thanks, Freddy, it’s him alright. Big and ugly, brown hair nineteen fifties style and a cut from a barroom brawl on his forehead.” He nodded. “Sorry to bother you at home.”
They turned toward the door. The one who had been threatening my life said, “Have a nice day.” Car doors slammed again and they were gone.
I took a couple of deep breaths, promised myself a drink shortly, and opened the bottom drawer.
The last outgoing shipment was Fairbanks Furniture Factory, eight hundred pounds at three in the afternoon. I checked the next folder, and the first shipment of the day was Stan’s motor, listed at eight in the morning. There was his signature. I just stared at it, feeling that all this couldn’t be real. I needed to wake up from this nightmare.
I noticed that the next shipment was charged to Alyeska Pipeline, five hours of Twin Otter time, and another for the pipeline in the afternoon. I glanced back at the previous day and that, too, had two charges for the pipeline. No wonder they could afford new aircraft.
I closed the drawer, signed the flight ticket claiming a six-fifteen arrival. I left it center desk with the keys on top of it, switched off the light and left. I should have known that when getting into the office late was so easy, it wouldn’t do any good. Murphy’s Law would never stand for a plan working that well.
Angie was sitting on her bed, propped up on pillows, white blouse, dark skirt, hair shining and shoes off. Seinfeld was bantering with Elaine on the tube.
I rinsed off the travel dust and made a nest on my bed to join her. Maybe television still has some redeeming qualities.
“Any luck?” she asked.
I gave her an appropriately doleful headshake.
The program ended and she switched off the set.
“New clothes in the bathroom, next to a hot shower and a disposable razor.” I took that to be a hint. I did feel like a new man by the time I put on the dress slacks and shirt she had picked out. Nice threads: tan slacks, blue shirt with button down collar, and no little pictures of alligators or logos confirmed her good taste. She hadn’t asked my size, and our mutual loss washed over me again. Stan and I wear, or wore, the same sizes and she knew it. I stepped back to the bedroom in all my sartorial splendor and was greeted with appropriate applause.
“Alex, I’m going crazy. I spent most of the afternoon crying. I know that won’t bring Stan back. I’ve got to think about here and now, and you’ve got to help me. Do you happen to know who broils the best lobsters on the planet?”
“Matter of fact, I do. That would be The Broiler, if we can get a table.”
“We probably can. We have reservations in twenty minutes.”
I nodded and extended my left elbow, she took it and I led her out. The pistol was on my right. Angie was caught in a culture warp and struggling. The one thing that her Athabaskan Indian ancestors have in common with the Eskimos on the coast is that the men die violently and early. In the villages, it’s hunting or fishing accidents. Angie and Stan had reached for an urban, or
lifestyle, so she hadn’t expected to be widowed in her twenties. Now it had happened to her, just as it had to her mother before her, and she was struggling for the Indian stoicism that should have been her heritage.
It was only eight blocks to the restaurant, but six stoplights, so we made it with three minutes to spare. A neat young man wearing a tuxedo greeted us with a friendly smile. He plucked two menus from his podium and led us past the gleaming cavern of the bar to a corner table in the dining room. We didn’t bother with the menus. Naturally, we both ordered the broiled African lobster tails. That was the whole point of going to The Broiler.