Authors: Don Porter
Tags: #FICTION / Mystery & Detective / General
The airport provides a couple of pay phones on a post at the exit from the general aviation area. Itinerant pilots can call taxis without having to hoof a half-mile to the terminal. That’s a little old fashioned by most standards, and if you live in Anchorage or Fairbanks, you might have a cell phone, but those don’t work in the bush. In the villages everyone has a CB radio, and there’s one in every airplane, but when you visit a city, it’s good old-fashioned pay phones. I hid the Dodge between two hangers and jogged to the phones to call Angie.
“Hi, Alex, what’s up?” I could hear Seinfeld in the background, George Costanza whining about something.
“Probably nothing, but I may be late. You go ahead and have dinner. Be a good girl, order room service, and be damned sure the waiter is from the restaurant before you open the door.”
“Yes, mother, I’ll be fine. Are you in danger?”
“No, or not yet. Don’t worry, pistol in belt, keen insights and lightning reflexes honed. I’ll either join you at dinner or be a little late. Give my love to Elaine.”
“Huh? Oh, sure. Be careful, Alex.”
“That’s my middle name.” I hung up the phone and ducked back to the Dodge.
The first car to leave Interior was the Cadillac, and the driver was Dave, the campaign manager. I let him go three blocks down Airport Road and followed him.
We turned left down Cushman Street into town, but kept going across the river on the Cushman Street Bridge. He turned right on College Road, then left on the Steese Highway. I pulled into the service station at the corner and waited. When you’re following a car you don’t want too much traffic, but you also don’t want too little, and his was the only car on the Steese.
Just before I was going to have to pull out and follow, he turned left into the parking lot at the Rendezvous. I gave him three minutes and raced to the club, but drove the Dodge around back and parked beside the bartender’s Lincoln. Five minutes later, four guys jammed into the cab of a pickup came weaving down the highway. They slued into the lot and staggered toward the door. I was right behind them when they entered. They trooped toward the bar. I turned right, followed the wall past tables, and sat down in the darkest corner.
Several tables around me were occupied, most with a B-girl and a victim. Laughter, giggles, a general hubbub of horseplay and ice tinkling in glasses almost drowned out Jack’s piano. Hunkered down behind my table I felt inconspicuous enough.
Dave was at the bar with his back to me, and earnestly discussing something with two men. The two were dressed typical Fairbanks roughneck in jeans and work shirts. One was taller, one was wider, but that’s true of any two guys. I couldn’t pick out anything from their backs in the dark that might or might not resemble the phony cops who had come to Stan and Angie’s place. When they attacked at the house, they’d been wearing hats, so I hadn’t seen the features that could have identified them. I hadn’t had time to form a plan when Jody descended on my table.
“Hi, handsome, you came back for me.”
“Yeah, I got a little distracted the other night with all of the excitement.”
“Gawd, wasn’t that awful? Are you going to buy a thirty-dollar bottle?”
“Sure thing.” I peeled a twenty and a ten off the roll. She skipped to the bar and was back in a flash with a bottle and two glasses. She started to scoot her chair next to me, but I caught her shoulders and guided her down onto the chair opposite so she was between me and David.
“What’s the matter? Afraid I might bite? I do use teeth, but never draw blood.”
“See those three guys at the bar? The suit and the two scruffs?”
She tossed her mane to glance over her shoulder. “Yeah, what about them?” She popped the cork like the expert she was and poured the champagne. Don’t be impressed by the price. That bottle would cost four bucks at a grocery store, and fifteen of the thirty goes into Jody’s garter.
“Do you know them?”
“Hey, I don’t rat on my friends, but no, not really. Those guys are tighter than a fifty-cent condom. They want to feel the merchandise, but for free.”
“Do they come in often?”
“Well, the scruffs are pretty regular in the last couple of weeks. Not sure about the suit. Maybe I seen him, maybe not. Nice threads, I should check him out. Aren’t you going to drink your champagne?”
“Jody, I can’t drink that stuff. It would give me the trots if I didn’t actually upchuck it.”
“Yeah, me neither. I just wait until the customer is occupied and pour it on the floor. Problem is we’ve got to get rid of it. I plan on another bottle every ten minutes.”
“Okay, we’ve got eight minutes to go. Try not to breathe the fumes.” Actually, the fumes I was trying to avoid were Jody’s perfume, but they did seem to mix with the noxious emanations from the champagne.
Dave got up and strode out the door. No empty glass on the counter where he’d sat, so he hadn’t even had a drink. He’d come for a conference, and I did not like that at all.
“Jody, if I was to buy the next bottle ahead of schedule, do you think you could get one or both of the glasses the scruffs are using?”
“Probably. I can likely get everything except their wallets. Why, you some kind of cop or something now?”
“Or something. If you can get them, pick them up by the rim, don’t touch the sides, and be careful not to smudge or wipe them.”
“Twenty dollars a glass?”
“I like nice round figures. How about thirty?”
“Okay, but Jody, I will be checking fingerprints so you damn well better have the right glasses.”
“Hey, honor among thieves, right? You and me, baby.” She reached under the table to squeeze my knee. “Time’s up, need another bottle.”
“Right.” I handed her two more bills. “It would be a good thing if you can keep them here for a while, if you want me to live to buy the glasses.”
“Indubitably.” She swayed toward the bar, skirt raised for garter stuffing. She straightened the skirt, did a full body check that everything was in place, walked up behind the two scruffs and draped arms around their shoulders. I split.
“Angie, grab your stuff, we’re moving.”
“Where to, and how about dinner?”
“No, I mean we’re moving now, like this instant. Pretend the building is on fire, and it just might be.” She caught the urgency in my voice and ran for the bathroom.
“I’ll just put your stuff in with mine. What’s the matter?”
“Usual drill. I don’t know, maybe nothing, but I think some very bad people just learned my full name, and that’s the name on the hotel register.”
She zipped out of the bathroom carrying her overnight case and swept the room fast with frightened eyes. I picked up her suitcase from the folding stand, and we were out the door.
We did a fast walk the length of the hall and down the stairs. The lobby was empty so I dinged the bell and a receptionist came from the office, wiping sleep out of her eyes. It took thirty seconds to check out. The Dodge was six spaces down the row. This time I’d gotten smart. I’d found an empty cigarette pack in the gutter, ripped the cellophane off, and stuck a sliver in each door. When I opened the passenger door for Angie, the cellophane fluttered out, so I tossed the bags in back and let her get in. Cellophane was in place on my door too, and one can’t open the hood without getting inside. I jumped in, engine started, and we raced for the Polaris building.
“Where are we going?”
“To change cars. Too many people who might be bad may have seen this one.”
“Don’t you ever make a positive statement?”
“I will, if anything positive happens.” We parked the car in the lot and the attendant took the keys. I popped the trunk and collected the shotgun. It was wrapped in Turk’s blanket, but was still pretty obvious and the attendant was staring. There’s nothing illegal about carrying a shotgun, and it wouldn’t even be unusual in your own car, but it did seem a little out of place in a rental. We ran across First Avenue toward the office, Angie leading, me carrying cases and the shotgun.
“Alex, they must know it’s a rented car, so if they know your name and you rent another, they can check on that.”
“Got a better idea?”
“Yeah, let’s use Mary Angela Demoski. They won’t recognize that name.”
“Mary? Even I don’t recognize it.”
“Yep, on my birth certificate, driver’s license, and credit card. I kept my maiden name when I married Stan. Not disloyalty, it just seemed right.”
Angie took charge, stepped up to the counter, and rented a white Buick Regal. I hovered outside the door, trying not to look like a desperado who might want a rental car to rob a bank. Angie came out dangling a key ring. We walked back across the street to the lot and she opened the trunk. I stashed luggage and shotgun in the trunk. Angie nodded her approval and tossed me the keys. “Now where to?”
“Well, you mentioned dinner, and we are homeless.”
“How about the Maranatha Inn on South Cushman?”
“Never heard of it.”
Angie was nodding. “That’s precisely the point. Neither has anyone else, but the food is excellent. No wine though, it’s run by a religious group of some kind.”
“No, but there are bibles in the rooms. The drinks are really funny because the menu lists all the usual stuff, piña coladas, mai tais, whatever, and they’re really cheap. You should have seen Stan’s face when we figured it out. See, we’d been whiffing down hurricanes, really good, and we’d had three or four when Stan realized we weren’t getting drunk. Gimmick is there’s no alcohol in them.”
“Not sure I’m up for being stranded in the desert.”
“No problem, the Squadron Club’s right next door.”
The young man behind the counter at the Maranatha had that clean-cut innocent look you associate with Mormon missionaries. Angie’s request for twin beds was what he expected, and this time we were carrying suitcases.
Our room had seen better days, quite a few of them, but it was clean. The beds really were twin size, and sure enough, there was a bible on the dresser where the TV usually sits. I dumped the bags. Angie inspected the bathroom. I opened the curtains and checked out the view. A courtyard had a couple of straggly trees, but they were likely very nice in spring and summer. Fifty feet away, beyond the trees, South Cushman Street was gushing cars and flashing neon signs. The offer of booze and sex was pretty clear just from the lights. The devil was held at bay by our courtyard.
Angie came out of the bathroom. “Ready?”
We retraced our steps down the walkway and stairs in search of sustenance. The walkway was alfresco, two-by-four railing over a two-by-four grate, everything coated with layers of green paint. Gaps between the two-by-fours were wide enough to let rain through, so apparently their guests didn’t wear stiletto heels.
The restaurant appeared normal. Maybe the crowd was younger than usual, but they were quiet and studiously feeding their faces. The room was bright, meant for eating, not seduction, and there wasn’t a candle in sight. Our waitress was obviously working her way through college, or maybe high school. I momentarily spaced out where we were and ordered the scallops. Angie went for salmon again, and we ordered a bottle of sparkling apple juice without discussing the vintage.
“How was your day at work?” I asked.
Angie was inspecting the silverware with obvious approval. It was super clean; probably not real silver, but it could pass. “It was okay, and it sort of worked. We have a big special live show coming up tomorrow night, so we were busy and that helped. What the heck disturbed the bee in your bonnet?”
“I met Reginald’s campaign manager. Nothing overt, but he and Reginald were hanging around the office after closing, and he could have been the man Stan described. He’s the unstoppable executive type and I would not want to lie down in the street in front of his car. He might have recognized my name, and if he did, it was from listening to Stan and me on the CB radio, but he might not have. All I know for sure is that I got a very creepy feeling.”
Our salads arrived, local produce, vinaigrette dressing, tasty and crisp.
“Right, Reginald Parker is running for governor, isn’t he? That’s the big crunch at the station. I know the guy you mean, the campaign manager. His name’s Dave Marino and he’s insisting on deals for advertising. The big doing tomorrow is that Governor Bill is coming up for a State of the North address. It’s like the State of the State address, but local. It’s pure campaigning, but it is newsworthy. That’s the perk of being the incumbent.”
A teenaged busboy removed our salad plates to make room for entrees. Too late, I remembered we were in Fairbanks. Scallops in Seward, Valdez, Cordova, Kodiak, or Homer were a pure delight to rival lobsters. In Fairbanks they had been frozen, so they were the same rubber pucks that wrinkle your nose in Kansas City. Angie was obviously relishing the salmon.
“You’re broadcasting the governor’s speech live?”
“Yep, right after Seinfeld. He’s speaking in the Lacey Street Theater, almost underneath the station, so we just drop cables out the fourth floor window and into the theater balcony.”
“And you’ll be working the broadcast?”
“Yeah, I’m not really the producer, more like a gofer, but we’ll have announcers and scripts, so someone has to keep everything straight.”
“Good Lord, Angie, you don’t suppose they thought Stan overheard a plot to assassinate the gov?” I was so shocked by that thought that I forgot and ate a scallop. I killed the taste and texture with apple juice. It was tough, but the flavor was really not too bad. It was just a pale imitation of fresh scallops. The locally grown baked potato was wonderful and loaded with all the good stuff, so at least I was filling the void.
We lay on our respective beds in the dark and chewed over the assassination idea. It was tougher than the scallops and seemed pretty far out. Fairbanks has some of the earmarks, but it really isn’t the third world. Still, we’d been in the Twilight Zone for the last few days, so anything seemed possible.
“Shouldn’t we be reporting this? Tell the cops or something?” Enough light came in through the window to show Angie propped up on her elbow, looking my way. The hotel was silent except for the muted hum of traffic and sounds of people having fun on Cushman Street.
“Report what, Angie? Tell the cops that I have a bad feeling about Reginald’s campaign manager? Anyhow, there’ll be plenty of security. State troopers will be traveling with the gov, and even the local cops probably won’t let people into the theater with rifles.”
“Alex, we’ve got to do something.”
“Right. Do you suppose you could get me on the TV crew, help set up maybe?”
“Not officially, but I could get you a cap and jacket so you’d blend in. What are you planning?”
“I’ll just keep an eye on things. If the phony cop from your driveway shows up assembling a submachine gun, I could set off the fire alarm or something. You know, in movies, assassins always carry high-powered rifles in clarinet cases and assemble them on site. I could watch for that.”
“Ready for some sleep? I’ve got all my mattress lumps in comfortable positions.”
“Let’s give it a shot. I’m trying to think and that always knocks me out.”
Angie lay down and pulled up the blankets. I squirmed around and watched the lights from Cushman Street sweep across the ceiling. I would have slit my throat long before I made a move on Angie. Loyalty to Stan would have made it unthinkable, and our brother/sister relationship was taking on a sacred aspect. Still, I couldn’t quite forget that she was there.
I did question the hotel’s sanctimonious propriety in not providing television. Normally the boob tube would have put me right to sleep. Its absence reminded me of an episode in my teens when a buddy and I had dated a couple of Pentecostal girls. They weren’t allowed to go to movies or go bowling, or attend any worldly activities. It turned out the only thing we could do was park, which was fine with us. It is a fact that both the birthrate and domestic violence declined in the bush when TV encroached.
I must have slept because I awoke to daylight and Angie was running a shower in the bathroom.
We took the elevator to the fourth floor of the Lathrop Building, but I waited in the hallway while Angie went into the station. In a couple of minutes she stuck her head out and handed me a jacket and cap. I faded down the stairway to don my disguise. The blue cap had KTUU emblazoned in gold, and the matching jacket had NBC on the back. I was no more conspicuous than a Volkswagen in the employee lot at a GM factory.
I was the only employee on the sidewalk, but a window opened on the fourth floor above me and a bundle of cables started snaking down. They descended in short jerks, three feet at a time, with ends swinging back and forth until they began to pile up on the sidewalk. A window opened on the second floor of the theater and a clothesline rope slid down. I caught the end of the rope, tied a timber hitch around the cable ends, and the rope went back up.
Cable ends went through the window, then the cables moved smoothly from one window to the other until the top stopped with a jerk. Cables flopped up and down a couple of times while someone in the theater tried to pull more and someone on top held them back. The guy on top won.
The lobby door of the Lathrop Building opened and a grip dressed like me shoved a cartload of cables out onto the sidewalk and into the theater. I followed him in and no one objected. The grip draped a roll of cables over each shoulder and climbed the balcony stairs. I picked up the next two rolls and followed him.
Two techies were busily connecting new cables to the end of the bundle and unrolling them down toward the auditorium. The grip dropped his cables beside the knitting project and trooped down the stairs for more. I dropped my cables and wandered across the balcony to inspect the projection booth. I was thinking that a sniper rifle in a crowded auditorium might attract attention and the booth would be a perfect place for a rifleman.
Four openings marked the location. Two were six inches square, obviously in front of the projectors. The others were two feet square with glass coverings. Light in the balcony was dim, the booth darker than midnight in a coalmine. Activity at the splice point tapered off. One coaxial cable ran to the balcony rail, turned left, and ended in the corner. The rest of the cables were rebundled and dropped over the railing to the main auditorium. The crew disappeared down the stairs and cables appeared fanning out to platforms that spanned seats. I took off my official cap and settled down in a comfortable loge seat where I could watch the door to the projection booth.
My watch crept slowly toward the seven o’clock show time. By six-thirty, tripods were set up, cameras mounted, and floodlights began to come on. Someone climbed up to the podium on the stage, caught a cable end and set up a microphone. He talked to it a while, but no sound came out, so the feed was going directly to the TV station. At six thirty-five, a wizened little guy wearing corduroy pants and a short-sleeved shirt opened the projection booth with a key. He was not carrying a rifle or a piccolo case. Lights came on in the projection booth, houselights brightened, footlights came on to form blue and gold scallops on the velvet curtain.
One of the glass windows into the booth opened. I wandered over to have a look. The same little guy was shoving a Klieg spotlight into position, looking bored. No one was holding a gun to his head. I went back to my seat. By six-forty people were streaming in and taking seats. The PA system came to life with subliminal elevator music. By that time, the front doors would be manned by troopers, and getting in with a pistol, like the one under my jacket, would be highly unlikely.
That ploy would not work in a presidential situation, or any time the Secret Service is involved. They mandate that all equipment be set up and everyone out of the building two hours before the potentates show up. They sweep the building and let the crews back in with more scrutiny than a high school chaperone at a dance.
The auditorium was packed. Governor Bill was very well liked, and if someone were to unseat him, it probably would take an assassination. At the stroke of seven the houselights dimmed, the spotlight snapped on, and Wee Willy Wally, the mayor of Fairbanks, appeared behind the podium.
Wee Willy got his nickname when he was a teenage announcer for KFAR radio, but that was thirty years ago. There’s nothing wee about him anymore, but he still capitalized on the teddy bear image. He raised his arms and the audience rose to their feet as one. Alaska’s flag song burst from the speakers, and we all belted it out.
Eight stars of gold on a field of blue, Alaska’s flag, may it mean to you
Five hundred people singing their hearts out were vibrating the balcony, and quite a few people around me had tears in their eyes. Alaska does that to you. If you aren’t fiercely loyal, you aren’t there anyway. I kept enough presence of mind to know if the door to the projection booth had opened.
The gold of the early sourdough’s dreams, the precious gold of her hills and streams…
Most people were concentrating on Wally but a few had their eyes closed, lost in introspection and reminiscences of what Alaska and its flag meant to them. I have to admit to emotions that don’t fit my macho image of myself.
the simple flag of the last frontier
.” Wee Willy lowered his arms, the crowd sat.
“Ladies and gentlemen, the Governor of Alaska.” Bill stepped into the spotlight with Wally, but if anything was said, no one heard it. The crowd was on its feet, clapping and cheering. That would have been a perfect moment for a shot; a silencer wouldn’t have been needed. I gripped my pistol and scanned the booth and the back row seats. No blue steel tubes came out of the booth. Everyone in the balcony was using both hands to clap, so not drawing weapons. Wee Willy disappeared, the governor raised his arms and made a sit-down gesture. He repeated it three times before the din tapered off and his standard greeting rang out in the clear tones of the master orator that he was.
“My fellow Alaskans.…”
It was dark inside the projection booth, but nothing moved near the windows. An old-timer in the back row reached inside his jacket to pull something out. I figured it would take him a second to aim and me less than half a second to shoot him, but he pulled out a handkerchief and wiped his eyes.
Funny, Alaska is supposed to have the youngest average age of the states, but I was guessing the average age on that balcony to be a least seventy. A woman next to the railing pulled a dark metal object out of her purse and raised it. She looked to be ninety and I was so surprised I could have missed her if I’d shot, but she raised opera glasses.
One of the best things about Governor Bill is his brevity. He spoke clearly, sincerely, but fast, for precisely fifteen minutes. He raised his arm in a farewell salute. The spotlight snapped off, the crowd went wild, and when the houselights came on, the governor was gone. No doubt he was in the protective arms of his special detail of state troopers.
I rolled my disguise into a bundle; I did not want to join the crew that was rolling cables. My windbreaker still covered the pistol and no one was checking the departees. I joined the crowd streaming out of the theater, then took the stairs in the Lathrop Building. I’d waited five minutes when the elevator opened and Angie came out accompanied by Barbie and Ken look-alikes. The handsome pair were dressed in formal business suits, proclaiming them the talent. Angie was carrying two clipboards. I shoved the bundle of disguise into her fingers, and the trio disappeared into the inner sanctum.
Angie was back in another five minutes and punched the button for the elevator.
“Congratulations. You certainly foiled the assassination attempt. What’s your next brilliant plan?”
“You’re not going to believe this one. We’re going barhopping, then some ribs at the Wagon Wheel?” I made it a question. Angie looked doubtful.
“I don’t know, Alex, I’m functioning, but I don’t think I can handle a party.”
“Angie, some music and dancing are exactly what you need. Sweetheart, it’s going to take years to get over Stan’s death. I’m not suggesting we forget about it. I’m suggesting we grit our teeth and plow into the world we’re going to have to face sometime. If it gets too rough, I’ll take you straight home.”
“Okay, Doctor Price, I’ll give it a try.”
The elevator came and with it a grip pushing a cartload of cables. Angie held the office door for him, I held the elevator door for her, and we escaped. The street door was glass with chicken wire mesh embedded to make it unbreakable. A lot of traffic was plying the street and a solid line of parked cars fronted the sidewalk. One car, two parking spaces to the left, had two men sitting in the front seat and they might have been watching our door. No weapons were apparent, but of course there wouldn’t be until we stepped outside. The interior of the car was too dark for identification of the cops at the cabin or the two scruffs Dave Marino had conferred with at the club.
I gripped the pistol with my right hand, holding Angie behind me with my left. One option was to leave Angie inside, step out and approach the car. If they raised weapons, I could probably shoot them both. The cowardly way was to sneak out another exit.
“Angie, isn’t there a connecting hallway between the Lathrop building and Monte’s Department store?”
“Yeah, fifth floor. You can cross over and come down the other elevator. What’s the matter?”
“Just more of my indecisiveness. I have a sudden urge to do something unexpected.” I shoved her back toward the elevator, endured her exasperated grimace, and she punched
on the elevator console. The fifth floor of the Lathrop Building was all apartments with electronic noises behind doors, and cooking smells in the hallway. We threaded through dark hallways, came to another elevator. The fifth floor above Monte’s housed offices, dark, silent, deserted, and ominous. The only lights were exit signs on both ends of the hall, and the elevator buttons. Angie punched a button, a mechanical rumble replaced the silence, and a door slid open into an empty car. Angie stepped in and punched
I was right behind her. That brought us to another glass door to the street, but this time behind the suspicious sedan.
“Angie, wait here for a minute while I check out the coast.”
“You are one sexist S.O.B., aren’t you? If there’s a problem, let me help.”
“Sweetheart, I’m counting on your help. Hold this door open in case I make a hasty and ignominious retreat, because if the door closes, we’ll be locked out and that could be a bad thing.”
“Aye, aye, my fearless if sexist protector. You go out and get shot. I’ll wait here like a good little girl.”
“Damn it, Angie. Me Tarzan, you Jane. We both have roles to fulfill. It was foreordained by the primal drive for the survival of the species. As the female, you must be protected at all costs; as the male, I’m highly expendable. You hold the door. I’ll go out and get shot. There might be enough trouble outside without you giving me any in here. Men have all the fun, so shut up, like it, and hold the door.”
She did hold the door open a crack. I gripped the pistol and walked up behind the sedan. I could see through their windows, no weapons apparent. Two women came burbling and giggling out of the theater, opened a back door and slid into the sedan. The engine started, the sedan pulled out into traffic, and I beckoned to Angie to join me.
The Buick was parked on Second Avenue, but short of the din that was coming from the native bars. My cellophane fluttered out of the doors again. We tucked ourselves in and found a hole in the traffic. We turned right on Cushman, over the bridge, and thence to the Rendezvous Club. No Cadillacs, no Mercedes, so I parked in the lot, and was surprised when Angie climbed out of the car with me.