by Alan A Sandercott
97 pages. Perfect bound. 5" X 8".
First printing 2001
[Out of Print]
Unfriendly Skies is the third in a series of stories about Seattle's shoestring private investigator, George Lennox. In this story, George finds himself in Fairbanks, Alaska, hot on the trail of an airline hijacker. As usual, George relies on his instincts and years of experience as a Seattle cop to track down his wary and elusive quarry. Follow along as George puts his life on the line for his clients.
NOTE: This previously published work is covered by copyright.
No printing, copying or use by any means without written permission from the author.
UNFRIENDLY SKIES by Alan A Sandercott
Rocky Mountain Airline's flight number 26 was on its return leg between Fairbanks, Alaska, and the remote community of Star Lake, located high in the mountains along the southern branch of the Yukon River. The small two engine aircraft was designed to carry light cargo with room for nine passengers. Its crew consisted of two; a pilot and copilot.
On that particular September day there were only seven passengers on board. Near the front, a young woman sat staring out the cabin window while her son, a little boy about five sat next to her and worked feverishly in a coloring book. Another woman occupied the seat behind the copilot. She turned around to admire the boy's artwork and smiled her approval at his choice of colors. Across from her, directly behind the pilot, sat a man wearing a Seattle Seahawk's ballcap. His attention was on the pilot who was talking casually with the copilot. Part way back in the cabin sat a young newly wed couple oblivious to anything or anyone around them. In the back of the cabin a businessman leaned back in his seat, snoring lightly as he dozed away the trip. The scene was perfectly normal for flight 26 that Thursday afternoon.
The first sign of trouble came in the form of a scream. In that instant, the peaceful environment in the plane switched to surprise, then confusion, and finally, panic. The woman sitting behind the copilot; the woman who screamed, suddenly leaned away from the isle, a look of shock on her face. The mother behind her instinctively reached for her child. The young newly weds, who had been huddled together, holding hands, and excitedly relating moments of their wedding day, suddenly fell silent and stared towards the front of the plane in confusion. Even the businessman sleeping in the rear seat snapped to life, his tired eyes scanning the cabin questioningly. But there was nothing, nothing but . . . uneasy silence and the dull drone of the plane's engines. The pilot had immediately looked back over his shoulder to see what was wrong, but seeing nothing, he returned to the controls. The copilot, however, was in a position to immediately grasp the seriousness the situation.
A second scream, even louder than the first, pierced the air. The same woman, now with one hand clutching desperately to her armrest, raised her other arm in front of her frightened face to protect herself. Her scream was followed by a sharp yell from the man wearing the ballcap.
"Shut up!" he yelled at her.
It was then the others saw what she saw. The man's arm rose up, brandishing a chrome finished automatic pistol.
"All of you . . . shut up!" the man ordered once more. He lowered the gun and pointed it at the back of the pilot's head. "We're making in a change in course," he said, thrusting a folded map at the pilot. "You're going to make an unscheduled stop."
"What do you want?" the copilot asked, having turned in his seat to face the man.
"You just sit back and shut up," the man replied, swinging his gun at the copilot for a second. Then he jabbed the gun back into the pilot's neck. "You're going to land on the airstrip I've marked on the map."
"I'm not deviating from my flight plan," the pilot reported defiantly.
"Oh yes you are, or I start shooting."
"You wouldn't -"
"Try me," the man interrupted, pointing his gun at the woman across the isle. The look on her face changed from shock to terror as she closed her eyes anticipating her imminent death.
"Take it easy," the pilot said. "We can talk this out."
"There's nothing to talk about. You just land where I tell you and everything will be fine."
The pilot thought for a moment, and then asked his copilot to take the controls. He picked up the map that had fallen into his lap and studied it.
"This is probably no more than a straight stretch of logging road," he said. "I can't put this plane down on that. God knows what condition the road is in."
"It's a gravel strip, and it's good enough," the man corrected.
The pilot turned his head partway to the right to talk to the man behind him. "The runway won't be long enough. We'll never -"
"Never mind the bullshit," the man said, prodding the pilot in the cheek with the gun barrel.
"I'm serious. I can't put this plane down on some dirt strip in the trees. I doubt if I can even find it."
"You can find it okay. I've written down the GPS coordinates for you. Just punch them in and get going."
"It's not that simple. I can't just -"
"Well, if you can't do it, I'll shoot you and get your partner to land the plane. What do you say sport?" the man asked, motioning to the copilot with his gun. "You can do it, can't you?"
"Like the captain said, the runway is -"
"Bullshit!" he roared. He raised his gun in the air and fired at the cabin roof. The muzzle blast from the gun was deafening. The concussion stung everyone's ears and the women screamed in terror.
"I'll take it again," the pilot said, resuming the controls.
"How would you like a dead passenger?" the gunman threatened. He raised himself in the seat and started waving his gun at the passengers. Panic spread throughout the cabin; the mother held her child tightly, her arms over his face. The bride began weeping openly. Only the man in the rear retained some degree of composure.
Then the copilot, having secretly unfastened his shoulder harness, took advantage of the man's awkward position. He lunged from his seat to challenge the hijacker. It all happened very fast, but not fast enough. The gunman detected the peripheral threat and turned to meet his attacker. The brave young copilot never made contact before a bullet ripped through his uniform jacket and tore through his shoulder. He dropped like a wet blanket across the controls. The cabin erupted with more screams and yelling. The captain's immediate concern was the copilot's wound and he tried feverishly to stop the bleeding. Sheer chaos reigned for several seconds until the man screamed at everyone to, "SHUT UP!"
When a degree of silence prevailed in the cabin, the gunman pointed at the businessman at the back. "Get up here and put this hero back in his seat," he ordered. The businessman didn't argue. He wasted no time making his way to the front and helped the captain move the wounded copilot back into his seat and refasten his shoulder harness. The captain instructed the businessman to get the first-aid kit from above the seats and while the captain handled the controls, the businessman did his best at bandaging the bullet wound.
"He'll live," the gunman reassured everyone. "It's a long way from his heart, right sport?"
"He's going to need a doctor," the businessman advised.
"What for? You bandaged him up okay. Now shut up and get back to your seat."
When the captain started putting on his radio headset, the gunman ripped it from his hands. "What the hell do you think you're doing?"
"I have to call ahead for an ambulance."
"You're not calling anyone. I want you to begin an immediate descent. I want this plane down just above the trees. I don't want us being tracked by radar."
"I told you. We're not on radar up here -"
"You're lying again."
"No. They -"
"Pack up the bullshit and get this plane down below radar level," he ordered.
"I can't go any lower. In case you haven't noticed, those aren't trees down there. Those are mountains tops."
"Suit yourself, but I'm going to start killing your passengers until you do what I tell you." He leveled his gun at the woman across the aisle. Once more she experienced the terror of staring into the barrel of a gun about to take her life.
"Okay! Okay, just take it easy." The captain had no reason to doubt the man wouldn't make good his threat. He turned in his seat to face the passengers. "Listen carefully. You better buckle up tight. This is going to get rough."
Everyone felt the sudden drop in altitude as the pilot pushed the controls forward and eased back on the throttle. The drone of the engines slowed. A quiet solitude came over each the passengers, and with good reason; the mountain peaks below the plane were some of the most rugged in Alaska, not to mention some of the most dangerous. What normally provided an exciting view for the travelers was about to cause serious anxiety to the already stressed-out passengers.
Lower and lower the plane descended towards the snow-swept rock that pierced the sky. Treacherous updraft winds created along the sheer cliff edges tugged and clawed at the plane, liking to drag it down and swallow it. Still lower, the captain found himself locked in a life and death struggle to control the aircraft as crosswinds tossed it around like a scrap of paper. Nothing in his years of training taught him to deal with such adverse conditions. Only his instinct helped him as he constantly adjusted fuel mixtures, re-trimmed, and fought the controls as his plane pitched and rolled violently.
"Give me the headset," the captain asked, desperately. "I have to put out a distress call in case -."
"No radio," the gunman snapped. He seemed to be the only one unconcerned with the danger of crashing and probably perishing on the mountains.
Ahead of them, wind whipped snow rose above the ledges of rock that formed the upper most reaches of the mountains. Layers of stormy cloud formations hugged the rock, obscuring it and the massive glacial ice fields that slid away into the valleys far below.
Then they were down among the peaks. Snow and rock could be seen out the cabin windows as the captain guided his aircraft between the menacing rock pinnacles. Then nothing. They were in the clouds and all was gray. Above the whimpering and crying onboard, the captain's voice suddenly grabbed everyone's attention.
"Everybody listen!" he yelled. "If you're wearing glasses . . . remove them. Tighten your seat belts as tight as you can get them. Then I want everyone to lean forward as far as possible. Cover your head with your arms, and stay that way until I tell you it's okay."
The tone and content of the captain's order conveyed the inevitable. The interior of the cabin took on an eerie quiet. Somewhere, through the sound of the faltering engines a prayer was heard.
An eternity of terror filled moments passed until, all at once, the gray disappeared. Sunshine again flooded through the windows. Blue sky appeared where only moments earlier ugly rock had commanded the view. One by one, heads raised and the reality set in that they hadn't crashed. They were over the crest and gliding gracefully into the Salcha valley below. Gripping hands relaxed their white-knuckled hold on their armrests as the passengers settled back into their seats, grateful the mountains were behind. But all too soon they remembered the man with the gun.
The hijacker showed little relief after their brush with death. He sat quietly, his gun still pointed at the back of the captain's head.
"Now get this plane down above the trees. I don't want Fairbanks tracking us," he told the pilot.
"They can't. They don't -"
"Just shut up and do what I tell you." He slapped the gun against the pilot's head to make his point. "We can't be that far from the landing strip."
"It doesn't matter. I'm continuing my course to Fairbanks, my copilot needs medical attention," he said, reaching over and touching his wounded partner on the shoulder, giving him a reassuring nod. The copilot responded with a half-hearted smile, and then closed his eyes once more. The captain was becoming increasingly worried about the loss of blood; worried his friend would slip into unconsciousness shock, or worse.
"I thought I made myself clear?" the hijacker replied, annoyed. "You will land where I tell you! Now get back on the course I gave you."
The captain descended lower, penetrating cloud layers saturated with rain that splattered against the windshield and then ran off to the sides. He stared down through the rain-streaked glass at the valley below.
"I'm not sure I can find it," the captain said. "There's no land marks."
"Well you better find it. Just follow your GPS headings."
"Listen," the pilot asked, trying desperately to reason with the gunman, "I'll make you a deal. Let me drop Bob off in Fairbanks, then I'll fly you where ever you want to go?"
"How about if I put 'ol Bob here out of his misery?" the gunman asked, reaching over and pushing the gun barrel tight against Bob's head. "Then we can all stop worrying about him?"
"Take it easy," the captain said, suddenly banking the plane in the general direction of the remote landing strip. "Okay, I'll land where you want. But then you have to promise I can take off right away."
"Sure, what ever."
It wasn't long before a creek showed up below them, then signs of logging and the tangle of logging roads scarred the landscape. Further down the valley the creek entered a small river. The pilot reduced his elevation even more and followed the river from just above the trees. According to the GPS readouts, the landing strip was only a few miles away. He busied himself with his pre-landing checks, not knowing what to expect. From the looks of the logging road along side the river, it had been several years since they had been used. That meant the runway was probably in similar condition.
Suddenly, there it was, a strip of gravel gouged out of the bush. Scrub trees along side the strip had re-grown to make landing even more difficult. Grass and shrubs were overtaking the surface of the runway, not to mention a dead tree that had fallen onto the edge of the strip.
"I'm going to over fly the runway and have a look," the captain said.
"Just don't try anything stupid," the gunman warned.
Coming up on the strip, the pilot flew low along its length then banked for another look.
"I'm not sure we can do this. The runway hasn't been used for years and there's a lot of potholes."
"Cut the horseshit!"
"There's a truck down there," the captain said, catching a glimpse of a pickup truck at the end of the runway.
"Yeah, how about that?" the gunman laughed. "Land from the opposite end so you stop by the truck."
Trim adjusted, flaps in landing position, the pilot worked the speed back as he glided the plane down lower and lower until they were just skimming the treetops. He knew he didn't have as much runway as he would like, and he wasn't used to landing under such primitive conditions.
The plane dropped fast over the strip and within seconds its wheels touched down on the rough gravel. They bounced lightly and then bumped along the rocky surface, splashing through rain filled potholes and plowing down grass and scrub willow. Cutting back on the power, the pilot applied the brakes and struggled to bring the plane to a halt and prevent crashing into the trees at the end of the runway. At the last possible moment, the captain revved the engines, turning the plane sharply to face back up the runway. Then he cut the power. The engines died and silence returned to that spec of nowhere.
"I'm not so sure I can get airborne again," the pilot said, throwing switches and completing his landing checklist.
"I guess that's your problem, now isn't it?"
'Now what?' That thought was on everyone's mind as their eyes remained fixed on the hijacker. They didn't have long to wait.
"Everyone stay in your seats," the gunman ordered. He stood up, and for a moment his cold eyes met with each of the passengers, to let them all know he was serious. "I'll shoot anyone who tries to leave the plane." He waved his gun at them to further reinforce his order.
Everyone watched obediently as the gunman worked his way back past the seats to the rear door.
"Open it!" he told the businessman who was sitting opposite the door. The man quickly responded and fumbled with the latch, unsure how it worked, until the door suddenly released and swung open.
"Get back," the gunman ordered, waving the man back into his seat.
Outside, the hijacker walked to the front of the plane and motioned to the pilot.
"You. Out," he called to the pilot. The captain's first action after landing had been to the welfare of his young copilot, now resting as comfortably as could be expected.
"Get out here!" the gunman ordered once more, only louder.
The captain unbuckled his harness and made his way through the cabin and out the back door.
"Now what?" he asked.
"Just shut up and do exactly what I tell you."
Passengers onboard watched through the rain-streaked windows as the gunman motioned the pilot to the cargo door.
"Don't do anything stupid and no one will get hurt. Open it up."
"Why. There's nothing in there but luggage."
The man pointed his gun right at the pilot's face. "Just get it open."
"Okay, but I'm telling you -"
"Shut up and open the God dammed thing."
The captain complied by opening the door and stepping back. "See, I told you."
"Just start unloading everything. And make it fast. I don't have all day," he ordered.
While the pilot started emptying the cargo compartment onto the ground, the gunman climbed up onto the wing.
"What are you going to do?" the captain asked.
"Just keep unloading."
Then the man reached up and snapped off the VHF antenna. He then took a pair of pliers from his pocket and cut the HF antenna wire that hooked between the roof of the cockpit and the tail of the plane. Then he jumped down and, keeping a close eye on the pilot, he coiled up the wire in his hand until he reached the rear of the plane, then cut the wire.
"There, that'll take care of your radios," the gunman said, cramming the wire into his pocket.
Standing among a pile of luggage and boxes, the pilot dragged the last suitcase from the cargo hold. "Okay, that's it," he said.
"Move back. Let's see what we've got here."
The man kicked at the boxes, then the luggage.
"Okay," he said, raising the gun to the pilot's face. "Where's the rest of it?"
"Don't screw with me. You've got more cargo onboard. Now get it out here, fast."
The pilot hesitated for a second, and then opened another smaller compartment. From inside he withdrew two briefcases and three small boxes, each bound tightly with heavy brown tape. After setting them on the ground he stepped back.
"That's more like it," the gunman remarked. "Now get back."
He leaned down and tried opening one of the briefcases, but it was locked. He swore and threw it aside. Then he opened the second, dumping its contents on the ground. When he picked up one of the small packages, he turned it over and over in his hands. He then stood up, grinning from ear to ear.
"Okay, pick up these three boxes. I want you to carry them over and put them on the floor in the front of my truck."
The pilot shrugged and reluctantly picked up the packages, one at a time, and put them in the truck.
"Now what?" the pilot asked.
The man ignored the captain's question and reached into the back of the truck for a coil of rope. Then he walked the pilot back over to the plane and told him to, "Sit down here by the wheel."
"What're you going to do?"
"Just going to make sure you don't do anything stupid for a while. Now shut up and sit down."
With the pilot securely tied to the landing gear, the gunman re-entered the cabin of the plane. Fear returned to the passenger's faces as they could only guess what he may do next.
"Relax," he said, sensing their anxiety. "Here's what we're going to do. I'm going to secure the door to keep you in here for a while. When the pilot gets free he'll fly you out of here."
"What if he can't get free?" the businessman asked, adding to the women's fear.
"Then I guess you're going to have to figure out another way. Otherwise you're all going to get a little hungry, aren't you?"
The woman at the front started crying again, uncontrollably.
"Stick a sock in it lady. Just be happy I didn't shoot ya."
Then he retreated back out side and used the rest of the rope to tie the door shut.
Back at the pickup truck, the hijacker started the engine and drove out along side the plane. But instead of leaving, he stopped and got out.
The captain watched suspiciously as the man approached him. "Now what?" he enquired.
"Insurance," the gunman said, staring down at the pilot as he slowly raised his gun and took aim.
"No! For Christ's sake. Don't. What about the passen -"
The blast from the gun echoed through the valley. Next came the sound of air escaping from the tire beside the pilot.
"Now I don't have to worry about you flying out of here too soon."
"You promised I could take off right away."
The hijacker shrugged his shoulders. "I lied. So what? Once Fairbanks realizes you're missing, they'll come looking for you. Shouldn't take more than a couple days." He turned and walked back to the truck, laughing, sure in his mind he now had plenty of time to make good his escape.
Before driving off, the gunman leaned out his window and said, "Thanks for the sight-seeing trip. I'll be sure and recommend your airline to my friends."
Then he drove off, laughing, his spinning wheels spraying the plane with gravel.
Silence quickly returned to the isolated airstrip, broken only by the steady patter of rain and muffled crying from inside the aircraft.
"Good morning Ladies and Gentlemen. Welcome aboard Alaskan Airlines flight 556 to Anchorage and Fairbanks."
Well that confirmed it. I wasn't dreaming. I was really on my way to the frozen north. Eskimos, igloos, polar bears. I drove up into British Columbia, once. Vancouver wasn't much different than Seattle, but that was as far north as I wanted to go.
My name is Lennox, George Lennox, and I'm a private investigator, when I'm working that is. Business hadn't been all that great lately; I haven't been overly swamped with clients. That's how I ended up on the plane to Alaska. An old friend of mine, Brian Kuzman, from our days on the Seattle Police force, works as an investigator for a big insurance company headquartered in Los Angeles. Brian called me Friday morning in Seattle and said he needed a good investigator.
"I know you're one of the best," he told me on the phone.
When anyone starts buttering me up like that I usually smell a rat, but at the time all I could smell was a paycheck. I knew if I didn't cross my landlord's palm with silver pretty soon I was going to find my desk out on the sidewalk. I had already lost, Connie, my secretary; can't say as I blame her for leaving. I hadn't paid her a nickel in months.
"We need you to investigate an armed robbery for us," Brian told me.
"What's wrong with the local cops?" I enquired.
"We need to know that the investigation's on the up and up."
"You have reason to believe it wouldn't be otherwise?"
"Let's just say we have to be sure, and it's important enough for us to hire the best."
There he was buttering me up again.
"It's just the sort of work you're good at. You know, tracking down the bad guy and bringing him to justice, that sort of thing."
"Any chance this hit took place down in your neighborhood?" I asked. "Fall is coming and you know what that means up here in Seattle; rain, and more rain." The idea of spending time parked under palm trees in California holds a certain appeal for me.
"Well you can't blame me for hoping. Anyway, what kind of time frame are we looking at?"
"I don't know. I guess that'll depend on how successful you are. As usual we'll cover all your reasonable expenses."
"I'm always reasonable? You know me."
"Yeah, I know you. We used to be partners, remember? I'll courier all the details plus a retainer up to you right away. You should have it in the morning. Oh, by the way," Brian added, "the job is in Fairbanks."
"Sounds good to me." I find it hard to say no when anyone offers me a retainer. "So, where is Fairbanks?"
"That's what I was afraid you'd say."
Brian hung up as my visions of palm trees went, 'Poof'.
"In preparation for takeoff we would ask that all carry on baggage be securely stored under the seats in front of you or in the overhead compartments . . ."
I settled back into the seat trying to get comfortable. I can never understand why airlines have to schedules their planes to leave so early in the morning? It was Sunday. Don't any of those people ever go to church? It's not natural, getting up when it's still dark outside, especially when I have a roaring hangover.
The previous day I had made a point of being in my office when the courier arrived with my envelope. First thing I did was pacify my landlord with a few bucks towards my overdue rent and then settle up with my secretary. Connie promised to be back in the office Monday morning. I spent the rest of the afternoon playing a fast 18 holes of golf, and the whole evening in the clubhouse. I can't remember what time I got home but I'm sure I heard the alarm clock go off when I opened the door to my apartment.
"Before takeoff," the woman's voice continued, "we would like a moment of your time to show you some of this aircraft's safety features . . ."
Somehow, I couldn't get too interested in the plane's safety features. What I needed was sleep. I pulled the window curtain down, wiggled around in my seat trying to get comfortable, and closed my eyes. I don't think the man in the seat beside me appreciated the darkened window, because he immediately switched on the overhead light to read his newspaper. I turned my head in the opposite direction and dozed off, but not before asking the guy, "I don't suppose you could turn the pages of your paper a little quieter?" He wasn't amused.
It took a solid nudge on the shoulder to wake me, only to hear, "Would you care to join us for breakfast sir?" The stewardess was standing in the isle, tray in hand, smiling, waiting for my response. How could she possibly be so cheerful that early in the morning? They must learn that in training.
"Orange juice," I replied. My mouth tasted like a group of boy scouts camped in there overnight.
"There's orange juice on the breakfast tray, sir," she said, still smiling.
I took a quick look at the tray in front of the man seated next to me and repeated, "Just the orange juice, please."
"Are you sure you wouldn't like to join us for breakfast, sir?"
"Trust me. The last thing you want to be placing in front of me right now is a bunch of runny eggs." She must have got the message because she handed me the orange juice and continued up the aisle. I quickly peeled back the cover and gulp down the liquid, then return to dreamland.
At some point I thought I heard the word, "coffee". I tried to sit up but couldn't seem to muster the energy.
The next thing I heard was, "Would you please return your seatbacks to their upright position? . . ." I opened my eyes to see the stewardess busy collecting glasses and empty coffee cups.
"Are we here already?" I asked.
"We'll be landing in Anchorage shortly," she said with a smile.
Somehow, I expected it to take a lot longer to get to Alaska.
"How long was I asleep?" I asked the guy next to me.
He shrugged his shoulders. "Several hours. It's almost lunchtime."
I lifted the window shade and peered outside. It was bright daylight. The sun was shining, causing me to squint. I rubbed my eyes and looked again. Below, through scattered cloud, I can see mountains, water, and . . . snow.
"There's snow down there." I exclaimed. I received a few strange looks from other passengers.
"There's always snow on the top of those mountains," the man told me.
I knew it. Alaska was the frozen north I had envisioned, a definite far cry from the palm trees and sandy beaches where Brian was. No wonder he didn't take the case himself.
"Looks cold," I said. "I didn't bring any winter clothes."
The man just laughed. "Your first time up north, is it?"
"Yeah, and my last."
"Don't worry. Once we're in Anchorage it'll be just like downtown Seattle."
"I should be so lucky. Unfortunately I'm not getting off in Anchorage. I'm heading up to Fairbanks, and it's bound to be winter up there."
The stopover in Anchorage wasn't that long and before I knew it we were back in the air, heading north. I waved off the lunch service in favor of a drink. The stewardess didn't want to interrupt the meal service to get me a drink, but my pathetic begging did the trick.
Several refills and two packages of peanuts later, I heard an announcement over the intercom.
"In preparation for final landing . . ."
The first thing I noticed when we got off the plane was the lack of snow. I had convinced myself that we would have to wade through huge snowdrifts just to get into the terminal. Fortunately, it was just the opposite. The sky was only partly cloudy and sun bright and warm. Grass and flowers lined the walkway. Maybe I was wrong? Maybe Alaska wouldn't be so bad after all.
Inside the terminal, I glanced around for my contact. According to Brian, a guy by the name of Redman was going to meet me at the airport. I had no idea what the man looked like, so I figured I'd let him find me. While I waited for my luggage, I looked for a U-drive. There were lineups at all the counters, so I picked the shortest, and stood yawning and trying to wake up.
"Excuse me. Are you George Lennox?" a male voice asked. I turned to see a man roughly my own age all decked out in a three-piece suit. The suit threw me. I don't know, maybe I was expecting snowsuits or parkas.
"Yes, that's me."
"Good," he began. "I'm Doug Redman. Brian Kuzman asked me to meet you here."
"Okay, I'm just waiting to pick up a car." I reached out to accept his handshake, which was firm, but not over-powering.
"How was your flight?"
"Uneventful. I slept most of the way. Tough night, last night," I told him. Boy was that ever the truth.
"Look, I'll meet you over by the front doors when you're ready," Doug suggested.
"Sounds good. I shouldn't be too long."
"I don't have another mid-sized car here at the airport, sir," the girl behind the counter advised. "I can arrange for you to pick one up downtown, though."
"Well I'm in a bit of a hurry, don't you have anything else?" I glanced towards the other rental counters like I might try them. Not wanting to lose a customer, she asked, "How long do you need the car for sir?"
"I don't know. A week or so."
"Will you be traveling far or just around the city?"
"The city." Hell, I didn't know.
"Tell you what," she said. "I've got a full sized car up here I can let you have, and I'll only charge you the mid size rate. Is that okay?"
"Sounds good to me." I prefer larger cars, but it always depends on the client and the size of the retainer. With a company the size of Brian's, a larger car seemed reasonable. I dug out my driver's license and VISA card for her.
By the time I reached the luggage carrousel, my suitcase and briefcase looked a little lonely going around by themselves. Redman was still waiting patiently by the door.
"Ready to do it?" I asked.
"Ready," he said, and pushed the glass doors open. "I made reservations for you at the Fisherman's Hotel. It's right in the city center."
"Sounds good. I'm glad to see you held off on the snow for me."
"A joke," I said. Redman would have killed himself laughing if I'd told him the truth.
It took a few minutes to find the car. I wasn't expecting it to be a shiny white Lincoln Towncar.
"You always travel first class?"
"Well, I hate driving those little economy things, no room for the sled-dogs."
"Sled dogs?" he enquired.
"Another joke." Obviously, Redman hadn't seen the TV commercial.
"I'll follow you," I said, throwing my luggage across the seat and sliding in behind the wheel.
Fairbanks turned out to be a lot different than I expected. I was sort of expecting to see gravel streets and wooden sidewalks - what I found, to my relief, was a modern Alaskan city. The only snow I could see was far off on the mountaintops.
I Followed Doug across town to a large new looking hotel. It appeared to have all the required amenities; a bar, restaurant, and beds. I'm never that fussy about the quality of the rooms as I'm seldom in them. I slid the Lincoln right into a parking slot along side Doug's car.
"You may want to park in the lot around back," Doug cautioned. "You're libel to get your car dinged out here. Lots of traffic from the bar, especially at night."
"It's only a rental," I remarked. "You coming in for a quick drink?" I didn't think he had parked and got out to help me unpack.
"No thanks. Too early for me," he said.
I checked my trusty watch. "It's almost three."
"How about if we make it breakfast tomorrow morning? I'll buy."
"Sounds like a plan," I said, reaching for my luggage.
He pointed up to the second floor of a building across the street.
"My office is right up there," he said. "Tundra Insurance Agencies. After you get settled in, come on up. I have an envelope full of faxes for you from Mr. Kuzman."
From my hotel window I could look out over the main street, almost straight into what I thought was Doug's office. I hoped it was, because there was a sharp looking woman sitting by the window staring at a computer terminal.
When one travels as light as I do, it doesn't take long to unpack. I quickly hung my shirts and a spare pair of pants on hangers in the closet. From my briefcase I dug out my Radio Shack police scanner and turn it on. I wasn't with the cops anymore, but I still liked being in the know. The bulkiest item in the suitcase is my laptop computer. I would be lost without that little gem. A good slap of cold water on my face helped brighten things a little.
I took a couple minutes to hook up my computer to the phone and checked my e-mail. Nothing of real interest. Connie had posted a note that my landlord was at the office looking for more money but she was stalling him until I returned.
The scanner burped out routine police traffic as I checked out the window. The gal across the way was still there. Before heading out I reached for the aspirins because I still had a beaut of a headache. After washing them down with a shot of Jack Daniels, I was hell for go.
Outside it had started raining. I had expected snow, so my umbrella was still back at my apartment in Seattle.
"Ahh, what the hell," I muttered. I only had to cross the street. I hunched my shoulders, squinted my eyes, and made a run for it.
I lucked out. The gal I had seen in the window greeted me with a pleasant smile. She was gorgeous. I was hungover, but not blind.
"Good afternoon sir, may I help you?"
"Hope so. My name is Lennox. George Lennox. Doug Redman is expecting me."
Right then Doug poked his head around the corner.
"Hi," he said. "All settled in?"
"As much as I'll ever be."
"Sandy, this is George Lennox," Doug said. "He's the investigator I was telling you about from Seattle."
Her smile intensified. I immediately crossed the floor to Sandy's desk to shake her hand. Our eyes met. Her's were a deep blue and went perfectly with her shoulder length silky blond hair.
"Sandy here keeps us on the straight and narrow around the office," Doug added.
"I'll bet she does. "Hi, Sandy, pleased to meet you."
"George. Please, call me George. All my friends do."
"All right, George."
The way she spoke my name and the sparkle from her eyes left me stuck for words. I could feel my legs turning to rubber, and it wasn't from the hangover.
"Come on in George," Doug said, motioning me towards his office door.
"Do I have to?" I asked, not wanting to release the pretty hand in my grip.
Sandy exploded in a blush, pulled free and returned to her computer. I reluctantly followed Doug into his office.
Doug had a nice office, a lot nicer than mine. I figured he must be doing a decent business. Sinking into one of large office chairs, I did a quick visual intake of the office. The man was obviously all business; Chamber of Commerce, Rotary, and several framed sales awards hung on the wall. A couple pictures of small planes; the kind I really don't like. The usual picture of wife and kids sat on the edge of his desk.
Doug pushed an envelope across the desk towards me.
"I don't know how much Mr. Kuzman told you, but he said to make sure and give you these papers as soon as you arrived."
"He didn't elaborate, other than some unknown had committed an armed robbery." I opened the envelope and thumbed through the stack of documents it contained. Instead of reading of a bank holdup, I found myself reading about a hijacked airplane.
"So why would someone hijack a plane up here?" I asked.
"Mr. Kuzman didn't tell you?"
"Then I'm sure he will. "
"Why not you?"
"I'm not in a position to speak for Mr. Kuzman. They're the big insurance company that our underwriter deals with and as such they're handling the investigation. I'm just a broker."
I couldn't help wondering what he was holding back. Brian had some explaining to do. I rummaged through the faxes once more. I was intrigued by the use of the word, 'hijacked'.
"Tell me, was this plane really hijacked?"
"That's right. A man with a gun forced the plane down."
"How big a plane we talking about here?"
"A two-engine job, had seven passengers and crew."
"Bigger than the ones you have on your wall there?"
"Yeah. Not a great deal bigger, but bigger."
"Tell me, when someone up here hijacks a plane, where do they take it? Cuba's a bit of a stretch from here." Under the circumstances, it was my best attempt at humor.
"The plane landed on an old dirt runway near an abandoned logging camp in the bush."
"Just the copilot. He was shot trying to grab the hijacker."
"Are you serious?"
"Yes. He's in Fairbanks hospital. Kind of heroic, don't you think?"
"Kind of dumb if you ask me. Lucky he didn't get himself killed."
Suddenly, Sandy stuck her head in the door. "How about a coffee?" she asked with a smile.
I didn't give Doug a chance to answer. "I'd love one," I said, even though I really didn't.
She grinned and returned to the other room.
"So who's plane was it?" I asked.
"Rocky Mountain Airlines. It's a small charter service that flies a connector service around Alaska."
"And I take it you carry their insurance?"
"I don't understand. I assumed your company carried the airline's insurance?"
"No. They have their own insurance company."
"So how are you involved then?"
"I'm an agent for the company Mr. Kuzman works for. I insure some of the shippers who use the airlines."
"Any one shipper in particular?" I asked.
"Well, Star Lake Mines for one."
"And where do they fit into the picture?"
"Again, I think these are questions you should be asking Mr. Kuzman."
"You know, I'm beginning to feel like a mushroom."
"How's that?" Doug asked, a curious look on his face.
"I'm being kept in the dark and fed horseshit, that's how." If there's one thing I hate, it's being jerked around.
Sandy brought in a couple cups of steaming coffee. She must have felt me staring at her because she suddenly started blushing again. I like to think I have that sort of an effect on women.
The case was becoming more and more strange. I spread out the papers from the envelope on the desk and studied them. I wanted to make sure I wasn't missing anything. I wasn't. My next stop was going to have to be the police. Maybe they would give me some straight answers. I wanted to get a look at their investigation file.
"Can Sandy make a call for me?" I asked Doug.
I glanced up at her smiling face. "Could you make a call to your local police and see who the investigating officer is on this case? I'd like to meet as soon as possible."
After she left I took a few gulps of the coffee, then gathered up the loose papers and stuffed them into the envelope.
"I'll leave you my card," I said, sliding one of my business cards across the desk, "just in case you have a sudden memory recall." If I sounded a little sarcastic, it was intended.
I stopped beside Sandy's desk just as she was hanging up the phone.
"You're looking for a Detective Harrison. He's in his office right now and he'll be expecting you." She slipped a piece of paper into my hand.
After leaving Doug's office I stopped at the bottom of the stairs to look at the paper in my hand. It was a phone number; Sandy's I hoped.
Outside, the rain had eased. I made another quick dash across the street and shook myself like a dog in the hotel lobby. Then I made a quick trip to my room to phone Brian. He was out for the day so I sent him a facetious e-mail message. There was obviously more to this than an armed robbery investigation and I wanted to know what it was.
A while later I pulled the big Lincoln into the visitor parking area at the Fairbanks's Police Department. The rain had stopped and the sun began drying the sidewalks once more. I couldn't help noticing how fresh and clean the air was as I walked to the front entrance.
"Can I help you?" The old sergeant behind the booking desk looked like he was way past retirement age. I could feel his eyes suspiciously sizing up my character.
"Yes, I'm here to see a Detective Harrison," I advised him, handing him one of my business cards at the same time. When he read out my name from the card and mentioned aloud that I was an investigator from stateside, the room went silent and everyone looked my way. Right then I hoped I didn't resemble anyone on their wanted posters.
Hanging up a phone, the sergeant pointed me down a hallway; "He's in room 306, third door to your left after you get off the elevator. He'll be watching for you."
The squad room had a big table in the center covered with cigarette burns and coffee stains. Several decks of cards and a crib board completed the picture. It was obvious serious work took place in the room. Three guys, all in plain clothes, complete with coffee and notebooks, sat around the table. They appeared to be deep in thought.
"Detective Harrison?" I inquired from the doorway.
"Yeah, come in." A muscular man in his early forties motioned me into the room. "You Lennox?"
"That's right. George Lennox. GRW Investigations out of Seattle. I understand you're the investigating officer on this plane hijacking case?" I reached out my hand as he approached.
"Yeah. I'm Len Harrison," he said, shaking my hand with a solid grip. "This is my partner, Detective Arturo Diaz, and that's Jack Moffat from our Criminal Investigation Section."
I couldn't help noticing light from the ceiling florescent fixtures reflect off Diaz's mostly baldhead. There was more hair growing from the back of his hands than from his head. I shook hands with both the men.
"My wife is from Everett," Diaz said. "She went to university in Seattle. We used to -"
"So," Harrison jumped in, "how's things down in Seattle?"
"So you work for some investigation company, do you?"
"Actually I have a private practice. Western Insurance Company of Los Angeles has retained me to investigate the hijack incident. Perhaps we can help each other?" I passed each of them one of my business cards.
"Too bad you made the trip for nothing," Harrison told me. "We've got everything under control."
"I take it you've got the guy already then?"
Harrison scrunched his face a bit and shrugged his shoulders. "Not yet, but we'll get him."
"But you know who he is?"
"We have a statement from one of the passengers . . ." Diaz added.
I noticed Harrison suddenly turn and give Arturo a sharp look, a sort of indication to shut up.
But Diaz continued. "We now have an idea of what the guy looks like. We had our computer sketch artist do up a composite -"
Harrison cut Diaz short again. "I'm not happy with the picture. I doubt that it's a good enough likeness."
"Can I get a copy anyway?" I asked. "Always nice to have some idea of who I'm looking for".
"Nah. I don't think so," Harrison said. "Look, I appreciate you're wanting to help, but we really don't need your help. It's our case and we'll collar him."
"What makes you so sure?" I asked.
"We have a description of the vehicle he used," Diaz added. "We put an APB out on it right away. It's only a matter of time."
"So you see you're just wasting your time here," Harrison said. "You might as well head back to the sunny south."
"I'll take that as a 'no' on the picture then?"
Harrison handed me back my business card and said, "You have yourself a nice trip."
First it was Doug Redman being evasive. Now the local cops were trying to give me the bum's rush out of town. It was becoming very obvious that Harrison wasn't about to cooperate with my investigation. He was right about one thing; I was wrong to look them for help. I nodded and headed back out to my car.
Just as I was about to open the car door, someone called my name. It was Detective Diaz. Now he had a gray suit-matching hat protecting his baldhead.
"Here," he said, handing me a folded paper. It was a copy of the composite drawing of their suspect.
"Hey, I appreciate this. What's Harrison's problem?" I asked.
"I don't know. He's had a bug up his ass lately."
"Maybe you should buy him a can of Raid."
Back at my room I checked my e-mail, just in case Brian had responded. Nothing. My scanner was still spurting out drabs of police messages between squelches of silence. I sat down at the computer and updated my progress so far; which wasn't much. Then I downed a couple more aspirins and headed for the elevator.
The woman at the counter was reluctant at first but finally agreed to let me use their fax machine to send Brain a copy of the composite drawing. At least he'd think I was accomplishing something. Then I hit the hotel's lobby bar for a drink. I think a lot better when I have a drink in my hand. The sweet young barmaid looked up from her TV long enough to take my order. "JD - Rocks," I said, "and a phone book."
I took a chance and started calling the passengers from a list in the envelope Doug had given me. Turned out only one on the list had a local number. Imagine my surprise when he told me he had been advised by a lawyer not to talk to anyone.
I got the barmaid to touch up my drink and bring over a bowl of pretzels. I don't like drinking on an empty stomach. When she returned I showed her the picture.
"Ever seen this guy in here?"
She shook he head no, and returned to her TV program.
Once my eyes adjusted to the light I surveyed the surroundings. A couple of sweet young things were looking my way and giggling to themselves. A couple guys were leaning over the pool table. A couple more were watching a hockey game on the big screen TV. Some crowd.
I grabbed my drink and headed for a table near the TV. I leaned back in a comfy chair and started to watch the game. I'm not much for sports, except for the Seattle Seahawks; I like to catch their games when I can. But it wasn't sports that were on my mind.
"Yes!" A guy at the other table cried out. "That was a nice goal."
The Kings had scored a goal and I hadn't even noticed. Shows how much I was paying attention.
"Hey! Did you see that goal?" The guy was calling to me. "Now that's what I call hockey."
I nodded my head like I agreed. He went back to the game.
I called for the waitress working the tables. "Bring me another JD - Rocks, will you?"
I didn't even have to ask for pretzels. She brought a bowl along with my drink. I flashed the composite drawing and asked, "Have you seen the guy around here? He may have been wearing a Seahawk's baseball cap." She shook her head. I dropped a bill on her tray, "Have one for yourself."
"Thanks." She gave me that extra special kind of a smile that would guarantee another tip.
By the time the game was over I was hungry enough to eat a horse. The gal working tables gave me directions to a good Chinese restaurant within walking distance.
I was absolutely stuffed when I left the restaurant an hour later. One good thing about Chinese food; it settles down fast. The barmaid had been right about the quality of the food there. I made a mental note to add the place to my list of favorite Fairbanks eating spots. I just hoped I'd never have to stay around long enough to have to rely on the list.
The sports bar at my hotel seemed to be hopping so I decided to have a nightcap. I noticed the crowd had increased considerably as I slid up to the bar. The bartender from earlier in the afternoon was gone and the TV she had been watching her afternoon soaps on was turned off.
"What'll you have?" the bartender asked.
"JD - Rocks," I said, then swiveled around on my stool and surveyed the room. I spotted a familiar face at a table with a couple other girls. It was Sandy, the secretary from Doug's office. I kept watching, hoping to catch her eye. When she looked my way, I waved. A big smile crossed her face when she recognized me. Almost at once she got up, picked up her drink, said something to the girls, who looked my way, then walked over to me.
"Hi," she said, with her big smile. "I thought you might be here."
"Were you looking for me?" I asked, hopefully. Her eyes told me that she was.
"I was just having a drink with a couple friends -"
"You want to grab a table?" I asked. It's hard to get intimate with a woman while sitting on a barstool. She agreed and we moved into the shadows.
We talked and got to know one another.
"You want to dance?" she asked.
She didn't have to ask twice. "I'd love to." I pulled back her chair like a perfect gentleman and guided her through the maze of tables to the small dancing surface. She glided easily into my arms. I don't know what was more hypnotizing, her eyes or her perfume? Either way I was captivated.
"How you making out in our fine city?" she asked.
"I thought you would have been here earlier."
"I was earlier. I had a few things to check out. But I'm here now."
"I'm glad you came back."
"So am I. Who's your friends?" I asked, referring to the two girls she had left at the table. They were both Sandy's age. As they watched us dance, they kept whispering into each other's ears, giggling like schoolgirls.
"I think they're talking about us."
"What do you suppose they're saying?"
She smiled and I'm sure there was some blushing but it was hard to tell in the dim light.
We seemed to hit it off right away. I was a lot older than Sandy, but it didn't seem to bother her. We talked and danced until the placed shut down.
I was nearly finished shaving when someone banged on the door. I slipped the night-chain and opened up. It was Doug. I had forgotten his offer.
"You just about ready for breakfast?" he asked, letting himself into the room.
"Just about," I said, "soon as I finish shaving. How about if I meet you downstairs in the restaurant in about ten minutes?"
He turned to leave just as the shower stopped and the curtain opened. I'm not sure which one was the most surprised, Doug or Sandy. She quickly grabbed at the curtain to cover herself.
"Oh shit," she said, caught in the act.
Her embarrassed employer's lower jaw dropped, his eyes doubled in size, unable to believe what he was seeing. Then he turned to me, a tortured look on his face.
"You son-of-a-bitch!" he snarled.
Before I could respond he left, slamming the door closed behind him.
"I guess that means he's not buying breakfast?" I quipped.
Sandy said nothing. She stood, still clutching the shower curtain, obviously trying to collect her thoughts.
"What's his problem?" I asked. "You're a big girl."
"He's insanely jealous."
"Of what? Of you?"
"You don't understand." She reached over and pushed the bathroom door closed.
I couldn't help wondering if she was more than just a secretary to Doug.
After Sandy left with an embarrassed look on her face, I took the elevator down to the lobby. Not surprisingly, there was no sign of Doug in the restaurant, so I picked up a newspaper and headed for a table by the window.
There was nothing in the newspaper about the hijacking, which really surprised me. You would think a local airplane being hijacked would rate higher on the front page than some guy poaching salmon from some river. I finished off a third cup of coffee and walked out to the hotel counter to pay the check.
"There's a message for you Mr. Lennox," the woman advised, handing me a slip of paper.
All it said was, 'They found the truck'. Nothing else.
"Did they say who the message was from?" I asked.
She shrugged her shoulders. "Nope. That's all he said."
I figured the message had to be from the cops. Perhaps they'd had a change of heart, so I went back up to my room and called Detective Harrison.
"I hear you found the truck?" I asked.
"The one that was used in the hijacking."
"Who told you that?"
I was about to tell him I'd received a message, but instead I said, "I heard it at breakfast."
"Well you heard wrong. I thought you would have been on your way back to Seattle by now?"
"Afraid not. Whether you like it or not, I still have a job to do up here."
Unfortunately, I had turned my scanner off during the night. I was a little too pre-occupied with other things. So I hadn't heard the truck report radioed in. I checked my e-mail, which amounted to little more than a few sales pitches for sex sites and stock markets.
I decided to try and give Detective Diaz a call. He had gone behind Harrison's back and given me the composite drawing. Perhaps he'd left the message. If so, maybe he'd tell me about the truck. He answered the phone bright and cheery, but when I told him who was calling he suddenly went silent for a moment. Then he said, "Give a number and I'll call you back in a bit."
I didn't have to wait long for his call.
"Sorry about that, but things are a bit hectic around the office."
"No problem," I said. "I heard you turned up the hijacker's truck, but when I called your partner he gave me the run-around."
"We . . . Ahh. Look, maybe I should meet you somewhere so we can talk."
"Okay. Where and when?"
"Drive out of town about two miles along highway #2. You'll come to Fisherman's Park. You can't miss it. I'll meet you there in about an hour."
"Sounds like a plan," I said. His cloak and dagger approach was beginning to intrigue me. I grabbed my briefcase and headed down to the car.
The park was just as Diaz described. It was more like a boat launching ramp into the river with a place to park vehicles and boat trailers. I pulled the Lincoln into a slot and waited with a nice western music station on the car's radio, my scanner turned up just loud enough for me to catch the police traffic.
Roughly an hour later a car pulled in along side of me. It was Detective Diaz and he was alone. I got out and climbed into the passenger side of his car, which from the blaring two-way radio, I realized, was an unmarked police car.
"So, where did you find the truck?" I asked.
"Couple of uniforms spotted it last night abandoned in an alley. It was reported stolen last weekend."
"Sure it's the right truck?"
"It fits the description of make and color. I think there's a good chance it's the one."
"Any finger prints?" Another long shot question.
"Not yet. And I doubt if there will be. Probably wiped clean. We'll know better after the lab finishes with it."
"So, you think the guy's local?" I asked.
"Hard to say at this point."
"You've got his picture. He shouldn't be that hard to nail if he's local."
"I agree. Problem is our witness wasn't too sure of the description. I thought it was okay, but Len disagrees. That's my partner, he wants us to concentrate on a local no-good."
"Based on what?" I asked.
"I pulled the guy's sheet. I don't know? Len may be right. The guy owns a pickup similar in color to the one we're looking for. He has a wrap sheet as long as your arm. He even did time for armed robbery."
"What do you think?"
"Doesn't matter what I think. Len's the lead investigator. He's calling the shots."
"He sounds a little hardnosed," I remarked.
"Ahh, he's okay. I think he's having some wife problems right now."
"Hey, it happens to all of us sooner or later."
"I hope not," he said. I assumed he hadn't been married that long. It takes several years of weird working hours and on the job loyalties to erode a marriage.
"What can you tell me about Star Lake Mines?" I asked.
Diaz shook his head very slowly. "Such as?"
"How do they fit into the case?"
"They don't as far as I know. Why?"
"The name came up in conjunction with the insurance company," I explained.
"Can't help you."
"So what was taken in the heist?"
"No idea. If there was anything taken, there's nothing in our file about it."
"Strange." And strange it was. It made no sense that someone would hijack a plane for nothing.
I shook Diaz's hand and expressed my appreciation for his help.
I remained behind after Diaz drove off. Brian definitely had some explaining to do. I decided to call him on my cell phone before he left for Lunch. When he came on line he sounded a little peeved. "I got your e-mail this morning," he said. "What's the problem?"
"Seems you left out a few details about what I'm looking for up here? You said you wanted me to investigate an armed robbery. But when I get up here I find out I'm actually dealing with some plane hijacking."
"That's the robbery we want you to investigate," he said.
"Well there seems to be a lot details missing. This Redmon guy is obviously holding back -"
"How's that?" he asked.
"Every time I asked him a question, he told me to ask you."
"That's because we haven't given him all the details. What exactly is it you want to know?"
"Well I assume something or someone must have been taken during the hijacking slash robbery? Otherwise why would your company be so interested? It might help if I knew what I was looking for."
"Yeah, there was some stuff taken all right," he admitted.
"Belonging to Star Lake mines?"
"Yes, but what we really need is for you to conduct an independent investigation of the incident and to keep us fully apprised of your findings."
"It'll be independent all right. I met with the cops yesterday and I'm here to tell you the lead investigator on the case is a first class prick. He would like to see me on the next plane out of here," I said.
"You tell me. I got a message this morning advising the cops had turned up a truck the hijacker used. But when I called Harrison, the so-called lead investigator, he denied it. So I called his partner. He seems okay. We met and he confirmed the find and offered to pass on the crime lab results. Go figure?"
"So I shouldn't be leaving messages for you at the cop shop?" he laughed.
"Look, I'm late for a meeting," Brian said. "Give me a call later this afternoon. Maybe I'll have more by then."
I figured my next best bet would be to talk with the pilot of the plane and get his version of what happened. I placed a quick phone call to the airport, only to be told the pilot I wanted to see was on a flight to Anchorage and wouldn't be back until 1800 hours. I did the math in my head and came up with 6:00 pm.
Back at my hotel, I stuck my head into the bar. The place was almost deserted except for the lady bartender from the previous day. She was parked in the same place watching the same soaps on the small TV behind the bar. The woman at the front counter said they served a great hamburger in the bar, so I wandered in.
"JD - Rocks," I said, sliding onto a stool. "Plus a menu."
I expected her to ask if I wanted gravy with my fries, but she didn't. She must have been home watching TV the day of the hotel's sales training seminar for its employees.
I had the whole afternoon to kill so I decided to do a little bar crawling. My plan was simple; circulate some of the local establishments and hope for the best. If, in the process, I should happen to make the acquaintance of some sweet young thing, all the better.
I spotted a particularly busy looking place and wandered into the smoke filled room. Most of the customers looked and sounded as if they had been there all day. I grabbed a table off to the side of the stage where a stateside import was stripping to the drone of her music. A couple locals were draped over the side of the stage. If they got any closer they'd end up with footprints on their tongues. She was getting to the part of her routine where she brings out a blanket and starts rolling around on the stage. I have to admit, she was very nicely put together.
Seeing a woman writhing around naked on a stage makes it a tad difficult to concentrate, and the most important thing for an investigator like myself to do in a bar is watch and listen. Booze had a way of loosening tongues.
Several taverns later, and God knows how many beers, it was nearly 5:00 pm. Time flies when you're having fun working. I had flashed the drawing to every bartender and barmaid I could, and nothing. I still had no leads.
Somehow I managed to trace my path back to the airport. Hopefully the company's lawyers hadn't gotten to the pilot yet. I needed some straight answers from someone. The airline's arrivals posted on the overhead monitor showed the Anchorage flight had just landed so I headed straight for the Operations Room. I figured the pilot would have to report there to close his flight plan.
Captain Karl Muller was a man in his late fifties. His once blond hair had long since turned gray. He looked very official in his blue uniform with its gold-stripped sleeves. His cap, adorned with gold braid, sat forward on his head and shaded the lines of age around his eyes. But his years couldn't diminish the pride with which he carried himself.
"Captain," I called to him, after being pointed in the right direction by a woman in the office. He turned to face me, his blue eyes studying me.
"Can I help you?" he asked.
"I hope so. The name's Lennox. George Lennox. GRW Investigations out of Seattle. I was hoping to talk to you about the hijacking of your plane the other day."
"Ahh, I don't know . . . I'm not sure I should." He was hesitating, like he had been cautioned, just like the passenger I had phoned.
"It's important. I've been retained by the airline's insurance company to investigate the hijacking of your plane the other day," I told him. I quickly showed him my badge and ID. "I only have a few questions."
He quickly relented when he thought I was working with their insurance company. It's sometimes necessary to embellish the truth a tad.
"I know you've already spoken with the police, but I have a few questions of my own," I told him.
"But I haven't spoken to the police," he said.
"A Detective Harrison hasn't contacted you for a statement?"
"But he's in charge of the investigation."
"I know who the detective is. I've flown him up to Star Lake a few times."
A couple questions slowly led to a good hour. He carefully related the events of that unfortunate flight. I showed him the picture I had of the suspect and he immediately confirmed the likeness.
"Are you sure?" I asked, surprised he was able to identify the suspect from a picture the police said was unreliable, and probably wrong.
"Yes. I'm sure. That is the man."
"Have you ever seen him on your flights before?" I asked.
"Just that morning."
"The same day?"
"Yes, but that's not uncommon. We often have passengers fly in and out the same day. There is not much accommodations in Star Lake for visitors."
"What was the hijacker after?"
"He made me unload the cargo, then he took three packages."
"What kind of packages? What was in them?"
He looked me straight in the eye and said, "I don't know."
"Do the police know about the missing packages?"
I didn't believe him, but I decided to let it slide.
I couldn't believe the police hadn't questioned the pilot. I continued by asking, "How long was it before you got back to Fairbanks?"
"My copilot and some of the women were flown back by helicopter the same afternoon."
"What time was that?"
"The chopper was at the hospital by 7:30 pm., but it was too late for a second trip. So the rest of us stayed in the plane overnight and were flown out in the morning."
"I'm curious, how did they find you so fast?"
"I tripped the beacon and a search was started right away. When they couldn't reach us on the radio, they thought we had crashed. "
"I'm sorry?" I asked, confused. "Beacon?"
"Our Emergency Locator Beacon. I turned it on so the search planes could find us."
"What time was that?"
"Exactly 5:10 pm. I noted the time in my log book."
"So how long do you think it would it have taken the hijacker to drive to Fairbanks?"
"I don't know, maybe three hours."
"And what time were the police notified?"
"I called them on the chopper radio before he headed for the hospital. I gave them a description of the truck and three numbers from the license plate."
"What were the numbers?"
"468. That's all I could see. The plate was covered with mud."
"About what time was that?"
"Shortly after seven o'clock. I remember making a note in my log book."
I quickly did the math. "That means the police knew about the hijacking before the guy had a chance to reach Fairbanks?"
"How is your copilot?" I asked, showing concern.
"Still in hospital, but I understand he'll recover full use of his arm."
"That's good. I'm glad to hear that."
The captain nodded his agreeance.
Just before leaving I decided to ask the captain for some travel advice, "I was thinking I might take a drive up to Star Lake. Any suggestions?"
"Forget driving. Star Lake is located about one hundred and fifty miles east of here over the worst roads in the country. It's a minimum two days with a four-wheel drive. You're better off flying."
"What size plane?"
"There is only one plane flying into Start Lake."
"And that would be . . ."
"The plane I fly. Twin engine. Nine passengers. I'll arrange a seat for you if you want. I'm sure the company wouldn't mind."
"Sounds like a plan."
"Excellent. Be up here tomorrow morning at 0800 hours. We take off at 0830.
He folded his overcoat over his arm, picked up his briefcase and then turned and marched off down the corridor.
Armed with what the pilot had just told me, I headed back into town. Something he had said bothered me. If the cops knew at five o'clock about the hijacker, why didn't they try and intercept the guy when he was still on the bush road? They should have had time. I made a mental note to ask Diaz.
I pulled into a tavern near the airport to flash my suspect's picture. The supper hour floorshow was still going strong so I stuck around. By the time I got out of there I was barely in shape to drive back into town.
It was still early when I pulled into the parking lot at my hotel. I decided to make another round of the bars on the off chance the night crowd would be more fruitful. It wasn't. I did, however, acquire the makings of a great hangover by the time I staggered back to my hotel. I decided the smart thing for me to do was get my head down.
Circling high above, Star Lake looked mystically shrouded in the morning fog. The town was tucked in between high mountains and perched on the edge of a small glacial lake. That's when I remembered my camera was still in my suitcase at the hotel.
As we circled over the town, Captain Muller revved his engines a few times and then banked hard towards the small airport.
I leaned forward so the captain could hear me and asked, "Is this part of the air tour?"
"Up here, they just keep their ears open for planes," he said. "They don't get that many so I usually buzz the town a few times before landing. It's far more reliable than flight schedules."
"If I wanted to speak to someone from the mine, who would I ask for?"
"After we land, get someone from the airport to phone ahead to the mine office for you. They'll send someone to get you."
The captain was right. Not long after the phone call was placed for me, a woman entered the terminal and walked up to the counter.
"Is there a Mr. Lennox around here?"
The counter agent pointed at me.
"Mr. Lennox?" she asked, as she approached.
"My name's Marge. I'm head of security for the Star."
I felt my eyebrows jump a little. She didn't look old enough to be in charge of anything. If I didn't know better, I'd have taken her for a schoolteacher, and pre-school at that. "What can I do for you?" she asked.
"I'm a private investigator. I've been retained to recover a shipment that belongs to the mine."
"You really one of those Private-Eyes?"
"Yep. You want to see my badge?"
"No. That won't be necessary. It's just that I've never met a real private investigator before, other than the movies and books."
"Well I hope I measure up?"
"I'm sure you will," she said, cracking a big smile. "So you're going to get our gold back, are you?"
"Gold?" I asked. I felt a sincere look of surprise crossing my face.
"Yeah. You said you were investigating our missing shipment so I assumed . . . ."
Assumed hell. It never dawned on me that the packages would have contained gold. Brian and I were going to have to have another long talk. "Oh I knew okay. I just figured it would be all hush hush."
"Why? Everybody up here knows. How about if I take you for a ride to see our operation? We can talk while I drive."
"Sounds like a plan."
So I followed Marge, the young and good-looking head of security, outside to her waiting company pickup. Pretty impressive looking unit, too; complete with flashing roof lights and several antennas bristling from the roof.
"They keep you busy up here, do they?" I asked, referring to all the electronic paraphernalia.
"Not really. Why?"
"All the electronics. You have as much electronic equipment inside this cab as the average Seattle city police car."
"I spend more time in my truck than I do in the office. You might say this is my portable office."
"Oookay." Made sense to me.
I sort of expected Marge to take me to the mine office, but she didn't. Instead she drove us up a series of switchbacks, each one progressively sharper and steeper. I decided not to bother her with questions right then. I wanted her to concentrate fully on her driving.
Twenty minutes later we reached the top and she pulled the truck up to the edge of the road and stopped. I hadn't expected to get the nickel tour but I soon found myself standing in front of the truck looking down over the whole valley. Far below was a giant opening in the earth. Through clouds of dust I could see two massive shovels scooping rock into a line of huge dump trucks. Two scoops and the trucks would pull away and start the long spiral climb from the pit to the mine buildings a mile away. Again I kicked myself for not bringing my camera.
"So what can you tell me about the missing shipment?" I asked.
"You got any pet theories on who did it?" Being such a closely-knit town, I was sure there would be a lot of finger pointing going on.
"Not really," she said. "I talked to the pilot. He tells me no one on the plane knew the guy."
"How about you?" I asked, and showed her the drawing.
She looked at it for a moment and then shook her head. "I've never seen anyone like that around here," she said, passing the drawing back to me.
"No chance he's ever worked up here?"
"Not as long as I've been here."
"And how long's that?"
"Almost two years."
"Were any of the passengers from here?"
"All but one."
"Have you talked to them?"
"Just Mrs. Engleman and her son. The rest haven't returned yet."
"Do you think she'd mind if I asked her a few questions?"
"You could ask, but I doubt if she'd tell you anymore than she told me."
"Because of the lawsuit?"
"What lawsuit?" I asked, not that it came as a surprise.
"Word around town is that the passengers are suing the airline."
That would explain the response from the passenger I phoned in Fairbanks.
"What's everyone around town saying?" I asked. "It must be the talk of the town."
"I don't know. There's some talk, but I haven't heard that much."
It struck me odd, being as how Marge was responsible for security, that she wasn't right on top the case. I know I would have been. Perhaps because of my investigative instincts, but I'd be tearing the town apart to find out everything I could.
"How would the guy have known the gold was on that plane?" I asked.
"It's no secret around Star Lake when gold is shipped out. Everyone can see the office manager's truck coming down the mountain with my truck right behind. There's no trees to hide behind up this high."
"I know, but . . ."
"We try to keep the shipments secret, but they know. Just about everyone in town works at the mine. They know what's going on."
"Yeah, but this guy's wasn't from Star Lake, right?"
"We should head down," she said. "You must be getting hungry?" Marge turned and walked back to her truck.
I refrained from asking questions on the way down, for the same reason as on the way up the hill; I didn't want to distract her. My main concern switched to the vehicle's brakes, and what would happen if they let go.
After surviving the unnerving ride back down the mountain it felt good to be back on level ground. As we drove into Star Lake, Marge mentioned there wasn't a decent place in town to eat, but she would be happy to make some sandwiches at her place. I agreed.
Like most other people in Star Lake, Marge lived in a trailer in one of the many mobile home parks. It was definitely a transient town with lots of turnover. Half the trailers didn't even have skirting around the bottom, or any kind of landscaping or flowers that might make them feel more like a home.
While watching her busily working in her kitchen, I kept up my line of questioning.
"So getting back to the missing shipment. You have no idea how the hijacker found out about your gold?" I asked.
"We do what we can. Only the mine manager and myself are supposed to know, but it gets out. I don't know."
"How about the airline? Do you contact them ahead of time?"
"No. Even the pilot isn't aware until we show up and load the shipment on the plane. The only other people who know is the bank manager in Fairbanks and our head office in New York."
"Well someone knew, didn't they?"
I couldn't help noticing all the pictures scattered around her trailer, mostly of her a young boy.
"Your son?" I asked.
"Yes. Randy's six now."
"So you're married?"
"I was. Now I'm separated."
"Don't be. I'm certainly not. I had to get a court order to keep him away."
"That bad?" I asked.
"Must be tough being a single parent up here all alone."
"I don't know. My 'X' got custody of Randy."
"Sorry. You must get real lonely then?"
"Sometimes. The people up here are real friendly."
"Do you get out to Fairbanks very often?"
"When ever I can. Come on, the sandwiches are ready," she said, waving me towards the table. "Can I get you anything to drink; milk, water?"
"Water's fine." Can't believe I said that.
The sun had been shining most of the day. It was like a mid-summer afternoon when we landed back in Fairbanks. I actually had to turn on the car's air-conditioning before driving back into the city.
It was almost suppertime when I parked in front of my hotel. The first thing I needed was a drink. Marge's offer of water didn't quite cut it, but it would have to wait. I needed to talk to Brian.
Amazingly, Brian was still at his desk when I phoned. I expected him to be long gone by that time of day.
"I just returned from Star Lake," I told him.
"You any the wiser?" he asked.
"Considerably. Listen, how come you didn't tell me what was in the shipment from the mine?"
"Why? What difference would that have made?"
"Well maybe I wouldn't have had to find out from some girl hell and gone out in the boon-docks. Makes me look rather stupid when I don't even know what I'm looking for."
"And your point is?" Then he paused, knowing full well I have a touchy temper. "Okay. Maybe I should have said something, but I didn't want to cloud your investigation. Anyway, I knew you'd find out soon enough."
I took a couple big breaths to calm down. Then I told him what I had learned so far, which was still next to nothing.
"I also need a favor," I said.
"I need you to run a computer check on someone for me and see what you can turn up. The usual stuff; NCIC for criminal record, financial, bra size, anything you can turn up."
"One Marge Levinsky, female Caucasian, about 30, separated, not sure what her maiden name was. Her 'x' is stateside somewhere."
"Who's she when she's at home and what does she do?"
"She head of security at Star Lake Mines. I don't know, there's just something about her that's not right."
"You think she may be involved?"
"I wouldn't be surprised. She's one of a small few who knows about their gold shipments."
"Soon as I get something I'll fax it up to Doug Redman's office."
"No. You better not do that," I said.
"He's not exactly talking to me right now."
"What the hell did you do? No. Never mind. I don't want to know. Give me the number of another fax machine up there."
"Better yet," I said. "E-mail the stuff to me. Too many prying eyes downstairs around the fax machine."
All I had thought about on the plane ride back was the gold. The thought of gold has a way of firing a person's imagination.
"Speaking of gold," I said. "Just exactly how much is the shipment worth?"
"It's worth enough to my company that we're not going to leave it to the local cops to recover it. That's why you're up there. I don't want to see that stuff disappear into their evidence room and never surface again."
Brian and I thought a lot alike. After all, we had started out as cops and wouldn't trust most of them as far as we could throw 'em.
"This might be a good time for me to bring up the possibility of a finder's fee?"
"Are you serious?" Brian asked.
"Hell yes. Why not? Think of it as a motivator for me. From the sounds of it, your company stands to loose a bundle if it has to pay the claim."
"I'll make some enquiries. In the meantime, just find out who's got the shipment. We want it back."
"Not to worry," I reassured him. I deliberately neglected to tell him the cops didn't even know about the missing gold.
Next I called Detective Diaz. I ended up with his pager, and a few minutes later, his return call. He agreed to meet me later in the sports bar. There was nothing in my e-mail of interest. I opened my window to let the room cool off a little and deliberately looked for Sandy, but there was no sign of life in the offices.
Downstairs, the sports bar was nice and cool as I ordered a drink at the bar and then dropped my weary body into a soft chair. When the waitress wandered by I ordered up a bacon burger with double cheese.
"You want gravy on your fries?" she asked.
"No thanks. I'm on a diet." I grinned.
She gave me a strange look and shook her head as she walked away. When she returned she had a bowl of pretzels.
"This should tide you over," she said.
"You remembered. Does this mean I'm a regular?" I asked.
"I like to take care of my customers." She gave me one of her best tip-generating smiles.
About an hour later, Detective Diaz poked his head into the darkened bar. I caught his eye and waved him over. Interestingly, he wasn't alone. A strikingly good-looking woman clung to his arm.
"This is my wife, Jacinta," Diaz said.
I played the gracious host, shook her small warm hand, and motioned for them to sit.
"Can I get you both a drink?" I asked, waving for the girl.
"Can I have a Cooer's Light?" he asked the waitress. You better bring him another one. How about you, dear?"
His wife ordered a drink I'd never heard of.
They pulled up a couple of the comfy chairs and joined me at the table. Off came his gray hat to expose his baldhead. Reflections from red lights over the bar made his head shine like a beacon.
Jacinta wanted to know about Seattle. She sounded homesick. About the only way I could describe the place was, "Wet." She went on to tell me about her going to school there.
"Did you go to school there?" she asked.
"No. Actually I'm from Spokane. I moved to Seattle to join the police force." We all chatted casually for a while like it was old home week. But that wasn't why I had phoned him.
"Anything on that truck from last night?" I asked.
"Nah, it's clean."
"What about the plate number? The pilot told me he gave you a partial number."
"News to me."
"That's what he told me yesterday." I reached for my notebook and leafed through the pages. "There it is. 468."
Diaz quickly jotted down the number. "I'll check it," he said.
"Anything on the other guy you're looking at?" I enquired.
"Strangest thing; his house burned to the ground last night. With him in it."
"Makes him a little difficult to interview, doesn't it?"
"I still think we were wasting our time but Len has the blinders on. Now he's pushing to close the file."
"You've got to be kidding?"
"Nope. I don't think our Lieutenant will buy it though. Have you turned anything up?"
"Just got back from Star Lake."
"Not much. Do you know anything of a Marge Levinsky?"
"Doesn't sound familiar," he said, shaking his head.
"She's head of security at the mine. I'm running her name through the system to see what turns up. My gut tells me she knows more than she's letting on. I would have thought her name would have cropped up in your investigation?"
"Don't think so."
That was weird. She should be on their list of suspects. She certainly was on mine.
"Another round?" I offered.
"No. We better not. We're off to a night at the movies," he advised. "Maybe some other time."
"Sure you won't have one?" I asked, when the waitress stopped at the table.
Diaz shook his head and stood up. "We better get going if we want to get a good seat."
"Just me then," I told the girl. "And keep 'em coming. I've got a lot of thinking to do."
My voyage in dreamland evaporated at 9:30 in the morning. I eventually realized the loud racket that was causing my temples to pulsate was the telephone. I never asked for a wakeup call so I figured I'd better answer the damned thing. It was Brian.
"It's about time you got your ass out of bed," he said.
"You rang?" I asked in a drowsy voice.
"Come on, wake up. I hit pay dirt on the woman you wanted the record check on."
That woke me up in a hurry. "What did you find?"
"All sorts of good things. She's got a couple convictions for possession of a controlled substance. Been in rehab a couple times. She's done some short time. She also likes her booze from the looks of it. Her husband took out a restraining order to keep her away from their kid. Last thing on file is a conviction for DUI. She transferred her parole to Fairbanks eighteen months ago."
"Sounds like a real winner. Wonder how she got her job as head of security with a record like that?"
"Looks like her father may have had something to do with it. He's an executive type with the mine's home office in New York."
"That would explain it all right, but I'd be willing to bet the brass in Star Lake obviously don't know anything about her past."
"Hard to say. She still had a year of probation to serve when she moved north. You might want to check with her probation officer up there."
Marge had such an innocent face too, but looks can be deceiving. She may have cleaned up her act since moving to Star Lake. At any rate, she was now firmly at the top of my suspect list.
After breakfast I hit city hall and managed to find out who Marge's probation officer had been. He was a middle-aged man who resembled the Pillsbury Doughboy. His puffy face ranged from red to purple; the face of a heart attack victim waiting to happen. It was an Olympic task for him to waddle to the file cabinet to dig out Marge's file. Then he dropped back into his chair and, after catching his breath, opened her file and laid it out on the desk. Marge's smiling face beamed up from a 5x7 photo.
"Ahh yeah," he said. "I remember her. She worked out of town. That's why she only reported in monthly instead of weekly. Says here she kept her nose clean. Probation ended last September." He sat back in his chair and looked up at me. "That's it. One of my easier cases."
"Mind if I keep this?" I asked, reaching for the photograph before he could close the file folder.
He started to object, and then probably thought it wasn't worth the effort. "Nah, keep the damned thing. I doubt if I'll ever need it again."
Back in the car, I added Marge's picture to my file and contemplated my next move. It didn't make sense that a local would have committed the hijacking, too much chance of someone recognizing him. So, if he was from out of town, I figured he must have had a place to stay.
As usual, there was nothing in my e-mail but junk mail. Fortunately I'm a master of the 'delete' key. I glanced across the street and could see Sandy sitting at her desk. I tried but I couldn't catch her eye, so I phoned.
"How you doing?" I asked.
"Okay," she said. I could tell she was talking quietly so she couldn't be overheard.
"How it going with your boss?"
"Well he's still not talking to me any more than he has to. He just sits in his office and pouts like a little boy."
"Listen. Can we meet later for a drink?" I really wanted to see her again.
"I could meet you in the sports bar after work if you like?"
"Yeah. I'd like that."
I was feeling much better. I was even humming merrily in the elevator on the way down to the lobby. After checking at the hotel desk for messages, I scrounged an extra telephone book. I decided to hit every hotel in the phone book and do some picture flashing.
One after another I got the same head shaking from hotel clerks. No one recognized him. Nothing, and that included a couple dives down near the river that I wouldn't let a dog stay in.
By late afternoon I was well into the list of motels. I was beginning to get the feeling I was wasting my time when a woman behind the desk of a moderate motel brightened my day. I was showing her the drawing of the hijack suspect when she said, "No. I don't think he's been here. But she has."
She pointed to the picture of Marge that was paper-clipped to my file folder.
"You sure?" I asked, and turned the picture around so she could have a better look.
"Sure I'm sure. She has stayed with us lots of times." I remembered Marge saying she flew into Fairbanks fairly regular. This was obviously where she hung her hat when in town.
I thanked the woman as I gathered my pictures and stuffed them back into my file. I was about to move on when I had a thought.
"Does she ever have any visitors?" I asked.
"Sure. But it's not the guy in your picture."
"Do you know who it is then?"
"No. But I know the license number of the car he drives."
"Sure. We always record license plate numbers at night."
"This visitor stays the night does he?"
"Can I get the license number?"
I couldn't help wondering who Marge was seeing when she was in town. So I called the number into Detective Diaz and asked him to run the plate for me. Then I continued my rounds of the local motels until it was time to meet Sandy at the hotel.
She seemed real happy to see me as I pulled up a chair and ordered my usual drink.
"You're looking good," I told her, and she was. She looked young, chipper and fresh; sort of like the girls I used to date when I first became a cop.
"Why thank you sir. You don't look so shabby yourself."
We spent the next hour engaged in general chitchat. That's when she mentioned her and her boss had a thing going for a while, until his wife got wind of his fooling around. The wife never suspected Sandy, but they ended it right away.
"He's still terribly jealous," she confided.
"That would explain the way he acted the other morning."
"Don't worry. He'll get over it. He always does."
"So if we were to . . . ahh . . . slip upstairs?"
She didn't have to answer out loud. Her squeezing my leg under the table with her hand was enough.
We didn't come up for air until darkness prevailed outside my window. The orange glow of streetlights replaced the daylight. According to the red digits of the clock on the bed table, it was just after 9:30 pm.
"Just how old are you?" I asked her. It wasn't hard for me to detect the difference in our ages. She had a sexual appetite demanding of a male much younger then me.
"Figures. Do you realize I'm almost twice your age?"
"So? Maybe I like older men."
"Lucky me." I lay back on the bed resting. I could have fallen asleep with little trouble, but fought to display the vigor of a younger man.
"I've gotta go," she said.
I wanted her to stay, but my body was suddenly relieved. "Do you really have to? Give me a few minutes and I'll be good as new."
"It's not you, silly," she said, playfully poking me in the ribs. "I told my husband I was going to a friend's bridal shower tonight, so I've got be home at a reasonable hour."
Now that was a shock. "You're married?" Somehow I just assumed she was single. Nothing in our discussions ever led me to think she might be married.
"I thought you knew?"
"No. I . . . ."
"Don't worry about it. I'm not."
Sandy rejected my offer of a ride home. She had her own car. I watched from my window as she left the front of the hotel and walked down the block and out of sight around the corner.
It was far too early for me to turn in, too late to continue my rounds of motels, so I switched on the TV and propped myself up with a pillow. The evening news was just coming on and the lead story was unfolding; a random shooting in downtown Fairbanks. The mobile TV camera did an excellent job of capturing the scene of pandemonium. Police had taped off the crime scene to keep back nosey pedestrians. The screen was filled with the image of a man slumped over the steering wheel of his car, and as the camera zoomed back I could see the car; a white Lincoln Towncar, exactly like the one I was driving!
Coincidence? Maybe, but my instinctive mind immediately posed the question; "Was that hit intended for me?" I wasn't taking chances. I dug my gun and holster from my suitcase, loaded it. There was no way I'd be able to sleep with the shooting on my mind so I grabbed my jacket and headed for the bar.
I'm not sure what time I finally got to bed. I remember closing the lounge and then sitting at the bar shooting the bull with the bartender long after he closed the doors. When I woke up on my bed I was still dressed and my head felt like someone was beating me with a ball peen hammer.
I was soaking in a hot shower when the phone rang. Hoping it was Sandy; I wrapped a towel around myself and grabbed the phone.
"George's mortuary," I answered.
It wasn't Sandy's voice on the other end. It was Detective Diaz.
"Did I wake you?" he asked.
"No. I've been up for hours," I said, as I stood dripping water into the carpet.
"That license number you gave me yesterday afternoon, where'd you get it?"
"From a motel register. The vehicle belongs to whoever's been spending nights in a motel with Marge, the security cop from Star Lake."
"You sure you got the number right?" he asked.
"You really sure?"
"Yeah. I'm sure. Why. What's up?"
"That plate number . . . it belongs to my partner's car."
"Now that is interesting," I said. "That confirms he not only knows the girl, but that he's been sleeping with my number one suspect. What kind of a vehicle is it?"
"It's a Suzuki XL 4x4, kind of a wine color. Has the spare tire mounted on the rear. What are you going to do?"
"Nothing right now. I'll run the description of the vehicle past the motel owner and see if it's the one."
"There's something else you should be aware of," he said.
"Those three numbers you gave me?"
"They're from the stolen truck that was turned up in the alley. We were right."
"Does Harrison know?"
"Tell him. See what he says. And listen, I need you to do me another favor?"
"Such as?" he asked.
"There was a shooting on the street last night. A guy in a white Lincoln."
"I heard about it. Why?"
"I need you to have a close look at the case. See if there appears to have been a motive for the shooting."
"I can, but -"
"I'm driving a white Lincoln Towncar, exactly like the one in the shooting," I advised him.
"You're not thinking . . . ?"
"Yeah. I am."
I touched base with Brian about my suspicions on the previous night's shooting. The increased personal risk added weight to my idea of a finder's fee.
"How can you be sure you were the intended target?" he asked.
"I can't right now, but I'm not taking any chances. I'm going to be looking over my shoulder from now on."
"Stay in touch," he urged.
I passed on breakfast believing I'd never be able to keep it down. Within the hour I was back on the street checking motels. I still had about a third of the list from the yellow pages left to go. I started with the Riverview Motel to run the description of Harrison's vehicle passed the owners; it was Harrison's!
I finished off the list by late afternoon with a blank. Either the perp was local, or he'd found somewhere else to hole up. I made my way back to the hotel to take a quick shower. Then a check of my e-mail showed I had an e-mail from Brian and one from Connie in my office. She wanted me to know the phone company was about to pull my phone if I didn't come up with some money. Brian's e-mail was more interesting; for purely insurance reasons, policy dictated he had to notify Star Lake Mines of Marge's criminal record. Seems they reacted by immediately firing her.
I took me a few minutes to figure out how to place a phone call over a radiotelephone, but when I reached Marge's office in Star Lake a man answered. "Is Marge there?" I asked.
"Miss Levinsky no longer works here," he advised curtly.
"Do you have a number where I may be able to reach her?"
"Try her home." Fortunately, he gave me her phone number.
Unfortunately, there was no answer. So I headed downstairs to think.
I was becoming enough of a regular at the hotel that the staff at the front desk knew me by sight. When she saw me, the woman behind the counter passed me a message. There were three words scribbled on the paper; 'Watch your back'. I put two and two together and guessed it was from Detective Diaz, warning me that I was probably the intended shooting victim. I instinctively felt for my gun and the reassurance it provided.
The supper crowd had gathered in the bar. I picked up my usual from the bar and grabbed a table with a comfy chair.
"You gonna have anything to eat?" the waitress asked, holding out a menu as she passed my table.
"Bacon burger with double cheese," I replied, and smiled.
"I know," she said. "No gravy on the fries. You're on a diet, right?"
"Right." More proof I was becoming a regular. Next thing I'd be making a return trip to the Chinese restaurant. That was a scary thought.
As I sat munching on my burger and sucking back the Jack Daniels, it dawned on me that Marge may be on the plane heading for Fairbanks. I quickly cleaned up my makeshift meal and headed for the airport.
The flight from Star Lake had already landed and there was no sign of passengers. I flashed her picture to the customer service rep that was just getting ready to leave.
"I think so," he said with an unsure look on his face, but that was good enough for me. I took a long shot and showed him the perp's drawing. He shook his head, "No."
While I was there, I flashed the drawings to the other ticket counters, again with no success. That was a little much to ask for, but I had to try.
I decided to swing past the Riverview Motel and see if Marge was checked in. I had some questions about her and Harrison. A scenario was forming in my suspicious mind that was putting Marge and her detective friend in way over their heads.
I pulled in along the curb across from the motel. I couldn't see any wine colored Suzuki in the parking lot so assumed she was alone, if she was there. I sat for a while watching the place until my curiosity got the better of me. I got out and walked across the street to the motel office.
The woman wasn't there, but I flashed my badge to the man behind the counter and showed him Marge's picture.
"Is she checked in here?" I asked.
He acted a little hesitant at first, then reached for a pile of registration cards and leafed through them.
"Room 218," he said. "Second floor balcony."
From where I was parked I had a clear view of the motel rooms. I dug my binoculars from my briefcase and rolled down my window. My eyes scanned the length of the balcony looking for room 218. Half way along the balcony I spotted her room. The curtains on the large front window were partly open, enough for me to see inside. She was in there all right. I could see her sitting on the edge of the bed holding a phone to her ear. I decided to sit tight and see what her phone call might produce.
My wait lasted only half an hour. A man appeared from behind the motel and climbed the stairs to the second level. I watched as he made his way along the balcony. He seemed to be carrying something in side his jacket. Then he stopped at room 218. I had been expecting Harrison to show up, but this wasn't Harrison who was knocking on Marge's door. Immediately my suspicious mind kicked into gear.
I trained my binoculars through the window once more. I could see Marge and the guy talking.
Actually, it appeared to be more of a heated discussion. Suddenly he lashed out at her, striking her across the face and knocking her back across the bed. Instinctively, I started to get out of the car, and then stopped. I set aside my white knight - damsel in distress thoughts and decided to call in Detective Diaz. On the off chance it was our elusive perp in there, I wanted things to be nice and legal like.
I dialed Diaz's number on my cellular and sat back, closing the door. A man answered. "Detective Diaz, please," I asked.
"I'm sorry, but the detective is gone for the day. Can I take a message?"
'Shit', I muttered under my breath.
"Do you have a number where he can be reached? This is very important."
"Sorry, we don't give out home phone numbers. If it's as important as you say, leave your message. I'll phone him and give him your message."
There wasn't much else I could do. I told him to tell Diaz where I was and that I had Marge and the hijacker under surveillance. " . . . Just tell him to get his ass down here, ASAP."
I resumed my visual from the car. Marge was sitting up on the edge of the bed and the guy was on the phone and pacing back and forth, waving his arm around.
I didn't have long to wait. Suddenly my scanner crackled to life. I overheard a police dispatcher sending two units to my location. Then I heard Harrison asking for the location.
"Damn!" I muttered to myself. "The last thing I need is Harrison."
Within a minute I heard them coming. Unfortunately, it sounded more like a cavalry charge with horns blaring. I could hear them blocks away. My mind raced as to what to do. Soon as the guy heard the sirens, he'd be gone. I drew my gun and flipped the cylinder open to make damned sure it was loaded. "Christ I hate this part," I said aloud.
Within seconds I was out the door and running straight for the motel. With my gun at the ready I charged up nearest stairs to the second level and cautiously made my way along the landing. If the guy came out the door, I was ready for him, but he didn't.
When I reached the room I ducked under the window and stopped short of the door, hugging the wall by the window, ready for anything. I could hear voices from inside. I took a deep breath, then reached out and rapped on the door with the barrel of my gun. "Open up! It's the police."
Inside the room there was a deafening silence that seemed to last a lifetime until I heard Marge scream.
I yelled again, "Open the door and throw out your guns or we use teargas." Nice touch, considering I didn't have any. My bogus threat was instantly answered with a shotgun blast. Splintered wood from the door flew everywhere. I immediately gave up any idea of kicking in the door. Brian wasn't paying me enough for that.
That's when my so-called backup showed up. Two police cars with sirens blaring and lights flashing pulled up in front of the motel. A third car right behind them. Officers piled out of the cars and suddenly I found myself in the sights of several guns. Everyone was yelling at me to drop my gun. I recognized one of the voices as Detective Harrison.
"This isn't my idea of backup," I muttered to myself.
Pressed tight against the wall, I wasn't about to drop my gun, not with a loaded shotgun pointed my way from inside the room.
"I've got the guy," I called down to Harrison.
"You got nothing. Drop your gun," he yelled back at me.
"Not a chance. Get up here. I need some help."
Within seconds there were two armed officers closing on me from both ends of the balcony while the other two took cover behind their car doors. The two on the balcony stopped about twenty feet from me, guns pointed straight at me, their fingers on the triggers. The cop in front of me maintained a two-handed grip on his weapon, as I stood frozen, staring down its awesome barrel.
"Be careful!" I warned. "There's a man inside with a gun."
"Who are you?"
"I'm a private investigator and I'm licensed to carry this gun. Where's Detective Diaz?"
"I have no idea. What the hell's going on here? Who's in there?" the cop asked.
"Where's Diaz?" I called to Harrison, who by that time was up on the landing.
"Move back," Harrison told the cop and exchanged places so he was on the other side of the door opposite me, his gun pointed at my chest. Then he spotted the hole in the door and said, "Holy shit!"
"You convinced now?"
I could see Harrison was trying to figure out what to do.
I cautiously maneuvered around so I could glance into the room. The guy was nowhere to be seen. The shotgun was lying on a table. Marge was sitting on the edge of the bed, sobbing uncontrollably.
"Just the girl," I said. "The shotgun -"
Before I could finish what I was saying, Harrison spun around and put a boot to the door. The casing split and the door caved in. Two bullets flashed from Harrison's automatic and I watched Marge gasp as the slugs slammed into her body, the impact knocking her backwards onto the bed.
"What the hell did you do that for?" I yelled at Harrison.
"She was going for the shotgun."
"Like hell she was. She could have told us where the guy went."
"There wasn't any guy in there, just her," Harrison snarled.
A subsequent search of the room turned up nothing but an open window in the bathroom leading to a fire escape. There was no doubt the guy had bailed on us. When I came back out of the bathroom I recognized the familiar face of Diaz in the doorway. I heard him asking, "What the hell happened?"
"Some weirdo with a shotgun," Harrison said, holstering his gun.
"It wasn't her with the shotgun," I countered. "It was the -"
"She's still alive!" One of the cops suddenly exclaimed. He reached for the radio microphone clipped to his shoulder strap and began placing an emergency call for an ambulance.
Harrison took one look at Marge, shook his head, turned and headed out the door.
Marge was conscious. Her eyes expressed the fear and shock of being shot. There was blood everywhere, soaking into the top covers of the bed. Blood also dribbled from the corner of her mouth as she tried to speak.
"That bastard. That dirty bastard," she kept mumbling. She could barely keep her eyes open.
"Who was the guy with the shotgun?" I asked her.
She slowly rolled her head to face me. She appeared to recognize me and asked, "Am I going to die?"
"No. The ambulance is on its way. Who was the guy with the shotgun?"
"His name's Donny. He's a friend of Len's."
"Is he the hijacker?" I asked. I could see she was fighting just to keep her eyes open.
"Marge?" I asked again. "Is he the hijacker?"
She tried to speak, but couldn't, coughing instead to clear her throat of blood. She opened her eyes and stared up at me, nodding her head in the affirmative.
"What happened?" Diaz asked me.
"That bloody Harrison." I said. "He pumped two slugs into her to shut her up. Where the hell is he?"
"He just drove off."
Marge was fading fast. She kept mumbling about, "That bastard." She was hard to understand. "He said he loved me."
"You talking about Harrison?" Diaz asked.
Again she nodded. "We were going to leave tonight. Donny was . . ."
"How? How were you going to leave?" I asked.
"Donny's a pilot. He's going to take a plane. We were supposed to -"
"Was Harrison in on the hijacking?" I asked.
"Yeah. He was going to take me to Argentina. We were . . ." She started choking and coughing blood again.
"Did you tell Harrison about the gold?" I asked her.
Either she didn't hear or wasn't about to answer. She smiled feebly at me, and then rolled her head away. We watched as her eyes slowly closed and her last breath left her body.
"That son of a bitch!" I exclaimed. "I knew Harrison was dirty."
Diaz said nothing. He stood staring down at Marge's limp body, trying to absorb what he'd just heard.
"Where'd he go?" I asked, walking over to the window.
"He's gone," Diaz said. "Took off in his car."
It didn't take rocket science to figure out where he'd gone. "The airport. They're going to make a run for it," I said.
By that time Diaz had come to terms with the fact that his partner of three years had strayed from the straight and narrow.
We both piled in Diaz's unmarked car and headed for the airport. I reached out and stuck the red flashing light on the roof while Diaz switched on the siren and put in a radio call for backup. Harrison had less than a five-minute head start.
We'd called it right. Harrison's car was parked outside a fence near one on the airplane hangers. We both piled out and headed for the side entrance to the hanger. Just our luck; it was locked. Not only that, but it was a steel sheathed door and bolted from the inside.
From the fence we could look out over the airfield. There were several planes parked around but none that appeared about to take off.
"Think we're too late?" Diaz asked.
"No. We can't be," I replied, although I feared he was right. "We've got to get over this fence."
Unfortunately, the fence was made of heavy gauge chain-link eight feet high, and the gate was padlocked.
"Go through the terminal," Diaz told me. "I'll go around." He turned and ran to his car.
By the time I reached the entrance to the terminal building, Diaz was tearing along a gravel road towards the end of the fence, gravel and dust flying from his spinning tires.
Inside the terminal I didn't stop to explain my actions. I flashed my badge as I burst passed a couple airline attendants and out through a departure gate. I could hear someone behind me screaming for me to stop, but I didn't, nor was I paying them any attention.
At the edge of the tarmac I stopped and looked around. One of the small planes that moments before had been sitting in front of the hanger was now taxiing out towards the runway. Some mechanic was running after them. I could hear him yelling, "Wait. That aircraft hasn't been signed out yet."
The pilot wasn't listening to anyone. I could hear his engine speed up as he increased his speed. I started running, but I didn't have a hope in hell of catching the plane. So I crossed the strip of pavement towards a grassy area that stretched out to the main runway. I soon noticed a small ditch along the edge of the pavement. I figured I could jump it and kept going. I damned near broke my neck, as the ditch was wider than I figured. I landed off stride on the other side and almost fell face first. Somehow I managed to regain my stride and continued my run straight across the grass towards the runway.
I was part way across when I heard Diaz coming. I stopped and turned to see him screaming up the pavement, his red light flashing like mad and his siren wailing. He was following the path of the plane, obviously hoping to catch up. Then I realized another vehicle was joining the chase. An airport security pickup truck came screeching out of a hanger and raced across the tarmac, in my direction. I turned and started running again.
Within seconds I heard a grinding crash as the security truck left the pavement in an attempt to catch me. He too must have misjudged the width of the ditch. I looked over my shoulder in time to see the truck's bumper plough into the ground on my side of the ditch. Huge mounds of dirt flew into the air, as the truck bounced, was airborne for a few seconds, then landed on all fours, rear tires sending a spray of sod in a rooster-tail behind. I poured on the coal and ran as fast as I could.
The plane was quickly approaching the runway apron. Diaz was hot on his tail but not close enough to intercept the small plane. Then I heard the sound of yet another plane. As I glanced off to my right, in the direction of the sound, I saw a scary sight; a 737 jet on its final approach to land; on the same runway! It was obviously cleared to land and expecting the small plane to hold on the apron. I still had better than a hundred yards to cover and I could sense the truck gaining on me.
The jet was rapidly approaching the runway as I reached the edge of the grassy area. I didn't have the strength or momentum to jump another drainage ditch. I broke my run and stopped short of the ditch. I landed on my knees on the wet grass. Both hands hit the ground and my head drooped forward. I was totally exhausted. My chest heaved and my lungs screamed in pain. I could hear the truck braking behind me. I could also hear the big jet's engine slack off as it descended.
I raised my head in time to see the small plane turn onto the main runway, directly into the path of the oncoming 737 passenger jet.
The smaller plane was closing fast on my left. I rose up a bit and waved both hands in the air, like a highway flagman slowing traffic, only the plane gained speed. As I reached behind to draw my revolver, I could see the face of the passenger. It was Harrison, and he had a smirk on his face like he knew I couldn't stop them. I said a silent prayer that the jet pilot would have time to react when he spotted the smaller plane pulling onto the runway.
The scream of the big jet's engines increased in my ears and I knew I had no choice. Harrison's eyes were glued to me, and I thoroughly enjoyed watching the expression change on his face as he saw me raise my gun. I took aim on the engine cowling just behind the propeller and started pulling the trigger. I managed four shots, as they roared past. Then I felt the agony of a football player as two men from the security truck tackled me from behind. I was instantly slammed face first into the wet turf. My gun went flying as my arms were wrenched and pinned to my back.
"Easy. Easy!" I screamed with a mouthful of grass. "I'm a cop!"
Suddenly the pressure on my arms relaxed. Identifying myself as a cop in an instant like that works far better that saying I'm a private investigator. The word, 'cop', carries more weight.
With the two tacklers off my back, I rose up on my elbows in time to see the big jet settling onto the runway and the distance between the two planes closing with lightening speed. The small plane was in serious trouble; smoke poured from the cowlings and the engine sounded like a thrashing machine. My bullets had obviously hit their mark. Donny appeared to be struggling with the controls, trying desperately to steer his plane out of the path of the jet. We watched helplessly as little by little the smaller plane veered to the edge of the pavement, until one of its front wheels dug into the soft dirt. The plane lurched around, tipped forward and landed in the drainage ditch, its propeller spraying chunks of sod in all directions. Diaz's car slid passed with all four wheels locked and squealing against the pavement and came to a shuddering halt along side the smoking aircraft.
Seconds later the 737's wingtip passed right over Diaz's car with him sitting inside, his face white as snow. I glanced up at the pilot as the jet passed, but he was focused straight ahead. I could see his mouth moving and could only guess what he was saying; probably not something that could use used in mixed company.
In the commotion, the security guards forgot about me and raced for the plane. I struggled up off the ground and brushed gobs of mud from my clothes. By the time I reached the wrecked plane, Diaz had Danny out of the cockpit and sprawled face down on the pavement. The guy screamed like hell from Diaz's knee jammed in his back as Diaz shackled him in handcuffs.
I fished my gun from the water filled ditch and worked my way along the passenger side of the plane. There was no sign of Harrison. I moved away from the plane to give myself a better view of the inside, all the while I trained my gun on Harrison's door. All I could see of him was the back of his head in the window. He appeared to be leaning forward, but not moving. So I cautiously inched forward and slowly opened the door. Harrison was slumped forward in his seat. Blood ran down his face from where his head had slammed into the doorpost. He was clutching at his side and I could see blood oozing from between the fingers of one hand. His other arm hung limply at his side, his gun held loosely. I quickly retrieved the gun.
"How's Len?" I heard Diaz call out from the other side of the plane. Then his face appeared in the other door opening. "Jesus Christ!" he exclaimed when he saw his partner.
Just then Harrison slowly turned his face towards me. He had a look of both pain and contempt.
"He's alive," I said.
Diaz told one of the security guards to call for an ambulance. I stepped back to inspect the damage I had inflicted on the plane. There was one bullet hole just behind the prop, right where I had aimed. The next, however, was about three feet further back. The next entered through Harrison's door, and the forth hit behind the seats.
When Diaz came around the plane to check on his partner, it became evident the bullet that hit Harrison's door had gone right through and into Harrison's side.
"I hope you make it," I told him. "I want to see you spend the rest of your life behind bars for what you did to Marge."
He said nothing.
"Why did you do it?" Diaz asked.
"Don't even start," Harrison spat.
I opened the cargo door behind the seat to find a briefcase. Inside I found the three packages. I closed the briefcase and lifted it from the plane. I stepped back several feet and set it on the ground. Then I looked up at Harrison and said, "Hey, Detective Harrison. I've decided to take your advice and head back south to Seattle."
He gave me a dirty look that spoke volumes.
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