Joe had chattered happily about his flight as Annie drove them up into the foothills of Englewood. While she was listening to him, she was not really paying attention to him. She listened to the cadence of his dialog and nodded or smiled at appropriate times.
It wasn't that she didn't care. Far from it. She had met him on the ramp at Centennial, using his gate access card to park their Jeep in front of Intermountain's hangar as the C-130's crew had deplaned. She had watched quietly as Joe had stopped just in front of the nosecone of the transport and confer very briefly with Lola and Steve there in the gently falling snow. Then the three had headed off in different directions, Lola for her car in the parking lot, Steve for Intermountain's office, and Joe towards her. She had seen his tail wag gently as he approached the idling Jeep.
Annie had considered stopping by the office herself to say hi to Janie, but had decided against it. That ice-laden memory of Maria greeting her... Good afternoon, Sharon. She shivered every time the memory replayed in her head. She needed to be with Joe, to tell him, to ease her mind, to have this out in the open between them. She wouldn't let Maria hold that between them. She couldn't.
She had jumped out of the Jeep at the last moment and thrown herself into his arms, feeling the bulk of his lined A2 jacket as she wrapped her arms around him, her lips seeking his. Joe had dropped his flight case in the snow.
“Hey,” he'd grinned. “I'm happy to see you, too!”
She had said very little, and Joe had filled the time of their drive into the hills with talk of how well The Bitch flew, how everything seemed to be in good working order, and how well the crew seemed to fly together. She had plodded along in the afternoon traffic with all the other residents of the front range, slowly navigating the slush-filled streets.
She glanced at the clock in the dash, and then at her husband.
“We have some time, my love. Would you like to get a drink at Frisco's?” Frisco's was a small corner deli, operated by a friend of theirs who also happened to be an ardent fan of good wine. It was a happy and frequent end-of-the-day, wind-down place for she and Joe, and they were often joined there by Timmy and Janie. This afternoon, however, Annie knew that her best friend and her husband were still at the office at Centennial airport, and that suited her plans.
Joe nodded enthusiastically. “Sounds good to me!”
Annie concentrated on her driving as she signaled a lane change, preparing for the upcoming left turn. Frisco's was just west of Wadsworth, not too far from their home, and she knew the area well.
Joe studied his wife for a moment. She looked gorgeous, as usual, but something was going on with her. She was uncharacteristically quiet, watching the road and and the traffic, almost ignoring him. If it weren't for that kiss of greeting at the airport he'd have wondered if she was upset with him over something. He studied her carefully for a moment. Her eyes were tight, like she was...
She turned suddenly to face him. “Cabernet,” she said.
“Wildwood,” he replied. It was a game they played at Frisco's. If they asked for a Wildwood cabernet and one was served to them, the game was over. If Theresa didn't have a Wildwood cabernet, then Joe would pick a varietal and Annie would pick a winery. In this way they might spend a pleasant ten or fifteen minutes with Theresa, the whippet proprietress of Frisco's, until they hit on a match. Of course, Theresa would take the opportunity to extol the virtues of other varietals of the mentioned vintners, such that Joe and Annie might wind up drinking, as an example, Wildwood's latest Pinot or Chardonnay instead. Whatever they wound up partaking of, it was always delicious, and made better with Theresa's company and conversation. She always had the low-down on what was going on in their neighborhood, even though she lived in a tiny condo up in the canyon in Twin Forks.
Annie stared at him for a brief moment as she downshifted before returning her attention to the road, moving to make her left onto Wadsworth. The Jeep mushed through the small ridge of slush between traffic lanes, wobbling slightly.
# # #
“How are you and AJ doing with that oil tycoon?”
Rick Carter looked over the top of his beer mug at his boss. The Labrador was smiling at him, his ever-present lady friend and right paw at his side.
“Well,” Rick said as he put his mug on the table between them. “AJ thinks we ought to be pampering him with the G-IV instead of the Citation, but some of those airstrips he asks us to fly in to... we'd beat that G-IV to death.”
The badger and his ocelot co-pilot, sometimes accompanied by a ferret flight attendant, had been flying an oil company executive around the northern hemisphere for about three weeks now. They had returned earlier today, rotating back from dropping off the client at his home base in Tulsa before coming back to Port Columbus for airframe inspection and maintenance, cabin clean-up, and some R and R for the crew.
“You should have seen that runway in Alaska,” Rick continued. “Looked like a nice paved strip from a thousand feet up, but after we rolled out we learned that it was actually oiled tundra. That damn Citation left two-inch deep ruts in the frozen mess. We were there for a little over thirty minutes, and we kept taxiing up and down the runway the entire time for fear we'd sink if we stopped. If we'd have been in the G-IV you'd still be trucking it out in pieces.”
Matt grinned. “AJ isn't much of a bush pilot, huh?”
Rick shook his head. “First time to Alaska for him. But he did great. He's a good crewfur, and he knows those Citations. Give him some time to build time, and he'll be a good captain.”
Rick picked up his mug again as Matt pondered this report.
“How did Holly take to him?” Angie asked. Holly Lukens was a casual friend as well as a darned good flight attendant. She supplemented her regular income by flying now and then as an attendant on Intermountain's corporate charters. Such was Matt's business that there weren't enough corporate charters for a full time attendant, let alone a staff of them. Holly and Angie got together now and then for a drink or some shopping or maybe with Matt and Holly's male of the week for some dancing. Holly was fun. A bit brassy and tending towards being opinionated, but she had a big heart and a sharp wit.
Rick paused with his mug a few inches from his lips and asked “The client, or AJ?”
“AJ, silly. We're paid to enjoy the client's company.”
“I don't think you'll see any office romance blossoming there,” Rick said slyly, “but they seem to get along OK.”
Angie nodded. That had not been in her thoughts. Holly was easily fifteen years older than AJ. AJ was Rick's age, maybe even a year or two younger. He was another product of the Embry-Riddle campus, and he and Rick had hit it off immediately because of that. Matt had heard about AJ from an old Air Force buddy that also hired pilots fresh out of Embry-Riddle for his overseas ferrying business.
“He's got good situational awareness and crew coordination?” Matt interjected.
“Oh yeah,” Rick said just before taking a large sip of his beer. Putting the mug back on the table before him and licking a bit of foam from his lips, the badger continued. “In spades. He's all over that Citation. For a guy who has so few hours in it, he seems to know it very well.”
“He's got the type rating, Rick.”
The badger grinned. “Yeah, but you and I both know that type ratings don't mean shit when you're sinking in the tundra in Alaska. It was his idea to keep moving, not mine.”
Matt nodded, grinning a bit himself in satisfaction. AJ Hassan was their most recent addition. Matt needed to keep as many aircraft as possible in the air earning a living as Numbers continued to suck up every penny of profit they made, and then some. The longer their second C-130 sat on the ground being worked on, the bigger the bills got, and the more red ink went into the ledger. Hence Matt was bringing up new pilots to fly with his more experienced furs, allowing the experienced guys to be spread across more aircraft and assignments.
“Well, you guys keep that tycoon smiling. He's paying us good money to be at his beck and call.”
“Wilco, boss.” Rick's gaze turned to Angie. “Did you get his pager yet?”
“I picked it up today,” Angie replied
“Is it with you? I can take it to him this evening...”
Angie shook her head. “I'm sorry Rick. It's on my desk at the hangar.”
Rick wiggled an eyebrow as if to say “Oh well,” and returned to his beer. AJ could get his pager tomorrow.
Matt rumbled, clearing his throat. “You remember that grunt that flies with Joe and Steve on the military cargos?”
Rick nodded. “Yeah. Slim.”
“Slam,” Matt corrected. “Slam Whiteline. He's just been discharged from the Corps, honorable, at Camp Lejune.”
“Oh?” Rick asked, sensing a story.
“Yeah,” Matt said, smiling slightly. “In addition to being a damned good marksfur and deadly in paw-to-paw combat, he's a passingly good loadmaster.”
“Do tell,” Rick said, moving a paw to indicate that Matt should elaborate.
The Labrador nodded. "He's already signed on. He's headed west as we speak to fly with Joe and Lola on The Bitch." Matt paused while his mug made the journey from the table to his muzzle and back one more time. "Steve will be handling the cargo chores out of Columbus, such as they are at the moment, while you and AJ gallivant about the country."
Rick smirked at that.
“I'm putting together a monster schedule for those furs at Centennial, we've got a lot of contracts and some other stuff to take care of as well. So you and AJ and Steve and Simon and the others are going to have to hold the fort here in Columbus, and Timmy and Randy will have to keep things going at Centennial.”
“You're putting Joe and Lola on the line with Slam?” Rick asked uncertainly.
Matt stared at his top pilot in the east for a few moments, and then quietly rumbled “You got a problem with that?”
Rick shook his head even though the uncertainty was plain in his eyes and the set of his shoulders. “No, Matt. It's just...”
Matt's stare grew more obvious.
“They're a young crew, boss.”
The Labrador choked slightly. “Joe's got more hours than you and Timmy put together, Rick. That hardly qualifies him as new to the job.”
“That's not what I mean,” Rick said quickly. “Lola's new to the organization, and that Bitch is a pawful to fly for two tried and tested crewfurs, even when everything works, you know that. I'm just concerned that you've got a new second in command and a new loadmaster flying with him at the same time, that's all.”
Matt nodded slowly and then took a long pull on his beer. Rick took the opportunity to do likewise, glancing at Angie as he did so. Her expression was calm and impassive.
“Yeah,” Matt said in a lighter tone as he put his mug down on the table. “He'll just have to suck it up. He's a good fur and a damn fine pilot, Joe is. I trust him to hold things together.”
“I'm not questioning his abilities, Matt. But if things go wrong and that Bitch tries to bite them, he may be the only one that knows what to do...”
Matt stared at his beer as his arm went about Angie's waist. “He'll be OK,” he said quietly.
# # #
“His name is David Arthur Kensington, a resident of Prince William, Virginia. He was your daughter-in-law's first husband, they were married for about a year.”
Maria Latrans stared at the photograph she held in her paw. She recognized the very youthful face that looked back at her. Sharon must have been a teenager when the picture was taken, and an equally young male red fox was standing at her side, an arm protectively (possessively?) around her waist. This was the fur her lawyer was referring to.
“Kensington?” She looked up at Harrison Clement the Third. “Of the Kensington Forge?” She waited as Harrison sipped at his cognac. Placing his tumbler on the small table between them, he nodded.
“Kensington Forge. Owners of much of what's left of America's steel industry in the east. That Kensington, yes.”
Maria studied the Great Dane before her for a few moments, and then shrugged slightly as she looked at the photograph again. “Lots of furs have been married before,” she commented to the image in a flat, emotionless voice.
“Most weren't convicted felons and divorced before they were old enough to legally enter a bar.”
Her head snapped up again, and this time the fire that Annie Latrans remembered so well was in those old brown eyes. “Really. Perhaps you would care to explain yourself?”
Harrison bent to his right slightly and extracted another paper from the leather briefcase on the floor next to the overstuffed wingback recliner he sat in. They were in Maria Latrans front room, it was early evening. He glanced at the paper, rotating it so as to be right side up when he handed it to his client / lover, and then slid the document across the small table between them.
Maria studied the printed page. Emblazoned across the top of the page were the words Maryland Division of Corrections in block text, followed by the letters MCIW. What followed was an arrest record for one Sharon Annette Winning, age twenty, a resident of Frederick, Maryland. She spent several minutes reading the detail of the printed matter, and the glanced up at the Great Dane. Mild surprise was etched in the graying fur of her muzzle. “You are certain of the veracity of this?”
Harrison smiled calmly, quietly nodding. “All a matter of public record, my dear,” he began. “She married David three weeks after he posted bail for her on the most recent charge. She was acquitted on a technicality by a lawyer on the Kensington Forge payroll.”
“How long were they married?”
“About ten months.”
The Dane shrugged, his suit jacket lifting comically as his large shoulders flexed. “I don't rightly know. There is nothing else in the public record about her following her divorce decree. She filed on him, citing 'irreconcilable differences.' She left home and moved to Colorado within a year, maybe eighteen months. She was twenty two by then. The next thing I found about her was her DBA filing in Jefferson County for that business she runs in Arvada, the architectural concern.”
“Design By Fox. It started as interior design, but has grown to encompass all facets of residential and office design and construction. She's operated that since before she met your son. Still does.”
Maria's expression soured and she stared at the lawyer.
“Before she met Joe Latrans,” Harrison corrected himself, his smile abating a bit.
“Why wouldn't Joseph know about this?” she asked skeptically.
“Well,” Harrison picked up his tumbler and swirled the contents within slowly. “He might. But I'm betting he doesn't. Since moving to Colorado all public records show her using the name Annette Winning. Her marriage certificate carries her full name, but virtually every other document I can find about her is in the name of Annette Winning or Annette Latrans. It's like she wanted to leave the fur that was Sharon Winning back east when she came out west. Like she wanted to start a new life in Colorado.”
The old coyote blinked, waiting.
The Dane shrugged again, a little less pronounced this time. “I'm betting he knows of her first name, and understands that she doesn't like to use it without knowing why. He's probably too nice a guy to ask.” The lawyer chuckled.
Maria put the corrections document on the table and picked up the photograph again. Memories washed over her as she stared at the young couple, memories of how her life with the old fighter pilot had started. She had had such fond hopes for him and their future together back then, all those years ago. But it turned out that her investment in him had been wasted, the fighter pilot had been too full of himself to make the right decisions. He had wanted to fly. He passed on the politically expedient opportunities that the military presented him... to fly. And then he had spawned a duplicate of himself, another fur that she had invested herself in, whom she had had the highest expectations of, who had thanked her by choosing to fly himself. She had given up virtually her entire life to dealing with those two... morons. Pilots, she thought. What a worthless, lackluster, dead-end excuse for a profession.
So the older one had left her with money. She'd had that before they'd met. He'd been a ramrod, a machismo. He'd never considered her feelings, her desires, her dreams. She had wanted the stability and security of the officer corps, perhaps the Pentagon. It had been within his reach, that damnable fighter pilot. Had he played his cards right, he'd have made the Joint Chiefs, but he had wanted to fly.
And his son was an even bigger fool, choosing the same method of earning a living in the civilian world. The old coyote shook her head and grumbled aloud, an unintelligible sound in the lawyer's ears. The son was an extension of the father, detestable. Something to be made to pay for her pain and suffering. And if she could exploit the situation even now developing between the spawn and his low-rent spouse in order to inflict that pain, all the better.
As Harrison Clement the Third sipped his cognac again the brown eyes found his. They were burning with a clear emotion, more clear than he had ever seen in her before. Hate. Unadulterated, focused hatred. A chill formed at the base of his tail and he struggled mentally to will it away.
We need to educate Joseph,” the old coyote said quietly. The menace in her voice was quite evident. “Make it so.”
# # #
“He certainly gets around, doesn't he?” Tim Riggins smiled at the proposed schedule. “I think the King Air would be best for this, given some of his destinations. Good thing we haven't taken the seats out of it yet.”
Tim's wife nodded, her tail flicking behind her. The King Air had been purchased primarily as a cargo hauler, but had been delivered with the previous owner's cabin intact. While not shiny new, it was clean and pleasantly appointed, and would well serve the movie company executives. While not sexy and fast like a business jet, the King Air could go places their corporate jets couldn't, landing on short dirt runways much closer to where the movie types wanted to go.
The cougar handed a sheet of paper to her husband. “These are the preliminary costs involved with the operation. I have added a line item for one flight attendant.”
The marmot cocked an eyebrow as he read down the list of costs. Two thoughts struck him simultaneously, and he verbalized them both. “This is almost half of what it would cost him to get the Lear fifty five and a flight crew. And you've added a flight attendant?” He looked up to the cougar, the question clear in his brown eyes, but he asked anyway. “Who?”
Janie batted her eyelids at him by way of a reply, eliciting a befuddled look on his face that caused her to giggle slightly.
“I'll be damned...” Tim Riggins exhaled, his expression changing.
“You may very well be, if you don't allow me this opportunity.” Janie Riggins stared at her husband with that curious feline gaze, unblinking, that always made him feel like prey of some sort.
“But,” Tim began, “who will mind the store?”
“What's to mind?” Janie replied as she lifted another sheet from her desktop and handed it to the marmot. “Take a look at this.”
Tim Riggins sat and read the printed e-mail. It was an agenda. A big agenda.
“Holy cow,” he muttered as he read. Reaching the end of the text he looked up at the cougar that sat across the desk from him. “They'll be gone for days.”
“Matt wants to keep them on the line for a week or more, if he can line up the contracts. And there's a comp in there for us, bringing back some stuff for the other C-130 from Georgia.”
“Did he specify the crew?”
Janie nodded solemnly. “Joe Latrans pilot in command. Lola Baker second in command. Teddy Whiteline loadmaster.”
“Teddy Whiteline.” Janie smiled slightly, the expression carrying a hint of worry. “Also known as 'Slam' to his friends.”
“Slam?” the marmot asked incredulously. “The Marine?”
“Former Marine,” his wife corrected. “He mustered out two weeks ago, according to Angie, and has hired on to fly out of Centennial with The Bitch.” Janie picked up yet another sheet of paper and handed it to her husband, who's paws were becoming full of documentation. This one, an e-mail from Angie Rockwell, in so many words directed that Randy continue to fly the Caravan on the oil prospecting flights into Arizona solo while one Teddy Whiteline assumed all loadmaster duties on The Bitch.
“No kidding...” Tim mused. Then his expression took on a worried tone to match the concerned expression his wife wore. “Joe's going to break in a green crew on this kind of schedule?” He shook his head. “He's gonna have his paws full...”
# # #
Annie fidgeted quietly. It was a quiet evening at Frisco's, and Theresa had only just now left she and Joe to their own devices and a bottle of 2003 Sangiovese Volpino from Foxen. Her friendly greeting had rapidly grown to encompass the latest information hot off the grapevine about what the city commission had decided about the roadway improvements on Wadsworth north of highway 285, and a little bit about what her boyfriend was recommending for purchases on the market that evening. And then Annie's cell phone had rung.
Joe had chatted briefly with the snow-white whippet that ran Frisco's, who had pulled up a chair to sit with he and Annie for a few minutes, sipping a cup of coffee as she spoke with him. So while Theresa and Joe had talked, Annie had tried to carry on an abortive conversation with her number two at Design By Fox.
“This is Annie.”
“Annie, it's Clark.”
Annie sighed audibly, a sound not lost on the hyena on the other end of the circuit. “What can I do for you, Clark?”
Clark Randsburg paused, pondering. “Is this a bad time, Annie? Should I call later?”
“No.” Her answer was short. “What do you need?”
Clark shrugged mentally. “I just got a call from Craig at Eastside Steel. He wants to know if we'll accept 440A for the Telluride job. He's got some plate there that he can cut for our needs at about one third the price he quoted...”
“Clark,” Annie growled. “The customer was very specific. All interior work in the powerhouse is to be ATS-55, you know that. It's in the specification.”
“I know, Annie, but Craig thought...”
“Tell Craig we'll pay him as agreed for ATS-55,” Annie interrupted again.
“He said it'll be two weeks before he gets the stock for the job, and he has the 440A...”
“Clark...” Annie growled yet again.
The hyena sighed slightly himself. “Annie, what's wrong?”
The red fox ran a paw over her muzzle, watching her husband and friend chat merrily away across the table from her.
“I'm sorry, Clark. I've got my paws very full just this minute. Call Craig back for me and tell him I will consider what he's told you, and call him in the morning.”
She could hear scribbling at the other end of her phone connection. Presently Clark asked “Anything else?”
“Yes,” Annie said hesitantly. “Clark, you're a trusted friend. Don't call me again tonight.”
“I'll explain some other time. I'll see you tomorrow, OK?”
Clark stared at his pawset, which even now emitted dial tone. She hadn't even waited for him to say good bye. This was not the Annie Latrans he knew...
At Frisco's Annie looked up as she flipped her cell phone shut. Theresa was smiling at her.
“I'm sorry, dear,” the whippet cooed. “I've got to get back to my customers.”
“No problem,” Annie said quietly, already feeling guilty for being so short with her business partner. “We'll talk again soon.”
The whippet briefly laid her paw on Annie's. “Count on it.” She smiled brightly as she began to walk towards the deli counter. “See you later...”
Annie turned her full attention on her husband, who was at that moment sipping some of his wine.
“I need to talk to you,” she started.
Joe smiled easily. She winced inwardly. He had no idea what was coming.
Suddenly she didn't know how to begin.
“What did you want to talk about, my love?”
Annie stared at him, and in her minds eye she saw that old coyote sneering back at her.
Joe nodded encouragingly.
“Sharon Annette Winning.”
“Like on our marriage certificate,” Joe agreed.
“That hasn't always been my name, Joe.”
The confusion was plain in his voice. “What do you mean? It's your maiden name.”
Annie glanced at the tabletop and gulped once. “Right,” she said to the red checkered tablecloth. “But for a while I was also known as Sharon Annette Kensington.” She looked up into her husbands blue eyes, expecting to see revulsion.
What she saw instead confused her a bit. He was smiling, nodding slightly. “So, you were married to somefur else before me. So what?”
Annie stared at him, her mouth slightly open. After a moment she asked “You knew?' in a squeaky voice.
“No,” he said honestly, “but I'm not surprised. You're a beautiful, intelligent femme, it would be unrealistic of me to presume that you waited for me all those years before we met.”
“Not so smart,” Annie said quietly. “I didn't marry well, or for the right reasons.”
Joe shrugged. “Annie dear, what does it matter to me? I mean, I love you, and will forever, but what you did with your life before me is none of my business and will not change my opinion of you one bit, you know that.”
The beautiful red fox across the table from the dark-muzzled coyote nodded, again staring at the tablecloth. A tear formed in the corner of her left eye, she blinked it back, growling quietly, incoherently.
“Your mother,” she said so quietly that Joe had to lean forward to hear better, “has taken it upon herself to learn about my past, Joe. She will try to use that against us, for what reasons I do not know. I do know what she will find, and I want you to hear about it from me before you hear about it from her.” She looked up into those blue eyes again.
Joe nodded, his smile fading. “Whatever it is, Annie, we will face it together.”
She regarded him with trepidation. They stared at each other for a few moments.
“I have a prison record in Maryland,” she suddenly blurted out.
The coyote blinked once. His nose twitched, and then he sat absolutely still, staring at the red fox. His expression had taken on a neutral look.
A tear rolled down her cheek. “DWI,” she whispered. “And possession of a controlled substance.”
Shit, thought Joe Latrans as he watched more tears spill quietly from his wife's eyes. This changes things...
A cell phone rang. And rang again. And rang a third time as the two canids continued to stare at each other. Finally, as if in slow motion, Joe reached for the cell phone holster at his belt line. Bringing the noisy implement towards his ear he flipped it open.
“Joe? Janie. Have you got a minute?”
“Hi Jan,” he replied, watching as Annie fumbled in her purse for a tissue. “Not really. I'm kind of busy right now...”
“I'll be quick then,” the cougar said. “We have a guest arriving tonight in the form of Teddy Whiteline. You and he and Lola will be departing tomorrow morning for Brigham City, arrival time 0900.”
Joe's train of thought derailed. “Slam? Utah? What..?”
“Timmy and I are going to dinner with Steve later. Want to join us? I can fill you in on the detail. It's going to be a long haul.”
Joe continued to stare at his wife as she dabbed at the fur around her eyes and the bridge of her nose. Something tugged at his heart, something that mixed tenderness for her, anger towards his mother, and fear of what this would lead to. Mostly fear. This was far from over.
“We can't, Jan. We're kind of busy at the moment.”
The cougar giggled, misreading his meaning. “I see,” she said, pausing for effect. “Well, I guess I'd better let you two get back to it. Be here at the office at oh six hundred and I'll fill you in on the detail. If you like to fly, Joe, you're going to love this schedule Matt's worked up for you.”
“I'll see you in the morning then, Jan. Say hi to Timmy for me.”
“G'nite Joe,” The circuit went dead to match the expression on the muzzle of the pilot. He glanced at his watch.
“We've got to get going,” he said quietly to the red fox. “C'mon, I'll drive.”
Ignoring the half-bottle of wine between them and the half-empty wine glasses as well, he stood and held a paw out to her. Her paw trembled slightly as she took it. His face, the look in his eyes, told her all she needed to know. Distance. Avoidance. Anger disguised as task management.
“Where are we going?”
“To get the pups,” he answered. “It's time.”