The old C-130 quivered and whined like an eager hound, ready for the hunt. The roar of her turbines filled the early morning sky as though calling, daring the sun to come up. It was barely past 0600 and the horizon to the west, above the lights of the city of Columbus, was still dark and starless. Middle clouds blanketed the upper midwest, a precursor to the winter storms advancing from the northwest. The forecast called for snowfall by this evening.
Out at the end of runway two eight right, Matt leaned back and willed himself to relax. He wasn't worried about snow. What occupied his full attention would be over in less than an hour. He was so charged up he could barely sit still, his tail thumping the seat frame beneath him. The smile on his muzzle threatened to wrap completely around his head. His right paw twitched on the throttles as he advanced them slowly.
“Fifty percent power,” a deep, gruff voice said.
To the Labrador's right a sleepy-looking badger stared out the windshield at the runway ahead. Rick Carter knew that if nothing went wrong, he'd have very little to do on this mission. He was dressed like his boss, denim jeans, a flannel shirt, and an old, weather-beaten A2 jacket. His paws rested in his lap. He was ready with his checklists to call airspeeds and actions for his skipper.
“Seventy five percent,” the voice said.
Behind Rick, Jerry Kitt was carefully watching the various parameters of the four engines as reported by instruments in front of the two pilots and at the engineer's panel he sat next to. The brown bear stared intently at the panel as temperature and percentage indications climbed slowly in response to the gentle pressure of Matt Barstock's right paw. Jerry wore a pair of denim overalls over a heavy cotton long sleeve pullover shirt, a well-worn ball cap on his head.
The floor rumbled and vibrated beneath their booted feet.
“Ninety five percent, Matt. That will do,” the bear said quietly on the intercom. Jerry studied the instrument displays a bit more, paying particular attention to the torque meters and oil pressures and temperatures for each of the four engines. Needles danced nervously in anticipation, and the mechanic smiled quietly to himself, pleased with his work and that of his crewfurs. After a few moments he leaned back and cleared his throat. “Everything looks good, boss. We're solid in the greens.”
“Lineup checklist,” Matt said.
Rick glanced at the top sheet in his paw. “Oil cooler flaps.”
Matt looked to the overhead panel above Rick's head. “Auto, checked.”
Matt's gaze moved to the left side of the overhead panel above his own head and repeated “Checked, on as required.”
“Transponder checked one two zero zero,” Rick said. “Bleed air?”
“Check,” Jerry replied from behind the badger.
“Lineup checks complete,” the badger said, turning to his skipper with a faint grin.
“Lineup checks complete,” the bear echoed from behind them.
“Copy lineup checks complete,” Matt said, nodding happily. “Jerry?”
“Everything is still in the greens,” Jerry confirmed, turning his attention again to the engine instruments. “Let's get going.” As he spoke these words Rick picked up a push-to-talk plunger and pressed it, stating in a flat, sleepy voice “Intermountain two hundred, ready to roll.”
“Icy two hundred,” a voice in their headphones replied, “wind light and variable from the northwest, cleared for takeoff. Make right traffic for runway two-eight right, report downwind abeam.”
Matt lifted the toes of his boots from the rudder pedals as his left paw stroked the tiller. “Let's roll!” he growled. Numbers leapt forward, screaming in joy, and accelerated rapidly down the center stripe of runway two eight right.
In the darkened cab of the control tower at the center of the airport the controller on duty turned to his ground controller as the C-130 thundered by below them. “I swear,” the raccoon said with a smile, “that I can almost hear those guys yelling 'yee-haw!'” Most of the regulars on the airport had heard about Numbers' perhaps embarrassing arrival on the scene, and were well aware of the massive amounts of time and energy Intermountain Charter was putting into getting the transport airworthy again. Their hangar at the east end of the field, abutting Hamilton Road, had blazed with lights and activity through long nights and into the wee hours of the mornings since her arrival.
The raccoon and his counterpart, a bespectacled tabby in her mid-twenties, watched the transport thunder down the runway.
“Huh,” the raccoon commented. “His cargo ramp is open.”
The tabby reached for a pair of binoculars on the console before her. Bringing them to her eyes, she focused on the transport as it accelerated away from them.
“No, she replied. “It's not open, it's not there.”
“Can they do that?” the raccoon wondered.
And at the west end of the field the transport pointed her nose skyward, stepping back into her realm and lifting the three furs aboard up from their worldly worries and responsibilities. For a brief time in the dawn sky above the awakening city of Columbus the Labrador, the badger, and the brown bear were children again, delighting in their new toy.
# # #
Things weren't so giddy in Colorado.
Joe stared at the e-mail printout in his paw.
Brigham City, Utah 0900, deliver secure NASA cargo to Cape Canaveral.
Marietta, Georgia 1700, deliver company cargo (wing box mod kit) to Port Columbus.
That's the first day.
Knoxville, Tennessee 0800, deliver secure DOE cargo to Hanford, Washington.
Deadhead SeaTac 1400, deliver commercial cargo to Phoenix.
Depart Phoenix 0800, deliver commercial cargo Dallas / Fort Worth area.
Deadhead Tinker AFB 1300, deliver secure TSA cargo to Dulles DC.
Lay over DC one day.
Quantico 0800, deliver secure military cargo Camp Pendleton.
Pendleton 1500, deliver top secret military cargo Groom Lake.
Day five. That would be an interesting one.
Deadhead New Orleans, deliver commercial cargo to Billings, Montana.
And on the seventh day, they rested, thought Joe wearily. He'd had very little sleep.
“I hope you and Annie had a pleasant evening,” Janie had typed at the bottom of the message, causing Joe to shake his head. He would not have chosen that word to describe their evening.
He had spoken words of reassurance to her on their way to pick up their pups, telling her that her history did not alter his feelings for her in any way. Yet in the back of his own mind Joe Latrans realized that this had been a beginning of something unpleasant that he would have to see through to the end, for the sake of their relationship.
The snowfall had stopped completely by the time they had arrived home with Joshua and Marie. The coyote and the fox had shared the chores of dinner, baths, and bedtime for the pups. While Joe finished cleaning up in their kitchen, Annie and her pups had built a fire in the fireplace, and by the time Joe sat down next to his wife on the sofa there was also a bottle of wine breathing on the end table accompanied by two wine glasses.
Joe had been on the sofa with her only briefly, and had kissed his wife after explaining to her that he wanted to check his e-mail to see if any information had been left about the upcoming flight. She had nodded quietly as her husband left her there, gently stroking the hair of their daughter who had already fallen asleep, curled up in a ball with her head in Annie's lap.
When Joe reappeared ten minutes later with his brief schedule Marie and Joshua had both disappeared.
“I put the pups to bed,” she had said.
“I'll go tuck them in,” the coyote replied, placing the e-mail in her paw as he passed.
Joe kissed each of his sleeping pups on the sides of their heads, touching them briefly as he murmured “I love you. Sleep tight.” He lingered in the hallway briefly, listening to their slow, even breathing and enjoying the moment of serenity.
A few minutes later, Joe sat down next to his wife with a sigh.
“I'm going to have to pack to be away from home for a few days,” he told her.
“So I see,” she replied in a low voice. “This is the most ambitious schedule Matt's had for you in quite a while.”
“He's worried about money,” Joe agreed. “That other C-130, the one Jerry calls 'Numbers', cost a lot more to repair than any of them thought it would. I had another e-mail from Matt to the effect that they are going to test fly the new engines tomorrow, but that there is still a lot of hull problems to fix around the ramp before she can be put into service.”
The red fox nodded, staring at him. “I'm sorry we had to leave our wine at Frisco's earlier.”
Joe smiled briefly. “It's OK.” He turned to pick up a glass and the bottle from the end table next to him. He studied the label briefly. “Old Vine Zinfandel,” he read aloud. “Dover Canyon.” He looked up and into Annie's blue eyes. “Good stuff?”
She nodded, her face blank as Joe poured her a glass. “Very,” she said as he handed it to her.
She waited quietly while he poured a glass for himself, and then snuggled up against him as he turned to face her. They gently touched glasses and noses simultaneously.
“I love you,” Joe told her.
She took a small sip of her wine and savored the aromas that embraced her nose and the tastes that pleasured her tongue. She watched as he sipped also, looking at her over the top of his glass.
“Annie,” he interrupted gently. “It doesn't matter, OK?”
His face went blank again, just like it had at Frisco's. She dropped her eyes to the glass of wine her paws held in her lap. Her tail curled around her protectively.
The body language wasn't lost on him. He shifted his glass to his other paw and placed the free arm across her shoulders. “It doesn't matter, my love,” he repeated.
She looked into his eyes and wasn't reassured. She couldn't define what she saw there, but something was there, between his heart and hers, she felt it.
“Maria knows,” she said simply. “She will use what she knows against me, to get to you. You must hear this from me, Joe, because I love you more than anything else I have. You may hate me for what you hear, but you will not hate me for keeping it from you.”
“I could never hate you, Annie.”
“That remains to be seen.”
Joe smiled reassuringly. “You can put that in the bank, sweetheart. I'm not going anywhere.”
“Yes you are,” she corrected. “Tomorrow morning. So we have to get this out of the way now.”
Joe took her glass gently from her paws and turned momentarily to place them both on the end table. His arm went back about her shoulders, his other paw gently covering her two paws in her lap.
“Then I will listen. And after that I will tell you that I love you.”
She stared at him. Only one other fur on the planet should know what she was about to tell him, but there were records, so she could no longer be sure. She took a deep breath and exhaled slowly.
“I was pregnant when I married Dax.”
“Dax?” Joe repeated.
“It's what everyone called him. From his initials, D-A-K. David A. Kensington,” she replied.
“And you were expecting when you married him?”
“It's why I married him.” Her paws slid from beneath his to immediately wrap around it. She held his paw tightly, as if afraid to let go. “I found out when I was in jail. It's why he got one of his family's hired guns to get me out.”
“What happened to the baby?”
Annie's eyes grew moist and glassy. “I lost it,” she whispered. “In my fourth month. Spontaneously.”
Joe pulled his wife closer to him in a hug. “Oh my God, Annie. I'm so sorry. That must have been very traumatic for the both of you.”
She shook her head in the negative against his chest. “Not really,” she mumbled against his shirt. She let go of his paw and wrapped her charcoal furred arms around him, holding him tightly as she pulled her head away from his chest. What she was about to tell him no one, not her parents, not Dax, not Janie, not anyone, should know. She had kept it buried within her for over twenty years. But Maria was nothing if not resourceful, and would ruthlessly exploit any information her own hired gun could dig up.
Joe gently brushed some blond hair from his wife's eyes and stared into them, waiting.
“I was messed up,” she whispered with a soft whine. “I was high more often than not.” A tear rolled across her cheek. Using a single finger Joe carefully brushed it away, but it was followed almost immediately by another one.
Her arms tightened as their eyes remained locked.
“I killed one,” she whispered in that high, tight whine.
“When I was eighteen,” she nodded. “I didn't know what else to do.” Her words, like her tears, tumbled in a rush as if, now that she had started, she couldn't shut them off. “I didn't even know who's it was. I just knew I wasn't fit to bring a pup into the world. I couldn't take care of myself, how could I do that?” She momentarily removed one arm from around him to rub her eyes while still pulling him towards her with the other. “I would smoke, snort, or swallow anything anyone had. I would sleep with whoever was there when the notion struck me. I stayed away from home for weeks at a time. I broke my mom's heart. To his dying day my father wouldn't speak of me, let alone to me. I'm probably what killed him as well. Even my sister kept her distance until I managed to get myself cleaned up. All I had going for me was Janie. If it hadn't been for her, I'd have never heard about Jesus Christ, and I'd most likely be long since dead myself.”
“Holy shit,” Joe breathed quietly, and immediately gulped as his wife grabbed him with both paws.
“Don't hate me, Joe,” she pleaded in that soft whine. “Don't throw me away like the rest of them did.”
Joe shook his head, taking her in his arms. “You have nothing to fear, Annie. God is here. I am here. Nothing bad will happen to you.” His voice, she noticed, was detached, distant.
They held each other for long minutes while her breathing settled, the wine forgotten. As her tears stopped and her composure returned, she kissed his cheek and then pulled back slightly, their muzzles touching side-by-side.
“Do you see why I needed to tell you?" she asked in a hoarse whisper. "Can you imagine your reaction if you would have heard this from anyone other than me?”
Joe made a very low, quiet shushing noise before saying "It's all right, love."
He thought about what he'd heard while he held her. He thought about the ill-advised notion of burying secrets, about denying your past. It was dangerous for exactly these reasons. Dangerous because of who might know what, and how they might use that information against he and Annie. His own mother, that bitch, would rot in Hell for the agony she had just put his wife through, and that would happen with no intervention or inducement on his part. It was her destiny. But as the pilot sat there holding the red fox in his arms, he pondered his own destiny and wondered about the dangers of secrets deeply held and how they could explode at a moment's notice.
Annie wiggled gently against her husband.
“I love you,” he said suddenly, focusing on her. “More than ever. You are a brave, strong lady, Annie. That took guts, and I am honored that you would share your life so completely with me.”
She looked at him quizzically.
Joe had looked uncertain. “I need...”
She had put a finger against his lips. Her eyes pleaded with him.
“Show me,” she had said, a note of the soft whine still in her voice. “Make love to me. Show me how you feel about me.”
It hadn't been lust. It hadn't even been passion. It had been a soul mate seeking affirmation, a heart seeking reassurance in the most profound of ways. Whatever else Annie and Joe might or might not have, they had each other. And whatever else Annie and Joe might or might not be, they were a couple, one flesh in the traditional sense. He was more than willing to face the horrors of her life head on without blinking or backing up, and she had chosen the method that most suited her at the moment for him to prove that to her.
Joe scratched his neck and then yawned, his tongue curling. That was how he had come to be standing here in his family room at 0500, the schedule in his paw, having gotten less than an hour's sleep. It was not an auspicious beginning for what would be a very long day. Of course they had made love. Of course he believed completely in their love, and in his wife, and had said as much while never uttering a single word. Afterwards, as they lay in each other's arms and their bodies cooled, he had whispered reassuring things to her in a low voice, and she had fallen asleep with a relaxed expression on her muzzle.
In some ways Annie had been reassured. She trusted him, and believed what his body told her. Yet in their bedroom she had seen something in his eyes that confused her, and caused her to wonder if she had set their relationship on a new, dangerous course towards a dark unknown. She had seen that look before. It was the same look that came into his eyes when he knew that something was wrong with a flight, but hadn't yet identified what. Once, long ago and before he had gone to work for Intermountain, he had taken her flying on a cargo run in an old beat up piston twin of some sort. In flight he had gotten this funny look in his eyes, and had become very quiet and a little nervous. About ten minutes later the right engine had belched thick white smoke, and Joe was suddenly a flurry of activity as he recovered from what turned out to be a cracked engine block by shutting off fuel, shutting down the engine, and stabilizing the flight as he sought out an airport to set down at. She had never forgotten that look. It was the last thing she remembered as she drifted off to sleep with Joe holding her and murmuring in her ear.
Joe was now a bit haunted by the evening. He had kissed his wife good bye, gazing at her sleeping form for long minutes as he thought about the evening's revelations and reassurances. He did not want to go. He worried about Annie, worried about her state of mind after reliving all of this mess. He wanted to stay home and make sure she would be all right. He knew he had a lot of work to do, and that he also had a lot of flying to do. He couldn't start that work now, and even if he had possessed the time, it would be unfair to her to open up that particular Pandora's box and then fly off for a week, leaving her to stew over it. He briefly considered calling Matt, but decided against it. He would call Annie as often as he could, and would plan for them to spend some extended time together upon his return.
Joe folded the schedule and placed it in the inside pocket of his A2 jacket. Something clicked into place in his head. Come what may, he still had a family to provide for, he still had a job to do. He walked purposefully across the family room, away from his own bedroom, into the hallway and into Marie's room. He gently caressed the top of her head as he bent to whisper in her ear.
“Daddy loves you. I will call you tonight.”
He kissed her cheek.
The same process was repeated in Joshua's room, and then with quick steps he had retrieved his duffel bag, his flight case, and his keys, gone outside (locking the back door of his home behind him), climbed into his Jeep, started it up, and pulled out of his driveway.
He knew Annie would leave Design By Fox in Clark's capable paws and be home with the pups while he was gone. He was also confident that Janie would be with Annie the entire time he was gone, and that her husband would likewise be with them when he wasn't flying the line himself. He prayed silently as he drove out highway 285 to the east, towards Centennial Airport. First and foremost he prayed for his wife, then for his children, for his friends, for his flight crew, and finally for himself. By the time that conversation was finished it was 0530 and he was pulling up in front of Intermountain's hangar.
# # #
Far to the east another red fox had a telephone pawset to his ear.
“You're sure of this?” he asked in astonishment.
The voice buzzed quietly in his pawset.
“No, I can make my own arrangements. Thank you for telling me of this.”
A little more buzzing, and the fox picked up a pen and wrote down an address.
“Yes, I've got it. Thank you very much. Good bye.” The fox held his pawset for a moment in wonder, then pressed and released the hookswitch on his telephone and dialed a ten digit number. He waited patiently while several rings went by. Finally his call connected.
“Yes?” a voice inquired.
“Father, good morning.”
“It's seven fifteen! What do you want?”
“Can I have use of the company jet for a day or two?”
“Can I borrow the jet for a day or two?”
A snort of derision greeted this question. “What for? Do you have more cargo to fly up from Central America?”
The fox sighed loudly. “Father, I've been clean for over a year now. I...”
“I should damn well hope so, after the money your mother made me spend on you,” the voice replied gruffly. “You're lucky we loan you the use of a delivery truck after all you put her through. What in Hell do you need the jet for?”
“I want to go out to Denver.”
“I need to see someone.”
“See someone? Someone you owe money to? Someone you maybe expect to take a delivery from? You need to get a job and start taking care of your own problems. Christ, you're forty two years old!”
Again the fox sighed, more defensively. “Dad, Sharon's dying.”
This was greeted by a long silence that was finally broken by another snort. “So what?”
“I want to fly out to Colorado to see her one last time.”
“What makes you think she wants to see you?”
“I don't know that she does,” the fox admitted. “But I want to see her. I can do that much for her before she's gone.”
“David,” the elder fox began slowly, like he was talking to a petulant child (which, in fact, he was). “Think about this. You haven't seen or heard about her in over two decades. You two weren't exactly the best of friends when she left. You don't know anything about her. You've just finished your fourth trip through rehab. Don't you think you're begging a little trouble by flying halfway across the country to look up the coke-whore you used to live with?”
The younger fox's face flushed with anger. “God dammit dad, I've asked you not to talk about her like that.”
“Tough. Facts are facts son, and the fact of the matter is that Sharin' Sharon had only one ambition in life, and that was to get high and stay that way. You go find her and I guarantee she will hook you up, and I'll have to come out there in five or six months and pull you out of a dumpster and send you through rehab for a fifth time. And I'm just...”
“Dad!” the fox barked. “Please. Send Rex with me. I don't care, send half your goon squad with me if you think it's necessary. I just want to go out to Denver and...” he choked quietly with the sudden realization that there were tears in his eyes. David took a deep breath. “To apologize. And to say good bye.”
This was greeted with another stretch of silence, which ended with the father muttering “I'll be damned,” to himself. The elder fox cleared his throat. “You know what, son? I may just tag along for the ride and go see this show myself. Might be entertaining!”
David Kensington fumed silently. But he consoled himself with the knowledge that he was apparently going to get what he wanted. “So you'll arrange for the plane?”
“I have to fly down to Atlanta for a meeting today,” the father replied. “But we can go out to Denver tomorrow, and you and I will meet your little friend one last time.” David could hear the tapping of keyboard keys in his pawset before his father's voice continued. “Meet me at the company hangar at 10 AM tomorrow morning. Don't bother to pack, we're not staying overnight.”
It was enough for him to get to Denver. He'd work out the rest once he was on the ground. “Fine, dad. Thank you very much.”
“Anything else?” the gruffness was back in the father's voice.
“Kiss mom for me.”
“You ought to drag your ass up here some day and do that yourself, son.” The circuit disconnected.
# # #
“Landing checklist,” Matt called.
Rick Carter looked at the sheet clipped to the control yolk in front of him.
“Altimeters?” the badger challenged as he reached for his own in the panel in front of him.
“Two niner eight eight,” Matt replied. “Set.”
“Off,” Jerry Kitt replied from slightly behind the pair as he physically checked the panel between the pilot's seats.
“Gear down,” Matt replied, turning briefly to watch as Rick reached for the panel in front of him to make it happen. They all heard hydraulics whine below them as the nose gear extended. Presently, as Matt looked at the runway ahead, they felt a mild bump.
“Three greens,” Rick confirmed. “Gear down and locked. “Anti-skid?”
Jerry manipulated switches at the aft end of the overhead control panel, above his head, causing red lamps to illuminate momentarily. Following more switch manipulation the lamps stayed lit. “Anti-skid armed,” he replied.
“Give me fifty,” Matt replied, moving a thumb to hover above the trim toggle on his control yolk.
Rick operated a lever in the panel between their seats. They all felt Numbers pitch up and slow as the flaps extended to fifty percent of their full range, and Matt re-trimmed the transport to maintain his descent profile as his airspeed bled off. The runway was drawing closer.
“Icy two hundred, wind from three zero five at five gusting ten, cleared to land two eight left.”
“Intermountain two hundred, cleared to land two eight left,” Rick repeated to the controller.
“Off,” Jerry growled.
“Landing lights?” Rick asked.
“Not needed,” Matt replied. The sun was above the horizon now, and while clouds still blanketed the sky, visibility beneath them was quite good.
“Hydraulic panel is set,” Rick stated. “Auxiliary hydraulic pump is on, pressure in the green.”
Matt glanced in confirmation and replied “Check hydraulic panel is set.”
“Belts?” Rick asked.
Three paws grabbed three harnesses, as they had been doing periodically throughout the flight. They had been doing what their British counterparts called “circuits and bumps”, what most American pilots called “pattern work.” They would take off, circle the airport, and land. Sometimes the landing was a “touch-and-go”, where they would settle to the ground, re-trim for takeoff as they rolled on the runway, apply power, and lift off again without stopping. Other times the landing was a “full stop”, meaning they had come to a complete stop on the airport and taxied back to the end of the runway to take off again. In this way they exercised many of the basic engine and flight control systems of the transport, building confidence in the aircraft and it's systems while never leaving the immediate vicinity of the airport.
“Belts check,” Matt and Jerry replied simultaneously.
“Landing checklist complete,” Rick said with a grin.
“Landing checklist complete,” Matt confirmed.
As they settled towards their final landing of the morning Jerry said “I don't know about you furs, but I'm getting hungry.”
Matt Barstock chuckled as he watched the runway approach. “What's the verdict, Jerry? How's she look?”
“Good!” the bear exclaimed. “Power is great, flight control seems solid, systems seem OK so far. When we get the ramp squared away we'll be in good shape.”
“And the wing box mod?”
The bear shrugged, unseen by either of the pilots. “Give me five good furs and a day off with pay afterwards... five days.”
Matt and Rick both chuckled at that one. “That's pretty optimistic,” Matt observed, gently bringing the yoke back as he retarded the throttles.
Numbers flared over runway two eight left and settled towards the asphalt. The main gear tires yelped as they hit the runway, spinning up to speed. The landing was gentle, for a transport.
“Nice job, skipper,” Rick commented.
Matt was busy slowing the transport, but quipped “What, you want a day off with pay, too?”
All three furs chuckled at that.
“Icy two hundred, make your exit when able, contact ground one two one point nine when clear of the active.”
Matt slowed the transport even more, angling towards the wide taxiway on the south side of the runway near the Million Air ramp. As they rolled into it he called “After landing checklist.”
Jerry grumbled good naturedly. “All work with this dog, let me tell you.”
Matt turned in his seat briefly to look at the bear, his good friend for many years, with a grin. “Tell you what, see if you can keep this money pit running long enough to get us back to our ramp, and I'll buy all of us breakfast.”
“At the Ninety Fourth Aero Squadron?” Rick asked hopefully.
“Sure, why not?” Matt replied.
“Hell,” grinned Jerry, “for a breakfast over there I'll get out and push us back to the hangar.”
Rick laughed as he began his checklist. “Flaps?”
Matt grinned himself, enjoying the camaraderie and easy crew coordination his crewfurs shared with him. “Sure,” he said agreeably. “Comin' up...”