Joe fumed quietly, staring at the fox-coyote hybrid to his left.
Lola Baker was in the left seat on the flight deck of The Bitch. They were twenty four thousand feet above the corn fields of America's heartland with six hundred pounds of heavily shielded nuclear waste for cargo. While occupying the aircraft commander's traditional position, she was acutely aware of the fact that her position in the left seat was temporary, was in fact a polite gesture from the true aircraft commander who even now stared quietly at her.
A third canid rounded out the flight crew. Slam Whiteline sat in uncharacteristic silence, the palpable tension on the flight deck seeming to weigh on him. He had spoken very little since they had stabilized in their climb and the sporadic, broken conversation between the two pilots had commenced.
He desperately wanted to be excused from the flight deck to go below and hang out with his buddies. A Lance Corporal and a PFC from Camp Lejune were below on the cargo deck, sitting guard on their cargo. Since 9/11 all nuclear cargoes had been issued armed military escort, no matter the point of origin or destination. These Marines would be with The Bitch and her cargo, and would remain with the cargo until it reached it's final destination deep underground near Hanford, Washington.
Slam knew one of them, had recognized Marshall “Nose” Katz immediately at Knoxville. As the cargo was loaded and secured he had gotten to know the other Marine. Tricia Dunn, a stocky vole, was quickly caught up in the stories Slam and Nose gleefully shared of experiences in boot camp and on their first deployment. Now Slam scratched an ear, furtively glancing at the two pilots while he pretended to be occupied at the navigator / flight engineer's desk. His friends were probably even now playing cards down in the hold, and here he was with a front row seat to an airborne disciplinary action. The former Marine sighed quietly.
And while the huge coyote hybrid desperately wanted to be somewhere else, he felt a stronger need to avoid deserting his crewmates in what was rapidly becoming an unpleasant situation. The prolonged periods of charged silence that stretched between the two pilots was unusual and uncharacteristic, and becoming unbearable.
Joe was annoyed for a reason. Two, actually. First and foremost, Lola had twice initiated startup without him. While to the uninitiated this might sound like a somewhat petty reaction to a minor oversight, it could be and had been dangerous. The complex procedures for getting a C-130 loaded up, fired up, positioned at a runway, and airborne were carefully documented and involved thorough training and practice. These routines required at least three crewfurs to complete effectively and safely: the aircraft commander, the second pilot, and the loadmaster. And before any of that could transpire the flight crew would conduct a briefing of these procedures and the flight plan so that every fur was very clear on what was going to happen and what their role in the process was.
There had been no dialog between the two pilots regarding preparation for the flight leaving Knoxville, nor had there been any of the checks and balances of preflight, and it had cost them. Lola had miscalculated her takeoff speed by a pawful of knots, and their trusty transport had wallowed into the air like a turtle on a gust of wind. Not exactly the kind of flight envelope you want to find yourself in with several hundred pounds of radioactive crap strapped to your tail: nose high, barely above stall speed, with too much altitude above you and too much runway behind you...
The Allison turbines were strong, maximum military power and his hefty shove to the stick had set them straight, but not before they had parted the hair of a few pedestrians on Wrights Ferry Road with their propwash as they departed. Dragging all that lead into the sky was no easy trick when done properly, and they had been quite improper about the first few seconds of their flight. It was a bad way to start, and he had let her know it once they had safely settled into their climb-out from Knoxville.
Joe Latrans felt the fatigue of the past couple of days eating at him, wearing his patience thin. Lack of sleep was costing him in ways that were becoming increasingly apparent to him. He worked to maintain a civil tone and his composure. “You were supposed to wake me up,” he had said tightly.
“I wanted to let you sleep,” she replied with a note of petulance. “You needed...”
“I needed, “ he interrupted, “to be awakened thirty minutes after shutdown, like I asked you to do. I just wanted a few minutes of shut-eye while the loading was going on, and then wanted to review the flight numbers with you and go through the pre-start like a crew.” He paused to let that sink in. “What made you want to initiate this flight all by yourself?”
She was silent for a few moments. Her eyes were clear, her countenance calm, but he could hear it in her voice, even on the intercom. “I wanted to let you rest.” It was spoken with concern, tenderness. Not like a crewfur, but like...
Joe shook his head in disbelief. Like Annie would say it. He willed the edge out of his voice.
“That's not right Lola, and you know it. You never learned that procedural doctrine in any Air Force I flew with.”
The female was silent. He had her dead to rights, and she knew it. But he was leaning on her a bit hard, and at what she thought was an inappropriate time, being in front of Slam and all.
Joe's real reason for his temper was kept to himself. He had specifically wanted to be awakened well before pre-start because he had wanted to check in with Annie. Lola's antics had taken away that opportunity. His wakeup call had come in the form of the flight deck vibrating as The Bitch's number three turbine had roared into life and begun to spin that thirteen foot propeller into a blur. He had literally opened his eyes to an awakening aircraft and had had no time to do anything except jump feet first into the cadence of getting the flight under way.
Once stabilized in climb his temper had gotten the better of him. As this mission was non-stop all the way to Hanford, he wouldn't be able to call Annie for several hours. She would be worried, he was certain. He had needed that call, needed the opportunity to reassure his fox and lay her concerns to rest. And Lola had taken that away from him. That would eat at him for over two thousand miles.
For her part, Lola had been trying to do her aircraft commander a favor. She knew he was tired, that he'd had little sleep to speak of the past couple nights. His sudden if controlled flare to temper at Port Columbus earlier this morning, provoked by her innocent if poorly worded question, had revealed much to her. And she already felt close enough to him that she was willing to overlook the rebuke in the hopes that her doing the pre-flight chores and letting him rest would help him, and her.
But it hadn't helped. Not at all.
So she had initially reacted with a brief flash of indignation when he began to reprimand her in flight, but it had quickly been replaced by a quiet acceptance. The pilot in her soul had asserted itself. She had been wrong, and she knew it. Motivated by good reasons, perhaps, but still in error.
“You're right, commander,” she replied quietly. “I'm sorry. I was thinking of you, and not the mission.”
Her tone had turned to ice. Polite, respectful, but distant. That tone, mixed with her carefully chosen words, was just enough to get Joe to shut up. He knew he was in the right, he knew his position as aircraft commander required him to correct erroneous behavior as soon as possible after becoming aware of it. Safety was the number one priority on any mission he flew, and he expected his crew to uphold that same ideal. Yet in those few words Lola had thrown a little water on Joe's fire, just enough to quiet him.
Joe fumed silently and turned to study the instruments, multi-function displays, and the weather radar display in the panel before them, keeping himself up to date on the flight's progress.
Lola was inwardly calm. While not entirely satisfied with the outcome of the conversation, she felt she had him where she wanted him.
# # #
Janie Riggins gazed out the front room windows of her friends house in Englewood. The snow was rapidly melting away this morning. The streets were mostly clear of slush, and the piles of snow seemed to be growing smaller by the minute. There was still plenty of it left on the ground, but at this rate it would be gone in a day or two. The sky overhead was a clear blue with a few puffy clouds to the west. The Rocky Mountains were bathed in honey-colored morning light.
The cougar watched a Cadillac STS as it approached and turned in to the driveway of the home, and heard the garage door opening.
“She's home,” she said without turning around.
Across the room Tim Riggins sat with a cell phone to his head. He looked up briefly, nodding to the cougar's back.
After a few moments Janie turned from the window and crossed the family room of the Latrans home. She entered and passed through the kitchen, moving towards the door opening into the attached garage. The door opened as she approached it.
A harried, tired looking red fox met her in the doorway, and the two females embraced tightly.
Still holding her friend in the embrace, Janie tilted her head back to look Annie Latrans in the eyes. “The pups get off to school OK?”
The red fox sighed quietly, nodding. Janie noticed that her eyes were still red rimmed, as they had been earlier this morning. Annie had been crying again.
“Sweetheart...” she murmured in the fox's ear, hugging her best friend again as a small sob escaped the fox.
“Where is he?” Annie implored in a choked whisper.
# # #
The sun shone brightly on the skunk's face, causing him to squint behind his sun glasses. As his ride climbed in smooth air towards their cruise altitude Randy Clarkson tugged at the brim of his ball cap, shading his eyes from the pleasant, warming glare. The clouds building over the front range had dissipated to a very scattered layer of puffy cumulus as he ascended above the Rocky Mountains, southwest bound. Nearing seventeen thousand feet he was above most of them, and comfortably above even the tallest peaks in the range. He grinned behind the small oxygen mask that covered his muzzle. The Caravan was operating perfectly, the single Pratt & Whitney PT6A turbine singing it's song beyond the ear pads that covered his ears, muting the roar.
Randy glanced again at the instruments in his panel, and the single multi-function display centered there before him. 177 knots, corrected, he commented silently, momentarily scrutinizing his airspeed indicator. Except for being a pawful of knots below the published cruise speed of 185 knots, Cessna Eight Fox Delta seemed to be in perfect health.
The pilot turned his head slightly to take in the view below. The snow-covered peaks of the Collegiate Range glistened like a carpet of diamond dust, visible between the clouds below. Homing on the Blue Mesa VORTAC near Gunnison, Randy was nearing his assigned cruise altitude of twenty thousand feet as he flew high above Buena Vista, Colorado on Victor Airway 160. Past Blue Mesa he would turn farther south along Victor 95-421, flying that all the way to Farmington, New Mexico before turning west again. Approaching the Chuska Mountains from the east along Victor 210, he would begin his descent towards an isolated, private airstrip near Belakai Mesa. There would be furs there eagerly awaiting his arrival, for in addition to twenty two hundred pounds of drilling equipment, five hundred pounds of foodstuffs, and one keg of beer, way back at the rear of the cargo bay of the Caravan there was an old fashioned strong box with the exploration team's payroll.
Randy Clarkson chuckled briefly. They might be so happy to see him that he might get offered a beer or two for his trouble. Not that he'd be able to drink with the team furs, mind you, but maybe they would have some in cans that he could throw in his duffel bag to enjoy when he returned to Centennial this evening.
Centennial. Home, he smiled happily. His recent conversation with his fiancée quickly replayed for the hundredth time in his head. She was taking steps even as he flew into the southwest to move out to Colorado to be with him! How could he be so lucky?
A scant few weeks ago, not more than three months ago, he had been an unattached loadmaster for Intermountain Charter, bashing around the country in that gruesome old C-130 with his canine buddies. And now he was a pilot! Sure, maybe he wasn't flying the big iron like Joe and Steve, but here he was, pilot in command. The very expression sent a slight chill of excitement up from the tip of his tail all the way up to his shoulder blades. Hell, he was young, he'd get the ratings and type certifications. He'd be in the transports and sleek jets before too many more months or years went by. Initially as first officer, but soon enough he'd be in the left seat of that Bitch, or maybe even one of Matt Barstock's sweet business jets.
And he'd have Melanie by his side. The skunk chuckled again as he eyed his altitude. Eighteen thousand five hundred. He'd be leveling off soon enough, probably well before Blue Mesa. Randy checked the flow meter on his oxygen system and relaxed happily into the fabric seat of the Caravan.
A pleasant female voice with just the barest trace of a southern drawl invaded his reverie. “Two zero eight fox delta,” the voice spoke from his earpads, “contact Denver Center on one two five point three five, you are leaving my sector. Have a nice flight.”
Randy thumbed the push-to-talk toggle on the left side of his control yolk. “One two five point three five,” he replied, “Two zero eight fox delta, see ya later.”
# # #
“You just make sure that you don't reuse any of that hardware, Jake. We've got all new for this box, and I want it used. The FAA fur isn't going to find anything to gig us on, right?”
An older raccoon nodded in agreement. “Sure thing, Jerry. No worries.”
“How soon 'til we can pull the wings?”
The raccoon blinked slowly in contemplation, studying the tips of his boots. Presently he looked up and said “We'll have the supports in place in two hours and the rigging set by early afternoon. We can start on the box itself before second shift comes in.”
They were running back-to-back thirteen hour shifts with a thirty minute overlap at each end for crew coordination. Jerry had, in addition to his normal complement of trusted mechanics, a small army of temporary help working for him. Jerry hadn't been home in two days. His wife Sheryl would bring their cubs by the hangar each morning and evening with some food and perhaps a change of clothes. Such was Jerry's mindset that once he signed on to do a job in a particular way, he gave 100% of himself to it. And to her credit, the brown bear that was his wife supported, encouraged, and assisted him 100%.
“Excellent.” The brown bear turned to a spotted civet standing next to the raccoon. “How are your furs doing with the ramp mech?”
The civet flexed his thick right arm, the massive paw at the end held a huge Stillson wrench. “We'll be ready for the new bracing before lunch. We're on schedule.”
“Five days, Johnny.” Jerry Kitt grumbled affably. “We get this done in five days and you all have the following Monday off with pay.”
The other two furs nodded nervously, grinning slightly.
“So...” Jake the raccoon said, eying his companion. “How about you let me and Johnny get back to work, huh?”
Jerry smiled at the polite tone. “Get out of here, you guys...”
The two furs hustled off towards their respective parts of the aircraft, Jake climbing some scaffolding and rigging as Johnny went aft, below the huge tail surfaces of the C-130 in Intermountain's Port Columbus hangar. Numbers' race had begun. She would fly, as a viable transport, and soon. Very soon, if Jerry and his crew had anything to say about it.
# # #
“I'm supposed to meet Mr. Tanuki at the ramp in a little less than two hours,” Tim said quietly. “I'll have to leave before too much longer.”
They were in the kitchen of the Latrans home, just the two of them.
“Are you going to be OK?” he asked.
Janie Riggins nodded slowly. “I think so. I'll let her sleep if she can today, and go with her to get the pups this afternoon.”
The marmot was silent, staring past his wife's ears to the wall behind her. Annie had gone back to bed after a brief conversation with Janie, mostly centering on her absent husband. Her spirits had steadily deteriorated since Joe had left, and his brief, sporadic telephone calls seemed to do little to help her out of her black mood.
“She's convinced,” Janie whispered, “that she's done irreparable damage to her relationship with Joe.” The cougar stared into the brown eyes of her husband. “I can't convince her otherwise.”
Tim Riggins deep voice rumbled quietly. “Me either.” He looked down at his wife. “Lets ask for help.”
The marmot and the cougar had the house more or less to themselves for the moment. There in the kitchen the two of them prayed quietly for their friends, for understanding and patience, for Divine guidance, and that Annie might catch up on her sleep.
After their brief conversation with the Lord Janie pondered the sudden apparent downturn in the relationship that Annie and Joe shared. She hadn't seen the red fox like this for years. Many years. Not since Maryland. It was creepy.
Tim Riggins scratched his jaw thoughtfully with a paw.
“What are you thinking?” she asked him.
“Exactly what I'm wondering about Joe,” he replied distantly. “What the Hell is he thinking?”
Janie sighed and stepped forward to wrap her arms gently about her husband's torso. Tim instinctively responded, enfolding her in his arms as well. She rested her head against his chest.
They were still standing like that a minute later when Tim's cell phone rang. He released his hold on her with only one arm, using that paw to retrieve and flip open his phone.
“Tim Riggins, how may I help you?”
Janie watched as his expression changed. Long years together had taught her how to read him. The glint in his eye, the tug at each corner of his mouth, the set of his jaw. He was talking about flying. She smiled quietly as her arms fell away from him, and she saw him wink at her.
She tilted her head slightly to one side as he gazed at her, mouthing the word “tea” silently. The marmot nodded enthusiastically.
Janie moved across the kitchen to Annie's cooktop and retrieved a teapot. She filled it with water at the sink and returned it to the cooktop, setting a low flame under it. As she was turning to the cabinet behind the cooktop to look for tea she heard the doorbell ring.
She glanced at her husband, saying “I'll get it” as she turned to head into the family room.
Janie Riggins crossed the large family room, stepped up onto the tiled entry way, and approached the twin oak doors that were surrounded by cut glass window treatments. She could see the distorted image of a shorter fur standing on the porch outside. She reached for the knob on the right side door and opened it to greet the visitor.
Her greeting died in her throat as the door opened to reveal the identity of the visitor standing on the porch outside. The fur on her shoulders and back rose beneath her blouse.
The fox on the porch stared at her for a few moments in disbelief before speaking.
“You...” she choked. “What are you doing here?”
“What the Hell are you doing in Colorado?” she demanded loudly.
“I heard about Sharon. I...”
Janie felt her claws expressing. “Sharon?” Her fangs bared in a most fearful grimace. “Sharon!”
The fox's eyes went wide with the cougars grimace. “Janice, I...”
The cougar's voice came as a guttural growl. “You get the Hell off this porch and out of this state before I kill you where you stand, you filthy piece of shit. How dare you come here! How dare you defile this home and her life with your presence!” Her left paw rose, claws fully extended, towards the suddenly hapless and terrified red fox on the porch.
“Janie!” a deep voice said from beside and behind her. “What are you doing?”
Tim's strong paw had fastened itself onto Janie's forearm, restricting her movement without hurting her. He gently pushed her aside a bit so as to move up beside her and see who she was talking to.
And Tim Riggin's jaw went slack. “Well I'll be damned...”
“You son of a bitch,” the marmot replied, his eyes narrowing. “What are you doing here?”
“I heard about Sharon,” the red fox replied quickly. “I came to... to... say goodbye.”
The marmot, easily a half foot taller than the red fox, blinked. “Goodbye?”
The fox nodded. “I heard she didn't...”
“Good idea, my friend,” Tim interrupted. His voice carried all the warmth of an Arctic ice shelf. “You need to say good bye. Now.”
“Now wait just a damn minute,” the fox began to protest, his voice rising. “Maybe we didn't part on the best of circumstances, but that's...”
“The best of circumstances!” Janie almost shrieked. “You almost killed my best friend, you heartless bastard! You...”
“You need to go,” Timmy repeated in a deep, calm growl. “Your continued presence here will shorten your life expectancy by many factors.”
“Is she here?” the fox demanded loudly, suddenly. “Sharon! Are you here?” he called out.
A timid paw pushed against Tim Riggins lower back. He recognized the owner's touch, and even while his mind screamed silently at him to stand firm, he stepped carefully aside, nudging his wife who likewise moved aside.
Annie Latrans faced the unwelcome visitor on her porch, staring at him with damp, red eyes. She took a short, sharp breath.
“Dax,” she exhaled.
# # #
Randy Clarkson fed a little left rudder gently to bring the nose of the Caravan precisely between the bulk of the Chuskas to his left and the smaller Carrizo Mountains to the right. He would soon descend below eighteen thousand feet and, because the sky in northeastern Arizona was achingly clear, go to visual flight rules, VFR. Once the Chuskas were slipping beneath his port wing he would angle southeast to put the desert village of Chinle on the nose, which would put the airstrip at the eastern foot of Balakai Mesa on the horizon at his twelve o'clock position. An aggressive descent with full flaps and he'd be on the ground in thirty minutes.
# # #
Jerry Kitt accepted a small cigar from his boss. “Kind of early, isn't it?”
Matt Barstock grinned. “We're celebrating,” he said, flicking open a lighter with his other paw and holding it out to the bear.
“You and Angie...?” the bear ventured with a smile as he leaned forward.
Matt coughed slightly, wincing a bit as he made eye contact with his long time friend and master mechanic. “No... But I may have a buyer for a couple more of the low income birds.”
Jerry puffed up a small flame at the end of his cigar before saying “Oh?” as he stood erect.
“Yeah. One of the Citations, and maybe the G-IV.”
The bear choked as he inhaled and began to cough violently. “The...” Jerry continued to cough for several long moments, causing Matt to become mildly alarmed as the skin beneath the fur of his friend's face began to turn red.
“Are you all right, Jerry?”
“Damn!” the bear growled, catching his breath. “Are you all right?”
“What do you mean?”
Jerry made a rumbling sound deep in his chest. “You're gonna sell the jet that Zig Zag flew in?”
Matt grinned a bit. “I can't hold on to that bird for sentimental reasons Jerry, you know that.”
“What if she wants to fly with us again?”
“She won't,” Matt said with strange conviction. Then his eyes mirrored a reflective state of mind. “But she owns a movie studio...”
“So, maybe she might need some equipment flown to a remote location for filming...” Matt shook his head as though to clear it. “Huh...” he grunted. “Like that'll ever happen. “No,” he looked up to the bear, “we run a cargo operation, Jerry. Our corporate charter business is all but dead, but our phones are ringing off the hook for medium and heavy lift transport. I can take that money and buy haulers, maybe a couple more King Airs, or a couple more Caravans, and put our pilots through training to fly them.”
The Labrador opened a desk drawer and removed some sheets of paper, tossing them to the desktop between them. “See this?”
Jerry cleared his throat before replying. “Yeah...”
“Each of these is a potential medium duty short haul contract, perfect for a Caravan.”
“So there's eight routes here and I have two airframes. Do the math.”
“All with FedEx. Do you know what kind of money that represents?”
Jerry nodded thoughtfully.
“You got a security clearance?”
Jerry looked up suddenly. “Why?”
“Yeah. Hell, Matt, you know that. Top Secret since my days with the Army. Why?”
Matt unlocked and opened another desk drawer by way of a reply, withdrawing a single folder. Tossing this to the desktop in front of Jerry he smiled. “Ever work with The Company?”
Jerry had a guarded smile on his muzzle. “Uhh... which Company might you be referring to?”
“Remember Air America?”
“Heard of 'em.”
“Don't bullshit me Jerry. You used to work on their Hueys for a bit. You told me so.”
“I guess I did,” the bear admitted with a wry grin. “Is that why you always ply us with booze at our meetings?”
The Labrador nodded, a knowing smile on his muzzle. Indicating the folder that Jerry was picking up, he simply said “There's enough work in that one contract to keep four C-130s busy.”
Jerry looked long and hard at his boss for almost twenty seconds. “Crap,” he finally said. “Guess there won't be any days off for me and my crew for a while...”
# # #
A full minute had passed in silence on the front porch of the home belonging to Joe and Annie Latrans. The two red foxes regarded each other quietly, oblivious to their surroundings, unmoving.
The life of a very young Sharon Annette Winning played like a bad movie in the back of Annie Latrans' mind. A very sad and pointless movie without moral or anything resembling a “happily ever after.” The fur in front of her looked much older than she remembered, emaciated and, while not physically dirty, somehow soiled and unkempt. But she had recognized him instantly, and the shock of his presence had wiped her mind completely blank except for the movie of her very early adult life.
While Janie was looking back and forth between the faces of the two foxes, trying to gage what might happen next and wondering how to protect her friend, Tim was looking past them all to a large black sedan that was even now pulling up to the curb at the street. As the vehicle rolled to a stop the back door opened. To his great surprise yet another red fox stepped to the snow-covered parkway.
This fox stretched briefly and then turned to retrieve an aluminum briefcase. Turning to gaze at the home, the fox noticed the furs gathered on the porch and suddenly stood motionless, staring. Then the fur broke into a brisk walk, making straight for the group at the porch.
This newest visitor was silent as the distance between them closed. While still three steps away the newest fox's right arm, carrying the briefcase, rose in a slow arc. As the fur, a female, closed the distance to the porch the briefcase suddenly accelerated as the arc tightened, and collided with the head of the red fox whose back was to the street.
David Kensington crumpled, yelping in surprise from the impact. The other three furs gasped in shock as this newest visitor stepped right up to give the fallen fox a quick kick in the ribs with her patent red leather shoe with the three inch heel, causing the scrambling fox to double up as he yelped again, this time in real pain.
“Rachel!” the voices of Annie and Janie said in unison.
Momentarily ignoring her sister and friends, Rachel Winning kicked the fox on the porch a second time. This kick caught him in the stomach, knocking the wind out of him. Rachel bent low over him, her nose mere inches from his as he gasped open-mouthed for breath.
David Kensington would remember only three things about this brief interaction with his ex-sister-in-law. The hint of cleavage that her trim business suit revealed, the hellfire in her green eyes, and her deadly looking fangs as she snarled at him.
Her left paw went to his throat, the claws digging into skin beneath his fur as she tried unsuccessfully to pick him up. “Get out,” she hissed. “You had your warning, and you chose to ignore it. Get out,” she repeated, “for I will surely kill you if I ever see you again.”
Dropping her briefcase, Rachel's right paw went to the small purse over her left shoulder. It withdrew gripping a six inch knife lightly, confidently. The paw and knife quickly went to the throat of the still gasping and writhing fox on the floor.
“I'm not kidding, Dax. Get out while you can.”
The fox from Maryland rolled quickly away from this newest addition to the gathering on the Latrans porch as Rachel released her grip on his throat. Wordlessly he scrambled to his feet and ran, stumbling bent over and holding his gut, towards the street. He never looked over his shoulder and headed straight for a nondescript looking sedan three houses up the road. Within moments tires squealed as he accelerated away.
“Well...” Rachel Winning said briskly, turning towards her sister with an absolutely straight face. Dropping the knife in her purse, she tugged at the bottom of her suit jacket and then ran her paws down her skirt to smooth out the wrinkles that had appeared. Smiling, satisfied that her appearance had not suffered due to her burst of activity, she looked up to her sister and stepped forward to wrap her in a tight hug.
“Annie, dear. How have you been?”
Janie Riggins exchanged a relieved glance with her husband as her best friend buried her nose in her sister's shoulder length red hair.
The newest female red fox in town patted her sister's back gently. “It's alright, dear. I'm here. Here to make it all better.” She looked at the marmot and the cougar and winked, still hugging her sister.
# # #
A little bit later that day Joe rose stiffly from the right seat of the flight deck of the Bitch. He and Lola had just concluded the shutdown checklist, the aircraft was now powered by an auxiliary power unit sitting in the back of a pickup truck about twenty feet off the nose. They were in an isolated corner of what passed for the ramp at Matthias Field, Hanford, Washington. If he chose to crane his neck a bit, Joe could have seen the fuel truck that was even now positioning itself abeam the starboard sponson to connect to the single point refueling port there.
Slam was at the rear of the transport, opening the ramp to allow offloading of the cargo. He and the two Marines would remain with the cargo until it was safely off the aircraft, after which Slam would then stow the ramp for flight. Their day was far from over.
The latter part of the flight from Tennessee had been quiet. Too quiet. Joe's temper had cooled in the face of the inevitable. But now he was here, and more than anything he wanted to get off this flying boxcar, find a quiet place, and call his wife.
He glanced at his watch. It was almost noon local time. He'd have about twenty minutes.
The coyote looked down at the pilot seated in the port side seat. He smiled gently, the first time he had done so since they had landed at McGhee Tyson in Knoxville earlier that morning. “Yes?”
Lola took a deep breath, the effect of which was not lost on her commander. “I'm sorry,” she said simply.
Joe nodded slowly and sat down, a rueful tinge coloring his small smile.
“Me too, Lola. I'm sorry I chewed you out like I did. That was inappropriate for the time and place.”
Lola nodded hesitantly.
“Look,” Joe said in what he hoped would be a friendly tone. “We're a team, you and I. Whatever we do, we do together. We prepare for and execute each mission as a team, as a coordinated effort that we are both fully committed to. Nothing happens that we don't discuss and agree on. If you mess up, it's my job to steer you straight.”
He saw the defensiveness in her body language as she crossed her arms somewhat tightly over her chest. “And,” he added quickly, “if I mess up, it's your job to set me straight, OK? I can't emphasize this enough, Lola, we... are... a... team. Our very lives depend on each other. The success of our missions depends on our functioning as one. My number one job at Intermountain is to keep you and the rest of my crew healthy. After that it's my responsibility to keep the aircraft in good shape and deliver our cargoes on time. We work together to accomplish that safely and everybody wins.”
Lola nodded again with more assuredness, relaxing a bit. “Copy that, skipper.”
Joe grinned. “No hard feelings?”
She laid a paw on his shoulder briefly as she stood. Lola stretched the kinks out of her spine and tail, paws just above her hips in the small of her back, pushing as she arched her back. Even though the pullover she wore had the sleeves pushed up her forearms the soft material looked as if it were straining to contain her torso. “None.” She looked down at him, smiling faintly to his upturned face. “Buy you a cup of coffee?”
Joe nodded. “Let me make a telephone call and I'll meet you at the cafeteria.”
To her questioning glance he pointed towards the windshield, to a building a short distance away, across the ramp. As he did so they both noticed a large flat bed semi truck approaching the C-130 from the starboard quarter. The tractor and trailer were painted flat olive drab, and neither had any markings save for the US Government license plates. Two furs sat in the cab of the tractor.
“That's the admin building,” Joe said. “Go through those double doors and look to the right. You can't miss it.”
The fox-coyote hybrid nodded. “See you over there.”
Joe sighed as his copilot left the flight deck. They'd be airborne again in less than half an hour. They had to be at SeaTac by 1315 to load up the Phoenix cargo and get rolling. That didn't leave them much time. He pulled his cellular telephone from his flight case that was wedged behind the starboard seat and flipped it open.
“You the commander of this aircraft?” a voice said behind him before he could touch the keyboard.