The B Team



All characters that appear or are mentioned in this chapter of The B Team are my own except as noted here: The characters of Fred Bostick and Billy "The Kid" Panelli are copyright © Tigermark and appear in his story Fire On High. Kellan Meigh and the characters of Torvald and Victoria Svensen are copyright © Kellan Meigh, and Aslaug Larsdatter (otherwise known by some as "Angelbreaker") and the story Amat Victoria Curam are copyright © Joan Jacobsen . Good reading at any of their sites, so go check them out and tell them the coyote sent you.

Apologies to Metallica for "borrowing" a few lines from their song Fuel on the Reload album. Thanks for the inspiration, guys.

This story is a continuation of the original four part "B-Team". My special thanks to Tigermark for his continued assistance, participation, and encouragement in the crafting of this story.

The B Team is copyright The Silver Coyote
2003 - 2010


1 June 2010

Give Me Fuel, Give Me Fire,
Give Me That Which I Desire.

 

 


"Where are we?"

The black wolf looked up from the book he was reading. "You don't recognize Tinker?"

He was seated at the navigator's console, feet on the edge of the center panel between the pilots' seats. He wore a pair of faded black jeans, black leather boots, and a white, cotton, long-sleeve button down shirt open at the collar, cuffs rolled to his elbows. Ear buds were connected to a tiny digital music player in his left shirt pocket and a can of diet Coke rested on the navigator's small table next to his right elbow. He looked the picture of relaxation as a small grin split his muzzle to reveal white teeth. Golden eyes glanced away from the paperback novel as his head turned to look at the coyote to his left, standing in the gangway to the cargo hold below.

That coyote was in the middle of a yawn of considerable proportions. As his tongue relaxed and returned to it's normal place and shape in his mouth, the coyote mumbled "I don't remember much after Port Columbus."

Joe Latrans relaxed his ears and rubbed the top of his head briefly with a paw, bending at the waist to glance out the windows forward. It was difficult to estimate the time of day because a gray overcast obliterated the sun, and the daylight, while seeming reasonably bright, cast no shadows. They were positioned between large hangars on a wet ramp, but that and the auxiliary power trailer positioned about twenty yards ahead of the number four nacelle were about the only things of interest he could see. Shaking his head slowly, the coyote stood erect and began to pat himself gently around his waist and upper torso.

"We arrived here about three hours ago," Steve Lupus said quietly. The flight deck was silent save for the muted rush of the air circulation system. As the eyebrows of the coyote rose in question the wolf elaborated: "We have a problem with the TSA cargo. They were under the impression that we would provide military escort for it, but that word never made it to Matt's office or Angie's roster." The seated pilot chuckled. "So now we're waiting for the TSA to provide their own security."

The irony was not lost on Joe, who smiled sleepily as he continued to pat the various pockets of his clothing. The Transportation Security Administration was the federal "police" force tasked with maintaining security on all commercial aviation flights in the United States. Their job involved the use of some highly technical equipment used to covertly or openly monitor the activities and possessions of furs, baggage, and cargo entering terminals and boarding aircraft, and also involved the use of sometimes-classified weapons systems that might be employed to regain or maintain control of unexpected situations. That they now had to scramble to provide basic security for one of their own cargoes seemed mildly amusing.

As his paws moved here and there Joe inquired "What time is it?"

Steve glanced at his watch, aware that Joe also wore one. "Twenty two forty eight zulu, four forty eight PM local time," he replied casually.

Joe thought about that for a moment as he waited for the fog of sleep to lift from his mind. He was normally one who was quick to awaken, but the long schedule he'd been flying had certainly caught up with, and maybe even surpassed him. He was still exploring pockets absently as he gazed at his friend and fellow pilot. Presently he said "We're about four hours behind our original schedule."

"You were about ninety minutes late into Columbus," Steve observed absently. "Understandable, given the manifest changes, and that was no problem. We certainly can't influence what the TSA does here."

"Yeah."

The patting continued.

The wolf cleared his throat. "Uh, Joe?"

"Yeah?"

"What are you doing?"

"Huh?"

"The paws everywhere. What's going on?"

The coyote smiled sheepishly. "I can't find my cell phone. I wanted to call Annie." Glancing behind the pilots' seats, the paws stopped as he asked "What'd you guys do with my flight case?"

"Lola took it below after we departed Port Columbus. I don't know where she put it."

Steve Lupus had met the transport at Intermountain Charter's base of operations in Columbus to spell the aircraft commander. Joe had been afforded the opportunity to catch up on some much-needed rest as Steve had taken command of The Bitch headed west out of Ohio, and Joe had been virtually comatose before they had reached cruising altitude on their way to Tinker Air Force Base in Oklahoma. Steve would be heading home to Kansas City fairly soon now that the skipper of the C-130 was back in action. Matt's direction had been that Lola could tough out the second in command chores into Washington DC, as the entire crew would have a day to kill in the nation's capital to rest up.

It had been a rapid introduction to Lola for Steve, just before those instructions had been given to him. He wasn't yet sure what to make of her. It was the first time he had met her, and while the boss had conversed with her several times by telephone during her hiring process, apparently Matt had never seen her face-to-face either. She looked to be in her late twenties or early thirties, it was difficult to say. She had the facial structure of a coyote, but the body didn't match and the coloring looked strongly fox-ish. Green eyes and a soft drawl added some intensity to the form-fitting flight suit she wore.

"Good morning, Steve," that drawl had murmured delightfully.

She had smiled happily at the wolf when introduced to him by Matt, shaking paws warmly while her tail waved as if in a gentle breeze, but that smile and tail motion had abruptly disappeared when she learned why the wolf was there, and she had turned on Matt in his own office with a ferocity that seemed very out of place, green eyes suddenly blazing.

"You're replacing Joe as pilot in command?" she had barked at the owner of Intermountain Charter. "On what grounds?"

Steve had looked at Lola slightly askance, thinking it a nervy approach for a brand new employee to take with the big boss. But Matt had simply smiled that grizzled smile of one who's been in the game for a long time, and said "On the grounds that he's been flying his tail off and needs a break. Steve will take command for the deadhead out to Tinker, and then Joe is back in the saddle for the run into DC. I just want Joe to take a breather for a bit, get some rest."

It was just the three of them, all pilots, and she hadn't backed down. Glancing at the wolf, she had squared off to the Labrador and said bluntly "That's not necessary. No offense to Steve, here, but we don't need him. Joe is fine. We've had no problems and would be on schedule if it weren't for these continuing last-minute modifications to our manifest." An arched eyebrow came with the accusation in that last statement.

Matt's eyes had widened slightly at that rebuke, but he had stared calmly at the coyote-fox hybrid for long moments, an otherwise passive look on his face. Steve had been embarrassed, and maybe a little bit afraid for her, thinking he was about to have to observe one of Matt's rare but volatile official employee reprimands. As the silence dragged on Steve had considered what that might do to the pretty young pilot's self-esteem, and shuffled sideways a bit to place himself more between them than along side the female.

"How long have you known Joe Latrans? Matt asked quietly of the silence that stretched between them.

"What?"

"You heard me," the veteran airlifter said, a trace of annoyance coming to his voice.

Lola stared at him silently, feet apart, arms crossed tightly across her chest.

"Look," Matt said evenly, keeping his voice calm. "Joe has a lot of confidence in you. There's no way I'd let you within a hundred yards of any of my iron without his endorsement. I trust Joe, and have been trusting him since before you ever turned a turbine. And I've trusted Steve here …" Matt's paw motioned towards the wolf between them, "… even longer than that."

"I'm Joe's second in command," she said quietly, the anger evident in her eyes and body language. "He's my commander …"

"… and I'm all for crew loyalty," Matt interrupted, his voice gaining volume. "Hell, I encourage that kind of family commitment. Crew coordination ... it's a religion around here. It's the very same commitment I make to all of my pilots and crew. We are family. We take care of each other. We look out for each other. And that's what I'm doing here, looking out for a friend."

The gray-muzzled Labrador gently placed a paw on the shoulder of the female, and she flinched visibly. "You don't have to like me, Lola. Fly well and support your crew, be part of the team, and I don't give a shit if you hate my black tail 'til the day I die. As long as Joe Latrans is happy with you and The Bitch continues to fly, you and I will have no problems."

The paw dropped to his side and he edged even closer to her, looking down into those green eyes. A snarl came to Matt Barstock's lip as his voice deepened, seeming to come from deep within the Labrador's chest. "If you can't do that," he rumbled threateningly, "if you can't accept my concern for a fellow pilot, a comrade in arms, a friend … if you question my authority or decision making where the welfare of my crews or my airframes are concerned … if you can't be part of the team …"

The old dog took a deep breath and exhaled slowly. Steve almost missed Matt's last sentence to the fuming Lola. "Then I will," he almost whispered, "buy you a one-way first class ticket to any fucking destination you care to name."

Matt glanced up to Steve even as the mouth of the coy-fox opened slightly in shock, her eyes growing wide. Before she could say anything Matt addressed the wolf in a clipped yet normal tone of voice. "Now if it's all the same to you, I've got things to do. You're in command. Get Joe. Get Slam. Get squared away, and get out of here. Our contracts wait for no fur."

With that the Labrador had turned on his heel and departed the office, ignoring the female entirely, done with her. Moments later they had heard a large door close below them, and Steve had turned to the window overlooking the hangar bay in time to see Matt hove into view, enroute to his next task. The hulk of another C-130 had been down there, crews of furs climbing over Numbers' wing box and aft end like ants.

The coyote-fox hybrid had stepped up silently to stand at his left. The two canines had taken simultaneous deep breaths and exhaled slowly, just as their boss had done. And for the same reason.

"Well, it's nice to meet you, Lola," Steve had offered, trying to inject some warmth into the air between them.

"It's nothing against you, really," she had replied, staring at the Labrador below as he appeared to speak with the mechanics, gesturing assertively. "Joe is my commander," she had repeated.

"He's my friend," the wolf had replied, continuing to stare at the transport below them. "In fact I'm thinking of asking him to be the best fur at my wedding. He and I have been flying together for about a dozen years now. When Matt called me on the phone this morning all he told me was that Joe could use a bit of shut-eye, and would I please take the leg from here to Tinker. No big deal. No worries. I have a ticket for a regional flight from Will Rogers back to Kansas City. I'll be home by dinner time."

Lola had turned to look at the wolf, had searched his eyes as he turned to face her. She must have seen something there she liked, for she had smiled at him. "You're OK," she had said simply. "I take care of those furs that matter to me."

Steve had smiled cautiously in return. "What do you say we go find the rest of our crew?"

And all of that replayed in his head there on the flight deck of The Bitch in Oklahoma City as, rising, Steve tossed his book to the center panel at his feet even as Joe turned to go below in search of his flight case.

"So what's up with you and Lola?" Steve called after him cheerfully.

 

# # #

 

Still irritable at the end of his day, Matt Barstock now sat in his office with a pawset to his ear.

"God dammit, Fred, you can't hand me a paw-grenade like that and then just hang up on me," he growled to the voicemail system he was connected to. "I'm gonna keep calling you every hour until you get the nerve to answer your phone. If I don't hear from you by close of business tomorrow I'll be in your office the next morning lookin' to break my knuckles …"

He took a deep breath and held it with the pawset still to his ear, willing himself to settle down. "Look … I'm sure you know that Billy The Kid and I have a lot of history," he exhaled slowly. "But that's my problem to deal with Fred, not yours. Sorry if I'm clouding up on you, I got a lot of things going on. Truth is, I think we'll be a go for the sale, provided the lot of us can meet face to face and agree on terms. Why don't you talk to Billy and see if he's interested in a meet in neutral territory?" The Labrador suddenly snorted as a wry grin broke out on his muzzle.

"Hell, I'll even buy the first round …"

He paused for a few moments as the memories flashed across his mind, and then hung up quietly, his anger about that particular issue spent for the moment. But he had other irons in the fire and immediately opened his desk drawer and removed a business card. Reading the name and number on the card, he picked up the still warm pawset and punched buttons, dialing another call. This one was answered almost immediately by a voice almost as gruff as his own.

"Olmstead."

"Matt Barstock."

"How may I help you, Mr. Barstock?"

"I need a favor, some information."

"Have we done business before, Mr. Barstock?"

"Oh cut the crap, Olmstead. I've got twenty grand of your money and a drawer full of schedules; we gonna talk or play games?"

"What do you need, Matt?" the voice said calmly.

"I have a new pilot working for me, and I need a background check done."

"Call the FAA."

Matt snorted. "Like those guys will help me. I need information, not excuses."

"What do you want?"

"A complete workup. Military mostly, but there may be some commercial command time as well. I want to know when and how ratings were obtained, military service records, financial history, personal history, family … the usual."

"Are we looking for anything in particular?"

"Not that I know of. I just want to make sure there are no hidden problems here. She may be flying for us on your contracts."

The timbre of Olmstead's voice changed, expressing a new interest. "What is the name of the pilot in question?"

"Lola Baker. Last flew with the 146th Airlift Wing in California, as far as I know."

Matt could hear key-clicks in his phone connection as Olmstead worked a computer keyboard. "Uh-huh …" the voice said quietly.

Matt examined the business card on his desk as a short silence ensued.

"Nothing glaring superficially, Matt. I'll dig into this and let you know what we come up with. Meanwhile, Agent Smith tells me you were a little less than forthcoming about when we might expect transport to become available."

"Agent Smith?" Matt asked absently.

"The gentlefur that spoke with you in your office earlier today."

"That little greasy weasel?" Matt exclaimed with something approximating humor. "Who gives a damn what he thinks? And thanks for sending me such a stellar example of a flunky, by the way," Matt growled.

There was a small sigh at the other end of the phone connection. "Agent Smith could not tell us with conviction when we can expect your transports to be available to us."

"One is undergoing maintenance now and should be available within ten days. The other is flying the line right now on commercial jobs and will be unavailable for at least a week."

"So we can expect you to be flying for us by Thanksgiving?"

Matt considered briefly. "Yeah, maybe so."

"We'll look forward to it, Matt. I'll have the information you want by tomorrow evening. Shall I call your cell, your home, or your office?"

Matt was about to ask how he knew all those numbers and then remembered who he was dealing with. "Cell is best," he replied.

"Wilco, Matt. Thanks for calling."

"Yeah … thanks."

Matt rubbed his forehead briefly as he pressed the disconnect switch on the phone with the paw holding the pawset. He dialed an internal extension and immediately returned the pawset to his ear.

"Yes, Master?" a playful voice purred in his ear.

"Get your wrap. We're leaving, and I'm taking you out for dinner. I need to get the Hell out of this place. I'll be down in a minute."

 

# # #

 

The Doberman sighed as he navigated the mid-afternoon traffic approaching downtown Arcadia. The San Gabriel Valley was in the middle of a warm November afternoon with an air temperature near seventy degrees under cloudless skies. An inversion layer at twenty eight hundred feet kept a nice lid on the haze and smog, reducing surface visibility to about three miles. Despite the multiple lanes of cars and trucks on the other side of the heavily tinted windows, the interior of his BMW 750il was quiet as he exited the 210 freeway at Baldwin Avenue, classical music playing at a very low volume to relax the driver. It was not horse-racing season, but even so traffic was heavy around the Santa Anita Racetrack, what with the two malls and the arboretum all in close proximity. His destination lay in the southern quarter of the city, the lower end of the neighborhood. CEOs and doctors and lawyers lived in the heights, widows of career Air Force pilots lived down south where the price of houses were only in the six digits, not seven or eight.

Harrison Clement the Third was on his way to the small but well-appointed home of Maria Latrans with some more estate paperwork. Within three months she would be worth about two and a half million dollars more than she presently was, and would be receiving her late husband's pension as well. And apparently she was also, and had been, receiving a distribution from family investments of her own. The Gutierrez family had bequeathed a considerable investment vehicle upon their youngest daughter when the matron had passed away in the sixties, and Harrison had only just recently discovered this fact. Apparently the Air Force pilot had never known what his wife was worth, or hadn't cared. Her estimated worth at the moment was almost equal to what he had left her.

It would take at least six court appearances to settle the estate of Pablo Latrans, and they were on the Los Angeles Superior Court calendar for early February. If he could stomach what was involved in making Maria Latrans believe that he truly loved her for about a dozen weeks, he'd be on easy street for the rest of his life. And after those twelve nauseating weeks he'd be very close to rid of her as well.

He took Baldwin Avenue south out of the cultural center of Arcadia, missing the hospital and the cineplex, and headed south towards the sixty year old tracts of homes that occupied the former lands of the Lucky Baldwin Estate. Near the southern edge of the city he made a quick left and then a right, and presently pulled up in front of the small home he was coming to know so well.

He sat briefly in the quiet confines of his powerful automobile and repeated to himself, quietly out loud three times, his newest mantra.

"Keep your eyes on the prize. Keep your eyes on the prize. Keep your eyes on the prize."

Harrison opened the door of his BMW, exited to stretch briefly before shutting the door, and tried his best not to look like a fur heading for the gallows as he strode up the walkway to the front porch and that door, and the fur he knew was waiting for him beyond it.

 

# # #

 

"Tacos and potatoes," Joshua Latrans said happily.

Annie Latrans rolled her eyes amid the feminine giggles that greeted this answer to her simple question: "What do you want for dinner?" Janie Riggins and Rachel Winning sat at the small kitchen table as Annie's pups stood near the center of the room, smiling up at their mother.

"With some fruit first, and some broccoli with dinner?" Annie asked her pups.

Little Maria wrinkled her nose. Annie knew she didn't like broccoli, but Annie also knew that broccoli was one of the best vegetables you could get a fur to eat, and her daughter was such a finicky eater. She'd have to "dress up" the vegetable for her youngest.

The Maryland red fox bent at the waist to bring her muzzle close to her daughter's small ears. "I'll let you have some shredded cheese with your broccoli," she whispered conspiratorially, "if you promise to eat it all." The mother of two nudged her daughter gently and nodded towards her son. "And don't tell Joshua," she whispered dramatically, eliciting a giggle from the small coy-fox.

"OK, Mommie," her youngest nodded.

"What?" Joshua asked, fully aware of what had just transpired but playing the game anyway.

"Just you never mind, young fur," Annie chided gently, grinning at her son. As usual, in Joe's absence he was the fur of the home, acting the role model for his younger sister and helping his mother however he could.

"You and Maria can go play for a while. We'll have some dinner in about an hour."

Little Maria was already turning for the front door, but the male coy-fox stood in place, somehow knowing his mother had more for him. She did …

"Keep an eye on your sister, Joshua. Be somewhere I can see you, OK?"

The pup nodded. "Sure mom."

"That's my boy." Annie Latrans bent to kiss her son on the top of his head, between his ears. "Thank you, sweetheart."

His tail was already disappearing through the kitchen doorway as Joshua's "Sure thing," floated to her ears.

The three females had managed to keep the events of yesterday from Annie's pups. It had all happened while they were at school in the morning, and emotions had cooled to tolerable levels by the time they had returned home from school.

Rachel Winning felt that her sister had regained her composure fully after the odd, aborted meeting with David Kensington on Annie's front porch yesterday. She seemed her usual industrious self. But Janie knew better, knew her friend better than anyone else. She could see it in Annie's eyes, in the way she kept glancing at the phone, in the way she paused if they heard an aircraft flying overhead. Her husband was still very much on her mind.

The cordless telephone on a small shelf next to Annie's pantry gave a shrill ring, and the fox moved laterally across her kitchen to answer it. As she did Janie turned to Rachel and said "You know, with all the excitement yesterday and Tim leaving, I never got a chance to ask you. How long will you be in Colorado?"

Not taking her eyes from her younger sister, Rachel replied "I've got no deadlines. I'll be here as long as Annie needs me. If I can get a network connection now and then for my laptop … oh dammit!"

"What?"

"I just realized my laptop is in the back of the company car that brought me here." Standing, Rachel said "Would you please excuse me for a moment?"

Nodding, Janie said "Certainly."

"I'll be right back," the older fox replied as she strolled towards the family room of the Latrans home, pulling a cell phone from her purse. There had been just enough time for Janie to tune in on Annie's conversation, hoping for the best ...

The cougar sighed. It was her business partner … that hyena, Clark.

"What do you mean, the steel is still a problem?" Annie asked sharply. "I spoke to Craig myself just the other day. He said …"

Janie watched her friend tense up, her breath beginning to grow short. She couldn't hear the other end of her conversation, but she could see that it was adding to Annie's general level of frustration.

"Yes, Clark. ATS-55. It's going into a powerhouse on the edge of a cliff!"

Her tail was absolutely still now, pointed at the floor. She was silent for almost a full minute before she growled audibly.

"Fine. Tell him we'll take the Japanese steel. And tell him I'll accept the additional cost provided he can have our structural members milled and delivered to the job site before the end of the month."

Another pause, during which the Red Fox took a deep breath and visibly willed herself to settle down.

"Clark …"

Another pause of several more seconds.

"Clark." She switched the phone to her other ear. "Sweetheart, I'm sorry I'm being bitchy. There's been a lot of stuff going on around here that you know nothing about. Why don't you come by here after dinner tonight and have a glass of wine with Janie and Rachel and I? Yes … yes, of course. I'd love to see Lynn again."

Another pause, during which Annie turned and smiled a bit at her best friend.

"And Clark? Please leave your briefcase in the car, OK? This is family, not business."

 

# # #

 

The Wasatch front was covered in new snow and the air felt brittle on the skunk's nose. It was damn cold in the Salt Lake Valley, and Randy Clarkson was thankful for that. Two thousand six hundred pounds of mud pump and other equipment put him and his trusty Cessna Caravan at about one hundred twenty five pounds over gross. But his tanks weren't full and the air temp hovered just above freezing in spite of the pale sunlight that was filtered by the high cirrus overhead, so he wasn't worried at all.

The skunk grinned as his mount waddled towards the approach end of runway three four at South Valley Regional, an out-laying airport ten miles south of Salt Lake City International. He had the utmost confidence in the health of his almost new and very powerful Pratt and Whitney PT6A turbine powerplant, and even more in the strong wings that would shortly lift he and his cargo up over the Wasatch range and carry them on their way to Belakai Mesa in Arizona.

Matt had sounded very distracted while discussing the mission with him on the phone, but the customer had come through with the extra cash for the on-demand airlift, and a very happy young pilot was more than eager to get the job done. Solo. Now.

Pilot in Command.

Slight pressure with the toes of his boots brought "Fox Delta" to a stop short of the approach end of runway three four. Randy was impatient to be airborne, but none the less ran through his practiced routine of systems checks before pressing a button on his control yoke.

"Salt Lake Clearance Delivery, two zero eight fox delta at South Valley, IFR to Tuba City, Arizona, ready for my squawk."

Randy checked his gyro compass against the magnetic compass as he waited for the clearance delivery controller to return his call. He had finished that task and was waiting patiently, pencil in paw and a notepad on his knee-board, when the controller called back.

"Two zero eight fox delta, Salt Lake City." Randy began scribbling as the controller continued. "Fly the E-Toe-Fo One departure, departure heading three three eight degrees, best rate of climb to and maintain nine thousand to See-Lod waypoint. Right turn direct E-Toe-Fo waypoint, maintain nine thousand. Expect as filed within ten minutes of departure. Squawk three zero zero five, contact departure control one two zero point two leaving five thousand."

Randy put down his pencil and manipulated the knobs of his transponder head selecting the specified code and selected mode C for altitude encoding. As the field elevation was a tad over 4600 feet, he'd be calling departure control quickly after liftoff. He keyed his microphone and read from his own hastily scrawled notes:

"Eight fox delta is cleared for the E-Toe-Fo One departure, three three eight and best rate of climb for See-Lod waypoint, climb and maintain nine thousand. Right turn direct E-Toe-Fo waypoint, maintain nine thousand, expect higher. Squawking three zero zero five and one two zero point two leaving five thousand."

"Eight fox delta, I have your squawk, read back correct. CTAF at South County is one two two point seven. We'll talk to you soon."

Randy smiled. This was the best. Open sky, PT6A spinning a huge three-bladed prop, and he was getting paid to enjoy it all.

"Catch you in a bit, eight fox delta."

Randy pressed a button on his number two communications radio, causing it to change to the other memorized frequency it contained. His head bobbed and swiveled as he looked carefully around the airport traffic area and, seeing no traffic, he released the pressure on his toe brakes and rolled slowly forward.

"Two zero eight fox delta taking runway three four at South County Regional, straight out departure IFR," he broadcast.

He heard no reply.

Straddling the center line of the runway, he brought the power lever for the Pratt turbine up to full takeoff power. As the whine changed to a roar the skunk's fangs bared in a smile of raw, unabashed joy. Three thousand feet later, about halfway down the runway, the nose of the Caravan lifted and the freighter angled steeply up into the sky, it's pilot a happy fur singing to himself as he manipulated the communications radios for his upcoming call to Salt Lake City Departure Control.

 

# # #

 

Having found his flight case in the cargo hold and having reacquired his cell phone after long minutes of rummaging (and with some assistance), José Ortíz Latrans was now listening to the last and longest message his far-away, beautiful but over-stressed bride had left him much earlier that day.

"I just want to make sure that the future holds no unpleasant surprises for you, I want you to know that I am yours and always will be, and that my love for you is pure and eternal even though I made some bad choices and bad mistakes when I was young. Now my only concern is you, our pups, and our marriage. Nothing else matters to me, Joe.”

He heard a digitized representation of her exhaling slowly, and could almost feel her sweet, warm breath caressing his ear. "Come home to me, Joe. Fly safely. Te quiero, mi coyote.”

The pilot slowly flipped the phone shut as he lowered his paw to the center console to his right. He sat facing forward in the command pilot's seat on the port side of the flight deck of the Lockheed C-130E that had been placed in his care, and stared absently at the drizzle falling from the sky on the other side of the windshields in front of him. His paw came to rest on something uncharacteristically smooth and pliable, and his head turned to the right and tilted down to see what was covering the familiar controls of the center console.

His eyes landed on Steve's paperback novel. Stuffing his phone in a shirt pocket as he stared at the back cover of the novel, he began to read ...

"From the halls of Valhalla to the sprawling urban playgrounds of Orange County, California and in multiple realities on parallel worlds through all the dimensions belonging to all the varied creators, deities and demons, berserkers and Valkyries, celestial cops and earthy criminals, mages and sorcerers, furs and non-furs from all walks of life collide in the immortal lives of Torvald Svensen and his wife Victoria. Agents to the Gods, they fight as only immortals can in an everlasting battle between good and evil that transcends the realities and the very creations of the gods they serve."

Joe picked up the novel that his friend, fellow pilot and keeper of the faith in the Allison T56 turbine, had left on the console just before the interrogation about Lola had begun. The entire time Joe had been searching first for his flight case, and then for his phone therein down on the cargo deck, Steve had been peppering him with a hundred and one questions about Lola, until the topic of conversation herself had arrived on the scene.

Lola had interrupted her slightly distracted commander, who was doing his level best to ignore a very animated but now strangely silent Steve Lupus, who was in turn watching the older pilot search for something. She had found the scene quaintly amusing, correctly guessing the reason for the sudden quiet.

"What are you looking for, commander?" she had inquired cheerfully.

An odd look had flitted across the countenance of the dark-muzzled coyote, seen only by his long-time friend, before he had willed a smile to his muzzle and turned to look at the coyote-fox hybrid.

"I'm looking for my cell phone, Lola. Have you seen it lately?"

A soft paw had gone immediately to her breast, or rather the pocket of her flight suit resting thereupon, and she quickly produced the device that had been occupying so much of the attention of the senior pilot for the past day or two.

"I charged it for you," she said simply, her smile displaying the barest hint of the tips of her fangs as she held the phone out to Joe.

He'd taken it after a moment's hesitation, nodding and muttering "Thanks."

And then, as if forgetting about the phone and its owner completely, the pretty coy-fox aviator had turned to Steve and said "There's a taxi here, and I took the liberty of placing your gear in the trunk. He's waiting at the TSA hangar for you."

And she had left with the wolf for some reason, and Joe had returned to the flight deck to enjoy and capitalize on the brief moments of privacy for the long-awaited and much-needed conversation with his wife.

Which hadn't started yet.

"Iron Skies," he continued reading as he picked up the book, "is the latest offering from the brilliantly creative pen of author Kellan Meigh, twelfth in the Immortal Couple series and his third collaboration with Aslaug Larsdatter, author of the infamous Amat Victoria Curam, now in it's fourth year on the New York Times Best Sellers list. Join the Svensens and the Angelbreaker once again as they bring their own brand of fire-breathing, steel-clad common sense to the throne rooms of the gods."

Without knowing why, Joe grinned a bit to himself even as he flipped the paperback novel over his shoulder and turned his attention to the ramp outside. The grin flickered as he heard the small book land on the navigator's table behind him with a muffled flop. He pulled the cell phone from his shirt pocket.

Joe liked a good story as much as the next fur, but magic and mysticism didn't do much for him. He was a firm believer in what he could see, smell, and feel … the heady aroma of JP-5 aviation fuel burning in well-maintained turbine engines, the sight of fifteen thousand feet of concrete stretching before him on a cool dawn in early spring, the feel of the yoke in his left paw, his right paw full of throttles as the deck bucked beneath him, the roaring howl of the mighty Allisons and those thirteen foot paddle blades threatening to burst his eardrums beneath the earphones he wore, and that ever-joyous kick in the ass as his airborne semi truck jumped away from the centerline, pointed herself at the heavens, and screamed to the skies and any gods that might dare to draw near …

Jet Fresh Flow. The shizzle.

There was only one thing better, only one thing that could distract him from the strength and power and glory of Flying The Line in this monstrous machine he loved so much.

And she was waiting for him in Colorado.

And he loved her …

… and he needed, right now, more than anything else, to hear her voice.

Joe pressed and held the "one" button on his cell phone, which caused it to speed-dial a particular matching phone belonging to the prettiest red fox Maryland had ever produced, or ever would.

And as the excited, joyous voice of Annie Latrans filled the ears of that coyote sitting on the flight deck of The Bitch in Oklahoma, that flight deck faded from his view, and all he saw before him was that gorgeous face, that bright smile, those glittering eyes …

"Joe? Are you alright, lover? Where are you?"

"I'm doing just fine now, angel …"

 


To Chapter Thirty One: Second Wind

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