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.

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 - 2011


3 January 2011

Second Wind

It was calm and serene at 23,000 feet. The night was dark, the windshields looking like black slabs of obsidian before the two pilots. Somewhere high above them, above an invisible cloud deck a few thousand feet overhead, a waning moon shone her light to the cloud tops and a billion stars glittered frostily in the cold thin air of the stratosphere. Below them, past several more layers of cloud, a mix of snow and rain was falling in the valley of the Cumberland River in Tennessee. The winter storm system they had been dodging since this long haul mission had begun was moving out of the Ohio Valley towards New England, dragging a long weather front that currently stretched in a widening arc from western Pennsylvania through Virginia and the Carolinas, dragging its large tail across southern Kentucky and Tennessee. It was a warm system on the west end, and icing was not a problem for them yet.

Instrument lighting was muted, and the cabin illumination around the pilots was dimmed. In the distance to the south a random, isolated flash of lightning would illuminate enough of the sky to let them know that they actually were in clear air, even though they had no ground reference below, or open sky for celestial navigation.

It wasn't a problem for the crew. The moving map on the center multi-function display showed them to be dead centered on Victor airway 140 somewhere east of Dyersburg VORTAC, near an electronic crossroads known as Goshn Intersection. This put them near the city of Camden, above the Tennessee National Wildlife Refuge, all an unknown mystery below them, underneath the weather they flew above.

Lola was acting pilot in command, flying with the autopilot systems engaged. That collection of black boxes was doing a fine job of holding them to their track and altitude, and the hardest working fur on the flight deck at the moment was the navigator - loadmaster, who was fussing with a laptop while trying to uplink some terminal information about their destination. The illumination at his small desk was considerably brighter than that forward, the better to see his keyboard and connections. For some reason the AirInc server wasn't communicating with his on-board equipment and Slam Whiteline was getting a bit antsy.

It had been several minutes now since Joe had wondered aloud, kind of off-the-cuff, what the terminal weather at Dulles might be. Part of Slam's work, as part of a cockpit crew that practiced resource management and crew coordination, was the acquisition and dissemination of information that would be helpful in the execution of the flight plan and the on-time delivery of their cargo. So when he overheard either of his pilots wondering aloud what the status of such-and-such navaid was, or what the weather might be at their destination, or what maintenance schedules might be coming due on their aircraft, he was quick to find whatever information was being sought and deliver it in the most appropriate manner to his friends and crewmates. This could be any one of several ways, from simple word-of-mouth to porting information from his laptop computer, which was connected via radio to servers on the ground, to any combination of the three multi-function displays that were in the large instrument panel directly before his pilots.

And Slam was getting nervous because his laptop couldn't establish a reliable connection with the ground-bound server, operated by AirInc, and he was not getting the information Joe sought of him in an expedient manner.

He needn't have worried, and he was vaguely aware of that. Joe's attitude had changed remarkably at Tinker. He didn't know why, but he did know that two things had happened since they had left Phoenix early that morning. First, Joe had slept for the entire trip from Port Columbus to Tinker Air Force Base in Oklahoma, had in fact slept through the arrival and the first couple of hours there on the ramp. That had probably helped him quite a bit, it was the first decent sleep the pilot had been able to get on this trip, and he had said as much to he and Lola once they were airborne and heading for Washington DC. Second, and perhaps more importantly, Slam knew that Joe had spent almost an hour on the cell phone with his wife. Lola had told him about giving Joe his phone just before Steve Lupus had left the air base by taxi, and they hadn't begun loading their cargo until almost fifty minutes after Steve's departure. And Slam had found Joe on the flight deck, phone to his ear, conversing quietly and happily with somefur.

When he had cautiously interrupted Joe to advise him that he needed the pilot to review the cargo's placement and paperwork, Joe had nodded and said "Sure thing, Slam," with a relaxed smile on his muzzle. As the coyote-mountain lion hybrid had headed below he'd heard the pilot say "I've got to go, angel …" before he turned at the bottom of the gangway into the cargo hold.

But somehow, instead, now Lola seemed to be on edge. After going nose to nose with Matt in his own office (a story gleefully related to him by a curious Steve Lupus, who asked as many questions as he answered), and coming away with a smile from that, now she appeared … not nervous, not angry, not worried … just … edgy.

Slam's laptop beeped, and he turned his attention from his reverie to the display of the small device. He was relieved to see that a new AirInc server was in range of the radio equipment on board, and this new server had established a wireless connection with his equipment, and was in fact downloading the latest terminal forecast for Dulles to the display, complete with current weather radar indications and pilot reports.

"Joe?' he asked quietly on the intercom, tapping a few keys on his keyboard.

"Yeah?"

"Current Dulles information is coming to your MFD … now."

This was met by a few seconds of relative silence on the intercom (it's never quiet on a C-130 at cruise), after which Joe commented "Awesome, Slam. That's exactly what I needed. Thanks." The navigator - loadmaster turned to confirm for himself that the multi function display directly in front of Joe had a larger version of the same information his laptop showed. Joe was in fact reaching forward to press a key on his MFD to call additional information.

Slam relaxed back into his seat. It was oddly quiet on the flight deck. There had been minimal chatter between the two pilots, an unusual thing in the young relationship Slam and Joe were building with their new pilot.

"Hey Slam, why don't you port this over to the number three MFD as well?" Joe asked casually, referring to the multi-function display in the panel directly in front of Lola.

"I don't need it," she said a little too quickly.

Slam saw Joe turn to his co-pilot with an expression of genuine surprise on his face. "You don't want to fly the arrival?" he asked.

The female didn't turn to look at the coyote she was rather constantly referring to as her "commander," but she did shake her head in the negative as she replied "No, I think you should do it. You're rested, I am not."

"Okay …" Joe said slowly as his eyes flicked quickly to catch Slam's glance in his direction. "I'm perfectly happy to have you fly the arrival, Lola."

The coy-fox turned to look at the coyote to her left, repeating "No, thank you Joe. I'd prefer you take us in."

"Okay …" Joe repeated. Then he turned to look at Slam and shrugged slightly. "They're probably going to give us the Royil Two STARS." This was a hint for Slam to get the Standard Terminal Arrival information for Dulles with a focus on one of several arrival methods, the one known as Royil Two. As the navigator bent to this task he mumbled "Sure thing, Joe." Meanwhile Joe had retrieved a book of approach plates from his flight case behind Lola's seat, backup in case the electronic information was unavailable or garbled. As he flipped through pages he addressed his copilot.

"As we're lower than most of the big iron they'll probably take us direct to Linden VORTAC, and then give us one of the transitions for the approach." He looked up momentarily to see Lola nodding. As he went back to browsing his approach plates Slam cleared his throat.

"I got the Royil Two STARS for you."

"Put it on number one and number three," Joe said, turning forward to look at the MFD in front of him.

From his vantage point behind and to the right of Joe, Slam saw his MFD change from the Dulles terminal information to a graphic showing the approach information the pilot had requested of him.

"Excellent," Joe said quietly, nodding. "Beckley or Charleston, either transition will work for us. Center will probably work us lower as we get closer, and approach will probably have vectors for whatever runway they want us to land on." Slam saw him look over to his copilot once again. "Why not fly us to Linden VORTAC and I'll take the approach from there?"

The coy-fox nodded silently, staring at the black windshield in front of her. If he sat back in his chair just so Slam could see her reflection in that windshield. She looked pensive, he decided after covertly watching her for several seconds.

Joe didn't seem to be paying any attention. He was comparing his printed approach plate with the graphic information on his MFD. Lola, meanwhile, had returned her MFD to the flight management screen, with its graphic representations of instruments for attitude, airspeed, and altitude, and other related information.

Slam had busied himself with his navigation chores. Something was up with the two pilots, he could sense it. He wasn't sure what, but there seemed to be a lopsided tension in the air.

# # #

"You're so tense …"

The dim light flickered; the flames of the two small candles that were the source of this playful glow skittered in the weak air currents of the small bedroom. The condominium was otherwise dark and quiet.

The Labrador grunted into his pillow, a small frown all but hidden from the Calico that sat astride his thighs. Small feline paws worked his shoulder and neck muscles, and had been doing so for about ten minutes now. Neither wore anything save the fur they were born with …

"Illy-a Ib," Matt mumbled into his pillow.

Angie chuckled, the throaty sounds pleasing to the canid beneath her. "What did you say?"

Matt Barstock turned his head to his right, turning his muzzle clear of the oversize pillow it had been buried in.

"Billy The Kid," he repeated.

"He's making you tense?"

"He's not helping," came the growled reply. "And that damn Fred … I coulda strangled him earlier today."

"But you're all going to meet and close this deal, right? You said he finally called you back …"

Matt chuckled in spite of himself. "Yeah, he did … no doubt after a couple of vodka tonics to get his nerve up."

"You did threaten him …"

"Not seriously," Matt said quietly, sighing. "I've known Fred a long time. Not as long as Billy, but a long time. He's brokered some good deals for me ... for us. Remember that old twin Otter we used to have?"

Angie nodded. The high-wing, fixed-gear, twin-turbo-prop regional commuter aircraft had been in Matt's inventory when she had hired on. Matt, of course, used it as a freight-hauler. In its own way it was like a little brother, or maybe a red-headed third cousin, to the Hercules that was even now on its way into the nation's capitol. It leaked fluids, failed systems often, and in general caused the crews that flew it to earn their money and relate interesting stories over beers at the end of the day. It had been traded away about a year after Angie had joined Intermountain, right about the time Matt started taking an interest in her as more than an office manager …

"You don't remember that flying Volkswagen Bus?" Matt asked, rolling slightly onto his left side to turn his head farther back and look at his girlfriend.

"I remember that night Steve came back from Cheyenne with it and told you he'd never fly it again," Angie said, grinning at the memory. The young wolf had been adamant about it, waving his paws alternately at the aircraft and his boss.

"Runaway governors and turbine over-speeds will do that," Matt said, a small smile flickering on his own muzzle. "Fred was the fur that engineered the trade that brought us new engines and avionics for the Lear 28 in exchange for … that."

"I remember that meeting," Angie reminisced as her paws pushed Matt back onto his chest and continued to knead the Labrador's shoulders. It had been the first "after hours" work Matt had invited her to participate in. He had been such a gentlefur, opening doors for her and seating her at the table. It was also the first of several occasions where she had met the fox whose last name, Bostick, seemed so similar to that of her boss.

Angie smiled warmly to herself, remembering. That night she had been almost as impressed with Matt's manners as she had been with his ability to consume alcohol. She had stopped trying first to keep up with her boss and his friend before the end of their meal, and then had lost count of how many the two males had consumed between them. Even so, at the end of the evening paperwork was signed, and Matt had driven her back to the airport with no apparent impairment. A formal pawshake, employer to employee, had ended the evening at her car in the parking lot there on the east end of the airport at Port Columbus. He had been so cute, in a scruffy, middle-aged sort of way.

"… and he's been a hell of a broker all these years," Matt was saying, "but he pisses me off sometimes."

Angie's paws stopped and rested lightly on her boyfriend's middle back. "Fred's been good to you, good to your business, Matt."

"I know."

She sat there quietly as the Labrador yawned, this act followed immediately by the faint odor of beer. She didn't mind, she had drunk one herself with him earlier, and the aroma of Matt's not unpleasant breath was gone within moments.

They were silent for several seconds, each enjoying the others physical presence and not needing words for the moment. But Angie knew that this muscle tension she could still sense in him wasn't about trading or selling aircraft, or the broker that was helping get the deal done. It ran deeper than that.

"It is Billy, isn't it?"

The Labrador didn't immediately reply, choosing instead to draw a breath and hold it for a few moments before exhaling slowly into his pillow.

"You've told me all about that ancient history, Matt," she said tenderly. "Why is he still causing heartburn for you after all these years? Why are you letting what happened between you two as young furs cloud your life now?"

He began to slowly roll over beneath her, and she lifted her rump up off his legs to allow him to do that more easily. When he had settled facing her she sat back on his upper legs, her tail flicking across his toes absently. She stared into his brown eyes, her tender visage not quite hiding curiosity and concern.

Matt Barstock sighed again. He couldn't put into words why he felt the way he did about Colonel William J. Panelli, retired, known by virtually all as "Billy The Kid". A part of Matt wanted to be angry with Billy, even after all these decades, angry about the tiger's playful stunt that had devastated his career in fighters as surely as a Sidewinder up his tailpipe. He didn't really know that it was plain old jealousy that drove that anger. Deep down Matt had envied Billy from afar, admired the fighter pilot even as he himself had settled into the command seat of the big transports that helped supply his Air Force in every endeavor from mercy missions in Africa to rapid deployment in Europe to re-supply on the polar ice caps.

Matt made a lot of good friends flying transports for the USAF, furs like him that had mustered out to continue flying the big iron, spanning the globe in their personal quests for money, glory, and fun. Mostly money. Matt still counted quite a few of those furs among his friends and professional associates, grizzled veterans of the sky who were now scattered across the country from Alaska to Texas, from the Los Angeles basin to the shores of the North Atlantic. A close-knit group of aviators who were also mechanics, administrators, and survivors, many of them had started businesses like Matt had, and continued to nurse profits out of airframes that were almost as old as they were, if not older. None of them knew of the incident that had driven Matt to become a partner with them in MATS or TAC, or in the civilian endeavors they now pursued. He had never shared that burning shame with any of them.

That anger, that shame, had driven Matt to make some bad decisions after mustering out of his military career in 1977, decisions that jeopardized his legitimacy as a pilot and sometimes his very life. He learned to fly for cash and not ask what he carried, or for who. He had kept the company of dangerous furs, flown decrepit machines of questionable ownership, carried destructive cargoes, violated sovereign airspace, dodged the munitions of defenders of that airspace, and run across terrain at ridiculously low altitudes and unthinkably high airspeeds. He'd lost friends and airframes along the way, and damaged himself both mentally and physically. And those beatings had done little to quench his personal fire. Yet somehow he had kept it together long enough to eventually come to the realization (in a hospital bed after an engine fire had led to an off-field, gear-up landing on a Caribbean island) that there was no long-term future in being a rogue mercenary pilot.

It stopped being about Billy about that time, at least it stopped being personal. But the memory of Billy and that day in their T-38s focused all that Matt perceived as being unfair about the USAF and how it had treated him. He didn't hate Billy, he hated what Billy had caused to happen. But he still held Billy responsible …

So for a while he bobbed about the planet flying for more legitimate outfits. He got a type rating and flew copilot on NASA's shuttle-transporting Boeing 747 for a while, until that august agency started looking a bit deeper into his past and found some inexplicable holes in his history. Another rating later found him as the skipper of a well-worn Douglas DC-8 freighter flying for Comarko, at that time a regional freight hauler out of Boston. That lasted until the night one of the Pratt & Whitney JT3D turbojets threw some compressor blades over the north Atlantic on a flight from Shannon, Ireland. They limped into CFB Goose Bay with smoke trailing from the number two nacelle, and Matt exited the smoldering old jet as fast as he could to get to a telephone and quit, the faster to move on to supposedly greener pastures.

Matt flew a DC-6 (a four-engined piston transport of 1950s vintage) for Shell Oil around the Persian Gulf region in the closing months of the late 1970s, shuttling oil drilling crews and equipment to and from various countries until the Shah of Iran was overthrown. And of course the CIA eventually found him, which in turn found Matt "legally" flying everything from ancient DC-3s to almost-new C-130s above Central and South America, usually in the middle of the night, usually at low altitude, almost always with absolutely no knowledge of who or what was in the back. Matt made a lot more money, and that gig went well until he and the crew of his C-124 Globemaster was attacked on a remote dirt airstrip in the jungles of Guatemala late one summer evening.

Matt was the sole survivor. His loadmaster died there on the airstrip along with two mercenary guards, and his copilot, a fennec fox he knew only as "Tommy," had bled to death while airborne before Matt could get their bullet-riddled mount back to Guatemala City. The next day a NATO 7.62 millimeter slug was removed from Matt's right thigh, and three days later he stepped stiffly off a United Airlines Boeing 747 at Los Angeles International Airport and … disappeared.

And so it was that Matt came home to the States in 1984 with his scars, internal as well as external, and with the kinds of cash that illicit renegade aviation can earn. He turned that cash into Intermountain Charter in the form of another Douglas DC-6 freighter and a Rockwell Aero-Commander 680 (a twin-engined piston executive transport), and a lease on a hanger on the old cargo ramp at Port Columbus Airport in Ohio. In the spirit of his renegade days, Matt and his small outfit quickly gained a reputation for being willing to fly anything, anywhere, with little regard to what was on the manifest, if indeed any manifest was offered.

Matt busied himself building a good business in air freight and corporate charter, a business that grew so well that he started hiring pilots and ground crew to keep the aircraft flying as often as possible. As the years went by his stable of aircraft and aircrew grew, but always in the back of his mind was that memory of Billy The Kid Panelli and that fateful day between the cloud decks.

Matt still lusted after fighters.

And he'd never flown one. Ever.

And he had almost 45,000 hours of flight time. At his age, if you assumed a five day work week 50 weeks out of the year, that averaged to about five hours a day of flying.

But there had been days in Matt's career, lots of them, when he had been in the cockpit from before sunup to after sundown (or maybe it was the other way around). Those days had seemed to occur regularly in the early days at Intermountain as well. But now, twenty-some years later, he wasn't flying those crazy hours anymore. But the memory of Billy was still with him.

Matt gazed at the Calico that filled his vision. She really was becoming the center of his life. And as he pondered that notion while taking in her physical form, dimly visible though it was in the weak light of the candles on the dresser behind her, it occurred to him that he was content.

No, it was better than content. He was happy.

Business was good. He was reasonably healthy, he had good furs working for him, and he was rapidly approaching a point where he would not be able to contemplate life without this wonderful female at his side.

And Matt suddenly realized that the memory of Billy Panelli and that fateful day in 1970 need no longer be a focal point in his life. In fact, as he studied Angie's brown eyes it occurred to him that meeting Billy might be kind of … fun. Matt might not be able to tell stories of one-on-one combat, but he'd bet a fifth of good whiskey that he'd seen more of the world's underbelly than Billy had. And he could tell a pretty good story.

Matt smiled as it struck him that he wanted to hear Billy's story.

And he wanted to share his with the tiger he remembered.

And he wanted Angie to be there with him.

"You know what?" he murmured.

She leaned down to bring her ears close to his muzzle.

"What?" she whispered.

"I love you," he said, just before he licked the tip of her nose.

"Matt …"

"I want you to go with me to meet Billy and his wife. Will you do that?"

"Of course …"

"I want him to see that … that I won. That I'm happy."

The skin beneath the fur around Angie's eyes reddened slightly as a tender, small smile came to her muzzle. Something had changed in Matt's eyes just now, and she was perceptive enough to realize that it wasn't about her.

It looked good on him.

The Calico wriggled slightly as she stretched herself out to lie in her boyfriend's arms. Something had just happened, and while she wasn't quite sure what, she knew beyond doubt that it would be good for both of them.

# # #

"I really need to apologize to you," Annie Latrans said as she gently touched her glass to that being held by the hyena seated to her right.

Annie's sister Rachel and her best friend Janie shared the leather sofa that the red fox sat on, while her business partner Clark and his girlfriend Lynn occupied the matching love seat that was perpendicular to the sofa Annie occupied. All five of the furs held glasses of a red wine, the almost-empty bottle sat before them on a low coffee table.

"No you don't, Annie …" Clark began to protest.

"Yes," Annie interrupted. "I do. I want to explain why I've been bitchy the past couple of nights."

And for the next ten minutes no one interrupted the red fox as she related, briefly but concisely, her life's story insofar as it pertained to her last evening with her husband, and the events that had transpired since his departure. At various points in her dialog Clark and Lynn both displayed expressions of shock, sorrow, anger, and understanding.

And Annie kept her composure through it all, a small fact that did not go unnoticed by her sister and best friend. She got misty-eyed once, and the skin beneath the fur of her cheeks flushed a couple of times, but her voice was even and her breathing regular throughout.

"Where is he now?" was all Clark wanted to know when Annie had finished relating her story.

"Joe? He's probably in Washington DC by now."

Clark Randsburg smiled slightly. "No Annie, this dacks character you referred to."

"Dax?" Annie asked blankly, shrugging. "I don't know."

"My guess," the other red fox interjected, "is that he's in some alley or dive somewhere getting high."

A strong if brief mixture of emotions flashed across Annie's face as she turned to look at her sister, her mouth open as if to add something to that observation. The sisters stared at each other for only a moment, but it was enough for both to understand something about the other, and Annie only nodded as she rose from the sofa.

"More of the same?" she asked her family.

And that was how she felt about them. Annie had a sister, and she loved Rachel very much. But it hadn't been Rachel that had saved that very young red fox called Sharon from herself all those years ago. It had been a young cougar named Janice Lee Morgan that had picked the red fox up out of the mess that was her life back then and, with a seemingly infinite capacity to love, had set her back on track.

It hadn't been easy. The currently fashionable intervention and rehabilitation services hadn't existed back then. Sharon Winning had toughed out her withdrawals, getting straight the old fashioned way: cold turkey. The sweats, the shakes, the nausea, the fighting, the screaming nightmares when she could sleep, the days on end when she couldn't … Janie had been by her friend's side through it all. No one else had shared that with Annie, no one else knew her terrors and the misery of those dark days. There had only been one pair of paws to guide her, one pair of arms to hug and hold her.

Those arms had one day carried the soul of Sharon Annette Winning to a new hope at Crossroads Baptist Church in Falls Church, Virginia, the church in which young Janice would one day wed a young giant of a fur named Timothy Riggins. It was here that the true reconstruction of Sharon began, that the fur that everyone would come to know as Annie would be born.

And so the red fox that everyone had known as Sharon Winning had ceased to be as the chemicals slowly ebbed from her bloodstream, as her mind became clear again, as she found a new hope in the faith that her best friend introduced her to. She started referring to herself as Annette, and shortly after that as Annie, while the drug addict within her slowly died. Sharon became a forgotten fur, and a beautiful new canid, a genuine Maryland Red Fox, joined Janice in her world.

She was the maid of honor on the day that her best friend became Janice Lee Riggins, the day "Timmy" ascended temporarily to the position of being the most important male in Annie's life.

Once she felt like she could face the world again she got a job, a basic secretarial position that happened to be for a small residential construction contractor that specialized in remodeling homes. She was pleased to learn that she had an "eye" for interior design. She did so well working in the industry, learned so much, that she soon found herself accompanying her boss on job walks. George Wingate, a Jack Russell terrier who had lived his entire life along the Potomac River, was soon sending Annie out by herself to speak to customers and draft preliminary job specs.

About a year after that came the fateful day when Janie and Timmy had confided to her their plans to move to Colorado.

Annie took a deep, cleansing breath as she pondered the small wine rack in the corner of her dining room. Behind her in the family room the muted voices of her family discussed things they had just learned. And down the hallway, she knew, her little pups slept and dreamed the dreams of small pups.

If only Joe were here, she sighed to herself.

She selected a bottle of something she knew they would all enjoy, if only because of the fact that she loved it so much herself. Another red from California, a Zinfandel from a small vineyard called White Oak which she and Joe had visited several times over the years. It was in the Russian River Valley about seventy five miles north of San Francisco, but there was an airport nearby in a quaint little town called Healdsburg. A small airport, she remembered Joe commenting upon it because their Duke liked more runway than the only runway the community airport had to offer, but he had landed and departed there several times without trouble. The vineyard was only a few minutes away by rental car …

Carrying the bottle in her arms like a small pup Annie returned to her family room. Those trips seemed so far away now. She would have to talk Joe into taking her and the pups there again some day soon, maybe this spring when everything was green and fresh and new. It wouldn't be difficult to persuade him …

Conversation had changed. Lynn was relating an adventure on a ski slope somewhere and had the rapt attention of all furs. Except for Janie. The cougar winked at the fox as she approached; the corner of her smile elevating briefly even as her eyes returned to those of the young hyena.

Family.

# # #

"I don't see a problem here."

The gaunt lynx leaned back in his chair and stared out the dark window on the opposite side of his small office. He could hear a television somewhere, probably his son watching a hockey game downstairs. The middle-aged fur had no redeeming physical characteristics and wore dark slacks and an open collar white dress shirt. His eyeglasses glinted in the light of a small desk lamp, next to which was an ashtray with the butt end of a small cigar, cold. Outside, the illumination from the pawful of lights in the community of Brookmont was scattered and diffracted by the light snow that was falling. Somewhere beyond that cold glow, the lynx knew, was the Potomac, and beyond that, Langley.

And the fur on the other end of his telephone connection.

"You should," a female voice groused in his ear.

"It's a legitimate charter …"

"For the company," she hissed quickly. "You know the terms of our agreement with him. He's supposed to keep his nose clean. Flying those missions to those destinations is not, by any stretch of the imagination, clean." Her voice became a low growl. "You know what it means if he violates the terms of that agreement."

"I know," the lynx replied. He pulled open a desk drawer to his left without looking, and began rooting for something he knew he would find. "He's flown missions like this before for the same employer," he reminded the agent. "And nothing came of that. He's been clean ever since he accepted that agreement with us. He's …"

"… going to be flying undocumented charters in Central and South America, and meeting the same type of furs he used to do business with before that agreement existed!" the agent interrupted again.

The lynx put a cigar lighter, a fancy silver Zippo, on the desk before him and reached with the same free paw for the cold butt in the ash tray. Placing that between his lips, he picked up the lighter, flicked it open, and began to puff up a fire on his cigar.

"… and it'll be straight to Leavenworth for him," the agent was saying. "Do you want that to happen, after all this time?"

The lynx drew a quantity of smoke into his mouth but did not inhale it into his lungs. His doctor was already after him to quit smoking. He was momentarily distracted by a muffled "Woo Hoo!" from below. Somebody must have scored …

"Dammit George, are you even listening to me?"

The lynx grinned silently. "Yes, Maggie, I'm listening."

There was a palpable silence following this. His grin grew in anticipation.

"I hate that name and you know that, you bastard. My name is Margaret."

"Look, Margaret. I appreciate the information you've shared with me. I was aware that negotiations were ongoing between your employer and Mr. Barstock, but was not aware of the detail of those negotiations. I appreciate the concern you have for my … ah, client, but I assure you that he is not, and will not, do anything that violates his agreement. He knows the risks. He has too much at stake to take those kinds of chances."

He heard the agent at the other end of the telephone circuit take a deep breath. The grin flickered again. He'd never met Agent Harris, had no idea what she looked like, and could care less. He did know, as did most other furs that had the misfortune of having to deal with her for any length of time, that she preferred to be addressed as "Agent Harris" or, to furs she worked with regularly, "Margaret." Unfortunately, her current assignment as a liaison to the DEA had caused her to be a regular irritant in his life.

He inhaled again from his cigar, this time unconsciously filling his lungs. The lynx relaxed into his chair.

"George, you just make sure that it's as you say it is, and remains so," Agent Harris growled. "There's more than a couple of furs who would be very nervous indeed if your client became involved in his old work practices again."

"I'm aware of that, Margaret."

"You just be sure he makes the right decision."

"He's made the right decisions for the past twenty years or so, why do you think he'll change now?"

"Why did he get involved in that in the first place?" she asked rhetorically. And then, as if to answer herself, she continued in a sarcastic tone: "Money. Adventure. Females …"

The lynx smiled even more. "You say that like it's a bad thing …"

The agent's voice squeaked slightly in exasperation. "George, he moved enough product into this country to kill …"

"I'm kidding Margaret, Jesus. Settle down."

"This is nothing to laugh about."

"He was a lot younger then," the lynx commented. "He was in it for the flying, mostly, but yeah, he made a lot of money. Money we allowed him to keep provided he did what he did for us and kept his nose clean. And he's done that. Become respectable even, with a wife and pups and a nice home. He's become a model citizen, more or less. I haven't had a need to contact him in … geez, several years now. I monitor and make my annual reports, and that's all."

The lynx inhaled one last time and leaned forward to stub out the cigar, leaving it in the ash tray on his desk. Exhaling smoke into his pawset, he continued. "You don't even know that he knows what his boss is setting him up for, do you?"

"I'm certain he knows about it," the agent said defensively.

"I'm betting he doesn't. He's been flying missions since before his boss was approached by your employer. That kind of work is not something any fur would want to discuss in detail over an open telephone circuit, his boss knows better than that. So I'm betting he knows nothing of it yet. In fact, I'm betting nobody knows about that except Barstock. And when my client finds out, he'll make the right decision given all the information."

"What if he doesn't know until it's too late what he's getting into?"

The lynx sighed audibly and leaned forward to place his elbows on his desk. The fingers of the free paw briefly massaged his temples. A muffled exclamation followed by laughter floated up through the floor of his home, and he knew his son well enough to know that some furs were engaged in a good old hockey fight.

"Then I'll call him and discuss it with him."

 


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