The Man In Orange

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JULY 15

Tall, forested hills lined the road, and Hughes was thankful he had to drive on the right as, to his left, there was a drop of more than fifty feet to a fast-flowing river. The skies had begun to clear once more, and he even had to put on his sunglasses for this trip. It was nearly 11am when he first saw a blue sign with a white aeroplane inside. Another sign proclaimed the name of the nearby town to be Tatabjiyok.

The airstrip seemed deserted. A battered Dodge Ram sat behind a small hangar, a Piper Cub was parked alongside, and a Beaver floatplane was resting nearby on its beaching gear with a tarp draped over its engine cowl. Hughes saw a sign reading CDH on the hangar and parked next to the Ram. He could hear some tool sounds in the hangar and made his way in.

“Hello?” He called as he entered through the back door. The sounds continued, and Hughes walked toward the desiccated JetRanger in the middle of the building. A figure in dirty white overalls was in the rear cabin, attending to some part of the aircraft. Hughes admired the paint scheme, it looked like the original Bell factory scheme of two-tone reds on white. He grabbed out a pen and, using his hand as a pad, wrote down the registration for later.

“Can I help you?”

Hughes was startled by the voice behind him. He turned to see the other man facing him, a large socket wrench in his hand. “Yes, my name’s Max Hughes, I was wondering if Mister Charles was around at all?”

The black-haired man looked him up and down as he stepped out of the aircraft’s cabin. “Who are you again?”

“Hughes,” he replied, extending his hand, “Max Hughes.”

Ignoring his hand, the man went on. “He isn’t here, Mister Hughes. He’s overseas, scouting new business opportunities.”

Hughes withdrew his hand but was surprised that the man was so well-spoken despite his dishevelled appearance. “Ah, that’s disappointing. I wanted to discuss that with him.”

“Were you?”

“Yes,” Hughes nodded in reply. He gestured toward the white and red Bell. “Is this his machine?”

“Ours, pride of the CDH fleet,” the man replied with a hint of a smile.

Hughes looked around. “And where is the rest of the fleet?”

The man impatiently shifted on his feet. “In Mister Charles’ absence, is there anything I can do to help?”

“Well I just wanted to know about Mister Charles’ background, his credentials, any military service.”

The man folded his arms. “Oh?”

Hughes began to feel uneasy. “And your name is?”

“I’m his partner, the D in CDH. John Davidson.”

Hughes smiled and began to walk around the machine. “How long have you two known each other, John?”

“For what it’s worth I was his crew chief in the Army –“

“Vietnam?” Hughes asked.

“- so we go back quite a ways,” Davidson replied, smoothly ignoring Hughes’ question and following him. “After Vancouver Rotorways was bought out by Lachlan Bates we struck out on our own.”

“And you’ve been going strong ever since?”

Davidson frowned. “We survive. Look, Mister Hughes, you may have seen I’m rather busy. Was there anything in particular you wanted to know?”

Hughes turned to face Davidson. “How long until Mister Charles comes back?”

“He isn’t. Once this bird’s good to go again we’re shipping it over.”

“Ah. Well, in that case,” Hughes extended his hand again, and this time Davidson took it, “I wish you the best and I hope we see each other again soon.”

“Thanks,” Davidson replied.

Hughes took a final backward glance at the JetRanger and left the hangar, shutting the door behind him. He felt distinctly uneasy. Charles had given the impression he was a pilot looking for work, but Davidson seemed to think his mission was a joint venture. Hughes got into the car and pulled away from the airstrip. Once he rounded a corner and could no longer see the hangars he found his flip-top phone and dialled Bates’ number.

“Hello Rosie, I – yes, this is Max. I – I’m fine, thank-you. Is Mister Bates around at all? He is? Thank-you.”

“Hello?”

“Lachie, it’s me.”

“Max! Good morning! Did you have any luck?”

“Charles wasn’t there but his off-sider was. John Davidson.”

“John-boy? Oh yeah, I forgot to mention that. Old army buddies. He was a grease-monkey here and a part-time pilot. Nice guy.”

“Yeah, he’s a swell fellow,” Hughes replied sarcastically, checking his mirrors. “He said Charles is in New Zealand checking out ’business opportunities” for the pair of them. He was working on a JetRanger, C-FGHF.” Hughes laid the phone beside him and turned on the SPEAKER function. There was a heavy pause. “Lachie?”

“That was the rego of Dom’s machine.”

“Was it?”

“Yeah, was. He sold ’GHF ten years ago.”

Hughes’ face changed. “Who did they sell it to?”

“Why does –“

“Lachie, Davidson has that machine in his hangar. He said it was the pride of their fleet; either they bought it back, or –“

Hughes braked hard as he was overcome by a tremendous roar and a shadow passed overhead. He looked out the windscreen to see a Piper Super Cub zoom skyward.

“Max! What was that?”

“Jesus! Some nut just buzzed me in a Cub!”

The little white-and-red plane wheeled around in a wingover, and dived down at Hughes’ car. Immediately he stepped on the accelerator. “Lachie, something’s not right with these guys. You’ve got to come out here!”

The plane’s wheels missed the Chrysler’s roof by inches and Hughes struggled to remain in control of the car. He looked in the rear-view mirror to see the Cub bank around for another pass. The machine was low, so low that Hughes feared the aircraft would ram him.

“Calm down Max, what’s going on?”

The Cub roared overhead once more and banked to the left, out of sight behind a bluff.

“Lachie, get in a machine and get your arse out here! I think Davidson’s trying to knock me off the road.” His eyes opened wide when he remembered a patch of gravel road before the highway back to Vancouver. “Follow the road out to Tatabjiyok, look for a red Chrysler being harassed by a Piper Cub.”

Suddenly the Cub reappeared, rounding the bend ahead. The pilot dipped his nose and was driving along the gravel road like a car and kicking up a trail of dust. Just when it seemed the prop would chop into the Chrysler’s hood the aircraft pulled up and over, but the damage was done - the dust was so thick Hughes’ visibility was nil. He struggled to remain in his lane but his vehicle drifted off the side of the road. The car rumbled over the edge and down the bank, catching a rock to cause it to roll twice before coming to a stop.

Hughes opened his eyes and readjusted to his surroundings: upside-down and with rapids roaring at his ear. He struggled out of his seatbelt and kicked at the passenger door to get out. He scrambled away from the wreck and leaned on a rock, fearful of a fire. A distant sound reminded him of the danger. He looked skyward to scan for the Cub, but could see nothing of it. He squinted into the sun, but nothing. He blinked away the after-image and looked up at the road.

“Stay away from the road,” he cautioned himself quietly. He patted himself down in search of his cellphone and, remembering where it was, decided to risk grabbing it out. He walked briskly to the overturned vehicle and fumbled around inside. He felt the device and pulled it out, only to see that it was only the keypad portion. He cursed his luck.

He withdrew carefully and stretched. Something glinted back up the valley. He made for his rock and froze. The drone of the Cub’s Lycoming engine reached Hughes’ ears, and he looked to his left. Once more the Cub was bearing down on him. He scrambled to run toward the large rock, reaching it just as the aircraft sailed overhead. He heard the crash of glass, and looked back to the car. It was aflame.

“What the hell?!” Hughes frowned. He saw the Cub coming back and watched as a bottle was dropped from its cockpit, fire licking the neck. The bottle smashed on the car and fire quickly spread across the chassis. “He’s firebombing me!”

He turned to see the car well alight, and reassessed his position. He decided against making for the road above and instead decided to follow the river out. After checking to see that the Cub had vanished, he inched his way past the car and began to walk.

Suddenly he heard the Cub behind, and broke into a sprint. The aircraft became louder and louder until it was almost on top of him. Hughes tripped on a rock and fell, and a large metal hammer thumped into the riverbed beside him. “Holy shit, this guy means business!” He scrambled to his feet and dove into the water.

The Cub wheeled around once more, diving from altitude until it was mere inches above the water’s surface. The wheels skimmed the water and Hughes took in a deep breath before diving under. He looked up to see the murky outline of the taildragger pass overhead. He popped back up to see the aircraft climb for another pass.

“What next?!” Hughes shook his head. But the aircraft didn’t dive back down, instead it began to circle him about a hundred feet up. Hughes could clearly see the pilot now. No helmet, black hair, white overalls….it was Davidson. And he did not seem happy to see Hughes survive.

Suddenly water spouted next to him, and Hughes looked about himself in confusion as the water thwicked upward. He glanced up to see a flash from the cockpit and ducked under again. ’Now he shoots?’

The bullets kept thudding into the water around him and suddenly stopped. Hughes guessed that Davidson either thought he had got Hughes, or that he was merely out of bullets. He cautiously, slowly lifted his head out of the water. Davidson had lowered the flaps and was slowing, so Hughes guessed he was about to land somewhere nearby. The riverbed was far too narrow for anything except a helicopter so, Hughes thought, he would land on the road above.

Just then Hughes heard a familiar rasping, buzzing sound. The Cub was out of sight, and he turned to see a red Hughes 500D tear around the river bend, its rotor disc less than a foot from the river. The long-legged helicopter sped over Hughes’ head and wheeled about, its tail dipping to slow it for landing. The aircraft settled on the rocky riverbed and the pilot’s door opened.

“What the hell? I leave you alone for one day!” Bates’ hands were on his hips. He unplugged his helmet and ran to the river.

Hughes clambered ashore, panting. “We have to go. Now.”

Bates took off his jacket and draped it around Hughes’ shoulders. “What on earth happened?”

“The car….” Hughes pointed at the vehicle, a column of black smoke rising.

Bates let out a whistle. “Now that is comprehensive, my friend. I hope you had insurance.”

Hughes shook his head and smiled. “It wasn’t all my fault. He’ll be back.”

“Who?” Bates guided Hughes back to the chopper.

“Your nice Mister Davidson,” Hughes replied as he fastened his belt. “He was in a Cub, and –“

Both men cringed as a shot rang out and pebbles flew up near the skids. They looked up to see the wing of the Piper hanging over the edge of the road, its bedraggled pilot aiming a pistol. He fired again, the shot piercing the 500D’s cockpit bubble.

“See? Let’s go!” Hughes pleaded.

Bates nodded, ran around to his side and lifted off, not even doing up his belt. They felt another round slam into the machine somewhere. Bates turned to his passenger. “What the hell did you do to that guy?”

“Nothing. Just curiosity,” Hughes replied, adjusting a headset he retrieved from behind.

“Curiosity killed the cat,” Bates reminded him. “And what about the cat’s old flying buddy?”

“You’re a clever guy, Lachie,” Hughes remarked, leaning over to check the fuel level. “You can look after yourself.”

“And I was having such a good week until you came along…”

The helicopter raced along about fifty feet above the twisting river, Bates’ hands masterfully manipulating the cyclic and collective controls to follow each bend. Hughes reminded himself to congratulate him on his skill later.

With a flash of red and white the Cub passed less than twenty feet overhead.

“Jesus H. Christ, where’d this guy come from?” Bates cursed.

The fixed-wing aircraft climbed away, and Hughes followed it with his eyes. The machine turned and passed behind them.

“Where’s he gone?” Bates asked, looking to the mirror mounted on the landing skid.

“Somewhere behind,” Hughes replied, careful not to touch the flight controls on his side.

“I think I see him,” confirmed Bates.

“You sure got here fast,” Hughes said with a smile.

Bates nodded. “It sounded pretty serious. Whoa!”

Hughes turned to see the Cub flying in close formation, the wingtip almost touching Bates’ door. The little plane backed away and the pair could see Davidson, his eyes darting between the way ahead, his instruments, and his quarry.

“I thought you said he was only a part-time pilot?” Hughes said to Bates.

“Obviously he’s been practicing,” Bates snapped back.

Hughes watched as Davidson shifted his left hand from the throttle to the stick, his right hand sinking out of sight. “Lachie, move.”

“What?” Bates didn’t shift his vision from the Cub.

“He has a gun, remember?”

As if on cue, Davidson raised his pistol and fired. Hughes lifted the collective control stick, surprising Bates and causing the aircraft to jump up like a startled cricket. The bullet thumped into the landing skid.

“What the hell, Max?!” Bates shouted, “This is my airplane! I have god-damn control!”

“Are you sure?” Hughes replied, raising both hands clear.

The Cub pulled alongside once more.

“Jeez he’s good,” Bates said with a touch of awe.

“He is,” Hughes replied, “but he is also trying to kill us.”

You, he’s trying to kill you.”

The Cub’s cockpit flashed and another bullet hit the aircraft, this time puncturing Bates’ window.

“Okay, that’s enough of that,” Bates breathed. He slid the 500D up and over the Cub so that it was above the fabric-covered wing of the light aircraft, and lowered the collective. With a thump Hughes felt through his seat the skids hit the wing of the little plane. Again Bates lifted the collective and lowered it. He then slid back to sign to the other pilot to land.

“That was smooth.” Now it was Hughes’ turn to be in awe. “Where’d you learn that?”

“A TV movie from a while back,” Bates replied.

Both men shook in their seats from a sudden sideways impact – Davidson was ramming them with his wingtip.

“The guy’s crazy! If he’s not careful his wing’ll go into the rotor!”

“When did you get the impression this man was careful?” Hughes asked rhetorically. “Was it when he forced me off the road? Or when he fired at us with a handgun?”

“Fair call,” Bates replied. The aircraft shuddered again. Bates started out at Davidson. “So you wanna play? Let’s play!”

The 500 tilted down and the helicopter skimmed the river. Hughes tightened his straps and watched the path ahead. The Cub vanished out of sight. “Where’s he gone?”

Bates quickly pointed. “Wires. Close to the highway this place is strung with them. He’s confident, but not that confident, from the looks of things.”

They passed under some high tension cables, Hughes ducking involuntarily. As a younger pilot he had done his fair share of wire dodging. He looked out to his right. “Lachie.”

“Not now, man.”

“Lachie!”

“If you hadn’t noticed I’m a little –“

The Cub was sitting right next to Hughes, and he didn’t know how long it had been there. Davidson levelled his pistol again.

“SHIT! Get us the hell out of here!”

“Wires, Max!” Bates reminded him.

“Fuck the wires, the bastard’s gonna shoot me!”

Bates looked at Davidson, then ahead, then back at Davidson. He climbed slightly, and the Cub followed. A slight decrease in altitude, and the other machine stuck to him like glue.

“Hang on, Max.”

Hughes grasped the hand-hold strap on the door frame. He could see Davidson level the pistol at him but suddenly the floor rose to meet Hughes, his stomach with it, and the Cub disappeared from sight.

Bates stood on the left pedal to spin the helicopter round just in time for the pair to watch the Cub fly straight into a set of wires. Its fabric covering weakened by Bates’ repeated attacks, the right wing crumpled and the flaming aircraft plunged into the riverbed. Hughes had to turn away.

“You alright there, partner?” Bates asked, concern on his face.

Hughes nodded, rubbing his cheeks to bring some colour back. “Let’s get out of here.”

#

“One more, please,” Hughes said to the bartender, opening his wallet.

“I’ll get this round,” Bates said as he pushed his friend’s money away. He drained his glass and put it down. “Two Canadian Rockies.”

The young female bartender smiled and whisked away the empties. Bates turned to his friend. “So you think they stole back their old ’Ranger?”

Hughes nodded. “You should’ve seen the place. Run-down shack in the middle of nowhere, tools and parts everywhere, not exactly what I’d call a polished operation. Thanks,” he said to the bartender as she handed him his drink. “He must’ve seen me note down the rego.”

Bates nodded his thanks as she placed his drink in front of him. “Maybe he called Dominic, told him you were snooping around, and….” He mimed a pistol.

“Maybe. Question is, where’s the owner?”

“Of the ’Ranger?” Bates took a sip of his drink, nodded his approval, and took a longer pull. From what I remember it was some property developer, wealthy guy.”

“A pilot?”

Bates shook his head. “Not when he bought it, anyway. He just wanted an aerial taxi, commuting sort of thing.” He drained his glass again. “Like I said, ’GHF came in for a service soon after Dom left. Last time I saw it would’ve been, ooh, maybe eight months ago.”

“Did you meet the owner?”

“Nah, it just stopped by for fuel. I saw it through the hangar, I was getting ready for a test flight. We’d just got the EC120 then.”

Hughes nodded, deep in thought. He took a drink. “So who’s –“

Bates smiled, holding up a piece of paper. “It’s in the name of the Clarence Brownstone Trust. I had Mrs Bates print this out while the medicos were giving you the once-over.”

Hughes smiled back, taking the paper. “And where might one find Mister Brownstone, I wonder?”

“You may find this difficult,” came a voice behind them. Both men turned. “Monsieur Brownstone passed away earlier this year.”

Hughes smiled. “Lachlan Bates, Genevieve Bloch, concierge at this fine establishment.”

After Bates shook her hand Bloch continued, “He often stayed whilst in Vancouver on business. It was very sad to hear of his passing.”

Hughes nodded. “I can imagine. How long did you know him, Mademoiselle Bloch?”

She blushed, Hughes saw. “He was a regular guest even prior to my tenure as concierge,” she replied. Seeing Hughes’ expression she added, “Three years.”

“Ah,” Bates replied. Hughes was pleased to see that the one-time womanizer showed no interest in their companion at all.

“Did I hear you mention a helicopter?”

Hughes nodded. “Yes, we were interested in buying his machine.”

“Are you a pilot, Monsieur Hughes?” Her eyes seemed to grow.

“I am.”

“We both are,” Bates added, talking mainly to his empty glass.

“If you don’t mind my asking,” Hughes began, ignoring Bates, “how did Mister Brownstone die?”

Bloch seemed a little affronted, but explained anyway. “It was very, very sad. For the last few years he had been battling a problem with alcohol. He was a very private man, no-one apart from his wife really knew. One night he was drinking very heavily at his office downtown and, well,” she trailed off, lowering her eyes to the floor.

“Did he jump?” Hughes prompted.

“Madame Brownstone was crushed, she had a heart attack when she found out. She is still in hospital.”

“Oh, wow,” Bates replied, his own eyes wide and clearly shocked by the story. “I remember when he opened that tower back in ’88…his office was –“

“Right at the top,” Bloch completed for him. She dabbed at her eyes with a pristine white handkerchief and smiled at the two men. “At least he did not suffer.”

“Thank God for small mercies,” Hughes said.

She nodded and looked at her watch. “Forgive me, messieurs, but I must depart.” She turned and made off out of the bar.

“Nice girl,” Bates said as he raised and pointed to his glass. “Sad story, too.”

“Yeah.” Hughes finished his glass. “Maybe we should visit Mrs Clarence Brownstone.”

Bates turned. “You’re kidding, right? She lost her husband to suicide less than a year ago and had a goddamn heart attack over it…and you want to barge in and interrogate her about her husband’s chopper?” He shook his head and accepted his refilled glass. “You sure have brass ones, Max.”

“Suicide?”

Bates lowered his glass. “That’s what the lovely lady told us.” He set down the glass and looked at Hughes. “Why? What are you thinking?”

Hughes leaned in and spoke softly once the bartender had walked away. “Davidson was willing to kill both of us because I’d seen that chopper. His boss killed one of my guys just because we didn’t take him on board. Don’t you think it’s just a little too convenient that Brownstone dies and suddenly his helicopter appears at Tatabjiyok?”

Bates shook his head and laughed. “C’mon Max. What evidence do you have?”

“Nothing. Until we visit Mrs Brownstone.”

Bates’ shoulders dropped and he took another drink. He sat silent for a few seconds and turned to Hughes. “Did you say he killed one of your guys?”

Hughes nodded. “Young guy. An instructor. After Charles came to visit the young bloke left in an R22 fresh out of annual. I did the checkflight myself. That night he hadn’t arrived at base. Next day, we find him on a hillside in a forest.”

“Shit,” Bates breathed. “Sabotage?”

“The report says it was mechanical failure coupled with insufficient fuel.”

“You’d better watch yourself, Max. He sounds like he’s definitely got a lockwire loose in that head of his.”

“Watch myself? Or what?” He drank. “Today alone I’ve been run off the road, firebombed, shot at, rammed…what else could possibly go wrong?”

Bates laughed. “Drink up, Hughesie. Don’t want to be late for dinner.”

“It’s a hotel restaurant – guests can eat when they like.” He drained his drink anyway.

“No, tonight you’re dining in true style – at Casa de Bates!” He clapped his old pal on the shoulder. “Mrs Bates is making something special for our Kiwi friend.”

Hughes smiled. “Must I? You know I don’t like social settings.”

“Hell, you seemed to survive talking to that pretty young concierge before.”

Hughes stood and nodded. “If my arm’s being twisted –“

“Which it is.”

“- then obviously I have no choice.” He stretched out his arm. “Lead on.”

#

“Rosie, thank you very much,” said Hughes as he shuffled his chair back from the table. The remains of a lamb roast sat on the table before him. Mrs Bates beamed while her husband grabbed a couple of beers from their well-stocked fridge. “Best lamb I’ve had this side of the Cook’s Corner Bistro.”

“I do hope that’s a compliment,” Lachlan Bates chimed in from the kitchen, “I’d hate to have to kick your ass so soon after dinner.”

Rosie tittered and gathered the plates. “Thank you, Max, I do enjoy serving guests. Even if they feel obliged by my great lug of a husband.”

“The great lug is currently brandishing beer bottles, you don’t want them to meet your cranium at speed,” Bates warned her with a wink. She replied with a peck on the cheek and Hughes looked away. “Sorry my man,” Bates apologised, offering Hughes an open beer.

Hughes shrugged and raised his bottle. “Friends.”

“Survival,” Bates countered.

“What?”

“Nothing, dear,” Bates called back to the kitchen. He winked at Hughes and took a long pull of the drink. “Ah, that’s the spot. Come join me in the den,” he suggested, motioning Hughes to follow.

The den was an expansive room on the top storey of their generously-proportioned suburban home. One wall was lined with a bookshelf, crammed with aviation books, magazines and models, another with photographs and posters. The last was a wide window looking out over the sea with a desk facing out.

“Very nice,” Hughes said with genuine admiration, taking a seat on a plush armchair. “That said, I don’t see the point in having a house in town.”

Bates raised his eyebrows.

“There’s nowhere to park the chopper,” Hughes replied earnestly.

Bates guffawed, clinking his beer against Hughes’, and put his feet up. “I like to leave work at work, thank you.”

“Speaking of work, I don’t know if it’s irony or what,” Hughes smiled wickedly, “but do you not find it funny that you came to my rescue in a 500?”

“So, this Brownstone business,” Bates said, ignoring him completely, “how do you want to approach it?”

“Mrs Brownstone may know how our boys ended up with the ’Ranger. At least, I’m hoping she can shed some light on it.”

Bates nodded, taking a drink and looking out the window. The night was clear and the lights of Vancouver glittered in the near distance. “It doesn’t seem real.”

“And this morning? Did that seem real?”

Bates turned to face him. “Come on, Max. Just remember I have Rosie to think about, and the girls.”

Hughes remembered seeing a family portrait in the entrance hall. Two beautiful twenty-somethings flanked the adoring couple. He felt ashamed for focussing so much on his own issues. “I know.”

“I can’t afford for anything to happen.”

“I know.”

“I hope so, Max.” Bates stood and walked to the window. “I really do. From what I’ve heard so far, it’s like you and Charles are bound to meet again and the outcome won’t be good.”

Hughes drank and nodded.

“If you’re right then not only is one of Vancouver’s leading property men dead thanks to these guys, but also your boy in the Robinson. And, indirectly, old lady Brownstone’s knocking on death’s door.” He turned, and Hughes couldn’t interpret the look on his face. “Just be careful, for God’s sake, Max.”

Hughes smiled but Bates remained impassive. He walked over and took Hughes’ empty bottle.

“Visiting hours at the hospital are ten til two thirty. Rosie normally has breakfast ready by eight.” He left the room and shut the door. Hughes looked around and saw a camp stretcher folded in a corner.


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