The Man In Orange

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JULY 16

“Hey, it’s the man from down under,” Rosie sang cheerfully. “I’m sorry I don’t have any Vegemite sandwiches for you.”

Hughes smiled as he rubbed the sleep from his eyes. “It’s ok. And that’s an Australian song, by the way, but lots of people get it mixed up.”

“Oh,” she replied, slightly crestfallen. “Ah well! I hope you’re hungry, when we have guests over I tend to get a bit carried away…”

Hughes stepped into the dining room and saw the table practically groaning under the weight of bacon, eggs, yoghurt, fruit, cereals and croissants. He pointed at the plate of the baked goods. “Did you…?”

She giggled and blushed. “No, those are from the bakery in town. Go on, dig in – Lachie won’t be too far away.”

Hughes sat down, grabbed a croissant and some bacon and eggs.

“You always were a greedy bastard,” Bates called from the stairwell. He smiled as he entered the room, grabbing a banana from the table. “Did you sleep well?”

“Fine, thanks,” Hughes replied after swallowing. Bates seemed to have lightened up overnight, so Hughes decided to just go along with it. “I haven’t roughed it like that in ages.”

Bates guffawed and wrapped his arms around his wife. “If you think that’s ‘roughing it’, then you really have gone soft!”

Hughes laughed and continued to eat.

Rosie entered and poured coffee from the jug for all three of them. “And what are you to up to today? Are you being taken around by my sky chauffeur?”

Hughes was about to reply but Bates cut him off. “No flying today, just going to show Max the city.”

Hughes continued eating.

“That’s right, this is your first time in Vancouver, isn’t it, Max?”

“Yeah, it is,” he replied, grabbing more bacon.

“And what brought you over here? Work or play?”

“A bit of both.” Hughes looked to Bates, who seemed very focussed on his food all of a sudden.

“Ah,” Rosie replied, starting on her own meal.

“Hey Max,” Bates started, having a swig of his coffee. “Remember Tango Mike?”

Hughes laughed, having to put his fork down.

Rosie looked between the two men. “Tango Mike? Is that a helicopter you used to fly?”

Hughes shook his head, stopping the laughter long enough to take a drink of his own. “Not a chopper, a guy, Mike Anders. He was out almost every night in the pubs, trying to get girls to come home with him.”

“He’d get them dancing,” continued Bates, gesturing with his loaded fork, “and he was a real twinkle-toes. Hence the name.”

Rosie nodded but it was obviously an inside joke.

“Haven’t seen him in years,” said Hughes.

“Wonder if he’s still flying?”

“Last I heard he ran a dance studio,” Hughes chuckled.

#

Hughes watched the traffic out the window. “Did you have to lie to her about today?”

“Do you know how long it took for her to warm up to the idea that, maybe, not every helo pilot has a death wish?” Bates replied without taking his eyes off the road. “It wasn’t til she had been working with me for six months that she realised it was risky but good pilots knew their boundaries?”

Hughes kept staring outside.

“I know it’s hard for you to comprehend the idea of caring for the wellbeing of someone other than yourself but some people actually like to meet someone and settle down.”

Hughes’ head spun round, his face contorted with a barely-controlled rage. “Lachie, that is way out of line.”

“I’m sorry, Max,” Bates apologised hurriedly, “it’s just the whole situation is worrying me. I don’t want anything happening to Rosie or the girls.”

“Nothing will,” Hughes replied, facing out the window once more. “you aren’t involved. Besides, Charles is back in NZ.”

“But what if he has another accomplice here?”

Hughes nodded. “Good point. I doubt Davidson was it. You can’t really run a company with one pilot and one engineer.”

“The way he handled that Cub, he wasn’t just an engineer,” Bates reminded him. “Anyway, this is it.”

The car pulled up outside Vancouver General Hospital and Hughes got out.

“I’ll find a park, you go in to the reception area, I’ll be right back,” Bates called as he merged back into the traffic. Hughes decided to stand outside as the weather was fine. It seemed like an age before Bates’ distinctive figure rounded the corner.

“Where did you park, Anchorage?”

“Ha-freakin’-ha,” Bates countered, jabbing Hughes with his elbow. He nodded at the reception desk. “Have you asked?”

“No, I figured you could do the honours.”

Bates exaggerated his sigh. “Sure. Come on then.”

Hughes was struck by the cold, clinical smell all hospitals seemed to share. He was grateful he was yet to suffer a protracted stay in one, unlike some other pilots he had known. But, better this than the morgue, he reasoned.

“Good morning gentlemen, how can I help you today?” the receptionist chirped.

“Hi there, we were wondering if we could see Mrs Frances Brownstone?”

She consulted her computer. “Are you friends or family?”

“Business partners of Mister Brownstone’s,” Bates replied. Hastily he added, “the late Mister Brownstone.”

“I see,” she replied over her glasses. “Mrs Brownstone is in the intensive care unit, the Jim Pattison Pavilion. Do you need directions?”

Bates shook his head and smiled. “No thank you, I know it well. Thank you for your help.”

“Have a nice day,” Hughes added, seeing a barely-hidden smile from the receptionist.

The pair navigated the corridors and stairwells. Bates certainly knew his way around, Hughes thought. “How is it you know this place so well?”

“Pilots,” Bates stated bluntly. “Young dumb pilots.”

“Not over-the-hill oldies?” Hughes smiled.

Bates laughed shortly. “Yeah, some of them too. Here we are.”

The pair entered the ward quietly. Only two beds were occupied, one was a middle-aged man who was fast asleep, and the other was a silver-haired older woman. She looked as though she had been quite beautiful in her younger years, and Hughes saw that even now she took care of herself. She looked up as the pair approached.

“Hello,” she greeted them, a puzzled look on her face. “And who might you be?”

“I’m Lachlan Bates, and this is –“

“Bates? The helicopter pilot?”

Bates smiled broadly. “That’s right ma’am. This is my friend Max Hughes, he’s here from New Zealand.”

She looked at Hughes sternly. “Max? Or Maxwell?”

Hughes smirked. “Maxwell.”

“I thought so,” she replied, lying back on her pillow. “You know, your parents will have named you for a very good reason, and don’t you forget it.”

“I won’t,” Hughes replied.

“And what can I do for you two handsome young fellows?”

“May we sit, Mrs Brownstone?” Bates asked.

“Frances, please: don’t make me feel any older than I already do. Please do.”

“Frances, we are here about your husband…”

“More precisely,” Hughes cut in softly, “your husband’s helicopter.”

“Ah,” she replied. “’Good Healthy Fun’.”

Bates smiled. “Excuse me?”

“That’s what he called it. ‘Good Healthy Fun’, he named it after its radio number or some such nonsense. I never saw the point in it.”

Hughes nodded. “So was he fond of it?”

“Very much so,” the woman replied. “He spent so much time away from home on his joyrides I call it ‘The Other Woman’.” Her face fell. “Well, I used to.”

The pair of men looked at each other awkwardly.

“Why do you ask?”

Hughes shifted in his chair. “Was your husband ever approached to sell it?”

She closed her eyes in concentration. “I do remember I was visiting him in his office, here in the city – that’s right,” her eyes opened with a smile, “we were going out to lunch. Valentine’s Day. When I arrived two men passed me on their way out. I asked Clarence who they were, and he said they ran a helicopter business and wanted to purchase his one. But no, he did not like that idea at all.”

“He didn’t agree to sell?” Bates asked.

“Not at all. Not on that occasion, nor the next.” She smiled. “Nor the next two.”

“They visited him four times?” Hughes asked.

The lady nodded, her face beginning to show signs of weariness. “That I know of. Goodness only knows how many times they came to see him with their proposal.” She closed her eyes. “I’m sorry, gentlemen, I’m very tired –“

“No need to apologise, Frances,” Hughes replied softly as he rose from his seat. “We won’t trouble you any longer.”

“No trouble,” she smiled. “If you need to know anything else, please do visit tomorrow.”

Bates smiled warmly down at her. “We will. Thank you.”

She opened her eyes. “Lachlan. Maxwell.”

“Frances.”

“Mrs Brownstone,” Hughes replied cheekily.

“What a great lady,” Bates said as they closed the doors to the ward. “She was a real looker back in the day, she reminds me a lot of that Brit actress, Helen Something-or-other.”

“I do feel for her,” Hughes said as they walked down the stairs. “Her husband being harassed by Charles and Davidson over a helicopter. Why would they want it so bad?”

“I dunno, Max,” Bates replied. “It’s just a damn JetRanger, I mean if it was something real rare or desirable, then sure.”

Hughes nodded as they came to the main entrance. Suddenly a figure came through the door, colliding with Hughes and knocking him to the floor.

“Oh, I’m so sorry monsieur – Monsieur Hughes?”

Hughes stopped rubbing his nose and looked up at the rushing person. “Mademoiselle Bloch!”

Bates helped Hughes to his feet. “The way you came through the door you must have seen Hughesie and tried to take him out!” he laughed.

“Oh, pardon me, Monsieur Hughes! I am so sorry! I did not see you. I thought you’d -”

“It’s okay,” Hughes replied, bending over slightly. He fended off the offers of support. “Headrush. I’ll be fine.”

“Is everything okay over there folks?” came the call from behind the reception desk.

Hughes waved his arm. “Let’s go Lachie. Nice to see you,” he said to Bloch, forcing a smile. Her hesitant wave made him feel slightly better.

“Coffee, Max? Or something stronger?”

“What time is it?”

Bates checked his watch. Breitling, Hughes saw with a pang of jealousy. “Nine fifteen.”

“Booze-hound. Coffee,” Hughes replied.

“Take a seat while I get the car,” Bates said as he guided his friend to a bench nearby.

Hughes sat and watched the traffic as Bates ran off to his hidden parking space. He found himself both delighted and confused to have run into Genevieve. Despite the age difference he found himself attracted to her, not a casual feeling of “what if?” as with young Marie back home, but something more raw. His rational mind cautioned him not to get into anything with her as he would not be in Vancouver, or even the same hemisphere, for much longer. But still…three days could be enough…

“Wake up, Kiwi,” Bates called from the curb. “Hop in and I’ll take you to my favourite cafe.”

Over coffee they dissected what Frances Brownstone had told them. There was no doubt in their minds that it was Charles and Davidson who had repeatedly visited her husband in hope of re-purchasing their old machine.

“I still don’t know why it was so important,” Hughes said in frustration. “Like you said, it’s just a ’Ranger, nothing special.”

“There are a couple airplane brokers here,” Bates replied. “Hell, using the Internet could get you damn near anything you wanted.”

“Maybe we should check out this JetRanger for ourselves and see why it’s so special?”

Bates smiled. “Now that’s what I’m talking about!” He raised his mug.

#

Bates opened the door and the two men entered the hangar. Two engineers were hard at work on the 500D, but there was no other sign of life. Being a Sunday, Hughes did not really find that surprising.

“So what exactly did you tell them?” Hughes asked quietly, gesturing toward the two men hard at work on repairing the bullet holes in the otherwise flawless machine.

“Poachers.” Bates smiled. “Gimme a hand, would you?”

Hughes found himself with the EC120 in front of him, the lights overhead reflecting off its highly polished skin. The aircraft was painted a deep green, quite similar to that of the Matheson Crescos, Hughes thought to himself with a grin. He assisted Bates in manoeuvring the helicopter and its trolley out into the late morning sun. Within minutes Bates had flashed through his checks and they were airborne, headed toward the tiny village of Tatabjiyok and its airfield.

“So,” Bates began over the intercom after they left the control zone, “that concierge.”

“What about her?”

“I saw the looks you two were giving each other. I know that look. I invented that look.”

Hughes laughed shortly and continued to scan the sky around them. “Yes, she is very attractive. Yes, she is young.”

“But not too young, maybe?”

Hughes stopped his scanning for a microsecond.

“Ha! I knew it,” Bates grinned victoriously as he changed his heading slightly.

Hughes smirked out the window.

“That’s it, right?” Bates nodded out the windscreen once Hughes turned his head.

“Yeah, most likely. I came by road last time, remember?”

“Enough of the attitude, just because you’re in love doesn’t mean you can be snippy with your old pal,” Bates warned him jokingly.

The Eurocopter circled the airstrip once and flared to land in front of the CDH hangar. Nothing had changed since his previous visit, Hughes noted, apart from the missing Cub. He felt a shiver as he realised this. Bates shut down the engine and the pair stepped out of the machine.

“This one?” Bates asked as he pointed at the open hangar.

“Yeah.”

“Looks like he left in a hurry.”

“Funny that,” Hughes replied as he placed his headset on the seat and closed the door. He cautiously followed Bates into the hangar.

“This is definitely her, ’GHF,” he shouted to Bates as he approached the JetRanger. “Still looks good as new. Except for the missing parts, of course.”

Hughes examined the tailboom, which lay on trestles near the big sliding doors. “I wonder what they were doing?”

“Yeah, you’re not the only one. It’s like he was looking for something, the way all these parts have been thrown around.”

Hughes stopped his examination and straightened up. “Maybe they were.”

“Hmm?” was Bates’ absent-minded reply as he clambered into the rear cabin.

Hughes scanned the workbench and, seeing a screwdriver, picked it up and headed to the helicopter. He looked for an unopened panel and undid the fasteners. Bates emerged from inside and walked over to him. Hughes swung the panel around and inserted his arm through the narrow opening.

“What’re you –“

Hughes froze and stared Bates dead in the eye as he twisted his arm slightly, withdrew it from inside the aircraft, and handed Bates a small, heavy white package mostly covered with packing tape.

Bates stared down at the package in his slightly shaking hands. “Is this….”

Hughes nodded and began to scan the building again. “Now we know why they were so desperate to get their machine back.”

“Is this cocaine? Drug smugglers?”

Hughes shrugged his shoulders. “That’s what it looks like.”

Bates gingerly placed the package on the workbench and stepped back from it. “Holy shit…Max, I don’t know if I’m happy about this, we need to tell the Police.”

“And show them this,” Hughes replied from the far side of the building. Standing at a large, wheeled red toolbox he pointed at the large lower drawer that sat open. He opened it fully and knelt down to look at more than a dozen packages the same general shape and size as the one he found inside the helicopter’s fuselage. “That’s why Davidson was taking the aircraft to pieces. They used it as a flying mule.” He stood up and turned to his gobsmacked friend. “I’m guessing they had so much going on with their company that, when it came time to sell this machine, they just forgot some of the product inside.”

Bates nodded slowly, mesmerised by the contents of the toolbox.

“How many machines did they sell?”

“Well,” Bates began, shaking his head to jolt himself from his reverie, “they had five or so, a couple of AStars, this, and two 500 D models.” His eyes opened wide.

Hughes frowned. “Who did you buy your 500 from?”

#

As soon as the Eurocopter’s skids touched down on the trolley outside Bates’ cavernous hangar Hughes was undoing his belt and making for the 500D. He was well into removing panels and hunting frantically by the time Bates shut down the EC120 and ran over.

“Jesus, Max, calm down! The boys completely overhauled this thing when Dom delivered it to us. There was nothing there.”

Hughes sighed as he put down his screwdriver. He turned to his friend, a look of anger on his face. “One of my boys is dead, I had this guy’s mate shoot at me, I’m kind of having a hard time staying calm.”

Bates nodded and put an arm around his shoulder. “I know, buddy, I know. At least now we’ve got to the bottom of the JetRanger mystery. And we may know why Dom seemed like a different man to you than the one I knew.”

Hughes shrugged his way out of Bates’ embrace and set about replacing the panels. “Yeah. I think I need to get home soon.”

“I can understand that, but why not just relax a bit longer here? Maybe ask out that concierge friend of yours?”

Hughes paused and turned to smile. “You sure know how to hit the right buttons, Lachie.”

#

“Bonsoir monsieur, I won’t be a moment.”

“I’m happy to wait.”

Miss Bloch looked up from her computer screen. “Oh, Mister Hughes! I’m sorry, I didn’t know it was you!”

Hughes smiled, taking in her surprised grin that told him all he needed to know. “You could always make it up to me with a drink?”

She tapped away at her keyboard and pulled back a sleeve to check her watch. “I will have my evening meal break in half an hour.” Her brown eyes seemed to search his own for a reply to the unspoken question.

“I’ll meet you in the bar at eight,” Hughes replied, and was gratified to see her blush beneath her makeup. He turned and made for the elevator. As the machine carried him to his floor Hughes found himself smiling like a schoolboy after his first kiss, unable to stop. When he reached his room the phone was ringing, so he raced over to the bedside table to answer.

“Where the hell have you been, I’ve been calling on and off for the last three hours!”

Hughes sat on the bed. “Hello, Richard. Yes, I’m fine thank you.”

“Yeah yeah, righty-o,” Hardy replied. Hughes, in his mind’s eye, could see him waving his hand impatiently. “Lou said you called, it sounded pretty urgent.”

Hughes frowned and looked at the small desk calendar beside him. “That was days ago! I’ve been almost murdered since then.”

There was silence at the other end, but Hughes was sure he heard a sigh. “Some people have had to work.”

Hughes stifled a laugh. “Oh that’s right, it was my idea for me to go on holiday, wasn’t it.”

“Fair call, but we’ve been busy nonetheless. I’ve even had to help out on jobs.”

“Did you take your suit off first?”

“What was it you wanted to talk about with me so badly?”

Hughes filled him in on the previous few days’ events: Bates’ description of a hard-working yet hot-tempered Vietnam vet and his engineer, said engineer’s “dogfight” with Bates in the 500D, and their discovery of the cocaine stash in the CDH hangar.

“And I thought I was busy…so, what now?”

“Have you heard anything of Charles since I left?”

“Not really. Apparently one of the boys saw his machine come in for some gas yesterday, I was out on a job so I missed it.”

“Did Trev check all the machines?”

“Trev’s on holiday too, Max, remember? Mike’s standing in for him and said there was nothing out of the ordinary after Charles left.”

Hughes let out a deep sigh of relief.

“Some sad news, though.”

“What’s that?” Hughes asked hesitantly.

“The terminal café was broken into and robbed yesterday, that’s kinda why I called.”

Hughes felt himself go cold.

“I’m sorry, Max, I know you and Sandy were close. Her daughter wanted me to let you know about the funeral and tell you you’re very welcome.”

#

The ride down in the elevator was quite different to his one going up. Hughes was dressed to impress the attractive French-Canadian concierge but his mind was swimming with memories of Sandy Morgan. He cast his mind back to his talk with her about her husband’s experiences in Fiordland with the American “top gun”, and the shots fired – allegedly – at his machine by persons unknown.

When the elevator doors opened he was on autopilot, slowly walking out into the lobby.

“Mister Hughes?”

His head snapped up at the sound of his name, and the sight made him smile. “Bonsoir, Mademoiselle Bloch.”

She was standing at the door to the bar, dressed in a red-orange short dress with black pantyhose and clutching her handbag in front of her flat belly. Her face broke into a smile flashing her teeth, and Hughes immediately felt that feeling once more. “Are you okay?”

“Yes, I’m fine, thank you,” he replied as he approached her. He took her hand and kissed it gently before leaning in to whisper, “is it unethical for me to say I’ve wanted to do that since I arrived?”

She grinned and shook her head. “Although, it may be unethical for me to have wanted that also.”

He took her arm in his and the pair walked into the bar. A small table by the window overlooking the street awaited them. Hughes had been asked if he wanted a candle, but he didn’t want to give the wrong impression to his companion. Although, now that he had seen her again, he was cursing himself for the decision not to take her elsewhere.

“So how long have you been a pilot, Max?”

Hughes took a sip from his glass of water. “Years. Decades.”

The woman smiled at him, her teeth perfect between her scarlet lips. “I need a number. I thought pilots were meant to be good with math?”

Hughes grinned back. “I fluked it. That’s why I’m not in a blue uniform, maths and science were never my strongest points. I guess I’ve been flying for about 35 years, maybe a little more.”

“But you don’t look that old! You must have been flying when you were in diapers!”

Hughes laughed. “I’m older than I look. I’ve aged well.” He motioned for the waiter to bring the wine list. “I started flying on my 14th birthday, flew solo before my 15th. Got into helicopters a while later, and I’ve been doing it professionally since then.”

Bloch rested her chin on her hands, gazing at Hughes with barely-concealed awe. “How many hours have you flown?”

“Too many.” He drained his glass and refilled it. “And, at the same time, not enough.”

“What do you mean? It’s not just a job?”

“Christ, no. It’s my life. I can’t imagine not being able to fly, it’d be like losing a limb.”

The waiter arrived and took their order, returning with a bottle of chardonnay. After taking a sip Hughes leant toward his companion. “Why so many questions? I mean, it’s nice to have this kind of attention, but…”

“Small talk,” Bloch said as she cut him off, laying a hand on his around his wine glass.

Hughes briefly looked down at his hand and then back at her. “How long have you got tonight?”

“How long do you want me?” She spread her lips again in a mischievous grin.

#

The skyscrapers seemed much taller from his hotel room than before, Hughes thought. Interminably so, in fact. They reached to the clouds and beyond. He watched an Airbus weave through the maze of office blocks, amazed at the pilot’s skill. He watched it until it flew behind one building and disappeared. Disappointed, Hughes stepped through the window and floated over to the building. He could find no trace of the airliner but instead saw a JetRanger perched atop the tower, its highly polished skin glistening in the sun. He floated closer and could read the registration: C-FGHF. He smiled as he examined the pristine aircraft, a perfect example.

He walked to the edge of the helipad, bent over and looked down into the open window below. A tall, thin man stood by a desk, his hands clasped behind his back. He seemed to be having a discussion with a shadowy figure inside the office, but Hughes couldn’t make out what was being said. The dark figure walked toward him. The older tall man backed away, shaking his head and waving his hands before him. The speech was all gibberish to Hughes, and he tried to lean in more to try and understand what was being said.

The shadowy person was gesturing, a threatening tone in its voice. The man was inching further and further toward the window’s edge.

“Be careful, sir,” Hughes said to the man, but both seemed to ignore him. Soon the man was against the guard rail of the small balcony, and the shadowy figure continued to approach. It lifted the telephone from the man’s desk and began to dial.

The man sobbed, pleading with the shadow, which only shook its head and continued to dial. The man cried out and pulled himself over the rail.

Hughes reached out to stop him, but it was too late – the man was falling, falling so slowly toward the crowded streets below. His body hit the ground and shattered like ice, scattering across the thoroughfare under the cars racing by. Hughes stared, shocked at what had happened. Suddenly he heard the JetRanger above spool up and fly away into the distance. He turned his gaze from the disappearing machine, which seemed to be accompanied by laughter, and back into the office.

The shadow was moving towards him. “You know too much,” it chanted in a thousand voices.

“You killed him,” Hughes accused, feeling slightly stupid for stating what was so blatantly obvious to all the people in the room.

The shadow approached and as it emerged from the office the sunlight revealed its face.

Hughes stared, shocked. “No,” he panted as he shook his head. “No!”

He sat up in the bed and turned to see Genevieve, still sleeping, beside him. Her face was impassive, her features softened even further in slumber. His head swimming, he stumbled to the bathroom and flicked on the light to wake himself properly. He closed the door and ran a cold shower, immediately stepping under the needles of water. He rubbed his face and stood still under the stream, trying to wash away the dream.

“Max?”

He turned to see Genevieve rubbing her eyes at the door, and turned the handle to shut off the water. “I’m sorry I woke you.”

She looked him up and down, the mischievous grin on her face. “I’m not.”

He smirked and stepped out of the shower cubicle. He reached for a towel from the rail beside him but she grabbed it instead. She flung the cloth around his neck and pulled his head down to kiss him, and he willingly obliged, all thoughts of his dream disappearing.


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