The Man In Orange

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JULY 12

The main wheels of the 767 cushioned its “landing” – Hughes felt it more of a controlled crash – on the runway at Vancouver. Before long the big twinjet was parked at its gate and the air-bridge met the fuselage around the main door. One of the flight attendants opened the door with practiced ease and said a warm farewell to each passenger as they disembarked.

Hughes remained in his seat until most had left; the mad rush off the plane was something he could never understand. This time he lingered even longer, and it took one of the red blazer-wearing cabin crew to tap his shoulder to prise him from his seat.

“Excuse me, sir?” Her chestnut hair was pinned up beneath her chic cap, and her grey-green eyes didn’t betray the impatience that was surely bubbling away under the surface. “We have arrived and you are free to disembark.” She smiled with only a hint of wariness.

“Hmm?” Hughes looked up and felt himself blush slightly at the sight of the woman. Had he been ten years younger he would have made a sly compliment to her, but he thought better of it and instead got out of his seat. “I’m sorry, my mind was somewhere else.”

She smiled – patronisingly? – and aske “Did you enjoy your flight?”

Hughes nodded as he reached for the overhead locker. “Yes, but next time you see the captain could you suggest he watch his flare?” He wrestled his carry-on bag down and hefted it over his shoulder. “His sink rate was a tad high; I thought for a second we were going to see the mains through the wing.”

The attendant stared blankly. “Excuse me?”

“Never mind,” Hughes replied with a wave as he left the aircraft. “Have a good one!”

Fortunately the gate was quite close to baggage claim and, having found his case, made his way to the rental car booths only to find that the company he’d booked through had no-one on duty. With a suppressed sigh he began his hunt for coffee and food. He spotted a franchise coffee shop and was pleased to see no queue for service.

“Good afternoon sir, what can I get you?” asked the bright-eyed barista – probably paying his way through university, Hughes thought.

“Can I get a long black, and one of those club sandwiches thanks,” replied Hughes, still scanning the menu as he knew one coffee wouldn’t be enough. He paid for the current course and found a window-side seat overlooking the crisscrossed runways of Canada’s western gateway. The gleaming white airliners were constantly taking off and landing, taxiing to and fro. Being a “Captain” hadn’t appealed to Hughes, the job was far too much sitting around and doing only what the computer suggested. Perhaps fifty years ago, or longer, when piloting an airliner meant physical pilotage, a direct mechanical link between the pilot’s hands on the yoke and the control surfaces. He watched another Boeing or Airbus – they all seemed alike to Hughes – enter the myriad of taxiways.

“Long black and club?”

Hughes started in his seat and turned to see the young barista at his side. “Yes, that’s me, thanks.”

“No problem,” the younger man replied, raising an eyebrow at Hughes’ jumpiness as he turned and walked away.

Hughes sipped at his coffee as his mind began to focus on his trip. Hardy had encouraged his Canadian getaway, not knowing why his overworked friend would choose to visit The Great White North. Hughes decided to investigate Francois Charles, the hot-headed JetRanger pilot who had seemed irrationally upset with having his machine and services turned down. A man with so much experience but only a battered machine to his name, having to resort to (in essence) door-knocking in order to find a job? A man of Charles’ experience should have no trouble finding a job at any of the charter firms around the country. Even the training schools would love to have a man like him on board, Hughes mused.

He could feel the coffee course through his system but knew it was only temporary, he would have to get to the hotel quick or else risk falling asleep at the airport. He glanced over his shoulder to see the rental car booth still empty. He returned to his coffee, and then took a bite of the sandwich. He remembered the day Charles had appeared at Tangikea, his patchwork machine parked out front. It would be interesting to know the background behind the JetRanger, it seemed like a real “bitser” – parts of several machines combined to create one. And the state of it – no career pilot would allow his aircraft to remain in that condition. Hughes, with his almost obsessive-compulsive cleaning schedule, was far from alone in taking great care of his machine. But the state of Charles’ helicopter left much to be desired.

He looked over his shoulder again and saw the rental car booth attendant had returned. He downed the rest of his coffee and stuffed his sandwich in his mouth, hefted his bags and made for the counter.

“Good morning sir,” the attendant said.

“Hi there,” Hughes replied, putting down his case and swallowing the sandwich. “My name is Hughes, M H.”

“Ah yes, from New Zealand, I see?” The attendant’s voice conveyed no interest.

“That’s me.”

“This is for you,” he handed over the key, “and if you could please sign here and here. Did you want to take out the vehicle insurance for the duration of your rental?”

Hughes read the form and signed. “No, but thanks anyway.” He was too busy checking the form to see the attendant shake his head.

“Thank you, Mister Hughes,” the attendant droned as he checked the forms. “If you walk out the main doors and head left you will see our parking lot. Enjoy your vehicle.”

“Thanks,” Hughes replied with a brief smile. He saw no point in humouring such a clearly uninterested staffer and instead made straight for the company’s lot.

He checked the number on the key fob and found the car it matched, a late model red Chrysler sedan. He shook his head at himself when he attempted to get in through the passenger’s side door but soon found the right way to the driver’s controls.

He found it much less tricky to reach his accommodation as the hotel was well-signposted. The GPS the inside the rental car also helped Hughes, this being his first visit to Canada. He had been to the US several times, mostly in regard to purchasing new helicopters. He supposed that with the greater use (and spares/service support) of the French Eurocopters, and the opening up of the former Soviet Union’s bulk of veteran machines, there would be no more buying trips to the States.

“Good day sir,” spoke the valet as he opened the Chrysler’s driver-side door.

“Oh, hi,” Hughes replied, taken aback by the prompt service. He’d been driving almost on autopilot, recalling his self-appointed “mission” to the country.

“Claude will help you with your luggage,” the tall, uniformed man continued, “would you like your vehicle parked?”

Hughes nodded as he stepped out onto the driveway, an ornate awning above. “Yes thanks, I won’t need it again today.”

“Jet lag, sir?” the valet smiled.

Hughes chuckled. “Something like that. My first long-haul flight in several years.”

The valet, his shining nametag proclaiming “FRANCIS” to the world, nodded compassionately and took the offered keychain. “Please follow Claude and he will introduce you to the concierge, Mister..?”

“Hughes,” he replied, extending his hand which the Canadian took warmly. “Max Hughes.”

“Well Max, I hope you enjoy your stay.”

“Thank-you, and please take care of the car – I didn’t take out the insurance.”

Francis laughed and smoothly pulled away to the unseen garage. Claude, another immaculately-presented man with short blonde hair, stood with Hughes’ luggage on a small cart. “Mister Hughes? Please follow me.”

Hughes followed him into the lobby, and he felt as though he was transported back a hundred years. Wood-grain panelling covered the walls, ornate furniture spread throughout, and oils of local landscapes were tastefully arranged along the walls. The computer screens for the reception staff seemed to be cunningly hidden in their counters, and the concierge had her own dedicated lectern. She smiled from behind her chestnut fringe. Hughes smiled back.

“Bienvenue and welcome to Vancouver,” she spoke with a strong French accent. “How can I help you today, sir?”

“Maxwell Hughes, checking in,” he replied. As she typed away Hughes studied her delicate features. Her eyes, a deep chestnut brown like her hair, seemed to sparkle, and the minimal amount of makeup he could detect only accentuated her natural beauty. He felt himself blush as she looked up.

“M H Hughes?” As he nodded, she passed a slip of paper and a Parker pen monogrammed with the hotel logo. “Would you be kind enough to fill this out, please?”

“With pleasure,” Hughes replied with a smile, and before he entered his details he was sure he saw her blush also. Name, address, contact number, rental car company, etc., etc. Once he’d completed the paperwork he passed the young woman the slip and her pen, and saw a name badge.

“That’s yours,” she replied, pushing back the pen, “with our compliments.”

Hughes detected something behind her smile. “Many thanks, Genevieve.”

She nodded and, with a smile, handed over a key card. “Room 912. Claude will take you.”

“Thank-you,” Hughes replied with a smile of his own. “See you later on, perhaps.”

Before she could reply Hughes was following Claude to the elevator bank, and before he knew it they were out of the elevator and onto the ninth floor. Once he’d opened the door Hughes stood back so that Claude could place his bags near the bed and, tip in hand, retreated, closing the door quietly behind him.

Hughes admired the view through the large, clear windows overlooking English Bay. In the distance he could see the airport, the big “tin can” airliners carrying out their bus-like routes. He shook his head as he thought of the pilots sitting, ready to surrender of control to their flight computers, and lay on the bed. Within moments he was asleep.

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