The Man In Orange

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JULY 14

Hughes woke without pain, thankful that he’d correctly judged the precise amount of alcohol to make him happy but with no side effects. He rolled over and saw it was overcast outside. The big window was streaked with rain, and the clouds’ very presence seemed to threaten more as the day progressed. He looked at his phone – thankful it had reset its internal clock when it connected to the local cell network – and was pleased to see that it wasn’t yet eight AM. He rose, erring on the side of caution and showering once more, and made his way downstairs.

As he passed through the lobby he found himself looking to the concierge’s stand but saw a middle-aged man standing there. Hughes smiled back at him, slightly disappointed, and dropped his sunglasses over his eyes as he stepped out onto the street. It was busy. Not as busy as, say, that time in Dallas twenty-odd years ago, but busy enough for a metropolis. He nonetheless decided that leaving the car at the hotel was the wiser choice: he needed some exercise anyway as he hadn’t had his regular hangar door opening routine lately.

Despite the gloomy skies the citizens had taken to the streets in summer wear. Were he younger Hughes may have lowered his sunglasses appreciatively at some of the feminine passers-by, however he continued on uninterrupted.

He came to his destination: a French café and patisserie. He’d had a hankering for decent coffee and a croissant since he stepped into the terminal, and his resting at the hotel only heightened his hunger. He ordered a cappuccino and an almond croissant – his one sweet thing for the day – and took a seat by the window. His travels abroad years before had made him appreciate fine food prepared with care, unlike Hardy who was just as happy to have fish-and-chips in his office as visit a restaurant for lunch.

The coffee and croissant arrived, piping hot and dusted with icing sugar respectively, and Hughes watched the pedestrians pass by. He’d decided to visit the airport at some stage to see if anyone had information about Francois Charles: his employment history, why he’d left Canada and more to the point, why he let his Canadian pilot’s licence expire. No-one who flew for a living would let such a thing come to pass unless it was absolutely medically necessary.

But first he wanted to take time out. It was, officially anyway, a holiday, and Hughes wanted to take advantage of the opportunity to just relax and maybe pick up some additions to his library, or add to the ever-growing “stash” of unbuilt model kits in the hangar.

He ordered an orange juice, his coffee quickly downed, and asked for a telephone book. He scanned through for any nearby hobby shops, noted some down, and then looked under Helicopter Services.

#

Hughes pulled into the gravel car park and slotted the red rental in between a big black Ford 4x4 truck and a smart white hatchback. He got out of the car, locked it, and looked up to see a tadpole-like helicopter flit overhead and toward the tarmac. He recognised the shapely craft as a Eurocopter: elegant, quiet, but more suited for use as a corporate runabout than an aerial tractor. Nonetheless Hughes admired the machine as it settled onto one of the many yellow H pads beyond the chain-link fence. Hughes entered the office of Bates Helicopters and the receptionist looked up from her keyboard.

“Hello, may I help you?”

Hughes took off his sunglasses and smiled. “Yes, my name is Max Hughes, I’m here to see –“

“Of course, the Kiwi,” the woman replied with a warm smile of her own. “Mister Bates is expecting you.” She placed her reading glasses on the desk and rose from her swivel chair. “I’m Rosie, follow me please.”

Hughes obliged and they walked past the bold “AUTHORISED ENTRY ONLY” sign and into the hangar. Hughes had to stop himself from whistling loudly in appreciation of the immaculate workshop. It seemed like a larger version of his own – well-kept and ordered tools, music playing quietly from unseen speakers, and the engineers hard at work on a big Bell 212 heavy lifter.

“Mister Bates has told me some stories about his time working with you,” Rosie said with a grin. The receptionist pointed at a man in jeans and a business shirt who was leaning into the cockpit, talking to one of the workers. Hughes thanked her as she turned to go back to her desk, wondering which stories she had been told. The man in turned as he heard Hughes approach, and smiled broadly.

“Hughesie!”

“Lachie, how are you?” Hughes accepted the handshake. “Nice place you got here.”

“Yeah,” Lachlan Bates replied as he looked around, “not a bad shack. I’m doing good, what brings you to Vancouver?”

“Holiday,” Hughes said as he looked into the cockpit himself.

Bates raised an eyebrow. “Huh. I’m sure.”

Hughes looked offended as he emerged. “What?”

“One of the hardest-working pilots I’ve ever known, taking a holiday? Aren’t you running the show by now?”

“Chief Pilot.”

Only Chief Pilot?” Bates guffawed. “Oh, then again, you never were good with numbers back in the old days,” he winked.

“I’ll choose to ignore that. What’s happening here then? Is she yours?”

“Yip,” Bates beamed, patting the big white chopper, “was delivered just last week. Our second.”

“Why would you want a bloody great noisy thing like this?”

Now it was Bates’ turn to appear offended. “This ‘bloody noisy thing’, as you put it, is a great workhorse. We get a lot of calls for heavy lifting work so the Twin Two-Twelve pays its way in no time at all. The noise, well,” he grinned wickedly, “at least it’s the sound of a real helicopter. Not like the angry mosquitos you used to fly.”

“Hey, the 500 is a great machine!” Hughes poked his finger into Bates’ chest. “It’s got me in and out of far tighter spots than your precious Huey would’ve done!”

Bates wrestled his hand away and put an arm around his shoulder. “If you want a rating, Max my old friend, all you have to do is ask.”

“Holiday, Lachie, no flying except to go home.”

Bates’ smile faded. “Are you alright, my man?”

Hughes looked around the hangar. With some satisfaction he saw a pristine, cherry-red Hughes 500D in the back but chose not to mention it. “Do you have an office here, or do you just leave the paperwork to your beautiful young office lady?”

“You best keep your hands off Rosie,” Bates warned. Lowering his voice he continued, “or, as her email address reads, Mrs Bates.” He clapped Hughes on the back. “Come with me.”

The pair passed through a door at the rear of the hangar, climbed two flights of stairs and soon came to Bates’ office. The men sat either side of his clean desk, a wide window looking over the hangar at their shoulders. Bates shut the door. “Talk to me, Max.”

“Do you know a pilot by the name of Francois Charles?”

Bates leaned back in his chair. “Sounds vaguely familiar. I can’t place the face though.”

“Thinning brown hair, about 5’9”, kinda stocky.”

Bates nodded slowly. “I think I know the guy. What did you say his name was?”

“Francois Charles,” Hughes repeated. “Although he didn’t have a French accent.”

Bates slowly leaned forward. “No, our man was Dom. Dominic Charles, said with a hard ‘tch’.”

Hughes nodded. “F D Charles…could be him. How do you know him?”

“Dom Charles flew for the company in the Eighties - that is, before Jerry sold up and I bought the operation. He was good.”

“Was?”

“Yeah, he left about a month or two after I took over.”

“Why did he leave?”

“Oh, he wanted to go out on his own. I actually thought he was American ’cos he did some time in Vietnam.”

Hughes raised an eyebrow.

“I know, seems far-fetched. He had a few photos he showed me this one time. It was in ’72, if I remember rightly. He flew Cobras, AH-1s.”

“Gunships?”

Bates nodded. He leant toward his computer, tapped away and turned the monitor. A photograph of a sleek, shark-like green helicopter appeared, sitting on a dusty red patch of ground. “One of these little mothers. I’d love to get my hand on one of those.”

Hughes laughed. “For its superior lifting capacity?”

Bates narrowed his eyes across the table. “Shut up, you. You can have your 500 to play with, I’ll take one of these.” He returned the computer to the main desktop screen and turned it around once more. “He left us in mid-’91, I think? He came in once or twice with his machine after that, chatted every now and again, but we were never really friendly or anything.”

“Did he ever seem kinda, well, unhinged, for lack of a better word?”

Bates chuckled. “Yeah, he had his moments. We used to kid around, say he was shell-shocked, he never took it well though so we dropped he flared up one time. Damn good pilot though. Jerry had a 205, and Dom could turn that sucker inside out, do things no Huey should be able to do.”

Hughes nodded, bringing his fingertips together before him and reclining in his chair. “When did you last see him?”

Bates went silent, closing his eyes. Hughes smiled: back in the Seventies they had trained under the same instructor at Tangikea, and when asked a question in the class Bates would scrunch his face up, so deep was his concentration. “Last year, maybe? The next time we saw his machine for service it had a different owner. Dom downsized his company around then, sold off a lot of his fleet.”

“What was it?”

“206B-III,” Bates replied instantly. “Somehow the bastard got it factory-new: my three were hand-me-downs. Gorgeous machine, beautiful paintjob, I flew it a couple times and it was a real honey.”

“Clean?” Hughes asked in surprise.

“Hell yeah it was clean,” Bates replied, turning to the window, “it would put our EC-120 to shame.” He pointed at the Eurocopter as it was wheeled into the hangar.

“Odd.”

“How so? A man takes care of his baby.” Bates nodded at the hangar.

Hughes’ forehead wrinkled into a frown. “Some way or another he’s ended up in New Zealand, and he showed up asking for work in a tattered old patchwork JetRanger.”

Bates shook his head. “That wouldn’t be Dom. Sure he was a bit screwy in the head, couldn’t really be sociable, but if he was anything it was a clean-freak when it came to his bird.”

“This one seemed like it had parts from a dozen different machines tacked on, mismatched doors, things like that. And dirty as hell: exhaust stains on the boom, grime on the belly and around the engine cowls.”

“I dunno Max, I think you’re barking up the wrong tree.” Bates turned to looked out the window again.

“No,” Hughes replied with a shake of his head, “it’s definitely the same guy.”

“I doubt it. You could always recognise Dom by his flightsuit – he wore the same orange suit he got when he worked down-under in those Meat Wars or whatever it was you guys called it.”

When he heard no reply Bates turned, only to see Hughes rushing out the door.

#

“Tangikea Heli Services, you’re speaking with Marie.”

“Marie, it’s Max, is Richard there?”

“Oh hi Max,” Hughes could hear her voice pick up. “No you’ve just missed him, he left for home about ten minutes ago.”

“Shit. I mean,” Hughes caught himself, “oh.”

There was a giggle on the other end. “It’s okay. Do you want me to take a message?”

“No, I’ll try him at home. Thanks anyway Marie,” Hughes replied before ending the call. Standing in the Bates Helicopters car park a million things were going through his head. He searched through his phone’s contact list and found the Hardy home number.

“Hello?” A soft feminine voice answered.

“Hi Lou, it’s Max here, is Richard home yet?”

“Hello stranger, long time no see!” Louise replied. “How are you? Richie tells me you’re on holiday? I never thought I’d see it happen!”

“Yeah, I was kinda hoping to talk to him about that.”

“He’s not home yet. Would you like me to get him to call you?”

“No, I’ll just try later. I’d better go, I’m sorry I can’t really chat right now. I’ll try and come round when I get back,” he said.

“Oh, okay then, bye,” she replied, confusion clear in her voice.

Hughes tapped the phone against his chin. Was it Charles, then? Bates’ description of the man was totally at odds with what Hughes had witnessed at Tangikea. He thought back to what Sandy had said, about the hard-drinking American venison pilot who she said had shot at her husband’s machine. Hughes had never tried a hand at such flying – not having been a hunter he thought it would be too dangerous to try and learn on the job – but knew from the stories of fellow pilots that such events did happen. Very rarely was sufficient evidence gathered for Police to prosecute. Indeed, some such pilots were suspected by the victims to still be flying commercially, although they had “mellowed” somewhat in the intervening thirty-plus years.

Hughes opened the rental’s door and sat inside. Would Charles hold such a grudge for being refused a job he would sabotage one of the company aircraft? Bates did mention shellshock, so was Charles suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder after his tour of duty in Vietnam? Hughes knew of some examples of Canadian citizens with an American-born parent enlisting in the US armed forces for duty there, maybe Charles was such a case? He would have dropped his first name and changed how he pronounced his surname to fit in, perhaps?

He fished out his keys, cursed his stupidity as he realised he was sitting on the passenger’s side, and got out.

“Max!”

Hughes looked to see Bates running toward him. “Lachie? What’s up?”

Bates handed him a card. “I thought you might like some info on Charles’ outfit,” he explained. “He started a little charter business with another guy, I’m not sure if he would still be around if Dom’s gone down under like you say.”

“Thanks,” Hughes said with a smile as he examined the card. The silhouette of a JetRanger sat above the letters CDH. “I’ll let you know how I get on.”

“If you need any help, just let me know.”

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