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Table of Contents
Other Books by Eric Hodges: Getting Somewhere
Wheeler had been driving most of the night, in the dark, deserted plains of Middle America, listening intently to the whine of the tiny engine in the back of his VW and thinking of his last stop in central California. The money, the complications and the press of civilization made him yearn for the open spaces and he headed north. He wasn’t heading to a place as much as he was heading for a state of mind. There was land there and not much else, or at least he hoped that would be the case.
The Indian Casino and the dirty money had left him feeling a bit dirty and although he was well stocked financially, he was looking to recharge his personal batteries and get further away from his old life in the Navy. He had nearly killed an innocent girl and could not shake the connection between killing, any killing, and the inhumanity of all of it. The Navy from which he had recently left, legitimized killing for the protection of America, or the defense of democracy, or maybe just to protect our oil supply. His role had been protection of the other guys in the unit. No matter what the real reason, he could no longer be that guy in the ranks of the uniformed.
The emptiness of plains he was driving upon seemed to be helping. He felt alone and he wanted the solitude to at least try to immerse himself in a bit of under stimulation. He did feel the comfort of his aged VW bus that he had rebuilt and refurbished as a tiny apartment while still in the service. His old friend Emil in California had provided moral support and the facility to do the work in his small engine repair shop, but was not as accommodating when it came to his plans after leaving the navy.
“Wheeler” Emil told him, “You good mechanic and you could be real competition for me, but you need more. You need somebody or something to protect.”
Wheeler chuckled at the fatherly instruction. Emil knew Wheeler better than Wheeler knew himself. They had known each other for years and Emil was Wheeler’s only contact to the real world. Wheeler had lost track of his family and had never had the experience of a best friend or even a long term friend, so Emil had sparsely filled in the gaps. He missed Emil and made a mental note to send him a post card.
The bend in the flat road he was on, drew Wheeler out of his reverie because the headlights on the old VW were not that great and even at the modest speeds he was traveling he could miss a turn on the unfamiliar road. His quiet solitude was smashed by the sputtering roar of an airplane that erupted right over his head. The pilot had just applied more throttle and it sounded to Wheeler like the plane was landing on the roof of the VW. He jerked the steering wheel reflexively and saw the plane whoosh right over his head and drop into the headlights before disappearing in the gloom. Over the noise of the VW, Wheeler could hear the whump of the plane hitting the ground and he could see the ensuing fireball erupt on the road ahead.
He knew that the chances of survival were slim from his navy days. Helicopters that went down like this usually killed the crew in the fireball, but he drove on carefully anyway. The expected fireball extinguished itself immediately, and the rubble was unmistakable, he noted as he crunched through the bits of shattered plastic. Odd, he mused, as he wondered if this could be a military plane due to the construction, but then he thought, probably not because it was all white. He noted as he walked that the flames had been reduced to smoldering and the fuel must have been expended.
Again Wheeler thought it was odd that the plane seemed to carry a minimum fuel load. It was probable that it was near empty and possibly that was the cause of the crash, it was out of fuel. He continued scanning the site and thought he noticed a bit of movement off the road in the dirt. There was movement.
He rushed over to the prone form on the ground and saw the blood running from a gash on the fellow’s hairline. The olive complexion of his face was topped by dark curly hair that was matted in the blood. He ran back to the VW to get a compress to staunch the flow and shined his light over the rest of the body that did not look too bad. The pilot had the expected scrapes and torn clothes but nothing significant compared to the head wound.
Wheeler was holding back the bleeding from the head wound and the fellow was not really awake yet, but at least he was moving reflexively. Wheeler had nothing to tie off the head compress with and was wondering how he could get the guy to a real hospital. They were miles from anything and he had no idea where such a place might be found nor even a clue of which direction to go.
Wheeler was scanning the horizon for lights when he did see the convoy. There was a line of headlights coming pretty fast from the direction that he was traveling and Wheeler hoped they would see his headlights before they added to the crash site. Fortunately, they slowed appropriately and a line of pickup trucks and two flatbed trucks pulled to a stop.
A dark outline of a man emerged from the first truck and called back into the glare of the headlights. “Pull the flatbed alongside of the crash” he pointed off to the side of the road, “and find Roberto!”
They had not spotted Roberto and Wheeler yet, so Wheeler pointed his flashlight at the group of men coming through the rubble and waved the beam. He was still holding Roberto’s head with the compress, so there was little else he could do but wait, but he did yell out “Over here!”
A man walked over to Wheeler and put what was probably a medical case down on the ground and said “Thanks buddy, how’s he doing?” He leaned in to get a better look and mostly ignored Wheeler.
“I just got to the head wound and didn’t look much further” Wheeler responded. “The rest of him doesn’t look too bad.”
The medic took over compress duties on Roberto’s head and peeked underneath. “That’s a heck of a gash he’s got there but at least his head isn’t busted open. Here, hold this back down so I can dig into my kit. Thanks for doing this, you might have saved his life.” He opened up the kit box and still didn’t look at Wheeler, but he did stay focused on the first aid task that Roberto needed.
“I’ll take over now” he told Wheeler as he reached over to lift the bloody tee shirt they had been using.
“What’s your name fella?” the medic asked Wheeler as he applied a real bandage.
“Wheeler” he answered.
“My name is Eric, Eric Csorba. I’m usually the flight line mechanic, but I’m the one that knows first aid.” Eric chatted while he worked the compress and started wrapping the head. “I knew I would be wrapping this jerk one day. He’s the one that keeps trying to push the limits, see how far he can go and how fast these things can fly.”
Eric was a chatty type of guy that just didn’t stop the monologue. He didn’t need prompting and just kept going.
“You seem to be pretty good at this first aid stuff too. Are you some kind of medic?” he asked Wheeler.
“No, not a medic. I rode helicopters in the navy and saw my share of crashes, mostly worse than this one” Wheeler replied. “They were a mess.”
“Really?” Eric continued. “Did you ever fix them? The helicopters?”
“Well yeah” Wheeler offered reluctantly. “I was a flight engineer. Mostly I was the load master but I did need to patch them now and again in flight.”
Eric was finishing the wrap and looked carefully at Wheeler, sizing him up as if measuring him for competency or butchering, Wheeler didn’t know which but was not real keen on either choice. Eric grabbed a penlight from his shirt and opened Roberto’s eyelids one at a time.
“He does have a bit of a concussion” Eric observed, “so we will have to cart him into town. There’s a glorified clinic there that the boss has on retainer and they actually have a 24-hour service window.”
Wheeler just noticed that the dawn was breaking in a faint yellow on the horizon, outlining the distant hills. He greeted it with a yawn as the fatigue of an all-nighter snuck up on him.
“Roberto, Roberto!” Eric was talking loudly right into Roberto’s face and patting him on the cheek. “Roberto! Wake up!”
“Mumph. Waa?” was Roberto’s response.
“Roberto! Wake up buddy, you crashed” Eric pressed. “You’ve got to wake up, c’mon buddy.” Eric kept patting him on the cheek until the eyes actually stayed open.
“Wha happa?” Roberto said, too groggy to really make the words.
Eric grabbed one of Roberto’s hands and said “Squeeze back.” He did and Eric moved through the other extremities to ensure that they moved and there was no more damage.
“Okay, we’re going to get you up” he said as he grabbed an arm and supported Roberto’s head. “Wheeler, get the other arm and let’s lift him on to his feet.”
Eric was equal to Wheeler’s six foot one frame but carried at least 25 pounds more weight. The two men had no difficulty gently lifting the smaller man and could have easily carried him. The three of them just stood for a moment to allow Roberto to get his wobble under control, but they did not let go.
“Let’s’ get him to the Suburban” Eric ordered. They started the short walk and that was the first time Wheeler noticed the rest of the crew. There were about ten men picking up the shards that were once an airplane and throwing them into one of the flatbeds. Eric hailed the man standing back, giving the orders.
“Hey Mike, were headed into town. Can you get one of the guys to bring Wheeler’s VW to the ranch?” Eric asked.
“Sure, got the keys?” Mike replied.
Wheeler’s neck flushed at the ease with which Eric had just given his VW away and glared at him, but before he could say anything Eric interrupted his building outrage.
“I really need you to go with me to help old Roberto here stay awake, Wheeler. If he goes to sleep he may not wake up” Eric said, noticing that Wheeler stiffened. “It will be okay, all the guys here are mechanics that know machinery, they won’t hurt your VW.”
Wheeler acquiesced grudgingly, but was just as concerned that he was now involved in this aircrew as he was that all of his worldly possessions were in his bus.
Wheeler turned to Mike and said “okay, but you be careful with it. That is all of my life in that bus. The key’s in it.”
“Don’t you worry a bit “Mike said with a big smile. “We own you big time for saving our guy.”
The Suburban was the super deluxe model that had four captain’s chairs so Roberto was as comfortable as they could make him in the back seat with Wheeler. They leaned him back a bit so his head was supported but he was not lying down.
“You want some cards or something Wheeler?” Eric called from the front. “You could probably beat him in that condition. Hey Roberto! Start counting bushes” Eric grinned from the front.
“Yeah, yeah” Roberto said. “I’m awake.”
“So Eric, tell me what’s with the plastic airplane? Wheeler finally asked.
“There’s some fancy investor that wants to resurrect the old BD-5 airplane. He’s hired a bunch of aeronautical geniuses to fix all the problems and make a killing” Eric said, looking back at Wheeler, ignoring the road for longer than he thought prudent.
“What’s a BD-5? Wheeler asked.
“It was a small, one or two-person toy airplane from the 1970’s that was incredibly fast. With only 75 horsepower it could cruise at over 200 knots” Eric responded. “Small problem, it wasn’t very stable.”
Wheeler knew a bit about aircraft and said “Wow, that is fast. There may be a market for that kind of performance. Is there any military interest?”
“Naw, it’s all commercial. It’s built out of plastic because of the weight savings and we’ve had some strength problems” Eric explained, finally looking at the road. “And it’s not actually plastic, it is structural carbon fiber with some exotic polymers and fiberglass thrown in. How’s Roberto doing?”
“Roberto’s fine” Roberto said. “And the stress load problem has been fixed. I could get ten G’s out of the thing if the old man would let me. If it didn’t have the damn GPS tracker on it, I would have tried it anyway.”
“Well Wheeler, I think our boy has awakened. Wheeler, look into his eyes and tell me what you see” Eric asked.
Wheeler leaned over to get a close look and said “Pissed off. I think he’s okay, how much further to town?”
“That’s it, right up ahead” Eric replied, pointing at the buildings on the horizon.
Wheeler probed further, more out of boredom than actual curiosity “What is a big time aircraft operation doing out in the boonies? You’ll never get much publicity out here.”
“That’s why it’s out here” Eric answered. “The original BD had such a bad name that the boss wanted to be away from prying eyes to do the development and avoid the smear of the old reputation and fix all of the problems. There have been, ahem, growing pains?”
Wheeler caught the inference “Those growing pains wouldn’t have been crashes, would they?” He recalled the efficient cleanup crew collecting parts of Roberto’s plane like they had done it before.
“No comment” Eric replied. “And that reminds me Roberto, what did happen up there and this better be good. The boss has been known to cut off body parts for stupid mistakes.”
Roberto just looked glum and said “It wasn’t my fault, completely.” He paused to collect himself or make up a good story, Wheeler thought. “The rudder cable broke again and I was headed back to the ranch” he paused, “just as I ran out of gas. I couldn’t make it back so I used this guy’s headlights to find the road and land. Then I got a little cross breeze and couldn’t correct it with the rudder frozen.”
Eric burst out laughing and poked at Roberto “If the boss didn’t need your sorry ass to fly these things, he’d cut off a leg for that one.” It took quite a few moments for Eric to compose himself, but he did finally recover.
“Are you going to tell him?” Eric asked.
“Of course, if I didn’t you would, so what would be the point?” Roberto replied.
“Exactly” Eric grinned broadly
Wheeler and Eric made their way to the Golden Diner just down the street from the hospital and slipped in for a bit of breakfast.
“I thought you said we were going to a clinic? What gives, that was a real hospital” Wheeler observed.
“Yeah, I’m from Atlanta” Eric said. “They have a real hospital there, and I think this one does horses on the side. All they’re going to do is keep Roberto for a few hours to make sure he doesn’t change into a zombie or something worse, so we have time for breakfast.”
They ordered coffee with egg and bacon breakfasts and watched the city come alive from the window. Eric started in not waiting for an invitation.
“So tell me Wheeler, where are you headed?’
“I was just going north to get out to some open country, I’ve had enough of cities and population for a while.”
“You have found your perfect place. We are in Rock Springs Wyoming that’s a hundred and fifty miles from Salt Lake City and a million miles from everything else” Eric grinned. “In case you haven’t noticed, the only things out here are ranches and flatland, and there’s mostly flats.”
Eric looked at Wheeler critically “Are you running away from the law?”
“No, nothing like that. I grew up in the Navy and almost retired from it. I had never lived outside and I wanted to see how real people live. The structure of the military finally got to me and I had to get out. I’ve been traveling ever since.”
“It must be nice to be independently wealthy.”
“Well, it’s not really like that. I take on odd jobs along the way to keep myself going and I don’t need much. The VW is my only dependent and the YMCA is very accommodating for showers and clean up.”
“Oh yeah, the VW. What’s up with that anyway? You know it’s fifty years old and they have made much better cars over the years.”
“I know, but I like it. I’ve had it for years and every bolt on the thing has my fingerprints on it. I’ve grown fond of it and it’s my only stability. It’s my home on wheels.”
“I think Mike is going to want to talk to you when we get back” Eric said with a smirk.
The ride back to the ranch was only about a half an hour away from town, back down the road on which the plane crashed. Eric turned off before the crash site onto a smaller road that led to the driveway to the Singles Ranch that was displayed on a broad sign hanging between two telephone poles. The faded paint on the gray boards and fence posts hinted that the glory days of the ranch had passed.
Wheeler noted that the main house on the right looked occupied, sporting flower boxes colorfully filled and the lawn surrounding the house was trimmed. Eric drove on past what must have been exercise areas that contained tall weeds hinting that the horses that should have pounded them flat were absent. The fences opened up into a cluster of large buildings that must have been the ranch proper and Eric parked the suburban next to his VW in front of the office.
Wheeler, Roberto and Eric got out of the truck and were greeted by a well-dressed cowboy, sporting a plaid shirt, pressed jeans and shiny cowboy boots. Wheeler thought the guy had come out of central casting but he didn’t mention it.
He reached out a hand to Wheeler and said “Hi. I’m Mike Church and you must be the guy that saved Roberto. Thanks for that.”
“Pleased to meet you. My name’s Wheeler.”
“Boss” Eric interjected, “you’re going to want to talk to this guy.”
“Oh? Okay” he said, and turned to Roberto. “Are you okay Roberto?”
“Yeah, I’m okay” he said, looking down not wanting to make eye contact.
“Go in and get yourself cleaned up and we’ll talk later” Mike said, and then turned to Eric and Wheeler. “Come on in” he continued as he led us into the building.
The office was a clash of two cultures. The wood log construction of the building with the heavy wooden furniture was decorated with airplane pictures hung on the walls, an oversize plotter up against one of the walls and a row of computer stations set up next to it.
Mike seated himself behind the over-sized desk, indicated the other two chairs for Eric and Wheeler, and said “Sit gentlemen and tell me why I have to talk to Wheeler here.”
“Well sir” Eric began, “Wheeler has some mechanical skills that may be useful to us and he just might be available for hire. He was a helicopter jockey for the navy and is trained already.”
“Now wait a minute” Wheeler interjected. “I was not actually looking for a job.”
Mike’s gray eyebrows crinkled a bit as he looked at Wheeler a bit more closely, as if he was considering what to say. In a way he was, because there was indeed something on his mind.
“Kevin drove your VW to the ranch here and he said it runs pretty good” Mike said, casually. “As a matter of fact, he said it runs like a race horse trying to break out of the pack. Did you build it?”
“I did” Wheeler said, trying not to sound defiant.
Mike and Eric looked at each other in a kind of silent communication. Wheeler knew that there was a place for him here but he was resistant to make the move. He was certain that he was ‘led’ to each of his assignments and only went where there was a true need, but he had hoped there would be a bit of down time. When he started traveling, it was his friend Emil that said he needed to just go and trust that he would know where and how and why when he needed to know it. This was probably one of those times but he was not willing to give in easily, yet.
“The other thing, boss, is that Wheeler here is just traveling around with no real destination and he’s living out of his VW” Eric said with a smug expression of just telling a secret.
“Oh really” Mike said with a bit of phony surprise. “Why don’t you try us out for couple of days and stay in the bunkhouse. I’ll pay you well and if you want to stay on.” Mike shrugged and didn’t finish.
Wheeler considered for a few heartbeats, mostly just for show. He didn’t want to be eager for some reason, but he thought that must be his role. He was not only showing timidity but somewhere he had conjured up indecision that was very unlike his normal self. He seemed to be creating a persona to go with this new environment that was curious, but he trusted his senses too well to have any real doubts.
“Well Mike, I’ll give it a try for a few days and let you know” Wheeler said.
“Excellent” Mike said, standing to shake Wheeler’s hand. “Eric will show you the bunk house and the shop. And Eric, show him the rigging station and the cable set up.”
“Will do, boss.”
Eric escorted Wheeler through the bunk house that was actually the building they were in. The lower floor to the left of the office was all dorm rooms and the entire upper floor was more rooms as well and Eric offered Wheeler the room next to his own. Wheeler looked in but was not impressed.
The tour continued out the back of the bunkhouse to the next building that was the largest one in the compound. “This one used to be the arena that they used for jumping and roping practice I think” Eric commented. “I never saw it set up for the horses, I have only seen it outfitted to be a shop.”
They walked to the normal sized door to allow people access, not the huge, equipment sized doors and walked in. Wheeler was not prepared for the interior of the building. It was impossibly bright inside and was more than 50 yards deep, almost as wide and positively littered with airplane wings, fuselages, engine racks and huge machinery everywhere. It was a stark contrast to the rustic ranch motif outside. This was space-age looking and clean everywhere.
“Those big monsters are the ovens” Eric said, pointing to the side as they walked. “This area is where they lay up the carbon fiber for the wings to feed the oven. This is the bonding area to assemble the wings.” They kept walking through the building with Eric pointing out ‘engine assembly there’, ‘machine shop here’ and ‘fuselage assembly there’ in such a whirl that Wheeler barely recorded any of it.
Wheeler gaped at the sheer number of airplane parts stacked in every open space across the shop floor and he was speechless. It was an airplane hangar in every sense of the phrase and Wheeler was taken back to the endless array of hangars from his navy days, some aboard ships and some attached to airports across the world.
Wheeler was on the flight line at Bagram Airfield in Afghanistan, on his knees staring at his smoking Sea Hawk helicopter as the fire crews shot fire retardant over the heads of the medics to make sure it would not actually ignite. This was the last flight for this battered Sea Hawk and it would be the last flight for Wheeler for a while. This was the second Sortie into Kamdesh where the Taliban had tried to overrun the base and the fighting was desperate.
Wheeler and his aircrew got the call before dawn aboard the USS Tecumseh, an amphibious assault ship in the Gulf of Oman, and headed into the belly of the angry beast just as the day was breaking. They landed for fuel at Bagram, headed into the fighting at Kamdesh with supplies and offered transport for the wounded back to Bagram. That first trip happened to occur just after the first wave of Taliban was pushed back, so the off load and re-load of the helicopter was done with lightning efficiency, and the six wounded from the 101st could climb aboard with little assistance.
The second trip they were not so lucky. The pilot chose a spot that appeared to be away from the heavy fighting and in a clearing next to where the medics had set up a triage. Wheeler helped the medics load the helicopter full of soldiers that had not had treatment yet and were a bloody mess. By the time they lifted off again they came under fire themselves and took a serious spray of small arms fire that killed the co-pilot and wounded both Wheeler and the pilot. He was still able to fly but the stability of the craft was seriously compromised and the blood soaked deck in the cargo bay made movement for wheeler in the back, difficult.
One of the low pressure fuel lines had been nicked and there was fuel squirting onto the wounded causing an uproar of yells and moans that could be heard over the loud engines, so Wheeler struggled to reach the fuel line and plug it with his thumb for the duration of the flight as he ignored his own minor wound.
The wounded pilot ignored the landing protocols and dropped the helicopter heavily right in front of one of the small hangars, as close to the medical facilities as they could, to let the ground crew tend to the helicopter and its cargo. Wheeler watched the activity going into and out of the hangar with the wounded from a short distance away and threw up right on the flight line.
“Wheeler! Wheeler!” Eric patted him on the cheek, trying to get his attention. “Wheeler, come back here, buddy!”
Wheeler was finally able to brush away the horrors of Afghanistan and focus on Eric’s face.
“Wheeler, are you okay? You seem to have gone out to La-La land.”
“Yeah, I’m okay. No problem” Wheeler said, not wanting to share his flashback with Eric. “So tell me again, what is all this stuff?” Wheeler said, to try to get back to some degree of normalcy. He would deal with his past at another time.
Eric repeated the monologue and this time Wheeler paid better attention. He was very impressed with the operation and said “This is a lot of stuff for a mere start-up company. You’ve got a real production facility here.”
“Yeah, the boss wanted to make sure there were plenty of prototypes for the roll out. If he gets the orders he is planning, these will all be gone overnight and I hope he gets rid of them soon, we have another load of materials coming and we need the space. Anyway, here is the rigging station Mike wanted me to show you.”
“Dr. Emil” Eric said over the noise of the shop to the back of a white lab coat, “this is Wheeler, Wheeler, this is Dr. Emil Shiraz.”
Lightning bolts shot through Wheeler as the shock of this guy having his old friend’s name reverberated down to his socks. The guy turned around to show a darker complexion than his old friend, short cropped receding hair and a five o’clock shadow that was six hours early. The pounding in his chest, however, was not due to the coincidence of the names but from the dark shadow surrounding the man that nobody else could see. This man was evil.
Wheeler covered up the shudder that shook him involuntarily and in a normal tone said “Pleased to meet you.”
“Wheeler here is the one that scraped Roberto off the highway and probably saved his life.”
“Jolly bit of good luck, that one” Emil said and a clipped British accent, “you coming on just in time.” Wheeler was surprised that the doctor was study in contrasts.
“Did you figure out what happened to the rudder on Roberto’s plane yet? Roberto said the cables broke again” Eric said, getting right down to business. Eric leaned into Wheeler, “The Doc here is the mechanical whiz that designed all of the internal stuff.”
“Not yet, mate, it’s a bit of a puzzle. The cables should be plenty strong to wiggle a rudder in the wind, this thing is no bangin’ passenger liner, it’s a big toy. Look here, the cable is made out of twisted wires that frayed and pulled apart right at the bend for the pulley.”
The three of them leaned over the bench Emil used to spread out the parts.
“The cables do look kind of small” Wheeler observed.
“Small is good for the weight savings, but all of the cables are rated at 500-pound tensile strength. The rudder should not require anywhere near that much force” Emil replied.
“Do you have the rudder here too?” Wheeler asked, getting absorbed in the mechanics and ignoring the feelings he was having for the man standing next to him. The easiest thing for Wheeler to do was to get himself lost in the functions of mechanical things and he deliberately chose to do so. He could see the entire combination of parts, moving in their intended way in his head, and the layout of parts spread out on the bench looked fine to him.
“That pile of rubbish over there is what’s left of the plane” Emil pointed to a jumble of charred plastic against the wall. “It’s in there somewhere.”
Eric and Wheeler poked in the pile for a few moments, but Wheeler was little help. It just looked like a pile of scraps with the odd panel that could have been part of a wing. He did go through the motions of looking through the pile, but Wheeler was actually opening up his senses to take in the whole shop, there were other dark energies in the area and Emil was not the only one. He was right, there were two others he could see across the shop, both in lab coats and they seemed to be part of some core group above or inside something that was hidden and sinister.
As disturbing as the realization was, Wheeler relaxed into the into the sensations. He was attracted to this place by some higher intention, he was supposed to be here and the coincidence of the good doctor sharing the name as his good friend Emil was evidence to Wheeler that the universe did have a sense of humor. It was trying to get his attention to make sure he didn’t miss his queue. ‘Thanks’ he thought, ‘I get it, I get it’ as he chuckled at the thought.
Eric interrupted his chuckle “Here it is. I got the broken off rudder and the mount. Is this what you wanted?”
“Yeah” Wheeler replied. “Put it on the bench so it will line up with Emil’s cables and pulleys.”
Eric lined up the levers that operated the rudder with the pulley and frayed cable that gave Wheeler the image in his head of how the contraption worked. Wheeler touched each piece in turn to get a sense of the parts and their functions, and his attention was drawn to the rudder mount. He picked it up to look at it more closely from what would be the outside of the airplane, idly grabbing the levers that would control the rudder movement when connected to the cables and it would not move. He twisted harder with no response and looked very closely at the bearing that held the rudder post that was supposed to allow for free movement and saw a telltale ring of melted plastic.
“Shouldn’t this part move back and forth” Wheeler handed the mount to Emil to see if the doctor could spot the plastic weld. Emil tried to turn it like Wheeler had done and had no success either.
“You are right, Wheeler. It should turn” Emil commented as he stared at the part. He looked across the shop and yelled “Hey Greg! Come look at this!”
Another lab coat supported by a short dark man with a scowl on his deeply lined face stomped it’s way over to Wheeler and the group and said “What? I’m busy!” Clearly he was not a team player.
“Look underneath here at the rudder mount” Emil said, not reacting to Greg’s gruff demeanor but handing him the part.
“What am I looking at!” he barked.
“The rudder shaft is frozen. It won’t turn” Emil said as Eric and Wheeler backed away from the bad tempered newcomer unnoticed.
“So? What do you want me to do? You wanted a mount for the shaft, I gave you one” Greg tossed the part back to Emil nearly dropping it to the floor, and stomped back in the direction from which he had come.
“Pleasant fellow” Eric said with a deadpan smirk, “I always enjoy his company.”
“Prickly sort, that one” Emil noted. “He’s a bit of a pill to be around but he knows his stuff. He’s the plastics expert, eh? Carbon fiber, fiberglass and the recipes for the stuff. It looks like mud pies to me but his stuff is strong and light.”
The dark clouds from the two of them had subsided a bit for Wheeler and he directed his attention back to the problem. “Where is this mounted when it’s not all broken to bits?” Wheeler asked Emil.
“Over here” he said, leading them to a distant section of the large shop. Parked like puzzle pieces, about a dozen nearly finished airplanes were parked near the door opposite to where Eric and Wheeler first entered the building. The wingspan was about 15 feet and the length was a bit shorter. The tripod landing gear supported the broad, curved front canopy at about the same height as a car and the fuselage that extended to the rear was noticeably taller to allow the propeller to clear the ground. The propeller was mounted in the center of the body and the rudder and elevators jutted out from there.
“This thing really is small” Wheeler commented as he looked down into the cabin. “Does a person really fit in there?”
“You would even fit in there” Eric said to Wheeler. “We are planning a stretched version with bigger wings and a longer fuselage to accommodate two people, but it’s just a drawing board thing so far. The boss wants to roll out the fast, single-seater first.”
Wheeler was reveling in the sleek lines and smooth flow of the body panels into one another. This small craft screamed ‘Speed!’ just sitting on its wheels and Wheeler had planes flying around in his head at ridiculous speeds. The sense of flying and open spaces made him forget the foreboding sensations of the shop and chuckle at the images of very fast airplanes flying around in a swarm like insects.
“The rudder mount is back here” Emil said as he opened up the access panels to the engine and the rudder linkage. Emil stuck his head partway into the machine and pointed up and said “It’s right there.”
Wheeler bent down to take Emil’s place and get a closer look. The engine was mounted low and connected to a belt drive system that was mounted high enough to get the drive shaft for the propeller high inside the body. It looked to Wheeler that it might not be sturdy enough to hold together, but flying machines were like that. On more than one occasion he thought his navy helicopters flexed in flight but he didn’t like to think about that when he was flying in one.
The engine reminded him of the engine in his VW, an air-cooled four cylinder with horizontally opposed cylinders. It was a compact and lightweight affair that probably did give the little plane plenty of power. Wheeler’s attention was drawn to the air ducting needed to keep the engine cool and he was surprised that it was so small. Furthermore, it was ducted out right after passing through the engine, and partially ducted up to escape right next to the rudder and elevator mounts in front of the propeller.
“There’s the problem right there” Wheeler pointed at the upper air vents.
“Where?” Emil answered. “What am I looking at?”
“I bet Roberto was in the middle of a high speed run when the rudder froze” Wheeler said. “These things make a lot of heat when pushed hard. The high heat escaped through the upper vent right after heating and melting the rudder mount. Roberto probably panicked and just smashed the controls hard enough to bust your cable.”
“Well I’ll be switched!” Emil retorted. “My cables are fine.”
Wheeler turned to Eric, leaving Emil to the remedy and pointed at the big doors and asked Eric “What’s out here?” Wheeler wanted to get out of the shop and shake off his anxieties that had returned and get away from the prickly energies.
Eric pushed open one of the large rear doors used to move the planes outside and showed Wheeler the runway. “This is where we fly them” he waved at a hard dirt track that was actually just the access road to the back of the ranch.
“You fly them from here?”
“Sure, why not? They don’t take much roll before they lift off and we’re not under anybody’s flight path so who’s to know? There not much else around here and nobody to complain. It’s probably not exactly legal but we’ve had no complaints.”
Wheeler’s attention reached out to take in the vast plain and the distant hills and he felt refreshed. The open space was what he yearned for and the constriction of the shop did not reach him outside. The makeshift runway was an inviting symbol of departures into the open skies that reminded Wheeler of his freedom. He really was free to choose his path even if these people were pressing him to join their merry band of airplane mechanics.
“Eric, I have a few things that I need from town” Wheeler said. “Why don’t you walk back to the VW with me and tell me what kind of a job you would have me do here.”
“Ah, sure” Eric stammered at the sudden conversational shift. “The boss has the grand reveal planned for a few weeks from now, and we have to get all the planes in the shop assembled and tested. You will be helping me to do that, well, except for the flying part. I am assuming that Roberto will be doing that.”
They strolled outside the big shop and Wheeler marveled at how big the building really was. He couldn’t imagine how many airplanes there were in various stages of assembly but there were a lot.
“Where is the reveal going to take place?”
“I don’t really know for sure. All I know is that we need to test them and put them into the packing crates. They will fit easily into a big rig, so the grand opening or whatever is planned, could be anywhere.”
They got to the VW and Wheeler spotted the keys on the seat and said to Eric “That sounds okay. I should be back tomorrow.”
“All right, suit yourself” Eric responded with a shrug, not completely sure if Wheeler was going to take the job. Wheeler wasn’t sure either but the inevitability of the whole thing nagged at him and the decision that Wheeler evaded had already been made.
Wheeler waved at Eric as he drove off, heading for the main road. The VW juddered slightly as he gained speed and Wheeler was concerned that the previous driver had done something to his beloved bus. The vibration did not abate so he pulled to the side of the driveway close to the main house to get out and look. The walk around the vehicle showed the cause at once, he had a flat tire in the rear. The shop and the other buildings were quite a distance but that would not really be a problem, he had the jack, tools and a spare for just this occasion.
He rifled the interior, getting out what he needed and started jacking the rear as a woman approached him from the house. The clear soprano voice got his attention as he jacked.
“Are you okay, mister?” He couldn’t see past the sunglasses and the broad brimmed hat to glean any details, but he rose to be polite.
“Oh sure, I’m fine, just a flat” he replied, still holding the wrench.
“I haven’t seen you around here before, are you one of the airplane guys?”
“No, not yet. I was just talking to them about a job” Wheeler offered.
“They do seem to be busy back there” she said, still wearing the hat and sunglasses. “They get a lot of deliveries, too.”
“I’m not surprised” Wheeler responded. “The big shop back there is full of airplane parts and mechanics.”
She looked back at the cluster of buildings in the distance and said “I know. It used to be a big empty practice arena.”
Wheeler detected a note of sadness in her voice but made no comment. He wondered if there was a connection between this woman and the airplanes, but she answered before he could ask. “We had to close down the ranch when mom and dad got older. Renting out the back was necessary so we could keep it.”
“Oh, that’s too bad” Wheeler replied.
“It’s okay now, mom and I are doing fine” she answered. “My name is Marlene” She said, holding out her hand to shake. Wheeler felt more than just a polite shake in that momentary touch and something inside him stirred that made him a bit more attentive to her.
“I’m Wheeler, and no, I don’t use a first name. It’s just Wheeler.”
“Pleased to meet you. Say, when you’re done here, could I impose upon your generosity to have you come look at my mower? It won’t start.”
“Sure, this won’t take long” he answered and got back to his tire. He finished, stowed the tools and walked up to the house.
Marlene was along the side of the house, trimming a bush with a pair of hand clippers and noticed him approach. “Hi Wheeler, the mower’s back here” she said, leading him behind the house to the open shed.
“Thanks for looking at this thing” she commented gratefully. “It’s old and worn, but it usually runs. Dad used to keep it up but that task has now fallen to me, he passed away some years back.”
“I’m sorry to hear that” Wheeler said, as he entered the gloomy shed that was actually quite a good size. It was maybe a three car garage size and a little deeper, with the requisite work bench along one side and shelves and boxes everywhere else. The mower was near the front.
“Here it is” she said, removing her glasses and hat to reveal a pretty woman in her mid-thirties, filling out her jeans and work shirt with more than a hint of her trim, womanly figure. Her green eyes sparkled, surrounded by lush, wavy auburn hair and she looked hopefully into Wheeler’s eyes.
“It’s a Ford” Wheeler mumbled, leaning in to get a closer look at the exposed engine and other working parts. The machine had to be 50 years old with the expected worn paint, rust spots showing through and dings earned in decades of service. Wheeler let himself drift into the soul of the mower and reached in to touch random wires, pipes and tubes to better communicate with it. His hand was drawn to a loose wire coming out of the bottom of the distributor that went nowhere.
“I think this wire should connect to something” he said, mostly to himself. He looked closer and verified that the end of the wire was bare and probably should have had some kind of lug or pin on it to plug it in somewhere. He got down on his knees and put his face into it as far as he could to try to locate the wayward connector. It turned out to be on the opposite side, in a place he could feel but not see.
“The buildings back on the property are quite large, Marlene. This must have been a big operation with a lot of horses” Wheeler commented with his head still inside the machine. He had gone into automatic, fix it mode.
“When I was a girl, there were probably 50 horses back there. Some we were just boarding, some were in training and some were ours. We had something going on day and night, because of that arena. I grew up lugging hay bales and scooping poop.”
Wheeler wandered over to the work bench just assuming he had permission to dig for tools and find a lug.
“That must have been nice if you like horses.”
“Oh I loved them!” she gushed. “It was sad when I went away to college in Laramie and could only get home once in a while.”
He found the wrench and lug and went back to the mower. “Did you come back after college?” He was mildly interested in the story but he just wanted to keep her talking. It looked like he was being attentive to the repair, but his mind was wholly tuned into her and he was feeling a building connection.
“No not for a while. I majored in Graphic Arts and minored in Business, so I set off for Denver to light the world on fire. I came back when dad got sick, to help mom run the ranch.”
Wheeler finished connecting the wire and stood to chat properly. “How did the ranch end up rented?”
“Mom has no head for business and all I wanted to do was tend to the horses. Neither one of us wanted to schmooze the customers and deal with the spoiled brats that kept their horses here. It just fell off to nothing” she said, with a shrug.
The fleeting sadness passed quickly and Wheeler changed the subject, “Why don’t you give it a try now. It should run.”
Marlene got on, pumped the prime lever and flipped the switches to get it running. It started in a few seconds with no trouble and she smiled broadly at Wheeler. She got off to get her hat and sunglasses and leaned into Wheeler so he could hear her over the raucous, running mower and said “Why don’t you come back for dinner in a few hours? Mom’s a great cook.”
“Thanks” Wheeler shouted. “I will.”
Wheeler pulled his VW to the front of the hitching posts and stayed in the bus, taking a good look at main house. The entire front of the house had a wide porch covered by a generous continuation of the main roof, all of which was weathered wood attached to the main log construction. It could have been built two centuries before and he assumed that it had 21st century accommodations for proper comforts.
Marlene met him on the porch and said “Hi Wheeler, thanks for coming.”
“Oh no, it’s my pleasure. A home cooked meal and the company of two women? How could I refuse?”
She led him into the front room that was decorated with heavy wood furniture and the expected horse and cowboy accessories, but they continued into the open kitchen with the handy dining table sharing the same space. The open kitchen was large enough to feed a dozen hands on the large table and one end of it was being used for storage of the larger pots, but it looked cozy and welcoming.
His nose was assaulted with the mix of an herb scented stew warming on the stove and yeasty bread baking in the oven. He blurted out “that smells wonderful!”
“I told you she was a good cook. Mom this is Wheeler, Wheeler, this is Florence. Call her Flo.”
The slight, wiry woman that was stirring the pot on the stove turned around and Wheeler saw her wrinkled face for the first time. Her graying hair was pulled back in a loose bun, her pale blue eyes riveted Wheeler in place and she held her small, wrinkled hand out to Wheeler and greeted him “Pleased to meet you. No first name?”
“Ah no. I never liked it so I never used it. Just call me Wheeler.” The intensity of her gaze was softened by her broad smile and warm, two handed shake, so Wheeler felt at ease immediately.
“Would you like a beer or wine? Maybe something stronger?”
“Sure, beer would be fine. I’m not fussy.”
“Excellent” She said happily. “Marlene, would you do the honors while I finish? Wheeler, you can sit there” Flo waved at the table.
“Sure mom” she replied and turned to the refrigerator.
“So tell me Wheeler” Flo began, “what brings you to these parts? I don’t recall seeing you or your ancient VW around?”
“I just drove in from down south. I’m making my way across the country” he replied, deliberately omitting the details.
Flo looked away dreamily “Ah yes, the road trip. I’ve been on a few of those back in the day. The freedom, no schedule and no real destination. Wow.” She stirred for a moment and asked “have you found what you were looking for.”
Wheeler stared shocked at her back but covered any signs before answering “I’m not exactly looking, I’m just wandering.” His response was light and elusive.
She pressed on, showing the intensity of her eyes that was not softened by a smile, “You’re getting close but you’re not quite there yet. It’s coming.” She turned away to stir the pot for a moment and turned back to him to speak “Marlene tells me you might take a job with the airplane guys in the back. That might interrupt your road trip.” She flashed him her warm smile again and Wheeler relaxed immediately.
Marlene handed out drinks that gave Wheeler a moment to formulate an answer. “That’s normal for me. I have usually taken on short jobs to finance my travels. This one looks interesting.”
Flo raised her short glass, half full of amber liquid with a couple of cubes and said “Cheers everyone” from across the room. They all sipped and Flo added “Ahh, Jack Daniels, my afternoon buddy.”
Marlene and Flo arranged for their dinner with bowls and flatware placed on the table with the stew and a basket of the bread. They seated themselves around the table with Wheeler and began serving.
“What would they have you do there” Marlene asked.
“Well, Eric, the foreman or something, said they need to finish the assembly of their first run of planes. I would probably be doing that. This stew is wonderful and the hot rolls are great too” Wheeler answered between bites.
Flo looked at Wheeler with an expression he could not quite read. It was pleasant enough but he had the feeling he was being measured somehow. It was then that Wheeler noticed the wrinkles on her hands. He had never seen so many lines crisscrossing over each other in such an array that her skin looked unnatural, like the lines were placed there by an external force. They did match the lines on her face and he realized that she was not really that old, maybe she was only 60.
“Tell us Mr. Wheeler” Flo changed the subject. “How is it that you have taken to the road? Where were you before now?”
He leaned back a bit, slowing his ingestion of the wonderful stew. “Well let’s see. I spent nearly fifteen years in the navy riding helicopters. I didn’t fly them, I was the flight engineer, load master and occasional gunner. It just got to be too much for me, so I headed out to see the country. This country, I had seen many others but not my own.”
“Were you in combat much?” Marlene asked.
“Yes, I was in occasional skirmishes but not really ‘IN’ the battles like the army or the marines. We went in to make a drop or a pick-up and got out” Wheeler answered.
“Wow, you must have been shot at a lot” Marlene responded showing her appreciation for his effort and risk. Wheeler just nodded.
“I’ve seen what they have done to the arena” Flo observed. “Does that remind you of your navy days?”
Wheeler was a little surprised that she would say something like that. She couldn’t know what he was feeling but there it was, she poked right into one of his soft spots.
“Yeah, it does a little” he shrugged.
“Well” Flo said definitively, “if you’re thinking about taking the job, you should stay here with us. We need help occasionally, as you found out today, and you don’t need to suffer living in their bunkhouse. It’s not that private.” Flo waited for Wheeler’s reply wearing a Mona Lisa smile that attempted to hide her true intention but Wheeler saw through it at once. He played along and Marlene looked very pleased.
“That is very kind of you. Are you sure you want to take a chance on a guy you hardly know?”
“I know enough” Flo answered. “Marlene will show you where to put your stuff and you can have breakfast with us in the morning.”
Wheeler had the vague feeling that he had just been manipulated by a pro, but he didn’t mind. The hints he got that morning at the shop and now Flo’s offer were ganging up on him to convince him there was something here for him. This was the offer he could not refuse.
“Thanks, I really appreciate it” Wheeler said, giving in completely.
“Good” Flo responded. “Now you can show your appreciation by helping Marlene with the horses. I’ll clean this stuff up.”
“Horses?” Wheeler asked in surprise.
The horses were stabled behind the workshop in which Wheeler met the mower. He just didn’t notice anything behind it, but he should have, it was barn twice the size of the shop with an access door that he didn’t notice.
He and Marlene, mostly Marlene, had saddled up two of the horses and headed out for a short trail ride away from the property.
“I love it out here” Marlene said. “The flatland and the distant hills make me feel alive, and it’s quiet, too. Do you hear that?” She stopped the horses for a few heartbeats to listen.
“Except for the clomp of the horses, there’s nothing.”
“That’s what I mean, nothing” she said. “When it gets windy there’s a whoosh but that’s about it. Oh, there’s the prairie dogs and the wild horses that sometimes bark or whinny, but they seem to be part of the landscape, like they belong here.” Marlene looked out into the far distance taking in the experience of the quiet that Wheeler appreciated greatly.
They rode in silence for a while, enjoying the beginnings of the sunset, when Marlene interrupted the silence. “Have you ever been married, Wheeler?”
“No. I got close once, but …” his comment ended with a shrug. “How about you?”
“I got really close once. I was planning the wedding and everything, and it just fell apart. He turned into a real jerk and I was more interested in the wedding than him. I’m glad it fell apart” she said with no remorse.
Wheeler rode enjoying the quiet for some time, appreciating the fact that the memories of his prior life didn’t seem to matter. He was not being nagged by them and there was something about the sway of Marlene’s butt on the saddle kept his mind off of his history. She turned back to check on him and caught him staring.
“If you spend your time out here with your eyes lowered like that you’re going to miss the sunset, Wheeler.”
“Some views just have to be appreciated when you find them” he said with a broad grin.
She pulled up on her horse to ride next to him and pointed out a distant hill. “That bump over there was my first overnight trip on a horse. We rode out, camped, and rode back the next day. I was thrilled for a week before the trip and for more than a week after. I was ten and it seemed like the most daring adventure ever.”
“Did you ever do it again?”
“Oh yeah, but it was never that exciting. The first time is always more special” she said, with a wolfish grin.
“Uh-huh” Wheeler retorted. “Am I safe out here alone with you?”
“It depends. It’s still light out but I don’t know what might happen after dark.”
“Well, we better turn around then. Tonight is a school night and I have to get in early” Wheeler replied with a patently false innocence.
“Oh really? Are you going to take the job?”
“Pretty much. At dinner earlier, your mother all but called the boss and signed the employment documents for me.”
“Yup, I caught that. Mom can be pretty strong headed sometimes. I’ve seen her make the toughest ranch hands cower and I am grateful she doesn’t use it on me, much.”
He grinned and noticed they were on the end of the runway and the big arena-turned-workshop was just beyond it.
“You turned us around and I didn’t even notice!” Wheeler remarked.
“You need a sense of direction out here or you’ll never get back. Stick with me, greenhorn” Marlene smiled, proud that she still had the touch.
Wheeler was inspecting the buildings from a new vantage point and marveled at the true size of the rest of the ranch he had not seen. The fenced, outdoor exercise pens were just as empty as the ones he had seen earlier out in front, but he noticed the pens in the back were being used for storage. They had covered pallets inside them that seemed odd to him. Why would they store stuff outside when the huge shop probably had room somewhere inside? He dismissed the thought because he did not really know much about the manufacturing operation.
What he did notice was the people exiting the building and heading for the bunkhouse. “It must be quitting time. Is it normal that they are working a bit late?” Wheeler asked Marlene.
“Late or not, it’s normal. They usually quit about now. They have a cook in the bunkhouse and they get dinner here, so there is a serving time that can’t be missed if you want to eat.”
“I know that one from the navy. We called it dining to the bells” Wheeler chuckled.
They walked the horses through the compound between the buildings and only one person noticed their progress.
“Hey Wheeler!” Eric hailed them. “I see you’ve met our local cowgirl. Hi Marlene.”
“Yup” Wheeler said with a bad drawl. “She’s a ‘been showin’ me a raht fine time.”
Eric chuffed out a laugh and said “That was terrible, keep your day job. By the way, are you going to take the day job here?”
“That’s my plan, except I will be staying up at the main house, so don’t set out a plate for me.”
“Excellent. I’ll see you in the morning then” he waved and headed into the bunkhouse.
“I guess it’s official now, you’re employed!” Marlene said happily. They walked the horses along the driveway and back to the paddock to relieve them of their saddles and gear.
They spotted Flo rocking on the back porch with an identical glass to the one she drank before dinner.
“Get something and join me. The sunset requires that respects be paid.”
“Sure mom. We’ll be right back.
They settled on the double wide swing chair hanging on chains with their beer and wine and Flo asked “How was the ride?”
Marlene answered with a jab “Wheeler here actually did pretty good. He didn’t even fall off once!” She leaned in to give Wheeler a gentle shoulder-to-shoulder bump and a bright smile.
“I saw you talking to somebody at the workshop” Flo said. “Did you take the job?”
Wheeler was starting to realize that Flo listened to music that nobody else could hear, so he wasn’t surprised. He just answered “Yes. I’ll start tomorrow.”
“Good!” she said looking over the rim of her glass at the sunset. “There’s nothing so perfect as the sunset. All the colors are in the right place, the light dims at just the right rate and there’s not a damn thing we can do about any of it.”
As cryptic as Flo could be, Wheeler got the innuendo. Just as his old friend had told him, it was not necessary for him to know where he was going or why, but just to go and what he needed to know would be revealed when it was time.
Tomorrow would be the time.
Wheeler laid in the comfy bed just a few doors down from Marlene. The ranch house was quiet and he was drifting between wakefulness and sleep in a kind of twilight sleep, where his mind was providing him with fanciful images that were not quite reality. There was a flock of birds flying in a perfect ‘vee’ pattern, low enough to see the outlines but too far away to identify the exact bird. They were some kind of geese by the formation but he couldn’t tell for sure. What he could see was that the lead bird had no neck and no head.
His next vision was that of a pack of wolves hiding in some tall grass, starting to surround a herd of antelope. The antelope changed into goats, then a herd of giraffe that must not have been important. The wolves made their subtle approach, closing in on the unsuspecting herd and making no sound, then charged all at once. The lead wolf was headless.
Wheeler drifted off to sleep flipping through all manner of headless animals, most of which he could not identify nor did he care to. The significance of the visions would be revealed in time, maybe, but they were of no importance now.
Wheeler made the five-minute morning walk to the office attached to the bunkhouse and found Eric and Mike in the middle of some kind of planning session.
“Wheeler, good morning” Mike greeted him heartily. “Glad you could join us. I was just going over the final count with Eric.”
“I’ll wait outside if you want me to” Wheeler offered.
“Oh no, no” Mike retorted. “You should probably hear this too. Come in and sit down. The boss wants some changes made before we ship these things out.”
“The boss?” Wheeler was confused. “I thought you were the boss.”
“You flatter me, Wheeler. I don’t have the money to bankroll all of this, I’m just the hired gun tasked with the job of keeping this whole thing running, along with Eric here.”
The two of them smiled at Wheeler’s confusion like they had just pulled off a particularly good prank.
“So you are the designer of the planes?” Wheeler asked.
“Not even that. I really am just managing the operation to keep the geniuses from getting strangled by the good old boys that are actually building these things” Mike smiled back at Wheeler.
Eric chuckled at that one, affirming that there was probably more truth to that than fiction.
“There actually is a big boss with enough money to buy the town next door out of petty cash, I think” Mike added, and then returned to the business at hand. “What we are planning here is the outfitting of all of them to be the movie model. The boss wants to be able to sell these with a top quality movie camera and a remote control system, but these first models are only single passenger capable and can’t carry the pilot and the camera.
“So you two are going to convince Dr. Emil to retrofit them with the mounts for the camera and the controls for remote flight” Mike added. “These are the drawings and the hardware is out back under the tarps in one of the exercise pens.”
All three of them studied the drawings laid out on the desk and it didn’t seem to be too complicated. The remote controls were mounted under the dashboard where the pilot’s feet and legs should be and the camera was bolted to the pilot’s seat brackets, just like the seat. The only issue appeared to be the hole in the floor for the half dome that protected the camera.
“I assume that the dome that hangs down has the camera mechanism inside?” Wheeler commented, not looking up.
“Yes, that’s what Mike was just explaining when you got here. The camera head has its own swivel and can be remotely aimed from the ground. You know boss, I don’t think we need Emil. There’s nothing structural here, it’s just a hole and both of the additions just bolt to the existing structure.”
They studied the drawings for a few more heartbeats and then both Eric and Mike said “Leon.” They looked at each other and laughed out loud.
“Who’s Leon?” Wheeler asked the obvious question.
“The more accurate question should be ‘What is a Leon?’” Eric corrected. “Leon is a refugee from auto body repair world that insists that he is an artist, not a mere repairman, and lives on his own planet of rap, shuck and jive.”
“Yup, Leon” Mike repeated, wistfully shaking his head. “Turn this over to him and see how he’s doing with the tail section. See if you can get Roberto to check it out and not stuff another plane into the prairie, would you?”
“Okay, we’re on it boss” Eric answered as he grabbed up the drawings.
They found Leon in his own private corner of the workshop, dancing to the beat pounding inside his headphones that both of them could hear clearly. Wheeler thought the man was going deaf or would eventually be deaf. He was applying paint from a spray can in time with the music.
Eric tapped him on the shoulder from behind and made him jump. Leon ripped off his headphones, spun around and spat out “Wha choo won’t!!” The scowl on his face plainly showed his irritation at the interruption.
Eric ignored the outburst and said “Leon, this is the new guy, Wheeler.”
Leon spun on Wheeler and eyed him critically before speaking. “You the guy that spotted the melted rudder?”
“That’s me” Wheeler said evenly.
“No surprise the dorks didn’t find it. They’ all in their calculators and computers and don’t know shit about makin’ this crap actually work.” He paused to consider, then relaxed down to what was probably normal for him and said “Leon,” holding out his painted hand to shake.
“Wheeler” he shook the extended hand.
“Were you able to do something with the vents in the back?” Eric asked him.
“Oh, yeah. Check it out” he indicated the spot that he had just painted on the tail of the plane.
“What am I looking at? I don’t see anything” Eric said.
“Move to the back” Leon said proudly. “Them are fish gill vents from a ’72 Vette that you can only see from the back. Cool, huh?” Leon was stepping from side to side in a subtle dance fashion that Wheeler thought he was not aware of. He was vibrating with excitement.
“They won’t even disturb the airflow.”
“It looks pretty slick” Eric observed. “Is the other side done too?”
“Yup. You can take it away” Leon said as he put down his spray can.
“Good” Eric concluded. “Let’s push this one out and get the next one in here. You need to cut a hole and make a bunch of blank plates.”
“Huh?” Leon replied. Wheeler and Eric explained the changes and pushed the first fish gill model out toward the runway.
They collected Roberto and did a thorough pre-flight, checking control surfaces, brakes and finally the engine and prop. It was normal to run the engine up to full power on the ground with the airframe strapped to the tie-downs to ensure that the power train was in good order.
“Okay Roberto” Eric said, as the engine sputtered to a stop. “We’ll cut you loose. Just take it on the 100 mile run up between the hills and right back. Stay low, don’t buzz any cattle and stay away from the highways, like always. Give us a minute to get into the control room.”
“Okay boss” Roberto replied, getting back into the plane.
“Let’s go, Wheeler.”
They made a dash for the control room that was perched on the roof of the arena, climbing the stairs that looked new and Wheeler observed that the room was new as well. The small room was mostly windows with a good view of the runway and the distant hills. Eric fired up the computer and radios and contacted Roberto when it was all running.
“We’re on, Roberto. Take it away” Eric said into the microphone.
“I’m outta’ here, boss.”
The computer screen was a map of southwest Wyoming with a dot in the lower left corner that was moving slightly.
“The dot is Roberto” Eric commented as he adjusted the display on the other computer screen. “This one is the tracking system so we can keep an eye on our wayward boy. It has speed, altitude, direction and everything else Roberto can see on the instrument panel. We can see all of it.
The dot began to move faster as Roberto began his take-off roll and the readouts on the screen changed.
“How is all of this stuff being collected?” Wheeler asked, waving at the telemetry readouts.
“We put a GPS tracker on the plane like the unit the truckers use to keep tabs on their trucks. It will tell them exactly where the truck is so they can make sure there’s no funny business going on” Eric grinned. “We’re doing the same thing with Roberto.”
The plane lifted off and there was a momentary streak across the sky and Roberto was gone. The readout said he hit 200 miles per hour and was holding it there at only 60% power and 300 feet off the ground. Wheeler knew it could go that fast but was amazed anyway.
“Bring it up to 85% Roberto. How does it feel?”
“It’s stable now but it’s getting a bit twitchy with more power.”
“You’re at 260 now. You okay?”
“Not bad. It might still be a bit tail heavy. Can you move the seat forward again?”
“Sure, we might have to cut off your legs, but that’s okay with me.”
“Try taking the turn at this speed and check the rudder. The temperature in the tail is only 150 degrees.”
Eric spoke to Wheeler “The turn is where the rudder gets used. He’s made the turn at this speed before so we should be all right.”
Wheeler looked at the readout screen see the speed at 260 and the heading change. The map on the main screen showed Roberto at 100 miles out and turning the plane around gracefully.
“He’s at 100 miles and he just started” Wheeler gushed. “Wow that thing is fast!”
“Put it up to 100%, Roberto” Eric said, grinning into the mike.
“Okay, boss. If this thing freezes you’ll have to catch me before it hits the ground, again.”
“No problem, we’ll put the net out.”
Wheeler knew there was no net but did recognize the concern in Roberto’s voice. They were pushing the little plane to the limit and that was when something would break.
“Roberto, you’re at 295 and the tail is up to 200 degrees. You okay?”
“It feels fine. It’s even more stable than before, I think the high pressure is pushing down on the canopy making the nose heavier. I’m going to make a little zig-zag.”
“Okay, go ahead.”
The track on the map showed a gentle ‘S’ pattern left then right and settled back to straight.
“Smooth as silk, no wobbles” Roberto said with relief.
“Throttle back and bring it in. We’re done here.”
“You got it, I can see the barn now.”
Eric left the systems running to record to the end but got up from the chair and said “Let’s go get him.”
Roberto taxied the plane to the ramp from which he departed, shut down the noisemaker and got out.
“That’s the way this is supposed to work!” Roberto said happily.
“All right” Eric said, as he switched immediately into boss mode. “That is number twelve and we have 38 more to go. We won’t be able to check the full speed capabilities until Leon gets the fish gills installed, but we can make short flights at low speeds.”
“No problem boss. How many are in the paddock ready to go?” Roberto asked. “The last filly worked out pretty well.”
Eric gave him a wry smile. Roberto insisted they were at a ranch punching doggies, whatever that meant. Eric pulled out the clipboard that he always carried, flipped a few pages and answered “It looks like there are twelve more. Do you think you and Wheeler can take them out for a spin?”
Roberto eyed Wheeler critically and said “they’re not supposed to carry passengers, but I can try.”
“Aw jees” Eric snorted. “Wheeler, you’re with me. Let me show you how to set the knobs on the tracking system before we set ding-bat here loose again.”
As they walked away Wheeler heard Roberto say “I’m wounded. I’m going to get coffee.”
Eric showed Wheeler how to set up the computers and insert the tail number, date, flight info and save the file. He told Wheeler “only let him have about fifteen minutes and no high speed stuff. Just get them up and get ‘em down. You guys are just going to do a check-fly at low speed until Leon gets the fish gills installed.”
“Show me where the mess hall is?” Wheeler asked. He wanted coffee too.
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Wheeler embarks on his second adventure, sent out into the world after his navy career by his good friend Emil. His last adventure had left him feeling soiled by the dirty money and the white collar crooks and he just wanted to get out to the open spaces of the less populated, rural Middle America. He still maintained his need to help and protect but he was looking for a bit of down time in the quiet, slow pace of a small town. Try as he would to go off and hide, he is whisked away to the unimaginable task of protecting nothing less than the American way of life. He becomes entwined in the manufacture of airplanes to be used to serve an evil purpose for which only Wheeler can intervene. He has only his own resources and the desire to do the right thing on his side, but his adversaries dwell far beyond his understanding and he hasn’t said no yet.