And God help me, I did trust her.
This is not me, I’m not like this. I’m the kind of guy who gets his car washed once a week. I keep up with my bills. Even so, I’m a man, with the usual weaknesses. That was something she knew all about.
It had been a long day of driving. I was on my way back from the east coast, and decided to put off my arrival in Oregon for another day and do some sightseeing. Nightfall found me in a tiny Idaho hamlet, tired and hungry. I’m drawn to airports, got a real nose for them, and it put a big smile on my face to find this little restaurant parked at the edge of a small landing field. The sign said ‘Pie’, as if the runway lights weren’t enough to reel me in.
The steak was forgettable, but the sign’s promise was spot-on. I was tearing through a wedge of some of the best Marionberry pie I’d ever had when she slid into the booth across from me. I swallowed, ran my tongue across my teeth to wipe away any seeds that might pepper my grin.
“Nice night,” she said, gazing out the plate glass window at the tarmac.
“Mmm,” I nodded, at a momentary loss for words. She wore a jean jacket, collar up, over a snug white t-shirt. Her raven hair was gathered in a ponytail, and wisps of it had escaped and curled around her ears. It took all I had not to stare.
She seemed to take no notice, just sat scanning the field, the blue lights reflecting in her eyes. She turned to me as if she’d just noticed I was there. “I’m sorry, that was rude. Are you with someone?”
“No, no,” I said, a little too quickly, “Just passing through.” I nodded over my shoulder. “Road trip.”
Her smile was faint and haunting, and I felt myself slipping under her control immediately. “I’m waiting for someone, but I don’t think he’ll show,” she said with a shrug. “This place, well—I’d rather not hang around by myself at the bar.”
“Looks like a decent joint,” I said.
“You’d think.” She turned her attention back to the view outside. “You a pilot?”
“How’d you know?” No need to mention the student part.
One corner of her mouth turned up in a fetching smirk. “Just a hunch.”
I’ve heard stories from the road, or maybe I just dreamed them up—strangers dropping in from nowhere for a night, the chance to be anyone you want until the sun rises—anything could happen. Mostly, they were just idle daydreams. That is, until she sat down and struck up a conversation.
She said her name was Bonnie and shook my hand. We talked for what seemed like hours, or rather I talked. She had a way of tilting her head towards me when I spoke, collecting my words like loose diamonds. She laughed at my feeble jokes. Every time I’d stop to take a breath, there were those eyes, bottomless and dark, and couldn’t help myself. I’d say anything to keep them trained on me.
My words were slurred from sheer exhaustion when she abruptly got up and stretched. The sight shot through my system a shot like a booster rocket.
I paid the check and she led me toward the door. My legs were a little wobbly, whether from excitement or exhaustion I couldn’t say. She rounded on me in the dim parking lot, close enough for me to see the glint from a tiny stud in her earlobe. “Want to have some fun?” she asked, in a smoky voice.
“I, um, sure…I mean, yes.” I stammered like a moron.
“Meet me at five-thirty, here.”
“Oh right, you’ve got to hit the road. Never mind, I—“
I couldn’t stumble over my words fast enough. “No, it’s not that. I can leave whenever I want. Five-thirty? In the morning?”
“I like flying at dawn,” she said, with a wicked grin. “Trust me, there’s nothing quite like it.”
And God help me, I did trust her.
All of this is by way of explaining what brought me shivering into the black cold of an Idaho pre-dawn, staring through a chain link fence at a row of darkened aircraft and holding two Styrofoam cups of coffee.
She brushed past me, punched in a security code, and the big gate clicked open. I pushed a steaming cup in her direction.
She swung the gate wide and looked over her shoulder at me, her expression unreadable. For a moment, I thought she was having second thoughts, that she’d realize that we’d only just met, and bolt.
The corners of her mouth tilted slightly. “Aren’t you sweet?” She lifted the cup from my hot hand. “C’mon, it’s over here.” She marched along the flight line, draping the strap a large tote over her shoulder. She pulled a rolling carry-on bag behind her. I followed at a distance and wished it was light enough to get a better view.
We strolled down the row of parked aircraft sleeping at their tie downs. There were a lot of 172’s, a familiar form from my training, a scattering of Beechcraft, and one or two biplanes. She stopped before an unfamiliar shape and fished in her pocket for a key.
“Never seen a Columbia 400?” She popped open a luggage door and stowed the roller in a single economical movement.
I lied, “Oh right, sure, I was just… nice plane.” Somebody, make me stop talking.
It sat high on its gear, and she leaned into the grab handle, hoisting herself into the cockpit. She reached across and popped open the passenger door for me.
I’ve never driven a Ferrari, never even sat in one, but in my imagination this is how they feel. I nestled into the leather bucket seat. It was firm, bordering on hard, comfortable but authoritative. It smelled like a new car, a long way from the worn innards of my Cessna trainer.
I whistled and ran my hand across the sweeping curve of the dash. She fiddled with the keys, and after a couple of tries found the one that fit into the ignition. Now that she was in the cockpit, her movements were more businesslike, her tone clipped. “It’s new,” she said.
“Smells like it.” I took in the smooth curves of the interior, done up in shades of tan. “Hey, cup holders!” I took a scalding sip of the black coffee and set the cup aside, grinning with anticipation. Bonnie leaned over the panel, counting the buttons with her eyes, and snapped a red rocker switch. The twin flat-screen displays angled before her awoke and began reeling off information.
The fuel gauges in my old Cessna were like a beloved alcoholic uncle; I was happy to see them, but never quite trusted their story. These fancy avionics beamed with PowerPoint authority, daring anyone to question them. A 3-D graphic of a cylinder, three-quarters full, glowed on the right panel. “Plenty of gas,” I remarked. Bonnie nodded, her lips moving silently, and pressed a button. The display shifted to show the parameters of the still quiet engine.
I kept babbling. “So, I guess we need to pre—“ She twisted the key and the propeller jumped, followed by the flat hum of a well-tuned engine. “—flight. Oh, okay. I usually have to do a full walk-around before cranking it up.”
“No need,” she said, fluttering her hand dismissively, “it’s brand new, all good. Besides, sun’s coming up.”
And so it was. A flaming orange crack had appeared on the eastern horizon, spreading rapidly. The soon-to-be sun bathed the few wisps of high cirrus above us, delicately smeared pink across an indigo sky. I couldn’t imagine a better morning for flight.
A light breeze ruffled the mid-field windsock as Bonnie nudged the plane out onto the taxiway. It ticked over smoothly, trundling like royalty past the humble pageant of common planes.
“Want to do the takeoff?” She arched one eyebrow. It was a challenge, a chance for me to show her what I was made of. There was only one answer.
I nodded, my eyes huge. “You know it!”
Bonnie shifted in her seat and folder her arms. “Okay, hotshot. Go for it.”
The hairs on the back of my neck stood up when I edged the throttle forward. This thing was a rocket. I danced on the rudder pedals, trying to keep to the centerline, and felt my confidence begin to build. I glanced over at Bonnie’s panel and saw the green tick on the airspeed tape rolling down the screen, just like in that 737 simulator I once flew. I tugged back on the short stick and we neatly leapt into the air.
“My god,” I gasped, keeping my view locked forward. Instinctively, I dropped the nose to pick up speed before starting my climb. I needn’t have bothered. Another glance at the airspeed showed it rising quickly. I throttled back a little and pointed the nose at the clouds.
The hills below fell away as we bounced on the lightly burbling stream of air slipping around us. I looked over my right shoulder at the graceful taper of the wing with the reflection of the clouds flowing like water across its deep gloss.
“Let’s head north,” Bonnie said. She made no move to retake control.
I nodded, testing the planes agility. It tipped instantly when I nudged the stick, rolling crisply into a bank. The rudder was so much lighter than what I was accustomed to, and I had to use a light foot in the turn. So nimble. I could fly this thing all day, I thought.
Perhaps she humored me when she remarked on how well I was doing. Honestly, I didn’t care. I looked at her with the delight of a six year old and chuckled. “It’s incredible. What a machine!” Bonnie nodded.
We cooked along, gaining altitude and making small talk. Within a few minutes, the sun blazed across the landscape, hills trailing long shadows across the velvet tan ground. I saw a flock of what my instructor used to call “bee-one-are-dees” winging their way northward, maybe geese, it was hard to tell from the speed with which we shot past them. I tried to imagine what day in my life was better than this one, and came up with a blank.
We flew up through a shallow valley for a while in silence, following a braided river and taking in the scenery. After a while, she stirred. “Little bit to the right.” Bonnie studied a chart on her lap, referencing the ground outside her window. “See that lake off the nose, about two o’clock? Head toward that.”
“Where do you have in mind?”
“I thought we could do some sightseeing. I take this track a lot.” She reached over and squeezed my knee. “You’re doing great. Keep it up.”
“Let’s look for sheep,” she said.
“Bighorn. Drop down to the deck and we’ll try to spot some.”
“Okaaaay…” Her smile remained fixed, and I realized that she wasn’t joking. “You’re a wild one, aren’t you?”
“You have no idea,” she said. Against my better judgment, I pulled back the power and pushed the stick gently with my thumb to drop the nose.
I watched the airspeed climb as we dropped through the rolling morning air, the wings dipping one way then another. A thousand feet from the ground, I leveled out.
“Lower,” she said, as if yelling to a carnival ride operator.
It was my turn to arch an eyebrow. “Really?”
“Okay.” I pushed us down until we were a few hundred feet from the undulating ground and tried to match the landscape. “Is this what they call scud-running?” I asked, half joking. A momentary blank look washed across her face, then she winked.
“You’re too cute,” she said.
I felt like I could hop out and fly alongside the plane. What had I done to deserve this?
She nodded toward a finger of rock in the distance to our left. “See that pinnacle?”
“The long, crooked one?”
“That’s it. Head for that.”
“You got it, sister,” I said, getting cocky. I felt like a racecar driver, weaving across the landscape that blurred by beneath my wings. I lacked only a white silk scarf. Bonnie stared at her map again.
“Sure hope nobody sees us cruising this low,” I said, in a momentary attack of guilt.
She cocked her head, teasing, and swept her hand across the wide, empty landscape.
“You need to loosen up, man. Live a little.”
I felt a prickle of warmth in my earlobes. We’d only known one another for a few hours, already she had me pegged. “I’m trying,” I said.
She pointed across the nose. “See that strip?”
“Short gravel run, just at the base of the rock.”
I looked harder, and finally could just barely make out that could pass for a runway of sorts. I nodded. “I think so.”
All good things must end sometime, I supposed. “Sure thing. Go ahead and take over.”
“Nonsense, you’re a natural,” she said.
“You’re just saying that.”
She gave me an earnest look. “Would I honestly let you fly this thing if I didn’t trust you?”
“You’re certifiable,” I said.
Her voice was teasing, almost cruel. “Are you gonna put it in or not?”
I looked forward at the patch of ground we were rapidly approaching. “Okay, sure, I’d love to.” In truth, my palm was sweating so badly that my hand was slipping on the sidestick. “Let’s pop up a little higher so I can see what I’m doing, and slow for landing.”
She sat up abruptly. “No, this is fine. Circle around the field and I’ll make sure nobody is taking off.”
I shrugged and swung around the makeshift airport, pulling the throttle back to idle to slow the slippery little plane. It felt like we were hydroplaning on a skin of oil, but after a minute it began to lose a little speed.
“Try this thing,” Bonnie said, tapping a lever on the center console.
“Speed brakes?” Holy crap, this little bird was outfitted like an airliner. I pulled on the handle and a pair of hand-sized spoilers popped from the top of the wings. As effortlessly as it had climbed, the plane began to slow.
“We’re good,” Bonnie said. “Bring it on in.”
She poked a finger at the ground. “That one.”
I rolled my eyes. “No, I mean how’s the wind? See the sock?”
She shrugged and squinted at the ground. “It’s just hanging there limp.”
Welcome news. I searched for the end of the runway. We were so low that the view was skewed, but the approach angle quickly became apparent. “What’s my stall speed?” I asked, trying to keep my focus on the slip of gravel coming at me.
“You’re good,” Bonnie said. I looked over to see her fingers locked onto the side of her seat. She saw me watching her, and shot me a thin, tight smile.
I would have insisted on turning the plane over to her, but there was no time. It happened so quickly—the final approach, a little too low. I nudged the plane back and forth with the rudder, trying to connect with the centerline. Ten feet up, I pulled the nose gently back and we dropped with a sickening sink, punctuated by a jolt, then bounced a couple of feet before clopping firmly to the ground. Gravel kicked up in a flurry behind us, pelting the skin with a sharp rustle of pops and cracks. I prayed that they left no permanent marks, but knew they would.
“I’m really sorry about that,” I said, after we came to a halt.
“’Bout what?” Bonnie said. She was moving her head in rapid birdlike jerks, her gaze darting around the field.
“The disaster of a landing.”
“Sure,” I stammered. My heart was still racing from the botched landing. She leaned over, dangerously close to me, and my confusion spiked. I caught a whiff of freshly scrubbed skin and shampoo. Live a little, she’d said. I reached over to meet her lips, but she looked down at the last instant and I connected with her scalp.
She snapped her head back, and hoisted the tote onto her lap from the back seat. Time stood still as I pondered what had just happened.
She patted the top of the bag. “Okay, then. Stick here. I’ll just be a second.” I opened my mouth to speak, but she was already climbing onto the gravel. She looked at the only building on the field, a corrugated tin shack. An old GMC beater pickup was parked beside it, looking as if it’d sprouted there. She turned to me and held up her finger, mouthing one second.
I watched her disappear into the shack. It didn’t look like a place where you’d find a restroom, and even if you did I was pretty sure the bushes would be preferable. I turned the plane around on the gravel, going slowly and steering gently to avoid more stone chips. Once I lined it up, I pulled the engine back to a low idle and watched for her to reemerge.
When she took a few minutes, I started fiddling around with the array of electronic goodies that festooned the cockpit. In addition to the two large screens, there were a two GPS units built into the center console. A pair of them! And here I’d been pining for a simple hand-held for ages.
I was scrolling through the data screens on one of the main displays, checking out the various views when the pops came. It sounded like someone setting off firecrackers in the hills nearby. I scanned the landscape for sign of them. Then another crack, this time much closer. Something was wrong. My pulse leapt, and I reached for my seatbelt. Then I saw the glint of sunlight on metal as the shack’s door swung open, crashing into the wall.
Bonnie stumbled through the doorway, eyes over her shoulder, limping. The tote still hung on her, and something dark was in her right hand. Before I could get out, she began waving her arms wildly, gesturing towards the end of the runway. As she neared, I saw that the thing she was holding was a pistol.
Her voice was ragged as she climbed back in. “Punch it! Go!” she screamed. “Now!”
“Holy shit, what happened?” I gasped.
“Get moving or we’re dead.” Her tone left no room for argument. Then I saw another shape emerge from the shack’s doorway. A man in ragged jeans and a flannel shirt dropped to one knee in the doorway. I thought he must be wounded, then realized with a jolt that he was aiming something at us.
I shoved the throttle forward and the plane lurched at the runway. My hand was shaking, and I jerked at the stick, trying to unstick the wheels before they were ready to go. The nose lifted, then fell. I heard the gravel ping against the paint, then a series of flat pops as a bullet tore through the back seat in a spray of cotton padding.
We hit a pothole, shaking the reedy airframe, and Bonnie moaned. The wheels bounced once more, and then we were airborne. He was still shooting at us, but we were back in the plane’s element and quickly putting distance between us and the redneck maniac.
“You okay?” I kept my eyes on the horizon and felt for Bonnie’s knee. I thought my senses were misfiring in the chaos when my hand came back wet. I glanced down and nearly passed out. My palm was coated in crimson ooze. I snapped around at her and saw the red bloom spreading across the thigh of her jeans. Her eyes were open, but she was pale and silent.
I never thought I would be good in an emergency. I tend to rattle easily, and startle at nothing sometimes. High-strung, some people might say. But now, faced with life or death decisions, my mind found a calm spot and clicked through the options. “We need to get you to a hospital,” I said.
Her lips moved.
“I can’t hear you,” I said.
I shook my head. “No choice, you’ve been shot. Any idea where the nearest hospital is?”
“Bonnie?” I glanced back at her and my heart rattled wildly against my ribs. Her eyes were closed. “Bonnie! Hey, stay with me!” I reached over and shook her shoulder. She murmured something unintelligible.
The shortest course back to where we started was what I needed. I looked down at the GPS. Helluva time to try and learn a new piece of equipment. There was a “Direct To” button that looked familiar from my simulator, and I pressed it, wracking my brain for any nearby airport code to enter.
Then I recalled the airport info screen on the main display. I dialed it in, scrolled down for a name I might recognize. Creston, seemed like I’d heard of that. Maybe they’d have medical facilities. I punched it into the navigation unit and a bright magenta line magically appeared, connecting me with my destination. All I had to do was line the plane up and fly as fast as it would go.
There was a thud next to me, and I looked over to see Bonnie’s hands slack. Then I saw the pistol lying by her feet. The questions began to swirl in my mind, and I tried to force them out and concentrate on the task at hand.
It seemed to take forever, but finally I saw runway at tiny CFQ. I called up the tower and informed them of my emergency, then requested the long expanse of runway 20 for landing. I could see the flashing red lights of the ambulance waiting beside the taxiway as I brought the plane down.
Ironically, this was by far my better landing of the two, with no one to notice. Bonnie had been unconscious for the flight. I kept poking her, and she’d stir or mumble, but that was all. She’d lost a lot of blood on the nice leather upholstery.
I stood watching at the lights flashed off through the airport gates, siren shrieking in the morning air. Then the sheriff clapped his hand on my shoulder and said we needed to have a talk. That’s how it happened.
“So once again, how do you know Ms. Cole?” The Mountie in his neatly pressed uniform rocks back in his chair and stares up at me through hooded eyes.
His expression is listless. “Meredith Cole, Patricia McGee, Mandy Meltzer. She goes by all of them.”
I sigh. “She told me her name was Bonnie.”
“No way, that was her. I’m only a student pilot, just along for the ride.”
He almost smiles, then seems to think better of it. “Sir, Ms. Cole doesn’t hold a pilot’s license.”
My knees begin to liquefy. I have to sit down before I fall.
“How about Mr. Richard Hanson, retired corporate pilot, formerly of Billings Montana? What do you know about him?”
I shake my head. “Never heard of him.”
He nods, jotting down my response on a notepad. “So the fact that he turned up in a dumpster this morning with a slug through the back of his head, has no special significance to you?”
I try to speak, but my throat is suddenly parched and no sound comes out.
“And this, I suppose you have no knowledge of this?” He kicks the tote out from the side of the desk.
“Like I said, she just had it with her.”
The RCMP officer makes a show of unzipping the bag, slowly, savoring the moment. He slides his beefy fingers into the slit and pulls it aside.
The officer nods. “By my count, about seven hundred fifty thousand U.S. dollars.”
I close my eyes as a fresh headache threads through my temples.
“I need to advise you to contact an attorney at this point,” he says, in that maddeningly calm way law enforcement types have of breaking bad news.
The words soak in, and I shake my head, trying to wake up. “This is not me. I’m not like this.”
He picks this moment to smile. “No sir, I’m sure you’re not.”