The hangar was a big, boxy thing, rounded across the top with high windows and and marked at the ramp access by a pair of heavy telescoping doors. CLOWER AVIATION SERVICES was painted across the doors, EVERETT, TEXAS in smaller letters underneath. Around the upper part of the wall, fogged and spiderwebbed glass squares let in enough light to get around inside during the day. At some point - back in the dark ages when Rigland had been a small air national guard strip - an addition had been made to the street-side, providing two or three offices, a restroom, and an area with large, flat tables and chairs and telephone connections for flight planning and briefings.
Evelyn parked the service truck in front of the bay doors. She was less than enthused to be down here, but after careful and thorough consideration she had concluded it was either this or kill somebody. Her day was progressing more or less as planned; no fuel on tap meant no paperwork or sales, but having been spared during the week by Dani the hassle of tending the front counter she had been unprepared for the constant barrage of complaints, comments, or demands posed by the flying circus camped out on the ramp.
There was no coffee for the machine - the customer phones were giving busy signals - where was the courtesy car - the paper towel dispenser was empty - the toilet paper dispenser was empty - how long until there was more gas - gas better not cost more when it arrived - the coffee machine was broken - why didn't Clower sell charts - the internet was down - how about this heat wave - my kid doesn't feel well and needs a doctor - the toilets need to be cleaned.
Not much into the afternoon and Mike's offhand suggestion of bringing a shotgun to work didn't sound too far off the mark. At a quarter past eleven she locked all the exits, passed on a hasty excuse about needing to check on something at the hangar, and beat a retreat.
She rested her forehead on the steering while and stared at the fine coating of dust on the instrument panel. Fuck. Leaving the office wasn't smart. Come Monday - assuming he bothered to show up - the boss' worthless kid and ersatz second shift manager would give her an earful about the importance of customer service. Customer service was a sacred thing to them. Companies lived and died on good customer service. Presumably the principle was unaffected by the Fortunate Son clocking in, shutting himself in his father's office, and surfing porn or sleeping through his forty-plus hours. Otherwise Clower would have crashed and burned inside a week.
It occurred to her that she might not have a job soon. She sort of wished she didn't now. That Junior would show up and fire her on the spot. Give her the rest of the weekend off. But she needed the paycheck, pitiful as it was, and in the big picture stomaching management here was easier than going unpaid for a while and settling for the same anywhere else.
She reached for the door handle. If she was going to be here she might as well give off the illusion of productivity. What she should have done was gone to her car and picked up her music. But she'd been too frazzled at that point to think about anything past escape. She'd just have to find something down here to amuse herself for half an hour or so. Not too long. Just enough to let her mind clear. She slid out of the truck and walked to the side entrance of the hangar, toying with the ring of keys clipped to her belt loop.
The inside of the hangar was hot and stuffy and she left the door hanging open behind her. Not enough to draw any kind of draught, but the effect of a sheetmetal building left baking in the sun was like that of a sauna. She threaded her way through the tangle of wings and stabilizers to the offices. Planes were packed in wall to wall, nose to tail, and wing over wing. A tribute to a another line rat and a childhood spent playing Tetris. Even the FBO's ramp tractor was present, tucked neatly into the front corner under the high T-tail of a King Air.
There really wasn't anything she could do here. She drifted to the addition and through the rooms in the back. Most were piled with junk or old furniture. The cast-off things that had been included when Clower bought the hangar but which had never quite made it to the dump. By and large the briefing room was untouched.
She sank into one of the old chairs lined along the wall and leaned her head back. She closed her eyes and took a deep breath. The place smelled of age and dust. A poorly assembled model airplane dangled from the ceiling in one corner, frozen in flight over a battered wooden podium. Aviation charts, well out of date, plastered the walls. Through gaps in the high-traffic carpet she could make out some kind of crest laid into the floor tiles. Some air guard unit, probably long defunct. The ceiling was sound-absorbing white panels. Loaded with asbestos, knowing her luck.
Actually, the place wasn't that bad. Quiet, conveniently close yet far enough off the beaten path to disappear for a few minutes. She searched under the vest in her shirt pocket and came up with a pack of cigarettes. She'd have to keep this in mind. God knew she couldn't do it anywhere near the office. It was improper. A good young lady did not smoke. She'd made that mistake early on, getting caught on her second or third week by Mrs. Patricia Clower, who had lit into her with a lecture on how smoking was an affront to God and polite society. Her husband, whom she imagined had already been well broken to her nagging, said nothing and their son, she had figured out later, was the sort who was dead-set on saving her pitiful soul unless he got into her panties first. He had better odds of getting to the moon.
She took a drag on the cigarette and thought of something else.
God, she hated it here.
Evelyn slipped down in the chair until she was almost looking up at the ceiling. She didn't fit here any better than she had at her other jobs. She didn't want to make the admission, but it was the truth. She could feel the certainty down in the pit of her stomach. Four months. Five, tops. That's how long she could see herself going before she fucked up in catastrophic fashion. When she did it was going to be all her, too. The only part her asshole boss and his creepy fundevangelist family and her indifferent coworkers would play would be standing on the sidelines and watching the fire.
She paused, certain she'd heard something out the in the main hangar. Footsteps? Settling metal? Wind? On second thought she -
She jumped up. The chair skidded. Not much - just enough to bark and give her away. She looked frantically for a place to toss the half-smoked cigarette. There weren't a whole lot of options. Everything in the room was either covered in paper or dust. Then she spotted the trash can, one of those featureless metal types. The footfalls were closing, slapping against the bare concrete floors. She arced the butt, watched it twist through the air and drop cleanly into the can.
Thank God. She just hoped there was nothing flammable inside.
"In here!" she said.
A man stepped through the door. Brown pants. Khaki shirt. A black leather duty belt around the waist. A worn pistol on the right hip, a bright yellow taser on the other. A lightly colored cowboy hat. And pinned on the left breast, a badge. The nameplate opposite was etched REED.
"Afternoon. You work here at the airport?"
"Yeah," she said. "At the FBO."
"Okay." The deputy furrowed his brow. Picking up the scent of tobacco smoke. She could imagine how this looked. Her out here alone. The smell. NO SMOKING signs posted at neat intervals along every wall. "Anybody else working today?"
"Oh, no," she said, smiling. Doing her best to be disarming. "Somebody told me it looked like people were down here earlier. I came down here to look."
"I think they got away."
"They'll do that." The eyes held hers. If they betrayed anything, it was that he wasn't buying any of this.
"What brings you here?" she asked suddenly.
"You mind stepping outside?"
"Of course." She kept the forced smile up. It masked the hurricane twisting through her belly. Bad enough that she was going to get caught. Worse that it had to be an actual cop instead of Clower. Clower, for his slave-driving tendencies would have just cut her loose and no more would have been said. Mike - who did the actual managing that netted Clower Junior his fatter paycheck - would likely have pointed out the signs and left it at that. She wondered now what the penalty was for smoking in the hangar. One of those little things she might should have considered beforehand. Too late now.
Outside the deputy adjusted his hat and waited for her to lock the door. She fumbled for the proper key, squinting in a light that seemed brighter than it was. She dreaded turning around. When she did he was facing up the ramp. Towards the office.
"How can I help you?" she asked.
"Official business," he said. "As of three o'clock today, this airport is closed."
Her stomach rolled. She wasn't on the hook for her little break, but the bigger implication was more troubling still. Quiet as Rigland had been the past few days, that was more an issue of crowding and lack of available fuel. For those who cared to try the airport and overlying airspace had been unaffected. That the field was being shut down spoke to a larger concern.
"There's been an outbreak here." Her own voice surprised her. So calm, so measured. So matter of fact. An almost imperceptible turn of Reed's head.
"The county's sending buses to pick these people up," he went on. "They don't have to be gone by three, but nothing moves on this ramp without permission."
"Okay," she said. It seemed a vastly underwhelming response to a huge event.
"Can I get you to follow me to the FBO?"
"Sure." She reached for her truck keys. For a moment she encountered only her personal keyring and realized she'd left them inside the office. Like an idiot. And just as quick the lightning bolt - the service truck keys were in the service truck. In the ignition. Where the line rats always left them. She suppressed a giddy grin at her discovery.
Stupid rookie mistake she told herself as he got in behind the wheel. She got the truck turned and trailed the deputy at a reasonable distance, keeping pace at a crawl. No sooner had they stopped than her phone buzzed. She fished it out and read the display. Months ago when she had started flying she'd signed up for an service that delivered Notices to Airman for her local airports, and the phone was letting her know that she had one unread message; sure enough, the latest relayed the news of Rigland's closing.
Shit. She hadn't thought to forward the office calls to her phone. She was stepping in it left and right today.
She pocketed the phone and slammed the truck door. Across the double-yellow line a group of transients was forming, drawn to the arrival of a second sheriff's car. Or maybe some of them had gotten word already. News had a way of getting around.
While Reed and the other deputy were busy surveying the crowd she ran inside. Her first concern was the answering machine. A missed call would be bad. Worse if it came from the boss. A thousand times worse if he'd called more than once. She whipped around the counter and hunched over the machine.
A tiny yellow light blinked above the keypad. Two missed calls. Numbers she didn't recognize. She sat down and redialed. Today had been busy. Was still busy. She was doing work things. Thin excuse, but it might stretch.
"Hello?" a man's voice.
"Hi," she said. "This is Evelyn with Clower Aviation. I'm sorry, I was out and missed your call. What can I do for you?"
"Hey, Evelyn. This is Frank Jackson with Flint."
"Flint?" She searched her brain, searching for a mention of that name. Didn't ring any bells though she was certain she'd heard it before. But where?
"Flint Hills," he explained. "You buy fuel from us."
"Oh!" she said. "Oh, okay. Brain freeze. I didn't draw the connection."
"Some days, eh? Anyway, I'm just calling to tell you we're at the north gate with your order, so...your trucks are here."
She knew when she got back from the transfer that there was no way she was getting home on time. Shifting fuel from supply tankers took roughly an hour per truck, hindered some while she'd gotten ahold of Del - another coworker, who'd offered to drive in and help - and walked through the specifics over the phone, and it'd already been midafternoon when they began the process. Happily, the buses had come in the interim and relieved her of her customer service burden, leaving the makeshift camp on the tarmac depopulated and the lobby free and quiet for her paperwork. Only Reed and the other deputy remained. One cruiser moved up and down the length of the ramp within the confines of the vehicle lane. The other was parked at the foot of the tower, the driver gone inside with the air traffic controllers to monitor the field from a higher vantage.
Nothing was moving in the sky.
For a moment she eyed the silent radio on the corner of the desk. Bobby in the tower had made it official at the stroke of three, a baritone voice on a dead channel announcing the closure. She double checked her figures for the transfer. Then, assured she had strained out as many errors she could find, she clipped the receipts together and dropped the sheaf in the plastic bin for the boss' eventual review.
Moving to the picture window that overlooked anchored rows of aircraft she put her hands to the small of her back and stretched. Already the wall clock was reading a quarter to six. She'd assumed an hour to clean the bathrooms and organize the lobby, a few minutes to review her daily paperwork - no sales today! - and thirty minutes or so to go stick tanks and close up the farm. If she was very, very lucky she might clock out by eight. Still, the hardest and most stressful part of the day was behind her.
From the fridge in the employee room she produced her lunch. The other half of the sub sandwich she'd brought for lunch yesterday and which she'd been too busy to attend earlier. Speaking of - she made a mental note to collect another one on the way home. She ate in silence and looked out on a silent airport. For once the television in the lobby was off. She meant to leave it that way, too. She'd had enough noise to last her a while.
To her surprise she felt a little pride. Maybe she hadn't been a stellar employee today but she'd kept it mostly together and handled the unexpected. The place was still standing, after all, and she'd even overseen the delivery of fifteen thousand gallons of fuel, albeit with some help. Funny in a way - she'd spent the first half of the day hoping someone would come by to keep an eye on her and the second hoping they stayed away and let her handle it. She guessed she was still likely to get fired sooner or later, but she allowed now that she might escape without causing a minor catastrophe.
So long as the flu didn't come around and melt her brain she had it made. The FBO might even be closed tomorrow. She could have her victory, the extra hours on her next check, and Sunday off.
But lying between her present and her weekend were the bathrooms. She frowned as she crumpled the wrapper from the sandwich. Yesterday the task had been split; she'd taken the ladies room and Mike handled the men's. It had worked in her favor since there were fewer women camped outside, but it still hadn't been pleasant. Facing the men's restroom...ugh. She was forever amazed that there existed a creature who could plant a bucking airplane on the runway centerline in the middle of a blind thunderstorm yet miss a stable target in a well-lit space. She'd wear two layers of gloves. And a painter's mask. Perhaps when finished she would burn her clothes.
Nevertheless she went into the storeroom and returned armed and armored, took one last longing look at the waning day, and went to face the music.
When she emerged at last the windows were pools of obsidian. Usually the airport would have been a veritable carnival - runway lights, red marker beacons on all the buildings, taxiway signage, aircraft position lights - but with the formal shutdown Rigland had gone into a blackout. If she stepped outside and strained her eyes she could make out the distant shapes of the tower and private hangars to the north, shadows against the night. Somewhere - either on the perimeter service road or the county highway beyond - a pair of headlights crossed below the horizon.
All that remained now was the easy stuff. Run a quick mop over the floors, hit the carpet with the vacuum cleaner, and shut down the tank farm. The place was halfway presentable. Not her best work, but if she came in tomorrow she'd have nothing else to do but tidy up. Actually, she was half tempted to leave it all. Nobody was going to be in here, and since Clower hadn't called she thought it was a safe bet she was still on for Sunday. She admitted to herself that she could use the extra cash. If that meant playing maid for the day she could live with it.
She pretended to weigh the options as she moved through the lobby, switching off the lights and small appliances throughout. It could wait. She'd been here long enough today. The wall clock said she was pushing on eight, and Clower was notoriously unforgiving when it came to paying overtime. She grabbed a pocket notebook and the keys for the service truck and went out the front door. She paused to lock up, and as she turned for the Ford the shadow of a patrol car slid into the parking lot.
The tinted window moved down and she could see Reed washed in the glow of the dashboard instrument lights.
"You got it about wrapped up?"
"Just about." She waved the scratch pad. "I just need to shut down the tank farm."
"Hang on ." He turned away and spoke into the radio microphone clipped to the epaulet of his shirt. Talking to the other deputy, she guessed. Or the tower. He spoke too low for her to make out his words over the hum of the motor. After a brief exchange he looked back to her.
"Fifteen, twenty minutes." She didn't think it could take too long. She only had to stick two tanks, check the drain and door locks on the trucks, and close the gate.
"All right," he said. "Be quick."
The window slid up and the ghost of the cruiser eased out of the lot. For a minute she stood looking after him. Running without lights. Weird. But then she gave a mental shrug and walked to the service truck, an aging Ford with a box cabinet in place of the bed. At one point the company name had been marked on the side, but years of exposure to weather, blowing grit, and jet exhaust had stripped the adhesive letters away. She turned over the engine and a cloud of blue-gray gas boiled out the tailpipe. Judging by the scent the thing was burning oil.
She made sure the windows were up and waited for the fog to clear. She'd learned early on to give it sufficient time to warm up. Even on warm days it was particular. Evelyn feathered the gas and coaxed the motor to life. There was a strange ticking under the hood and a squeal of belts in need of replacement, but none of the warning lights came on and she started up the ramp.
She parked outside the gate at the fuel farm, leaving the truck running in order to forgo a second showing of the startup ordeal. The yellow wedge of the headlights cast a sickly glow on the service entrance. On her way to the tanks she stopped, then walked to the secondary gate and swore under her breath. The gate was a motorized affair, and like everything else mechanical stayed on the raggedy edge of failure most of the time. Tonight the edge of the sliding section had come to a halt three feet shy of the target, thus leaving a man-sized gap in the perimeter fencing.
Flashlight in hand she shoved and kicked at the gate. She got the opening down to a foot or so before the wheels locked up solid. Well, shit. She kicked it again for good measure and scribbled a note. As Mike was so fond of saying, this was above her pay grade.
Inside the farm she picked up the measuring stick and a jar of pink goop. She'd do the jet tank first. Avgas was always last, she'd been taught - the chemical makeup of 100LL aviation gasoline would eat the jet fuel residue and evaporate, thus saving the effort of cleaning the dipstick. She eyeballed the curved side of the first tank, imagining how high the Jet A would be inside. Then she scooped out a glob of putty and put a six inch streak on the unmarked side. She propped the stick against the tank and climbed up. She almost dropped the flashlight and swore again; there was a light at the farm, but like everything else it had been shut off for the blackout.
Jet reading in hand, she wrote down her figures and moved over to the avgas tank. Avgas was more of a hassle. The same chemical makeup that ate through jet fuel was also slower to leave marks in the paste. On a hot night that meant standing for a minute or so and giving it time to work. A lot of times it meant measuring more than once. Leaving the stick standing she paced the length of the tank, playing the light over the piles of trash inside the spill barrier.
On her second circuit the edge of the light caught something amiss. She hesitated and swung the beam back, unsure of what she'd half-seen but aware that it seemed wrong. The circle of weak light swept over the concrete. Dirt. Tire marks. Weeds growing up in the joints. A puddle of something - God only knew what.
Beside the puddle.
A footprint. She squinted. Maybe. The batteries were going and it was hard to say for sure. Maybe it was imprinted in the cement. She couldn't really be certain. She turned slowly, spot following the general direction. Nothing.
The fence chainlink fence rattled and she started. The beam moved that direction. Nothing there, either.
"You made it this far," she said, her voice seeming oddly distant. "Don't blow it now."
She forced herself to grin. Nineteen years old and still jumping and noises in the dark. It was like the game she'd played as a little girl. Hide and go seek at night. The rush that came from being scared, then pursued, fed by a lifetime of bad horror movies. She managed a laugh. Even to her it sounded forced and unnatural.
The difference was that as a little girl she'd known the people chasing her. The game had been in a familiar place. Her backyard, or one of theirs. It had been established that no matter the outcome nobody was getting hurt beyond bruises or skinned knees. A kind of fear, yes - but contained in a framework that effectively removed its teeth. A drug without the aftereffects.
Big girls in the real world didn't have that luxury. That was why they were sometimes found gutted in dumpsters with a sock taped in their mouth, or the harmless guy who'd lived next door their whole life dragged them into the shrubs on the way home from a movie, or they accepted a friendly drink and woke up in a bathtub full of crushed ice in Mexico. Of course she knew that some of those things were just bullshit. Urban legends. The others were real enough, but...bad things happened to other people.
She was getting out of here on time tomorrow. Definitely.
She flicked the beam back and forth. Nothing out there. Cats, maybe. Or foxes. Rigland was far enough into the boondocks that wild animals were hardly uncommon. She'd even seen one a few days before. A little gray fox with black points trotting across the end of the runway in the dusk. Supposedly there was a matched pair but she hadn't seen them together yet.
She hard the scrape of shoes against concrete. A good two or three seconds of distinct sound that was gone as quickly as it had come. Any other night she'd have chalked it up to one of her coworkers. They seemed to take particular delight in pranks and practical jokes. She didn't think anything about it because the practice was basically a free-for-all against any and all targets of opportunity. Everybody pulled shit on everybody else, she'd found, so it wasn't some kind of hazing against the new hires.
Or girls. Her fellow line rats were equal opportunity assholes like that. Steve was the most frequent prankster, most of his being small-time stuff, more eye-rolling and annoying. Mike, on the other hand, had played exactly two pranks since she'd been here, both minor masterpieces of fuckery that had the intended recipients - of which she had been one - well on their way to cardiac arrest by the the time the victims caught on.
She waited for the avgas to finish eating a line in the putty and for the sounds of someone else in the yard. She knew there was something there, like stepping into a dark room and feeling a human presence that couldn't be seen. She tried to guess the source, but had no luck. Too many things jumbled together echoed and muted sound and made her little game of mental Marco-Polo a dead end. At best she'd have to finish up and hope her uninvited guest wasn't waiting when she got down.
Wiping her sweaty palms against her jeans she forced herself back to the task at hand. She scrawled a barely legible figure that hopefully matched the stick reading and shoved the notebook deep in her back pocket.
This was when she needed a Del or a Mike or a Jim. Somebody to stand on the concrete lip of the spill barrier and tell her that she was seeing things, or that she needed to quit sniffing avgas, or to hurry her skinny ass up because they were tired and wanted to go home sometime this week and no, there was nobody else here. Too look at her like she'd uttered some dazzling stupidity. Because it was stupid.
She clenched her teeth and made record time getting down the ladder. At the bottom she jumped the spill barrier and got away from the tangle of pipes and hulking tanks, sweeping the light behind her. She stopped and listened for some small noise to reignite the fear. It didn't come. She took a deep breath, fighting to calm her nerves, and put the dipstick in its holder alongside the first tank.
She was alone.
Shaking her head, she closed the gates and wound the chain through. An open padlock hung from the fence, and she clipped it securely through the links and seated it firmly. She gave off a small laugh - nervous, still, but not forced - and got in the truck. She fished the notebook out of her pocket and turned on the truck's dome light. Her handwriting was borderline illegible for the avgas reading. That was okay. She'd get a better one tomorrow and correct it then. The important thing was that she was done here tonight. She'd survived her first solo day. The realization was almost a surprise. She'd made it. And now she needed sleep.
Lots of sleep. Her mind felt like her television looked the static whiteout when there was no signal, and it was going to take hours to work the burgeoning kinks out of her back.
She drove back to the office. There was an area floodlight affixed to the side of the building, one of the few that hadn't been doused, and she parked in its glow, glad to be back from the strange nighttime world that was the tank farm. Place had always given her the creeps. Especially after dark. But like those monsters from childhood it was a stupid fear. The others would agree, she imagined. Maybe she'd do okay here.
The rounded shape of Reed's cruiser appeared as she was unloading her stuff from the cab. She paid the deputy no mind until he was even with the rear bumper of the Ford. Until then she assumed he was being courteous - coming to get the truck door, as she had a number of things to carry - but then she saw the hand resting on the butt of his service pistol.
"You run into some trouble?" he asked.
She hesitated, the ghost of the mastered fear springing up like a tiny match in the midst of a vast and depthless pit. The seed of doubt. Did she tell him? Could she tell him without sounding like a head case? Surely he dealt with maladjusted people often enough, but she meant to go home tonight. Not to the mental hospital.
Reed stepped back and gestured with his chin at the back of the truck. "Maybe you could explain this to me."
Cautious, she stepped around the bumper. The flashlight, notepad, and truck keys hit the ground and her hands flew to her mouth.
"Oh Jesus," she said.
The back of the truck was smeared with something dark and greasy. In two or three places she could make out the definite shape of a handprint. Slowly she reached to the cabinet and touched on the marks. The stuff was warm. Sticky. And under the brilliant illumination of Reed's duty light, a deep dark red.