Blue ice dying in the ra.., p.1
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       Blue Ice Dying In The Rain, p.1

           Jim Craig
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Blue Ice Dying In The Rain


  Blue Ice

  Dying

  in the

  Rain

  An Alaskan Novel

  Jim Craig

  Bushak Press

  Seward, Alaska

  Published by Bushak Press

  P.O. Box 46, Seward, AK 99664

  www.bushakpress.com

  Copyright © 2013 by Jim Craig

  This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead or events is entirely coincidental. Specifically, Taroka Island is a fictitious place.

  Cover design by Cal Sharp, Caligraphics, www.caligraphics.net

  All rights reserved.

  No part of this book may be reproduced, scanned or distributed in any printed or electronic form without permission. Please do not participate in or encourage piracy of copyrighted material in violation of the author’s rights. Purchase only authorized editions.

  ISBN13: 978-0-9617112-3-8

  ISBN-10: 0-96171123X

  Library of Congress Control Number: 2013906021

  You have to think highly of this bush pilot, because he’s dirty, he has a ratty airplane … and he’s alive.

  -- John McPhee, Coming Into the Country

  There's a land where the mountains are nameless,

  And the rivers all run God knows where;

  There are lives that are erring and aimless,

  And deaths that just hang by a hair…

  -- Robert Service, Spell of the Yukon

  I’ve had nightmares like this. More than once. They all end the same way—with me jerking awake in a cold sweat, staring into the night for a long time before sleep comes again. I loved these mountains and these rocks. I just didn’t want them to be my final resting place. Not yet anyhow.

  -- Johnny Wainwright, North To Disaster by Jim Craig

  “Some people come up here and look at it all, and think ‘that’s nice, very pretty’ and they go home and never come back. But other people come up, and the place grabs them by the throat. It won’t let go. And no matter what they do from then on, they either find a way to come back, or they live the rest of their lives wishing they had.”

  -- Arnold, Alaskan roadhouse cook, North To Disaster by Jim Craig

 

  If you've ever wanted something( or someone) way more than was good for you, this book is dedicated to you…

  CHAPTER ONE

  They say there's a million ways to make a living. For me there's only one. I fly airplanes. Small airplanes in remote Alaska. Sometimes I even get paid. It isn't much of a living but I get by. Man and machine battling the elements in the final frontier. It's the only life I want to live.

  My name's Johnny Wainwright. I'm a bush pilot repo man. When the wind's howling and I'm flying low and almost sideways over white capped freezing water, I curse my fate and wonder why I'm here. But when I'm soaring through a green spruce valley with the sun sparkling off snow topped jagged peaks above me, I know I couldn't do anything else. What can I say? I'm an Alaskan pilot.

  It's a job full of dreams and freedom. And there's danger too. Even on a beautiful calm day on a routine flight, a life and death struggle can spring out of nowhere. But most days it's just a job. That's why I carry a phone. Customers.

  What makes a damn cell phone ring anyhow? Don’t bore me with the science. It’s the timing I’m curious about. Some say it’s fate, but I don’t know. Maybe it is. Maybe it isn’t. Even a no account bush pilot can wonder about the forces and events that start the dominos falling.

  A few minutes before my phone rang that day in early September, life was normal in Seward, Alaska. If I'd known what that call would bring, I would have flung the damn thing in the ocean.

  The late afternoon sun glowed on the lingering snow slopes of Mount Alice. On the edge of town a short walk from where I sat a frigid stream spilled down a cliff draining the high ice and snow above the bay like it has for thousands of years. With a relentless power, the water pounds its way to the sea.

  Nothing fateful about that, I guess. Just freeze and melt, freeze and melt in endless repetition. Blame it on the sun if you need something to blame. And gravity too, but that’s not fate. That's just the way it is.

  I was sitting in the Yukon Bar pondering the meaning of life. I was away from the beer taps where I could see out the front window overlooking Fourth Avenue. A few tourists wandered by enjoying the sunshine. Some glanced up at me through the glass while they took in the sights. I guess I’m part of the local color. Right where you want to find your resident bush pilot. Lurking in a corner of the Yukon Bar nursing a bad attitude and a bad memory named Brandy. Not the booze, the woman.

  I’m sure I looked pretty ordinary sitting there. Scruffy dark beard, sunglasses, blue baseball cap with an airplane logo on the front. Black jacket, black jeans, well worn running shoes even though I hadn’t run anywhere in years. Not for fun anyway. You might call me a regular. I liked the Yukon Bar because you can lose yourself in there if you want. Even if you don't want, it's easy to get lost in the Yukon Bar.

  Dark shadows were spreading through town. It was getting late, but the shining mountainside in the distance beckoned with an almost painful brilliance. A car drove by once in a while, and one of the local dogs meandered across the street unconcerned. The tourists even seemed to notice that things were winding down.

  This time of summer feels like a few minutes before closing time in any store or bar. The staff is still friendly, but you can tell they’re tired. They want to go home. They want to quit smiling and saying please and thank you. They don't say it but the locals want to tell the tourists: Go home. Back to all the warmer places you're from. Leave us be. It’s been a long summer. Go home so we can deal with the gloom of winter on our own.

  Goldie set a cold bottle of fresh brew in front of me on a small white napkin and gave me a look. She knew better than to interrupt and slipped away. Better to let me wallow for a while. I was there to watch the remains of the day. Watch them fade into the night. And to drink beer. There was a twenty dollar bill in front of me because I’d had a flight that morning. One flight. Followed by seven hours of sitting around watching the phone not ring.

  Then I noticed Willie push through the front door. He nodded at me and made for the bar sizing up the guy sitting next to his usual spot. He didn't want to be stuck next to anyone boring, broke or needy. Cross eyed George was on a stool nearby, so that was cool. They were pals and started joshing about something right away. I stayed put and glanced up at the TV screen above the door. Two big sweaty guys were pounding the hell out of each other in some kind of cage. The sound was off and the fighters thrashed away at each other in vicious but silent mayhem while the bar's stereo played a sappy love song.

 

  Goldie came over again, snatched away the twenty and then left to make change. I thought about how many beers I could buy and still have a few bucks left for some kind of meal. I needed one. Yesterday had been a rainy, no fly kind of day, and my dinner had come from a rusty can of mystery soup off a back shelf in my camper.

  That was part of my rotten mood. When I worried about money. About the fact that I didn't have any. On days when I wasn't busy, I had too much time to think. Trying to make a living as a scenic flight pilot in one of the rainiest places on the planet. What a dumbass idea.

  Rain is a way of life in Seward. On the south central coast of the Gulf of Alaska, rain and fog drift in off the sea on a regular basis, chilling the locals and visitors alike and obscuring the scenery in all directions. But life goes on. The fishing boat crews work in the rain in their yellow slickers
and knee high boots. The tour boats come and go loading and unloading tourists with steady efficiency. Straggly haired hitchhikers plod along the highway hunkered inside their ponchos clutching wet cardboard signs. Anchorage, Florida, anywhere but here. Their signs don't really say that, but that's how they look. Some are backpackers but mostly they’re seasonal workers. Cannery hands, hotel staff, restaurant help. It was the end of another summer. The jobs were drying up and they were moving on.

  Rain doesn’t bother the water operations. Even dense fog is no problem for the boats. Besides, fishermen are crazy and could care less about the scenery, but flying is out of the question when there's fog. If I can’t see the mountain just north of the airport, I’m grounded. And it's tough to get tourists to go flying unless there's some blue sky around. And I'm not on a salary, I only get paid when I'm flying.

  On those days I’m glad for the Yukon’s free peanuts in the galvanized bucket just inside the front door. I try not to let the rain discourage me. I just crack open shells, toss back the nuts and wait for the next spell of better weather. Sometimes that strategy works, but only sometimes.

  Cross eyed George stumbled out the door, and Willie drifted over from his station at the Revenue Corner. That’s what he calls the first stop inside the front door of a bar. He likes to check on me when things are slow. Slow for Willie means no one else to bullshit with. He paused to stare at the blinking video game on the corner of the wooden counter. He was a pilot too with his own plane. I could tell he was deciding whether to throw a few coins in the machine or not. He whined about money even more than I did.

  He was wearing one of those visors with fake hair bristling from the top. It sat with a slightly crooked slant on his round head. Bright blue eyes glistened from his ruddy face over a silver gray mustache and mutton chop side burns. His bulging burgundy t-shirt wore a picture of a sockeye salmon. The white lettered caption read: “Hook Me, Beat Me, Cook Me, Eat Me.”

  “Hey, Willie. Anything dangerous to do around here?” It was our standard greeting. Alaska pilots are like that. Rough and ready, risk takers living on the edge. Full of life and full of crap.

  “Uh…Goldie?” he answered. We both laughed and glanced toward the bar.

  “Don’t remind me, man," I muttered. He chuckled and sat down beside me.

  “How many flights today?” he asked.

  “Just the one this morning. Season’s almost over.” I flipped the page on the Anchorage newspaper and gazed at the headlines. Change from the twenty sat next to an empty ashtray where Goldie had left it.

  “You gonna drink that or what?” Willie poked his jaw toward the bottle I hadn’t yet lifted.

  I could feel his eyes squinting without even looking at him. Willie was a man of action. He couldn’t stand to let events unfold at their own pace. He was a man in a hurry. Hard to say why. Like he had some kind of fuse burning inside. Worried that if he slowed down, it might blow.

 

  I glanced at the beer. Large droplets rolled down the side of the brown glass bottle and soaked into the napkin underneath it. I looked outside to see Mount Alice still basking in the evening sun.

  Eyeing Willie I reached for the beer. I took my time, enjoying the private chance to torment him a little. I’m generally not in a hurry and resisting his push always felt like the right thing to do.

  He watched the bottle on its path from the wet spot on the counter to my mouth with the concentration of a man dying of thirst. His watery blue eyes tracked my movements like a kid on Christmas morning.

  I stopped halfway to my mouth and turned to look at him.

  “What?”

  He didn’t answer. His lips parted and his mouth moved like a baby in a high chair waiting for the spoon to deliver. A parishioner on bended knee waiting for the Eucharist.

  I finally gave in and set the bottle back on the counter.

  “Hey, Goldie. Bring my thirsty friend here a beer, will ya? Jesus, Willie. All ya gotta do is ask.”

  He grinned and looked away. Goldie came over with a bottle in one hand. She lifted a bar hook from the back pocket of her jeans, popped the cap and set the bottle in front of Willie with a fluid motion. With a smirk she plucked a five from my stack of bills, then turned and left.

  “Now that’s the kind of bartender I can respect,” Willie grunted. “Fast, quiet and efficient. Reminds me of a gal up at Skinny Dick's.”

  "Skinny who?" I knew he was setting me up, but I went along for the ride.

  "Damn, Johnny. You don't know about Skinny Dick's? It's a bar halfway between Fairbanks and Nenana. Skinny Dick's Halfway Inn."

  It was a good thing my mouth was empty. I would have sprayed beer halfway across the bar. I shook my head in admiration for his endless supply of one liners and general assorted bull.

  He grinned again and tilted his bottle in my direction in thanks.

  “No problem,” I said, watching Goldie’s backside moving away from the corner of my eye. Run silent, run deep. I picked up my bottle and returned Willy’s gesture. Ah, Goldie, Goldie, Goldie, I remember when…

  Lurid thoughts brought me back to Brandy. "So, uh, Willie, have you heard from …"

  "No," he snapped. He knew where I was headed and cut me off. "You need to forget about her."

  I studied his face but it was blank as he ignored me. Brandy was his daughter. She was a Learjet pilot in the lower forty eight. Cleveland, or some damn place. I'd made the mistake of getting too close to her the year before when she was in Seward. It was a long story. I'll never recommend getting involved with a best friend's daughter. Like I said, it was a long story. I took a deep breath and tried to get her petite curves, brunette curls and the smell of her strawberry shampoo out of my head.

  It was at that precise moment my cell phone began to vibrate and ring.

  “Oh hell, what now?” The phone was buried in the front pocket of my jeans. I set down the bottle and scrambled to dig it out. The electric impulses next to my loins were unsettling but at the same time titillating. It was just after six o’clock.

  “Is this Seward Air?” The voice on the other end was distorted and scratchy and I fumbled to position the tiny plastic speaker close enough to my ear to hear.

  “Yes, sir. This is Johnny Wainwright. How can I help you?”

  “Mr. Wainwright, this is Officer David Rankin with the Alaska State troopers here in Seward. Do you all fly to Taroka Island?”

  “Out in Prince William Sound? Sure, that’s no problem.” I reached for the beer bottle with my free hand. “When did you want to go?”

  “Right now.”

  My hand froze in mid air. Double damn. Reluctantly I set the bottle back on the counter and pushed it out of reach. Booze and flying don't mix. I shook my head at the timing. Another few minutes and I would have had to turn down the flight.

  “Right now? It’s getting a little late.”

  “Yeah, I know, but we need to make an arrest out there, and we need to move quick. The department’s chopper is in Anchorage for maintenance, so we’re kind of in a pinch. Can you get us out there and wait 'til we bring the guy back? Maybe overnight?”

  I glanced at the beer and felt the lonely dry spot at the back of my throat. Then I noticed the ten dollar bill and a few ones laying on the counter beside the soggy napkin. I made fifty bucks an hour for charter flights and another fifty for each hour if I have to wait. Sounds good until you realize I average less than an hour a day during a typical rainy summer. That ain't squat.

  “Sure, I can do it. It’s about a thirty minute flight out there. How soon can you be at the airport?”

  “There’s going to be two of us. Myself and Officer Daniels. We can be there in about twenty minutes. And it sounds like we’ll be bringing one subject back with us. He’ll be in handcuffs, of course.”

  “Okay, no problem. I’ve taken you guys out to Chenega before for this kind of thing. Taroka’s right nearby with a gravel strip. As long as the weather’s okay, it should be routine.”
r />   He hesitated. “Is the weather alright over there?” He sounded like he hadn’t thought about it which was typical. Weather is the last thing on a passenger’s mind, but it’s the first thing I think about. And weather is what kills more pilots than anything else in Alaska. Actually it’s not the weather that kills. It’s the pilot making a bad decision in bad weather. Then he winds up killing himself and his passengers.

  “I have no idea what it’s doing over in Prince William Sound. I'll check on it while you’re on the way.”

  “Sounds good, Mr. Wainwright. See you in a few.”

  Sliding the phone back in my pocket I told Willie the details as I stood up.

  “Kind of late, isn’t it?” he asked.

  “Yeah, but it’s still light for a while, so I'm not worried about it. Moonlight should be good tonight if it gets dark out there, and besides we might be staying overnight.”

  “You check the weather?” Willie’s been flying these mountains all his life. He knows.

  “I looked at the Middleton radar before I came down here. One big system way south of here but nothing nearby.”

  “Out there you gotta worry about fog. It can kill ya quick.”

  “I know, I know. I’ve been around here a while now, remember? You don’t have to mother hen me so much any more.”

  “Yeah, but you’re still a rookie about a lot of stuff.” He changed the subject before I could get pissed. “You taking a gun?”

  “A gun? What for?”

  “You gotta be prepared for anything. Like bears.” He paused. “Or anything really. You just never know out there.”

  “Hell, I’ve got two troopers going with me and they’ll be armed. You worry too much.”

  “Yeah? Well, you don’t worry enough, ya ask me. Your luck’s gonna run out one of these days, Johnny.”

  “Like you keep telling me. Look, I’d love to hang around for more therapy but I gotta go make some money.”

  I stood up and scooped the change off the counter and into my pocket. Willie took a long pull on his beer and wiped his mouth with the back of his hand. And he nodded. He understood about money.

  “What if the prisoner tries to wreck the plane when you’re landing or something?”

  It felt strange to have Willie asking me questions about an airplane job. He was the expert, but then I realized that he didn’t know about this kind of flying, because his plane was a Piper SuperCub with only one seat in the back. No room for this kind of work.

  “The troopers are cool with that. They always handcuff the guy and they tell him right up front, ‘Any funny business and we shoot you’.”

  Willie frowned. “Well, that’s comforting. As long as you don’t mind bullets and blood splatter in the cockpit.”

  I felt my eyes go dim. “You don’t have to tell me about bullets and airplanes, Willie.”

  He caught my tone and raised his eyebrows.

  “Oh, yeah. Sorry. Guess you learned that during your little adventure on Montague Island last year. Doesn’t take much to bring down a small plane, does it?” He didn’t wait for an answer. He turned back to his beer. He knew I wouldn’t answer.

  I was halfway out the door when he called me back. “Hey, man. What about that?” He pointed at the bottle I’d left behind.

  “Oh, help yourself, my friend. By all means, but I’m never buying you two beers in one night ever again. That reminds me. You be sober enough to take a phone call when I get out there? I’ll have a sat phone. In case I can’t get hold of Moose Pass?”

  Moose Pass is where my boss lived, thirty miles up the highway. Phil Bartlett's the owner and he has five airplanes altogether, four of them on floats for flying fishermen and hunters into the back country. My job is the wheel plane in Seward. A Cessna 172 with extra horsepower and seats for three plus me. Phil’s okay as a boss. At least he always pays me. As long as we’re thirty miles apart we get along fine.

  Willie sniffed and pulled back with a frown. “You know better than to file a flight plan with a drunk.”

  “C’mon, man. Who else am I gonna call?”

  "You can always file with the FAA."

  "Yeah, I know, but they're way over in Kenai and they never know crap about what's going on over here. I'm not sure they care much either. I'd rather file with somebody that knows me."

  “Okay, okay. Gotcha covered,” he said with a grin. “Call me when you get out there. You’re just going out to Taroka and back, right? No sweat. I'm not drunk yet anyhow. But hurry.”

  I grinned back at him knowing it wouldn't be long. I also knew he wouldn't wait. He'd probably forget the whole conversation in the next five minutes. I thought for a moment about calling the FAA, but then I left him and the bar behind, my mind going over the details of the flight ahead of me.

  I hustled around the corner and jumped in my pickup. The airport was just five minutes away.

  CHAPTER TWO

 

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