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Both Ends of the Night
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Sharon McCone’s flight instructor Matty confides that her boyfriend, John Seabrook, is missing and asks Sharon to find him. Shortly afterwards, Matty is killed in an “accidental” plane crash. More determined than ever, Sharon discovers that, a decade ago, Seabrook was placed in the Federal Witness Protection Program after testifying against a man who has been missing for the last 10 years. Following sinister leads, Sharon travels to a frozen wilderness — and comes face-to-face with Matty’s killer.
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More Marica Muller
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Many thanks to:
The folks at Petaluma Municipal Airport and Aeroventure, who made an inquisitive writer and fledgling pilot feel welcome;
Bonnie and Mike Fredrick and Tiffany Knight, my Arkansas connections;
Victoria and Ted Brouillette, in Minnesota;
Bob Gardner, CFI, whose gift of Say Again, Please made radio communication explicable;
Melissa Ward, extraordinary researcher;
And Bill, who never for a moment doubted that I could learn to land a Cessna 7232S.
Three Years Ago
"Well, how about that, McCone? You've lost your engine. Now what're you gonna do?"
"There's nothing wrong with the engine, Matty. You pulled back on power, that's all."
"I'm the instructor. If I say you've got no engine, you've got no engine. You have an emergency landing place picked out?"
"Better find one."
"There. Right there. That pasture. Brownish green. Cows to the east side."
"So take me there. Where're you gonna put it down in relation to those cows?"
"As far away as possible."
"Ranchers don't like you landing on their stock."
"Right. What's the other reason?"
"… I don't know."
"Well, suppose you'd borrowed that tail-dragger of your boyfriend's. Nice little cloth-covered Citabria, nice big price tag. You land near those cows, take your time calling for help, and you're likely to be missing a wing when you get back."
"Cows just love to munch on airplane fabric."
"God, Ripinsky'd kill me!"
"Maim you, anyway. Full power now, and take me home. You get the point of this exercise, don't you?"
"Yes: Always have an emergency landing place in mind."
"I can't emphasize it enough: Emergencies can happen. They will happen. Always planning for the emergency can save your life."
Landing at Los Alegres Municipal Airport felt like coming home.
I angled in on the forty-five toward mid-field, turned downwind, and pressed the button on my headset. "Los Alegres traffic, Cessna four-four-two-five-Whiskey, downwind for landing, two-niner."
The 150 I'd rented at Oakland was identical to the plane I'd trained in. Los Alegres was where I'd learned the ABC's of flying. And somewhere below, watching with a critical eye, was my former flight instructor, Matty Wildress. I'd sooner exit without a parachute than make a clumsy landing in front of her.
I pulled on the carburetor heat, slowed the aircraft down, and added a notch of flaps. As I turned onto base I could hear Matty issuing orders: "Keep that airspeed under control. Look for other traffic. Look! Another notch of flaps now. Turn for final." She'd always claimed that her words echoed in students' minds years after they earned their licenses, and I was living proof of that.
On final now. Focused. I was used to flying Hy's tail-dragger rather than a tricycle type of plane like this, and the technique of touching down was somewhat different.
Please, I told myself, don't hit the tail skid. You'll never hear the end of it.
"Keep it straight," Matty's voice commanded in my mind. "Straight! Level off. Eyes on the far end of the runway now. The far end. Hold it off. Keep holding. Keep…"
I held the Cessna in a nose-up attitude as it settled. Then the wheels touched and I was rolling along the runway. Soft and smooth and straight.
You'd better be watching, Matty.
I spotted her as I turned off and taxied toward the visitors' parking: tall and slender, leaning against the counter at the fuel pumps, long brown hair blowing in the breeze. While I maneuvered between the tie-down chains, she walked toward me, hands thrust into the pockets of her loose blue jacket. By the time I stepped down, she was hooking the chain to the tail section.
"Nice landing, McCone," she called. "At least one of my students turned into a good pilot."
I grabbed the right chain and attached it to the ring on the strut. "I thought all your students turned out splendidly."
"Some better than others." She secured the right chain, then motioned toward the stucco building that housed the fixed-base operator—aircraft rentals, maintenance, and the flight school—and the Seven Niner Diner, so named because the field was seventy-nine feet above mean sea level. "Let's get a bite to eat."
Now that I moved closer to Matty, I was startled by what I saw. Her tanned skin held a sallow tint, and her gray eyes were deeply shadowed; fine lines etched by forty-some years of hearty laughter pulled taut, as if she were in pain. I hadn't seen her in over a year, but this was too profound a change for even that length of time. Something wrong here, very wrong.
She'd called me out of the blue the day before, claiming it was time for the flight review that the FAA requires every two years of all pilots. Why not fly up to Los Alegres for it the next afternoon? she suggested. The barely concealed note of urgency in her voice struck me as strange, particularly since my review wasn't due till next March, and it wasn't like Matty to get her dates mixed up. But when I told her that and tried to put her off, the disappointed silence that followed made me mentally shift appointments and agree to meet her at the airport for lunch. Now I was glad I had.
She caught me studying her and looked away, walking quickly toward the gate where a sign jokingly welcomed arrivals to Los Alegres International. "There's old Max," she said, pointing toward the small terminal building. "He's still hanging in there."
Max, the airport manager's yellow Lab, lay on the patch of lawn. He heard his name, looked up, and yawned at us. The dog purportedly had been on his last legs for years, but to tell the truth, he looked a hell of a lot better today than Matty. I called out, "Hey, Max," and followed her across the parking lot.
She must have sensed the question that was coming, because she interrupted me and began chattering in a quick voice that was underscored by nervousness. "Listen, McCone, I meant it when I said some of my students turn out better than others. Take this hotdog I soloed last month; I never should've gotten out of the plane. The other day he's here shooting landings. A bunch of us are hanging around by the gas pumps, and Mark—you remember Mark?"
"Well, just as the guy crosses the threshold, Mark goes, 'Now, there's an accident waiting to happen.' And bam! Before anybody can say anything, the hotdog's put it into a ground loop."
"He get hurt?"
"Bruised some, especially his pride, but you want to see one screwed-up prop and nosewheel, check out the 152 in the hangar." She shrugged. "Can't say as I didn't try to drum it into his thick head: Just because you're on the ground—"
"Doesn't mean that you can stop flying the plane."
"I taught you well."
"Damn right you did."
We climbed the steps to the diner and made our way among the plastic tables and chairs on the deck overlooking the field. A lunchtime crowd of pilots, mechanics, and workers from the nearby office park were gathered there, and many called out greetings to Matty. She stopped to speak to one woman, waving for me to go on and get us a table.
A popular individual, Matty, and also something of a local celebrity in this small town forty-some miles north of San Francisco. Besides being the flight school's best and only female instructor, she was an aerobatic pilot of national reputation, and if all went according to her own fine-tuned plan, by this time next year she'd be the new U.S. Aerobatic Champion.
My association with Matty went back over three years, to shortly after my fifth ride in the Citabria belonging to my lover, Hy Ripinsky. Far above the Sierra Nevada he'd put the tiny plane into a precision spin, and then and there I'd decided to become a pilot myself. But Hy, who has his instructor's rating and occasionally takes on students at Tufa Tower Field near his ranch in Mono County, refused to teach me. I was, he claimed, stubborn and often disinclined to accept criticism—particularly from him. Before I was able to remind him of his own stubborness and disinclination to accept criticism, though, he offered to put me in touch with an old buddy of his who owed him a favor and would give me lessons at below the going rate.
I was surprised when the buddy turned out to be an attractive, willowy woman with thick brown hair that fell nearly to her waist. Initially I wondered, almost to the point of obsessing, about the nature of their long friendship, but after my first lesson I put my questions aside. Why, I reasoned, let what might or might not have happened between them cloud what promised to be a great student-teacher relationship? And even though I still wondered from time to time—wondered now, as I watched her talking animatedly, her slender hands describing loops and rolls in the air—I never regretted the decision. Matty had a magical way of transferring her skill to her students; under conditions unnerving to a novice, she was calm and supportive; her enthusiasm for even the most mundane aspects of flying—and there are many—was infectious. She'd made me the pilot I was today.
The student pilot–instructor relationship is a special one, fostered by a classroom situation that is far less than ideal. Several years before I met Matty, I'd had a few lessons from a naval aviator I dated; more recently I'd been flying with Hy. But as I belted myself into the left seat of that Cessna for the first time, I became acutely aware that I was placing my life in the hands of a stranger.
Over the course of the long hours we spent together in the cockpit, I learned a great deal about myself—and about Matty. Both of us were reserved women. We didn't speak of personal matters, we didn't trade in emotions. Even when a strong crosswind reduced me to a mass of Jell-O on landing, I stifled my gasps and concentrated on putting the plane into a sideslip. Even when my fear of relinquishing the controls in a tricky situation tried her patience, she didn't lose her temper. We were, I later realized, keeping each other at an arm's length in a space that was barely an arm's length to begin with.
Still, at such close quarters, the person beneath one's skin communicates in ways more subtle than words. By the time I'd earned my license, Matty and I could reach each other in a single glance.
And today I was reading her easily. She might be doing her damnedest to distract me from her nervousness and haggard appearance, but no amount of bright chatter could mask the obvious distress signals.
Now she left the woman she'd been talking with and came over to our table. As she sat down and put aside the menu, which hadn't changed in years, she said, "Former student of mine. She wants to take up aerobatics. More power to her."
"You going to teach her?"
"No, I'm not the best of instructors in that area. Fellow who taught me—you've met him, Jim Powell—is. I'm sending her to him." She regarded me for a moment, her eyes unreadable behind her sunglasses. "You ever think of taking it up?"
"Aerobatics? Uh-uh. Oh, I fool around sometimes—way up high, and under Ripinsky's supervision. But to be any good you've got to work hard at it; right now working hard at keeping my agency functioning is about all I can handle."
"Well, maybe someday you will. I'd like to see how you'd do. Of course, you always did hate stalls, so I'm not sure how you could handle, say, a Falling Leaf."
I smiled faintly. If we were to take a short ride in the Cessna this afternoon, Matty would find out about stalls and me.
She said, "So you're still flying that tail-dragger of Ripinsky's."
"Every chance I get."
"How come you don't have it today?"
"He's got it up at Tufa Tower, although he's coming down to the city later this afternoon. I had to rent, and I picked a 150 for sentimental reasons."
"Picked it because it was the cheapest rate you could get, you mean. Although between the two of you, you and Hy can't be doing badly; last time I fueled at Oakland, one of the linemen told me you guys had bought a cottage on the coast. Mendocino County, isn't it?"
"Uh-huh. But we didn't really buy it; we paid a dollar to friends who had bad memories of the place."
"Nice deal. How is Ripinsky, anyway?"
She really was determined to play this scene out as if everything were fine with her, but I knew that sooner or later she'd confide in me. Sooner, if I didn't push, so I went along with her script. "He's fine. You've heard about his latest crusade?"
"The human-rights thing? Yeah. What got him started on that?"
"Oh, a while back he found himself in a bad situation, where he was helped out by people who were in pretty marginal circumstances themselves. It got him going."
"Going from tree-hugger to caped crusader?"
"Something like that."
She shook her head. "It's pure Ripinsky, all right: tough as nails, with a bleeding heart the size of Texas."
I smiled at the comment. Matty was a hardline conservative; I was a mixed bag of viewpoints, both intellectual and emotional. Long ago we'd agreed not to discuss political issues.
The waitress came over and we ordered our usual: big burger for Matty, calamari sandwich for me, iced tea for both of us. A yellow Citabria, like Hy's except for the color, was on final; we watched as it did a touch-and-go. I twisted around so I could see it climb out, and when I turned back to Matty, she'd taken off her dark glasses and was studying me.
Why? Out of habit, to assess my mood as she always had before lessons? To see if I'd changed in the time since she'd last seen me? No, neither. Something in her gaze tipped me off: she was trying to decide if she could trust me with her problem. And not because I was her friend but because I was a private investigator.
"Why didn't you just come out and ask?" I said. "Why'd you have to use the biennial as an excuse?"
"You heard me. I reminded you that it's not due till March. You're in some kind of a bind, and you want to hire me. What is it?"
"Oh, God, McCone, you know me too well." She glanced around. "Let's not talk here, huh? Too many people."
"Where, then? When?"
"After we eat. You can take me up, check out our old haunts. I'll tell you about it in the plane."
I lowered the Cessna's nose to level flight attitude, let the speed accelerate, and throttled back to cruise RPM. "Now," I said to Matty.
She didn't respond.
I set my course due west toward the area where I'd so often practiced, above the farmland that stretched between the town and the coastal ridgeline. Matty slumped passively in the narrow seat, head bowed, eyes shut behind her dark glasses. Not the Matty who had once sat beside me, issuing orders while on the alert for every possible danger.
I checked for other traffic, then banked in a shallow turn. Relaxed pressure on the controls and let the plane fly itself. "Okay," I said, "start at the beginning."
The silence spun out. It told me her problem was serious, and very personal. Matty wouldn't equivocate this way about something to do with one of her students or the major-parts manufacturer that underwrote both her expenses for aerobatic competitions and her quarter-million-dollar customized plane.
Finally she sighed deeply and opened her eyes. "Okay, here it is. You know that I've been living with somebody?"
"You mentioned him in your note on my birthday card."
"Oh, right. Well, it's been nearly eleven months now, since the week after New Year's. His name's John Seabrook, and he owns a Christmas-tree farm right over there." She pointed toward the base of the hills, where there was a large tract of heavily forested land.
I rolled out of the turn and began a medium-banked one in the opposite direction. "And?"
"A week ago yesterday."
"You file a missing-persons report?"
"Why not, Matty?"
"… You'd have to know John to understand. He's got a real thing about his privacy, and he doesn't talk about his past."
"That still doesn't explain why you didn't file a report."
"Oh, shit!" She bit her lower lip and looked out the side window.
I concentrated on completing the turn. Giving her time. My eyes swept the sky for other aircraft, but I didn't spot any. In spite of its being a beautifully clear November Friday, there had been little traffic on the way here or at either airport. Again I rolled out and brought the Cessna straight and level, taking in the way the watery sunlight put a glow on the browned hills.
When it seemed Matty was closing off again, I said, "You didn't file a report because you think John disappeared voluntarily and will be angry with you when he comes back, for calling police attention to him."
"… Something like that."
"And you think the disappearance has its roots in this past he never speaks of."
"Yeah, I do."
"Just a feeling."
"What were the exact circumstances of his leaving?"
"Damned if I know. I was away, had flown a couple of businessmen down to Monterey on a charter."
"You're taking on charters as well as instructing?"
"Sure. It's a good way to pick up extra cash, and the routes're so familiar I could fly them in my sleep. I haven't been on a cross-country to unfamiliar territory in ten months; I've probably forgotten how to plot a course. Not that I'm complaining; I enjoy being home."
"So you were in Monterey the day John disappeared."
"Yes. When I got back, he wasn't home and one of the trucks was gone. It was late, but I didn't think anything of it, just went to bed. But in the morning I got worried—he never stayed away all night—and took a good look around. His shaving stuff, duffel bag, backpack, and some of his clothes were gone. One of the guns, too—a forty-four Magnum."
"And he gave you no indication whatsoever that he would be going away?"
"Well, maybe. A couple of days before, he was supposed to have lunch with me at the diner, but when I got back from my eleven-o'clock lesson, he was very nervous—upset, really—and said he had to cancel. A problem at the tree farm, he claimed, but he wouldn't go into it. Then he wasn't around much till the night before I was due to fly to Monterey."
"And that night?"
"Just an ordinary night at home, except he was… well, more loving than usual."
"As if he was saying good-bye?"
She compressed her lips and shook her head, unwilling to consider that.
I put the Cessna into a steep-banked turn, thinking to head back toward the airport. "Okay, exactly what do you know about John's background?"
"Very little. He came to town ten years ago with his baby son and bought a half interest in this failing tree farm.
He says trees are one of the few things he really understands, and he must understand them pretty well, because the farm's turning a good profit and he bought out his partner last year."
"Back up a minute—he has a son?"
"Zachary. He's eleven."
"Is he with you?"
"Uh-huh. He's a good kid, we get on. And I guess John trusts me to look after him." She paused, reflective. "Zach hasn't had an easy time of it the past few years. He's curious about where he was born and what his mother was like—normal, at his age. But John won't talk about it, and it's driving a wedge between them at a time when a boy needs to be close to his father. There're no family photos; John doesn't get letters from relatives—or anybody else. It's like he's trying to erase his entire life before he came here."
"And you haven't asked him why?"
To most people it might have seemed curious that a strong, outspoken woman like Matty Wildress wouldn't have confronted the issue. But she was talking to the right person: I had avoided a similar confrontation with Hy during the years he'd remained stubbornly silent about the ugly things he'd seen and done as a charter pilot in Southeast Asia.
Matty added, "I figured if I gave him some space he'd eventually tell me."
I'd figured the same with Hy, and he'd finally unburdened himself. But John Seabrook had left Matty without a word.
I asked, "Where was Zach when his father left?"
"Staying with Karla and Wes Payne, our neighbors. Wes used to be John's partner. That's another thing that tells me he planned to leave; a couple of days before, he arranged for Zach to sleep over at the Paynes' that night."
"Does Zach have any idea where John might've gone—or why?"
"He's as puzzled as I am. Hurt, too."
"I'd say you're pretty damn hurt yourself. And you're afraid you're involved in something you can't handle."
She'd been looking at the ground as I continued to turn. Now she whipped her head around, nostrils flaring. "Hey, McCone, that's getting too damn personal. Back off!"
At last I'd caught a glimpse of the old Matty—the woman who did not passively accept the blows life dealt her, the woman who fought back. But the old Matty could also be closed off, prickly, and quick to take offense. She'd have to unbend if I was to work for her.
Instead of backing off, I rolled out of the turn and began pulling back on the yoke.
"What the hell?" she said.
I kept pulling back, raising the Cessna's nose higher and higher.
I grinned at her. Kept pulling till I felt the controls go mushy. The stall horn squealed, the plane shuddered, and the lift went out from under the wings. The Cessna plummeted wildly, yawing to the left.
And I took my hands and feet off the controls.
Matty grabbed my arm and shouted, "Yes!"
I folded my hands in my lap as the Cessna pitched nose downward. Hills and pastures and trees and ranch buildings flashed past the windows at unnatural angles. Then, slowly, the plane righted itself. Its nose tipped upward and it began to fly without any help from me.
Matty was laughing now. "God damn, you sure did get over hating stalls!"
"Yeah, I did." I got back on the controls, brought us to level flight again.
Suddenly she was serious, studying my face. "You've changed, McCone."
"Sure I have. Now, how about you? You've always hated talking about anything personal. It's time you changed, too."
The tidy rows of Douglas fir started beyond the drainage ditch beside the country road and spread up the hillside, parting like a forked river around a white frame farmhouse, then reconverging. Here and there branches brushed the sides of Matty's van as she steered it along the potholed driveway. Even with the windows closed, the trees' scent was strong, and it gave me a flash of childlike anticipation. With surprise, I realized Christmas was only five weeks away.
"Let me go over what you wrote me in my birthday card," I said. "You met John at the airport last September, on the day the pilots' association gives rides to raise money for charity."
"Right. Zach read about it in the paper and begged John to let him go up. I took him in that old 150 you trained in."
"John didn't want a ride, too?"
"God, no. He hates to fly, says he'll never set foot in a light plane." She pulled the van under an apple tree in the weedy front yard, where leaves and deadfall fruit lay on the ground. The house was one story, with a dormer attic window and a deep wraparound porch. Fuchsia plants, leggy now, hung from the eaves.
"Nice place," I said.
"Thanks. The yard could do with some work, and the house was kind of run down when I moved in. John had just bought out his partner and was putting all his energy into the tree farm, and besides, he's not good with stuff like painting and carpentry. I am, so he gave me free rein."
We got out of the van and crossed to the wide front steps. "Okay," I said, "you gave Zach a ride…"
"While John ate lunch at the diner. After that, he started hanging around the airport. He claimed it was the Seven Niner burgers that kept calling him back—one of the few things we've got in common is love of a good burger. But I knew it was really me."
"And he courted you throughout the fall and the holidays, till you moved in after New Year's."
Matty fumbled with her keys and inserted one in the lock. "Courted! That's one hell of a… what d'you call them?"
"Right. What he did was go after me with all the subtlety of a bull moose in rutting season. We had a damned good time together, and I decided I'd be a fool to let him get away, especially at the start of a cold, wet winter."
The hallway she led me into was narrow and wainscoted. Its hardwood floor gleamed, and above the paneling the freshly painted white walls were covered with enlarged color photographs. I stopped to look at one of Matty in the cockpit of a sleek yellow monoplane with a red sunburst pattern on its low wings. The canopy was open, and she was grinning widely, looking straight into the camera's lens.
"This isn't the plane you used to fly," I said.
"No, it's new, last year. Stirling Silver Star 360, customized to my specifications. Manufactured by Stirling Aviation in Arkansas. They're one of the top aircraft-design firms, got into a lot of trouble some years back, but have turned around beautifully. This plane is one of the best there is. Very low drag, performs like a dream in those upward rolling maneuvers that impress the judges. Has unlimited capability, really." She touched the picture frame lightly, straightening it.
"What does John think of you flying competitively?"
"He cheers me on."
- On Sale
- Feb 2, 2016
- Page Count
- 368 pages
- Grand Central Publishing