Aaron Elkins: Where there's a will

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Aaron Elkins Where there's a will
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    Where there's a will
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Where there's a will

Aaron Elkins


November 4, 1994, Latitude 16.28N, Longitude 161.06W

Silence, as sudden as a stopped heart.

After the monotonous grind of the engine for the last three and a half hours, and then the brief stuttering and missing, it seemed to Claudia that the absence of sound had a physical presence, a doughy mass that filled the cockpit, pressing on her eardrums and stopping her nostrils.

“The fuel’s run out,” she told the old man.

“So that’s that, then,” he said. He’d had plenty of time to get used to the idea, and he spoke as much in resignation as in fear. In the red glow from the instrument panel, his weathered face, even the billy-goat scrap of beard, might have been a carved mask, all stark planes and angles. On his lap, his left hand gently cradled his heavily bandaged right. The bleeding had slowed down to an ooze now, or maybe it had stopped altogether. For a while it had been pumping steadily, soaking the gauze and staining his pants. He’d fainted a couple of times, and she’d thought he might die on her, right there in the cockpit.

As if it would have made much difference.

“Yup, that’s that,” Claudia said in the same emotionless tone. “We’re going down.”

She thought she heard him sigh, very softly.

A light plane that has run out of fuel at an altitude of 10,500 feet does not plummet to earth like a safe falling out of a window. It drifts down, slowly and silently, borne on the wind, gliding two or three miles for every thousand feet of altitude lost. To descend more than ten thousand feet takes twenty or twenty-five minutes, and once the trim is adjusted there isn’t much to do, especially when there is nothing below to look for-no beacon light to aim toward, no obstacles to avoid-nothing but the cold swath of stars above and the black, vast, empty Pacific Ocean below.

There is plenty of time to think.

It seemed to her now that she’d known in her heart from the beginning that they weren’t going to make it. She should have said no in the first place. She was a daytime flier, a visual-flight-rules pilot, and she’d never claimed to be anything else. Did the boss want to go to the Hawi airport? Fine, let’s go. Fly north along the eastern slope of the Kohala ridge with the coast on your right and keep an eye out for the runway, nothing to it. Hana? Just point the nose toward Maui and go; you couldn’t miss it. Even Honolulu, where they’d gone for the Cattlemen’s Expo-fix the bearing and keep flying until you see Diamond Head and the airport. But this instrument-flying, this flying in the dark, wasn’t for her; she wasn’t used to it. And a rushed, crazy flight like this-with barely enough time to do the chart, four hundred miles over empty ocean to some rinky-dink, flyspeck island in the middle of nowhere-that was plain stupid.

Still, she had done everything right, everything by the book. Scared or not, she’d used the North Pacific navigational chart to locate the damn island in the first place, find the distance, and plot the bearing. She’d contacted the flight services center for the wind conditions and adjusted the bearing accordingly. She’d checked everything three times. The plane was fully fueled, newly maintained, and ready to go. The destination was well within the Grumman’s range, especially if she flew high and kept to fifty-five percent power, which was her plan. Fortunately, the whiskey compass was as reliable as it could be, having been adjusted on the compass rose only four days earlier, and as they’d taxied slowly down the runway of the deserted Waimea airport she’d carefully set the gyrocompass to it and rechecked it against the correction card. And, daytime flier or not, she was a damn good pilot; she had a feel for flying, she could do this.

All the same, fifteen minutes into the flight, as the airport beacon shrank to a fading spark in the blackness, her courage failed her. “This is impossible. I can’t do this,” she said abruptly. “We have to go back.” She was already easing down the left rudder and beginning to turn the yoke to circle back toward the Big Island.

“We’re not going back,” Torkelsson said curtly. “You know I can’t.”

“To Honolulu then. You’ll be safe there, and you can take a plane anywhere. We can lock in-”

“Claudia.” With his uninjured hand he reached across to stay her arm. “They’ll be looking for me there, too. If we land in Honolulu it’ll be the end of me.” Pleading didn’t come naturally to him, and he seemed to realize it. His clutch tightened, grinding her wrist bones together, an old man’s claw. “And I’ll see to it that it’s the end of you, too. I promise you that. I’ll tell them everything.”

But threats weren’t his style either, and with a grunt of embarrassment he let go of her arm. “It’s not something I want to do,” he said. “You know that. But so help me, God, if you drive me to it. ..”

“Okay, okay,” she said grimly and found her original bearing-what she hoped was her bearing-again. On to Tarabao Island.

Just as the Torkelssons had given her back her life, they could take it away again. It had been Magnus Torkelsson who had first seen something in her four years before, when she was a neurotic, dope-addled twenty-one-year-old on the fast track to self-destruction. What she was doing in Hawaii, exactly how or why she had come there from East Texas, she didn’t know-literally could not remember-but someone had gotten her a seasonal job clearing brush at Hoaloha, the Torkelssons’ big cattle ranch, and the rugged outdoor work had suited her. She was a big, strong girl who knew a little about ranching, a willing worker with a mechanical bent, and inside of a year she was on their year-round windmill and pump maintenance team. Then, when their regular pilot started talking about moving on and she had expressed some interest in flying, they had sent her to flight-training school in Hilo. For a while she had shared piloting duties with one of the Torkelsson nephews, but when he got tired of it she had taken the job over completely, flying somewhere, usually just to another part of the island, three or four times a week. She’d enjoyed it, too.

They were good people, people of the land. They had been straightforward and open with her, and she had responded the same way. And there lay the problem. Torkelsson knew all about the sad mess of her teens-the dope, the psychiatric hospitalizations, the expunged record of juvenile crimes, even the two outstanding warrants. All he had to do was go to the FAA, and goodbye to her commercial pilot’s license. Her flying days would be over, the law would come down on her, and more than likely she’d wind up back in East Texas, maybe in jail, or worse yet, living with her parents.

Trying to find Tarabao Island in the dark was better than that.

As frightened as she was, Claudia’s instincts told her that they were staying pretty much on course. The gyrocompass was reassuringly steady and undeviating. Checking it every few minutes against the whiskey compass, there was never a need to adjust it. And the night was crystalline. She’d be able to spot the airport beacon and runway lights-they’d be the only illuminated objects for two hundred miles in every direction-if they were actually turned on as promised. And, of course, if she came anywhere within visual range of Tarabao. But that much she was certain she could manage. Almost certain.

They flew for more than three tense hours during which Torkelsson rarely spoke. The first time was to ask, timidly: “Why do they call it a whiskey compass? I’ve always wondered.” He was trying to make amends.

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