To celebrate the release of my last hardcover book, I'll give you an extra chapter. Scroll down if you want to read Chapter One first. You might want to or you might be the kind of person who likes dessert first.
“Alex Milne. And who the heck are you?” His grin was as wide as the Hudson River.
The pilot pulled off his aviator style sunglasses which had partially covered a dark pink scar that streaked down his cheek from just below the eye almost to his mouth. “That's nice. I'm here to see your brother, Tom.”
Her spine stiffened. “My father. My father is Tom.”
Pan could hear Burt coughing to disguise his chuckle. “Why do you want to see my father?”
“That's between him and me, isn't it?”
“Not at all. My father hasn't been well and he doesn't need visitors.” Suddenly Pan felt protective and defensive.
Hooking the ear piece of the glasses on the collar of his faded polo shirt, Alex then pushed back his praline brown hair.
“I was sent for. Is that okay with you, Pandora?”
Her jaw tightened. “It's Pancho.”
Alex laughed. “You were named after Pancho Barnes?”
She had never made peace with her given name and had insisted on calling herself Pan from the time she was in grade school. Her parents could have named her in honor of Amelia Earhart or Jacqueline Cochran and none of her school mates would have made so much fun of her. But Pancho? The kids taunted her by calling her Pancho Villa. They asked about her mustache and wondered if she was going to learn to ride a burro instead of fly an airplane.
“Pancho Barnes was one of the greatest women pilots who ever lived,” Pan pointed out using the same explanation she had used since sixth grade.
“Yes, she was. And do you fly?”
Holding in laughter, Burt was practically choking next to her and Pan glared at him.
“Got my ticket when I was seventeen. When are you getting yours?”
“You didn't like that Falling Leaf?”
“There's no pleasing some people,” Alex shrugged.
“It didn't occur to you that doing aerobatic stunts over a house might not be wise?”
“There are houses everywhere. I fly over them all the time, don't you?”
Pan was biting her lip trying to control her temper. “Yes, but not inverted.”
“You don't know what you're missing.”
“I do and I'm not missing it.”
“Your namesake was a pretty fine stunt pilot; she would never have passed up an opportunity to fly upside down. Will you take me to your father or do I have to find him on my own?”
“I'll take you up to the house,” Burt said, offering his hand. “Burton Nygard.”
Alex took his hand in a firm grasp. “Pleased to meet you, sir.”
“Did you have a long flight to get here,” Burt asked as they started up the slope to the house.
“I like flying. It's all good.”
The two men strode ahead of her and Pan felt distinctly left behind and left out. With the breeze she could hardly hear what they were saying.
She wondered who had sent or who had sent for Alex Milne. Certainly her father hadn't mentioned any visit. Maybe it had to do with the sale of the Stearman. Pan had been working on Tom for days trying to get him to sell off some of the planes that weren't as dear to her father as others were. The Stearman was a collectible, a beautiful large biplane but it wasn't considered an antique. With the money they could get for it, the Stearman would pay bills. At this moment, that's all Pan cared about, paying the bills.
As much as Pan hated to admit it, even though he was taking risks performing extreme stunts over a populated area and that was something she was completely against for safety reasons, Alex Milne was an accomplished pilot. The Falling Leaf had been fluid, almost like a ballet in the sky. There were many good pilots in the country but there were few who could turn flying into an art.
Still, pilots who took risks frightened her. Flying was dangerous enough as it was, there was no sense in tempting fate. Carburetors didn't always work upside down. What if the engine stalled. If a pilot didn't have the altitude to gain control of the aircraft and make an emergency landing, some homeowner might come home to find a small aircraft sticking out of their roof.
Having grown up with her father's intense love of flying, Pan had been surrounded by his friends who were all pilots. There had been Uncle Burt, of course, and Mike Lanigan who had always promised he'd be the one to teach her to fly. Uncle Mike was the first to let her hold the yoke even before her legs were long enough to reach the rudder pedals. It had been the most fun she had ever had and from that moment on, that's all she had wanted to do. She wanted to fly. She wanted to be just like them. Pan wanted to fly like a man.
When Pan was fourteen, Uncle Mike left on a flight to a fishing retreat up in Northern Ontario and never came home. The plane still hadn't been found in the deep woods.
The tragedy hadn't dissuaded Pan whose determination to fly only increased, but while she still loved being in the air, free, far above the ground, the reality had come home. Flying was dangerous. People could get hurt. They could be killed.
That understanding made her push herself to be as proficient as possible. When Pan got her pilot's license at the first possible moment Uncle Burt said she flew like a man. He admired the way she took control of the plane instead of letting it control her. She was confident, bold. Pan trusted herself. It was hard for her to trust anyone else, difficult to let anyone else be the PIC, the Pilot In Command. She didn’t want to put her life into anyone else’s hands.
When her father's health began to deteriorate, Pan lived in constant fear that he'd be up alone and something would happen. She worried that Tom's reflexes weren't as quick as they once had been. A hundred different things could happen, any one of them resulting in a serious accident or worse.
Burt and Alex reached the house before her and waited on the step to the kitchen door, still talking between themselves. Then they both laughed. They had bonded already. And why not? They were both pilots.
She paused for a moment at the doorway and looked at Alex evenly. “Please don't excite him.”
“He's a big boy, Pan. Don't baby him,” Alex replied waiting for her to enter the house.
“I don't baby him, I take care of him!”
“You sound like a mother hen clucking over her brood.”
“What do you know? You've been here for five minutes.”
“Maybe I don't need more than five minutes to assess this situation.”
There was no doubt in her mind that he was a military pilot. Everything was about coolly assessing the situation.
But this wasn't a situation, this was life at the Carlisle aerodrome and it was complicated. It wasn't possible to fly over at three thousand feet and know everything that was going on like it was the Western Front.
Burt stepped between them and entered the house. “Come on in, Alex.”
Alex walked into the house ahead of her and there was nothing she could do but follow.
“Tom. Where you at? You have company” Burt called out.
While not wanting to encourage him to stay a moment longer than necessary, Pan did feel she had to offer him something.
“Would anyone like a cold drink?”
“Sounds good,” Burt said. “Beer?”
Pan looked at Alex waiting for his reply.
“Not me, I'm driving.”
Did he wink at her?
“Anything cold and wet.”
“If it's not too much trouble,” Alex replied.
He deserved lukewarm water for that. Wasn't he suggesting that it might be too much trouble to turn on the faucet? “There's iced tea,” Pan told him going to the refrigerator.
As Pan reached into the cabinet for some glasses, she heard her father making his way to the kitchen, walking slower than he once did but that was to be expected after all he'd been through.
“Is that you, Alex?” Tom asked as he entered the room.
“It's good to see you. Why didn't you bring your old man? We could have spent a day and night reliving old times.”
They shook hands heartily.
Curiosity got the better of her and Pan turned. “You know his father?”
“We were in the service together,” Tom answered.
“Business kept Dad at home but he sends his best regards.”
“He sent his son, that's even better.”
Pan reached for a tray and began to place the glasses on it. “Go into the sun room and I'll bring the drinks out to you.”
“Thanks, Pan.” Tom motioned for Alex to follow him.
Burt was at the refrigerator getting a bottle of beer.
Pan poured ice tea into three glasses. “Why send him?”
“Pan, you're not the only one trying to save this business.”
Rummaging in a lower cabinet for some chips she had bought the last shopping excursion, Pan felt hope come to life in her chest. Maybe he was here to buy a plane. “Did you two eat all the chips?”
“No.” Burt opened an upper cabinet and removed a large bag of baked potato chips. “It's easier for your father if he doesn't have to crouch down for his salted empty calories.”
“Sorry, I didn't think.”
“It's okay, you're doing fine. Just try to calm down.”
“Yes, Burt,” Pan replied as she took the bag of chips from him, opened it and began to fill a large bowl.
It was easy for Burt to tell her to calm down when the responsibility for the business rested with her now. Maybe her father had seen the light and now agreed that they must sell off some of the planes.
Some. Most of them should go if they were to pay the bank loan and all the bills that were accumulating, multiplying and subdividing with supersonic speed.
Pan vowed to attempt to be more pleasant to Alex. She was there to sell a couple of the Carlisle planes and he was a potential buyer. After all, Alex would be gone, inverted or otherwise, in a few hours and might leave a nice big check that would keep the wolf from the door a little while longer.
“Some of these pickled eggs would be good, too,” Burt suggested removing the large jar from the back of the fridge.
“You don't have to eat any.”
“I don't think I could choke one down if I had to.”
Burt grinned. “What happened to you when you were in California? Did you forget how to eat like a real person?”
She wanted to say yes. Pan wanted to say she had eaten in some of the best restaurants around the world and none of them served pickled eggs or candied red pickles. But those days were gone because there was no expense account anymore. The days of the tight budget were back with the careful shopping trips to buy inexpensive cuts of meat and chicken on sale. What little she had saved from her days as a photographer had to last as long as possible, which by her calculations at the present rate of deterioration would be about six weeks.
Even if by some unforeseen twist of luck, the business problems all were resolved, Pan couldn't leave her father alone now. His heart was improving so slowly that the progress was nearly imperceptible. She would never be able to forgive herself if Tom took a turn for the worse while she was half a world away. They were all each other had and Pan was going to hold tight as was her nature.
When she had been described as a real little bulldog as a child, Pan had taken it as a compliment never realizing it might be anything else. If Pan wanted something, she gave one hundred percent. If it was learning to fly, or learning the intricacies of digital photography, Pan never held anything back. By the strength of will and determination, Pan had achieved her pilot's license in record time, and scored 100% on the written test. She had finished college in three years instead of four, and held down a part-time job on the town newspaper at the same time. That money was needed for supplies and nothing in the world would have made Pan ask her father for help. She had always been quite capable of making things happen on her own. Her independence was a matter of pride.
As Pan and Burt entered the small sun room with large windows on three walls giving an unobstructed view of the landing strip on the field below the house, Tom and Alex were laughing about a wheel falling off a plane upon landing.
“It wouldn't have mattered if it was a tail dragger,” Tom pointed out.
“Heck, no,” Burt chimed in. “You're already dragging the tail.”
More raucous laughter. What if it wasn't the rear wheel that had fallen off? What if it had been the nose gear? Pan imagined the scenario vividly. The plane would tilt forward onto the nose. The propeller would be ruined and probably the engine would need to be rebuilt to the tune of hundreds of dollars. What was funny about that?
What if. What if. Pan felt as though there were a battalion of potential catastrophes waiting to happen, made all the more possible by taking unnecessary chances.
Pan placed the tray on the coffee table.
“Did Pan show you around the hangars?” Tom asked.
Alex looked up at her. “No, she didn't.”
It seemed for a moment not that Alex was looking through her but into her and Pan was unnerved by that flash of intimacy, one gone so quickly she wondered if she had imagined it.
“We have some mighty fine planes out there. I'll give you a guided tour after dinner,” Tom suggested.
Dinner? He's staying for dinner? Why didn't someone let her know? She'd already been to town and could have gone to the grocery store for supplies. Competent in the kitchen, but Pan was far from a Gordon Ramsey. Anything suitable for company was so frozen it would require cutting apart with a hacksaw and broiling it. Some frozen green beans could accompany the dry chicken. Pan never said she was a chef.
But Pan was a very good photographer. Maybe she could take some pictures of food and they could have those for dinner.
She looked up startled, not realizing anyone was speaking to her.
“Could we have some more pickled eggs?” Tom asked.
Pan looked down. The plate was empty. How could they?
She picked up the platter and headed for the kitchen. “Slow it down on the eggs and their cholesterol, huh, Dad?”
“It's protein,” Tom called after her.
Pan went to the phone and dialed The Black Swan. Betsey answered.
“This is an emergency.” Pan said.
“Is your father okay?”
“Not that kind of emergency. A food emergency. Send reinforcements. Send a chef. Send help.”
“Alex Milne happened.”
“Who's Alex Milne?”
Pan poked a fork into a pickled egg. “Oh, a six foot two ego who dropped on us in a Pitts.”
“A Pitts?” Betsey said with rising interest.
“He flew over the field inverted,” Pan grumbled.
“How dare he?” Betsey started to laugh.
“Yes. That's a very dangerous maneuver.”
“Is he cute?”
“The plane's adorable.”
“Is he cute?” Betsey repeated.
“Will you bring dinner for us?”
“Am I invited?”
“Sure. Bring your mom, too.”
“What did he say to you to get you so stirred up?”
“He called me Pandora.”
“What a scoundrel!”
“Get here A.S.A.P.”
“That sounds so promising!” Betsey was nearly cheering.
“What do you mean?”
“You don't want to be left alone with him.”
“You are so far off the mark.” Pan could hear Betsey laughing as she hung up the phone.