She tried to relax but it was difficult to do with so much on her mind,
and when she slipped out the back of Hip Clips, she almost didn't see
the green Vauxhall Insignia lingering at the far end of the alley.
Damn. Charlie drew a breath, stepped back in to the shop and looked to
Edwin, who caught her mood instantly.
"He's back. Out back in fact, and I am in no mood to talk to him," Charlie
grumbled. "Mind giving me a lift?"
"No trouble," Edwin murmured, flipping the closed sign on the door and
reaching for his keys. "Persistent bugger isn't he? Can't you get a
non-molestation order or something, love?"
"He hasn't done anything in front of witnesses," Charlie grumbled, "he's
clever that way, and he knows the law. God, I really didn't need him
coming by tonight of all nights. Are you sure you don't mind, Edwin? I
know it's out of your way."
"Pffft," the older man waved a thin hand. "I don't mind at all. Home,
"Fitton," Charlie murmured, flashing a brief smile. "Just clearing out
the old tool shed tonight."
"Hmmm, and why is that do you suppose?" Edwin teased. "Could it be that
you have some special reason?"
"Shhhh," Charlie laughed. "The less you know, the better."
"And how will you be getting home then?" came the question as she and
Edwin slipped out the front and headed across the street to the little
lot near the bookstore. "Fly?"
"Not yet," Charlie told him. "I can catch the downtown bus before nine,
Fitton was busy with the late-afternoon rush of commuter jets--if one
could call 'two' a rush--and a hospital helicopter re-fueling at the
far end of the field. Charlie made her way to the tiny terminal and
after clocking in, climbed into her overalls, making a face at the
bagginess of the suit.
She moseyed out across the tarmac, and was passing by MJN's hangar when
a low voice called out to her. "Charlotte?"
Surprised, Charlie turned to see Douglas Richardson stepping down the
ramp of the portacabin, files under his arm. He looked different out of
uniform; less imposing and somehow nicer for it. He also seemed
pre-occupied, and she slowly wandered over towards him, her hands deep
in her pockets. "Douglas Richardson, right?"
"Yes, do call me Douglas. You don't happen to have a key to the
cleaning supply closet do you? I've managed to spill apple juice all
over Carolyn's desk and there will be hell to pay if I don't get it
mopped up," he murmured ruefully. "As it is I've saved the flight
plans, but just barely."
"Sure," Charlie told him with a nod, amused to see the second MJN pilot
in a day. "We'll need hot water though. Come on."
One pail of soapy hot water and two industrial towels later the desktop
and part of the thin carpeting were clean if a bit damp. Charlie noted
that Douglas seemed to be good at housework--a rarity for a man,
particularly one of his generation. Not that he was old, precisely;
Charlie thought he was actually handsome in a barrel-chested avuncular
sort of way.
"Thank you," he told her lightly. "That's the worst of it cleaned up,
and if there are ants by Thursday it will simply be one of those
mysterious plagues that so often hit our little company."
"There won't be; the soap will take care of that. Although I am curious--apple juice?"
"I rather like the stuff," he admitted sheepishly.
"Hmmm, yes, but not everyone drinks it out of a Glencairn whisky
glass," she murmured, handing it to him. "Not that it's any of my
"Ah," he told her in a quiet embarrassed way. Charlie laid a hand on
his wrist and gave him a quick smile.
"Not my business, Douglas," she repeated. "You're in good company and
if anyone ever asks, I don't know a thing about it. Anyway, I didn't
know MJN had anything scheduled for today."
He gave her a real smile then, and Charlie saw the shy gratitude in his
dark eyes as he did so. "No they don't, but I prefer to do the flight
plans here were I don't get distracted by the television or the laptop
"I see," Charlie nodded. "Yes, I can understand that. Where are you
"Poland," he sighed. "Businessmen. I think Caroline's managed to get a
job for the return as well, so we'll break even on it this time. Boring
stuff really; I'd rather hear about you. What on earth is a woman like
you doing cutting grass and sweeping out loos? Shouldn't you be at some
University somewhere, or running some graphics studio?"
Charlie laughed and carefully gathered up the bucket and damp towels.
"As it is I'm working on a degree; special project in fact, but
everything requires money and so I'm trying to make ends meet."
"Surely there's more to the Charlotte Jane Sawyer story than that," he
coaxed, moving to take the pail from her and walking out of the
portacabin at her side.
She smiled. "Born in Hammersmith, two brothers, fond of Chinese
take-away and disco music. My dad was in the RAF and one of my brothers
works for Heathrow, so I guess you could say airfields are part of the
family. How about you?"
"Born in London, only child, sushi is my passion and I've a fondness
for classical piano," came his reply. "Aviation came out of a natural
ability in mathematics, although I'll deny it to my last breath. That,
and a desire to see the world."
"Seen enough of it yet?"
"Not really," Douglas murmured thoughtfully. "There are still so many
places yet to visit, and it's lovely to do it from the sky."
"Oh agreed," Charlie nodded. They reached the tiny terminal and she
moved to shove the glass door open, but Douglas beat her to it, holding
the door and giving her a wry smile.
"Thank you," she murmured, pleased. Charlie reached for the bucket but
he shook his head.
"Please--point me to the correct sink and I'll pour it out myself.
You've already done so much for me it's only right I return the favor."
"It's hardly a favor," Charlie rolled her eyes. Nevertheless she took a
few steps over the cleaning supply closet and helped him tip the
apple-scented contents into the galvanized sink there. After rinsing
the pail out, Charlie set it back among the other supplies, keenly
aware of Douglas standing there, arms crossed, watching her. "What?"
"Nothing. Just . . . concerned. I was thinking about the other night,
and . . . forgive me, it's probably an obvious point, Charlie, but an
airfield at night isn't the safest place to work, particularly one that
can't even afford a proper security guard."
He knew he'd hit a tender point; the pulse at Charlie's throat throbbed
just above the zip of the boiler suit. Carefully Douglas took a step
back to give her space and waited through the critical moment.
Finally Charlie gave a chuffing sigh. "I know. I appreciate you
pointing that out, and your concern, but it will be all right. I've got
a mobile, and a whistle, and anytime I'm out mowing or along the
perimeter I let the fire crew or ATC know so they keep an eye out.
Really, the two of you startled me because I had my ear buds in; it
won't happen again."
Douglas kept his expression neutral, but he heard the tiny quaver in
her voice and the sound of it set of little warnings in the back of his
head. The same sorts of mental alerts he heard when Martin would
protest that he'd had plenty
to eat before coming to work, or when Arthur quietly mentioned his
father. Having told his own fair share of lies, Douglas Richardson was
particularly canny at catching them when others tried to do so, and the
difference now was that he didn't let them slide.
Martin never realized that on the days when he seemingly won first
crack at the cheese tray, and Arthur didn't when Douglas would give him
a spare Toblerone. If anyone had accused him of caring, Douglas would
have bluffed his way out, but occasionally when he caught a glimpse of
himself in the mirror these days he would give a knowing nod to his
reflection and leave it at that. No deep analysis needed, no
introspection at all, thank you. MJN ran better when its employees were
taken care of, and tough as Carolyn Knapp-Shappey was, even she
couldn't handle the things that fell through the cracks.
So Douglas did. It kept the peace, it made things easier, and God only
knew that both Arthur and Martin needed a guardian angel now and then.
"Those are all very good precautions," Douglas murmured supportively.
"I approve of them, but--and you don't have to answer this I know--I'm
curious as to why."
"That's a bit personal isn't it?" Charlie shot back uneasily.
Douglas gave a shrug. "Rather like apple juice instead of whiskey, I
She blushed, and in that moment he knew he'd won her over. Charlie
shoved her hands into her pockets and stared at the grubby linoleum
before speaking. "Fair enough, I guess. A friend of mine's cheesed off
with me. Not really a friend--used to be a friend--but . . . it's
complicated. I've got something he wants, paid him fair and square for
it, receipt and everything, but now he wants it back."
"I see," Douglas murmured. He didn't have the finer details but the
basic picture was clear enough, and he knew if he kept quiet that
Charlie would fill in the blanks.
"Yes. I don't know if he knows I've gotten the job out here or not, so
I'm a bit . . . jumpy. Usually I work during the day so there are other
"Good," Douglas replied. "And you've mentioned your concerns to oh, say
the proper authorities?"
"Nnnnno. He's never done anything overt enough to warrant it," Charlie
"He won't," Charlie shot back, finally looking up at Douglas. He
noticed that although she met his gaze there was a hint of worry in her
fine dark eyes. "He's not stupid, even if he's got a temper sometimes.
Anyway, he won't be getting it and that's final."
"All right then," Douglas nodded. He knew when to let a confrontation
end, and smiled at Charlie before making a show of checking his watch.
"But if you need someone to back you up, call." He scribbled out his
mobile number on a corner of the flight plan and tore it off handing it
to her with studied indifference. "I'm not often given to acts of
gallantry, but I'd rather not see you get the worst of it because you
couldn't reach someone."
He watched her take it and tap the number into her phone, feeling a
sense of relief in seeing Charlie take him seriously. She gave a nod,
then squeaked when she caught sight of the terminal clock. "Oh lord I
should have been trimming the hedge forty minutes ago! Thank you
Douglas, I appreciate your concern. Have a good flight to Poland if I
don't see you before then!"
Douglas watched Charlie scurry off, absently wishing her coveralls
weren't quite so baggy, and wishing his sense of foreboding would
lessen. After she was out of sight, he made his way down to the fire
crew break room, slipping inside quietly. George was there, and Douglas
waved him over.
"So I hear Dirk was hit by a lorry," he began conversationally.
"Oh yes, nasty business that, but they were able to hammer out the
dents, so that's all right then," George replied.
"In the lorry. Dirk's going to need more than a ball peen hammer.
Concussion last I heard, and a leg broken in three places. We've got a
new girl about the place now--Charlie she's called. Pretty thing. Seen
"Yes," Douglas purred. "I have. Definitely too good for Fitton, that's
George gave a shrug. "Most people are. Still, she was keen to get the
job, and seems to know what to do."
"Hmmmm," was all Douglas replied to that, and steered the conversation
to other waters, his thoughts now caught up in the gossip of the day.
It wasn't until a few hours later before he left that he tapped George
on the shoulder and leaned in, voice soft. "I suppose you and the rest
of the crew will keep an eye
out for the girl, especially after dark, right?"
"Oh she'll be fine," George replied. "ATC's got that three hundred and
sixty degree view, and she's got a whistle."
"Nevertheless," Douglas murmured, and touched the side of his nose.
George gave a nod and returned the salute, grinning.
It was the best he could do for the moment, and Douglas left, still