Winging It

Chapter Two

Charlie —

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?"

"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, or Fitton?"

"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, no worries."

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 business."

"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 or Martin."

"I see," Charlie nodded. "Yes, I can understand that. Where are you going next?"

"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.

"Ladies first."

"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."

She flushed.

Douglas —

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 should think."

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 people around."

"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 sighed.

"Not yet."

"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 Dirk?"

"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 her yet?"

"Yes," Douglas purred. "I have. Definitely too good for Fitton, that's for certain."

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 slightly troubled.

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