“May I help you, Miss?”
Captain Claire Nolan turned from her inspection of the baggage hold access panel. “It’s locked. Do you have a key?”
They stood on the Kadena Air Base ramp under lights powered by the aircraft ground equipment (AGE). She looked at the older man, his hair, sparse as it was, blowing wispy in the wind from the East China Sea. He wore a white shirt under a light jacket with embroidered wings on one side of his chest. One of the pilots, she decided. That explained the foreign accent evident in just those few words. She understood these were foreign visitors.
He did not answer and she wondered if he had exhausted his available non-aviation related English. Very slowly, she said, “I need the key so my baggage detail can unload and take it to your quarters.” She waved at the airmen standing behind her, looking bored as only people on detail can.
“The team will unload,” he said.
She decided the accent was German.
“Team? What team?” She had been told only that these were VIPs. They were being accommodated in the largest bungalow quarters for such guests. Were they a sports team?
“What’s going on, Günther?”
It was an American voice. A bit southern. So he couldn’t be one of them, but where else would this civilian out here on the ramp come from but the Challenger jet sitting before them? A breathtakingly beautiful American in a lightweight suit and wearing a tie. Lots of soft brown hair with just the right amount of curl and eyes to match. The eyes were gentle, but the look in them, granite. Probably around his mid-thirties. She was immediately captivated but managed to fashion a professional answer.
“I need the key so we can get the baggage to your quarters, Sir.” She had decided he was not one of the pilots, therefore, he must be one of the visitors. Maybe not one of the pilots, but his eyes were fixed on her chest, and sadly, not for the reason she would like. It was one of the more insignificant parts of her anatomy, and his eyes were centered above the left breast where her wings glinted in the lights of the AGE.
“You fly?” He was almost dismissive about it.
“Yes.” She wanted to say something biting and witty, but oh, those eyes.
“Charlie wants to know is there problem?” This one had a different accent. And a broken nose. He was joined by a beautiful blonde woman, also a blond man who could have been her brother, and an older man leaning on a cane. An odd collection of people for a sports team. So far, the only thing they had in common with each other was their jet.
“Is this red hair your real color,” the man with the broken nose asked, “or is it dyed?”
The woman hit him in the shoulder. “Sergei, no! Never ask a lady if she dyes her hair.”
“But I want to know.”
“I apologize,” the woman told Claire.
“I assure you it’s real,“ she said with a chuckle.
“There are no problems here besides the ones you’re trying to cause, Sergei,” said the American man. He turned those beautiful eyes on her, gesturing toward the baggage detail. “Get these people the fuck out of here, Captain. Then you can escort this gentleman — you should call him Mack — to that black car there. We’ll do our own unloading. Where the fuck is Skosh?” He read her blank look, rolled his eyes, and said, “Nakamura. Where is he? He better not be off someplace eating sushi.”
“The General insisted on showing him your quarters. They should be here any moment. In fact, here they come.”
“Fuck. A fucking General.”
“Let me handle this, Steve,” said the man with the cane. He had a heavy German accent and began walking slowly to meet the cars, one was for the important visitors, the other, just driving up, contained Nakamura and the General.
Claire watched as the General shook hands with the man with the cane, who then sent Nakamura running toward them. Two civilian drivers she did not know but recognized from their meeting in the office earlier that day brought both cars up onto the ramp next to the airplane. She turned back to Steve. He was staring at her wings again.
“So what do you fly?”
He nodded minimally but said nothing.
“I’ve applied for a fighter. The combat restriction’s been lifted.”
“I heard. What are you doing in Class B’s playing toady to a general?”
The man was Air Force. Not now, obviously, but once. The haircut, or lack of one, said civilian, but his manner, his language, and his familiarity with the denizens of an airfield told her he was part of her tribe. He spoke her language. She was smitten.
“We were told you were foreigners.”
“Yeah. I’m the token American. So answer my question.”
“They did surgery on my knee for a torn ACL. I’m grounded until the flight surgeon clears me.”
“So you’re on this shit detail? I’m not saying this again: get those guys the fuck away from this airplane before they touch something and get hurt. Skosh should have told you not to bring them.”
He did, but the General had overruled him, as generals were wont to do on a regular basis. She was about to mention this, but decided she needed to understand more about these visitors before she made candid observations about her boss. She liked General Hanahan, but he was sure he could navigate any airspace. These guys gave her the sense they were something outside even his experience. Certainly, they were outside hers.
She dismissed the baggage detail and approached Nakamura.
“Can we douse the lights?” he said as she walked up.
She gave the order.
“And get these other people out of here. Maybe give them a break or something.” He indicated the transient ground crew waiting to move the aircraft to a parking spot. At least he didn’t use fuck for every other word.
She did as he requested. The team, as these VIPs had been dubbed, had been busy carrying light luggage to one of the cars, a roomy sedan. The other car, an armored Mercedes, stood empty so far, its trunk lid raised. Now, two low foot lockers went into it. Another footlocker was wedged into the trunk of the sedan.
Claire was sure she did not gasp when the rifle cases came out, unmistakable in the moonlight, beginning with an exceptionally long one in the hands of the younger blond man. Ammo boxes, radio cases, another smaller locker painted with a first aid cross, all of it was stuffed into the Mercedes.
She steadied her voice before she said, “If I can speak to the pilots, I’ll give them instructions where they should park. Then I can call the ground crew back to guide them in.”
“They won’t be parking,” said Nakamura. “The airplane is always kept off site. They’ll leave as soon as Mack gives the order. Or Charlie. Probably Charlie. Fuck.”
So much for a lighter vocabulary. Claire had no idea what caused it, but he conveyed to her a sense of worry and dismay with each unconnected thought. He clipped his words and grimaced each time he said the name ‘Charlie.’
“You had better call for the General’s car,” he said. “There’s no room for a general in either of those, and I have to go with them.” He pointed to the sedan.
“I should go with you, too. I know where your quarters are and I have all the keys. The General can take the protocol truck back to his quarters.”
“Good point. You may let your people back near the airplane so they can get it ready to go on its way. You’d better ride with us, not in the Mercedes. I’ll put you between me and Goodwin. He’ll be delighted.”
Judging by the way he chatted and acted nonchalant about putting his arm around her until Skosh, as everybody called Nakamura, told him to knock it off, Goodwin was indeed delighted. It was too dark for Claire to see the two silent men who sat in front.
She unlocked the door to the largest VIP bungalow and stepped aside as this strange team shlepped foot lockers, luggage, ammo boxes, and radio gear through it in a steady stream. She did her best to keep her eyes off the one they called Steve, but knew she spent too much time watching him and could only hope nobody noticed.
They all, without exception, noticed. Even Goodwin.