Police Chief Nathan Active investigates a plane crash out in Alaska’s Big Empty—and what he finds there casts suspicion of murder on several locals in his small town of Chukchi.
Evie Kavoonah, a young mother-to-be, and her fiancé, Dr. Todd Brenner, are on a flight over the Brooks Range when their bush plane runs out of gas and hits a ridge, instantly killing them both. Chukchi police chief Nathan Active doubts he’ll find anything amiss when his close friend, Cowboy Decker, asks him to look into the possibility of foul play. Evie was like a daughter to Cowboy, who trained her to fly, and he insists there’s no way his protégée made a fatal mistake that day. Nathan reluctantly plays along and discovers that Cowboy’s instincts are correct—the malfunction that led to the crash was carefully planned, and several people in the village have motives for targeting the pair.
Meanwhile, Nathan’s wife, Gracie, is pregnant, but so scarred by memories of domestic abuse that she isn’t sure she should have the baby. Nathan must support her and their adopted daughter, Nita, while managing an increasingly complex and dangerous murder case.
Release date: December 11, 2018
Publisher: Soho Crime
Print pages: 264
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The Big Empty
Wednesday, August 17
Lienhofer Aviation, Chukchi
Active followed the smell of stale cigarette smoke and day-old coffee down a grimy hallway to the break room on the second floor of Lienhofer Aviation’s hangar and terminal at the Chukchi airport. He had been driving to Arctic Pizza to meet Grace for lunch when Cowboy’s urgent call came in.
He found the pilot at a chipped Formica table with his back to a picture window that overlooked the tarmac and the airport’s main runway.
“What’s the emergency?” Active crossed the room and pulled out an orange vinyl chair.
Cowboy slid a stack of papers across the table, knocking over a half-full can of Coke in the process. Brown foam swirled across the floor. “You seen this yet?”
Active righted the can, picked up the papers, and scanned what turned out to be the official report on the Cessna 207
crash that had killed Evie Kavoonah and Todd Brenner six weeks earlier.
“Ah, why would you? It just came out.” Cowboy shoved back his chair and paced in front of the window. He pulled off his Lienhofer ball cap, returned it to his head, put on his mirrored shades, and snatched them off again. His sun-browned face was unshaven. His eyes were red, and the crow’s feet at the corners showed a little deeper than they should have on a man in his mid-forties. He groped inside his weathered bomber jacket, came up with a pack of Marlboros, and tapped one out.
Active looked up from the report as Cowboy brought the cigarette to his lips, lit it with a red Bic, and took a drag.
His own face looked back at him from Cowboy’s lenses. Active ran his hand over the bristly buzz cut that made him look closer to twenty than thirty. “Pilot error, huh? Tough one, I guess.”
“And total bullshit.” The cigarette bobbed. “That girl was the most meticulous pilot I ever flew with. I gave her her first lesson when she was thirteen, and even then she had more airplane sense than a lot of pros my age.”
Active read from the report. “‘Probable cause of this accident was the pilot’s failure to confirm the aircraft had adequate fuel on board to complete the flight.’” He dropped it on the Formica table. “She ran out of gas.”
“Not Evie. Do you know the meaning of ‘meticulous’?”
“Of course, but”—Active looked at the report again—“but this says, ‘no fuel was observed in the lines, and propeller damage was consistent with the engine not producing power at impact.’”
“No way she ran out of gas,” Cowboy said. “I checked those tanks myself that morning while she was doing her preflight. They were full, right up to the filler neck. And with full tanks, Two-Five-Mike could fly the 440 miles to Fairbanks and most of the way back.”
Outside the window, a red and white Cessna 207 lifted off into a cloudless sky and banked east, presumably for a trip to the villages up the Isignaq River.
Active flipped through the report again. “So the weather was clear here that day and clear in Fairbanks, but there was cloud cover in between?”
“Yeah, a cold front was sliding through, but it wasn’t a problem.”
Cowboy tapped ash from his cigarette into the empty Coke can and stepped up to the big aviation chart on the wall.
“What we do in a case like that is, we climb out of Chukchi and get on top of the clouds.” Cowboy swept a hand across the jumble of rivers, ridges, peaks, and tundra plateaus that lay between Chukchi and the Yukon River to the south. “So Evie would have been above the weather till she got to the other side, then they were gonna stop at Tanana for lunch and a potty break. From there, it was a sightseeing run up the Tanana River into Fairbanks. It’s a beautiful ride in decent weather.”
“Sounds like it.”
“We do it all the time. In fact, I flew that route with her back in April to show her the ropes. Same kind of weather, too.”
The pilot dropped into his chair and massaged his eyes. “I was supposed to go this time, too—I was having the radios upgraded—and Todd was gonna ride along. Then he and Evie decided they needed to make a trip to Fairbanks, all of a sudden they had to look for an engagement ring. And they wanted to see a specialist over there about the baby. So I let them take Two-Five-Mike.”
“Specialist? Was there a problem with the pregnancy?”
They fell silent as a skinny Inupiaq in his thirties wearing grease-stained Carhartts and a backward baseball cap wandered in. He exchanged nods with Cowboy, shot a curious glance at Active in his uniform, then poured the last of the acrid coffee into a chipped mug decorated with a cartoon moose and shuffled out.
“So,” Active continued. “Problem pregnancy?”
“Evie’s mom had a couple of miscarriages,” Cowboy said. “So they weren’t taking any chances. They were both like that, always double-checking everything. I trusted Evie with that airplane a hundred and ten percent. And she would have been extra careful because of that baby.”
He pulled the Marlboro from his lips and studied it absently. “I shoulda gone with them, you know? Maybe I could have found a way down through those clouds.” He smiled, a faraway look in his eyes. “Evie used to tell me I didn’t fly that plane, I wore it.”
“Maybe you could have done it,” Active said. “Maybe not. Maybe nobody could have.”
Cowboy looked thoughtful for a while. Then he picked up the report and studied it. Finally he jabbed at it with the Marlboro. “It just doesn’t make sense.”
“All right, take me through it. So, Evie was a careful pilot.”
“Meticulous, like I said.”
“You were upgrading the radios. They on the fritz?”
“No, they were fine,” Cowboy said. “But they were getting old, couldn’t do all the stuff the new ones do. It’s just something you have to deal with every few years when you own a plane in commercial service.”
“If they were working, wouldn’t she have called in before she went down?”
“Not necessarily. You get into trouble, you go into A-N-C mode.”
“Aviate, Navigate, Communicate. First, you aviate—fly the airplane. Second, you navigate—keep track of where you are. And, third, you communicate—call in if you have time. Evie was trying to restart a dead engine and not hit any of the mountains she knew were in those clouds, so she never got around to communicating.”
“This report says the engine wasn’t producing power when they went down. But let’s say the Feds are wrong and she didn’t run out of gas. Then what was it? Something break?”
Cowboy’s jaw took on a stubborn set. “No way. That was my airplane. I’m the only mechanic to work on it since I bought it twelve years ago.”
Active was silent, feeling for an easy way into it. There wasn’t one, he concluded. “Could you have missed something?”
“Maybe something wasn’t exactly in top condition, but you figured it would hold together till you got around to it?”
Cowboy froze in mid-stride. “Fuck you, Nathan.” He flipped the cigarette butt toward the garbage can in the corner next to the refrigerator. He missed.
“Sorry.” Active waited for Cowboy to pick up the cigarette. He didn’t. “I’m just trying to consider every possib—”
“I wouldn’t let those kids anywhere near that plane if it wasn’t rock-solid.” Cowboy sagged back into the chair and rocked it onto its rear legs and was silent for a time.
“Shit. Could I have missed something?”
“All we’ve got is this report.”
“No, dammit!” The chair’s front feet banged onto the floor. “There was nothing wrong with Two-Five-Mike. If it ran out of gas, somebody jimmied the fuel system.”
“What? You mean sabotage?”
The pilot met Active’s gaze without flinching.
“Seriously?” Active said.
A stocky Inupiaq with a scraggly goatee and a Crazy Eskimo ball cap rolled a squeaky-wheeled gray trash bin through the doorway.
Again they waited the new arrival out.
The janitor pulled the overflowing plastic bag out of the garbage, closed it with a zip tie, and tossed it into his bin. Then he spotted the soda spill, mopped it up and cleaned the spot, and wheeled his bin out again.
“All I know is, I checked those tanks myself that morning,” Cowboy said. “Like I said, Two-Five-Mike had enough gas to get to Fairbanks and most of the way back. And that plane wouldn’t just quit. And that leaves sabotage.”
“I’m gonna prove it.”
“Prove it? How? If the federal investigators didn’t—”
“The evidence is on that ridge. I’m gonna go up there and find it.”
The phone in Active’s pocket warbled. He pulled it out, tapped the screen, and put it to his ear. “Hey, baby. Yeah, I’m sorry, I can’t right now . . . All right, yeah, right. See you tonight. Me too.”
“Some drama with mama?”
“Not how I would put it, but yeah. That’s the third time today she’s called. I haven’t had time to talk to her, and now I’ve stood her up for lunch. I’m sure I’ll hear about it when I get home.”
“Ya think?” Cowboy slid down in the chair, a little looser and more relaxed now. “So are you gonna help me figure this out or what?”
“It’s a plane crash. If it was sabotage, which I seriously doubt, I’m pretty sure that’s under federal juris—”
“I already called the FBI. They looked up the crash report and called back to say they’re not interested.”
Active studied his friend. How to get him off of the idea? “I can’t start a murder investigation with no evidence, no motive, and no weapon. The Feds had a whole team of experts—”
“Team? Ha!” Cowboy spat it out like an olive pit. He put the cigarette back in his mouth, heaved up from the chair, and started pacing again. “The ‘team’ was two guys, and they got yanked off the crash site when that commuter flight augered in at Dutch Harbor. What I think? A personal flight, no obvious cause, bureaucrats with workload issues, you take the path of least resistance, call it pilot error, and presto! Case closed.”
Active cocked his head and eyed Cowboy. A murder investigation on a mountainside 150 miles into the wilderness, with a grief-crazed bush pilot in charge? It was ridiculous. The logistics alone . . .
Cowboy stopped pacing and faced him. “Please?”
Active sighed. He smelled the scorched dregs of the emptied coffee pot on the burner and the piney scent of the cleaner the janitor had used on the soda spill.
“Is the wreckage still up there?”
“I overflew it yesterday,” Cowboy said. “As far as I could tell, the Feds didn’t cart anything off. Probably too expensive, considering the distance and the terrain.”
“Doesn’t your insurance company own it now?”
“Nah, I bought it from them after they settled the claim. They were only too happy to be off the hook for a salvage operation in the wilderness. And somebody might have mentioned something about grizzlies being known to frequent the area.”
“How close can you land up there?” Active asked.
“Not too far. There’s a gravel bar down on the river with a slough where I can drop in my new floatplane.”
“Not too far? How far is that?”
“Ah, a little hike. A mile maybe.”
“But uphill, right?”
“Not coming back,” Cowboy said.
“And when you get up there, you’re going to do what, exactly?”
“Take that airplane apart, piece by piece.”
Active took the report from the pilot and scanned it again. “Okay, Cowboy. I have some vacation coming up, so if we time it right, I can go. If we find evidence of foul play, I’ll look into it. But if not, we’re done. I’ll have to drop it, and so will you. Right?”
Cowboy nodded, sank back into the chair, and exhaled. “Thanks, Nathan. Thanks.”
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