The Airpark Cafe occupied the second floor of a two-story building that sat next to a gray aircraft hanger with its doors closed. The ground floor housed the Benton Field Aviation Office, just beneath a wooden staircase.
To the left of the building, on the other side of a chainlink fence, sat a gravel parking lot with two cars--a heavy duty gray pickup and a white sedan.
South of us, glass and steel buildings up to fifteen stories tall dominated the skyline. Beyond them, in the near distance, jagged tree-covered hillsides rose up into a bright cloudless sky as if containing the sprawl in a pocket of green.
It was in the mid-30s here, at least 20 degrees hotter than back in Bay City, and the warm breeze that blew across the airfield wasn't helping. I could feel the pinpricks of heat erupting up and down my arms and upper chest. The smell of dried grass hung in the air.
Mouse fanned herself with the lapels of her black leather trenchcoat. I saw the sheen of sweat on her cheeks and forehead.
"Like San Angeles," I said.
Mouse grunted. " 'Cept we were wearing shorts and t-shirts. Not work gear."
"Comes with the territory."
I nodded toward the cafe. "Let's go."
We went up the staircase to the second floor.
A wraparound balcony doubled as the cafe's outdoor seating. Two men occupied a table to the left of the cafe. One was a tall, heavyset black man with close-cropped hair going slightly gray at the temples. He wore crisp tan cargo pants, an untucked short-sleeved shirt, and dark mirrorshades and sat straight-backed in his chair, hands folded on the table. The other man was lanky, long-faced, with chin stubble wearing a faded black t-shirt and equally faded jeans. He was leaning forward in his chair, narrow-fingered hands gesturing as he spoke.
As Mouse and I went by, the black man with the mirroshades turned his head slightly to look directly at me.
I met his gaze and held it for half a second.
Then he turned back to his companion.
Something about him bugged me, but I couldn't put my finger on it.
I shrugged it off.
A pair of tables sat in front of the cafe beneath a dull green canvas canopy. One table was empty. In the other, a short skinny teen with a blue mohawk and nose studs dressed in a mesh shirt, cuffed jeans, and thick-soled workboots slouched in the chair, absorbed in the display screen of a portacomp.
Inside, the cafe boasted low ceilings, a few centimeters shy of my meter-ninety. I tried not to slouch to keep from hitting the ceiling.
Our boots clunked on the hardwood floor and I thought I felt it give a little as we moved.
A woman, face creased by age, thick blond hair now giving way to gray, looked up from the counter at the back. "Table for two?" she said with a slight drawl.
"Looking for Sam Cutter," I said.
She gave a small smile and inclined her head to our right.
Sam Cutter hunched over a mug at a table toward the back corner, stained khaki ball cap pulled low over his eyes. He looked up as we approached.
"You the two I got called about, right?" he said.
"Depends who called," I said.
He leaned back in his chair, arm draped over the seat back, and flashed a grin. "Good answer. Renaldi called. Philippe Renaldi. You must be Kat and Mouse."
"That's right," I said. "You ready to go?"
"I was born ready," he said. He upended his cup, stood, and waved to the woman at the counter. "Back later, Shelly."
"Better be," Shelly said. "Don't make me hunt you down for your tab."
"I would never," Cutter said.
"Liar," said Shelly.
Cutter blew her a kiss and headed out the door.
* * *
As we went back down the wooden staircase, I glanced at the table on the side of the restaurant.
I looked toward the parking lot.
Both the truck and the sedan were gone.
* * *
We followed Cutter onto the airfield past two old small- engine planes, a one-man gyro, and a helicopter, until we came to an aerodyne sitting by itself.
Mouse pulled up short and gaped. "Please tell me that thing can fly."
The aerodynes we had seen were three- to six-meter long dull gray metal bricks powered by four ducted vectorthrust engine pods. This one was at least ten meters long and clearly had seen better days. Its body was painted half primer gray, half rust, with strategic spatters and smears of caked-in dirt. I got the distinct feeling it would creak when it moved.
Cutter patted the craft's fuselage. "She's a classic. First gen. May not look like much now, but she can handle herself. I've made some modifications."
"You stole that line," Mouse said.
"What?" he said.
"Old vid," said Mouse. "Guy with a starship."
Cutter gave her a confused look.
"Nevermind that," I said. "As long as you can get us there and back, I'm good. How long will it take?"
"Depends how far," Cutter said.
"I have map coordinates."
He opened a small panel set into the side of the craft, tapped the keypad inside, and main cabin door popped open with an audible creak. "We'll check the nav."
* * *
While Cutter did his pilot business inside the aerodyne's cockpit, Mouse and I took seats in the main cabin.
A bench with five seats lined the bulkhead opposite the cabin door. We took two of those five. There were three more seats across from us just to the left of the cabin door.
The rest of the cabin space was taken up with several plastic storage crates lashed to the rear bulkhead with cargo netting
After Mouse and I settled in and stowed our gear bags in the space underneath the seats, Cutter called out from the cockpit: "Gonna take us about eight to ten minutes to get to your coordinates."
"That quick?" I said.
"Only thirty-eight klicks. I could take longer if you want. Give you a tour of the area. Place used to be a national forest back in the day."
"Ten minutes is good."
"Good," said Cutter. " 'Cuz we're off."
The aerodyne gave a low thrum that vibrated through the floor and up into my legs.
Then it shuddered and lifted off the field.
* * *
Eight minutes later, Cutter called out: "Coming up on the cabin."
"Thanks," I called back, pulling the gear bags out from beneath the seats.
Mouse reached into one and pulled out one of the MP5s.
I shook my head.
She blinked at me. "You got another idea?"
"I was thinking something quieter and up close."
Mouse gave me a feral grin. "I brought just the thing," she said and dug into the gear bag.
(to be continued...)