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-smelling 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.
"S hit. 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.