The End is Where We Begin
Otto and the children were flying.
Otto and the children were flying.
The Next Generation
Friday after Labor Day, Otto was in the main hangar helping Luis with some minor repairs on the Cessna. He knew it was about the time the twins came home from school, but he was surprised when he heard the bus stop in front of his house and then heard the sound of running feet.
The girls burst into the gym, practically skidding to a stop in front of them.
“Hello, girls. How was school today?” Otto smiled at them.
Marion answered, out of breath. “It…was…fine…but…we…have…something…to…ask…you.”
Otto put down the wrench he had been using. “First, catch your breath and then we’ll talk.”
The twins stood with their hands on their knees. After about a minute, they straightened up.
“Ready?” Otto asked. They both nodded.
Marion spoke first. “As you know, we turn twelve this year.”
“So I’ve heard. And?”
“We want to learn to fly.”
Otto stopped for a few seconds. “That’s funny. I could have sworn that someone in here said she wanted to learn to fly.”
“We did!” they said together.
“Because you’re a pilot and Mommy’s a pilot and Uncle Tom is one and Uncle Bob and Luis and he’s teaching Julio, so we figured we should learn as well.” Maria seemed excited and hopeful
“Whoa! Slow down. We’ll have to ask your mother.”
We already did. She thinks it’s a great idea.”
“She does, huh? Who’s going to teach you?”
“You,” they said in unison
“I am? Did I agree to that?”
“You have to! Please please please please please!”
Otto put his hands over his ears as if he were being deafened. He was happy that the twins wanted to learn and that they wanted him to be his teacher. “O.K., O.K., I’ll do it. Just stop jumping and screaming.”
“We will. Thank you, Daddy! You’re the best daddy anyone ever had!”
“Thank you. Glad you think so. I’m also the only daddy you have.” They turned to run out of the room when Marion thought of something.
“Oh—Little Otto wants to learn too.”
“Sure, why not? But I think we can only get two of you into the Cub.”
“We don’t care. We’re going to learn to fllllllllly!” With that, they were off.
Well, that just goes to show that you never know, Otto thought. He felt as if they were all poised on the brink of something new, even though the threat of Abigail and Benson hung over them all. He had a feeling they would hear from them again, but in the meantime he had plenty to occupy him. He felt as if his adventuring days were over, and he needed to stay home, for the twins and Little Otto if for no one else. They had grown into quite a group, with unexpected encounters bringing new people to them. With this new decade came great promise and great possibility. He was glad to be a part of it. He turned out the light and headed for home.
The girls were natural pilots and learned quickly, as did Little Otto. Although they couldn’t be licensed until they were 16, they could command the aircraft as long as Otto or some other pilot were present. He had Luis and Julio modify the Cub with a set of controls for the rear seat. One of the student pilots flew from the back seat while Otto held another on his lap and still had access to the controls. This arrangement, while workable, was uncomfortable, so he began looking for a four-seater. The kids wouldn’t be up to the twin engine Cessna, so he bought a 172, which was ideal for the purpose. They all fit in the aircraft, with a seat left over for a passenger.
The 172 was delivered late one Friday evening early in October, and Otto didn’t tell the young student pilots about it. The next morning, he took them over to the hangar where Luis slid the big door open. A shaft of sunlight hit the red and white trim of the aircraft. For a moment, no one spoke. Finally, Marion exclaimed, “Daddy, it’s beautiful! Can we fly it!”
“That’s why I got it.”
“When can we fly it?”
“How about now?”
“Yes!” exclaimed all the children. Luis had prepped the Cessna, and they were soon seated in the aircraft. Marion wanted to fly it first, so Otto ran through the checklist with her and then watched as she taxied the little aircraft out to the runway.
“Olson tower, this is Cessna 51 Bravo requesting permission to take off. Over.”
“Five-one Bravo, Olson tower, you are cleared to take off on runway 36 right. Wind is four knots from the south. Advise on departure. Over.”
Marion keyed the mic. “Roger, Olson tower. Five one Bravo over and out.”
She moved the airplane to the centerline of the runway, checked her instruments one more time and then advanced the throttle. The 172 started down the runway, slowly at first, but gaining speed rapidly. As it reached flying speed, Otto noticed that Marion felt the sensation rather than relied on her speedometer and pulled back on the control. The aircraft climbed into the blue morning.
Nothing like this, Otto thought. Nothing at all.
That morning, Otto had each of them handle takeoffs, flight at various altitudes and running through the pattern. He asked Betty and Mata to come out to witness the morning’s big event.
“Little Otto, Maria and Marion, it’s time for you to solo. I’ll ride along but won’t say anything unless you’re about to get us into trouble.” He turned to Maria. “You’re first. Take us up, run around the pattern and then land. Then it’ll be the others’ turn.”
“You mean you want me to be first?” She was breathless at the prospect. “Oh, boy! Finally!”
She took the Cessna up with authority, and then it was Little Otto’s turn. He did equally well, and as they landed, they saw other family and friends waiting to welcome the young soloists. Mata must have made some calls while they were in the air.
Little Otto stopped the aircraft and exchanged places with Marion. The crowd on the apron applauded and waved. Marion expertly took the red and white aircraft up into a cloudless sky.
Otto sat in his office looking out the window, not thinking of anything in particular. Mata had said she had an errand to run, so Otto wasn’t surprised when she came in about ten. He was surprised that the twins were with her.“Hi,” he called. “What’s up?” Mata and the girls sat down at the conference table. “There’s something we want to ask you,” Maria said, looking quite serious.
“Yes, it’s very important.” Marion looked straight at him.
“Well, all right, what is it?”
The twins looked at each other, and finally Marion spoke. “You know the museum in town?”
“Yes I do.” Otto remembered that it had been established about ten years earlier. It was small and had some interesting exhibits, but he hadn’t been there since it opened.
“And you know Mrs. Adair, the chief docent?”
“I’ve known her for a while. What about her?”
The girls looked at each other again.“You ask him,’ said Maria.
“No, it’s your turn.”
“I didn’t know we were taking turns.”
“We are, and it’s your turn.”
“Well, all right,” Maria sighed. “But next time you get to do it.”
Otto was never sure what scheme the twins could come up with, but apparently he was witnessing the latest one.
“Well, what is it?”
“We want to help Mrs. Adair at the museum. She said we could.”
“What would you do?”
“Whatever she told us to do.” Marion looked at her father as if he were simple.
“She’s so funny, Daddy. She told us a joke.”
“What was it?”
“If April showers bring May flowers, what do May flowers bring?”
“I don’t know. What do they bring?”
“Pilgrims!” Both girls started giggling uncontrollably.
I wonder if Lynn knows what she’s getting herself into here, Otto thought. “All right, you can do it, but you’ll have to get someone to take you there.”
“Mrs. Adair said she would. Thank you Daddy, thank you, thank you!” Maria was about as excited as Otto had seen her. The two scampered off, no doubt to tell Betty all about their new activity, if she didn’t know already. Mata probably did as well. I’m always the last to know, Otto thought, and turned back to his work.
With the wedding over, aviation camp drawing to a close, and the last month of the air circus coming up, Otto was able to turn his attention to other matters. Or so he thought, because Mata was always coming up with new ideas.
She came into the office in late August. “It’s time to start planning our reunion trip to England next year!”
“That’s what you always say.”
“And it works out well, doesn’t it?”
“For you, maybe. Anyhow, the remaining members of the crew have expressed an interest in going, and we’re all going with the exception of Betty…”
“Hold on, Betty’s not going?”
“I can’t talk her into it.”
“Why doesn’t she want to go?”
“She says this is a trip for you and your crew.”
“But other guy’s wives are coming.”
“Talk to Betty.”
“Do you think it would do any good?”
“In a word, no.”
“I take it you’ve been talking about this for a while.”
“What else don’t I know about?”
“Plenty, mister. Anyhow, I’ll get on it. See you later.”
Otto sat and looked out the window at a couple of student pilots practicing takeoffs and landings. He wasn’t sure he wanted to go back to England. There was something about his reaction to the war he couldn’t figure out. He saw it as a job that had to be done, and he did it. He didn’t worry about it in that way, but he kept having these visions or dreams or whatever they were. One day he would really know what they meant. Not just now, though.
The twins burst into the office. They rarely came over unless Mata or Betty or someone else were with them. “Girls! To what do I owe this unexpected pleasure?”
Maria giggled. “There you go again, Daddy, being silly!”
“I’m not silly. I’m courteous. What can I do for you?”
“You can come with us to the museum.”
“Why would I want to come to the museum?”
“To see what we’ve been doing.”
Otto looked at his calendar. Actually, he didn’t have any appointments the rest of the afternoon. “Looks like I’m free. Let’s go!”
The twins jumped up and down, clapping their hands as they did so. “Yay! You’re the best Daddy ever!”
I wish everyone were as happy with me as you are, Otto thought, as they climbed into the car and set out for town.
The Pioneer Lake Museum sat on a patch of land overlooking the lake, near the fairgrounds. Otto parked the car and they went in. The interior was cool, with horizontal cedar slats along the walls. The effect was much like being in a cedar forest, Otto thought, which was probably the point. A small desk sat at one end of the room, with the lights of a display area just beyond that.
Lynn Adair was sitting at the desk, and she rose to greet them. “Major Kerchner, welcome. It’s so good to see you!”
Otto and the twins reached her, and she shook Otto’s hand. Then she turned her attention to the girls. “Marion, Maria, good to see you as well. Did you bring your father in to see what you’ve been doing?”
They nodded vigorously.
Lynne addressed Otto again. “These two have been so helpful. They do anything I ask, with smiles on their faces. You certainly have raised some fine children.”
“Thank you, Mrs. Adair. They love being here.”
“I love having them. Say, are you ready to see the exhibits they worked on?”
She led them in among the displays. Otto could see that it was arranged chronologically, starting with posters showing geological events, especially glaciers and their movements. They passed from that gallery into one concerning human habitation, stopping about midway at a display showing weapons of some of the early inhabitants. The girls looked proud. Otto saw the main display case was filled with arrowheads and spear points.
Lynn beamed. “My assistants catalogued every one of these and then mounted them on the boards and then glued the descriptive labels below each one. That took hours. They worked so hard.”
Otto was impressed. “You did a nice job, girls. I’m proud of you.”
Marion and Maria blushed and giggled, but remembered to say, “Thank you, Daddy.”
“Is there anything else you want to show me?”
“I think that’s all,” Lynne said. “I believe you’re familiar with the rest of the museum?”
“I am, and I thank you for inviting us. We need to get home for lunch.”
“Oh, I was hoping you’d stay and have lunch with me.”
Otto hesitated. “I think we could do that. I’ll need to call Betty.”
“Certainly. Please use the phone on my desk.”
In a few minutes they were on their way to a new restaurant on Haugen Avenue. Otto had not been there, but he had heard it was more elegant that other places in town, with a French chef. He wondered idly if Lynn had a connection to France.
They parked and walked down the block to the restaurant. As they walked in, Otto could not see for a moment because the interior was dark and cool. When his eyes adjusted, he saw a tall man in a tuxedo standing beside a podium. He bowed to them.
“Good afternoon, Madame Adair. Comment t’allez-vous?”
Lynn nodded toward him. “Bien, merci, Charles. Et vous?”
“Assez bien.” He turned toward Otto and the twins. “Good afternoon, monsieur, mademoiselles. Welcome to la Mirabelle. Will you be having lunch?”
“Yes,” Lynne answered. “For four.”
Charles reached below the podium and brought our four menus. “Follow me, s’il vous plait.” He walked more deeply into the room, and they trailed behind. Otto took in the décor. I’ve been in a few fancy places, but none as fancy as this, he thought.
About halfway to their table, they passed an enormous aquarium with koi among the seaweed. That’s odd, Otto thought. I would expect snails, but maybe they keep them in the back so they’ll keep fresh.
“Daddy! Can we stop and look at the fish?” Marion loved animals of all kinds, and such an abundance of the golden fish was irresistible.
“Not now. We need to go to our table and be seated. Maybe you can look at them later.”
“Oh, all right.” She lowered her head, but only for a few seconds.
They reached their table, a banquette style arrangement, and slid around on the vinyl covering. Charles handed each of them a menu. “Your serveur will be with you in a moment. Enjoy your lunch.” He disappeared into the semi-darkness.
They opened their menus, and Otto was pleased to see that it was in English and French. Wouldn’t do to order hedgehog, he thought. The serveur, a short balding man, took their drink orders. Lynne had a white Bordeaux, while Otto and the twins asked for water. After he left, Otto turned to the girls. “You may go look at the fish tank now. We’ll tell you when you need to come back.”
After they left, Otto looked at Lynn. “I don’t speak French, but my sister Mata is nearly fluent. So are you, I would say.”
She looked around. “That’s because I am French.”
“But you speak English so well.”
“I’ve been in this country for twelve years.”
“And before that?”
“I was in France.”
“I never would have guessed. What were you doing during the war?”
She looked around again. “I was in the Resistance.”
“And you did everything they did.”
“You must have helped some of our crews get back home.”
“I know I did.”
“How did you know?”
“I can’t say.”
“Even after all these years?”
“Yes. I also knew who you were, down to your accident and being abandoned because of your burns.”
Otto felt as if he had entered some sort of surreal world. “Why didn’t you say something to me about this before?”
Lynn shrugged. “You didn’t need to know.”
“You sound like a spy.”
“Yes, I do.”
“Do you need to know?”
Otto sat back. “I suppose I don’t.” Just then the girls came back, but Otto was intrigued and resolved to talk with Lynn more about this. Her manner changed completely as Marion and Maria sat down. There’s something there, he thought. I don’t know what it is, but I intend to find out.
The Fourth dawned bright and clear, ideal weather for a picnic. They had worked on arrangements and preparations the day before, but Mata got everyone up early to make sure all was ready. They worked feverishly through the morning, and by noon, all was ready. They took a break in the shaded picnic grove where they would eat.
“Oh, man, I am getting so hungry smelling that pig roasting,” Tom moaned.
“No sampling. You’ll ruin your appetite.” Mata was checking on the roasting pit where Julio and Luis were in charge. Anne helped, not surprisingly.
“Yes, Mommy,” Tom returned. “May I have some dessert later?”
“Only if you’re good.”
Otto walked by and smiled. What a crew he worked with! They had come a long way from the war and all it involved. In some ways, it seemed like that happened ages ago; in others, it was like it occurred last week. It was hard to understand why that was so.
The picnic was a roaring success, with horseshoes and three-legged races and badminton and volleyball and a quick pickup game of softball after the meal and their own fireworks which Luis and Julio set off from a boat in the middle of the lake.
As the last shell burst and embers from the display floated down, Julio sent word around that he and Anne had an announcement. Otto was sitting with the rest of the family in a folding chair close to the dock.
The young couple came and stood before them. He put his arm around her. “I have a very important announcement to make, my friends. You freed me from an evil man and brought me here. I am grateful for all you have done. You made me happy, and I want to return the favor. I want to announce that Anne and I are engaged.”
The group applauded generously and then crowded around the couple, offering hugs and congratulations. When Otto reached Julio, he shook his hand. “Congratulations, mi amigo! I am so happy for you. Have you set a date?”
Julio shook his head. “Not yet. In a way I would like to have it next year so I wouldn’t end up being married twice in one year, although I wasn’t really married the first time. On the other hand, I can’t wait to marry this beautiful creature. Isn’t she lovely, Jefe?”
“She is that,” Otto replied, looking at Anne, who was indeed glowing with health and beauty. “You’re a very lucky man.”
“Si, I know that, very lucky indeed.”After they all had a chance to greet the couple, they cleaned up and headed for home and bed, agreeing it was the best Fourth of July celebration they ever had.
Otto sat a while in his chair after Betty had gone to bed, thinking over all that had happened the year before. By the grace of God he was called to a mission, and by the grace of God they were brought through a number of difficult times. He said a silent prayer for all of them, including Abigail, wherever she might be, whatever she might be doing. Then he went to bed.
Otto was awakened at 2 AM with sharp stomach pains. He tried to slide out of bed so as not to disturb Betty, but she was awake. “What’s wrong?” she asked.
“I’m having awful pains in my stomach,” he told her.
“Me, too. Do you think it was something we ate?”
“Had to be. But what could it have been? We were very careful with the selection and preparation of everything.”
“Maybe someone added something to the food.”
“Or maybe we have a virus. Let me fix us some ginger ale and see if that doesn’t help.”
As it turned out, the ginger ale didn’t help much, and they spent a miserable night huddled together in the living room. About 4 AM the twins joined them, and they all slept fitfully the rest of the night. Otto resolved to get to the bottom of their illness.
The next morning, tired and irritable at missing sleep and not feeling well, Otto called Mata at the office and was surprised that she didn’t answer. He got her at home, and she sounded as sick as he felt.“Seems like you have what we have.”
“I’ve never been so sick in all my life. I wonder if anyone else had the same problem.”
“I’ll make some calls and let you know.”
“So will I. Talk to you later.”
Otto made about ten calls, enough to convince him that almost everyone at the picnic experienced the same symptoms.
He called Mata back.
“What’d you find out?”
“Everyone has the same problem. We’ve got to find the cause.”
“I’ll call Doc Heaton. He’ll know who to get in touch with.”
“All right. Call me back with anything you find out.”
“You got it.” Otto hung up and dialed the number for the clinic.
The phone rang twice and Becky Heaton picked up.“Pioneer Lake Medical Center. This is Becky Heaton speaking. How may I help you?”
“Becky, it’s Otto.”
“Otto! How are you?”
“I’m not too good. Neither are a bunch of people who were at the picnic yesterday.”
Her voice assumed a professional tone. “What are the symptoms?”
“Upset stomach, diarrhea, aches, dizziness and lethargy.”He assumed she was writing that down since she was silent for a while.
“OK, got it. How many people are involved?”
“I haven’t talked to everyone, but there were sixty people at the picnic and I’m assuming everyone was affected.”
Becky gave a low whistle. “That’s some outbreak for our little town. I’ll tell Chris, and I’m sure he’ll want to call in the state health department.”
“All right, Becky. Thank you.”
“In the meantime, plenty of fluids and bed rest. I know you, Otto Kerchner, and you’ll keep charging around as if you were the picture of health.”
“I’ll do my best, Becky.”
“Do better than that—just do it!”
Otto wanted to laugh at her commanding tone but thought better of it. “I will.”
“You’d better or you’ll have me to answer to!”
“And call if your symptoms get worse.”
“Yes, m’am.”“And don’t call me m’am.”
“Yes m—all right, Becky. Talk to you soon.”
Otto hung up, chuckling. That was vintage Becky Heaton. She could be almost sharp where health was involved, but she was an angel when it came to taking care of the sick. Otto knew she worked in the free clinic in Eau Claire once a week.
He went back into the bedroom area to check on Betty and the girls. They were all asleep, so he left them alone and went back to the kitchen and made coffee. He poured a cup and sat down at the table. It was going to be a long day.
By late that afternoon, Otto and Betty had gone to the clinic with the twins, where they found the waiting room jammed with people from the picnic. Everyone had the same symptoms. Heaton had to call in some nurses and techs from Eau Claire who arrived in the early afternoon. By three o’clock, they knew what they were dealing with.
Becky called Otto at home. “Otto, we know what made everyone sick.”
“What was it?”
“Someone poisoned the barbeque.”
“What? Who would do that?”
“We’ll find out. It’s a matter for law enforcement now.”
“All right. What should we do?”
“It was apparently a low dose, or everyone would be dead. Just continue with the fluids and rest. You might also burn some toast and eat it. The carbon absorbs poison.”
“Just like a filter for an aquarium.”
“That’s it exactly. Let me know if anyone feels worse.”
“Will do, Becky. And thanks.”
Otto hung up and called everyone he could think of with the news and treatment. By the time he finished, it was nearly five and he was all in. He took a nap before dinner, although he didn’t have much of an appetite. He fell asleep and didn’t awaken until Betty came in and touched him lightly on the shoulder.
Once the outbreak had been diagnosed and everyone recovered in a few days, Charlie Draper started his investigation along with assistance from Tom, the F.B.I. and the Wisconsin State Patrol. Luis told them he had bought the pork in Minneapolis, which set off mental alarms with the lawmen. The mob was heavily involved in the meat packing industry, and suspicion naturally fell on Abigail. She had been accused of poisoning before, but never convicted.
“I think we have our perpetrator,” Charlie said grimly.
Tom agreed. “Now all we have to do is find her.”
“We will, eventually. It’s just a matter of time.”
Otto felt he had to constantly be looking over his shoulder. If Abigail had tried to harm them once, there was nothing to stop her from doing it again. Maybe she just wanted to warn them to leave her alone. Or maybe she had wanted to kill them all. They wouldn’t know until they talked to her. And so they turned back to their daily lives, with the thought of a deranged woman never far from their minds.
Julio and Anne began planning their wedding, with a lot of help from the women in the family, who were overjoyed to have another ceremony to work on. By this time, they were familiar with the routine, and quickly made all the arrangements.
The ceremony took place early in August, in the picnic grove at the camp. This was where Julio first kissed Anne, so it was a special place for them. The wedding went smoothly, and the newlyweds left for their honeymoon in Chicago which Julio had never visited. The group waved at their car as they drove off.
“Well, another one down,” Otto commented.
“You make it sound like this was target practice instead of a beautiful ceremony.” Mata chided him.
“I just wonder who’s next.”
“I don’t know. Polly’s not married, and neither is Alice, so they’re the likely candidates.”
“Anyone on the horizon in either case?”
“Not that I know of. I think Alice still carries a torch for you.”
“Too bad she won’t be available for the Olympics. She would make a dandy torch carrier.”
“Otto, you just can’t let it go, can you?”
“I suppose not.”
“Do you want to?”
“I don’t know.”“That’s no answer.”
“It’s the best one I got.”
“So I guess I’m stuck with it.”
“I suppose you are.”
Otto walked back to his house, cutting through the airfield. So many memories here, he thought. Lessons with Betty. The airline. The baseball team. The North Pole flights. The emergency flights. And just taking the Cub up and noodling around. Yes, he was blessed and so grateful for it all.
By the end of the month, Abigail had still not turned up. The F.B.I could find no sign of her, and those in Pioneer Lake did no better. They put the search on the back burner, vowing to pick it up again in the fall, but keeping an eye open for Abigail.
The bookstore continued to do well, as did the aviation camp. Alice and Anne did a good job of managing it, with a lot of help from Julio, who seemed to enjoy Anne’s company. Sometimes Otto thought he enjoyed it a little too much, but he didn’t say anything. Time would tell, as it always did.
Otto was out on the flight line when Tom’s car pulled up. “Hey, brother-in-law, how are you?”
“I’m O.K., but I have some news.”
“Good or bad?”
“All right, give me the mixed news, then.”
Tom pulled out a piece of paper. “While trying to find Abigail, I contacted the courthouse where she and Julio were married.”
“And their marriage is not legal.”
“Yes, there was a guy masquerading as a justice of the peace. He’s fooled a lot of couples and caused a big mess.”
“Love is blind, I suppose. A young couple who wants to get married more than anything is likely to believe anything. “
“Did they catch him?”
“Why would anyone want to do that?”
“Money, my friend. That root of all evil.”
“Well, I never heard of such a thing.”
“This sort of thing happens, and more frequently than you might think.”
Otto sat on a tool box. “Do you want to deliver the good news to our young friend?”
“I think you should. You have more of a history with him than I do.”
“I know where to find him.”
“Don’t we all?”
They laughed and shook hands. Tom drove off, and Otto went over to the camp site. He found Julio with Anne gathering up sheets to be washed. He stood at the door to the cabin, noticing how close they stood to each other and how each laughed at what the other said.
He cleared his throat. “Excuse me, guys.”
They jumped apart and resumed folding the sheet they had been working on. Once that was finished, Otto walked up to them. “How are things?”
“They’re fine,” Anne said. “Julio was telling me some jokes.”
“Oh? Like what?”
“If fish lived on land, which country would they live in?”
“I don’t know, which country would they live in?”
At this Julio and Anne dissolved into gales of laughter. These two are really far gone, Otto thought, but they do have a lot in common.
“Now I’ll tell you a pilot joke.”
“O.K.”“What should a pilot do if he’s about to crash?”
“I don’t know.”
“Look for something soft to hit. If he doesn’t see anything soft, look for something inexpensive.”
Julio and Anne stared at him.
“What’s the matter?”
“With all respect, Jefe, that is not a joke.”
“It’s too sad and serious to be a joke.”
“All right. I won’t tell anymore.”
“Please do continue to tell jokes. Just make sure they’re funny.”
This is a hard audience, Otto thought. Glad I’m not a comic. “I have something serious to share with you.”
“I’ll take these sheets to the laundry.” Anne started gathering up the bed linens.Otto motioned for her to sit down.
“No, stay. This concerns you as well.”
Anne sat next to Julio on the bed.
“Julio, your marriage to Abigail was not valid.”
“Yes, the man who married you was not a justice of the peace. He only pretended to be one to make money.”
No one said anything for a while. Then Julio jumped up and shook Otto’s hand. “Jefe, that is some of the best news I’ve ever received. I am a free man now!” Anne reached over and hugged Julio with such force that Otto thought, hey you guys, get a room. He smiled when he realized they were in a room.
“Well, I’ve got things to do, so I’ll leave you to finish your work. See you at the picnic.” Mata had arranged for a special meal to mark the Fourth of July and the end of the first session of aviation camp.
“Good-bye, Jefe! Thank you so much! You have made me so happy!”
Otto waved good-bye and went back to the flight line. He looked over the aircraft and, as usual, Luis and his crew were doing a fine job. Otto knew Luis missed Raphael terribly, but he kept on working. What a great guy, Otto thought. I wish I had a dozen more like him.
He got back in the office about noon. Mata came in from town where she had been tending to the bookstore. She walked in. “Hey, brother, what’s going on?”
“The usual. I told Julio he wasn’t a married man anymore.”
“And his reaction?”
“What would you expect? He was overjoyed, such as any man would be.”
“Are you saying you don’t want to be married anymore?”
“I know better than that. I’m just reporting his reaction.”
Mata shrugged. “I have the final plans for the picnic. Do you want to see them?”
“Mata, you should know by this time I never need to see plans for anything you do. I know it will be great.”
“I hope so. We’ve added a few more people since last year.”
“Are the nuns coming?”
“No, they have a conference that weekend.”
“Yeah. Anyhow, we’ll start getting ready July third for the Fourth.”
“After the parade?”
“Yes, of course. We’ll eat about two.”
“I can hardly wait.”
“It’ll be good.”
“I know it will.”
A month had elapsed since they found out about Abigail, and so far she had continued to act like a model citizen. Besides working at the bookstore, she volunteered in the church office three times a week and helped with preparations for aviation camp.The twins and little Otto finished school, and pitched to help with all that was going on. Alice became increasingly involved with the businesses and proved so adept at it that Mata gave her most of the supervision of the camp. Betty got along well with Alice, and Otto joked that they were all sisters they never had. They did look alike with their slim, tall builds and brunette hair. “Our very own Andrews Sisters,” he told them one day when they were poring over some business reports in the office.
“Listen, bugle boy, either do something helpful or buzz off.” Mata hated being interrupted for any reason by anyone.
“All right, I think I’ll go play with my airplanes.”
“That’s it: run along and be a good boy but be back in time to eat.”
“You know I will.”
“All too well.”
Two days later, Otto came into the coffee shop to see how it was going. Mata saw him come in and went over to talk to him. “Come into my office. We need to talk.”
“Well, good afternoon to you as well.”
“Don’t mess with me, Otto. This is serious.” He followed her into her office and sat down.
“So, what’s up?”
“It’s Abigail.”“What now?”
“She’s up to something.”
“Like some sort of plot or scheme. She sneaks off to the office when she thinks no one is watching and talks for about five minutes on the phone and then slinks back. Something is going on.”
“Why don’t we ask her about it?”
“Don’t you think that will spook her and she’ll run?”
“We won’t know what’s going on if we don’t.”
“There are other ways.”
“We don’t have time for that. Why don’t you and Tom come over tomorrow evening and we’ll confront her.”
“Well, all right.”
“We’ll see you then. In the meantime, keep an eye on Little Miss Sunshine.”
“I can’t believe we misjudged her so badly.”
“Think how Julio feels.”
“Yeah, poor kid. I can’t imagine what he’s going through. I haven’t seen him around here for a while.”
“He’s spending a lot of time at the camp helping Alice and working with Anne.”
“Oh. I wondered where he was.”
“I’d better get back to the office.”
“See you later.”
The whole clan gathered at Otto’s for dinner the next Tuesday night. There were so many people they had to set up tables in the living room and outside in the garage. The twins didn’t want to sit at the “kiddie table,” as they called it. They were won over when Polly, Mata and Anne sat with them.
With the meal over, Polly and Anne took the kids outside to play. Otto stood up. “Abigail, we need to talk to you.”
She started and looked so frightened and lost Otto felt sorry for her. “Have I done something?”
“That’s what we want to find out. Let’s all go into the living room.”
Otto had talked to Julio and explained that it would be better if he weren’t present for the questioning. “This is no problem, Jefe. I feel like I do not know my own wife any more. She has changed and I do not know why.”
Otto clapped him on the back. “We’ll get things back to normal, you’ll see.” He wished he felt as confident as he sounded.
Once in the living room, Otto looked around. Betty and Mata sat on the sofa, while Tom and Otto took kitchen chairs and sat in them. Abigail had Otto’s chair.“So, we’re not sure what you’re up to.”
“What do you mean?”
“We know about your connection to the mob, and my surmise is that you’re cooking up something with them.”
“No, I’m not. I went to great lengths to escape them. And then there was that terrible shooting. Those bullets were intended for me.”
“I’m not so sure.”
Mata had been looking down the entire time. Finally she spoke.“Why don’t you just come clean? We’ll all feel better, and you certainly will.”
Something seemed to snap inside Abigail. “I CAN’T ‘come clean’ as you say because there’s nothing to ‘come clean’ about! I wish I’d never met any of you! Leave me alone! Just leave me alone!” With that, she rushed from the room. They heard the exterior door slamming and her car starting up and squealing tires as she left.
The group in the living room sat still for a moment. “Now, that went well,” Otto said.
“We tried,” Mata told them. “Maybe we can try again.”
“Wonder where she’s going?” Tom asked.
“To our house, wouldn’t you say?” Mata looked directly at him.“
Sounds about right. Why don’t we pack up and go home? Thanks for an, uh, interesting evening, folks.”
“Glad you could come. We’ll keep working on it.”
Otto stood as they all filed out of the room.When they were gone, Otto and Betty sat on the sofa. The girls were in bed.
“So, what do you think?” Betty asked.
“I think we have a problem with Miss Abigail.”
“I think you’re right.”
“Well, tomorrow’s another day. We’ll see what it brings.”
“Yes, we will. Let’s go to bed.”
Mata’s custom was to arrive for work about 6 AM. Otto made it over about 7:30 or 8:00 to find that she had already generated a day’s worth of paperwork for him. This morning he was awakened by a banging on the door.
“Otto! Otto! Open the door!” He padded down the hall and through the kitchen and let his breathless sister in.
“What’s wrong?” She was shivering in spite of the early warmth.
“It’s Abigail! She’s gone!”
“What do you mean, she’s gone?”
“Just that—I went to wake her up and her bed was empty.”
“Why didn’t you call?”
“I didn’t want to wake everyone in the house up. It doesn’t take long to get here. Look—she left a note.”
“What does it say?”
“Read it for yourself.”
Just then Betty came down the hall.
“What’s going on?” She rubbed sleep out of her eyes.”
“Missing? What do you mean?”
“She wasn’t there when Mata went to wake her up this morning.” Otto unfolded the note.
“Where could she have gone?”
“Don’t know. But I would bet on Minneapolis.”
“Do you think she’s gone back to the mob?”
“That’s what I’m afraid of.”
“The note doesn’t help much.”
Otto handed it back to Mata, who gave it to Betty.“’Wish I could stay, but I can’t. You’ve been wonderful to me, but you’re getting too close. Good-bye and God bless you all.’”
Betty looked up. “Funny she invokes God at the end.”
“Well, Jesus hung out with lawbreakers.”
“Abigail isn’t Jesus, Mata.”
“You know the answer to that.”
“Ladies, let’s get some others involved to try to figure all this out.”
“Tom’s gone to the office to see what he can do there. Alice is on her way.”
“Betty, you stay here and call Polly and Anne.” Betty nodded.
“They stayed at Polly’s place last night because they worked late and had to get up early. They didn’t want to disturb the kids.”
“All right, we all have our assignments, then,” Otto said.
“Wait: did you tell Julio?”
Mata shook her head. “He moved out after all the business with Abigail blew up. He’s living in one of the counselor’s cabins at the camp. You can tell him when you go over there.”
“Let me get dressed and go on over. Call me if anything develops.”
“I don’t think we’ll know anything soon, but we’ll catch up to her eventually.”“I hope so, Mata. I hope so.”
As he came through the door, Otto felt a tremendous surge of heat. Bad choice, he thought, and then looked around. Bad choice out of bad choices. It seemed like everything around him was on fire. There was no way—He felt a sudden blast of heat, and then…nothing…He was floating upward, and he knew where he was headed. Well, if it be now, ’tis not to come. If it be not to come, it will be now. If it be not now, yet it will come…He had to smile. Here he was dead and quoting Hamlet. His senior English teacher would be so proud. Maybe he’d see her soon. Or maybe not.
He came upon the familiar clearing where his father and the others waited. Again, he experienced words through his mind rather than hearing them. His father invited him to sit at the long table and the rest followed suit. He heard the familiar German accent. Funny, he thought, we get new spiritual bodies but keep our accents. Although he didn’t know what else would work. It was a spiritual matter anyhow.
Otto, my son, you think your time is now, but it will not come for a long, long time.
That’s reassuring, Otto thought.
I am pleased that you are reassured. But you may not come here—yet. We will wait.
Oops—forgot about the telepathy. I’ll have watch what I think.
That will do you no good. I know your thoughts, as you know mine. But now it is time for you to return.Otto felt himself falling, faster and faster until it seemed he would smash into the earth. Then, like an airplane landing, he slowed and pulled up, setting down softly and then—He felt like he was on fire. He couldn’t see anything, and he lay down on the floor, remembering that was where the oxygen was. His father had been wrong. His father—darkness overtook him again.
“Señor Otto, wake up! Please wake up!”
Otto opened his eyes to the sight of leaves fluttering in a cool breeze. As he lifted his head, he saw Julio, Tom and Mata gathered around. “Wha—what happened?” he stammered.
“Our friend here dragged you out.” Tom nodded toward Julio.
Tom shook his head. “Burned up. Normally I’d say it was a shame, but in this case I’ll say nothing.”Otto couldn’t think of a thing to say either, so he said nothing as well. Good riddance, he thought, but he also thought there would be retribution for this. We’ll deal with that if and when it comes. We’ve done it before and we’ll do it again if necessary. He turned his head toward Mata. “Well, Abigail is an honest woman now.”
Mata nodded. “But at a terrible cost.”
“I know. But he who lives by the sword…you know the rest.”
They sat silently for a moment, then Otto sat up. “Let’s go tell the others.”
“Good idea,” Mata smiled. “Let’s go.”
The others reacted in the same fashion, and life settled down again, for how long Otto didn’t care to guess. Day followed day as if in a dream. The air circus began its run; Mata enlisted Alice, Abigail, and Polly to help Anne set up Aviation Camp after putting Anne in charge. The coffee shop prospered, and Little Otto and the twins became increasingly excited about the prospect of the end of school in early June. And once again, he found himself with little to do but sit in his office, sign papers and look out the window. He grew restless, as he always did, and began looking for something to do.
He took the Cub up to clear his mind, tossing among the clouds, putting the little Piper into steep banks. Hey, I wonder if this could be modified for stunts. He would have to ask Luis. Maybe a project like that would take his mind off his cousin. That was so tragic, and he didn’t think Luis’ mother would recover from the loss of her nephew any time soon. He stayed up for an hour and landed feeling much better.
He went to his office where Mata awaited him.“I know that look,” he said, settling into his chair.
“What look is that?”
“The I’ve-got-another-project-and-you’re-going-to-be-involved-whether-you-like-it-or-not look.”
“I’m that transparent, eh?”
“Yep. Well, let me have it.”
“It’s nothing new. We’ve talked about another crew reunion for a long time and the time has come to do it.”Otto sighed.
“Where and when?”
“Next year. In England.”
“We don’t have to go to England. We’re all here now.”
“You know better. I think it’s important to do this while we all still can. We’ve lost two. I don’t want to wait any longer.”
Otto stood up and looked out the window. “I suppose you’re right.”
“Of course I am.”
He waved his hand. “All right. Go ahead. Anything to make you happy.”
“Everything you do makes me happy.”
“Now I know that’s a lie.”
“Uh huh. I’ll get on it and get back to you.”
Mata went back to her office, and Otto resumed looking out the window. Life was good, he decided.A few minutes later, he heard a car pull up and saw Charlie Draper climb out. Charlie had returned to work the week before after he recovered from his stomach wound, which wasn’t serious as that sort of wound went. Nonetheless, the surgeon at Eau Claire told Otto it might have been touch and go had Otto not flown the sheriff down for treatment. We need air transport for anyone who is seriously injured, Otto thought. Some day that will be a reality.Charlie still walked gingerly. Otto hoped he wouldn’t have a situation where he would have to run.
He stood up as the sheriff came into the conference room. “Charlie! What’s going on?”
The lawman sat down at the table, holding his hat in his hands. He chewed his lip and then looked directly at Otto. “I have bad news.”
Otto felt a chill. What was it this time? “Give it to me,” he told Charlie.
Charlie looked down. When he raised his head, tears stood in his eyes. “It’s about Abigail.”
“Abigail? What about her?”
Charlie shook his head. “She’s involved with some bad stuff.”
“What bad stuff? I don’t believe it.”
“We have proof. Tom and I had the feds run a check on her. Turns out she was the brains behind Benson’s operation. All that business about Victor abusing her and so on was an outright fabrication. She was married in name only to give her the appearance of propriety. In fact, she was about to turn Victor in. That’s why he came after her, to keep her from testifying. Then Julio shot him, not knowing her background. What a mess.”
Otto sat, stunned, for a moment. “That’s horrible! So, what do we do?”
“We talk to Abigail and see what she has to say for herself. I’d like for you to go with me.”
“I appreciate it.”
As they drove to the bookstore, Otto thought that Abigail was some sort of Bizarro world version of Mata. How could they all have been so wrong about her? And poor Julio. What would he do?
They pulled up in front of the store and went in. Mata looked up from the counter where she was going through a stack of papers. “Hi, fellows! What brings you in?”
“We need to talk to Abigail.” Tom looked serious.
“Is anything wrong?”
Otto saw the concern in her eyes.“Tom has done some investigating and has proof that Abigail was working for Benson.”
Mata’s hand flew to her mouth and her eyes opened wide. “Are you sure? That can’t be true.”
“It is true, Mrs. Durham.” The sheriff’s voice was kind. Clearly, he did not enjoy delivering bad news in spite of years of practice. “Tom and I made sure. Abigail was adopted by Benson after her parents’ death. She was quick and smart, and fell into managing the family ‘business.’”
“Oh, the poor girl. Poor Julio. What will they do?”
“I don’t think any of us knows what will happen exactly. Abigail will be brought up on about twenty charges, including racketeering, money laundering, making threats and a couple of others. If she’s convicted on all counts, she’ll be looking at 20 to 30.”
Mata groaned. “I suppose you want to talk to her.”
“She’s in the back. Are you going to arrest her?”
“We’re going to talk about it. We might be able to release her to your family’s supervision.”
Charlie and Otto followed Mata through the store to the storage room. Abigail had her back to them, shelving some books she had taken from a box on the floor. She turned around and saw them. “Otto! Sheriff Draper! So good to see you.” Her smile faded when she saw their expressions. “What is it?”
Charlie spoke calmly. “I think you know what it is, Abigail. It’s over.”
She bowed her head and whispered, “I knew you would find me out. You all have been so kind to me, and I’ve taken advantage of that.” She looked up. “I’m ready for any punishment that might come my way.” She put her wrists out for the handcuffs.
“Put your arms down,” Charlie told her. “I talked to the judge, and he agreed to release you to the Kerchner family. You’ll still have to appear in court, but you’ll have to behave yourself and not leave the area. Do you understand?”
Abigail nodded and then sat down on a stack of boxes.
“Why, Abigail? Why?” Mata’s voice broke.
“I did it to survive. Once I got into it, I found it all so easy. There seemed no going back. And then it got ugly. Victor found out I was going to turn him in and he came after me. This seemed a good place to hide.” She looked at them imploringly. “You’re such good, decent people, and that’s what I’ve always wanted to be. I treated all of you badly, and I’m so sorry. Please forgive me.”
Standing in front of her, the three friends did not speak for a moment. Finally Mata said, “Whatever happens, you’re a member of this family, we take care of each other.”
I’m going to burst into tears if this goes on much longer, Otto thought. “And in this family, we believe in eating at regular intervals. Is anyone else hungry? I am.”
“Yeah, I could use a cheeseburger,” Charlie answered.
“I’d like a salad,” Mata added.
“I’m not very hungry,” Abigail whispered.
Mata took her by the arm. “Come with us for company, then. I think your appetite will improve once you get inside the restaurant.”
“I don’t need any ‘improving my appetite,’” Otto laughed. “I want to eat now! Let’s go!”