"Roger! We have clearance!"
The Lake Buccaneer suddenly surged forward, its 200 horsepower engine pushing bravely behind the bulbous fuselage. A slight chop in the harbour smacked viciously at the flying boat's hull giving the impression of bouncing across a giant, old fashioned washboard. Just as suddenly, the vibrations stopped and the seaplane climbed quickly into the pale blue sky with its cool, November sunshine. Vancouver fell away quickly as the plane banked and headed north.
"Port Hardy," cried the pilot with a confidential nod to his two passengers. "With luck, it's three hours up the coast." The heavily weathered face regarded Harry Travis. "Samson sure wasn't your daddy. Are you any good at pushing?"
"You're kidding," muttered Travis, sensing the pilot ` might be speaking the truth.
Anna leaned forward from the rear seat. "Listen, the last time Birddog did a job for Uncle Peter, we sat on the Pacific, eighty kilometers from anywhere, in the worst fog I've ever seen."
"An expensive trip!" Birddog snorted. "It cost me thirty bucks at poker. The lady's a fast operator."
They laughed. In spite of the pilot's criticism of CSIS budgetary cutbacks which resulted in fewer maintenance checks, the amphibian flew evenly and well, and Harry Travis was afforded a slowly changing panorama of the rugged but spectacular west coast of Canada and the Strait of Georgia, the island-dotted sea lane separating Vancouver Island and the mainland of North America. The coastline was a labyrinth of channels and inlets, set with small, picturesque fishing communities, Indian villages, some deserted, beaches laced with huge sun-bleached drift logs, battered and scarred by winter storms of years gone by, and everywhere Travis looked, there were trees, millions of them.
They grew down to the sealine and extended like a thick, heavy green and brown carpet across every hill, valley and mountain as far as the eye could see. To the east, the huge Coast Range mountains, massive, humpy and heavy, like sleeping giants under a forest blanket, seemed to gain stature as they flew north. Already, the coming winter had dusted many mountain peaks with snow. Suddenly, to the west, the blue sky was dotted with white specks. Thousands of them.
"Snow geese," cried Birddog. "We're on the migratory flyway. They spend the summer nesting and raising their young in Siberia. They come south for the winter. If it's mild, they'll stay around British Columbia and Washington State, if not, they'll head for California."
Birddog Miller was a born flyer. Aviation was in his blood. Both his mother and father had been stunt flyers in touring air shows and circuses of the l920s. After being shot down twice in Korea, he flew construction planes during the building of the DEW Line -- the northern radar chain -- and later, while operating a charter outfit for hunters and sports fishermen, he crashed and walked two hundred miles through bush country.
Friends and clients called him "Walkabout" Miller because of his erratic, hair-brained flying techniques which resulted in several nasty upsets. Finally, broke and boycotted by customers and feeling the urge to see action, Miller flew Avengers and fought forest fires. One day, the Forest Service was desperate for a pilot to fly Birddog, the plane that carries the specialist forester over the scene of the blaze to direct the attacking aircraft. Miller's enthusiasm was overwhelming and he frequently returned with a fire-scorched plane. It was said forestry officers flying with Birddog, actually aged ten years in a week.
"Birddog's matured a lot since then," Anna said with a grin. "He's fun."
Harry enjoyed watching Anna talk, the lovely, well modelled face, the delicate, but animated expressions, the way she occasionally watched him, her face serious and held slightly to one side. Then she would smile. Oh, God! Why did it happen? Why couldn't he have tried a little harder, been more considerate of her needs, and less responsive to the bloody Corporation, the CSIS, Mainwaring's army. Reluctantly, Anna had gone overseas with him on what Henson had blithely called a "domestic" cover. All along, Anna wanted to work in Canada -- on the west coast -- and after scores of bitter arguments, several embarrassing scenes in front of friends, and an ugly divorce, she had achieved her wish and accomplished her objective.
"Oh, Christ!" Travis stared at the never-ending forests. "Anna's still the same,” he muttered to himself. “And I still love her!"
It happened when the Lake Buccaneer was over an hour out of Vancouver and north of Powell River with its huge, rambling pulp and logging operations, and the islands in the Strait were spread out and signs of habitation were rare.
"We've got company, folks," said Birddog.
"Where?" Anna responded instantly.
"A hundred-and-eighty degrees. Right behind us."
Anna and Harry twisted their bodies but were unable to see anything. Birddog veered the amphibian to the right and they spotted it, a black and white Cessna.
"A Skywagon. A Cessna quipped with floats. Yankee registration," cried Birddog.
"How long have we been followed?" asked Harry, suddenly disturbed. This was no time for encounters with Komadze and his KGB thugs.
"Since Vancouver. Frankly, it didn't bother me. Charters frequently fly near each other for company."
"Try changing courses," suggested Travis.
"I did. That's when I confirmed we have company."
The leathery face under a mop of bleached auburn hair, stared quizzically at Travis. "Would Uncle Peter want me to lose this I fellah?"
"Damn right!" Harry immediately regretted his words. The Buccaneer dropped like a rock towards the scattered islands below. Travis, his heart in his mouth, watched in dismay as Birddog, a hard grin spread across the leathery face, leaned on the controls with a terrifying nonchalance.
One thousand... nine-hundred...eight-hundred...the little flying boat smashed through growing levels of turbulence that shook the fuselage and violently buffeted the wings so much, the two passengers were convinced they would be torn off. Travis glanced round to check on the black and white aircraft, but all he saw was Anna's pale face and her white, blood-drained hands clutching tightly the safety harness.
"Hell! The bastard's following," snarled Birddog. "Get off my bloody tail."
The Buccaneer,.its relatively short wings flapping and protesting the sudden abuse, flattened out ten meters above the green water and swept quickly between the islands. Birddog manipulated the controls like a master. The amphibian hurtled first sideways, climbed over a small ridge of tall pines, then dipped quickly into a narrow waterway, twenty meters wide.
Travis, teeth clenched, watched in awe as the trees, broken by rocky cliffs, slipped by at a terrifying speed. Suddenly, the Buccaneer banked sharply, its right wing almost slicing the sea. Travis felt his stomach shaking. Birddog was grinning. He’s enjoying this, he thought. This was utter stupidity! There was no need for this unhealthy existence. Instantly, Travis realized the plane had turned about and was now heading south towards the black and white Cessna.
"See! There's the bastard!" Birddog's heavy eyes gleamed in triumph. "He's still coming."
Both Anna and Travis stared in horror as Birddog clipped the crowns of six firs and launched the little amphibian on a direct collision course with the black and white plane. "Hey, Miller!" cried Anna, tapping the pilot's shoulder. "You'll kill us, you crazy bastard. This isn't Korea!"
The Cessna Skywagon screamed past. Immediately it soared up and banked, slipped back to tree level and resumed the chase. Travis leaned back towards Anna. "It's Komadze! He wants to kill us."
"Damn! If only I had a Vickers," snarled Birddog, beads of sweat glistening on his angry face. Expertly, he raised the Buccaneer over a ridge of trees at the end of a bay, and immediately swept across the water with less than a meter to spare. "Okay, smart arse," he snarled. "Follow Birddog Miller -- if you've got theguts."
Miller shot the little flying boat through a jungle of heavily forested islands and thick vegetation. Wings almost sliced bushes and overhanging branches. The Buccaneer hurtled along perilously narrow waterways. Both Anna and Travis stared in helpless horror.
"There's an abandoned sawmill round the bend," cried the pilot. "A forest fire almost wiped out the entire place a few years back. The water bombers saved it though. Sunday pilots complained bitterly afterwards..."
"What about?" Travis was suddenly curious.
Miller said nothing at first, but sharply banked the amphibian to take a bend in the narrow waterway. Directly ahead were the remains of the sawmill, its buildings blackened and gutted. An old beehive burner had collapsed.
"This!" The pilot eased the plan up a fraction. "It's a rope lift. The mill crews lived on the other island."
The sun-bleached line swept underneath. Miller immediately dropped the aircraft, swerved up and banked. They were just in time to see the black and white Cessna collide with the rope lift. The weight of the machine snapped the rope, but the plane was doomed. A float spun away. A massive section of wing flipped into the sky while the main fuselage plunged heavily into the water, sending waves surging off in all directions. Travis and Anna stared in complete astonishment. "Port Hardy!" cried Birddog with a satisfied grin.
"Look, that's immoral. We can't just leave them there," cried Anna in disgust. "They may be hurt."
"They tried to kill us," snarled Miller. Reluctantly, he agreed to turn and a few seconds later, the plane was down and taxing towards the floating debris. Producing a well-worn paddle, Miller deftly manoeuvred the seaplane through the floating pieces towards the almost sunken main fuselage. It was empty.
"Hey! Over here!" On the shore, some thirty meters away, a man was seated on a pile of old cedar logs, hand-wringing his socks, with an olive green jacket spread on some bushes to dry in the weak sunshine.
"You bastards nearly killed me. Where's the Canadian hospitality, huh?"
Birddog paddled the Buccaneer to the shore and everybody got out. "You asked for it," snapped Miller, looking for an argument. "We got severe allergies when uninvited Yankee fliers sit on our tail. It's the Pearl Harbour syndrome in reverse. Understand?"
The soaking pilot was about forty. His short, wiry body seemed full of energy. A heavily tanned skin, a near crew-cut stubble reflected the traditional American of almost two decades before. Two small scars laced his right cheek. The man nodded sourly as the others approached.
"Look, don't get mad. My objective was to catch up to Mr. Travis," he said, suddenly standing and thrusting an open hand at Harry.
"Travis! You old cotton-pickin' son-of-a-sawn-off shotgun! It's great to see yah, baby!"
Harry immediately recognized the man. "Anna. Remember J.J. Curran? We were at Lahr, West Germany. He wanted you to teach him how to skate."
"Sure! At midnight!" Anna smiled as Curran gallantly kissed her outstretched hand. "We settled for another drink and taught each other obscenities in different languages -- Greek, Arabic, Hindu and Russian. It was fun!" Her eyes danced with pleasure. "Do you still work for...for the Pentagon?"
Curran nodded. "Langley. The Company," he said, referring to the Central Intelligence Agency. Moving back onto the logs, he continued wringing water from his socks. Suddenly, he regarded Travis with sharp, intense black eyes. "Harry, mind if I tag along? Washington is very interested in the Romanov gold."
The unexpected question, the unanticipated declaration dropped like a steam hammer on Travis' mind. No one, particularly Mainwaring, had mentioned U.S. involvement or cooperation on the hunt for the missing property of the Imperial Russian family.
"Sure! It's your ball game, big boy," added Curran, sensing a possible hostile reaction. But the problem is that the old ship, the S.S. Gaspar could easily have gone down in U.S. territorial waters -- that's Seattle down to San Francisco, or better still, within the Alaska territorial limits. That's a lot of coastline compared to Canada's 800 kilometers, huh?"
Travis was forced to agree that the possibility of the Gaspar sinking in American waters was much greater than sinking in Canadian waters. Still, there were indicators, positive indicators. It was a foregone conclusion that the big Indian, John-Paul was Canadian. It was a foregone conclusion that the "good people" to whom old Mrs. Kirke had thoughtfully referred, were Canadian -- Canadian Indians. Of course, thought Travis, Indians are notorious for ignoring boundaries or "white rules" as they call them, and customs and immigration officers have long given up attempting to discover if Indians passing through border crossings are American or Canadian.
Based on that argument, Travis told himself, the Romanov gold, the wreck of the S.S. Gaspar, may well be inside U.S. waters and Indians could well transport tsarist jewellery into Canada as a decoy for treasure hunters. Somehow, the theory failed to make sense. Hopefully, Anna's friends, Patty and Garnet Reed with their close affinity to the rugged, inhospitable coastline, would be able to offer more realistic theories.
J.J. Curran still uncomfortably damp sat next to Anna in the rear seat and the Buccaneer took off again heading for Port Hardy. Vancouver Island is some 450 kilometers in length and it parallels and protects the mainland from many wild and vicious Pacific storms. Northern communities, scattered and small, rely on mining, logging, fishing and recreation for their livelihoods. Port Hardy is one such community. For mariners heading north into the Queen Charlotte sound, the open Pacific or Alaska, it is the last port of call.
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