So the prick flew an F-15. Reach and fall, heaven and hell. These prima donnas. Put a crown on a pilot and give him a billion dollars for pocket change, you get a royal hood.
Hank Waters stood to one side of his window, hand pressed up under the sloped ceiling of his loft, watching through the rain-streaked glass as the second twin-engine Otter touched down on the dirt-and-gravel landing strip on the east side of his lodge toward the river. He had spent two weeks extending the landing strip by sixty feet to meet their thousand-foot minimum. Prince Tariq’s safety had demanded it and the Rahmanis had refused to confirm the bear hunt until Waters agreed to it.
The plane taxied from view, the orange windsock wolfing up and down in the wind. The Prince had arrived an hour earlier in the first Otter, and Waters felt little enthusiasm now to hurry downstairs and throw leis around the necks of the second half of the entourage.
The intercom buzzed behind him and he turned to answer it. The speaker was mounted on the wall over the bear rug where he slept at night on the unfinished planks. Frenchy was calling from the kitchen to say that one of the Prince’s handlers was unhappy with the dinner menu and demanded live king crab tonight instead of Dungeness crab.
“We got any live king crab, boss?”
Frenchy knew they didn’t have live king crab, he was only playing stupid, observing client-centered etiquette as Waters had instructed him, doing the old eunuch-cretin number that had sprung him early from jail some years ago in the days before Waters knew him.
“No, we don’t have live king crab, Frenchy,” Waters said. “Tell the man the king fishery just opened and the boats are still in the water. Tell him our Dungeness crab is much heartier than king crab. Not as stringy.”
“He says the Prince is partial to red king crab, boss.”
It was nearly impossible to get hold of a live king crab in October and Waters was going to tell Frenchy to go ahead and thaw some frozen claws when a couple of gunshots sounded outside.
Waters left the intercom and returned around the edge of his desk to the window, lifted his binoculars from their nail and — he was a bearded man with lip mutilated from an old mauling and eye screwed partly shut from doubt and annoyance and scorn — looked out through the blurred glass at the three men in dark hooded rainsuits huddled over a downed waterfowl a quarter mile out on the tundra.
Three guns like sticks, adjuncts of their bodies. He had asked them not to go shooting until he had given them his welcoming talk.
Frenchy’s voice still crackling on the intercom, Waters rehung the binoculars and at the speaker he told Frenchy to go ahead and thaw some frozen king claws if that’s what the Prince’s emissary wanted. “I’ve got a plane to meet. Tell him we intend to do our best to satisfy the Prince.”
“To cotton to the Prince, boss?”
That was vintage Frenchy, going for the vitals. Waters ducked his head under the lintel and clomped down the wooden stairs to the third-floor landing where he startled two of the American security boys, one in shirtsleeves and shoulder holster frowning at him until he recognized him as the owner and hunting guide. Waters didn’t stop but continued downstairs to the lobby where in passing he offered reassuring smiles to the Rahmanis milling with their folding-stock Kalashnikovs, then vowed that he wouldn’t smile so complaisantly since nothing in his job required him to fawn like just another courtier. He had made it clear to them that Prince Tariq’s safety, like any client’s on a bear hunt, was his priority, and he had meant it and didn’t mean to prove it with a dirty nose.
He was stepping into his foul-weather gear in the arctic entry when a dark handsome youth who had followed him from the lobby and shut the glass door behind him lifted a green taffeta-lined raincoat from a hook and, drawing it on, introduced himself as Sammy and offered Waters his help. The royal entourage had shopped for raingear in Anchorage and it was top-of-the-line stuff they had bought, Patagonia and Timberland and Lands’ End, Waters standing there in his old rubberized Helly Hansen glancing over the array of sleeves and drawstrings and storm flaps and Velcro tabs and Gore-Tex hoods and vent zippers and hip boots collapsed in a row along the floor, from all of this new booty a harsh vinyl smell irradiating the entry.
“The Prince recognizes that he has left you understaffed and he asks that I offer you my assistance,” the young man named Sammy said. His eyes were wide and sweet-looking, brown with the yellowy translucence of dates.
Understaffed is an understatement, Waters thought. Security had limited him to three hands, Frenchy in the kitchen and Kim and Betty as housemaids, whereas he usually kept five hands during the fall bear season, not including his assistant guide whom he’d had to let go. The Secret Service on the American side had knocked Frenchy around because of his prison record but in the end had let him stay because he’d been with Waters for a number of years and — Frenchy had won some blue ribbons for his chefwork in California before he chucked it all and moved to Alaska knowing he was still a scofflaw at heart and would end up in stir again if he didn’t get some elbow room; took to working camp cook jobs in the bush where much that rankles a man is leached out of him by the oblivion — and because Waters swore that nobody could pepper a moose steak like Frenchy or carve a prime rib as artfully or lemon a trout or steam a crab quite as tenderly. About Kim and Betty, on the other hand, nobody on either the Rahmani or the American side fretted because it seemed impossible that two Aleut women at the end of the world should know or care anything at all about an Arab sheik and his Middle East peace talks.
A cold wind caught the front door and wrung it shut behind them. Sammy followed Waters to the left across the deck and around the northwest corner of the lodge under one of the new surveillance cameras — Waters wasn’t used to the new cameras and couldn’t quite ignore them. A rain-darkened boardwalk led them thudding back along the cedar side of the lodge to the workshop abutting on the southwest. There were three large chest freezers in the workshop plus a workbench that held whatever tools weren’t stored out in the generator house. Sammy rubbed his hands against the cold, looking on with wide, youthful eyes, and eagerly nodded his head when Waters showed him the luggage cart and asked him to wheel it around to the front as soon as the boardwalk was clear of the arriving guests. Waters then returned as far as the front deck where he paused to let them by: a dozen men rumbling up the boardwalk in raincoats and billowing ponchos, some clutching valises and cameras and all huddling forward in the driving wet wind.
He held the front door for them — Make yourselves comfortable, gentlemen — then he edged past the laggards, down the two steps from deck to boardwalk, jumped off the boardwalk into a puddle thick with cottongrass, and in his knee-high boots he tramped over the sodden tundra toward the landing strip.
Another gunshot echoed to his left, and he gazed across the rainswept grasses where two small figures stood outlined against the horizon, the horizon all gray where the sky indistinguishably met the Bering Sea. The shooting made him uneasy because he hadn’t given the Rahmanis his welcoming spiel yet, there were after all a few rules he liked his clients to observe. A second later three sleek mergansers flew swiftly, silently overhead, following the Williwaw River inland toward the lake. The tide was high, the weather only getting fouler, and that was all right for waterfowling, but Prince Tariq hadn’t come here to go waterfowling.
Somewhat vainly, the Rahmani pilot had tried to keep the baggage dry by sheltering it under the Otter’s wing. The rain streamed off the broad orange wing and slanted in the wind and wetted everything. Waters helped him to carry the bags and gun cases as far as the edge of the boardwalk where Sammy waited with the luggage cart. The pilot then
returned to his cockpit and eased the Otter down to the far end of the landing strip where in drawing up beside the first Otter he came hoggishly close to knocking aside the small Super Cub parked there that belonged to Waters.
A Rahmani government Boeing 707 had flown the Crown Prince and his entourage from Anchorage to Cold Bay six hundred thirty miles to the southwest at the foot of the Alaska Peninsula, and there they’d rendezvoused with the two leased Otters for the short hop northeast again past Pavlof Volcano to the Hank Waters wilderness lodge, a spot designated in certain atlases as Waters Landing LS, noted as such for the emergency value of its landing strip. Rahmani security teams had been sweeping the area for weeks. The word from the general store in Cold Bay was that the Rahmanis had been throwing greenbacks around like chump change, leaving five-hundred-dollar tips when buying chamois shirts and scrimshawed knives they wouldn’t know what to do with when they got home to their sheikdoms and their London penthouses and Aspen pleasure domes. The State Department goons who’d come to the lodge in September to put Waters through the third degree had told him that if he played his cards right and Prince Tariq came away with a decent trophy, Waters could expect to double his money in a heartbeat, in a stroke of the princely pen.
Sammy was addressing words to Waters, but most of his words were swallowed in the wind, and Waters leaned closer to hear him:
“I say I’ll be happy to wheel the luggage inside if you’ve other things to do,” Sammy said. Like Prince Tariq, the kid spoke an immaculate British sort of quite-right English that probably explained his referring to the tundra as the “heath,” which Waters supposed wasn’t inaccurate only he had never heard that particular application before.
Waters thanked Sammy for his help — he saw an earnestness in the kid’s lovely brown eyes — and he cautioned him not to slip on the boardwalk. Bits of wet snow were falling as Waters headed into the lodge. The lobby and sitting room were clamorous with Arab and English voices, with men dripping from their forelocks and beards, stamping out their stiffness and trailing cigarette ashes on the carpets as they gaped up at the head mounts on the walls, the full-curl ram and sixty-inch moose. One of the more adventurous Rahmanis had opened the cabinet on the lobby grandfather clock and was poking his finger at the pendulum rod while two others stood at the newel post watching Kim in her housedress struggling up the stairs with a heavy suitcase. She gripped the handle in both her hands and was trying not to bang the wall or banister as she hoisted the bag along with her knee and thigh. Waters paused at the sight of her, felt a wet sticking under his midriff as he threw off his raincoat, and he pushed past the idling pair and climbed the stairs after her. Just then Betty was descending the same stairs with a harried look in her eyes, pursued, she seemed to think, by a couple of the men who in fact were only trying to get past her. Betty had the smeared dark mutilated features her boozy mother had given her in the womb and was supposed to be in recovery herself. This was her first season at the lodge. Waters had hired her as a favor to Kim, because Betty was a blood aunt and came from the same village as Kim, but he regretted the decision already. They were going to be running minimum sixteen-hour shifts, and from the way she bobbled the stairs flat-footed and clung fearfully to the banister, he didn’t see how she was going to make it.