We met up with Linh and Matt around six hours later at the city airport. Back in olden times, when Los Angeles was considerably smaller than today, it had been on the outskirts of town. Now, it was in the middle, surrounded on all sides by teeming life. It still proved to be a handy location for the many local well-heeled owners of small aircraft. I guess it should have come as no surprise to me to find out that old Hollywood Hank was one of these. That information, as well as the exact location of his out-of-state spread, had come to me via my personal human super computer, Emily Hatcher.
It was getting late in the day, and as I didn’t intend to make my move before morning, I phoned back to our hotel and ordered another room for the McCabes. The fact that the hotel was booked solid didn’t seem to matter very much as soon as I dropped the name of Holman. All of a sudden, they not only had a room, but a room with a view—and an amazingly nice one as it turned out. I tried giving them my credit card information, but they weren’t interested, already having orders from Holman to not let me spend a dime.
Rank has its privilege, I guess.
We watched Matt stick the landing of the small plane and taxi in to where we were waiting near a tiny greasy spoon diner call the Skyway Café. I was immensely relieved to note that he seemed to know exactly what he was doing.
We grabbed a waiting cab to get back to the hotel.
“So, where we heading?” Matt enquired.
“Yep. He’s a pilot too. Got a landing strip attached to his property.”
“Yep again. Gonna make our little surprise complete. No need to talk our way through the security gate at the end of his rather long and impressive driveway. My guess is his rent a cops aren’t going to pay too much attention to another small plane dropping in. They’ll figure we’re supposed to be there.”
“I can always call an emergency if I need to,” Matt said. “That gives me the legal right to hand anywhere that’s flat enough—including private strips.”
“What constitutes an emergency?” I asked.
“Sometimes not much,” Matt grinned. “Maybe just needing to take a dump real bad. The on-board restroom is kind of non-existent.”
“Where’s his place, Johnny?” Linh enquired.
“I’ve got the exact coordinates right here for Matt. Just west of Las Vegas, and almost up against Red Rock Canyon Park. Beautiful country. Looks to me from Google earth that he doesn’t have a neighbor within sight.”
“Big place, I’ll bet.”
“And then some, Linh. Somewhere between large mansion and medium castle.”
“We sure he’s gonna be home?” Matt asked.
“Not a hundred percent, but we’ll know before we land. No plane, no Holman. Apparently, it’s the only mode of transportation he uses to get out there.”
“What’s he got?”
“A twin-engine prop. I don’t know what kind.”
“Doesn’t matter. We’ll see it from the air if it’s there in the open. Hanger?”
“Not that I could see from Google, unless he’s added one recently. In the screen-shot I looked at, he musta been home because I could easily make out the plane parked no farther out than a hundred yards or so from the house.”
“I’ll file a flight plan tonight, Johnny. It’s probably only a little over two hundred miles, so it won’t take us long to get there. I’d like to leave early—say seven o’clock takeoff?”
“Sounds good to me, Matt. What are you flying anyway?”
“Single-engine Cessna. Model 172 to be exact. Sweet little ride. We’ll be a bit cramped.”
“Why so small?”
“Well, it’s a first plane for me. I got it used. It’s in great shape and the price was right. I didn’t want to spend an arm and a leg, because I want to get a twin like Holman’s as soon as I’m certified to fly one.”
“Lots. But I’m going to do it. I wasn’t altogether sure I’d take to it, but it’s pretty much been easy for me. My trainers all called me a natural.”
“How ‘bout jets?”
“Maybe, Johnny—we’ll see.”
“What made you take this up anyway?”
“Well, after my head injury a few years ago, I really couldn’t fool around with watches anymore. Or for that matter, do anything that require very fine motor-skills. My fingertips just don’t want to work the way they used to sometimes. Concert pianist is out.”
“Wait a minute, Matt. You’re telling me you can’t repair a watch anymore, but you can fly people around in airplanes with no problem?”
He laughed. “Don’t worry, fraidy-pants. I’ll get you there and back, and muss-up not a wispy old white hair on your head.”
“Don’t make too much fun,” I said. “You’re getting more than a few of your own.”
“That’s for sure,” he admitted. “Time’s marching on for me now, same as for everybody else. I just turned twenty-six, Johnny—going on ninety in dog years.”
“How do you feel about that, Matt?”
“I feel just great. Just like all the rest of mankind. Doing my best and enjoying each moment as it comes. Being a husband and a father, there’s lots of good moments to savor.”
“Sounds like a winner,” I opined.
“It is,” he agreed.
“Al still with your mom, Linh?”
“He sure is, Johnny. She’s starting to worry me a little too. I may have to file charges against her pretty soon for kidnapping.”
I smiled. Nice to see close, happy families.
Our cab reached the hotel. We all enjoyed a fabulous meal in the rather ornate and fashionable dining room. As I expected, no check reached our table. I didn’t even need to sign. Every employee in the establishment seemed to know exactly what our deal was.
Kind of fun—but on the other hand, I missed Denny’s just a bit too.
We all retired to our rooms, with a plan to meet to meet downstairs early in the morning—hoping to avoid the hotel palace guard. I would leave a message for Gerald’s limo driver, telling him that his services would not be required. But the time he got to the hotel, I expected to be sitting in Holman’s living room. That was if everything went well. Sadly, my enterprises didn’t have a history of that.
I slept the night soundly alongside Maggie—the steak and crab legs settling very well indeed.
Morning came early. My first cogent thought of the day was that I probably didn’t want to take up the life of a pilot—not if it meant rolling out of bed and getting out of the house before the outdoor gods even turned the air on. Maggie was her usual chipper self. Early mornings or late nights seemed to have no effect whatsoever on her.
The four of us joined up and assembled at the front desk as I wrote out the message for the limo driver. Once outside, it was easy to flag down a cab, and once more we were on our way to the airport.
“How ‘bout we have a light breakfast at that little café,” Matt said. “I need a few minutes to make a couple of phone calls anyway before we take off.”
The three of us nodded our assent. I wasn’t that hungry, but was sure in the mood for some strong, hot coffee.
“You packing, Johnny?” Matt asked.
“Got your PI license and carry permit on you?”
“No,” she answered. “I’m as harmless as a new-born babe.”
“Doubt that,” Matt grinned. “We’ll be good then just in case anyone asks. Linh’s got her badge to go along with her piece. Chances are, the question won’t come up anyhow, but you never know with airport security.”
“How ‘bout you, Matt? You ever carry anymore?” I asked.
“Naw. Anybody I want to do away with these days, I simply invite them for a plane ride and push them out the side door. By the way, Johnny, you’re up front with me this trip.”
“Right by the side door,” I observed.
“Right,” he replied with a smile.
Arriving at the airport a few minutes later, I paid off the cabbie and we made our way into the Skyway café. Nice décor. Airplane motifs everywhere, up to and including little plastic models dangling from the ceiling by strings. The menu was surprising simple—mostly egg dishes and/or pancakes, and the well photographed entrees were sparking my appetite. I was immediately drawn to one item called simply—the Skyway’s signature dish—the garbage skillet.
Not one to pass up a chance for a new dining experience, I ordered it. The others followed suit. As it turned out, it wasn’t a bad dish, combining several different types of meats, eggs, potatoes, and veggies. Filled the hole nicely, and tasted good to boot.
By the time we reached the airplane, the sky was fully bright. As he had specified, I was in the “co-pilot” seat next to Matt, and the ladies were in the rear, looking for all the world like conjoined twins as they squeezed into the tight space. After completing his checklist and radioing the tower for takeoff clearance, he started the engine and we taxied down the runway. I double-checked the passenger door to make sure it was solidly shut, and cinched my seatbelt as tight as it would go. Matt applied full-power and we lifted off the ground with little effort.
The engine was plenty noisy, but we were all easily able to talk to each other through our headsets and microphones. I remarked to Matt how quickly we had lifted off—quite a bit different from the commercial jets that I was much more experienced with. Many of them seemed to use the entire runway. He explained that the tiny aircraft itself only weighted about sixteen hundred pounds, without fuel or passengers. He was able to pull it out of the hanger or push it in by himself, along with the use of a simple handheld metal hook/come along.
It was a cool looking little plane. White, with blue and grey “racing” strips, and a blue hood, or bonnet, as the brits call it. We climbed quickly to thirty-five hundred feet, and then more slowly to forty-five where we would cruise to our destination. I was amazed at how easily Matt multi-tasked, speaking easily with several ATC, or air traffic control jurisdictions, seemingly all at one time, while maintaining control of the aircraft and flipping switches and twirling dials. He was, as always, impressive—and I was—impressed, that is.
About twenty minutes into our flight, Matt suddenly let go of the controls and calmly looked over at me. “Take over, pal—it’s all yours.”
“Say what?” was my witty reply.
“The plane, Johnny. Fly the plane. It’s all yours.”
“Are you out of your flippin’ mind?” I almost screamed at him. “You’re the pilot, not me! You fly the thing.”
“Don’t worry,” he replied. “I won’t let you do anything stupid.”
“I’m not about to do anything stupid,” I yelled again. “Beginning with not touching any of these controls.”
He chuckled. “You sure, Johnny? It’s lots of fun.”
“Fun my butt.”
“Okay,” he said. Reaching across the control panel, he flipped off the control clearly labeled “auto-pilot.”
“That was on all the time, wasn’t it?”
“Sure, it was, Johnny. I said I wouldn’t let you do anything dangerous.”
“Very funny,” I said, with just a small trace of irritation in my voice.
“Thanks. I really love pulling that one. It’s a laugh almost every time.”
Matt and I flew on in silence for several more minutes, listening to the ladies quietly chatting about the scenery passing by underneath us. Finally, he broke the silence. “Johnny—I know you probably better than any other man on Earth, and I know you don’t have a fearful bone in your body. And, I know that if something were to happen to me right now, you’d take over the controls and do your best to land this thing. And with your Irish luck, you’d probably pull it off too. So, what’s really going on?”
I thought it over for a long half-minute, and then answered honestly. “I planned to learn to fly when I young. I wanted to go to Alaska and be a bush pilot. They were a big deal at the time.”
“What happened to the dream, Johnny?”
“Life happened—that’s what. Life did what life does and got in the way. Dad took off, I went to work, trying to fill his shoes. Then off to college, trying to be a better man than he was. Life got in the way. That’s what happened, Matt. Life just got in the way.”
Matt flew on in silence.
“When I was just a little kid, Matt, I guess I was just about like any other kid in America. I wanted to drive a car too—just like dad. So, just like a lot of other fathers, he went out and bought a little steering wheel that attached to the dashboard on the passenger side of the car, allowing the kid to have the illusion of driving the car. But I never had the slightest interest in taking hold of it and using it. Not even once, much to dad’s irritation.”
“Why’s that?” Matt asked.
“Because I knew I wasn’t really driving the car, Matt. That’s why. And today—just now, well, let’s just say”—I choked slightly on my words—“I knew I wouldn’t really be flying the plane either.”
Matt looked at me wordlessly for a few seconds, and then softly replied with a slight nod. “Understood, Johnny—understood.”
The rest of the flight to Nevada was uneventful. Soon, Matt nudged me and pointed out our destination a few miles ahead. It was big. Even at that distance, I could easily make out the massive house and long landing strip behind it. No gravel here. Every inch of it was well paved and maintained. As we neared, I could see the plane parked just off the end of it.
“Looks like we’re in luck, Johnny. Want to sneak in, or give him a little aerial knock on the door?”
I grinned. “Oh, what the hell, Matt, we didn’t come all this way to not have a little fun—go ahead and ring the doorbell too. This isn’t gonna cost you your license, is it?”
“Nope,” he replied. “What the FAA don’t know ain’t gonna hurt us.”
With a smile he pressed forward on the stick, putting the little plane into a sharp descent. This grand entrance was looking to be a lot more fun than I would have anticipated.
I had told him to ring the doorbell all right, but I didn’t mean to do it with our fingertips—although that’s what it looked like he was trying for. Matt brought the plane in low and fast—threatening to knock the chimney off the roof. Throttling up, and pulling up at the last couple of seconds, the plane screamed like a banshee as it passed over the roof.
So much for not alerting the security guys.
“They teach you that in flight-school?” I asked.
“Nope,” he replied. “I learned that one all by myself.”
“Do it much?”
“Not really—this was the first time.”
Matt banked the aircraft around and expertly brought it in for a smooth landing. Looked like he’d done it a million times. A short taxi to the end of the runway brought us up next to Holman’s twin-prop. Matt parked the Cessna about thirty feet to the side of it, and turned off the engine.
Already I could hear the shouts of several men as they approached us. Opening the door and hopping out, I prepared to meet them. Still about fifty or so yards off, I had a little time to size up our welcoming committee.
The tall and razor thin man in the front would be Hollywood Hank—no doubt about that. Flanking him on either side were two uniformed security guards. And trotting along behind by several paces was some sort of creature that I didn’t have an idea in the world about. Shorter by a foot than Homan, and slightly bent over, he tried to keep up with what looked like short mincing steps. I wondered if he was clamping a pool-ball in his butt cheeks. I was reminded of the way David Suchet moved in his Hercule Poirot role..
Interesting looking guy, to say the very least.
Maggie, Linh, and Matt joined me alongside the plane as the little group finally reached us. Matt was dressed in a tee shirt, shorts, and tennis shoes. I was wearing a suit and tie, and sporting a hat—making us quite a contrast, I supposed. The ladies were dressed to the nines, same as always. There was no way to make either of them look bad. Holman was red in the face—from both the surprise and the long walk, I supposed. He stopped directly in front of me. They always do. They just always do.
“Who the hell are you?” he bellowed.
I tipped my homburg back on my head several inches and stuck my hands in my pockets as nonchalantly as possible, trying my best to look cocky.
“O’Brien,” I said. “Johnny O’Brien—at your service.”
Holman’s jaw dropped open about a foot.
It was shaping up to be an interesting day.
Thanks for reading. See you again in a couple of days.