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The Big Empty

By Stan Jones and Patricia Watts

Copyright 2018 by Stan Jones



Saturday, July 9

Hawk River Valley, Brooks Range


“Son of a bitch.”

Nathan Active jerked upright in the Navajo’s copilot seat at the sudden sound of Cowboy Decker’s Bush-pilot drawl in the headset. He pulled his gaze in from the terrain off the plane’s right wing and peered over the nose at the ridge ahead.

Had he dozed off? It had been a struggle to stay alert during the ninety-minute flight through the granite ridges and green-carpeted valleys of the Brooks Range. He had been up most of the previous night arresting Ernie Beaver, drunk again on homebrew, for administering another beating to his equally drunk girlfriend. And, also as usual, arresting the girlfriend when she waded in with an ulu to defend her man from the cops. Standard domestic violence case. At least they’d become less frequent since Chukchi had outlawed liquor a few years earlier.

Cowboy’s voice came again. “See? Up from that patch of brush there, maybe a hundred feet below the crest?”

A honey-brown ripple caught Active’s eye—sunlight glinting off a grizzly in summer coat, ambling through a snarl of alders in a gully that slashed down the face of the ridge. And just above that, Cessna 207 parts splattered across the hillside like bugs on a windshield.

Cowboy swung the Navajo parallel to the ridge and Active studied the crash site as it flashed past.

The impact had separated the tail and wings from the fuselage, which was crumpled but looked to be still attached to the engine. The propeller blades were bent back and the landing gear was splayed out, though still attached to the fuselage. So were both doors of the cockpit, though the windshield was gone. Active was glad he couldn’t see inside.

“Son of a bitch,” Cowboy said again.

“Any doubt it’s them?”

Cowboy dropped the flaps, backed off the throttles, and slowed the Navajo to its minimum safe airspeed, then rolled into a wide, easy arc over the sun-splashed valley below the ridge for another pass. “Of course it’s them. That’s my plane, and—well, shit. That’s Evie’s hat. See there, that little speck of orange? She never climbed in an airplane without it.”

Active squinted and finally picked up the tiny patch of color a few yards from the fuselage. Maybe it was a hat, maybe not. “Sorry, buddy.”

“Her lucky hat, she called it.” The pilot’s shoulders were shaking. “Those kids. I, I . . .”

Active let the silence run on as Cowboy made another circle. He had ridden with Evie Kavoonah at the controls on a couple of village cases. He remembered bright eyes and a kind of innate merriness that he had come to associate with the Inupiat, especially Inupiat women.

“No way we can land, right?” he said at last.

“Not in a Navajo, not around here. Search and Rescue will have to bring in a helicopter to recover the bod—to get them out.”

It was what Active had expected. The Navajo was big and fast, with two engines, the queen of the Lienhofer Aviation fleet and perfect for an air search 150 miles out of Chukchi. But it was no Bush plane. It needed a long, smooth runway.

“They’ll want confirmation, I suppose,” Active said.

Cowboy grunted assent. “I’ll bring you past again. See if you can get the tail number.”

Active pulled his Nikon from the case between his knees. “I’ll get some pictures, too.”

They made the pass. Active got his pictures and noted the Cessna’s registration number, then Cowboy pushed the throttles forward and hauled back on the yoke. The engines roared, the Navajo’s nose pointed up at the cloud-flecked sky, and Cowboy got on the radio to report their find. “Catastrophic damage,” Active heard him tell the FAA back in Chukchi. “Not survivable.”

“You need to check the pictures?” Active asked when they were level and the engines had slowed to the steady thrum of cruise power.

“No, thanks,” Cowboy said. “I never want to see that again.”

After a long time, he spoke once more. "I don’t think I ever saw her without that hat. She said she wouldn’t take it off even for a kiss from a hot guy. She told me she knew Todd was the one when it flew off by itself the first time she saw him.”

Active could think of no words to ease the pain, so he didn’t speak.

“They were both so young,” Cowboy muttered as the remains of Two-Five-Mike vanished behind them.

Do I have to read the series in publication order?

At this point, that question may be on your mind. Well, I'm happy to report that, no, you do not have to read the series in publication order to make sense of each individual book. You can start wherever you like!

Each Nathan Active novel is a fascinating self-contained mystery with enough background on the colorful characters of Chukchi and the exotic Arctic setting to be read without reference to its predecessors. So pick a title and enjoy!