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Three men sat around a campfire on a warm June evening at a wilderness site in Oregon. All were rugged, fit and experienced outdoorsmen. Two were single. One was about to be married. Four days of kayaking had seemed like the perfect choice for their last trip as three single guys. Max Varo, Adam Shawnigan and Dylan Cross had known each other since they started playing together in the sandbox three decades earlier. Now in their mid-thirties, they had successful careers and still played together, though now their sandbox was a hockey rink.
The fire crackled, throwing a little light and a little warmth their way. Max's muscles ached from paddling all day against choppy currents. He rolled his shoulders, knowing tomorrow would bring more of the same. Their dinner, beef Stroganoff that came in a foil pack from someplace called Backpackers' Pantry, had been eaten. Now they sat around holding metal mugs of campfire coffee, their tents pitched behind them, kayaks pulled up for the night. Max and Adam stared into the fire, each lost in his own thoughts, while Dylan, always the restless one, built an inuksuk out of nearby stones. Then, bored with that, he suddenly said, "So, Adam, any regrets about getting hitched?"
Adam turned from the fire to glance over at his old friend. "No," he said simply. "In fact, if I could be granted one wish, it would be to have met Serena earlier."
Recalling some of the women Adam had dated in his very full bachelor life, Max was inclined to wish the same thing. He'd been forced to spend time with some of Adam's women and they tended to be-well, flaky would be putting it kindly. But Serena Long had been right for Adam from the first day they'd met. Not that either of them had known that, of course.
Max took some pride in the fact that he'd been the one to introduce his old friend, a performance coach, to his buddy, a cop who was having some performance issues in the hockey arena. When Serena started getting threatening emails, Adam had done everything he could to keep her safe, even as the crazy psycho who was stalking her stepped up the threats. But some good had come out of it. A notorious killer was behind bars, and Adam and Serena were getting married.
"One wish. Wow," Dylan said. "Hey, Max, if you could have one wish what would it be?"
As he opened his mouth Dylan held up a hand. "And no 'world peace' or 'cure cancer' allowed. Let's hope we'd all man up and choose something noble if we actually stumbled across some genie who could give us anything. But, you know, what would you want for yourself?"
Max hoped he'd be big enough to ask for world peace if this magic genie appeared, but he suspected he was too weak. There was one thing that all the money and hard work in the world couldn't buy. "I'd ask for infection-proof ears. Retroactive to childhood."
There weren't many people in the world who knew his secret regret, but these two guys were the closest friends he had. They knew that he'd always dreamed of being an astronaut. And that a couple of stupid childhood ear infections had weakened his ears to the point that he was out of the running before he even started. By the time he finished high school he knew he'd never be an astronaut.
"Yeah, that really sucked. But, you know, how many people get to be astronauts? For real?"
"I would have made it," he said with the simple certainty of a man who had the tenacity to set his sights on a goal and pursue it single-mindedly. He had the smarts and the right temperament. What he didn't have were the ears. He'd been ridiculously successful at everything he'd set his mind to. Except his dream.
"Life didn't turn out too bad for you," Adam said. "I bet most astronauts would trade their jobs for the billions you're worth."
Max shrugged. "I'd take the trade."
"Yeah, I know."
Money was easy to make in Max's experience. Even though he couldn't take part in space missions he'd studied astrophysics and invented a climate-control system that was eventually purchased by NASA. He'd refined his system and licensed it to most of the world's major airlines. Obscenely rich at thirty-five, he now spent his time working as a venture capitalist. Money wasn't the problem. If he had a problem, he suspected that it was boredom.
"Bought any companies lately?" Dylan asked. "As a matter of fact, I am thinking of buying an airline."
"I hope it's a big American one because I have to tell you, last time I flew-"
"Nope. It's called Polar Air."
"Polar Air? Are you kidding me? Sounds like an air-conditioning system."
"Well, it's an airline. A small outfit that operates in Alaska."
"If I had your money I'd buy yachts. And really big jewelry for bathing-suit models." Dylan shook his head. "You buy Bush League air."
"And that's why he's rich and you're not," Adam said.
"What about you, smart-ass?" Max said to Dylan. "What would you have if you were granted one wish? And no world peace for you, either."
"Or Max's billions."
Dylan grinned, his teeth gleaming white in the firelight. He thought for a moment then grew serious. "I'd choose a superpower, obviously. Superstrength? X-ray vision? I can never decide."
"Come on, dude. Quit messing around."
Adam said, "You know, I think he's being serious."
"Bet your ass I am."
Max shook his head and asked Adam, "Why are we friends with this guy?"
"Comic relief?" Adam tipped his head to the side and caught the coffee cup that came flying toward him. Having a serious conversation with Dylan was like talking physics with a golden retriever.
Dylan stood, stretched his arms high. "Well, one thing is for sure, I'm still in the running for Last Bachelor Standing and the odds are getting shorter."
Max laughed. "It's down to you and me now, buddy. And I play to win."
Max returned to his office in Hunter, Washington, after his long weekend of kayaking and found that, as usual, everything was running smoothly. His staff looked happy to see him, but it wasn't like there was a lineup of people needing his input.
He was smart enough to hire the best people he could find to work for him. He gave them autonomy, paid them well and was generous in praise and bonuses. As a result, his staff members were loyal, hardworking and proactive. His business ran like clockwork, his wealth grew exponentially every day.
Varo Enterprises was so successful it even had an entire division devoted to funding charities and worthy causes.
And Maximilian Varo, CEO of Varo Enterprises, was bored.
After a meeting with his key people at which he mostly agreed with their suggestions and approved decisions and expenditures, he asked Leslie Adamson, the manager he'd put in charge of the Polar Air acquisition, how it was going. Leslie pulled out the relevant file. "It's going all right. It's a pretty small deal by our standards. Shouldn't be any problem buying for the right price and then putting in some good people to turn it around." She flipped back a few pages in the file. "Polar Air used to be a successful regional airline. Started in the '50s with a couple of bush pilots, husband and wife. Lynette and Carl Lundstrom.
"They flew supplies to hunting and fishing lodges, carried mail, flew equipment to logging and mining operations. Got bigger, and more successful. They flew hikers, hunters, geologists, kayakers all over Alaska. Then in the last five years things have gone south. The recession had an impact, but they are way behind on payments to suppliers and they aren't keeping up with the times. We think there's plenty of business that they aren't going after. The fleet's in good shape, there's a small but loyal customer base. Could be a turnaround candidate to flip or we could keep it, maybe look at further acquisitions, expand as a regional airline."
He knew all about the financials of Polar Air. Max never bought a business he didn't understand and believe in. The small airline had some troubles, but the equipment was good, the pilots well trained. "You're right. The airline should be more successful."
Leslie nodded. "I don't like not knowing what the problems really are. What we need is somebody on the ground."
"Or in the air," he said.
Leslie agreed. "They've got an opening for a pilot. Somebody with a commercial pilot's license and some smarts could find out what's going on from inside the operation."
Some of his boredom began to lift. "You think we could get somebody in there?"
"My contact would definitely put in a good word with the management of Polar Air if we had a pilot.
"Then do it. I know just the person."
Max had learned to fly in high school, working construction in the summers so he could afford lessons. He'd trained for his commercial pilot's license a decade later. Even though his life had taken a different turn, he kept his license current. He owned a Cessna and an Otter and flew at every opportunity. He didn't have a ton of hours logged in Alaska but he had plenty logged in Washington and Oregon and he figured that had to count.
He was sure that Leslie would make it happen. She was that good.
She didn't even question his suitability for the bushpilot job because she knew that he was also that good.
Max was about to do the thing he loved best. He was going to fly.
Claire Lundstrom flew the Beaver floatplane over Spruce Bay, cruising along with the air currents. Her passengers, a father and son from Tennessee, were headed for Takwalnot, a wilderness fishing lodge, for a week. The dad, Don Carpenter, sat in the back, eyes glued to the rattling window. His son, Kyle, sat beside her in the front seat. He was eighteen and trying to be cool, but she could tell it was a thrill for him to be flying beside the pilot, enjoying an aerial view of some of the most spectacular scenery in the world. All three of them were linked by headsets.
"You picked a great day to fly," she said, enjoying the sunshine as much, or more, than her passengers. "That's Mount McKinley in the distance," she said. It was magnificent, snow-capped and majestic. She glanced down. Smiled. "Look to your left," she said. "See the whales?"
She dropped the plane lower, took a pass over a pod of grays breaching and playing in the water. Sun sparkled off a dorsal fin and one of the whales surfaced, blowing a plume of mist into the air. "Look," cried Kyle. "You can see the whole body under the water." Cameras came out and father and son had a moment of bonding. She imagined that was the point of the trip.
She never got tired of this. Of sharing the place she loved with those who came to visit. She turned and took another pass so her clients could enjoy watching the whales at play, banked the plane so Don could get a clearer photo. Then she turned and headed for the lodge.
"You're a fine pilot, ma'am, thank you," Don Carpenter said as she unloaded their fishing gear onto the dock. "You're welcome."
"You seem too young to be flying planes."
She laughed. It wasn't the first time she'd heard such a comment. "My grandparents started Polar Air. I've been flying since I was sixteen years old." She didn't bother telling the Carpenters the sad part of her history. That her parents had been killed in a car crash coming home from a dinner party one night. Nobody's fault. The car had gone into a turn and skidded off a cliff thanks to a deadly combination of ice, poor visibility and old snow tires. Fifteen and grieving, she'd been sent to live with her grandparents. She'd planned on hating Spruce Bay and running away. But a lot of love, good food and time had helped ease her hurt. And when she was sixteen her grandfather put her in the copilot's seat and gave her the controls for a few amazing minutes.
From that moment she'd known what she wanted to do with her life.
She wasn't sixteen anymore. She was nearly thirty. And she still loved flying more than anything else she could think of.
Once she'd finished unloading the Carpenters and their baggage, three businessmen from Albuquerque were waiting for their return trip. She loaded them onto the plane, then assessed the trio. Some sunburns and a general air of satisfaction told her their week had gone well. "How was your trip?" she asked.
"Fantastic. We caught some of the nicest sockeye I've ever tasted."
For the price she knew they were paying for their week, she was glad they'd caught some salmon. Meant they'd tell their friends, maybe come back. "You'll never get better fishing than up here," she said into her headset.
Even the whales cooperated with her tour guide routine, hanging around in the same area where she'd last seen them. Once more she dipped down low, giving the men an up-close view of whales at play.
When she landed at the dock of Polar Air, she powered down and took a moment to enjoy the silence, before hopping down from the plane and tying up to the dock.
She had a couple of hours before her next flight, so she headed up the dock and turned, not to the office, but in the direction of her grandmother's house.
Lynette Lundstrom was nearing seventy-three and Claire's favorite person in the world. She usually found time to visit her grandmother every day, either for coffee or a sandwich. They ate dinner together at least twice a week.
She banged open the front door and headed for the kitchen, cheerfully calling out, "Coffee on?" She didn't immediately get a response.
She quickened her step and found her grandmother sitting at the big oak kitchen table with a scatter of papers fanned in front of her.
She pulled up a chair and sat down opposite her grandmother, concern building when she saw the expression on Lynette's face. "What's up?"
Lynette looked up at her, looking like an old woman for the first time Claire could remember. "I think we're in trouble. The bank is threatening to call in the mortgage."
Claire glanced at the fan of papers on the table. "What mortgage?"
The older woman was obviously upset. Her voice wavered. "Your grandfather and I started that airline back in the '50s," she reminded Claire as though she could possibly have forgotten the family history. "We used to fly in supplies for miners, fly in timber cruisers and transport Indian chiefs. We've helped with rescue missions. We delivered mail." She tapped her fingers angrily against the table. "My whole life is here and connected to Polar Air. How can a bank take this airline away?"
"Calm down, Grandma. Nobody's going to take our airline away from us. I don't think they can." She swallowed. "Can they?"
"The trouble is I've let things go a little. I know there have been some problems, but-"
"What problems?" Everything seemed fine to Claire. But she was busy with flights, and didn't have a lot of patience for paperwork and administration. Some of their previous business had dropped off, it was true, but they'd added a lot of new business through tourism.
Claire frowned over the sheets of paper Lynette passed to her. "Why didn't you tell me?" She glanced up at her grandmother's worried face.
"I didn't want to bother you. You're busy flying. Now that I don't fly anymore, I feel that I should at least be able to run the place. I thought business would pick up and we'd be able to pay the mortgages back."
Lynette turned to gaze out over a pair of old armchairs that sat by the window of her log house. The window faced one of the most spectacular views in Alaska. Probably the entire world. Set on a bluff overlooking the ocean, the house commanded views of crashing waves, of the islands out in the strait, and of the otters, whales, dolphins and seals that called the area home.
And they weren't the only ones. Lynette had called Spruce Bay home her whole life. Claire realized she'd been doing the same for almost half of hers.