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"Major Stanford, we've got trouble."
Mac Stanford looked up from the F-15 maintenance reports commanding his attention. Master Sergeant Gus Calhoon stood in his doorway, looking very unhappy. Placing his pen aside, Mac gestured for him to come in and shut the door.
"What is it, Gus?" Mac reared slowly back in his chair, the springs protesting. The sounds of his maintenance crew at work in the hangar filtered in through the open window.
Gus hovered hesitantly by the door. His oval face was badly wrinkled, his blue eyes flinty, his mouth pursed. Finally he came over to the desk. "Sir, it's happened again."
Mac's brow gathered in a frown. "Again? What's happened again?" He searched his mind for what Gus could be referring to. Not for the first time that morning, Mac wished he could be flying. It was 0900 hours, and the sky at Luke Air Force Base near Phoenix, Arizona was clear and just begging to be flown in. But a big part of his job was being maintenance commander for the squadron. The sky would have to wait.
"You know..." Gus pleaded in a low voice. He glanced toward the door as if to make sure it was shut.
Mac's dark brown brows dipped. "No, I don't know, Gus. Fill me in." He gestured toward his desk, which was littered with reports. "With the general inspection coming up, I'm lucky if I can remember my name." The inspector general's annual visit was a pain-in-the-neck event intended to determine the readiness of everything on the military base. Mac had a lot of pressures on him to get the squadron's planes in shape. If Luke got its usual high marks in the IG, he'd still be eligible for his "early" lieutenant-colonel leaves.
Rubbing his square jaw, Gus sat down in the leather chair in front of the desk. "Sir, remember two weeks ago when Sergeant Claris was in the cockpit of the F-15 and a wrench was thrown at her? It hit her in the back and she sustained some bruises and a laceration?"
Mac groaned. He placed his hands on the desk, scowling. "Yes...did you ever find out who threw it at her?"
Gus raised his eyes. "Sir, I didn't find anyone. Sergeant Claris was alone in Hangar 13, working late. There was no one around—just her."
"Well, what's happened now?" Mac tried to appear patient.
"It's Hangar 13 again. Only this time, it happened to Sergeant Burke. He was up on the scaffolding checking out an F-15 engine when he got nailed."
The master sergeant squirmed nervously in his chair. Mac was feeling a bit edgy himself, and his voice came out sharply. "Just tell me what happened."
"Yes, sir. Sergeant Burke was working on the wing, and his assistant, Sergeant Turner, was in the cockpit. This—this wrench came flying through the air and hit Burke on the head. It drew blood, sir, and damn near knocked him off the scaffolding."
Mouth twitching, Mac rose to his full six feet. "Who did it?"
"Uhh, no one...again, sir," Gus muttered. Mac stared at him in disbelief. Gus Calhoon was a crusty thirty-year veteran of the air force and had seen it all, from Korea, to Vietnam and, of late, Desert Storm. There was no one more practical, more down-to-earth, than Gus. Flexing his fingers, Mac slowly came around the end of the desk and stood in front of him.
"Don't tell me—we've got a phantom wrench that flies through the air on its own?" Mac couldn't keep the sarcasm out of his voice. Gus wasn't the kind of person to make up stories like this. Maybe, at sixty, he was ready to retire. Mac was half his age, and he had a great respect for his master sergeant, who often performed near miracles with those gnarled, long fingers of his on the cantankerous F-15's in the hangar bay.
"I know, sir," Gus muttered apologetically, shooting him a sad look. "I can't explain how it happened, Major. But it did happen. Burke's over at the hospital getting stitches."
Mac heard the low, rumbling growl of two F-15's in the distance, and fought the impulse to take off for the air strip. "What about his crew? Could one of them have thrown it at him? Maybe as a joke?"
Sourly, Gus shook his head. He was dressed in the typical dark green fatigues that all maintenance people wore. Rubbing his hands slowly up and down his thighs, Gus said, "I questioned Burke's crew, and they swear they didn't even see it happen."