Part I: I Thought I Saw a Ghost!
I hate cold. I hate dreary. In short I hate Seattle.
So I was lucky not to be in Seattle. I was in a bar, and a bar regardless of where in the world it is, on the inside is just a bar. At least that’s what I kept telling myself. And the bar I found myself in did have a certain charm about; it was practically a saloon, a refugee from 1880’s Tombstone holding out in the here and now of Post-War America.
I bellied up to the bar, ancient wood stained deeply by decades of good times and drowned sorrows, and ordered a drink. This place was no Don the Beachcomber’s but I hoped it had a decent drink selection. Besides, I didn’t have any choice in which bar I went to- I was here on business.
“Psst,” I called to the bartender. For his part the little bald man ignored me and continued to polish a glass in the most sullen way possible, as if it was his way of tuning out the world. Then I remembered Americans don’t respond to that like Filipinos do.
I tried again. “Excuse me, sir.” He looked up from his mentally burdensome task then gave me the ‘what the hell?’ look I’ve grown very accustomed to. Maybe it’s my beat up A-2 flight jacket with the female gremlin on the left breast and a golden carabao head on the left sleeve. Or the insignia-less crush cap that lay on the bar that sets me apart. Or maybe it was because I was the only woman in the room not hanging on her favorite drunk and dressed like a bush pilot from the backside of the Philippines.
“Shot of Tanduay please.” I asked, hoping against hope he had my favorite rum. There was such an impressive display of liquor behind the bar I didn’t bother trying to pick out what was what.
“What the Hell is Tanduay?” He asked.
He said nothing but poured me a shot and went back to his business.
“Salamat.” I said to his back.
The sweet rum burned nice and warm. About the only thing warm in this damn city. Two days here and I’d already started developing a cold that backed my nose up something fierce. For professional reasons that bothered me more so than most.
Now the best part of a classic saloon, hands down, is the mirror behind the bar. This bar had all the makings of a classic. I’d grown up with the stories about how the mirror let a cowboy see who was coming up behind him. Really mirrors just give the impression of a bigger room, but Pa always said just because one answer is right doesn’t mean the other can’t be too. Being a U.S. Marshal back when that meant something I took his word for it. Anyway, that old story was working to my advantage now, though instead of looking for a desperado looking to bushwack me, or however they put it in those dime novels and penny dreadfuls, I was using it to find the man I inteded to bushwack.
“Hey barkeep.” I called again. He looked at me in annoyance. I smiled nicely. “I reckon you’re not big on maintenance-”
“Or lippy broads.”
I laughed sardonically. “Lips are what it’s all about, but you don’t suppose you could wipe down that mirror could you? The layer of smoke on it makes it hard to see… um, I’d like to do my lipstick.” I tossed out. I wasn’t wearing the stuff so the excuse seemed plausible to me.
“I doubt lipstick would help your cause.” He said and again, went back to ignoring me. Hay naku, I shook my head.
The bar was nearing maximum capacity at this hour, men poured in, few poured out and all lit up. The smoky haze burned my eyes and made me thankful, at least for the moment, that I couldn’t smell anything. I pulled a metal case of cheroots from my flight jacket’s large pockets and attempted to blend in.
Cheroots are skinny, almost cigar-length and wrapped in tobacco leaves, compared to normal cigarettes cheroots have a crude quality to them. I almost never smoke except for social occasions that call for it; these cheroots I had received, amongst a few other small tokens, as a gift from the court of Rajah Charles Vyner Brooke, the “White Rajah” of Sarawak.
It tasted dry and earthy as I rolled it around in my mouth. I watched the mirror casually, picking my mark out of the crowd. He was in a corner booth, a middle-aged man in a brown coat with rain-matted blonde hair and a days worth of stubble who kept discreetly looking over his shoulder. Jim Chafee looked just like his wanted poster and twice as twitchy. A brown leather satchel sat between him and a waif half his age and probably out of his price range. In my hunt for Chafee I hadn’t seen her before, a blonde keen to the latest fashion, dressed well but not so well as to be a spectacle in a green dress with a matching purse. Probably just some local entertainment he’d picked up.
Chafee and some of his associates stole a briefcase full of documents from the military war crimes tribunal in Manila. Lacking these papers would be a massive step back for the war crimes commission. It was forgone most of the bastards would hang, MacArthur would see to that, but without what Chafee stole it would take a bit longer. I’m unsure if Chafee was hired to steal the documents, though if he was the man double-crossed his employer and was now attempting to sell them to the highest bidder.
A consumate paranoid Chafee was constantly on the alert which made catching him nigh impossible. The first leg of our chase was from Manila to the jungles of Borneo. One of the world’s largest islands it’s composed mostly of British and Dutch colonies save the Sultanates of Brunei and Sarawak. The Sultanates were an anomaly; two independent Moslem kingdoms on an East Indies island, Brunei ruled by a native, the other ruled by a white Englishman; Sarawak having been made a gift from the Sultan of Brunei to his grandfather for services rendered fighting pirates.
Tracking Chafee from his arrival in Brunei was easy but his trail cooled after the border crossing into Sarawak. Losing his trail I approached the local government for assistance which led to my own brief service to a Rajah. Though I didn’t get a kingdom for helping aleveate his own pirate and smuggler problem that side job did net me the cheroots and access to information that helped pinpoint Chafee’s location. Hours before I could kick down his door Chafee’s paranoia started acting up and he left Sarawak for British North Borneo aboard an old steam locomotive and disappeared into the headhunter infested jungles. I’ve been told headhunting had been illegal for decades but I wasn’t about to test the theory and since the border to Sarawak was now closed to him I instead waited around his only logical escape route from the colony, the city of Jesselton, or at least what was left of it after the war-time bombings.
He showed up in town a few days after me and began trying to sell the documents. He came with armed associates in tow which made it hard to get close to him but I did. Then he was onto me and he slipped away again, this time heading home to Seattle.
Here I’d tailed him for three blocks before he stopped to make a pay phone call then walked into this bar. Though he’d seen me in Jesselton it wasn’t like this in full pilot regalia, a bulky shape-hiding jacket on my 5’10” frame and wearing a crush cap. I reckoned he’d think me just another male pilot and not the same person as the woman in a red qipao that pulled a gun on him an ocean away a week ago.
Sitting here and watching him schmooze it was hard not to just walk up to him and put a gun to his head right now and get the chase over with. It had gone on almost forty-eight days so I could wait a few more minutes or even hours; it was only a matter of time now.
I took another sip of the rum and grinned. Chafee was tossing back a beer and there were two others beside it. The young lady I suppose was being fed cocktails made of pure apple juice but priced as brandy. He’d be loaded long before me, then I’d be loading him onto my Catalina seaplane. After all that work this was looking to become an easy pay check.
Watching him intently I hardly noticed someone take a seat next to me. A short raven-haired woman in a blue Pan Am uniform threw herself up on the stool then stood on the bar’s brass foot rail and waved for the bartender’s attention.
“Gin and tonic- and replace the tonic with more gin!” At the sound of her voice I bit down on the cheroot, nearly swallowing the end. If it tasted earthy rolling around my lips it tasted dirtier blocking my throat and near choking me. Coughing it up with all my might I meant to hack it up on the bar; instead I missed the expanse of wood and it splashed neatly into my glass of Cuban rum which in turn splashed my face and glasses. I guess such antics were commonplace here as none of the other patrons paid me any mind and went about their business, except for the woman next to me. Arlene Clementine. She stared at me with wide blue eyes, eyes I hadn’t seen since ’43.
“You’re supposed to be dead.” She said in a small voice.
“Another rum please.” I shouted to the bartender and held up two fingers. “Dalawa!”
Arlene’s stare stayed fixed on me. “I attended your funeral.”
Before the bartender could set it down I satched my next rum from him and threw it back. “Really? When did they start giving us WASPs funerals?”
“No.” Arlene shook her head. “You can’t be her, well unless you’re a ghost.”
“Miss Clementine, my name is Matilda Jane Grumman,” I began. “I was born in the former Choctaw Nation but was raised near Mariveles, in the Bataan province of Luzon, main island of the Philippine Commonwealth, well Republic of the Philippines now. I flew PBY-5A or OA-10A Catalinas for the Air Force in ’43 and ’44, my family business is seaplanes and growing up I loved watching the Dash Four model Cats at Olongapo. My favorite color is blue, but Pacific Ocean sea blue, not that lousy sky blue. Convinced it’s me?”
“How are you sitting here?!” She exclaimed. “They told us you died.”
“Well… to start with I’m not dead. Not physically. Just legally.” I glanced at the mirror. My mark was still there. He’d started in on his next beer. “It’s a long story.”
“We were told you crashed in the Pacific on a training mission.”
“Officially.” I nodded.
Arlene raised an eyebrow. “You weren’t trying to get out of orders to Kodiak were you?”
It was a valid question. We were stationed at sunny Coronado, California but because of… differences between me and my commander she occasionally threatened to make me the first WASP in Alaska. While I’m as patriotic as the next gal if I’d ever gotten orders to that ice box I’d have jumped ship then and there. Still, that wasn’t how it played out.
“Look,” I said flustered. “Long story short, there were spies, a convoluted scheme to steal an experimental bombsight, I was the poor sap behind the wheel and in the end I was lucky to survive them. But it wasn’t safe to return to Coronado so I flew… further.”
Arlene started in on her gin and gin.
I followed her lead and sipped my next rum. “I suppose that is a lot to take in.”
“You’re not dead and you stole an airplane.” She said pointedly.
“You can’t steal what’s been written off, especially after you’re dead.” I corrected her.
Arlene wasn’t convinced. “And you expect me to believe that spy story?”
“Truth isn’t any less true just because you refuse to believe it,” I quouted her one of my father’s favorite lines.
“It still doesn’t make any sense.”
“Do you believe me or not?”
She looked at me with concern which almost on a dime softened. “Of course I believe you. Still doesn’t change the truth that it makes no sense.”
“Like letting women fly airplanes?”
“Exactly!” She said and downed her gin-and-gin cocktail, settling the matter. “Next time someone tells me you’re dead I’ll demand to see a body.”
It was incredulous, to say the least, to believe I’d meet my old friend here, especially now. Arlene Clementine and I were Women’s Airforce Service Pilots, or WASPs, during the War. The organization’s ranks were filled with interesting and unusual people whose common bonds were a desire to serve their country, a love of flight and being ineligible to fly as a direct part of the Army Air Force, Navy or Marine Corps due to gender.
Arlene was born and raised in some part of the Washington backwoods were a team of ten horses was still needed to get through certain parts. She discovered she loved flying while dating a barnstormer who showed her the ropes in a beat up Jenny. Within two months she’d surpassed him, chiding him for being too cautious and ultimately stealing his job since she was willing to try things in that deathtrap sane people wouldn’t.
This daredevil attitude also applied to her life on the ground and led her to believe impossible just means you’re too weak, small-minded or timid to man up and make it happen. We used to joke, and God I really do hope it was just a joke, that she was crazy enough to play Russian roulette with a loaded automatic and lucky enough to win.
Besides her crazed attitude she was also extremely personable and brought light and life into any room she entered, and that’s not just in a room full of desperate Sailors. It was true her expressive ice blue eyes and dark tresses were hard for any man to ignore, and she had the body of an Olympic swimmer but moreso she was lively and would engage any one in any conversation about any thing. If the conversation was halted for being unladylike she’d ask the man why he thought of himself as a lady.
Naturally we got along famously and spent a lot of our free time out causing some kind of trouble in her hopped up Buick or questioning the drinking prowess of Sailors in San Diego’s Hotel del Coronado. She is probably the only person I know who can make me seem normal, so of all the people I could have randomly met at this bar I was thankful it was her.
Since own doesn’t get to ask this I did have to ask her, “My funeral thing, what was that like?”
“There was no body for your parents to collect-”
“That’s okay. I’ve no parents left to collect it.” I took another drink, though no amount of drink in the world could properly help me forget that bitter fact.
“That and you’re not dead.”
I checked on Chafee. Still drinking and that floozy was still laughing. “Night’s young.”
“So we all chipped in, had a nice little service in a nearby church and a wake.”
“Where was the wake?”
“In your honor we drove up to LA for the weekend and had it at Don’s.” I smiled when she told me that. I’d worked for Colonel Beach briefly before shipping off for WASP training at Avenger Field in Sweetwater, Texas. I liked Don the Beachcomber for a number of reasons, not the least of which is its heavily Filipino staff which made me feel at home.
“Thank you.” I said softly. We weren’t getting rich off the government; you have to build defective torpedoes to do that, so the gesture was appreciated. “Zombies all around?”
Smiling wickedly Arlene replied, “Your demise was an excellent excuse to party in Los Angeles for the weekend.”
Meanwhile I was in Australia, trying to get fuel from a regional civilian airport that couldn’t make heads or tails of the crazy American lady claiming to be the pilot of the boat-looking plane sitting on their tarmac.
“So what do you do in the afterlife?” She asked.
“I ply the friendly skies.” I gave her my best stewardess smile which was met with a snort.
“Smile likethat all you like but you still look like a librarian.” She teased like she always had. It was a running joke I ended up in Sweetwater by accident after taking a wrong turn on my way to College Station. Let’s just say the joke evolved from there to me being a school teacher, then a librarian and leave it at that.
“A librarian with a Catalina.”
“Not the same one…”
“The same.” Quickly I shifted the subject, “So what do you do?”
She gave her best stewardess smile. “I help others ply the friendly skies.”
“And you’re not the least bit bitter about it.” I added.
“Bitter, me?” She scrunched her nose at the thought. “Bitter is for people who live dull, uninteresting lives who’ve never done anything memorable. I fly a Cessna on the weekends, though it would be nice if I could get my hands on some surplus and have a really interesting life again.”
That was an understatement. She took an aircraft’s engineering and design limitations as a personal challenge to push it harder. As I’d mentioned before she was worse on the ground, for example I’d once ridden horseback alongside an automobile she was in. Originally. Next thing I knew she was behind me on horseback too and neither the vehicle nor horse had made a stop or even slowed down.
She continued, “When I can afford it I’m buying a P-51 or a Bearcat and getting into the Air Race circuit.”
“Do you even know how to fly a Bearcat?” I asked offhand.
“Hmm. Don’t know till I try.”
“It’s a moot point anyway; they’re not surplus since the Navy still flies them.”
“Not for long. She’s a prop-fighter and jets are the next big thing. I suspect,” she shook her glass for emphasis, spilling some of its contents on the bar. “That in a few years all the prop jobs will go the way of the dodo.”
“Or the seaplane.”
She shrugged. “I thought you revelled in being behind the times. Still carry that horse pistol?”
That brought a smile to my face. “Who says I’m not carrying it right now?”
Arlene was referring to a family heirloom I sometimes carried in flight. An 1847 Colt’s Walker, the percussion revolver was the largest and most powerful handcannon Colt ever built. It was a wedding gift to my father from mother’s father, who carried it in the Civil War. Old even then, he was issued the thing by the Confederate Army who had in turn taken it from a Texas armory. Despite the obvious advantages of bullets it had never been modified to fire them and instead each gaping chamber still had to be loaded with shot and powder then capped to fire. I lost almost everything to the Japanese invasion and the horse pistol was one of the few tangible pieces of my family and heritage I still had, so I carried it and would never dream of changing it.
“Still, I wouldn’t mind a jet either. But that’s just crazy talk.”
Even as she talked I kept my eyes on Chafee. Something was amiss as his date didn’t look too pleased and ready to storm off.
“What’s wrong Mattie?” She asked, looking at me and following my eyes to the mirror. “Is someone back there bothering you? We can deal with him. Which one is he?”
His date left. Chafee didn’t take her leaving well. He was alone and that gave me an idea. I turned to Arlene. “Help me and you can afford that really interesting life you’re talking about.”
(Next Page Coming Soon!)