Excerpt from Broken Wings

     "CastleAir one taking off," Colin Castle informed the small airport's dispatcher. He pushed the throttle forward, feeling the airplane's engine surge to life. The excitement racing through his veins increased in direct proportion to the revving rpm needle.
     He released the brakes and gave a whoop of pleasure as the 1948 replica airplane launched down the runway. She wanted to fly, but he kept her grounded. Today he would test his machine to its limits. He couldn't afford any mistakes. Not this time. He'd made too many of those already. Everything had to be perfect for the air show.
     Ten influential investors would witness the CastleAir's unveiling at the Trinity Air Show in eight days. Five years of blood, sweat and tears would come to fruition then. And those who'd voiced their doubts would have to eat their words—including his father.
     Don't get started on that line of thought. Everything has to be just right. Concentrate on the airplane, nothing else.
     The joystick shuddered in his hand. The airplane demanded access to the air. Colin denied the plane's request, holding her in place. He was a good pilot—one of the best—but for this project to work, he needed to fly like the worst. If the airplane could hold up to the abuse of an over-confident, under-trained pilot, she could handle anything. Colin aimed to fly like the worst show-off, and prove he hadn't put his faith into a losing proposition this time.
     The airplane groaned its protest. Colin relented, easing back the joystick. She sighed off the runway, and her ahhh of satisfaction echoed in Colin's heart, lightening it. His muscles unwound. His mask came off. Now it was just man and machine, muscles and metal, mind and matter. It was him alone in the vast blue sky.
     He was free.
     He never felt this way on the ground, weighed to the earth by gravity. He always had to be someone else—Jakob's serious partner, the show circuit's fearless fly boy, his father's worthless son. But the sky, that was something else altogether. There he could relax. He didn't have to pretend. He could be himself.
     Colin urged the CastleAir into a steep ascent, heading straight for the observation tower. He flew closer and closer—close enough to see the dispatcher's eyes grow wide. As Colin passed over the tower with a foot to spare, Harry ducked. Colin roared with laughter. You'd think Harry would be used to this by now. He raised the gear, then veered left and headed into the clear blue sky to put the plane through its paces in a non-populated area west of Fort Worth.
     "CastleAir one, zis is Traders base." The heavy German accent and the sharp, clipped tones left no doubt as to who stood at the other end of the microphone.
     Colin sighed. "What do you want, Jakob?"
     Jakob Renke worked metal with the skill and artistry of a master, and without his help this project would never have taken off, but lately, he'd been absurdly agitated over the plane's well-being. As if Jakob's future was at stake, not Colin's.
     "Come back and land zis instant."
     "Can't, got work to do." Colin adjusted the power for a steady climb.
     "Vee agreed. No foolishness."
     "We agreed. I'm not fooling around." Colin circled the area of patched brown and spring-green pastures, checking for other air traffic and looking for a promising field should the need arise. Fields as familiar to him as every nut and bolt of his airplane, as familiar as a part of his own body. A hawk floated to his left, catching a thermal to higher altitude. Colin joined him.
     "Vat do you call zis stunt?"
     Colin could imagine Jakob's beet-red face with the temple veins raised and throbbing. The guy definitely needed to loosen up. "I call it the seventeen-year-old-boy-showing-off-for-his-girlfriend take-off."
     "Vee are not selling to boys! Vee are trying to attract grown investors."
     "Ever heard of a mid-life crisis?"
     "You are going to ruin everything vit your crazy flying. Vat good is it to us if the airplane is crashed?"
     The radio crackled in the silence that followed.
     "I'm coming in." Colin reversed his position with a Cuban roll and headed back toward the airport. If they were going to have a fight, they wouldn't do it over the airwaves.
     He greased his landing and parked the airplane in its spot next to the Vintage Air Factory hangar. He and Jakob reached the hangar door at the same time, but neither spoke until they stood inside Jakob's workshop.
     This hangar had served as Colin's home for the past five years. He slept on a cot in the back room, and lived and breathed this project every waking hour. He knew the contents of every plastic bin hanging on the wall. He knew the name and function of every scrap of metal carefully catalogued on the shelves, of every tool in the shop. He'd memorized every blue line on the plans spread over the slanted board beside the workbench.
     With the public's renewed interest in history and flying museums, and a growing shortage of old planes left to be salvaged, Colin came up with the idea of building replicas—old planes from old plans with new parts.
     His father had told him his plans were doomed to failure—like all of his previous schemes. Then, when he'd been looking for investors, he'd met Jakob by accident at an air show in California. Jakob put up the money to build the first plane. With their combined skills, they managed to pull the project together and come up with an improved version on an old classic, the 1948 CastleAir Special Edition. When Jakob suggested this particular model, the idea intrigued Colin because the airplane shared his last name. He took it as a good omen.
     Now in the wings, plans to build a Grumman F3F biplane and a Messerschmitt Me262 jet fighter waited for the right investors. Their reality hung in a successful unveiling in eight days' time at the Trinity Air Show. Colin's personal success hung on a ten-minute flight that would either make him or break him. He didn't appreciate Jakob's lack of faith at this late hour.
     "Vat vere you trying to do?" Jakob asked.
     A shock of stiff white hair surrounded a round face with accusing round eyes and round glasses. There was nothing round about the rest of Jakob's body. It appeared solid and wiry from the perpetual motion of eighteen hours plus of work every day for the past five years. The frustrated activity of a man laden with guilt, Colin often thought, and he'd never felt this assumption more clearly than he did now. For the first time since they'd met, he wondered at Jakob's motives. Maybe more than workmanship attracted Jakob to this project. But what? They rarely spoke of anything except the CastleAir and the odd diatribe on the physics of time.
     A curl of uncertainty unfurled deep in Colin's stomach, but he ignored it. He flung his leather jacket over Jakob's cluttered workbench. "I was making sure an idiot would be safe flying our plane."
     "Idiot? Vere is your head? Zese are professionals."
     Colin was right. The purple veins above Jakob's temples did stand out and throb against his angry red skin. "Professionals my foot." Colin paced away from Jakob, then spun back. "Professional lawyers and doctors, maybe. But not professional pilots. These are weekend pilots with barely a hundred hours of flight time logged in their books. They hardly know an aileron from an attitude. I want to be sure our airplane is forgiving enough to see them safely to the ground should they get in over their heads."
     Jakob pounded a fist on the workbench, rattling the spare parts of the electric gear motor. "But how can you risk our investment like zat so close to ze show." Jakob ground his index finger on the workbench to emphasize each word. "No plane, no show, no investors, nicht wahr?"
     Colin leaned his weight on his fists, and with an angry undertone, he mimicked Jakob's accent. "Airplane kaputt after one flight by a jock with more balls than brains and no more orders, nicht wahr?"
     They stared at each other, neither willing to turn away first. Both wanting to win. Both hating to lose. Colin understood Jakob's point, but Jakob didn't even try to consider his. What did it matter, anyway? They both wanted the same thing. Success. They just had different ideas on how to achieve it.
     "Listen, Jakob," Colin relented, scraping a hand through his hair. Damn, he'd forgotten to get it cut again. One more detail to take care of before Sunday.
     He moved away a few paces, stuffing both hands into the pockets of his khaki pants, then turned back to face the old man. "This is my last chance. Do you think I'd do anything to jeopardize my opportunity for success? My father's in the hospital tied to a dozen tubes. The lung cancer's got him beat. The doctors don't give him more than a month. If I don't make it this time, he'll die thinking I'm a failure."
     Jakob shook his head in slow resignation. "I'm not ready." He unearthed a book from beneath his bench. "Your foolish attitude is forcing my hand."
     "For what?" Like the sudden silence of a failed engine in flight, Jakob's nonsense mutterings sounded off trouble.
     Flicking the pages once with the back of his hand, Jakob shook his head again. "The calculations, zey are not quite right."
     "Calculations for what?" Colin would know exactly what to do about a dead engine. He had no emergency checklist for a partner gone over the edge.
     "For ze vindow."
     Jakob seemed to wind tighter and tighter with each passing moment, reminding Colin of his wind-up balsa-wood airplane when he was a kid. The more he wound the propeller, the tighter the elastic got until one more crank either broke the rubber band, releasing the tension, or the airplane sprang free from his hand, zigzagging an erratic path across the yard. Which would Jakob do?
     "Jakob, you're not making any sense."
     Jakob's round glasses magnified his near colorless eyes, reflecting his desperation. What was going on? Why was Jakob so frantic, now of all times?
     "Zis is my last chance, also." Jakob thumbed through the pages of his notebook so fast several sheets tore part way. "If I don't find Liesl ze first time, I may never get a chance to fix my mistake. I must stop zem from killing Kurt."
     "Liesl? What mistake? Who's Kurt?" Colin stood still, keeping his voice low and slow, afraid to make the wrong move and release Jakob's hold on sanity, afraid this latest failure would send him into a blind, high-speed spin into the ground. Colin latched onto a point of reference. They needed each other—at least until the air show. He couldn't give up on success so close to the mark.
     "He vaz my best friend and I betrayed him for Liesl's love." Jakob wiped his brow, tugging at the corner of one eye as if to remove a tear. "Instead, I killed zem both. First, she lost Kurt."
     One finger traced the outline of a girl's face scribbled in pencil on the page. A pretty girl with high cheekbones, big, sad eyes and very kissable lips. Was she the reason for Jakob's sudden madness?
     "Zen she lost his dream," Jakob continued, his voice laden with regret. "She died of a broken heart. Too young to die. All my fault. I have to go back and stop zem."
     He ripped the page out and threw it in Colin's direction. Colin caught the paper and absently stuffed it in his pocket.
     "Stop who?" Colin asked.
     He rounded the workbench and stood next to Jakob. His hands started up to comfort his partner, then fell back to his side. Colin knew nothing about the man with whom he'd spent nearly every hour of every day for the past five years—not where he'd come from, nothing about his family, nothing about his past, except his extraordinary ability to work with metal and his odd fixation on physics. At the time, that had seemed like enough. Had he missed something important?
     "Jakob, I'm worried about you. You can't do this to me this close to the air show. What's wrong with you?"
     Jakob lifted his gaze from the book. Tiny spider lines of red webbed the whites and moisture magnified the pupils even more through the thick lenses. "Same zing zat is wrong vit you. I tried to impress the wrong person, using the wrong method. I paid for my selfishness all of my life. Even finding you vaz a torture of ze soul. Every day you remind me of vat I did. Looking at you every day pushed me to find ze vay. Did I ever tell you zat you look like him?"
     "Who?"
     But Jakob didn't seem to hear him. He pointed to disjointed calculations on an unlined page. "I'm close. So close." He turned the page. A diagram illustrated two cones joined by a narrow passageway overlaid on a map with Lake Schönberg highlighted. "Ze timing has to be perfect."
     "Timing for what?" Colin spoke through clenched teeth to keep his mounting irritation in check. He wasn't going to let anyone mess with his chance to win. Not even Jakob. Not this time.
     Lost in a world of his own, Jakob didn't answer.
     Colin stared at Jakob. The propeller clock, ticking loudly on the wall, stretched each second into minutes. The smell of aviation gas and grease dizzied him. The distant whir of engines buzzed in his mind like lazy drones. As the background blurred, Jakob's face came into sharp focus. And the wild look in his eyes, the desperation etched in every line on the craggy face showed Colin a man who'd lost his hold on reality.
     Trying to find a grip on his anger, Colin moved away. Jakob trotted in front of him, grabbed the front of Colin's shirt and shook him with rash urgency. "You must do as vee agreed until after ze air show. I vill hold my end of ze bargain. I von't leave until you have your orders. But you must hold yours. Vee agreed. No foolishness."
     Colin ground his teeth. "I'm not foolish. I'm safe."
     "You take foolish chances," Jakob insisted. "Zink of Karen."
     "That was thirteen years ago." Unable to stand the confining grip of the collar's material against his neck, Colin ripped Jakob's hands from his shirt and shoved them away. Air rasped painfully through his constricted throat. "I was a kid. Watching Karen die made me determined never to harm anyone. I'm the best damned pilot around because of what happened to Karen, and you know it. I won't crash the plane."
     "Colin, bitte, like vee agreed. The maneuvers, nozing else."
     A spoke of sunlight washed through the hangar's dirty windows, accentuating Jakob's age and frailty. An old man was allowed an obsession, no matter how crazy it seemed to anyone else. If Jakob's fixation on redeeming a past mistake made him work hard on this project, then so be it. The results would be the same. A successful flight at the air show would bring them both the rewards they sought.
     "All right," Colin agreed reluctantly, too tired to fight. "We'll do it your way—this time. I better get back up before I run out of sunlight."
     "Ja, gut, go back up, and do it exactly as vee planned. Do not do or touch anyzing you are not supposed to."
     "Aye, aye, Herr Kapitän." Colin gave Jakob a mock salute, grabbed his jacket, and jogged out to the CastleAir.
     With the responsibilities of earth weighing heavily on him, and his dizzying near crash with human insanity, he desperately needed a break.
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