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Author of Red Boots Rebel, Up Hill Dreaming, Schellville, and occasional short stories

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SHORT STORY

 

Stiff Company

STIFF COMPANY
by: Lawrence V. Drake

A long black hearse pulled through the gate in the chain link fence surrounding the airport. Here comes my passenger, I thought as the ominous vehicle made its way to where I was parked. This is really weird.


I hadn’t been on the job long and this was my first actual charter flight in the new Model A36 Bonanza. The sleek six-passenger airplane could cruise around two hundred miles per hour—faster than anything I had flown before.  Boss man, Dan, had checked me out in the plane a few days earlier. To say I was a green pilot was an understatement.


“I've got a job for you,” Dan said earlier that morning. “Take the Bonanza and run down to Casper. You’ll pick up a corpse and bring it back here.”


I gulped, “A corpse?”


“Yeah. You know. A dead person.” Dan shuffled through some papers on his desk, business-like, acting nonchalant, but I caught a glimpse of a momentary smile as he turned away.


Okay, he’s toying with me cause I’m the new guy. “You’re putting me on. You couldn’t get a coffin through the door.”


“No, I’m not. And there’s no coffin. We get these calls pretty regularly. I fly ‘em a couple times a month.”


“Really? Why fly dead people?”


“Who knows? Some guy dies in Casper and the family wants him here pronto for the funeral before he spoils.”


“How do you get them in the airplane? Do you sit them up in the seat?” I tried to imagine wrestling this dead body into the airplane and strapping it into the seat beside me.


Dan chuckled at my naive question without glancing up. “No. The right front seat back folds down and they lay the body on a stretcher over the seat. It’s in a body bag.”


I had seen body bags in the military—dozens of them lined up on the tarmac ready to load into a transport. Like long black garbage bags with a zipper down the center, the lumps and bumps only hinted at what was inside. I can deal with that.


The curtained limo pulled up beside my wing and two suited men stepped out. As I climbed from the cockpit, the driver waved. I gave a weak wave back to acknowledge that I was, indeed, the person they were to meet. The two men walked around to the back of the hearse, swung the tailgate open, and slid a stretcher out. A wheeled frame sprung out below the stretcher, allowing them to roll their cargo over to the wing-walk of my plane.


You’ve got to be kidding. It’s not a black bag! A middle aged man, arms crossed, dressed in a grey suit and striped burgundy tie lay motionless on the gurney shrouded in a clear plastic bag. I couldn’t help staring at my passenger as I dismounted from the wing. The two attendants went about their job of getting the gentleman ready to load as though they did this every day. And they probably did.


The Bonanza has a wide access to the four rear seats. Two doors swing open like a barn so passengers can easily get in.  A second door over the wing near the front of the aircraft provides access for the pilot and one additional passenger. With that passenger seat folded down, the two suited body handlers carefully slid my prone cargo through the rear entrance and into place inside the airplane. After strapping the stretcher and its lifeless burden down, I signed the appropriate paper handed to me on a clipboard, took my copy, and bid the limousine drivers farewell. The body was now in my care.


For some unknown reason, the Bonanza has only one forward door for the pilot and front passenger and it is on the righthand side of the airplane. The pilot has to climb past the passenger seat to get to his command center. In this case, the passenger seat served as the headrest for a very dead person. I carefully scooted across just inches above the nose of my deceased companion. As I plopped down into my seat, the dead man’s head rested directly at my right side. I felt like he could open his eyes at any moment and stare directly up my nose.


Be cool. He’s a stiff. He’s a goner. He’s not alive. Just concentrate on flying and getting this guy back home. I fired up the Bonanza, called the tower and taxied out for takeoff. With all the gauges in the green and a clearance from the controller, I firewalled the throttle and lifted off. I tried to ignore the stone-cold face beside me as the airplane climbed out to the north. My route took me over the southern end of the Bighorn Mountains. Casper lies at fifty-five hundred feet in elevation. I figured I would climb to ten thousand feet to clear the mountains and vector over Worland. From there it was a straight shot on to Powell.

Bonanza Doors


The smooth morning air turned to chop. The plane felt like it was speeding down a gravel road with occasional potholes. As I climbed for altitude, the air smoothed out somewhat as we passed through nine thousand feet.


“Uhhhhhhhhhhhhh.” A guttural sound filled the cockpit.


“What the heck was THAT?” I blurted out uncontrollably.


“Uhhhhhhhhhhh.”


My heart skipped a beat as I looked down at my passenger to see his mouth partially open and the clear plastic shroud rippling from his breath as he moaned.


He’s alive! … Is he alive? … What’s going on? … What should I do?


“Uhhhhhhhhhh.”


I instinctively pushed the control wheel forward and leveled off at ten thousand feet. The stiff lay quietly at my side. As I stared at him, waiting for the next groan, I could detect no motion, no twitching in his face, and no movement in his chest. The eerie moaning had ceased. Did he come alive for only a couple of minutes and then die again?


My heart beat hard against my chest as I flew on toward home, concentrating on making my course the shortest distance between two points. The dead man made no more sounds. He lay there, cold and motionless. I imagined his eyes popping open as he struggled to sit up, startled by his surroundings. Good thing he’s strapped down tight.


The miles passed under my wings in slow motion. Two hundred miles per hour felt like crawling. Slowly the airplane clawed its way home. I radioed ahead on the Unicom, “Dan, I’m fifteen minutes out. Is there someone there to collect the body?” I had all I could take of zombie bodies and wanted to be rid of my passenger as quickly as possible.


“Roger. An ambulance is already here,” Dan replied in his normal monotone voice.


Once on the ground, I let the medics handle the body while I made my way to the flight office. Dan was there waiting. I tried to hide my nervousness.


“So, how’d it go?” Dan asked.


“You know,” I said in a hushed voice even though there was no one else around, “I think that guy was still alive when they loaded him in.”


Dan looked at me with a stone face. “Yeah? What makes you think so?”


“He started groaning after I took off.”


“Really?”


“Yeah. Several times!”


Dan’s face started to crack. “You really think he was alive? Maybe we ought to tell those medics.” He couldn’t hold it any longer. With one large guffaw he burst out laughing. “Ha, ha, ha, ha … gotcha. Boy, you should see your face.”


“What are you laughing at? Really, he was groaning.”


“Sure he was. They all do that.”


“They what?”


“Yeah. When you take ‘em to altitude the pressure difference pushes the trapped air out of their lungs. Sometimes they even fart.”


“No kidding?”


“No kidding. A lot of the times you can barely hear it, but you must have got a real groaner.”


I stood there, not knowing whether to laugh or slink away in embarassment. I decided to laugh. Then I saw Jerry, the other new pilot walking toward the office. Hmm, no use keeping all this fun to myself. “Hey, Dan.”


“Yeah?” Dan said as his laughter subsided.


“Send Jerry on the next pickup. He needs a little excitement in his life too.”

*  *  *

*** The End ***

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©2017 Lawrence V. Drake