Maxine traveled all the time but mostly to big cities and large airports. She was a hardy negotiator when it came to economists and businessmen, but was uncomfortable negotiating narrow mountain passes and landing in tiny rural patches. But this was the critical area for the energy project we were checking out, and she would not shrink from the adventure. Her negotiation was with the local government and its specialists; I was just a bureaucrat greasing the wheels of the deal.
The helicopter landed with a mild thud. Sakya, the pilot made a signal asking us to wait. We got out after the dust had settled. I emerged first and lent my hand to Maxine. She ignored it and hopped out on her own.
When the noise subsided, Sakya asked her, “How did you like the ride?” He was proud of his skill and knew few pilots could have steered a track through those craggy mountains.
“Very picturesque,” Maxine said, then added candidly, “but I had my heart in my throat.”
This was what I liked about her. She was both tough and vulnerable.
Maxine, who grew up in Saunderstown village in North Kingston of Rhode Island, was the daughter of a fisherman who could barely afford to send her to school. She completed college, partly on scholarship and partly by washing dishes in local restaurants. When she got a break and found a job in a government agency, she rose meteorically to the top. Now over twenty professionals worked for her in Washington. At some point, a high-school romance sprang into an April wedding, then wilted in a December divorce.
She was earnest and determined and liked to have the facts at her fingertips. We got along well, for, when she asked for the numbers on anything, either I gave them to her or said frankly I didn’t have them. I knew it was a fatal mistake with her to fudge or to provide spurious data. She would catch you for sure.
The ground was indeed muddy, for it had rained the previous night. Maxine and I had both donned boots, but I hadn’t intended to cover mine with muck up to the gills. But that’s what happened with a determined Maxine covering the entire project area doggedly, end to end, seemingly checking every inch. After an hour of relentless examination, she sighed contentedly, “I think this will do.”
Sakya seemed glad to have us back and said quickly, “I am afraid there is a report of bad weather coming this way. Quite bad. We better leave quickly.”
I had noticed a thick fog gathering and turned to Maxine, “Visibility is getting poorer every minute. Let us make a move.”
Maxine took a last look around and took several photographs to aid her memory. Then she said what Sakya and I wanted to hear, “Let’s go.”
The helicopter swung into action, but Sakya’s arched brow told me that he didn’t anticipate an easy return. We had to pass through narrow spaces between mountains and make quick turns, but the view started turning murkier every minute. There was no fog when we came, as was assured by the weather people, and now the fog was getting denser by the second. Maxine sat stony-faced between Sakya and me in the tiny cockpit, quite silent.
Then Sakya took another sharp turn and, uncharacteristically, spat an expletive. I could see through the dark fog how close we were to the mountainside, and then, without a warning, I saw Sakya straining suddenly to make another quick turn.
All of a sudden, the imperturbable, almost-stern Maxine leaned close and grabbed the lapel of my jacket with both hands and shrieked, “Are we all right?”
I wasn’t feeling comfortable at all but, seeing her acute discomfort, I suddenly had a strange burst of humor, “We are quite all right, Maxine. Either we will reach home all right, or we will reach paradise – in each other’s arms.”
Sakya did as well as his stellar reputation warranted. He piloted steadily and skillfully to land us at the airport in record time before a terrible storm broke. Maxine and I reached the airport without a hair out of place. I drove Maxine to her hotel and a downpour started just as we reached her room.
We did not quite end in each other’s arms. When I had escorted Maxine to her suite, she poured us a drink and then, after a sip, wordlessly gave me a hug of relief.