Our Lady of Perpetual Mess

"Aagh!" yelled Dominic Santini, throwing up his arms reflexively to protect his face as a stream of thick brown liquid splashed down on his helmet.

"What's the matter?" snapped Stringfellow Hawke, trying to concentrate on flying Airwolf in a loop-the-loop maneuvre to avoid two Air Force fighter jets who didn't realize they were all on the same side.

"I dunno – something's leaking – it's all over the place back here!"

"Are we losing oil pressure?"

"Doesn't look like it. I'm not sure what this stuff is."

Hawke jibbed Airwolf sideways and the missile fired by the Russian MiG they'd surprised in American airspace – and whose pilot definitely knew which side he was on – shot past and knocked off a chunk of Alaskan mountaintop. "Well, what is it then?"

"I dunno! It's sticky. Real sticky. And it stinks!"

"Stinks?"

"Yeah. Like somethin' died back here. String, I think we better set down as soon as we can. I don't like this."

Hawke looked dubiously at the jagged landscape below them and shook his head. "Try to hold us together for awhile longer, Dom. We've still got business to take care of. Like that – " He ducked instinctively as an American missile shot by close on their port side. " – and that," he finished as the Russian replied with another missile that squeaked past the starboard side.

"String, you wanna do something about those guys before we get creamed by both sides at the same time?"

"Yeah." Thirty seconds later the MiG was centered in his sights. He squeezed the firing button and watched as the Russian jet turned into a brilliant fireball.

Twenty minutes later, having left the American jets chasing their tails looking for the black and white mystery helicopter somewhere around Nome, he stood kicking around a piece of Aleutian gravel while Dom probed Airwolf's innards with the gentleness of a doctor examining a newborn baby.

"Well?" he finally said, a bit impatiently. (The Aleutian Islands were cold, and he was missing the fur-trimmed winter jacket he'd taken from the contagion-ridden American research outpost not far from here that he'd been forced to blow up as a rough-and-ready way to destroy the mutant virus that had gotten out of control there. Caitlin had left her borrowed parka behind, but Hawke had kept his, refusing to blow up a perfectly good coat, and had been ignoring Cait's muttered comments about "Typhoid String" ever since.)

Dominic replaced the cowling of the starboard engine, scowling. "Can't find a thing wrong, but something sure made a mess back there. Look - it's all over my helmet, too."

"Well, do you think it's safe to fly?"

The older man scratched his thinning gray hair in bafflement. "I guess there's only one way to find out. But take it easy, will ya?"

"Right." They got back in. Hawke noted that there was definitely a strange, unpleasant smell in the cockpit. Not quite rotting-body unpleasant, but not far off. He had a strong desire to open windows.

He lifted off gently and flew homewards as sedately as possible. The leakage of the mystery fluid didn't seem to cause any problems, and the flight was uneventful until they were within ten minutes of Airwolf's desert lair. At that point a pair of fighter jets from a nearby Air Force base suddenly appeared from behind a mountaintop. Not taking kindly to a stranger on their preserve, one of them promptly fired off a missile.

Hawke executed an even prompter loop-the-loop maneuvre and the missile shot past, but as they returned to level flight there was a clattering noise from the engineer's area, that sounded oddly like a tin can falling out of a cupboard and hitting someone's helmet.

"Ouch!" yelped Dominic, and then, "String, for God's sake, set her down fast! She's starting to come apart!"

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The inside of the Lair, in the middle of the desert night, was almost as cold as the Aleutian Islands. Stringfellow Hawke stood, idly kicking a small stone, outwardly calm (except for the occasional shiver) but inwardly apprehensive, as Dominic rooted around in search of the piece of their aircraft that had apparently fallen off and hit him in the head.

"Got it!" the older man finally said triumphantly, emerging backwards from one of the hatches. He squinted at something in his hand. "But I don't believe it."

"What is it?" demanded Hawke.

Dominic held out what was indeed a tin can, labeled "Raging Bull Energy Drink". "Where do you think this could have come from?"

"Must be Caitlin's."

"Cait? She'd never drink anything like this. One chocolate bar and she's buzzing for hours. If she drank a can of this stuff she'd be up at thirty thousand feet without a helicopter."

"Maybe Archangel left it here on the way back from East Germany."

"Hard to imagine Mr. Creme de la Creme drinking this. Not to mention the fact that we didn't exactly have time to stock up on picnic stuff on our way outta that castle. And what would happen if he spilled some on his white suit?"

"He wasn't wearing a white suit coming home from East Germany, and anyhow, that's why God invented dry cleaners. Come on, Dom, I'm starving. Let's get back to town."

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"Ottenete più meglio la vostra estremità scarna in su qui ora*," growled a voice from the radio in the Santini Air hangar.

In spite of Dominic Santini's best attempts to teach him Italian when he was a teenager, Hawke's knowledge of the language had never exceeded the essentials of spaghetti, lasagna, and Chianti. However, he knew enough to realize that the older man was currently somewhat less than pleased with him. "Uh – what's wrong?"

"You'll see when you get here." The radio went dead, which was what Hawke figured he was about to be, if Dom's tone had been anything to go by. Morosely, he got into the Santini Air jeep and headed for the Lair.

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"You wanna explain to me what all this stuff is?" bellowed Dominic.

"Looks to me like somebody forgot to take out the trash," said Hawke coolly.

Dominic, looking like an irate Santa Claus minus the beard and red suit, was climbing out of Airwolf's hatch with a bulging garbage bag hoisted over one shoulder. He dumped it amongst a collection of similarly overstuffed bags lined up against one wall of the Lair.

"Forgot? Forgot? The only thing I forgot is to teach you to clean up after yourself. You and your vacuum cleaners and baking soda and all that stuff! You're so darned picky about that cabin of yours, how come you can't clean up your helicopter?"

"What are you talking about?" said Hawke stiffly. He was still touchy about that episode at the cabin, where he'd been exposed as a Houseproud Hawke with something of a cleaning obsession.

"Whaddaya mean, what am I ..." Dom's face was almost as red as his satin ball cap as he sputtered. "All right, Mr. Clean Freak, you wanna play dumb, fine. You wanna pretend that I didn't just haul three bags full of coffee cups, candy wrappers, doughnut boxes and soda cans out of Airwolf, you go right ahead. But I know, and Caitlin's gonna know, and even worse, Archangel's gonna know, and worst of all, Marella's gonna know, that you treat that chopper like she's a billion-dollar, supersonic, butt-kicking garbage can. What have you been doing, anyhow? Flying through every drive-thru between here and East Germany? Look at this stuff!" He seized one of the bags and dumped the contents on the ground. Pop cans clattered and paper and foam cups pattered on the stone. "I'm gonna have to find you the local chapter of Caffeine Addicts Anonymous. And, if I ever see another cup or can or bottle or any other piece of garbage under the seats in there, or stuffed in the door pockets, I'm gonna whip that skinny butt of yours good." He stabbed Hawke in the chest with one meaty forefinger. "And if I have to clean putrefied pop out of any more storage compartments, I'll hand her back to Archangel myself!"

"Dom, will you just calm down and – "

"Calm down? Calm down? You got any idea what kind of sticky disgusting mess a spilled can of pop makes? Especially when it's weeks old?"

"Well, as a matter of fact – "

Dominic steamed right on. "You realize there was so much garbage stuffed in the missile loading compartment, next time you called for a copperhead you'd probably have gotten a Coke™ can instead?"

There was silence in the Lair, except for the sound of beverage containers rolling around on the ground. Dom looked at them in disgust. "Didn't realize we'd spent so much time in Canadian airspace," he grumbled, bending down and scooping up several errant Tim Horton's cups.

Hawke held his hands up in surrender. Maintenance was Dominic's job, he told himself, but he was willing to do almost anything to keep the peace. "Okay, okay, I'll clean it up – "

"Oh, you better believe you will! It took me an hour to get rid of the spilled Coke in the overhead port compartment, but there's still spilled root beer on the starboard side that's got 'Stringfellow Hawke' written in big, sticky letters. And then what I want is to hear you promise that you ain't gonna let the Lady get into this condition again. Besides, what you must be spending on drinks and snacks makes my head hurt. Haven't you ever heard of Thermoses™?"

Hawke opened his mouth to say it hadn't been any business of Dominic Santini's how he spent his money from the time the older man had stopped doling out his weekly allowance, but he was cut off by Caitlin's voice from the cockpit. "Santini Air to Airwolf. You guys there?"

"Yeah, we're here," said Hawke. "What's up, Cait?"

"Archangel wants you over at Knightsbridge, pronto. He's got a mission for you."

"He's already got a mission," grumbled Dom. "He's got some serious cleaning to do here. Then he's got a pile of garbage to haul out."

"Not that kind of mission," replied Caitlin, who had heard all about that weekend at Hawke's cabin.

"Tell him I'll be there right away," said Hawke, and broke the connection. "Sorry, Dom, duty calls."

"Fine," scowled Dom. "That root beer ain't going anywhere, I can promise you that."

"I gotta hurry. You know how Michael always needs everything done yesterday. You want to take those garbage bags out when you go?"

"Hey, String! String! You get back here, you little – "

But Hawke was already tearing out of the Lair in a cloud of dust.

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Just over a day later, Airwolf descended once again through the mountain chimney and settled to the floor of the Lair. Hawke shut the chopper down to the accompaniment of ominous silence from the engineer's station.

He pulled off his helmet and turned to look behind him. "Come on, Dom, I've had enough of the silent treatment. The mission was a success, we didn't get shot at for a change, and you didn't see me buying any coffee or stuff, now did you? You ever planning on talking to me again?"

"I'll think about it. You still got a mess back here to clean up, first of all."

Hawke sighed. Nothing got Dominic's shorts in a twist as much as injury – although this was more in the nature of insult – to his beloved Lady. Hawke hadn't had any rest in over twenty-four hours and wanted nothing more than a meal, a drink, and a bed, not necessarily in that order. But he also didn't want this situation with Dom to drag out any longer. He sighed again. "I don't suppose we've got any baking soda around here, do we?"

"Baking soda, hell! You'll practically have to use dynamite to get rid of that stuff."

Half an hour later – a half hour spent silently cursing and using up every shop towel in the Lair that Dom had left after cleaning the day before – Hawke climbed wearily out of the port hatch, tossing a final towel into a garbage bag. "Happy now?"

Dominic pointed to the collection of bags filled with the detritus he'd previously removed from the cockpit. "What about them?"

Hawke scowled. Silently he gathered up the bags and set out towards the Lair's ground-level opening. Puzzled, Dominic followed at a distance.

Once outside, Hawke pulled open all the bags and dumped their contents on the ground. He sorted through the pile, setting aside all the tin cans and shoveling the rest back into the bags. "What are you doing?" demanded Dom.

"Recycling," Hawke replied tersely.

He lined up the cans in one long – very long – row on the ground. Then he pulled out his gun and steadily shot his way down the row. Can after can went leaping into the air.

"Well, now I know who to call if I ever want a soda can killed," said Dominic, unimpressed. "Now you gotta pick all those up again."

With the patented Hawke scowl on his face, the younger man bent over and began collecting the remains.

Another half hour later, all evidence of target practice had been removed and all the trash had been tossed in the back of the jeep. With the Lair secured, Hawke and Dominic began the journey back to Van Nuys.

"Sorry for being such a grouch," Dom said, his usual good humor starting to return now that Airwolf had been restored to her normal immaculate condition. "It's just that finding all that junk stuffed in the Lady kinda threw me for a loop."

"Yeah, I know. Sorry about that, Dom."

"Aw, that's okay. I'm just glad you were able to get through this last mission without having to stop for a coffee or anything. See, you'll kick this habit – " He wanted to add "And your nerves will be steadier" but changed it to " – and you'll be saving money too!"

"Yeah."

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Behind them, darkness slowly began to settle on the hollow mass of ancient stone that was Airwolf's hiding place. One stray sunbeam, the last remnant of daylight, briefly slanted down the chimney and lit the sleekly menacing black and white shape of the helicopter below, reflecting off the glassy stretch of the sophisticated control panels inside. The sudden burst of light illuminated a small object lurking in the depths of the co-pilot's seat.

It was a slightly flattened sphere, covered in white powder, with something shiny and red dribbling from the interior.

Stringfellow Hawke had never been able to resist a fresh jelly-filled doughnut.

The End

*Ottenete più meglio la vostra estremità scarna in su qui ora" – "You better get your skinny butt up here right now" (At least I think that's what it means)