(Blogger’s Note: This whole book is being uploaded one chapter at a time and will therefore be in reverse order when completed. For those who have not yet read it, the earlier chapters and the Prologue follows this. I leave it that way so that those loyal readers who have been following the story won’t have to scroll down to find the newest chapter... Yes, it might be a pain, but that’s just the way it is.)
Ramsey returned two weeks later. He called one morning, claimed that he had want we wanted and set up a meeting for that afternoon. Eric and I drove to the airfield, a tiny dirt strip outside of Kansas City. There was a large building, the hangar, a corrugated tin structure with a dirt floor and a windsock on the roof. To one side of it was a small, wooden building with a rusting pickup truck parked nearby. We walked across the patchy grass, scraped our feet on the cement step, and entered.
Inside there was a large table in the center of the room. Maps of Missouri, Kansas, Nebraska and Iowa dominated one wall. A counter, slanted, ran along one wall and was littered with flight planning aids including maps, charts, rulers, plotters and NOTAMS. A tiny office with large glass windows was stuck in one corner. A bright light burned inside and I could see Ramsey sitting at his desk in there.
Apparently Ramsey heard us and came out to greet us. He was a short, stocky man with black hair and bushy eyebrows. There was stubble on his chin and an unlighted cigar in his mouth, using it as a prop to prove how tough he was. He wore a leather jacket that creaked when he moved. He held out a beefy hand and said, "Welcome, gentlemen. Welcome."
As Eric shook his hand, he asked, "Have you had time to develop the film?"
"Don’t waste time, do you? said Ramsey. "Yes, I’ve developed the film and had blow ups made. According to my calculations, you fellows owe me an additional three hundred, eight dollars and ninety-two cents."
"Show me what you’ve got," said Eric, "and then we’ll talk about money."
Ramsey took his cigar out of his mouth, looked at the end of it as if inspecting its ash, though it was unlit. He leaned on the table, grabbed a packet and dragged it closer. "These are the photographs I made. All were taken from three thousand feet. I’ve only had the ones that show some landmarks blown up."
He smiled and shook his head. "Most of it was just miles and miles of white with nothing there to use to navigate."
As Eric and I examined the aerial photos, Ramsey pulled out a chart and laid it out. "Now, what I’ve done is this. I’ve marked each of your aerial maps with a number and then drawn a square on this map that shows where the photo was taken. Naturally there are some gaps, but it gives you a good idea of how to get from one square to the next."
Eric produced a magnifying glass. He thumbed through the photos quickly, separating them into two piles. When he was finished, he used the magnifying glass to examine each of the charts in the smaller pile. Once he called my attention to the corner of a photo and asked, "What do you make of that?"
I took the glass and leaned closer. There was a dark smudge that might have been an island in the sea, or bare ground in the middle of a snow field. Try as I might, I couldn’t see any detail in it.
While I looked it over, Eric questioned Ramsey. He asked him if he had seen anything strange on any of his flights.
Ramsey rubbed his chin and stared at the ceiling, as if there was the answer written up there. "What’d you mean?" he finally asked.
"Anything that didn’t seem to belong. Something out of the ordinary."
"No, I didn’t," said Ramsey. "Did notice a tree floating in the ocean. That was a little strange because it had leaves on it. This time of year and that far north, I’d have expected it to be bare."
"Where was that?" asked Eric. He pulled the map close and said, "Point it out to me."
Ramsey touched the map and said, "It was somewhere around in here."
Eric looked at the number in the square and lined it up with the photograph of the area. He set it next to the one where we had spotted the brown smudge. The two went together to form a single large chart.
I could see that Eric was excited. It was the first tangible evidence we had found that wasn’t from old texts and second-hand accounts. Granted, it wasn’t much, but then it was more than either of us had expected. A slash of bare ground and the trunk of a fully foliaged tree. Either could be explained by natural occurrences and Occam’s Razor demanded that the simplest explanation that accounted for all the facts was the best. That ruled out the Inner Earth, but Occam’s Razor was a logical argument and logic sometimes flew in the face of reality.
Eric questioned Ramsey further, asking him if he saw anything else that he found strange. When Ramsey came up came up with nothing, Eric to his credit, asked, "Where did you land your airplane?"
Again Ramsey referred to a map. "There’s a small town here, about a hundred miles from the major search area. I could refuel there and buy supplies. It was inconvenient and reduced the amount of search time, but it was the only town anywhere close where I could find the supplies I needed."
"Yes," said Eric. "You talk to the locals?"
Now Ramsey grinned, looking almost sheepish. "Found a small pub and did some time in it."
"Good. Good. Now in your conversations with the locals, did they mention anything to you that you found odd? Maybe talk about a valley nearby that is uncommonly warm? Or maybe people and animals disappearing? Or maybe strange looking and sounding people around?"
Ramsey took a new cigar from the pocket of his leather jacket, bit the end off it and spit that to the floor. He dug in his pocket for a match, didn’t find one and didn’t light the cigar. Instead he propped a foot up on the edge of a wastebasket, leaned an elbow on his knee and thought. After a few moments, he said, "Now, you have to understand that you didn’t ask me to look around on the ground or to talk to the locals. You didn’t say anything about any of that."
"Yes," said Eric agreeing, "I didn’t want to color your thinking and I didn’t want to divert you from your main mission which was the photography. Now, think back. Did anyone say anything that you thought strange?"
"I’m afraid not," said Ramsey shaking his head. "Our talk didn’t get around to that. Mostly, I told them about flying airplanes and about the Great War." He chuckled and said, "Didn’t have to buy too many drinks either. They kept them flowing as their reward to a war veteran."
"Well," I said, gathering the aerial photographs, maps and other charts into a single, large pile. "I think we have about everything we need."
Eric pulled his wallet from the inside pocket of his jacket. He opened it and counted out the additional fee. He handed the money over and said, "I’ll need a receipt, of course."
"Of course," agreed Ramsey, chomping on the unlighted cigar. He pulled a sheet of paper toward him and scribbled, "Received $308.92, payment in full for services rendered. He handed over the paper took eight cents from his pocket, grinning.
We thanked him and he told us to come back anytime. He’d be right there and he’d love to work for us again.
Outside the door, almost before he had closed it completely, Eric spun on me and nearly yelled, "What do you think about that? We have something?"
His excitement was contagious. I stopped walking and said, "I think we have something. What do we do first?"
Eric hurried toward our truck and opened the driver’s side. He said, "We get back to town, pack our clothes and throw them into the truck. We then head north."
I looked at my watch. "First thing in the morning would be better. A good night’s sleep, a big breakfast and we’ll be on our way. It’s too late today to make much of a dent in the trip."
I didn’t say that I wanted to talk to Sara one last time. I just couldn’t leave it the way it was now. I hadn’t talked to her since she had walked out of the restaurant several days earlier.
Eric looked as if he was going to protest the delay and then nodded. "You’re right. I’ve waited this long, spent years dreaming of this moment and I suppose one night, either way, won’t matter all that much."
We climbed into the cab of the truck and Eric started it. He slammed it into gear and backed up. He turned onto the muddy road and we rattled our way back toward Kansas City.
"Damn!" he said. "I know we’ve got something now." He glanced at me and added, "It’s the tree you know. Currents are flowing in the opposite direction. There is no way for a tree with leaves to get into the arctic ocean unless it originated farther to the north. Not to the south."
I didn’t say anything to him, but I knew he was right. I could feel something and knew that we were about to embark on a great adventure.