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Four Past Midnight
BAD NEWS FOR CAPTAIN ENGLE. THE LITTLE BLIND GIRL. THE LADY’S SCENT. THE DALTON GANG ARRIVES IN TOMBSTONE. THE STRANGE PLIGHT OF FLIGHT 29.
Brian Engle rolled the American Pride L1011 to a stop at Gate 22 and flicked off the FASTEN SEATBELT light at exactly 10:14 P.M. He let a long sigh hiss through his teeth and unfastened his shoulder harness.
He could not remember the last time he had been so relieved—and so tired—at the end of a flight. He had a nasty, pounding headache, and his plans for the evening were firmly set. No drink in the pilots’ lounge, no dinner, not even a bath when he got back to Westwood. He intended to fall into bed and sleep for fourteen hours.
American Pride’s Flight 7—Flagship Service from Tokyo to Los Angeles—had been delayed first by strong headwinds and then by typical congestion at LAX . . . which was, Engle thought, arguably America’s worst airport, if you left out Logan in Boston. To make matters worse, a pressurization problem had developed during the latter part of the flight. Minor at first, it had gradually worsened until it was scary. It had almost gotten to the point where a blowout and explosive decompression could have occurred . . . and had mercifully grown no worse. Sometimes such problems suddenly and mysteriously stabilized themselves, and that was what had happened this time. The passengers now disembarking just behind the control cabin had not the slightest idea how close they had come to being people pâté on tonight’s flight from Tokyo, but Brian knew . . . and it had given him a whammer of a headache.
“This bitch goes right into diagnostic from here,” he told his co-pilot. “They know it’s coming and what the problem is, right?”
The co-pilot nodded. “They don’t like it, but they know.”
“I don’t give a shit what they like and what they don’t like, Danny. We came close tonight.”
Danny Keene nodded. He knew they had.
Brian sighed and rubbed a hand up and down the back of his neck. His head ached like a bad tooth. “Maybe I’m getting too old for this business.”
That was, of course, the sort of thing anyone said about his job from time to time, particularly at the end of a bad shift, and Brian knew damned well he wasn’t too old for the job—at forty-three, he was just entering prime time for airline pilots. Nevertheless, tonight he almost believed it. God, he was tired.
There was a knock at the compartment door; Steve Searles, the navigator, turned in his seat and opened it without standing up. A man in a green American Pride blazer was standing there. He looked like a gate agent, but Brian knew he wasn’t. It was John (or maybe it was James) Deegan, Deputy Chief of Operations for American Pride at LAX.
“Yes?” An internal set of defenses went up, and his headache flared. His first thought, born not of logic but of strain and weariness, was that they were going to try and pin responsibility for the leaky aircraft on him. Paranoid, of course, but he was in a paranoid frame of mind.
“I’m afraid I have some bad news for you, Captain.”
“Is this about the leak?” Brian’s voice was too sharp, and a few of the disembarking passengers glanced around, but it was too late to do anything about that now.
Deegan was shaking his head. “It’s your wife, Captain Engle.”
For a moment Brian didn’t have the foggiest notion what the man was talking about and could only sit there, gaping at him and feeling exquisitely stupid. Then the penny dropped. He meant Anne, of course.
“She’s my ex-wife. We were divorced eighteen months ago. What about her?”
“There’s been an accident,” Deegan said. “Perhaps you’d better come up to the office.”
Brian looked at him curiously. After the last three long, tense hours, all of this seemed strangely unreal. He resisted an urge to tell Deegan that if this was some sort of Candid Camera bullshit, he could go fuck himself. But of course it wasn’t. Airlines brass weren’t into pranks and games, especially at the expense of pilots who had just come very close to having nasty midair mishaps.
“What about Anne?” Brian heard himself asking again, this time in a softer voice. He was aware that his co-pilot was looking at him with cautious sympathy. “Is she all right?”
Deegan looked down at his shiny shoes and Brian knew that the news was very bad indeed, that Anne was a lot more than not all right. Knew, but found it impossible to believe. Anne was only thirty-four, healthy, and careful in her habits. He had also thought on more than one occasion that she was the only completely sane driver in the city of Boston . . . perhaps in the whole state of Massachusetts.
Now he heard himself asking something else, and it was really like that—as if some stranger had stepped into his brain and was using his mouth as a loudspeaker. “Is she dead?”
John or James Deegan looked around, as if for support, but there was only a single flight attendant standing by the hatch, wishing the deplaning passengers a pleasant evening in Los Angeles and glancing anxiously toward the cockpit every now and then, probably worried about the same thing that had crossed Brian’s mind—that the crew was for some reason to be blamed for the slow leak which had made the last few hours of the flight such a nightmare. Deegan was on his own. He looked at Brian again and nodded. “Yes—I’m afraid she is. Would you come with me, Captain Engle?”
At quarter past midnight, Brian Engle was settling into seat 5A of American Pride’s Flight 29—Flagship Service from Los Angeles to Boston. In fifteen minutes or so, that flight known to transcontinental travelers as the red-eye would be airborne. He remembered thinking earlier that if LAX wasn’t the most dangerous commercial airport in America, then Logan was. Through the most unpleasant of coincidences, he would now have a chance to experience both places within an eight-hour span of time: into LAX as the pilot, into Logan as a deadheading passenger.
His headache, now a good deal worse than it had been upon landing Flight 7, stepped up another notch.
A fire, he thought. A goddamned fire. What happened to the smoke-detectors, for Christ’s sake? It was a brand-new building!
It occurred to him that he had hardly thought about Anne at all for the last four or five months. During the first year of the divorce, she was all he had thought about, it seemed—what she was doing, what she was wearing, and, of course, who she was seeing. When the healing finally began, it had happened very fast . . . as if he had been injected with some spirit-reviving antibiotic. He had read enough about divorce to know what that reviving agent usually was: not an antibiotic but another woman. The rebound effect, in other words.
There had been no other woman for Brian—at least not yet. A few dates and one cautious sexual encounter (he had come to believe that all sexual encounters outside of marriage in the Age of AIDS were cautious), but no other woman. He had simply . . . healed.
Brian watched his fellow passengers come aboard. A young woman with blonde hair was walking with a little girl in dark glasses. The little girl’s hand was on the blonde’s elbow. The woman murmured to her charge, the girl looked immediately toward the sound of her voice, and Brian understood she was blind—it was something in the gesture of the head. Funny, he thought, how such small gestures could tell so much.
Anne, he thought. Shouldn’t you be thinking about Anne?
But his tired mind kept trying to slip away from the subject of Anne—Anne, who had been his wife, Anne, who was the only woman he had ever struck in anger, Anne who was now dead.
He supposed he could go on a lecture tour; he would talk to groups of divorced men. Hell, divorced women as well, for that matter. His subject would be divorce and the art of forgetfulness.
Shortly after the fourth anniversary is the optimum time for divorce, he would tell them. Take my case. I spent the following year in purgatory, wondering just how much of it was my fault and how much was hers, wondering how right or wrong it was to keep pushing her on the subject of kids—that was the big thing with us, nothing dramatic like drugs or adultery, just the old kids-versus-career thing—and then it was like there was an express elevator inside my head, and Anne was in it, and down it went.
Yes. Down it had gone. And for the last several months, he hadn’t really thought of Anne at all . . . not even when the monthly alimony check was due. It was a very reasonable, very civilized amount; Anne had been making eighty thousand a year on her own before taxes. His lawyer paid it, and it was just another item on the monthly statement Brian got, a little two-thousand-dollar item tucked between the electricity bill and the mortgage payment on the condo.
He watched a gangly teenaged boy with a violin case under his arm and a yarmulke on his head walk down the aisle. The boy looked both nervous and excited, his eyes full of the future. Brian envied him.
There had been a lot of bitterness and anger between the two of them during the last year of the marriage, and finally, about four months before the end, it had happened: his hand had said go before his brain could say no. He didn’t like to remember that. She’d had too much to drink at a party, and she had really torn into him when they got home.
Leave me alone about it, Brian. Just leave me alone. No more talk about kids. If you want a sperm-test, go to a doctor. My job is advertising, not baby-making. I’m so tired of all your macho bullshit—
That was when he had slapped her, hard, across the mouth. The blow had clipped the last word off with brutal neatness. They had stood looking at each other in the apartment where she would later die, both of them more shocked and frightened than they would ever admit (except maybe now, sitting here in seat 5A and watching Flight 29’s passengers come on board, he was admitting it, finally admitting it to himself ). She had touched her mouth, which had started to bleed. She held out her fingers toward him.
You hit me, she said. It was not anger in her voice but wonder. He had an idea it might have been the first time anyone had ever laid an angry hand upon any part of Anne Quinlan Engle’s body.
Yes, he had said. You bet. And I’ll do it again if you don’t shut up. You’re not going to whip me with that tongue of yours anymore, sweetheart. You better put a padlock on it. I’m telling you for your own good. Those days are over. If you want something to kick around the house, buy a dog.
The marriage had crutched along for another few months, but it had really ended in that moment when Brian’s palm made brisk contact with the side of Anne’s mouth. He had been provoked—God knew he had been provoked—but he still would have given a great deal to take that one wretched second back.
As the last passengers began to trickle on board, he found himself also thinking, almost obsessively, about Anne’s perfume. He could recall its fragrance exactly, but not the name. What had it been? Lissome? Lithesome? Lithium, for God’s sake? It danced just beyond his grasp. It was maddening.
I miss her, he thought dully. Now that she’s gone forever, I miss her. Isn’t that amazing?
Lawnboy? Something stupid like that?
Oh stop it, he told his weary mind. Put a cork in it.
Okay, his mind agreed. No problem; I can quit. I can quit anytime I want. Was it maybe Lifebuoy? No—that’s soap. Sorry. Lovebite? Lovelorn?
Brian snapped his seatbelt shut, leaned back, closed his eyes, and smelled a perfume he could not quite name.
That was when the flight attendant spoke to him. Of course: Brian Engle had a theory that they were taught—in a highly secret post-graduate course, perhaps called Teasing the Geese—to wait until the passenger closed his or her eyes before offering some not-quite-essential service. And, of course, they were to wait until they were reasonably sure the passenger was asleep before waking him to ask if he would like a blanket or a pillow.
“Pardon me . . .” she began, then stopped. Brian saw her eyes go from the epaulets on the shoulders of his black jacket to the hat, with its meaningless squiggle of scrambled eggs, on the empty seat beside him.
She rethought herself and started again.
“Pardon me, Captain, would you like coffee or orange juice?” Brian was faintly amused to see he had flustered her a little. She gestured toward the table at the front of the compartment, just below the small rectangular movie screen. There were two ice-buckets on the table. The slender green neck of a wine bottle poked out of each. “Of course, I also have champagne.”
(Love Boy that’s not it close but no cigar)
the champagne, but only briefly. “Nothing, thanks,” he said. “And no in-flight service. I think I’ll sleep all the way to Boston. How’s the weather look?”
“Clouds at 20,000 feet from the Great Plains all the way to Boston, but no problem. We’ll be at thirty-six. Oh, and we’ve had reports of the aurora borealis over the Mojave Desert. You might want to stay awake for that.”
Brian raised his eyebrows. “You’re kidding. The aurora borealis over California? And at this time of year?”
“That’s what we’ve been told.”
“Somebody’s been taking too many cheap drugs,” Brian said, and she laughed. “I think I’ll just snooze, thanks.”
“Very good, Captain.” She hesitated a moment longer. “You’re the captain who just lost his wife, aren’t you?”
The headache pulsed and snarled, but he made himself smile. This woman—who was really no more than a girl—meant no harm. “She was my ex-wife, but otherwise, yes. I am.”
“I’m awfully sorry for your loss.”
“Have I flown with you before, sir?”
His smile reappeared briefly. “I don’t think so. I’ve been on overseas for the past four years or so.” And because it seemed somehow necessary, he offered his hand. “Brian Engle.”
She took it. “Melanie Trevor.”
Engle smiled at her again, then leaned back and closed his eyes once more. He let himself drift, but not sleep—the preflight announcements, followed by the take-off roll, would only wake him up again. There would be time enough to sleep when they were in the air.
Flight 29, like most red-eye flights, left promptly—Brian reflected that was high on their meager list of attractions. The plane was a 767, a little over half full. There were half a dozen other passengers in first class. None of them looked drunk or rowdy to Brian. That was good. Maybe he really would sleep all the way to Boston.
He watched Melanie Trevor patiently as she pointed out the exit doors, demonstrated how to use the little gold cup if there was a pressure loss (a procedure Brian had been reviewing in his own mind, and with some urgency, not long ago), and how to inflate the life vest under the seat. When the plane was airborne, she came by his seat and asked him again if she could get him something to drink. Brian shook his head, thanked her, then pushed the button which caused his seat to recline. He closed his eyes and promptly fell asleep.
He never saw Melanie Trevor again.
About three hours after Flight 29 took off, a little girl named Dinah Bellman woke up and asked her Aunt Vicky if she could have a drink of water.
Aunt Vicky did not answer, so Dinah asked again. When there was still no answer, she reached over to touch her aunt’s shoulder, but she was already quite sure that her hand would touch nothing but the back of an empty seat, and that was what happened. Dr. Feldman had told her that children who were blind from birth often developed a high sensitivity—almost a kind of radar—to the presence or absence of people in their immediate area, but Dinah hadn’t really needed the information. She knew it was true. It didn’t always work, but it usually did . . . especially if the person in question was her Sighted Person.
Well, she’s gone to the bathroom and she’ll be right back, Dinah thought, but she felt an odd, vague disquiet settle over her just the same. She hadn’t come awake all at once; it had been a slow process, like a diver kicking her way to the surface of a lake. If Aunt Vicky, who had the window seat, had brushed by her to get to the aisle in the last two or three minutes, Dinah should have felt her.
So she went sooner, she told herself. Probably she had to Number Two—it’s really no big deal, Dinah. Or maybe she stopped to talk with somebody on her way back.
Except Dinah couldn’t hear anyone talking in the big airplane’s main cabin; only the steady soft drone of the jet engines. Her feeling of disquiet grew.
The voice of Miss Lee, her therapist (except Dinah always thought of her as her blind teacher), spoke up in her head: You mustn’t be afraid to be afraid, Dinah—all children are afraid from time to time, especially in situations that are new to them. That goes double for children who are blind. Believe me, I know. And Dinah did believe her, because, like Dinah herself, Miss Lee had been blind since birth. Don’t give up your fear . . . but don’t give in to it, either. Sit still and try to reason things out. You’ll be surprised how often it works.
Especially in situations that are new to them.
Well, that certainly fit; this was the first time Dinah had ever flown in anything, let alone coast to coast in a huge transcontinental jetliner.
Try to reason it out.
Well, she had awakened in a strange place to find her Sighted Person gone. Of course that was scary, even if you knew the absence was only temporary—after all, your Sighted Person couldn’t very well decide to pop off to the nearest Taco Bell because she had the munchies when she was shut up in an airplane flying at 37,000 feet. As for the strange silence in the cabin . . . well, this was the red-eye, after all. The other passengers were probably sleeping.
All of them? the worried part of her mind asked doubtfully. ALL of them are sleeping? Can that be?
Then the answer came to her: the movie. The ones who were awake were watching the in-flight movie. Of course.
A sense of almost palpable relief swept over her. Aunt Vicky had told her the movie was Billy Crystal and Meg Ryan in When Harry Met Sally . . . , and said she planned to watch it herself . . . if she could stay awake, that was.
Dinah ran her hand lightly over her aunt’s seat, feeling for her headphones, but they weren’t there. Her fingers touched a paperback book instead. One of the romance novels Aunt Vicky liked to read, no doubt—tales of the days when men were men and women weren’t, she called them.
Dinah’s fingers went a little further and happened on something else—smooth, fine-grained leather. A moment later she felt a zipper, and a moment after that she felt the strap.
It was Aunt Vicky’s purse.
Dinah’s disquiet returned. The earphones weren’t on Aunt Vicky’s seat, but her purse was. All the traveller’s checks, except for a twenty tucked deep into Dinah’s own purse, were in there—Dinah knew, because she had heard Mom and Aunt Vicky discussing them before they left the house in Pasadena.
Would Aunt Vicky go off to the bathroom and leave her purse on the seat? Would she do that when her travelling companion was not only ten, not only asleep, but blind ?
Dinah didn’t think so.
Don’t give up your fear . . . but don’t give in to it, either. Sit still and try to reason things out.
But she didn’t like that empty seat, and she didn’t like the silence of the plane. It made perfect sense to her that most of the people would be asleep, and that the ones who were awake would be keeping as quiet as possible out of consideration for the rest, but she still didn’t like it. An animal, one with extremely sharp teeth and claws, awakened and started to snarl inside of her head. She knew the name of that animal; it was panic, and if she didn’t control it fast, she might do something which would embarrass both her and Aunt Vicky.
When I can see, when the doctors in Boston fix my eyes, I won’t have to go through stupid stuff like this.
This was undoubtedly true, but it was absolutely no help to her right now.
Dinah suddenly remembered that, after they sat down, Aunt Vicky had taken her hand, folded all the fingers but the pointer under, and then guided that one finger to the side of her seat. The controls were there—only a few of them, simple, easy to remember. There were two little wheels you could use once you put on the headphones—one switched around to the different audio channels; the other controlled the volume. The small rectangular switch controlled the light over her seat. You won’t need that one, Aunt Vicky said with a smile in her voice. At least, not yet. The last one was a square button—when you pushed that one, a flight attendant came.
Dinah’s finger touched this button now, and skated over its slightly convex surface.
Do you really want to do this? she asked herself, and the answer came back at once. Yeah, I do.
She pushed the button and heard the soft chime. Then she waited.
No one came.
There was only the soft, seemingly eternal whisper of the jet engines. No one spoke. No one laughed (Guess that movie isn’t as funny as Aunt Vicky thought it would be, Dinah thought). No one coughed. The seat beside her, Aunt Vicky’s seat, was still empty, and no flight attendant bent over her in a comforting little envelope of perfume and shampoo and faint smells of make-up to ask Dinah if she could get her something—a snack, or maybe that drink of water.
Only the steady soft drone of the jet engines.
The panic animal was yammering louder than ever. To combat it, Dinah concentrated on focussing that radar gadget, making it into a kind of invisible cane she could jab out from her seat here in the middle of the main cabin. She was good at that; at times, when she concentrated very hard, she almost believed she could see through the eyes of others. If she thought about it hard enough, wanted to hard enough. Once she had told Miss Lee about this feeling, and Miss Lee’s response had been uncharacteristically sharp. Sight-sharing is a frequent fantasy of the blind, she’d said. Particularly of blind children. Don’t ever make the mistake of relying on that feeling, Dinah, or you’re apt to find yourself in traction after falling down a flight of stairs or stepping in front of a car.
So she had put aside her efforts to “sight-share,” as Miss Lee had called it, and on the few occasions when the sensation stole over her again—that she was seeing the world, shadowy, wavery, but there—through her mother’s eyes or Aunt Vicky’s eyes, she had tried to get rid of it . . . as a person who fears he is losing his mind will try to block out the murmur of phantom voices. But now she was afraid and so she felt for others, sensed for others, and did not find them.
Now the terror was very large in her, the yammering of the panic animal very loud. She felt a cry building up in her throat and clamped her teeth against it. Because it would not come out as a cry, or a yell; if she let it out, it would exit her mouth as a fireball scream.
I won’t scream, she told herself fiercely. I won’t scream and embarrass Aunt Vicky. I won’t scream and wake up all the ones who are asleep and scare all the ones who are awake and they’ll all come running and say look at the scared little girl, look at the scared little blind girl.
But now that radar sense—that part of her which evaluated all sorts of vague sensory input and which sometimes did seem to see through the eyes of others (no matter what Miss Lee said)—was adding to her fear rather than alleviating it.
Because that sense was telling her there was nobody within its circle of effectiveness.
Nobody at all.
Brian Engle was having a very bad dream. In it, he was once again piloting Flight 7 from Tokyo to L.A., but this time the leak was much worse. There was a palpable feeling of doom in the cockpit; Steve Searles was weeping as he ate a Danish pastry.
If you’re so upset, how come you’re eating? Brian asked. A shrill, teakettle whistling had begun to fill the cockpit—the sound of the pressure leak, he reckoned. This was silly, of course—leaks were almost always silent until the blowout occurred—but he supposed in dreams anything was possible.
Because I love these things, and I’m never going to get to eat another one, Steve said, sobbing harder than ever.
Then, suddenly, the shrill whistling sound stopped. A smiling, relieved flight attendant—it was, in fact, Melanie Trevor—appeared to tell him the leak had been found and plugged. Brian got up and followed her through the plane to the main cabin, where Anne Quinlan Engle, his ex-wife, was standing in a little alcove from which the seats had been removed. Written over the window beside her was the cryptic and somehow ominous phrase SHOOTING STARS ONLY. It was written in red, the color of danger.
Anne was dressed in the dark-green uniform of an American Pride flight attendant, which was strange—she was an advertising executive with a Boston agency, and had always looked down her narrow, aristocratic nose at the stews with whom her husband flew. Her hand was pressed against a crack in the fuselage.
See, darling? she said proudly. It’s all taken care of. It doesn’t even matter that you hit me. I have forgiven you.
Don’t do that, Anne! he cried, but it was already too late. A fold appeared in the back of her hand, mimicking the shape of the crack in the fuselage. It grew deeper as the pressure differential sucked her hand relentlessly outward. Her middle finger went through first, then the ring finger, then the first finger and her pinky. There was a brisk popping sound, like a champagne cork being drawn by an overeager waiter, as her entire hand was pulled through the crack in the airplane.
Yet Anne went on smiling.
It’s L’Envoi, darling, she said as her arm began to disappear. Her hair was escaping the clip which held it back and blowing around her face in a misty cloud. It’s what I’ve always worn, don’t you remember?
He did . . . now he did. But now it didn’t matter.
Anne, come back! he screamed.
She went on smiling as her arm was sucked slowly into the emptiness outside the plane. It doesn’t hurt at all, Brian—believe me.
The sleeve of her green American Pride blazer began to flutter, and Brian saw that her flesh was being pulled out through the crack in a thickish white ooze. It looked like Elmer’s Glue.
L’Envoi, remember? Anne asked as she was sucked out through the crack, and now Brian could hear it again—that sound which the poet James Dickey once called “the vast beast-whistle of space.” It grew steadily louder as the dream darkened, and at the same time it began to broaden. To become not the scream of wind but that of a human voice.
Brian’s eyes snapped open. He was disoriented by the power of the dream for a moment, but only a moment—he was a professional in a high-risk, high-responsibility job, a job where one of the absolute prerequisites was fast reaction time. He was on Flight 29, not Flight 7, not Tokyo to Los Angeles but Los Angeles to Boston, where Anne was already dead—not the victim of a pressure leak but of a fire in her Atlantic Avenue condominium near the waterfront. But the sound was still there.
It was a little girl, screaming shrilly.
“Would somebody speak to me, please?” Dinah Bellman asked in a low, clear voice. “I’m sorry, but my aunt is gone and I’m blind.”
No one answered her. Forty rows and two partitions forward, Captain Brian Engle was dreaming that his navigator was weeping and eating a Danish pastry.
There was only the continuing drone of the jet engines.
The panic overshadowed her mind again, and Dinah did the only thing she could think of to stave it off: she unbuckled her seatbelt, stood up, and edged into the aisle.
“Hello?” she asked in a louder voice. “Hello, anybody!”
There was still no answer. Dinah began to cry. She held onto herself grimly, nonetheless, and began walking forward slowly along the portside aisle. Keep count, though, part of her mind warned frantically. Keep count of how many rows you pass, or you’ll get lost and never find your way back again.
She stopped at the row of portside seats just ahead of the row in which she and Aunt Vicky had been sitting and bent, arms outstretched, fingers splayed. She was steeled to touch the sleeping face of the man sitting there. She knew there was a man here, because Aunt Vicky had spoken to him only a minute or so before the plane took off. When he spoke back to her, his voice had come from the seat directly in front of Dinah’s own. She knew that; marking the locations of voices was part of her life, an ordinary fact of existence like breathing. The sleeping man would jump when her outstretched fingers touched him, but Dinah was beyond caring.
Except the seat was empty.
Dinah straightened up again, her cheeks wet, her head pounding with fright. They couldn’t be in the bathroom together, could they? Of course not.
Perhaps there were two bathrooms. In a plane this big there must be two bathrooms.
Except that didn’t matter, either.
Aunt Vicky wouldn’t have left her purse, no matter what. Dinah was sure of it.
She began to walk slowly forward, stopping at each row of seats, reaching into the two closest her—first on the port side and then on the starboard.
She felt another purse in one, what felt like a briefcase in another, a pen and a pad of paper in a third. In two others she felt headphones. She touched something sticky on an earpiece of the second set. She rubbed her fingers together, then grimaced and wiped them on the mat which covered the headrest of the seat. That had been earwax. She was sure of it. It had its own unmistakable, yucky texture.
Dinah Bellman felt her slow way up the aisle, no longer taking pains to be gentle in her investigations. It didn’t matter. She poked no eye, pinched no cheek, pulled no hair.
Every seat she investigated was empty.
This can’t be, she thought wildly. It just can’t be! They were all around us when we got on! I heard them! I felt them! I smelled them! Where have they all gone?
She didn’t know, but they were gone: she was becoming steadily more sure of that.
At some point, while she slept, her aunt and everyone else on Flight 29 had disappeared.
No! The rational part of her mind clamored in the voice of Miss Lee. No, that’s impossible, Dinah! If everyone’s gone, who is flying the plane?
She began to move forward faster now, hands gripping the edges of the seats, her blind eyes wide open behind her dark glasses, the hem of her pink travelling dress fluttering. She had lost count, but in her greater distress over the continuing silence, this did not matter much to her.
She stopped again, and reached her groping hands into the seat on her right. This time she touched hair . . . but its location was all wrong. The hair was on the seat—how could that be?
Her hands closed around it . . . and lifted it. Realization, sudden and terrible, came to her.
It’s hair, but the man it belongs to is gone. It’s a scalp. I’m holding a dead man’s scalp.
That was when Dinah Bellman opened her mouth and began to give voice to the shrieks which pulled Brian Engle from his dream.
Albert Kaussner was belly up to the bar, drinking Branding Iron Whiskey. The Earp brothers, Wyatt and Virgil, were on his right, and Doc Holliday was on his left. He was just lifting his glass to offer a toast when a man with a peg leg ran-hopped into the Sergio Leone Saloon.
“It’s the Dalton Gang!” he screamed. “The Daltons have just rid into Dodge!”
Wyatt turned to face him calmly. His face was narrow, tanned, and handsome. He looked a great deal like Hugh O’Brian. “This here is Tombstone, Muffin,” he said. “You got to get yore stinky ole shit together.”
“Well, they’re ridin in, wherever we are!” Muffin exclaimed. “And they look maaad, Wyatt! They look reeely reeely maaaaaaad !”
As if to prove this, guns began to fire in the street outside—the heavy thunder of Army .44s (probably stolen) mixed in with the higher whipcrack explosions of Garand rifles.
“Don’t get your panties all up in a bunch, Muffy,” Doc Holliday said, and tipped his hat back. Albert was not terribly surprised to see that Doc looked like Robert De Niro. He had always believed that if anyone was absolutely right to play the consumptive dentist, De Niro was the one.
“What do you say, boys?” Virgil Earp asked, looking around. Virgil didn’t look like much of anyone.
“Let’s go,” Wyatt said. “I’ve had enough of these damned Clantons to last me a lifetime.”
“It’s the Daltons, Wyatt,” Albert said quietly.
“I don’t care if it’s John Dillinger and Pretty Boy Floyd!” Wyatt exclaimed. “Are you with us or not, Ace?”
“I’m with you,” Albert Kaussner said, speaking in the soft but menacing tones of the born killer. He dropped one hand to the butt of his long-barrelled Buntline Special and put the other to his head for a moment to make sure his yarmulke was on solidly. It was.
“Okay, boys,” Doc said. “Let’s go cut some Dalton butt.”
They strode out together, four abreast through the batwing doors, just as the bell in the Tombstone Baptist Church began to toll high noon.
The Daltons were coming down Main Street at a full gallop, shooting holes in plate-glass windows and false fronts. They turned the waterbarrel in front of Duke’s Mercantile and Reliable Gun Repair into a fountain.
Ike Dalton was the first to see the four men standing in the dusty street, their frock coats pulled back to free the handles of their guns. Ike reined his horse in savagely and it rose on its rear legs, squealing, foam splattering in thick curds around the bit. Ike Dalton looked quite a bit like Rutger Hauer.
“Look what we have got here,” he sneered. “It is Wyatt Earp and his pansy brother, Virgil.”
Emmett Dalton (who looked like Donald Sutherland after a month of hard nights) pulled up beside Ike. “And their faggot dentist friend, too,” he snarled. “Who else wants—” Then he looked at Albert and paled. The thin sneer faltered on his lips.
Paw Dalton pulled up beside his two sons. Paw bore a strong resemblance to Slim Pickens.
“Christ,” Paw whispered. “It’s Ace Kaussner!”
Now Frank James pulled his mount into line next to Paw. His face was the color of dirty parchment. “What the hell, boys!” Frank cried. “I don’t mind hoorawin a town or two on a dull day, but nobody told me The Arizona Jew was gonna be here!”
Albert “Ace” Kaussner, known from Sedalia to Steamboat Springs as The Arizona Jew, took a step forward. His hand hovered over the butt of his Buntline. He spat a stream of tobacco to one side, never taking his chilly gray eyes from the hardcases mounted twenty feet in front of him.
“Go on and make your moves, boys,” said The Arizona Jew. “By my count, hell ain’t half full.”
The Dalton Gang slapped leather just as the clock in the tower of the Tombstone Baptist Church beat the last stroke of noon into the hot desert air. Ace went for his own gun, his draw as fast as blue blazes, and as he began to fan the hammer with the flat of his left hand, sending a spray of .45-caliber death into the Dalton Gang, a little girl standing outside The Longhorn Hotel began to scream.
Somebody make that brat stop yowling, Ace thought. What’s the matter with her, anyway? I got this under control. They don’t call me the fastest Hebrew west of the Mississippi for nothing.
But the scream went on, ripping across the air, darkening it as it came, and everything began to break up.
For a moment Albert was nowhere at all—lost in a darkness through which fragments of his dream tumbled and spun in a whirlpool. The only constant was that terrible scream; it sounded like the shriek of an overloaded teakettle.
He opened his eyes and looked around. He was in his seat toward the front of Flight 29’s main cabin. Coming up the aisle from the rear of the plane was a girl of about ten or twelve, wearing a pink dress and a pair of ditty-bop shades.
What is she, a movie star or something? he thought, but he was badly frightened, all the same. It was a bad way to exit his favorite dream.
“Hey!” he cried—but softly, so as not to wake the other passengers. “Hey, kid! What’s the deal?”
The little girl whiplashed her head toward the sound of his voice. Her body turned a moment later, and she collided with one of the seats which ran down the center of the cabin in four-across rows. She struck it with her thighs, rebounded, and tumbled backward over the armrest of a portside seat. She fell into it with her legs up.
“Where is everybody?” she was screaming. “Help me! Help me!”
“Hey, stewardess!” Albert yelled, concerned, and unbuckled his seatbelt. He stood up, slipped out of his seat, turned toward the screaming little girl . . . and stopped. He was now facing fully toward the back of the plane, and what he saw froze him in place.
The first thought to cross his mind was, I guess I don’t have to worry about waking up the other passengers, after all.
To Albert it looked like the entire main cabin of the 767 was empty.
Brian Engle was almost to the partition separating Flight 29’s first-class and business-class sections when he realized that first class was now entirely empty. He stopped for just a moment, then got moving again. The others had left their seats to see what all the screaming was about, perhaps.
Of course he knew this was not the case; he had been flying passengers long enough to know a good bit about their group psychology. When a passenger freaked out, few if any of the others ever moved. Most air travellers meekly surrendered their option to take individual action when they entered the bird, sat down, and buckled their seatbelts around them. Once those few simple things were accomplished, all problem-solving tasks became the crew’s responsibility. Airline personnel called them geese, but they were really sheep . . . an attitude most flight crews liked just fine. It made the nervous ones easier to handle.
But, since it was the only thing that made even remote sense, Brian ignored what he knew and plunged on. The rags of his own dream were still wrapped around him, and a part of his mind was convinced that it was Anne who was screaming, that he would find her halfway down the main cabin with her hand plastered against a crack in the body of the airliner, a crack located beneath a sign which read SHOOTING STARS ONLY.
There was only one passenger in the business section, an older man in a brown three-piece suit. His bald head gleamed mellowly in the glow thrown by his reading lamp. His arthritis-swollen hands were folded neatly over the buckle of his seatbelt. He was fast asleep and snoring loudly, ignoring the whole ruckus.
Brian burst through into the main cabin and there his forward motion was finally checked by utter stunned disbelief. He saw a teenaged boy standing near a little girl who had fallen into a seat on the port side about a quarter of the way down the cabin. The boy was not looking at her, however; he was staring toward the rear of the plane, with his jaw hanging almost all the way to the round collar of his Hard Rock Cafe tee-shirt.
Brian’s first reaction was about the same as Albert Kaussner’s: My God, the whole plane is empty!
Then he saw a woman on the starboard side of the airplane stand up and walk into the aisle to see what was happening. She had the dazed, puffy look of someone who has just been jerked out of a sound sleep. Halfway down, in the center aisle, a young man in a crew-necked jersey was craning his neck toward the little girl and staring with flat, incurious eyes. Another man, this one about sixty, got up from a seat close to Brian and stood there indecisively. He was dressed in a red flannel shirt and he looked utterly bewildered. His hair was fluffed up around his head in untidy mad-scientist corkscrews.
“Who’s screaming?” he asked Brian. “Is the plane in trouble, mister? You don’t think we’re goin down, do you?”
The little girl stopped screaming. She struggled up from the seat she had fallen into, and then almost tumbled forward in the other direction. The kid caught her just in time; he was moving with dazed slowness.
Where have they gone? Brian thought. My dear God, where have they all gone?
But his feet were moving toward the teenager and the little girl now. As he went, he passed another passenger who was still sleeping, this one a girl of about seventeen. Her mouth was open in an unlovely yawp and she was breathing in long, dry inhalations.
He reached the teenager and the girl with the pink dress.
“Where are they, man?” Albert Kaussner asked. He had an arm around the shoulders of the sobbing child, but he wasn’t looking at her; his eyes slipped relentlessly back and forth across the almost deserted main cabin. “Did we land someplace while I was asleep and let them off ?”
“My aunt’s gone!” the little girl sobbed. “My Aunt Vicky! I thought the plane was empty! I thought I was the only one! Where’s my aunt, please? I want my aunt!”
Brian knelt beside her for a moment, so they were at approximately the same level. He noticed the sunglasses and remembered seeing her get on with the blonde woman.
“You’re all right,” he said. “You’re all right, young lady. What’s your name?”
“Dinah,” she sobbed. “I can’t find my aunt. I’m blind and I can’t see her. I woke up and the seat was empty—”
“What’s going on?” the young man in the crew-neck jersey asked. He was talking over Brian’s head, ignoring both Brian and Dinah, speaking to the boy in the Hard Rock tee-shirt and the older man in the flannel shirt. “Where’s everybody else?”
“You’re all right, Dinah,” Brian repeated. “There are other people here. Can you hear them?”
“Y-yes. I can hear them. But where’s Aunt Vicky? And who’s been killed?”
“Killed?” a woman asked sharply. It was the one from the starboard side. Brian glanced up briefly and saw she was young, dark-haired, pretty. “Has someone been killed? Have we been hijacked?”
“No one’s been killed,” Brian said. It was, at least, something to say. His mind felt weird: like a boat which has slipped its moorings. “Calm down, honey.”
“I felt his hair!” Dinah insisted. “Someone cut off his HAIR!”
This was just too odd to deal with on top of everything else, and Brian dismissed it. Dinah’s earlier thought suddenly struck home to him with chilly intensity—who the fuck was flying the plane?
He stood up and turned to the older man in the red shirt. “I have to go forward,” he said. “Stay with the little girl.”
“All right,” the man in the red shirt said. “But what’s happening?”
They were joined by a man of about thirty-five who was wearing pressed blue-jeans and an oxford shirt. Unlike the others, he looked utterly calm. He took a pair of horn-rimmed spectacles from his pocket, shook them out by one bow, and put them on. “We seem a few passengers short, don’t we?” he said. His British accent was almost as crisp as his shirt. “What about crew? Anybody know?”
“That’s what I’m going to find out,” Brian said, and started forward again. At the head of the main cabin he turned back and counted quickly. Two more passengers had joined the huddle around the girl in the dark glasses. One was the teenaged girl who had been sleeping so heavily; she swayed on her feet as if she were either drunk or stoned. The other was an elderly gent in a fraying sport-coat. Eight people in all. To those he added himself and the guy in business class, who was, at least so far, sleeping through it all.
For the love of God, where are the rest of them?
But this was not the time to worry about it—there were bigger problems at hand. Brian hurried forward, barely glancing at the old bald fellow snoozing in business class.
The service area squeezed behind the movie screen and between the two first-class heads was empty. So was the galley, but there Brian saw something which was extremely troubling: the beverage trolley was parked kitty-corner by the starboard bathroom. There were a number of used glasses on its bottom shelf.
They were just getting ready to serve drinks, he thought. When it happened—whatever “it” was—they’d just taken out the trolley. Those used glasses are the ones that were collected before the roll-out. So whatever happened must have happened within half an hour of take-off, maybe a little longer—weren’t there turbulence reports over the desert? I think so. And that weird shit about the aurora borealis—
For a moment Brian was almost convinced that last was a part of his dream—it was certainly odd enough—but further reflection convinced him that Melanie Trevor, the flight attendant, had actually said it.
Never mind that; what did happen? In God’s name, what?
He didn’t know, but he did know that looking at the abandoned drinks trolley put an enormous feeling of terror and superstitious dread into his guts. For just a moment he thought that this was what the first boarders of the Mary Celeste must have felt like, coming upon a totally abandoned ship where all the sail was neatly laid on, where the captain’s table had been set for dinner, where all ropes were neatly coiled and some sailor’s pipe was still smoldering away the last of its tobacco on the foredeck . . .
Brian shook these paralyzing thoughts off with a tremendous effort and went to the door between the service area and the cockpit. He knocked. As he had feared, there was no response. And although he knew it was useless to do so, he curled his fist up and hammered on it.
He tried the doorknob. It didn’t move. That was SOP in the age of unscheduled side-trips to Havana, Lebanon, and Tehran. Only the pilots could open it. Brian could fly this plane . . . but not from out here.
“Hey!” he shouted. “Hey, you guys! Open the door!”
Except he knew better. The flight attendants were gone; almost all the passengers were gone; Brian Engle was willing to bet the 767’s two-man cockpit crew was also gone.
He believed Flight 29 was heading east on automatic pilot.