Authors: Arthur Hailey
Tags: #Mystery, #Suspense, #Thriller, #Crime, #Adult, #Adventure, #Contemporary
The Air Canada jet he was to follow had cleared the terminal and was increasing taxi speed. Mel accelerated to keep up. It was reassuring–with windshield wipers barely coping with the snow–to have the DC-9’s taillight as a reference point ahead. Through the rear mirror he could make out the shape of another, larger jet now following. On radio, the ground controller cautioned, “Air France four-o-four, there is an airport ground vehicle between you and Air Canada.”
It took a quarter of an hour to reach the intersection where runway three zero was blocked by the Aéreo-Mexican 707. Before then, Mel had separated from the stream of taxiing aircraft which were destined for takeoff on the two other active runways.
He stopped the car and got out. In the dark and loneliness out here, the storm seemed even more wintry and violent than nearer the terminal. The wind howled across the deserted runway. If wolves appeared tonight, Mel thought, it would not be surprising.
A shadowy figure hailed him. “Is that Mr. Patroni?”
“No, it isn’t.” Mel found that he, too, had to shout to make himself heard above the wind. “But Joe Patroni’s on the way.”
The other man came closer. He was huddled into a parka, his face blue with cold. “When he gets here, we’ll be glad to see him. Though I’m damned if I know what Patroni’ll do. We’ve tried about everything to get this bastard out.” He gestured to the airplane looming, shadowy, behind them. “She’s stuck, but good.”
Mel identified himself, then asked, “Who are you?”
“Ingram, sir. Aéreo-Mexican maintenance foreman. Right now, I wish I had some other job.”
As the two men talked, they moved nearer to the stalled Boeing 707, instinctively seeking shelter under the wings and fuselage, high above them. Under the big jet’s belly, a red hazard light winked rhythmically, In its reflection Mel could see the mud beneath snow in which the aircraft’s wheels were deeply mired. On the runway and adjoining taxiway, clustered like anxious relatives, were a profusion of trucks and service vehicles, including a fuel tanker, baggage tenders, a post office van, two crew buses, and a roaring power cart.
Mel pulled the collar of his topcoat tightly around him. “We need this runway urgently–tonight. What have you done so far?”
In the past two hours, Ingram reported, old-fashioned boarding ramps had been trundled from the terminal, manhandled to the aircraft, and passengers guided down them. It bad been a slow, tricky job because steps were icing as fast as they were cleared. An elderly woman had been carried down by two mechanics. Babies were passed from hand to hand in blankets. Now, all passengers were gone–in buses, along with the stewardesses and the second officer. The captain and first officer remained.
“Since the passengers left–have you tried to get the airplane moving?”
The foreman nodded affirmatively. “Had the engines running twice. The captain’s put on all the power he dare. But she won’t come free. Just seems to dig herself in deeper.”
“What’s happening now?”
“We’re taking off more weight, hoping that’ll help.” Most of the fuel, Ingram added, had been sucked out by tankers–a heavy load since tanks were full for takeoff. Baggage and freight compartments in the belly had been emptied. A post office truck was retrieving mailbags.
Mel nodded. The mail, he knew, would have come off anyway. The airport post office kept a minute-to-minute watch on airline schedules. They knew exactly where their mailbags were and, if delays occurred, postal employees quickly switched mail from one airline to another. Mail from the stranded jet, in fact, would fare better than passengers. In half an hour at most, it would be on its way by another flight, if necessary on an alternate route.
Mel asked, “Have you all the help you need?”
“Yes. sir–for all we can do now. I’ve got most of our crew from Aéreo-Mexican here–a dozen men. Right now, half of ‘em are thawing out in one of the buses. Patroni may want more people, depending on what his ideas are.” Ingram turned, surveying the silent aircraft gloomily. “But if you ask me, it’s going to be a long job. and we’ll need heavy cranes, jacks, and maybe pneumatic bags to lift the wings. For most of those, we’d have to wait until daylight. The whole thing could take most of tomorrow.”
Mel said sharply, “It can’t take most of tomorrow, or even tonight. This runway has to be cleared…” He stopped abruptly, shivering with a suddenness which startled him. The intensity was unexpected, almost eerie.
Mel shivered again. What was it? He assured himself: the weather–the fierce, harsh wind across the airport, driving the whirling snow. Yet, strangely, since leaving the car until this moment, his body had adjusted to the cold.
From the opposite side of the airfield, above the wind, he could hear the thunder of jet engines. They rose to a crescendo, then diminished as a flight took off. Another followed, and another. Over there, all was well.
It was true, wasn’t it?–for the briefest instant he had had a premonition. A hint, no more; an intuition; the smell of greater trouble brewing. He should ignore it, of course; impulse, premonitions, had no place in pragmatic manaQement. Except that once, long aqo, he had had the selfsame feeling–a conviction of events accumulating, and progressing to some disastrous, unenvisaged end. Met remembered the end, which he had been unable to avert… entirely.
He glanced at the 707 again. It was snow-covered now, its outline blurring. Commonsense told him: apart from the runway blockage and the inconvenience of takeoffs over Meadowood, the situation was harmless. There had been a mishap, with no injuries, no apparent damage. Nothing more.
“Let’s go to my car,” he told the Aéreo-Mexican foreman. “We’ll get on the radio and find out what’s happening.”
On the way, he reminded himself that Cindy would shortly be waiting impatiently downtown.
Mel had left the car heater turned on, and inside the car it was comfortingly warm. Ingram grunted appreciatively. He loosened his coat and bent forward to hold his hands in the stream of warm air.
Mel switched the radio to the frequency of airport maintenance.
“Mobile one to Snow Desk. Danny, I’m at the blocked intersection of three zero. Call TWA maintenance and check on Joe Patroni. Where is he? When coming? Over.”
Danny Farrow’s voice crisped back through the speaker on the dash. “Snow Desk to mobile one. Wilco. And, Mel, your wife called.”
Mel pressed the mike button. “Did she leave a number?”
“Mobile one to Snow Desk. Please call her, Danny. Tell her I’m sorry, I’ll be a little late. But check on Patroni first.”
“Understood. Stand by.” The radio went silent.
Mel reached inside his topcoat for a pack of Marlboros. He offered them to Ingram.
They lit up, watching the windshield wipers slap back and forth.
Ingram nodded toward the lighted cockpit of the Aéreo-Mexican jet. “Up there, that son-of-a-bitch of a captain is probably crying into his sombrero. Next time, he’ll watch blue taxi lights like they was altar candles.”
Mel asked, “Are your ground crews Mexicans or American?”
“We’re all American. Only meatheads like us would work in this lousy weather. Know where that flight was going?”
Mel shook his head.
“Acapulco. Before this happened, I’d have given up six months’ screwing to be on it.” The foreman chuckled. “Can you imagine, though–getting aboard, and your ass all settled, then having to get off in this. You should have heard the passengers cursing, especially the women. I learned some new words tonight.”
The radio came alive again.
“Snow Desk to mobile one,” Danny Farrow said. “I talked with TWA about Joe Patroni. They’ve heard from him, but he’s held up in traffic. He’ll be another hour, at least. He sent a message. You read me so far?”
“We read,” Mel said. “Let’s have the message.”
“Patroni warns not to get the airplane deeper in the mud than it is already. Says it can happen easily. So, unless the Aéreo-Mexican crowd are real sure of what they’re doing, they should hold off any more tries until Joe gets there.”
Mel glanced sideways at Ingram. “How does the Aéreo-Mexican crowd feel about that?”
The foreman nodded. “Patroni can have all the tries he wants. We’ll wait.”
Danny Farrow said, “Did you get that? Is it clear?”
Mel thumbed the mike button. “It’s clear.”
“Okay. There’s more. TWA is rounding up some extra ground crew to help. And, Mel, your wife phoned again. I gave her your message.” Mel sensed Danny hesitating, aware that others whose radios were on the airport maintenance frequency were listening, too.
Mel said, “She wasn’t happy?”
“I guess not.” There was a second’s silence. “You’d better get to a phone when you can.”
It was a safe bet, Mel thought, that Cindy had been more than usually snippy with Danny, but, loyally, he wasn’t saying so.
As for the Aéreo-Mexican 707, obviously there was nothing more to be done until Joe Patroni arrived. Patroni’s advice about not getting the aircraft more deeply mired made good sense.
Ingram was pulling on heavy mitts and refastening his coat. “Thanks for the warm-up.” He went out, into the wind and snow, slamming the door quickly. A few moments later, Mel could see him plodding through deep drifts toward the assembled vehicles on the taxiway.
On radio, the Snow Desk was speaking to Maintenance Snow Center. Mel waited until the exchange finished, then held the transmit button down. “This is mobile one, Danny. I’m going to the Conga Line.”
He eased the car forward, picking his way carefully in the blowing snow and darkness, with only widely spaced runway lights to guide him.
The Conga Line, both spearhead and prime mover of the airport snow-fighting system, was–-at the moment–on runway one seven, left. In a few minutes, Mel thought grimly, he would find out for himself if there was truth, or merely malice, in the critical report of Captain Demerest’s Airlines Snow Committee.
of Mel’s thoughts–Captain Vernon Demerest of Trans America–was at the moment, some three miles from the airport. He was driving his Mercedes 230 SL Roadster and, compared with the journey he had made to the airport earlier from home, was having little trouble negotiating local streets, which had been recently plowed. Snow was still falling heavily, abetted by a strong wind, but the fresh covering on the ground was not yet deep enough to make conditions difficult.
Demerest’s destination was a group of three-story apartment blocks, close to the airport, known colloquially to flying crews as Stewardess Row. It was here that many of the stewardesses based at Lincoln International–from all airlines–maintained apartments. Each apartment was usually shared by two or three girls, and the initiated also had a name for the individual ménages. They were known as stewardess nests.
The nests were often the scene of lively, off-duty parties, and sometimes headquarters for the amorous affairs which occurred, with predictable regularity, between stewardesses and male flying crews.
Taken as a whole, the stewardess nests were neither more nor less freewheeling than other apartments occupied by single girls elsewhere. The difference was that most of what transpired in the way of swinging, amoral activities, involved airline personnel.
There was good reason for this. Both the stewardesses and male crew members whom they met–captains, and first and second officers–were, without exception, high-caliber people. All had reached their jobs, which many others coveted, through a tough, exacting process of elimination in which those less talented were totally eclipsed. The comparative few who remained were the brightest and best. The result was a broth of sharp, enlightened personalities with a zest for life and the perceptiveness to appreciate one another.
Vernon Demerest, in his time, had appreciated many stewardesses, as they had appreciated him. He had, in fact, had a succession of affairs with beautiful and intelligent young women whom a monarch or a male movie idol might well have desired without attaining. The stewardesses whom Demerest and fellow pilots knew, and regularly made love to, were neither whores nor easy lays. They were, however, alive, responsive, and sexually endowed girls, who valued quality, and took it when so obviously and conveniently close to hand.
One who had taken it–so to speak–from Vernon Demerest, and seemed inclined to continue to, was a vivacious, attractive, English-born brunette, Gwen Meighen. She was a farmer’s daughter who had left home to come to the United States ten years earlier at the age of eighteen. Before joining Trans America she was briefly a fashion model in Chicago. Perhaps because of her varied background, she combined an uninhibited sexuality in bed with elegance and style when out of it.
It was to Gwen Meighen’s apartment that Vernon Demerest was headed now.
Later tonight, the two of them would leave for Rome on Trans America Flight Two. On the flight deck, Captain Demerest would command. In the passenger cabins, aft, Gwen Meighen would be senior stewardess. At the Rome end of the journey, there would be a three-day layover for the crew, while another crew–already in Italy for its own layover-would fly the airplane back to Lincoln International.
The word “layover” had long ago been adopted officially by airlines and was used deadpan. Possibly, whoever coined the term had a sense of humor; in any case, flying crews frequently gave it a practical application as well as its official one. Demerest and Gwen Meighen were planning a personal definition now. On arrival in Rome, they would leave immediately for Naples for a forty-eight-hour “layover” together. It was a halcyon, idyllic prospect, and Vernon Demerest smiled appreciatively at the thought of it. He was nearing Stewardess Row, and as be reminded himself of how well other things had gone this evening, his smile broadened.
He had arrived at the airport early, after leaving Sarah, his wife, who–placidly as usual–had wished him a pleasant trip. In an earlier age, Sarah might have busied herself with needlepoint or knitting during her liege’s absence. As it was, he knew that as soon as he had left, she would become immersed in her curling club, bridge, and amateur oil painting which were the mainstays of her life.