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“I explained last week.”

“Tell me again.”

“It’s a publicity party–cocktails and dinner–to promote the costume ball which is being given next month for the Archidona Children’s Relief Fund. The press is here. They’ll be taking photographs.”

Now Mel knew why Cindy wanted him to hurry. With him there, she stood a better chance of being in the photographs–and on tomorrow’s newspaper social pages.

“Most other committee members,” Cindy insisted, “have their husbands here already.”

“But not all?”

“I said most.”

“And you did say the Archidona Relief Fund?”

“Yes.”

“Which Arcbidona? There are two. One’s in Ecuador, the other in Spain.” At college, maps and geography had fascinated Mel, and he had a retentive memory.

For the first time, Cindy hesitated. Then she said testily, “What does it matter? This isn’t the time for stupid questions.”

Mel wanted to laugh out loud. Cindy didn’t know. As usual, she had chosen to work for a charity because of who was involved, rather than what.

He said maticiously, “How many letters do you expect to get from this one?”

“I don’t know what you mean.”

“Oh, yes, you do.”

To be considered for listing in The Social Register, a new aspirant needed eight sponsoring letters from people whose names already appeared there. At the last count Mel had heard, Cindy had collected four.

“By God, Mel, if you say anything–tonight or any other time…”

“Will the letters be free ones, or do you expect to pay for them like those other two?” He was aware of having an advantage now. It happened very rarely.

Cindy said indignantly, “That’s a filthy allegation. It’s impossible to buy your way in…”

“Nuts!” Mel said. “I get the canceled checks from our joint account. Remember?”

There was a silence. Then Cindy asserted, low-voiced and savagely, “Listen to me! You’d better get here tonight, and soon. If you don’t come, or if you do come and embarass me by saying anything of what you did just now, it’ll be the end. Do you understand?”

“I’m not sure that I do.” Mel spoke quietly. Instinct cautioned him that this was an important moment for them both. “Perhaps you’d better tell me exactly what you mean.”

Cindy countered, “You figure it out.”

She hung up.

ON HIS WAY from the parking area to his office, Mel’s fury seethed and grew. Anger had always come to him less quickly than to Cindy. He was the slow-burn type. But he was burning now.

He was not entirely sure of the focus of his anger. A good deal was directed at Cindy, but there were other factors, too: His professional failure, as he saw it, to prepare effectually for a new era of aviation; a seeming inability to infuse others any longer with his own convictions; high hopes, unfulfilled. Somehow, between them all, Mel thought, his personal and professional lives had become twin testaments to inadequacy. His marriage was on the rocks, or apparently about to go there; if and when it did, he would have failed his children, also. At the same time, at the airport, where he was trustee for thousands who passed through daily in good faith, all his efforts and persuasion had failed to halt deterioration. There, the high standards he had worked to build were eroding steadily.

En route to the executive mezzanine, he encountered no one he knew. It was just as well. If he had been spoken to, whatever question had been put, be would have snarled a heated answer. In his office, he peeled off the heavy outdoor clothing and let it stay on the floor where it fell. He lit a cigarette. It had an acrid taste, and he stubbed it out. As he crossed to his desk, he was aware that the pain in his foot had returned, increasingly.

There was a time–it seemed long ago–when on nights like this, if his wounded foot pained him, he would have gone home, where Cindy would have insisted he relax. He would have a hot bath first, then after, while he lay face downward on their bed, she would massage his back and neck with cool, firm fingers until pain ebbed out of him. It was unthinkable, of course, that Cindy would ever do the same thing again; but even if she did, he doubted that it would work. You could lose communication in other ways besides the spoken word.

Seated at his desk, Mel put his head in his hands.

As he had done on the airfield earlier, he shivered. Then, abruptly in the silent office, a telephone bell jangled. For a moment he ignored it. It rang again, and he realized it was the red alarm system telephone on a stand beside the desk. In two swift strides he reached it.

“Bakersfeld here.”

He heard clicks and more acknowledgments as others came on the line.

“This is Air Traffic Control,” the tower chief’s voice announced. “We have an airborne emergency, category three.

09

KEITH BAKERSFELD, Mel’s brother, was a third of the way through his eight-hour duty watch in the air traffic control radar room.

In radar control, tonight’s storm was having a profound effect, though not a directly physical one. To a spectator, Keith thought, lacking an awareness of the complex story which a conglomeration of radarscopes was telling, it might have seemed that the storm, raging immediately outside, was a thousand miles away.

The radar room was in the control tower, one floor down from the glass-surrounded eyrie–the tower cab–from which ATC directed aircraft movement on the ground and immediate local flying. The radar section’s jurisdiction extended beyond the airport, and radar controllers reached out to bridge the gap between local control and the nearest ATC regional center. The regional centers–usually miles from any airport–controlled main trunk airways and traffic coming on and off them.

In contrast to the top portion of the tower, the radar room had no windows. Day and night, at Lincoln International, ten radar controllers and supervisors labored in perpetual semidarkness under dim moonglow lights. Around them, tightly packed equipment–radarscopes, controls, radio communications panels–lined all four walls. Usually, controllers worked in shirtsleeves since the temperature, winter or summer, was maintained at an even seventy degrees to protect the delicate electronic gear.

The pervading tone in the radar room was calm. However, beneath the calmness, at all times, was a constant nervous strain. Tonight, the strain had been added to by the storm and, within the past few minutes, it had heightened further still. The effect was like stretching an already tensioned spring.

Cause of the added tension was a signal on a radarscope which, in turn, had triggered a flashing red light and alarm buzzer in the control room. The buzzer had now been silenced, but the distinctive radar signal remained. Known as a double blossom, it had flowered on the semidarkened screen like a tremulous green carnation and denoted an aircraft in distress. In this case, the aircraft was a U.S. Air Force KC-135, high above the airport in the storm, and seeking an immediate emergency landing. Keith Bakersfeld bad been working the flatface scope on which the emergency signal appeared, and a supervisor had since joined him. Both were now transmitting urgent, swift decisions–by interphone to controllers at adjoining positions, and by radio to other aircraft.

The tower watch chief on the floor above had been promptly informed of the distress signal. He, in turn, had declared a category three emergency, alerting airport ground facilities.

The flatface scope, at the moment the center of attention, was a horizontal glass circle, the size of a bicycle tire, set into a tabletop console. Its surface was dark green, with brilliant green points of light showing all aircraft in the air within a forty-mile radius. As the aircraft moved, so did the points of light. Beside each light point was a small plastic marker, identifying it. The markers were known colloquially as “shrimp boats” and controllers moved them by hand as aircraft progressed and their positions on the screen changed. As more aircraft appeared, they were identified by voice radio and similarly tagged. New radar systems dispensed with shrimp boats; instead, identifying letter-number codes–including altitude–appeared directly on the radar screen. But the newer method was not yet in wide use and, like all new systems, had bugs which needed elimination.

Tonight there was an extraordinary number of aircraft on the screen, and someone had remarked earlier that the green pinpoints were proliferating like fecund ants.

Keith was seated closest to the flatface, his lean, spindly figure hunched forward in a gray steel chair. His body was tense; his legs, hooked underneath the chair, were as rigid as the chair itself. He was concentrating, his face strained and gaunt, as it had been for months. The green reflection of the scope accentuated, eerily, deep hollows beneath his eyes. Anyone who knew Keith well, but had not seen him for a year or so, would have been shocked both by his appearance and his change in manner. Once, he had exuded an amiable, relaxed good-nature; now, all signs of it were gone. Keith was six years younger than his brother, Mel, but nowadays appeared a good deal older.

The change in Keith Bakersfeld had been noticed by his colleagues, some of whom were working tonight at other control positions in the radar room. They were also well aware of the reason for the change, a reason which had evoked genuine sympathy. However, they were practical men with an exacting job, which was why the radar supervisor, Wayne Tevis, was observing Keith covertly at this moment, watching the signs of increasing strain, as he had for some time. Tevis, a lanky, drawling Texan, sat centrally in the radar room on a high stool from where he could peer down over the shoulders of operators at the several radarscopes serving special functions. Tevis had personally equipped the stool with castors, and periodically he rode it like a horse, propelling himself by jabs of his hand-tooled Texan boots wherever he was needed at the moment.

During the preceding hour, Wayne Tevis had at no point moved far away from Keith. The reason was that Tevis was ready, if necessary, to relieve Keith from radar watch, a decision which instinct told him might have to be made at any time.

The radar supervisor was a kindly man, despite his mild flamboyance. He dreaded what he might have to do, and was aware of how far-reaching, for Keith, its effect could be. Nevertheless, if he had to, he would do it.

His eyes on Keith’s flatface scope, Tevis drawled, “Keith, old son, that Braniff flight is closing on Eastern. If you turn Braniff right, you can keep Eastern going on the same course.” It was something which Keith should have seen himself, but hadn’t.

The problem, which most of the radar room crew was working at feverishly, was to clear a path for the Air Force KC-135, which had already started down on an instrument landing approach from ten thousand feet. The difficulty was–below the big Air Force jet were five airline flights, stacked at intervals of a thousand feet, and orbiting a limited airspace. All were awaiting their turn to land. A few miles on either side were other columns of aircraft, similarly stacked and, lower still, were three more airliners, already on landing approaches. In between them all were busy departure corridors. Somehow, the military flight had to be threaded down through the stacked civilian airplanes without a collision occurring. Under normal conditions the assignment would test the strongest nerves. As it was, the situation was complicated by radio failure in the KC135, so that voice contact with the Air Force pilot had been lost.

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