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Harris said quietly, “Vernon, I guess you know how badly I feel about Gwen.” He hesitated. “Whatever’s between the two of you is none of my business, but if there’s anything I can do as a friend…”

“There’s nothing,” Demerest said. He had no intention of unburdening himself to Anson Harris, who was a competent pilot, but still, in Demerest’s eyes, an old maid.

Demerest regretted now that he had revealed as much as he did a few minutes ago, but emotion got the better of him–something which happened rarely. Now, he let his face resume a scowl, his shield against disclosing personal feelings.

“Passing through eight thousand feet,” Anson Harris told air route control.

Demerest continued to hold the aircraft in a steady descent, on course. His eyes swept the flight instruments in consistent sequence.

He remembered something about the child–his child–who had been born eleven years ago. For weeks before the birth, he debated with himself whether he should confess his infidelity to Sarah, with the suggestion that they adopt the baby as their own. In the end, his courage had failed him. He dreaded his wife’s shocked reaction; he feared that Sarah would never accept the child, whose presence she would regard as a permanent reproach.

Long after, and too late, he realized he had done Sarali an injustice. True, she would have been shocked and hurt, just as she would be shocked and hurt now, if she learned about Gwen. But afterward, in a short time, Sarah’s habit of coping would have taken over. For all Sarah’s placidity and what Demerest thought of as her dullness, despite her suburban bourgeois activities–the curling Club and amateur oil painting–his wife had a core of sane solidity. He supposed it was why they had stayed married; why, even now, he could not contemplate divorce.

Sarah would have worked something out. She would have made him squirm and suffer for a while, perhaps for a long time. But she would have agreed to the adoption, and the one who would not have suffered at all would have been the child. Sarah would have seen to that; she was that kind of person. He thought: if only…

Demerest said aloud, “Life’s full of goddamned ‘if onlys.’ “

He leveled out at six thousand feet, advancing the throttles to maintain speed. The jet whine rose in pitch.

Harris had been busy changing radio frequencies and–now they had passed the handoff point–reporting to Chicago Center. He asked, “Did you say something?” Demerest shook his head.

The storm’s turbulence was as bad as ever, the aircraft still being thrown around.

“Trans America Two, we have you in radar contact,” a new voice from Chicago Center rasped.

Harris was still attending to communications.

Vernon Demerest reasoned: So far as Gwen was concerned, he might just as well make a decision now.

All right, he decided; he would face Sarah’s tears and denunciations, and perhaps her anger, but he would tell her about Gwen.

He would admit his responsibdity for Gwen’s pregnancy.

At home, the resulting hysteria might last several days and the aftereffects for weeks or even months, during which time he would suffer mightily. But when the worst was over they would work something out. Strangely–and he supposed it showed his confidence in Sarah–he had not the slightest doubt they would.

He had no idea what they might do, and a good deal would depend on Gwen. Despite what the doctor had just said about the seriousness of Gwen’s injuries, Demerest had a conviction she would come through. Gwen had spunk and courage; even unconsciously she would fight to live, and eventually, whatever impairment she suffered, would adjust to it. She would also have her own ideas about the baby. She might not give it up easily or at all. Gwen was not one to be pushed around, or to be told what to do. She did her own thinking.

The result might be that he would have two women on his hands–plus child–instead of one. That would take some working out!

It would also pose the question: just how far would Sarah go?

God!–what a mess.

But now that his own first decision was taken, he had the conviction that something good might result. He reflected grimly: For all it was going to cost him, in anguish and hard cash, it better had.

The unwinding altimeter showed they were passing through five thousand feet.

There would be the child, of course. Already be was beginning to think of that part in a new and different way. Naturally, he wouldn’t let himself get sickly sentimental, the way some people–Anson Harris, for example–were about children; but it would be his child, after all. The experience would certainly be new.

What was it Gwen had said in the car on their way to the airport tonight?… a little Vernon Demerest inside me. If we had a boy we could call him Vernon Demerest, Junior, the way Americans do.

Maybe it wasn’t such a bad idea. He chuckled.

Harris glanced sideways. “What are you laughing at?”

Demerest exploded. “I’m not laughing! Why the hell would I laugh? What is there for any of us to laugh about?”

Harris shrugged, “I thought I heard you.”

“That’s the second time you’ve heard things that didn’t happen. After this check ride I suggest you have an ear checkup.”

“There’s no need to be unpleasant.”

“Isn’t there? Isn’t there?” Demerest came angrily alert. “Maybe what this whole situation needs is for someone to get unpleasant.”

“If that’s true,” Harris said, “there’s no one better qualified than you.”

“Then when you’re through with damnfool questions, start flying again, and let me talk to those duffers on the ground.”

Anson Harris slid his seat forward. “If you want to, why not?” He nodded. “I have it.”

Relinquishing the controls, Demerest reached for the radio mike. He felt better, stronger, for a decision taken. Now he would contend with more immediate things. He let his voice grate harshly. “Chicago Center, this is Captain Demerest of Trans America Two. Are you still listening down there, or have you taken sleeping pills and quit?”

“This is Chicago Center, Captain. We’re listening, and no one’s quit.” The controllers voice held a note of reproach; Demerest ignored it.

“Then why in blazes aren’t we getting action? This flight is in serious trouble. We need help.”

“Stand by, please.” There was a pause, then a new voice. “This is Chicago Center supervisor. Captain, Trans America Two, I heard your last transmission. Please understand we’re doing everything we can. Before you came into our area we had a dozen people working, clearing other traffic. They’re still doing it. We’re giving you priority, a clear radio frequency, and a straight-in course for Lincoln.”

Demerest barked, “It isn’t enough.” He paused, holding down the mike button, then continued. “Chicago supervisor, listen carefully. A straight-in course to Lincoln is no good if it ends on runway two five, or any runway except three zero. Don’t tell me three zero’s out of use; I’ve heard it already, and I know why. Now, write this down, and see that Lincoln understands it too: This airplane is heavily loaded; we’ll be landing very fast. As well as that, we’ve structural damage including unserviceable stabilizer trim and doubtful rudder control. If we’re broutzht in on two five, there’ll be a broken airplane and dead people before the next hour is over. So call Lincoln, mister, and turn the screws. Tell them I don’t care how they do it–they can blow apart what’s blocking three zero if they have to–but we need that runway. Do you understand?”

“Yes, Trans America Two, we understand very well.” The supervisor’s voice was unruffled, but a shade more human than before. “Your message is being passed to Lincoln now.”

“Good.” Demerest held the transmit button down again. “I have another message. This one is to Mel Bakersfeld, airport General manager at Lincoln. Give him the previous message, then add this–personal from his brother-in-law: ‘You helped make this trouble, you bastard, by not listening to me about airport flight insurance. Now you owe it to me and all others on this flight to climb off your penguin’s butt and get that runway clear.’ “

This time the supervisor’s voice was doubtful. “Trans America Two, we’ve copied your message. Captain, are you sure you want us to use those words?”

“Chicago Center,” Demerest’s voice slammed back, “you’re damn right you’ll use those words! I’m ordering you to send that message–fast, and loud, and clear.”

13

ON THE GROUND control radio in his speeding car, Mel Bakersfeld could hear airport emergency vehicles being summoned and positioned.

“Ground control to city twenty-five.”

Twenty-five was the call sign of the airport fire chief.

“This is city twenty-five rolling. Go ahead ground.”

“Further information, Category two emergency in approximately thirty-five minutes. The flight in question is disabled and landing on runway three zero, if runway open. If not open, will use runway two five.”

Whenever they could, airport controllers avoided naming, on radio, an airline involved in any accident, or a potential one, The phrase “the flight in question” was used as a cover. Airlines were touchy about such things, taking the view that the fewer times their name was repeated in that kind of context, the better.

Just the same, Mel was aware, what had happened tonight would get plenty of publicity, most likely worldwide.

“City twenty-five to ground control. Is the pilot requesting foam on runway?”

“No foam. Repeat, no foam.”

The absence of foam meant that the aircraft had serviceable landing gear and would not require a belly landing.

All emergency vehicles, Mel knew–pumpers, salvage trucks, and ambulances–would be following the fire chief, who also had a separate radio channel to communicate with them individually. When an emergency was notified, no one waited. They observed the principle: better to be ready too soon than too late. Emergency crews would now take up position between the two runways, ready to move to either as necessary. The procedure was no improvisation. Every move for situations like this was detailed in an airport emergency master plan.

When there was a break in transmissions, Mel thumbed on his own radio mike.

“Ground control from mobile one.”

“Mobile one, go ahead.”

“Has Joe Patroni, with stalled aircraft on runway three zero, been advised of new emergency situation?”

“Affirmative. We are in radio touch.”

“What is Patroni’s report on progress?”

“He expects to move the obstructing aircraft in twenty minutes.”

“Is he certain?”

“Negative.”

Mel Bakersfeld waited before transmitting again. He was heading across the airfield for the second time tonight, one hand on the wheel, the other on the microphone–driving as fast as he dared in the continued blowing snow and restricted visibility. Taxi and runway lights, guidelines in the dark, flashed by. Beside him on the car’s front seat were Tanya Livingston and the Tribune reporter, Tomlinson.

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