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And here?

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?”

“Affirmative.”

“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.

“Thanks.”

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.

06

THE SUBJECT 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.

Sarah Demerest’s placidity, and her dullness which naturally went with it, were qualities her husband had come to accept and, in a perverse way, valued. Between flying trips and affairs with more interesting women, he thought of his sojourns at home, and sometimes spoke of them to intimates, as “going into the hangar for a stand down.” His marriage had another convenience. While it existed, the women he made love to could become as emotional and demanding as they liked, but he could never be expected to meet the ultimate demand of matrimony. In this way, he had a perpetual protection against his own hasty action in the heat of passion. As to sexual intimacy with Sarah, he still obliged her occasionally, as one would play “throw the ball” with an old dog. Sarah responded dutifully, with conventional body heavings and quickened breath, though he suspected both were more from rote than passion, and that if they quit copulation entirely she would not be overly concerned. He was also sure that Sarah suspected his philandering, if not in fact, then at least by instinct. But, characteristically, she would prefer not to know, an arrangement in which Vernon Demerest was happy to cooperate.

Another thing which bad pleased him this evening was the Airlines Snow Committee report in which he had delivered a verbal kick in the crotch, aimed at his stuffed-shirt brother-in-law, Mel Bakersfeld.

The critical report had been solely Demerest’s idea. The other two airline representatives on the committee had at first taken the view that the airport management was doing its best under exceptional conditions. Captain Demerest argued otherwise. The others had finally gone along with him and agreed that Demerest would personally write the report, which he made as scathing as he could. He had not bothered about accuracy or otherwise of the indictment; after all, with so much snow around, who could be sure of anything? He had, however, made certain that the widely circulated report would cause a maximum of embarrassment and irritation to Mel Bakersfeld. Copies were now being Xeroxed and would be sent to regional vice-presidents of all airlines, as well as airline headquarters, in New York and elsewhere. Knowing how everyone enjoyed finding a scapegoat for operational delays, Captain Demerest was confident that telephones and teletypes would be busy after its receipt.

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