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 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 Halliday 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 Halliday 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 in 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.