“You’re all right,” he said. “You’re all right, young lady. What’s your name?”
“Dinah,” she sobbed. “I can’t find my aunt. I’m blind and I can’t see her. I woke up and the seat was empty—”
“What’s going on?” the young man in the crew-neck jersey asked. He was talking over Brian’s head, ignoring both Brian and Dinah, speaking to the boy in the Hard Rock tee-shirt and the older man in the flannel shirt. “Where’s everybody else?”
“You’re all right, Dinah,” Brian repeated. “There are other people here. Can you hear them?”
“Y-Yes. I can hear them. But where’s Aunt Vicky? And who’s been killed?”
“Killed?” a woman asked sharply. It was the one from the starboard side. Brian glanced up briefly and saw she was young, dark-haired, pretty. “Has someone been killed? Have we been hijacked?”
“No one’s been killed,” Brian said. It was, at least, something to say. His mind felt weird: like a boat which has slipped its moorings. “Calm down, honey.”
“I felt his hair!” Dinah insisted. “Someone cut off his HAIR!”
This was just too odd to deal with on top of everything else, and Brian dismissed it. Dinah’s earlier thought suddenly struck home to him with chilly intensity — who the fuck was flying the plane?
He stood up and turned to the older man in the red shirt. “I have to go forward,” he said. “Stay with the little girl.”
“All right,” the man in the red shirt said. “But what’s happening?”
They were joined by a man of about thirty-five who was wearing pressed blue-jeans and an oxford shirt. Unlike the others, he looked utterly calm. He took a pair of horn-rimmed spectacles from his pocket, shook them out by one bow, and put them on. “We seem a few passengers short, don’t we?” he said. His British accent was almost as crisp as his shirt. “What about crew? Anybody know?”
“That’s what I’m going to find out,” Brian said, and started forward again. At the head of the main cabin he turned back and counted quickly. Two more passengers had joined the huddle around the girl in the dark glasses. One was the teenaged girl who had been sleeping so heavily; she swayed on her feet as if she were either drunk or stoned. The other was an elderly gent in a fraying sport-coat. Eight people in all. To those he added himself and the guy in business class, who was, at least so far, sleeping through it all.
For the love of God, where are the rest of them?
But this was not the time to worry about it — there were bigger problems at hand. Brian hurried forward, barely glancing at the old bald fellow snoozing in business class.
The service area squeezed behind the movie screen and between the two first-class heads was empty. So was the galley, but there Brian saw something which was extremely troubling: the beverage trolley was parked kitty-corner by the starboard bathroom. There were a number of used glasses on its bottom shelf.
They were just getting ready to serve drinks, he thought. When it happened — whatever “it” was — they’d just taken out the trolley. Those used glasses are the ones that were collected before the roll-out. So whatever happened must have happened within half an hour of take-off, maybe a little longer — weren’t there turbulence reports over the desert? I think so. And that weird shit about the aurora borealis.
For a moment Brian was almost convinced that last was a part of his dream — it was certainly odd enough — but further reflection convinced him that Melanie Trevor, the flight attendant, had actually said it.
Never mind that; what did happen? In God’s name, what?
He didn’t know, but he did know that looking at the abandoned drinks trolley put an enormous feeling of terror and superstitious dread into his guts. For just a moment he thought that this was what the first boarders of the Mary Celeste must have felt like, coming upon a totally abandoned ship where all the sail was neatly laid on, where the captain’s table had been set for dinner, where all ropes were neatly coiled and some sailor’s pipe was still smouldering away the last of its tobacco on the foredeck...
Brian shook these paralyzing thoughts off with a tremendous effort and went to the door between the service area and the cockpit. He knocked. As he had feared, there was no response. And although he knew it was useless to do so, he curled his fist up and hammered on it.
He tried the doorknob. It didn’t move. That was SOP in the age of unscheduled side-trips to Havana, Lebanon, and Tehran. Only the pilots could open it. Brian could fly this plane... but not from out here.
“Hey!” he shouted. “Hey, you guys! Open the door!”
Except he knew better. The flight attendants were gone; almost all the passengers were gone; Brian Engle was willing to bet the 767’s two-man cockpit crew was also gone.
He believed Flight 29 was heading east on automatic pilot.
Darkness and Mountains. The Treasure Trove. Crew-Neck’s Nose. The Sound of No Dogs Barking. Panic Is Not Allowed. A Change of Destination.
Brian had asked the older man in the red shirt to look after Dinah, but as soon as Dinah heard the woman from the starboard side — the one with the pretty young voice — she imprinted on her with scary intensity, crowding next to her and reaching with a timid sort of determination for her hand. After the years spent with Miss Lee, Dinah knew a teacher’s voice when she heard one. The dark-haired woman took her hand willingly enough.
“Did you say your name was Dinah, honey?”
“Yes,” Dinah said. “I’m blind, but after my operation in Boston, I’ll be able to see again. Probably be able to see. The doctors say there’s a seventy per cent chance I’ll get some vision, and a forty per cent chance I’ll get all of it. What’s your name?”
“Laurel Stevenson,” the dark-haired woman said. Her eyes were still conning the main cabin, and her face seemed unable to break out of its initial expression: dazed disbelief.
“Laurel, that’s a flower, isn’t it?” Dinah asked. She spoke with feverish vivacity.
“Uh-huh,” Laurel said.
“Pardon me,” the man with the horn-rimmed glasses and the British accent said. “I’m going forward to join our friend.”
“I’ll come along,” the older man in the red shirt said.
“I want to know what’s going on here!” the man in the crew-neck jersey exclaimed abruptly. His face was dead pale except for two spots of color, as bright as rouge, on his cheeks. “I want to know what’s going on right now.”
“Nor am I a bit surprised,” the Brit said, and then began walking forward. The man in the red shirt trailed after him. The teenaged girl with the dopey look drifted along behind them for awhile and then stopped at the partition between the main cabin and the business section, as if unsure of where she was.
The elderly gent in the fraying sport-coat went to a portside window, leaned over, and peered out.
“What do you see?” Laurel Stevenson asked.
“Darkness and mountains,” the man in the sport-coat said.
“The Rockies?” Albert asked.
The man in the frayed sport-coat nodded. “I believe so, young man.”
Albert decided to go forward himself. He was seventeen, fiercely bright, and this evening’s Bonus Mystery Question had also occurred to him: who was flying the plane?
Then he decided it didn’t matter... at least for the moment. They were moving smoothly along, so presumably someone was, and even if someone turned out to be something — the autopilot, in other words — there wasn’t a thing he could do about it. As Albert Kaussner he was a talented violinist — not quite a prodigy — on his way to study at The Berklee College of Music. As Ace Kaussner he was (in his dreams, at least) the fastest Hebrew west of the Mississippi, a bounty hunter who took it easy on Saturdays, was careful to keep his shoes off the bed, and always kept one eye out for the main chance and the other for a good kosher cafe somewhere along the dusty trail. Ace was, he supposed, his way of sheltering himself from loving parents who hadn’t allowed him to play Little League baseball because he might damage his talented hands and who had believed, in their hearts, that every sniffle signalled the onset of pneumonia. He was a gunslinging violinist — an interesting combination — but he didn’t know a thing about flying planes. And the little girl had said something which had simultaneously intrigued him and curdled his blood. I felt his hair! she had said. Someone cut off his HAIR!
He broke away from Dinah and Laurel (the man in the ratty sport-coat had moved to the starboard side of the plane to look out one of those windows, and the man in the crew-necked jersey was going forward to join the others, his eyes narrowed pugnaciously) and began to retrace Dinah’s progress up the portside aisle.
Someone cut off his HAIR! she had said, and not too many rows down, Albert saw what she had been talking about.
“I am praying, sir,” the Brit said, “that the pilot’s cap I noticed in one of the first-class seats belongs to you.”
Brian was standing in front of the locked door, head down, thinking furiously. When the Brit spoke up behind him, he jerked in surprise and whirled on his heels.
“Didn’t mean to Put Your wind up,” the Brit said mildly. “I’m Nick Hopewell.” He stuck out his hand.
Brian shook it. As he did so, performing his half of the ancient ritual, it occurred to him that this must be a dream. The scary flight from Tokyo and finding out that Anne was dead had brought it on.
Part of his mind knew this was not so, just as part of his mind had known the little girl’s scream had had nothing to do with the deserted first-class section, but he seized on this idea just as he had seized on that one. It helped, so why not? Everything else was nuts — so nutty that even attempting to think about it made his mind feel sick and feverish. Besides, there was really no time to think, simply no time, and he found that this was also something of relief.
“Brian Engle,” he said. “I’m pleased to meet you, although the circumstances are—” He shrugged helplessly. What were the circumstances, exactly? He could not think of an adjective which would adequately describe them.
“Bit bizarre, aren’t they?” Hopewell agreed. “Best not to think of them right now, I suppose. Does the crew answer?”
“No,” Brian said, and abruptly struck his fist against the door in frustration.
“Easy, easy,” Hopewell soothed. — “Tell me about the cap, Mr Engle. You have no idea what satisfaction and relief it would give me to address you as Captain Engle.”
Brian grinned in spite of himself. “I am Captain Engle,” he said, “but under the circumstances, I guess you can call me Brian.”
Nick Hopewell seized Brian’s left hand and kissed it heartily. “I believe I’ll call you Savior instead,” he said. “Do you mind awfully?”
Brian threw his head back and began to laugh. Nick joined him. They were standing there in front of the locked door in the nearly empty plane, laughing wildly, when the man in the red shirt and the man in the crew-necked jersey arrived, looking at them as if they had both gone crazy.
Albert Kaussner held the hair in his right hand for several moments, looking at it thoughtfully. It was black and glossy in the overhead lights, a right proper pelt, and he wasn’t at all surprised it had scared the hell out of the little girl. It would have scared Albert, too, if he hadn’t been able to see it.
He tossed the wig back into the seat, glanced at the purse lying in the next seat, then looked more closely at what was lying next to the purse. It was a plain gold wedding ring. He picked it up, examined it, then put it back where it had been. He began walking slowly toward the back of the airplane. In less than a minute, Albert was so struck with wonder that he had forgotten all about who was flying the plane, or how the hell they were going to get down from here if it was the automatic pilot.
Flight 29’s passengers were gone, but they had left a fabulous — and sometimes perplexing — treasure trove behind. Albert found jewelry on almost every seat: wedding rings, mostly, but there were also diamonds, emeralds, and rubies. There were earrings, most of them five-and-dime stuff but some which looked pretty expensive to Albert’s eye. His mom had a few good pieces, and some of this stuff made her best jewelry look like rummage-sale buys. There were studs, necklaces, cufflinks, ID bracelets. And watches, watches, watches. From Timex to Rolex, there seemed to be at least two hundred of them, lying on seats, lying on the floor between seats, lying in the aisles. They twinkled in the lights.
There were at least sixty pairs of spectacles. Wire-rimmed, horn-rimmed, gold-rimmed. There were prim glasses, punky glasses, and glasses with rhinestones set in the bows. There were Ray-Bans, Polaroids, and Foster Grants.
There were belt buckles and service pins and piles of pocket-change. No bills, but easily four hundred dollars in quarters, dimes, nickels, and pennies. There were wallets — not as many wallets as purses, but still a good dozen of them, from fine leather to plastic. There were pocket knives. There were at least a dozen hand-held calculators.
And odder things as well. He picked up a flesh-colored plastic cylinder and examined it for almost thirty seconds before deciding it really was a dildo and putting it down again in a hurry. There was a small gold spoon on a fine gold chain. There were bright speckles of metal here and there on the seats and on the floor, mostly silver but some gold. He picked up a couple of these to verify the judgment of his own wondering mind: some were dental caps, but most were fillings from human teeth. And, in one of the back rows, he picked up two tiny steel rods. He looked at these for several moments before realizing they were surgical pins, and that they belonged not on the floor of a nearly deserted airliner but in some passenger’s knee or shoulder.
He discovered one more passenger, a young bearded man who was sprawled over two seats in the very last row, snoring loudly and smelling like a brewery.
Two seats away, he found a gadget that looked like a pacemaker implant.
Albert stood at the rear of the plane and looked forward along the large, empty tube of the fuselage.
“What in the fuck is going on here?” he asked in a soft, trembling voice.
“I demand to know just what is going on here!” the man in the crew-neck jersey said in a loud voice. He strode into the service area at the head of first class like a corporate raider mounting a hostile takeover.
“Currently? We’re just about to break the lock on this door,” Nick Hopewell said, fixing Crew-Neck with a bright gaze. “The flight crew appears to have abdicated along with everyone else, but we’re in luck, just the same. My new acquaintance here is a pilot who just happened to be deadheading, and—”