“Someone around here is a deadhead, all right,” Crew-Neck said, “and I intend to find out who, believe me.” He pushed past Nick without a glance and stuck his face into Brian’s, as aggressive as a ballplayer disputing an umpire’s call. “Do you work for American Pride, friend?”
“Yes,” Brian said, “but why don’t we put that off for now, sir? It’s important that—”
“I’ll tell you what’s important!” Crew-Neck shouted. A fine mist of spit settled on Brian’s cheeks and he had to sit on a sudden and amazingly strong impulse to clamp his hands around this twerp’s neck and see how far he could twist his head before something inside cracked. “I’ve got a meeting at the Prudential Center with representatives of Bankers International at nine o’clock this morning! Promptly at nine o’clock! I booked a seat on this conveyance in good faith, and I have no intention of being late for my appointment! I want to know three things: who authorized an unscheduled stop for this airliner while I was asleep, where that stop was made, and why it was done!”
“Have you ever watched Star Trek?” Nick Hopewell asked suddenly.
Crew-Neck’s face, suffused with angry blood, swung around. His expression said that he believed the Englishman was clearly mad. “What in the hell are you talking about?”
“Marvellous American program,” Nick said. “Science fiction. Exploring strange new worlds, like the one which apparently exists inside your head. And if you don’t shut your gob at once, you bloody idiot, I’ll be happy to demonstrate Mr Spock’s famous Vulcan sleeper-hold for you.”
“You can’t talk to me like that!” Crew-Neck snarled. “Do you know who I am?”
“Of course,” Nick said. “You’re a bloody-minded little bugger who has mistaken his airline boarding pass for credentials proclaiming him to be the Grand High Poobah of Creation. You’re also badly frightened. No harm in that, but you are in the way.”
Crew-Neck’s face was now so clogged with blood that Brian began to be afraid his entire head would explode. He had once seen a movie where that happened. He did not want to see it in real life. “You can’t talk to me like that! You’re not even an American citizen!”
Nick Hopewell moved so fast that Brian barely saw what was happening. At one moment the man in the crew-neck jersey was yelling into Nick’s face while Nick stood at ease beside Brian, his hands on the hips of his pressed jeans. A moment later, Crew-Neck’s nose was caught firmly between the first and second fingers of Nick’s right hand.
Crew-Neck tried to pull away. Nick’s fingers tightened... and then his hand turned slightly, in the gesture of a man tightening a screw or winding an alarm clock. Crew-Neck bellowed.
“I can break it,” Nick said softly. “Easiest thing in the world, believe me.”
Crew-Neck tried to jerk backward. His hands beat ineffectually at Nick’s arm. Nick twisted again and Crew-Neck bellowed again.
“I don’t think you heard me. I can break it. Do you understand? Signify if you have understanding.”
He twisted Crew-Neck’s nose a third time.
Crew-Neck did not just bellow this time; he screamed.
“Oh, wow,” the stoned-looking girl said from behind them. “A nose-hold.”
“I don’t have time to discuss your business appointments,” Nick said softly to Crew-Neck. “Nor do I have time to deal with hysteria masquerading as aggression. We have a nasty, perplexing situation here. You, sir, are clearly not part of the solution, and I have no intention whatever of allowing you to become part of the problem. Therefore, I am going to send you back into the main cabin. This gentleman in the red shirt—”
“Don Gaffney,” the gentleman in the red shirt said. He looked as vastly surprised as Brian felt.
“Thank you,” Nick said. He still held Crew-Neck’s nose in that amazing clamp, and Brian could now see a thread of blood lining one of the man’s pinched nostrils.
Nick pulled him closer and spoke in a warm, confidential voice.
“Mr Gaffney here will be your escort. Once you arrive in the main cabin, my buggardly friend, you will take a seat with your safety belt fixed firmly around your middle. Later, when the captain here has assured himself we are not going to fly into a mountain, a building, or another plane, we may be able to discuss our current situation at greater length. For the present, however, your input is not necessary. Do you understand all these things I have told you?”
Crew-Neck uttered a pained, outraged bellow.
“If you understand, please favor me with a thumbs-up.”
Crew-Neck raised one thumb. The nail, Brian saw, was neatly manicured.
“Fine,” Nick said. “One more thing. When I let go of your nose, you may feel vengeful. To feel that way is fine. To give vent to the feeling would be a terrible mistake. I want you to remember that what I have done to your nose I can just as easily do to your testicles. In fact, I can wind them up so far that when I let go of them, you may actually fly about the cabin like a child’s airplane. I expect you to leave with Mr—”
He looked questioningly at the man in the red shirt.
“Gaffney,” the man in the red shirt repeated.
“Gaffney, right. Sorry. I expect you to leave with Mr Gaffney. You will not remonstrate. You will not indulge in rebuttal. In fact, if you say so much as a single word, you will find yourself investigating hitherto unexplored realms of pain. Give me a thumbs-up if you understand this.”
Crew-Neck waved his thumb so enthusiastically that for a moment he looked like a hitchhiker with diarrhea.
“Right, then!” Nick said, and let go of Crew-Neck’s nose.
Crew-Neck stepped back, staring at Nick Hopewell with angry, perplexed eyes — he looked like a cat which had just been doused with a bucket of cold water. By itself, anger would have left Brian unmoved. It was the perplexity that made him feel a little sorry for Crew-Neck. He felt mightily perplexed himself.
Crew-Neck raised a hand to his nose, verifying that it was still there. A narrow ribbon of blood, no wider than the pull-strip on a pack of cigarettes, ran from each nostril. The tips of his fingers came away bloody, and he looked at them unbelievingly. He opened his mouth.
“I wouldn’t, mister,” Don Gaffney said. “Guy means it. You better come along with me.”
He took Crew-Neck’s arm. For a moment Crew-Neck resisted Gaffney’s gentle tug. He opened his mouth again.
“Bad idea,” the girl who looked stoned told him.
Crew-Neck closed his mouth and allowed Gaffney to lead him back toward the rear of first class. He looked over his shoulder once, his eyes wide and stunned, and then dabbed his fingers under his nose again.
Nick, meanwhile, had lost all interest in the man. He was peering out one of the windows. “We appear to be over the Rockies,” he said, “and we seem to be at a safe enough altitude.”
Brian looked out himself for a moment. It was the Rockies, all right, and near the center of the range, by the look. He put their altitude at about 35,000 feet. Just about what Melanie Trevor had told him. So they were fine... at least, so far.
“Come on,” he said. “Help me break down this door.”
Nick joined him in front of the door. “Shall I captain this part of the operation, Brian? I have some experience.”
“Be my guest.” Brian found himself wondering exactly how Nick Hopewell had come by his experience in twisting noses and breaking down doors. He had an idea it was probably a long story.
“It would be helpful to know how strong the lock is,” Nick said. “If we hit it too hard, we’re apt to go catapulting straight into the cockpit. I wouldn’t want to run into something that won’t bear running into.”
“I don’t know,” Brian said truthfully. “I don’t think it’s tremendously strong, though.”
“All right,” Nick said. “Turn and face me — your right shoulder pointing at the door, my left.”
“I’ll count off. We’re going to shoulder it together on three. Dip your legs as we go in; we’re more apt to pop the lock if we hit the door lower down.”
“Don’t hit it as hard as you can. About half. If that isn’t enough, we can always go again. Got it?”
“I’ve got it.”
The girl, who looked a little more awake and with it now, said: “I don’t suppose they leave a key under the doormat or anything, huh?”
Nick looked at her, startled, then back at Brian. “Do they by any chance leave a key someplace?”
Brian shook his head. “I’m afraid not. It’s an anti-terrorist precaution.”
“Of course,” Nick said. “Of course it is.” He glanced at the girl and winked. “But that’s using your head, just the same.”
The girl smiled at him uncertainly.
Nick turned back to Brian. “Ready, then?”
“Right, then. One... two... three!”
They drove forward into the door, dipping down in perfect synchronicity just before they hit it, and the door popped open with absurd ease. There was a small lip — too short by at least three inches to be considered a step between the service area and the cockpit. Brian struck this with the edge of his shoe and would have fallen sideways into the cockpit if Nick hadn’t grabbed him by the shoulder. The man was as quick as a cat.
“Right, then,” he said, more to himself than to Brian. “Let’s just see what we’re dealing with here, shall we?”
The cockpit was empty. Looking into it made Brian’s arms and neck prickle with gooseflesh. It was all well and good to know that a 767 could fly thousands of miles on autopilot, using information which had been programmed into its inertial navigation system — God knew he had flown enough miles that way himself — but it was another to see two empty seats. That was what chilled him. He had never seen an empty in-flight cockpit during his entire career.
He was seeing one now. The pilot’s controls moved by themselves, making the infinitesimal corrections necessary to keep the plane on its plotted course to Boston. The board was green. The two small wings on the plane’s attitude indicator were steady above the artificial horizon. Beyond the two small, slanted-forward windows, a billion stars twinkled in an early-morning sky.
“Oh, wow,” the teenaged girl said softly.
“Coo-eee,” Nick said at the same moment. “Look there, matey.”
Nick was pointing at a half-empty cup of coffee on the service console beside the left arm of the pilot’s seat. Next to the coffee was a Danish pastry with two bites gone. This brought Brian’s dream back in a rush, and he shivered violently.
“It happened fast, whatever it was,” Brian said. “And look there. And there.”
He pointed first to the seat of the pilot’s chair and then to the floor by the co-pilot’s scat. Two wristwatches glimmered in the lights of the controls, one a pressure-proof Rolex, the other a digital Pulsar.
“If you want watches, you can take your pick,” a voice said from behind them. “There’s tons of them back there.” Brian looked over his shoulder and saw Albert Kaussner, looking neat and very young in his small black skull-cap and his Hard Rock Cafe tee-shirt. Standing beside him was the elderly gent in the fraying sport-coat.
“Are there indeed?” Nick asked. For the first time he seemed to have lost his self-possession.
“Watches, jewelry, and glasses,” Albert said. “Also purses. But the weirdest thing is... there’s stuff I’m pretty sure came from inside people. Things like surgical pins and pacemakers.”
Nick looked at Brian Engle. The Englishman had paled noticeably. “I had been going on roughly the same assumption as our rude and loquacious friend,” he said. “That the plane set down someplace, for some reason, while I was asleep. That most of the passengers — and the crew — were somehow offloaded.”
“I would have woken the minute descent started,” Brian said. “It’s habit.” He found he could not take his eyes off the empty seats, the half-drunk cup of coffee, the half-eaten Danish.
“Ordinarily, I’d say the same,” Nick agreed, “so I decided my drink had been doped.”
I don’t know what this guy does for a living, Brian thought, but he sure doesn’t sell used cars.
“No one doped my drink,” Brian said, “because I didn’t have one.”
“Neither did I,” Albert said.
“In any case, there couldn’t have been a landing and take-off while we were sleeping,” Brian told them. “You can fly a plane on autopilot, and the Concorde can land on autopilot, but you need a human being to take one up.”
“We didn’t land, then,” Nick said.
“So where did they go, Brian?”
“I don’t know,” Brian said. He moved to the pilot’s chair and sat down.
Flight 29 was flying at 36,000 feet, just as Melanie Trevor had told him, on heading 090. An hour or two from now that would change as the plane doglegged further north. Brian took the navigator’s chart book, looked at the airspeed indicator, and made a series of rapid calculations. Then he put on the headset.
“Denver Center, this is American Pride Flight 29, over?”
He flicked the toggle... and heard nothing. Nothing at all. No static; no chatter; no ground control, no other planes. He checked the transponder setting: 7700, just as it should be. Then he flicked the toggle back to transmit again. “Denver Center, come in please, this is American Pride Flight 29, repeat, American Pride Heavy, and I have a problem, Denver, I have a problem.”
Flicked back the toggle to receive. Listened.
Then Brian did something which made Albert “Ace” Kaussner’s heart begin to bump faster with fear: he hit the control panel just below the radio equipment with the heel of his hand. The Boeing 767 was a high-tech, state-of-the-art passenger plane. One did not try to make the equipment on such a plane operate in such a fashion. What the pilot had just done was what you did when the old Philco radio you bought for a buck at the Kiwanis Auction wouldn’t play after you got it home.
Brian tried Denver Center again. And got no response. No response at all.
To this moment, Brian had been dazed and terribly perplexed. Now he began to feel frightened — really frightened — as well. Up until now there had been no time to be scared. He wished that were still so... but it wasn’t. He flicked the radio to the emergency band and tried again. There was no response. This was the equivalent of dialing 911 in Manhattan and getting a recording which said everyone had left for the weekend. When you called for help on the emergency band, you always got a prompt response.
Until now, at least, Brian thought.
He switched to UNICOM, where private pilots obtained landing advisories at small airports. No response. He listened... and heard nothing at all. Which just couldn’t be. Private pilots chattered like grackles on a telephone line. The gal in the Piper wanted to know the weather. The guy in the Cessna would just flop back dead in his seat if he couldn’t get someone to call his wife and tell her he was bringing home three extra for dinner. The guys in the Lear wanted the girl on the desk at the Arvada Airport to tell their charter passengers that they were going to be fifteen minutes late and to hold their water, they would still make the baseball game in Chicago on time.