STEADY RAIN slanting through the harsh glare of its headlights, the taxicab swung into the approach to Winnipeg Airport, screeched protestingly round the asphalt curve and, braking hard, came to a spring-shuddering stop outside the bright neons of the reception building. Its one passenger almost leaped out, tossed a couple of bills to the driver, seized an overnight bag and hurried to the swing doors.
Inside, the warmth and lights of the big hall halted him for a moment. With one hand he turned down the collar of his damp topcoat, glanced at the wall clock above him, then half strode, half ran to where the departure desk of Cross-Canada Airlines stood barlike in a corner, deserted now except for the passenger agent checking through a manifest. As the man reached him the agent picked up a small stand microphone on the desk, summoned the man to silence with a lift of his eyebrows, and with measured precision began to speak.
“Flight 98. Flight 98. Direct fleetliner service to Vancouver, with connections for Victoria, Seattle, and Honolulu, leaving immediately through gate four. All passengers for Flight 98 to gate four, please. No smoking till you are in the air.”
A group of people rose from the lounge seats, or detached themselves from a bored perusal of the newsstand, and made their way thankfully across the hall. The man in the topcoat opened his mouth to speak but was practically elbowed aside by an elderly woman stuttering in her anxiety.
“Young man,” she demanded, “is Flight 63 from Montreal in yet?”
“No, madam,” said the passenger agent smoothly. “It’s running” — he consulted his list — “approximately thirty-seven minutes late.”
“Oh, dear. I’ve arranged for my niece to be in—”
“Look,” said the man in the topcoat urgently, “have you got a seat on Flight 98 for Vancouver?”
The passenger agent shook his head. “Sorry, sir. Not one. Have you checked with Reservations?”
“Didn’t have time. Came straight to the airport on the chance of a cancellation.” The man slapped the desk in frustration. “You sometimes have one, I know.”
“Quite right, sir. But with the big game on in Vancouver tomorrow things are chock full. All our flights are completely booked — I doubt if you’ll be able to get out of here before tomorrow afternoon.”
The man swore softly, dropped his bag to the floor, and tipped his dripping felt hat to the back of his head. “Of all the lousy deals. I’ve got to be in Vancouver by tomorrow noon at the latest.”
“Don’t be so rude,” snapped the old lady testily. “I was talking. Now, young man, listen carefully. My niece is bringing with her—”
“Just a moment, madam,” cut in the passenger agent. He leaned across the desk and tapped the sleeve of the man with his pencil. “Look, I’m not supposed to tell you this—”
“Well, really!” exploded the old lady.
“There’s a charter flight in from Toronto. They’re going out to the coast for this game. I believe they were a few seats light when they came in. Perhaps you could grab one of those.”
“That’s great,” exclaimed the man in the topcoat, picking up his bag again. “Do you think there’s a chance?”
“No harm in trying.”
“Where do I ask then? Who’s the guy to see?”
The agent grinned and waved across the hall. “Right over there. The Maple Leaf Air Charter. But mind, I didn’t say a thing.”
“This is scandalous!” stormed the old lady. “I’ll have you know that my niece—”
“Thanks a lot,” said the man. He walked briskly over to a smaller desk displaying the fascia board of the air charter company, behind which another agent, this time in a dark lounge suit instead of the smart uniform of the Cross-Canada Airlines, sat busily writing. He looked up as the man arrived, pencil poised, all attention. “Sir?”
“I wonder, can you help me? Have you by any chance a seat left on a flight to Vancouver?”
“Vancouver. I’ll see.” The pencil checked rapidly down a passenger list. Then: “Uh-huh, just one. Flight’s leaving straight away, though; it’s overdue as it is.”
“That’s fine, fine. Can I have that seat, please?”
The agent reached for a ticket stub. “Name, sir?”
“George Spencer.” It was entered quickly, with the flight details.
“That’s sixty-five dollars for the one-way trip, sir. Thank you; glad to be of service. Any bags, sir?”
“Only one. I’ll keep it with me.”
In a moment the bag was weighed and labelled.
“Here you are then, sir. The ticket is your boarding pass. Go to gate three and ask for Flight 714. Please hurry, sir: the plane’s about to leave.”
Spencer nodded, turned away to give a thumbs-up to the Cross-Canada desk, where the passenger agent grimaced in acknowledgment over the old lady’s shoulder, and hurried to the departure gate. Outside, the chill night air pulsated with the whine of aero engines; as with any busy airport after dark, all seemed to be in confusion but was in fact part of a strictly regulated, unvarying pattern. A commissionaire directed him across the floodlit apron, gleaming in the rain, to a waiting aircraft whose fuselage seemed a shining silver dart in the light of the overhead arc lamps. Already men were preparing to disengage the passenger ramp. Bounding across the intervening puddles, Spencer reached them, handed over the detachable half of his ticket, and ran lightly up the steps, a gust of errant wind plucking at his hat. He ducked into the aircraft and stood there fighting to regain his breath. He was joined shortly by a stewardess, a mackintosh draped round her, who smiled and made fast the door. As she did, he felt the motors start.
“Out of condition, I guess,” he said apologetically.
“Good evening, sir. Pleased to have you aboard.”
“I was lucky to make it.”
“There’s a seat for’ard,” said the girl.
Spencer slipped out of his coat, took off his hat, and walked along the aisle till he came to the vacant seat. He bundled his coat with some difficulty into an empty spot on the luggage rack, remarking, “They never seem to make these things big enough,” to the neighboring passenger who sat looking up at him, disposed of his bag under the seat, and then sank gratefully down on to the soft cushions.
“Good evening,” came the stewardess’ sprightly voice over the public address system. “The Maple Leaf Air Charter Company welcomes aboard its new passengers to Flight 714. We hope you will enjoy your flight. Please fasten your safety belts. We shall be taking off in a few moments.”
As Spencer fumbled with his catch, the man next to him grunted, “That’s a pretty sobering sentence. Don’t often see it,” and nodded down to a small notice on the back of the seat in front reading Your lifebelt is under the seat.
Spencer laughed. “I’d certainly have been sunk if I hadn’t caught this bus,” he said.
“Oh? Pretty keen fan, eh?”
“Fan?” Spencer remembered that this was a charter flight for a ball game. “Er — no,” he said hastily. “I hadn’t given the game a thought. I hate to admit it but I’m rushing off to Vancouver to keep a business appointment. I’d sure like to see that game, but it’s out of the question, I’m afraid.”
His companion lowered his voice as conspiratorially as was possible against the rising note of the engines. “I shouldn’t say that too loudly, if I were you. This plane is crammed with squareheads who are going to Vancouver with one purpose only — and that’s to root like hell for their boys and to roar damnation and defiance at the enemy. They’re quite likely to do you harm if you use such a light tone about it.”
Spencer chuckled again and leaned out from his seat to look round the crowded cabin. There was evidence in plenty of a typical, noisy, roistering but good-natured party of sports fans traveling with the one objective of vanquishing the opposing team and triumphing with their own. To Spencer’s immediate right sat a man and his wife, their noses buried in the lurid pages of sports magazines. Behind them, four supporters were pouring rye into paper tumblers and preparing jto make a night of it by arguing the respective merits of various players; a snatch of their conversation came over to him like a breath of the field itself. “Haggerty? Haggerty? Don’t give me that stuff. He’s not in the same league as the Thunderbolt. Now there’s a man for you, if you like….” Behind the slightly alcoholic foursome were other obvious team supporters wearing favors with the colors of their team; mostly big, red-faced men intent on playing the game that lay ahead in Vancouver before it took place.
Spencer turned to the man beside him. Trained to observe detail, he noted the quiet suit, of good cut originally but now well-crumpled, the tie that didn’t match, the lined face and graying hair, the indefinable impression of confidence and authority. A face of character, Spencer decided. Behind it the blue lights of the perimeter track had begun to slide past as the aircraft rolled forward.
“I sound like a heretic,” said Spencer conversationally, “but I must confess that I’m on my way to the coast on a sales trip, and a mighty important one at that.”
His companion showed a polite interest. “What do you sell?” he inquired.
“Trucks. Lots of trucks.”
“Trucks, eh? I thought they were sold by dealers.”
“So they are. I get called for when a deal is cooking that involves maybe thirty to a hundred trucks. The local salesmen don’t like me too well because they say I’m the sharpshooter from head office with the special prices. Selling has its little problems, all right. Still, it’s a reasonable living.” Spencer rummaged for his cigarettes, then stopped himself. “Heck, I shouldn’t be smoking. We’re not in the air yet, are we?”
“If we are, we’re flying pretty low. And at nil knots.”
“Just as well, then.” Spencer stretched his legs in front of him. “Man, I’m tired. It’s been one of those goofy days that send you up the wall. Know what I mean?”
“I think so.”
“First this bird decides he likes a competitor’s trucks better after all. Then, when I’ve sold him the deal and figure I can close the order over supper tonight and be back with my wife and kids by tomorrow night, I get a wire telling me to drop everything and be in Vancouver by lunchtime tomorrow. A big contract is going off the rails there and fast. So Buster must go in and save the day.” Spencer sighed, then sat upright in mock earnestness. “Hey, if you want forty or fifty trucks today I can give you a good discount. Feel like running a fleet?”
The man beside him laughed. “Sorry, no. I couldn’t use that many, I’m afraid. A bit outside my usual line of work.”
“What line of work is that?” asked Spencer.
“A doctor, eh?”
“Yes, a doctor. And therefore of no use to you in the disposal of trucks, I’m afraid. I couldn’t afford to buy one, let alone forty. Football is the only extravagance I can allow myself, and for that I’d travel anywhere, provided I could find the time. Hence my trip tonight.”