Page 8 of Runway Zero-Eight

“That’s up to you, isn’t it. Captain?” said Janet urgently. “The faster you can push this thing into Vancouver, the quicker we’ll get him and the others into hospital.” She stepped over to Pete and bent down to adjust a blanket round him, hiding the sudden tremble of tears that threatened to break through her reserve. Dun was troubled as he regarded her.

“You think a lot of him, Jan, don’t you?” he said.

Her golden head moved a little. “I — I suppose so,” she replied. “I’ve got to like him during the past few months since he joined the crew and this — this horrible business has made me…” She checked herself and jumped up. “I’ve a lot to do. Have to hold a few noses while the doctor pours water down their gullets. Not very popular, I imagine, with some of those hard-drinking types.”

She smiled quickly at him and opened the door to the passenger deck. Baird was halfway along the starboard side, talking to a middle-aged couple who stared at him nervously.

“Doctor,” the woman was saying intently, “that young girl, the stewardess — I’ve seen her keep going up to the pilots’ cabin. Are they well? I mean, supposing they’re taken ill too — what will happen to us?” She clutched at her husband. “Hector, I’m frightened. I wish we hadn’t come—”

“Now, now, dear, take it easy,” said her husband with an assurance he obviously didn’t feel. “There’s no danger, I’m sure, and nothing has happened so far.” He turned baggy, horn-rimmed eyes on the doctor. “Did the pilots have fish?”

“Not all the fish was necessarily infected,” answered Baird evasively. “Anyway, we don’t know for certain that the fish was to blame. You’ve nothing to worry about — we’ll take great care of the crew. Now, sir, did you have fish or meat?”

The man’s bulbous eyes seemed about to depart from their sockets. “Fish,” he exclaimed. “We both ate fish.” Indignation welled up in him. “I think it’s disgraceful that such a thing can happen. There ought to be an inquiry.”

“I can assure you there will be, whatever the cause.” Baird handed them each a pill, which they accepted as gingerly as if it were high explosive. “Now, you’ll be brought a jug of water. Drink three glasses each — four, if you can manage them. Then take the pill. It’ll make you sick, but that’s what it’s for. Don’t worry about it. There are paper bags in the seat pockets.”

He left the couple staring hypnotically at their pills and in a few minutes, progressing along the rows, had reached his own empty seat with Spencer sitting alongside it.

“Meat,” said Spencer promptly, before Baird could put the question.

“Good for you,” said the doctor. “That’s one less to worry about.”

“You’re having a heavy time of it, Doc, aren’t you?” Spencer commented. “Can you do with any help?”

“I can do with all the help in the world,” growled Baird. “But there’s not much you can do, unless you’d like to give Miss Benson and the other fellow a hand with the water.”

“Sure I will.” Spencer lowered his voice. “Someone back there sounds in a bad way.”

“They are in a bad way. The devil of it is,” said Baird bitterly, “I’ve got nothing I can give them that’s of any real use. You make a trip to a ball game — you don’t think to pack your bag in case a dozen people get taken sick with food poisoning on the way. I’ve a hypodermic and morphia — never travel without those — but here they may do more harm than good. God knows why I threw in a bottle of emetic pills, but it’s a good thing I did. Some dramamine would be mighty useful now.”

“What does that do?”

“In these cases the serious thing is the loss of body fluids. An injection of dramamine would help to preserve them.”

“You mean all this sickness gradually dehydrates a person?”

“Exactly.”

Spencer rubbed his chin as he digested this information. “Well,” he said, “thank God for lamb chops. I just don’t feel ready for dehydration yet.”

Baird frowned at him. “Perhaps you see some humor in this situation,” he said sourly. “I don’t. All I can see is complete helplessness while people suffer and steadily get worse.”

“Don’t ride me, Doc,” Spencer protested. “I meant nothing. I’m only too glad we didn’t get sick on the fish like the other poor devils.”

“Yes, yes, maybe you’re right.” Baird passed a hand over his eyes. “I’m getting too old for this sort of thing,” he muttered, half to himself.

“What do you mean?”

“Never mind, never mind.”

Spencer got to his feet. “Now, hold on there, Doc,” he said. “You’re doing a fine job. The luckiest thing that ever happened to these people is having you on board.”

“All right, junior,” Baird retorted sarcastically, “you can spare me the salesman’s pep talk. I’m not proposing to run out on you.”

The younger man flushed slightly. “Fair enough — I asked for that. Well, tell me what I can do. I’ve been sitting warming my seat while you’ve been hard at it. You’re tired.”

“Tired nothing.” Baird put his hand on the other man’s arm. “Take no notice of me. I worked off a bit of steam on you. Feel better for it. It’s knowing what ought to be done and not being able to do it. Makes me a little raw.”

“That’s okay,” Spencer said with a grin. “Glad to be of some use, anyway.”

“I’ll tell Miss Benson you’re willing to help if she needs you. Once the water is all given out, I think maybe you’d better stay where you are. There’s more than enough traffic in the aisle already.”

“As you say. Well, I’m here if you want me.” Spencer resumed his seat. “But tell me — just how serious is all this?”

Baird looked him in the eye. “As serious as you are ever likely to want it,” he said curtly.

He moved along to the group of football fans who had earlier in the evening imbibed whisky with such liberality. The quartet was now reduced in strength to three, and one of these sat shivering in his shirt sleeves, a blanket drawn across his chest. His color was gray.

“Keep this man warm,” said Baird. “Has he had anything to drink?”

“That’s a laugh,” replied a man behind him, shuffling a pack of cards. “He must have downed a couple of pints of rye, if I’m any judge.”

“Before or after dinner?”

“Both, I reckon.”

“That’s right,” agreed another in the group. “And I thought Harry could hold his liquor.”

“In this case it’s done him no harm,” Baird said. “In fact, it has helped to dilute the poison, I don’t doubt. Have any of you men got any brandy?”

“Cleared mine up,” said the man with the cards.

“Wait a minute,” said the other, leaning forward to get at his hip pocket. “I might have some left in the flask. We gave it a good knocking, waiting about at Toronto.”

“Give him a few sips,” instructed Baird. “Take it gently. Your friend is very ill.”

“Say, Doctor,” said the man with the cards, “what’s the score? Are we on schedule?”

“As far as I know, yes.”

“This puts paid to the ball game for Andy, eh?”

“It certainly does. We’ll get him to hospital just as soon as we land.”

“Poor old Andy,” commiserated the man with the hip flask, unscrewing the cap, “he always was an unlucky so-and-so. Hey,” he exclaimed as a thought struck him, “you say he’s pretty bad — he’ll be all right, won’t he?”

“I hope so. You’d better pay him some attention, as I said, and make sure he doesn’t throw off those blankets.”

“Fancy this happening to old Andy. What about ’Otpot, that English screwball? You drafted him?”

“Yes, he’s giving us a hand.” As Baird stepped away the man with the cards flicked them irritably in his hand and demanded of his companion, “How d’you like this for a two-day vacation?”

Further along the aisle, Baird found Janet anxiously bending over Mrs. Childer. He raised one of the woman’s eyelids. She was unconscious.

Her husband seized frantically on the doctor’s presence.

“How is she?” he implored.

“She’s better off now than when she was conscious and in pain,” said Baird, hoping he sounded convincing. “When the body can’t take any more, nature pulls down the shutter.”

“Doctor, I’m scared. I’ve never seen her so ill. Just what is this fish poisoning? What caused it? I know it was the fish, but why?”

Baird hesitated.

“Well,” he said slowly, “I guess you’ve a right to know. It’s a very serious illness, one that needs treatment at the earliest possible moment. We’re doing all we can right now.”

“I know you are, Doctor, and I’m grateful. She is going to be okay, isn’t she? I mean—”

“Of course she is,” said Baird gently. “Try not to worry. There’ll be an ambulance waiting to take her to hospital immediately we land. Then it’s only a question of treatment and time before she’s perfectly well again.”

“My God,” said Childer, heaving a deep breath, “it’s good to hear you say that.” Yes, thought Baird, but supposing I had the common guts to put it the other way? “But listen,” Childer suggested, “couldn’t we divert — you know, put down at a nearer airport?”

“We thought of that,” answered Baird, “but there’s a ground fog which would make landing at other fields highly dangerous. Anyway, we’ve now passed them and we’re over the Rockies. No, the quickest way of getting your wife under proper care is to crack on for Vancouver as fast as we can, and that’s what we’re doing.”

“I see… You still think it was the fish, do you, Doctor?”

“At present I’ve no means of telling for certain, but I think so. Food poisoning can be caused either by the food just spoiling — the medical name is staphylococcal poisoning — or it’s possible that some toxic substance has accidentally gotten into it during its preparation.”

“What kind do you think this is, Doctor?” asked a passenger in the next row who had been straining to hear Baird’s words.

“I can’t be sure, but from the effect that it’s had on the folk here I’d suspect the second cause rather than the first — a toxic substance, that is.”

“And you don’t know what it is?”

“I have no idea. We won’t know until we’re able to make proper tests in a laboratory. With modern methods of handling food — and especially the careful way in which airlines prepare food — the chances of this happening are a million to one against. We just happen to be unfortunate. I can tell you, though, that our dinner tonight didn’t come from the usual caterers. Something went wrong owing to our late arrival at Winnipeg and another firm supplied us. That may or may not have a bearing on it.”

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