The lieutenant glared wrathfully back at Joe Patroni. Briefly, the policeman seemed ready to vent his own anger, then decided otherwise. He swung his big body toward the TV crew. “Get all that crap out of here! You guys have had long enough.”
One of the television men called over his shoulder, “We’ll just be a few minutes more, chief.”
In two strides the lieutenant was beside him. “You heard me! Right now!”
The policeman leaned down, his face still fierce from the encounter with Patroni, and the TV man visibly jumped. “Okay, okay.” He motioned hastily to the others and the lights on the portable camera went out.
“Let’s have those two trucks back the way they were!” The lieutenant began firing orders at the state troopers, Who moved quickly to execute them. He returned to Joe Patroni and gestured to the overturned transport; it was clear that he had decided Patroni was more use as an ally than an antagonist. “Mister, you still think we have to drag this rig? You sure we can’t get it upright?”
“Only if you want to block this road till daylight. You’d have to unload the trader first, and if you do…”
“I know, [ know! Forget it! We’ll pull and shove now, and worry about damage later.” The lieutenant gestured to the waiting line of traffic. “If you want to get moving right after, you’d better hustle your car out of line and move up front. You want an escort to the airport?”
Patroni nodded appreciatively. “Thanks.”
Ten minutes later the last pindle tow hook snapped into place. Heavy chains from one tow truck were secured around the axles of the disabled transport tractor; a stout wire cable connected the chains to the tow truck winch. A second tow truck was connected to the toppled trailer. The third tow truck was behind the trailer, ready to push.
The driver from the big transport unit, which, despite its overturning, was only partially damaged, groaned as he watched what was happening. “My bosses ain’t gonna like this! That’s a near-new rig. You’re gonna tear it apart.”
“If we do,” a young state trooper told him, “we’ll be finishing what you started.”
“Wadda you care? Ain’t nothing to you I just lost a good job,” the driver grumbled back. “Maybe I should try for a soft touch next time–like bein’ a lousy cop.”
The trooper grinned. “Why not? You’re already a lousy driver.”
“You figure we’re ready?” the lieutenant asked Patroni.
Joe Patroni nodded, He was crouching, observing the tautness of chains and cables. He cautioned, “Take it slow and easy. Get the cab section sliding first.”
The first tow truck began pulling with its winch; its wheels skidded on snow and the driver accelerated forward, keeping the tow chain straining. The overturned transport’s front portion creaked, slid a foot or two with a protesting scream of metal, then stopped.
Patroni motioned with his hand. “Keep it moving! And get the trailer started!”
The chains and cable between the trailer axles and the second tow truck tightened. The third tow truck pushed against the trailer roof. The wheels of all three tow trucks skidded as they fought for purchase on the wet, packed snow. For another two feet the tractor and trailer, still coupled together, as they had been when they rolled over, moved sideways across the highway to an accompanying ragged cheer from the crowd of onlookers. The TV camera was functioning again, its lights adding brightness to the scene.
A wide, deep gash in the road showed where the big transport had been. The tractor cab and the body of the loaded trailer were taking punishment, the trailer roof beginning to angle as one side of the trailer dragged against the road. The price to be paid–no doubt by insurers–for reopening the highway quickly would be a steep one.
Around the road blockage, two snowplows–one on either side like skirmishers–were attempting to clear as much as they could of the snow which had piled since the accident occurred. Everything and everyone, by this time, was snow covered, including Patroni, the lieutenant, state troopers, and all others in the open.
The truck motors roared again. Smoke rose from tires, spinning on wet, packed snow. Slowly, ponderously, the overturned vehicle shifted a few inches, a few feet, then slid clear across to the far side of the road. Within seconds, instead of blocking four traffic lanes, it obstructed only one. It would be a simple matter now for the three tow trucks to nudge the tractor-trailer clear of the highway onto the shoulder beyond.
State troopers were already moving flares, preparatory to untangling the monumental traffic jam which would probably occupy them for several hours to come. The sound, once again, of a jet aircraft overhead was a reminder to Joe Patroni that his principal business this night still lay elsewhere.
The state police lieutenant took off his cap and shook the snow from it. He nodded to Patroni. “I guess it’s your turn, mister.”
A patrol car, parked on a shoulder, was edging onto the highway. The lieutenant pointed to it. “Keep close up behind that car. I’ve told them you’ll be following, and they’ve orders to get you to the airport fast.”
Joe Patroni nodded. As he climbed into his Buick Wildcat, the lieutenant called after him, “And mister… Thanks!”
CAPTAIN VERNON DEMEREST stood back from the cupboard door he had opened, and emitted a long, low whistle.
He was still in the kitchen of Gwen Meighen’s apartment on Stewardess Row. Gwen had not yet appeared after her shower and, while waiting, he had made tea as she suggested. It was while looking for cups and saucers that he had opened the cupboard door.
In front of him were four tightly packed shelves of bottles. All were miniature bottles of liquor–the ounce-and-a-half size which airlines served to passengers in flight. Most of the bottles had small airline labels above their brand names, and all were unopened. Making a quick calculation, Demerest estimated there were close to three hundred.
He had seen airline liquor in stewardesses’ apartments before, but never quite so much at one time.
“We have some more stashed away in the bedroom,” Gwen said brightly from behind him. “We’ve been saving them for a party. I think we’ve enough, don’t you?”
She had come into the kitchen quietly, and he turned. As always since the beginning of their affair, he found the first sight of her enchanting and refreshing. Unusual for one who never lacked confidence with women, he had at such moments a heady sense of wonder that he had ever possessed Gwen at all. She was in a trim uniform skirt and blouse which made her seem even younger than she was. Her eager, high-cheekboned face was tilted upward, her rich black hair lustrous under the kitchen lights. Gwen’s deep dark eyes regarded him with smiling, frank approval. “You can kiss me hard,” she said. “I haven’t put on makeup yet.”
He smiled, her clear melodious English voice delighting him again. As girls from upper-crust British private schools somehow managed to do, Gwen had captured all that was best in English intonation and avoided the worst. At times, Vernon Dermerest encouraged Gwen to talk, merely for the joy of hearing her speak.
Not talking now, they held each other tightly, her lips responding eagerly to his.
After a minute or so, Gwen pushed herself away. “No!” she insisted firmly. “No, Vernon dear. Not here.”
“Why not? We’ve time enough.” There was a thickness to Demerest’s voice, a rough impatience.
“Because I told you–I want to talk, and we don’t have time for both.” Gwen rearranged her blouse which had parted company with the skirt.
“Hell!” he grumbled. “You bring me to the boil, and then… Oh, all right; I’ll wait till Naples.” He kissed her more gently. “All the way to Europe you can think of me up there on the flight deck, turned to ‘simmer.’ “
“I’ll bring you to the boil again. I promise.” She laughed, and leaning close against him, passed her long slim fingers through his hair and around his face.
He groaned. “My God!–you’re doing it right now.”
“Then that’s enough.” Gwen took his hands, which were around her waist, and pushed them resolutely from her. Turning away, she moved to close the cupboard he bad been looking into.
“Hey, wait a minute. What about all those?” Demerest pointed to the miniature liquor bottles with their airline labels.
“Those?” Gwen surveyed the four crowded shelves, her eyebrows arched, then switched to an expression of injured innocence. “They’re just a few little old leftovers that passengers didn’t want. Surely, Captain, sir, you’re not going to report me for possession of leftovers.”
He said skeptically, “That many?”
“Of course.” Gwen picked up a bottle of Beefeater gin, put it down and inspected a Canadian Club whisky. “One nice thing about airlines is, they always buy the best brands. Care for one now?”
He shook his head. “You know better than that.”
“Yes, I do; but you shouldn’t sound so disapproving.”
“I just don’t want you to get caught.”
“Nobody gets caught, and almost everybody does it. Look–every first class passenger is entitled to two of these little bottles, but some passengers use only one, and there are always others who won’t have any.”
“The rules say you turn back all the unused ones.”
“Oh, for heaven’s sake! So we do–a couple for appearances, but the rest the girls divide between them. The same thing goes for wine that’s left over.” Gwen giggled. “We always like a passenger who asks for more wine near the end of a trip. That way, we can officially open a fresh bottle, pour off one glass..”
“I know. And take the rest home?”
“You want to see?” Gwen opened another cupboard door. Inside were a dozen filled wine bottles.
Demerest grinned. “I’ll be damned.”
“This isn’t all mine. My roommate and one of the girls next door have been saving theirs for the party we’re planning.” She took his arm. “You’ll come, won’t you?”
“If I’m invited, I guess.”
Gwen closed both cupboard doors. “You will be.”
They sat down in the kitchen, and she poured the tea he had made. He watched admiringly while she did it. Gwen had a way of making even a casual session like this seem an occasion.
He noticed With amusement that she produced cups from a pile in another cupboard, all bearing Trans America insignia. They were the kind the airline used in flight. He supposed he should not have been stuffy about the airline liquor bottles; after all, stewardess “perks” were nothing new. It was just that the size of the hoard amazed him.
All airline stewardesses, he was aware, discovered early in their careers that a little husbandry in airplane galleys could relieve their cost of living at home. Stewardesses learned to board their flights with personal hand baggage which was partially empty, using the space for surplus food–always of highest quality, since airlines purchased nothing but the best. A Thermos jug, brought aboard empty, was useful for carrying off spare liquids–cream or even decanted champagne. If a stewardess was really enterprising, Demerest was once assured, she could cut her weekly grocery bill in half. Only on international flights where, by law, all food–untouched or otherwise–was incinerated immediately after landing, were the girls more cautious.