Page 76 of Airport

Demerest replaced the p.a. mike.

Without taking his eyes from the flight instruments, Anson Harris remarked, “That was pretty good. You should be in politics.”

Demerest said sourly, “Nobody’d vote for me. Most times, people don’t like plain talking and the truth.” He was remembering bitterly the Board of Airport Commissioners meeting at Lincoln International where he urged curtailment of airport insurance vending. Plain speech there had proved disastrous. He wondered how the members of the Board, including his smooth, smug brother-in-law, would feet after learning about D. 0. Guerrero’s purchase of insurance and his maniacal intention to destroy Flight Two. Probably, Demerest thought, they would be complacent as ever, except that now instead of saying It will never happen, they would say, Well, assuming Flight Two made it back safely, and whatever was said or wasn’t, sure as hell he was going to create another big fight about airport insurance vending. The difference was: this time more people would listen. Tonight’s near disaster, however it turned out, was certain to attract a lot of press attention; he would make the most of it. He would talk bluntly to reporters about flight insurance, about the Lincoln airport commissioners, and not least about his precious brother-in-law, Mel Bakersfeld. Trans America’s public relations flacks would do their damnedest, of course, to keep him incommunicado “in the interests of company policy.” Just let them try!

The radio crackled alive. “Trans America Two, this is Cleveland Center. Lincoln advises runway three zero still temporarily out of use. They are attempting to clear obstruction before you arrive. Failing that, will land you on two five.”

Harris’s face went grim as Demerest acknowledged. Runway two five was two thousand feet shorter, as well as narrower, and at the moment with a bad crosswind. Using it would compound the hazards they already faced.

Demerest’s expression clearly reflected his reaction to the message.

They were still being thrown about severely by the storm. Most of Harris’s time was occupied by holding the aircraft reasonably steady.

Demerest swung around to the second officer. “Cy, go back with the passengers again, and take charge. See that the girls demonstrate the landing drill, and that everybody understands it. Then pick some key people who look reliable. Make sure they know where emergency exits are and how to use them. If we run out of runway, which’ll be for sure if we use two five, everything may come apart in a hurry. If that happens we’ll all try to make it back there and help, but there may not be time.”

“Yes, sir.” Once more, Jordan eased out of his flight engineer’s seat.

Demerest, still anxious for news of Gwen, would have preferred to go himself, but at this stage neither he nor Harris could leave the flight deck.

As Cy Jordan left, Dr. Compagno arrived. It was now easier to move into and from the flight deck, since Jordan had moved the smashed entrance door to one side.

Milton Compagno introduced himself briskly to Vernon Demerest. “Captain, I have the report of injuries you asked for.”

“We’re grateful to you, Doctor. If you hadn’t been here…”

Compagno waved a hand in dismissal. “Let’s do all that later.” He opened a leather-covered notebook where a slim gold pencil marked a page. It was characteristic that he had already obtained names, and recorded injuries and treatment. “Your stewardess, Miss Meighen, is the most badly hurt. She has multiple lacerations of the face and chest, with considerable bleeding. There is a compound fracture of the left arm and, of course, shock. Also, please notify whoever is making arrangements on the ground that an ophthalmic surgeon should be available immediately.”

Vernon Demerest, his face paler than usual, had been steeling himself to copy the doctor’s information onto the flight log clipboard. Now, with sudden shock, he stopped.

“An ophthalmic surgeon! You mean… her eyes?”

“I’m afraid so,” Dr. Compagno said gravely. He corrected himself. “At least, her left eye has splinters, whether wood or metal I’ve no means of knowing. It will require a specialist to decide if the retina is affected. The right eye, as far as I can tell, is unharmed.”

“Oh, God!” Feeling physically sick, Demerest put a hand to his face.

Dr. Compagno shook his head. “It’s too early to draw conclusions. Modem ophthalmic surgery can do extraordinary things. But time will be important.”

“We’ll send all you’ve told us on company radio,” Anson Harris assured him. “They’ll have time to be ready.”

“Then I’d better give you the rest.”

Mechanically, Demerest wrote down the remainder of the doctor’s report. Compared with Gwen’s injuries, those of other passengers were slight.

“I’d better get back,” Dr. Compagno said. “To see if there’s any change.”

Demerest said abruptly, “Don’t go.”

The doctor stopped, his expression curious.

“Gwen… that is, Miss Meighen…” Demerest’s voice sounded strained and awkward, even to himself. “She was… is… pregnant. Does it make any difference?”

He saw Anson Harris glance sideways in startled surprise.

The doctor answered, a shade defensively, “I had no means of knowing. The pregnancy can’t be very far advanced.”

“No,” Demerest avoided the other man’s eyes. “It isn’t.” A few minutes earlier he had resolved not to ask the question. Then he decided that he had to know.

Milton Compagno considered. “It will make no difference to her own ability to recover, of course. As to the child, the mother was not deprived of oxygen long enough to do harm… no one was. She has no abdominal injuries.” He stopped, then went on fussily, “So there should be no effect. Providing Miss Meighen survives–and with prompt hospital treatment her chances are fair to good–the baby should be born normally.”

Demerest nodded without speaking. Dr. Compagno, after a moment’s hesitation, left.

Briefly, between the two captains, there was a silence. Anson Harris broke it. “Vernon, I’d like to rest before I make the landing. Will you fly for a while?”

Demerest nodded, his hands and feet moving automatically to the controls. He was grateful for the absence of questioning or comment about Gwen. Whatever Harris was thinking or wondering, he had the decency to keep it to himself.

Harris reached for the clipboard containing Dr. Compagno’s information. “I’ll send that.” He switched radio receivers to call Trans America dispatch.

For Vernon Demerest the act of flying was a physical relief after the shock and emotion of what he had just heard. Possibly Harris had considered that, possibly not. Either way, it made sense that whoever was in command for the landing should conserve his energies.

As to the landing, hazardous as it was going to be, Anson Harris obviously assumed he would make it. Demerest–on the basis of Harris’s performance so far–saw no reason why he should not.

Harris completed his radio call, then eased his seat rearward and allowed his body to rest.

Beside him, Vernon Demerest tried to concentrate solely on flying. He did not succeed. To a pilot of experience and skill, total concentration during level flight–even in difficult circumstances, as now–was neither usual nor necessary. Though he tried to banish or postpone them, thoughts of Gwen persisted.

Gwen… whose chance of remaining alive was “fair to good,” who tonight had been bright and beautiful and full of promise, would never go to Naples now, as they had planned… Gwen, who an hour or two ago had told him in her clear, sweet English voice, I happen to love you… Gwen, whom he loved in return, despite himself, and why not face it?…

With grief and anguish he visualized her–injured, unconscious, and carrying his child; the child he urged her to dispose of like an unwanted litter… She had replied with spirit, I was wondering when you’d get around to it… Later she had been troubled. It’s a gift… that’s great and wonderful. Then suddenly, in our kind of situation you’re faced with ending it all, of squandering what was given.

But eventually, after his persuading, she conceded, Well, I suppose in the end I’ll do what’s sensible. I’ll have an abortion.

There would be no abortion now, In the kind of hospital Gwen was going to, it would not be permitted unless as a direct choice between saving the mother or the unborn child. From what Dr. Compagno had said, there seemed no likelihood of that; and afterward it would be too late.

So if Gwen came through, the baby would be born. Was he relieved or sorry? Vernon Demerest wasn’t sure.

He remembered something else, though, that Gwen had said. The difference between you and me is that you’ve had a child… whatever happens there’s always someone, somewhere that’s you again.

She had been speaking of the child whom he had never known, even by name; the girl child, born in the limbo of the Trans America 3-PPP arrangements, who had disappeared from sight immediately and forever. Tonight, under questioning, he admitted that sometimes he wondered about her. What he had not admitted was that he wondered, and remembered, more often than he cared to.

His unknown daughter was eleven years old; Demerest knew her birthday, though he tried not to remember it, but always did, wishing the same thing each year: that there was something he could do– even a simple thing like sending a greeting… He supposed it was because he and Sarah had never had a child (though both had wanted children) whose birthday he could share… At other times he asked himself questions to which he knew there could be no answers: Where was his daughter? What was she like? Was she happy? Sometimes he looked at children in the streets; if their ages seemed right, he speculated on whether, by merest chance… then chided himself for foolishness. Occasionally the thought haunted him that his daughter might be ill-treated, or need help which he had no knowledge or means to give… At the instinctive reminder, now, Vernon Demerest’s hands tightened on the control yoke.

For the first time he realized: he could never endure the same uncertainty again. His own nature demanded positiveness. He could, and would, have gone through with the abortion because that was final, definite; moreover, nothing Anson Harris had said earlier on that subject had changed his mind. True, he might have doubts, or even sorrow, afterward. But he would know.

The overhead radio speaker cut abruptly through his thoughts. “Trans America Two, this is Cleveland Center. Turn left on heading two zero five. Begin descent, when ready, to six thousand. Advise when leaving ten.”

Demerest’s hand pulled back all four throttles to begin losing altitude. He reset the flight path indicator and eased into the turn.

“Trans America Two coming on course two zero five,” Anson Harris was advising Cleveland. “We are leaving ten thousand now.”

The buffeting increased as they descended, but with every minute they were nearer destination and the hope of safety. They were also nearing the air route boundary point where, at any moment, Cleveland would hand them over to Chicago Center. After that, there would be thirty minutes flying before entering the approach control of Lincoln friternational.