“Sit down and shut up or I’ll pop you one,” Gaffney said, standing up. He had at least twenty years on Crew-Neck, but he was heavier and much broader through the chest. He had rolled the sleeves of his red flannel shirt to the elbows, and when he clenched his hands into fists, the muscles in his forearms bunched. He looked like a lumberjack just starting to soften into retirement.

Crew-Neck’s upper lip pulled back from his teeth. This doglike grimace scared Laurel, because she didn’t believe the man in the crew-neck jersey knew he was making a face. She was the first of them to wonder if this man might not be crazy.

“I don’t think you could do it alone, pops,” he said.

“He won’t have to.” It was the bald man from the business section. “I’ll take a swing at you myself, if you don’t shut up.”

Albert Kaussner mustered all his courage and said, “So will I, you putz.”

Saying it was a great relief. He felt like one of the guys at the Alamo, stepping over the line Colonel Travis had drawn in the dirt.

Crew-Neck looked around. His lip rose and fell again in that queer, doglike snarl. “I see. I see. You’re all against me. Fine.” He sat down and stared at them truculently. “But if you knew anything about the market in South American bonds—” He didn’t finish. There was a cocktail napkin sitting on the arm of the seat next to him. He picked it up, looked at it, and began to pluck at it.

“Doesn’t have to be this way,” Gaffney said. “I wasn’t born a hardass, mister, and I ain’t one by inclination, either.” He was trying to sound pleasant, Laurel thought, but wariness showed through, perhaps anger as well. “You ought to just relax and take it easy. Look on the bright side! The airline’ll probably refund your full ticket price on this trip.”

Crew-Neck cut his eyes briefly in Don Gaffney’s direction, then looked back at the cocktail napkin. He quit plucking it and began to tear it into long strips.

“Anyone here know how to run that little oven in the galley?” Baldy asked, as if nothing had happened. “I want my dinner.”

No one answered.

“I didn’t think so,” the bald man said sadly. “This is the era of specialization. A shameful time to be alive.” With this philosophical pronouncement, Baldy retreated once more to business class.

Laurel looked down and saw that, below the rims of the dark glasses with their jaunty red plastic frames, Dinah Bellman’s cheeks were wet with tears. Laurel forgot some of her own fear and perplexity, at least temporarily, and hugged the little girl. “Don’t cry, honey — that man was just upset. He’s better now.”

If you call sitting there and looking hypnotized while you tear a paper napkin into teeny shreds better, she thought.

“I’m scared,” Dinah whispered. “We all look like monsters to that man.”

“No, I don’t think so,” Laurel said, surprised and a little taken aback. “Why would you think a thing like that?”

“I don’t know,” Dinah said. She liked this woman — had liked her from the instant she heard her voice — but she had no intention of telling Laurel that for just a moment she had seen them all, herself included, looking back at the man with the loud voice. She had been inside the man with the loud voice — his name was Mr Tooms or Mr Tunney or something like that — and to him they looked like a bunch of evil, selfish trolls.

If she told Miss Lee something like that, Miss Lee would think she was crazy. Why would this woman, whom Dinah had just met, think any different?

So Dinah said nothing.

Laurel kissed the girl’s cheek. The skin was hot beneath her lips. “Don’t be scared, honey. We’re going along just as smooth as can be — can’t you feel it? — and in just a few hours we’ll be safe on the ground again.”

“That’s good. I want my Aunt Vicky, though. Where is she, do you think?”

“I don’t know, hon,” Laurel said. “I wish I did.”

Dinah thought again of the faces the yelling man saw: evil faces, cruel faces. She thought of her own face as he perceived it, a piggish baby face with the eyes hidden behind huge black lenses. Her courage broke then, and she began to weep in hoarse racking sobs that hurt Laurel’s heart. She held the girl, because it was the only thing she could think of to do, and soon she was crying herself. They cried together for nearly five minutes, and then Dinah began to calm again. Laurel looked over at the slim young boy, whose name was either Albert or Alvin, she could not remember which, and saw that his eyes were also wet. He caught her looking and glanced hastily down at his hands.

Dinah fetched one final gasping sob and then just lay with her head pillowed against Laurel’s breast. “I guess crying won’t help, huh?”

“No, I guess not,” Laurel agreed. “Why don’t you try going to sleep, Dinah?”

Dinah sighed — a watery, unhappy sound. “I don’t think I can. I was asleep.”

Tell me about it, Laurel thought. And Flight 29 continued east at 36,000 feet, flying at over five hundred miles an hour above the dark midsection of America.

Chapter 3

The Deductive Method. Accidents and Statistics. Speculative Possibilities. Pressure in the Trenches. Bethany’s Problem. The Descent Begins.

1

“That little girl said something interesting an hour or so ago,” Robert Jenkins said suddenly.

The little girl in question had gone to sleep again in the meantime, despite her doubts about her ability to do so. Albert Kaussner had also been nodding, perchance to return once more to those mythic streets of Tombstone. He had taken his violin case down from the overhead compartment and was holding it across his lap.

“Huh!” he said, and straightened up.

“I’m sorry,” Jenkins said. “Were you dozing?”

“Nope,” Albert said. “Wide awake.” He turned two large, bloodshot orbs on Jenkins to prove this. A darkish shadow lay under each. Jenkins thought he looked a little like a raccoon which has been startled while raiding garbage cans. “What did she say?”

“She told Miss Stevenson she didn’t think she could get back to sleep because she had been sleeping. Earlier.”

Albert gazed at Dinah for a moment. “Well, she’s out now,” he said.

“I see she is, but that is not the point, dear boy. Not the point at all.”

Albert considered telling Mr Jenkins that Ace Kaussner, the fastest Hebrew west of the Mississippi and the only Texan to survive the Battle of the Alamo, did not much cotton to being called dear boy, and decided to let it pass... at least for the time being. “Then what is the point?”

“I was also asleep. Corked off even before the captain — our original captain, I mean — turned off the NO SMOKING light. I’ve always been that way. Trains, busses, planes — I drift off like a baby the minute they turn on the motors. What about you, dear boy?”

“What about me what?”

“Were you asleep? You were, weren’t you?”

“Well, yeah.”

“We were all asleep. The people who disappeared were all awake.”

Albert thought about this. “Well... maybe.”

“Nonsense,” Jenkins said almost jovially. “I write mysteries for a living. Deduction is my bread and butter, you might say. Don’t you think that if someone had been awake when all those people were eliminated, that person would have screamed bloody murder, waking the rest of us?”

“I guess so,” Albert agreed thoughtfully. “Except maybe for that guy all the way in the back. I don’t think an air-raid siren would wake that guy up.”

“All right; your exception is duly noted. But no one screamed, did they? And no one has offered to tell the rest of us what happened. So I deduce that only waking passengers were subtracted. Along with the flight crew, of course.”

“Yeah. Maybe so.”

“You look troubled, dear boy. Your expression says that, despite its charms, the idea does not scan perfectly for you. May I ask why not? Have I missed something?” Jenkins’s expression said he didn’t believe that was possible, but that his mother had raised him to be polite.

“I don’t know,” Albert said honestly. “How many of us are there? Eleven?”

“Yes. Counting the fellow in the back — the one who is comatose — we number eleven.”

“If you’re right, shouldn’t there be more of us?”

“Why?”

But Albert fell silent, struck by a sudden, vivid image from his childhood. He had been raised in a theological twilight zone by parents who were not Orthodox but who were not agnostics, either. He and his brothers had grown up observing most of the dietary traditions (or laws, or whatever they were), they had had their Bar Mitzvalis, and they had been raised to know who they were, where they came from, and what that was supposed to mean. And the story Albert remembered most clearly from his childhood visits to temple was the story of the final plague which had been visited on Pharaoh — the gruesome tribute exacted by God’s dark angel of the morning.

In his mind’s eye he now saw that angel moving not over Egypt but through Flight 29, gathering most of the passengers to its terrible breast... not because they had neglected to daub their lintels (or their seat-backs, perhaps) with the blood of a lamb, but because...

Why? Because why?

Albert didn’t know, but he shivered just the same. And wished that creepy old story had never occurred to him. Let my Frequent Fliers go, he thought. Except it wasn’t funny.

“Albert?” Mr Jenkins’s voice seemed to come from a long way off. “Albert, are you all right?”

“Yes, just thinking.” He cleared his throat. “If all the sleeping passengers were, you know, passed over, there’d be at least sixty of us. Maybe more. I mean, this is the red-eye.”

“Dear boy, have you ever—”

“Could you call me Albert, Mr Jenkins? That’s my name.”

Jenkins patted Albert’s shoulder. “I’m sorry. Really. I don’t mean to be patronizing. I’m upset, and when I’m upset, I have a tendency to retreat... like a turtle pulling his head back into his shell. Only what I retreat into is fiction. I believe I was playing Philo Vance. He’s a detective — a great detective — created by the late S.S. Van Dyne. I suppose you’ve never read him. Hardly anyone does these days, which is a pity. At any rate, I apologize.”

“It’s okay,” Albert said uncomfortably.

“Albert you are and Albert you shall be from now on,” Robert Jenkins promised. “I started to ask if you’ve ever taken the red-eye before.”

“No. I’ve never even flown across the country before.”

“Well, I have. Many times. On a few occasions I have even gone against my natural inclination and stayed awake for awhile. Mostly when I was a younger man and the flights were noisier. Having said that much, I may as well date myself outrageously by admitting that my first coast-to-coast trip was on a TWA prop-job that made two stops... to refuel.”

“My observation is that very few people go to sleep on such flights during the first hour or so... and then just about everyone goes to sleep. During that first hour, people occupy themselves with looking at the scenery, talking with their spouses or their travelling companions, having a drink or two—”

“Settling in, you mean,” Albert suggested. What Mr Jenkins was saying made perfect sense to him, although he had done precious little settling in himself; he had been so excited about his coming journey and the new life which would be waiting for him that he had hardly slept at all during the last couple of nights. As a result, he had gone out like a light almost as soon as the 767 left the ground.

“Making little nests for themselves,” Jenkins agreed. “Did you happen to notice the drinks trolley outside the cockpit, dea — Albert?”

“I saw it was there,” Albert agreed.

Jenkins’s eyes shone. “Yes indeed — it was either see it or fall over it. But did you really notice it?”

“I guess not, if you saw something I didn’t.”

“It’s not the eye that notices, but the mind, Albert. The trained deductive mind. I’m no Sherlock Holmes, but I did notice that it had just been taken out of the small closet in which it is stored, and that the used glasses from the pre-flight service were still stacked on the bottom shelf. From this I deduce the following: the plane took off uneventfully, it climbed toward its cruising altitude, and the autopilot device was fortunately engaged. Then the captain turned off the seatbelt light. This would all be about thirty minutes into the flight, if I’m reading the signs correctly — about 1:00 A.M., PDT.

When the seatbelt light was turned out, the stewardesses arose and began their first task — cocktails for about one hundred and fifty at about 24,000 feet and rising. The pilot, meanwhile, has programmed the autopilot to level the plane off at 36,000 feet and fly east on heading thus-and-such. A few passengers — eleven of us, in fact — have fallen asleep. Of the rest, some are dozing, perhaps (but not deeply enough to save them from whatever happened), and the rest are all wide awake.”

“Building their nests,” Albert said.

“Exactly! Building their nests!” Jenkins paused and then added, not without some melodrama: “And then it happened!”

“What happened, Mr Jenkins?” Albert asked. “Do you have any ideas about that?”

Jenkins did not answer for a long time, and when he finally did, a lot of the fun had gone out of his voice. Listening to him, Albert understood for the first time that, beneath the slightly theatrical veneer, Robert Jenkins was as frightened as Albert was himself. He found he did not mind this; it made the elderly mystery writer in his running-to-seed sport-coat seem more real.

“The locked-room mystery is the tale of deduction at its most pure,” Jenkins said. “I’ve written a few of them myself — more than a few, to be completely honest — but I never expected to be a part of one.”

Albert looked at him and could think of no reply. He found himself remembering a Sherlock Holmes story called “The Speckled Band.” In that story a poisonous snake had gotten into the famous locked room through a ventilating duct. The immortal Sherlock hadn’t even had to wake up all his brain-cells to solve that one.

But even if the overhead luggage compartments of Flight 29 had been filled with poisonous snakes — stuffed with them — where were the bodies? Where were the bodies? Fear began to creep into him again, seeming to flow up his legs toward his vitals. He reflected that he had never felt less like that famous gunslinger Ace Kaussner in his whole life.

“If it were just the plane,” Jenkins went on softly, “I suppose I could come up with a scenario — it is, after all, how I have been earning my daily bread for the last twenty-five years or so. Would you like to hear one such scenario?”

“Sure,” Albert said.

“Very well. Let us say that some shadowy government organization like The Shop has decided to carry out an experiment, and we are the test subjects. The purpose of such an experiment, given the circumstances, might be to document the effects of severe mental and emotional stress on a number of average Americans. They, the scientists running the experiment, load the airplane’s oxygen system with some sort of odorless hypnotic drug.”