20

I HAD NOT, of course, intended for anything of the sort to happen. In fact, I would have been happy to remain a model prisoner as long as the plane was in the air. As I have indicated, they kind of scare me. On the other hand, the idea of plumbing the depths of the Gulf of California trapped inside a winged plexiglass-and-metal coffin scared me even more.

My spur-of-the-moment plan, if you could call it that, had merely involved distracting and disarming Priscilla while Harsek had his hands full with the plane, and then coming to terms with the Mad Czech somehow. It wouldn’t have been easy, since a man at the controls of an aircraft has certain advantages over a passenger with a pistol he’s obviously not going to shoot unless he wants to commit suicide for everybody on board. But it had seemed worth trying. However, when you start wrestling for firearms in a confined space, anything can happen..

The plane was still heading downwards at a considerable angle and steadily increasing speed. My impulse was to strap my seat belt tighter, close my eyes, and pray for heavenly intervention, but this seemed impractical, since my praying experience has been very limited, and some truly expert praying was obviously required here, if anything was to be accomplished that way.

I remembered reading, or being told, that modern light planes are pretty good at flying themselves out of trouble if you give them a chance. I drew a long breath, unfastened my belt, leaned forward, and pulled the dead man back into his seat.

Carol was clutching at my coat and making some panicky noises, to which I paid no attention. I’d already determined that she couldn’t fly. Priscilla, bracing herself stiff-armed between the seat and the instrument panel, was staring at Harsek wide-eyed and shocked, as if waiting for him to come back to life and take over again.

It was fairly obvious that she didn’t know what to do or she’d have started doing it already, but I shouted: “Can you fly?”

Her face turned towards me. “What?”

“Can you handle this plane?”

She shook her head convulsively. “No. No, of course not. Can’t you? My God, what are we going to do?”

Still hugging Harsek with one arm, I turned the gun around and shot her. She stared at me blankly, uncomprehending. Then she died and fell back against the right hand door. I thought that was rather nice of her. At least she’d had the decency to stay off the controls.

Carol was yanking at me again. “Matt, have you gone utterly mad-” I was studying the instrument panel for inspiration. I’d seen quite a few of them on one job and another, and I’d whiled away the long hours of various secret flights trying to figure out which dial meant what; sometimes I’d even asked a silly question or two. Now was obviously the time to fuse all those scattered scraps of aeronautical information into real understanding.

“Matt-” I said without turning my head: “Get her out of here.”

“What?”

“You heard me,” I snapped. “Open the door and dump her. Then give me a hand with this one-“

“But you shot her!”

I looked aside irritably. “For God’s sake, Carol! We’ve got a dead man and an out-of-control airplane on our hands! Do you want us to keep a dangerous enemy agent around for a pet, as well? Sure I shot her. What else could I do with her? If I hadn’t, she’d have loused us up the minute she stopped being scared, and I’d most likely have been too busy to stop her. Now, for the love of Christ, let’s dump the stiffs so I can maybe do something with this berserk machine before it flies us straight into the drink!”

There followed a rather ghoulish performance that had some elements of what I think is known as black comedy. The door of an airplane traveling at well over a hundred miles per hour doesn’t open easily, and a dead body isn’t very maneuverable under the best of circumstances. I had to leave Harsek to give Carol a hand, and even then we might not have made it if the plane hadn’t obligingly executed a kind of sideways flip that released the air pressure for a moment, almost dumping out live and dead indiscriminately. I hauled Carol back inside and latched the door.

“That’s enough of that!” I panted. “One down and one to go. Climb up front there and give me some room.” I helped her over the seats. “Good girl! Now we’ll snake this one back here instead of trying to.

What’s the matter?”

Carol was staring at her hands, which had blood on them. It happens when you’re dealing with bodies freshly dead of gunshot wounds, but apparently this hadn’t occurred to her until now. Her glance shifted, horror-struck, from the blood on her hands to the smears on her sweater and life-jacket. Her face turned a pale greenish color. She gulped and looked at Harsek in a sick way.

“I…1 can’t. Matt, I just can’t bear to touch him!”

Sometimes I have serious doubts that nice girls are here to stay. They’re delightful to have around in times of noncrisis, but their survival value is open to question. They always seem to have some sentimental or fastidious reason for not doing whatever’s necessary to keep on living. I found myself remembering my former wife, another nice girl who’d been a total loss when things got messy.

I said sharply, “Snap out of it! You can puke later, Angel. Right now, just grab hold of the bloody cadaver, bravely and firmly, and give it a boost aft so I can get to those controls!”

It worked. It angered her enough so that she forgot her incipient nausea, temporarily at least; and a moment later I was in the driver’s seat, for whatever good it might do me. My surroundings looked, in some respects, like rush hour at the butcher shop, but that was irrelevant.

What was important was that the plane’s nose was down again and I was looking through the windshield at water ahead, close enough that I could see detail in the white crests of the waves. The altimeter read less than a thousand feet, dropping. I took hold of the gadget between my knees and pulled it towards me. The plane immediately made a surging, roller coaster rush skyward, and started to fall over on its side.

I hastily shoved the stick or yoke or whatever they call it back where it had been and let go of it. The motors were laboring uncertainly. I started to reach for the throttles and pulled my hand back: I didn’t really know whether we needed more power or less. The plane was flopping around in the sky like a wounded duck, but I left it alone, and presently it straightened itself out and started flying in a more reasonable manner. I took hold of the controls again, this time using only thumbs and forefingers, very gently; and I drew the thing back to me a delicate fraction of an inch at a time..

The important thing, obviously, was to get the damn bird a safe distance up into the sky so I’d have a little room to make mistakes in. Gradually, I got things sorted out after a fashion-rudder, elevator, ailerons and the works.

The altimeter began to show a profit instead of a loss. I was actually flying the machine, more or less, or it was flying me. Anyway, it began to look as if we might remain airborne for a while, and it was time to decide what to do next.

I looked around. It was full daylight now, and for a startled moment I could see nothing but water below. I had a panicky feeling we might be lost out over the Pacific, heading for China, or rather, since we still seemed to be aimed generally southwards, South America and the Antarctic. Then I saw some shadowy dots of land far behind on the right quarter. The next project, obviously, was to get our flying machine headed back that way.

It took some experimentation since a plane, I quickly learned, can’t just be steered where you want it to go, it’s got to be banked as well. Furthermore, the rudder pedals worked backwards from the way they had on the Flexible Flyer racing sled I’d used as a boy-a detail that tended to confuse me in moments of stress.

At last we were headed kind of northwest, however, and I discovered some knobs and cranks-the ones Harsek had used right after takeoff-that let me adjust things so the aircraft was flying itself without my heavy-handed guidance. Early during all these efforts, I had been aware of my passenger being violently ill, but there had been nothing I could do about it, so I’d left her to her own devices. Now she spoke, steadily enough but a little apologetically: “Aren’t you… aren’t you steering the wrong way, Matt? The mainland is east of us, isn’t it? Shouldn’t we be heading into the sun, rather than away from it?”

I said, “I’ve lost nothing on the mainland, doll. I’m looking for a crescent-shaped island and a boat about forty feet long.”

“But-” I sighed patiently. “Carol, we came on this ride to learn something, didn’t we? At least I did. There’s a place I’m supposed to find. You heard the girl. Something’s planned for the next day or two. A flaming horror, a mass catastrophe connected with this flying saucer hoax, she indicated, to be framed on the U.S. I’ve got to know where.”

“But she’s dead and so is the man-“

“The people on that boat aren’t dead, are they? If I can get us down somewhere near them, they’ll take us aboard, if only to find out what happened up here. – And then, presumably, they’ll head for wherever the action is to be, and that’s the place I want to go.”

I made a wry face. “Priscilla gave me a hint, but it was only a hint. I can’t afford to gamble when there’s a chance of making sure.”

“Sure? What’s sure about it? You don’t know how to land an airplane, do you? You’ve got to find an airport; you’ve got to have somebody telling you-“

“In Spanish?” I said. “How many flying terms do I know in Spanish? How many do I know in English? Hell, I’d fly us into the ground while I was trying to figure out what the guy was saying. Anyway, I’m doing all right for an instant aviator, aren’t I? I’ll get us down somehow.”

“And what if you kill us? How sure is that?” She drew a long breath. “Oh, all right, darling. I suppose you have to try. What can I do to help?”

I glanced at her. I guess I’d forgotten that while nice girls often have weak stomachs, there’s generally nothing fundamentally wrong with their courage. She gave me a funny, wry little smile as if she knew exactly what I was thinking.

“I.. I’m sorry I disgraced myself,” she said. “I’m not used to blood, Matt.”

“Sure.”

“Tell me what to do.”

I shrugged. “Since you ask, our friend in back should have at least three guns on him: a Luger, a Browning, and another pocket pistol belonging to our friend Solana. Priscilla handed them over to him, back there on the highway. Get them, and then strap him in. I’ll get us down, but I won’t say how. He’s a big guy and we don’t want him to come flying through the cabin when we hit.”

Carol winced. “You have the most untactful way of putting things of any man I’ve known. It would serve you right if I sicked up all over you!” She turned around, kneeling on the seat. “Here’s your arsenal. Where do you want it?”

I took the guns and looked at them. The plane was flying along docilely, no hands, at three thousand feet and a hundred and forty miles per hour. I could afford to take my attention off it for a little. I looked at the big, slim-barreled Luger with which Harsek had made his reputation, checked the loads, and dropped it into the coat pocket that already held Priscilla’s Colt.38. I glanced at the compact Browning I’d taken from Vadya’s purse, it seemed a long time ago. I rechecked that, since it had been out of my possession, and put it in the other coat pocket. I hefted Solana’s very similar automatic and started to dispose of it the same way, but stopped, frowning.

For a gun almost identical to the Browning, it had a startlingly different balance. Well, that happens. Take two shotguns of the same general type and weight but different manufacture, and one will feel light and alive while the other feels heavy and dead, depending on how the weight is distributed. The same can be true of pistols, if you’ve had experience enough to recognize it in the smaller weapons. But here the difference was so marked that a little investigation seemed indicated.

I removed the clip. It appeared to be fully loaded. I jacked the remaining cartridge out of the chamber, and it seemed to be an ordinary.380 round. I picked up the clip again, to reload, and realized belatedly that it was much too light for the five or six cartridges it was supposed to hold.

Studying it, I began to laugh. It was a very simple arrangement. There was a perfectly good cartridge in the chamber, and another in the top of the clip, so the gun would fire two shots just like any other gun. It would seem fully loaded to anyone who made a routine check. However, the lower part of the clip held no cartridges, although it was carefully camouflaged to show a gleam of brass wherever it was supposed to. I thought I had a pretty good idea of what was inside it, and it wasn’t powder and lead.

“What is it?” Carol asked. “What’s the matter with it? What’s so funny?”

I grinned. “Our friend Solana’s simpleminded plot wasn’t quite as simpleminded as it seemed. Here’s his real tracking device. The one you were carrying was just f6ol-bait.”

She flushed. “Well, I think that’s… kind of disgusting! You mean that whole act he had us go through was… wasn’t really supposed to convince anybody?”

“Well, Priscilla was obviously supposed to see through it. She was supposed to search you, and find that gadget in your boot, and relax. And all the time the real beeper was in the gun. Solana knew no pro would leave a loaded gun behind.” I laughed again. “Not bad! Hell, I could get real fond of that tricky little greaser!”

“Matt!” Carol had all the usual nice-girl horror of derogatory racial terms.

“He called us gringos, why can’t I call him a greaser? In an affectionate way, of course. But I’ll call him a clever Castilian gentleman if you prefer. Anyway, that should mean we’re not alone up here.” I looked around at the blue morning sky. “There must be a plane up there somewhere, tracking us. Well, let’s hope the pilot is on the job.” I looked down at the half-dismantled weapon in my hand, and began to reassemble it. “It means, also, that I’ve got to..change my plans a bit. I’ve got to figure out how to get this damn electronic firearm into enemy hands under very convincing circumstances, preferably without getting shot in the process “Matt, look! There’s a boat down there, heading this way. And there, off to the right, is an island shaped like a new moon. Is that the one you wanted?”

It was the island, all right, but saying that I wanted it was putting things a little too strongly. Now I had to live up to my brave words and get us down somehow, preferably alive.

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