PRISONER CHAPTER 3 CONTACT AND LANDING

1

Eddie was awakened by an announcement from the copilot that they should be landing at Kennedy International, where the visibility was unlimited, the winds out of the west at ten miles an hour, and the temperature a jolly seventy degrees, in forty-five minutes or so. He told them that, if he didn't get another chance, he wanted to thank them one and all for choosing Detta.

He looked around and saw people checking their duty declaration cards and their proofs of citizenship求coming in from Nassau your driver's license and a credit card with a stateside bank listed on it was supposed to be enough, but most still carried passports求and Eddie felt a steel wire start to tighten inside him. He still couldn't believe he had gone to sleep, and so soundly.

He got up and went to the restroom. The bags of coke under his arms felt as if they were resting easily and firmly, fitting as nicely to the contours of his sides as they had in the hotel room where a soft-spoken American named William Wilson had strapped them on. Following the strapping operation, the man whose name Poe had made famous ( Wilson had only looked blankly at Eddie when Eddie made some allusion to this) handed over the shirt. Just an ordinary paisley shirt, a little faded, the sort of thing any frat-boy might wear back on the plane following a short pre-exams holiday ... except this one was specially tailored to hide unsightly bulges.

''You check everything once before you set down just to be sure," Wilson said, "but you're gonna be fine."

Eddie didn't know if he was going to be fine or not, but he had another reason for wanting to use the John before the FASTEN SEATBELTS light came on. In spite of all temptation求and most of last night it hadn't been temptation but raging need求he had managed to hold onto the last little bit of what the sallow thing had had the temerity to call China White.

Clearing customs from Nassau wasn't like clearing customs from Haiti or Quincon or Bogota , but there were still people watching. Trained people. He needed any and every edge he could get. If he could go in there a little cooled out, just a little, it might be the one thing that put him over the top.

He snorted the powder, flushed the little twist of paper it had been in down the John, then washed his hands.

Of course, if you make it, you'll never know, will you? he thought. No. He wouldn't. And wouldn't care.

On his way back to his seat he saw the stewardess who had brought him the drink he hadn't finished. She smiled at him. He smiled back, sat down, buckled his seat-belt, took out the flight magazine, turned the pages, and looked at pictures and words. Neither made any impression on them. That steel wire continued to tighten around his gut, and when the FASTEN SEATBELTS light did come on, it took a double turn and cinched tight.

The heroin had hit求he had the sniffles to prove it求but he sure couldn't feel it.

One thing he did feel shortly before landing was another of those unsettling periods of blankness ... short, but most definitely there.

The 727 banked over the water of Long Island Sound and started in.

2

Jane Dorning had been in the business class galley, helping Peter and Anne stow the last of the after-meal drinks glasses when the guy who looked like a college kid went into the first class bathroom.

He was returning to his seat when she brushed aside the curtain between business and first, and she quickened her step without even thinking about it, catching him with her smile, making him look up and smile back.

His eyes were hazel again.

All right, all right. He went into the John and took them out before his nap; he went into the John and put them in again afterwards. For Christ's sake, Janey! You're being a goose!

She wasn't, though. It was nothing she could put her finger on, but she was not being a goose.

He's too pale.

So what? Thousands of people are too pale, including your own mother since her gall bladder went to hell.

He had very arresting blue eyes求maybe not as cute as the hazel contacts求but certainly arresting. So why the bother and expense?

Because he likes designer eyes. Isn't that enough?

No.

Shortly before FASTEN SEATBELTS and final cross-check, she did something she had never done before; she did it with that tough old battle-axe of an instructor in mind. She filled a Thermos bottle with hot coffee and put on the red plastic top without first pushing the stopper into the bottle's throat. She screwed the top on only until she felt it catch the first thread.

Susy Douglas was making the final approach announcement, telling the geese to extinguish their cigarettes, telling them they would have to stow what they had taken out, telling them a Detta gate agent would meet the flight, telling them to check and make sure they had their duty-declaration cards and proofs of citizenship, telling them it would now be necessary to pick up all cups, glasses and speaker sets.

I'm surprised we don't have to check to make sure they're dry, Jane thought distractedly. She felt her own steel wire wrapping itself around her guts, cinching them tight.

"Get my side," Jane said as Susy hung up the mike.

Susy glanced at the Thermos, then at Jane's face. "Jane? Are you sick? You look as white as a求"

"I'm not sick. Get my side. I'll explain when you get back." Jane glanced briefly at the jump-seats beside the left-hand exit door. "I want to ride shotgun."

"Jane求"

"Get my side."

"All right," Susy said. "All right, Jane. No problem."

Jane Dorning sat down in the jump-seat closest to the aisle. She held the Thermos in her hands and made no move to fasten the web-harness. She wanted to keep the Thermos in complete control, and that meant both hands.

Susy thinks I've flipped out.

Jane hoped she had.

IfCaptain McDonald lands hard, I'm going to have blisters all over my hands.

She would risk it.

The plane was dropping. The man in 3A, the man with the two-tone eyes and the pale face, suddenly leaned down and pulled his travelling bag from under the seat.

This is it, Jane thought. This is where he brings out the grenade or the automatic weapon or whatever the hell he's got.

And the moment she saw it, the very moment, she was going to flip the red top off the Thermos in her slightly trembling hands, and there was going to be one very surprised Friend of Allah rolling around on the aisle floor of Detta Flight 901 while his skin boiled on his face.

3A unzipped the bag.

Jane got ready.

3

The gunslinger thought this man, prisoner or not, was probably better at the fine art of survival than any of the other men he had seen in the air-carriage. The others were fat things, for the most part, and even those who looked reasonably fit also looked open, unguarded, their faces those of spoiled and cosseted children, the faces of men who would fight - eventually求but who would whine almost endlessly before they did; you could let their guts out onto their shoes and their last expressions would not be rage or agony but stupid surprise.

The prisoner was better ... but not good enough. Not at all.

The army woman. She saw something. I don't know what, but she saw something wrong. She's awake to him in a way she's not to the others.

The prisoner sat down. Looked at a limp-covered book he thought of as a "Magda-Seen," although who Magda might have been or what she might have seen mattered not a whit to Roland. The gunslinger did not want to look at a book, amazing as such things were; he wanted to look at the woman in the army uniform. The urge to come forward and take control was very great. But he held against it ... at least for the time being.

The prisoner had gone somewhere and gotten a drug. Not the drug he himself took, nor one that would help cure the gunslinger's sick body, but one that people paid a lot of money for because it was against the law. He would give this drug to his brother, who would in turn give it to a man named Balazar. The deal would be complete when Balazar traded them the kind of drug they took for this one求if, that was, the prisoner was able to correctly perform a ritual unknown to the gunslinger (and a world as strange as this must of necessity have many strange rituals); it was called Clearing the Customs.

But the woman sees him.

Could she keep him from Clearing the Customs? Roland thought the answer was probably yes. And then? Gaol. And if the prisoner were gaoled, there would be no place to get the sort of medicine his infected, dying body needed.

He must Clear the Customs, Roland thought. He must. And he must go with his brother to this man Balazar. It's not in the plan, the brother won't like it, but he must.

Because a man who dealt in drugs would either know a man or be a man who also cured the sick. A man who could listen to what was wrong and then ... maybe ...

He must Clear the Customs, the gunslinger thought.

The answer was so large and simple, so close to him, that he very nearly did not see it at all. It was the drug the prisoner meant to smuggle in that would make Clearing the Customs so difficult, of course; there might be some sort of Oracle who might be consulted in the cases of people who seemed suspicious. Otherwise, Roland gleaned, the Clearing ceremony would be simplicity itself, as crossing a friendly border was in his own world. One made the sign of fealty to that kingdom's monarch求a simple token gesture求and was allowed to pass.

He was able to take things from the prisoner's world to his own. The tooter-fish popkin proved that. He would take the bags of drugs as he had taken the popkin. The prisoner would Clear the Customs. And then Roland would bring the bags of drugs back.

Can you?

Ah, here was a question disturbing enough to distract him from the view of the water below ... they had gone over what looked like a huge ocean and were now turning back toward the coastline. As they did, the water grew steadily closer. The air-carriage was coming down (Eddie's glance was brief, cursory; the gunslinger's as rapt as the child seeing his first snowfall). He could take things from this world, that he knew. But bring them back again? That was a thing of which he as yet had no knowing. He would have to find out.

The gunslinger reached into the prisoner's pocket and closed the prisoner's fingers over a coin.

Roland went back through the door.

4

The birds flew away when he sat up. They hadn't dared come as close this time. He ached; he was woozy, feverish ... yet it was amazing how much even a little bit of nourishment had revived him.

He looked at the coin he had brought back with him this time. It looked like silver, but the reddish tint at the edge suggested it was really made of some baser metal. On one side was a profile of a man whose face suggested nobility, courage, stubbornness. His hair, both curled at the base of the skull and pigged at the nape of the neck, suggested a bit of vanity as well. He turned the coin over and saw something so startling it caused him to cry out in a rusty, croaking voice.

On the back was an eagle, the device which had decorated his own banner, in those dim days when there had still been kingdoms and banners to symbolize them.

Time's short. Go back. Hurry.

But he tarried a moment longer, thinking. It was harder to think inside this head求the prisoner's was far from clear, but it was, temporarily at least, a cleaner vessel than his own.

To try the coin both ways was only half the experiment, wasn't it?

He took one of the shells from his cartridge belt and folded it over the coin in his hand.

Roland stepped back through the door.

5

The prisoner's coin was still there, firmly curled within the pocketed hand. He didn't have to come forward to check on the shell; he knew it hadn't made the trip.

He came forward anyway, briefly, because there was one thing he had to know. Had to see.

So he turned, as if to adjust the little paper thing on the back of his seat (by all the gods that ever were, there was paper everywhere in this world), and looked through the doorway. He saw his body, collapsed as before, now with a fresh trickle of blood flowing from a cut on his cheek求a stone must have done it when he left himself and crossed over.

The cartridge he had been holding along with the coin lay at the base of the door, on the sand.

Still, enough was answered. The prisoner could Clear the Customs. Their guards o' the watch might search him from head to toe, from asshole to appetite, and back again.

They'd find nothing.

The gunslinger settled back, content, unaware, at least for the time being, that he still had not grasped the extent of his problem.

6

The 727 came in low and smooth over the salt marshes of Long Island , leaving sooty trails of spent fuel behind. The landing gear came down with a rumble and a thump.

7

3A, the man with the two-tone eyes, straightened up and Jane saw求actually saw求a snub-nosed Uzi in his hands before she realized it was nothing but his duty declaration card and a little zipper bag of the sort which men sometimes use to hold their passports.

The plane settled like silk.

Letting out a deep, shaking shudder, she tightened the red top on the Thermos.

"Call me an asshole," she said in a low voice to Susy, buckling the cross-over belts now that it was too late. She had told Susy what she suspected on the final approach, so Susy would be ready. "You have every right."

"No," Susy said. "You did the right thing."

"I over-reacted. And dinner's on me."

"Like hell it is. And don't look at him. Look at me. Smile, Janey."

Jane smiled. Nodded. Wondered what in God's name was going on now.

"You were watching his hands," Susy said, and laughed. Jane joined in. "I was watching what happened to his shirt when he bent over to get his bag. He's got enough stuff under there to stock a Woolworth's notions counter. Only I don't think he's carrying the kind of stuff you can buy at Woolworth's."

Jane threw back her head and laughed again, feeling like a puppet. "How do we handle it?" Susy had five years' seniority on her, and Jane, who only a minute ago had felt she had the situation under some desperate kind of control, now only felt glad to have Susy beside her.

"We don't. Tell the Captain while we're taxiing in. The Captain speaks to customs. Your friend there gets in line like everyone else, except then he gets pulled out of line by some men who escort him to a little room. It's going to be the first in a very long succession of little rooms for him, I think."

"Jesus." Jane was smiling, but chills, alternately hot and cold, were racing through her.

She hit the pop-release on her harness when the reverse thrusters began to wind down, handed the Thermos to Susy, then got up and rapped on the cockpit door.

Not a terrorist but a drug-smuggler. Thank God for small favors. Yet in a way she hated it. He had been cute.

Not much, but a little.

8

He still doesn't see, the gunslinger thought with anger and dawning desperation. Gods!

Eddie had bent to get the papers he needed for the ritual, and when he looked up the army woman was staring at him, her eyes bulging, her cheeks as white as the paper things on the backs of the seats. The silver tube with the red top, which he had at first taken for some kind of canteen, was apparently a weapon. She was holding it up between her breasts now. Roland thought that in a moment or two she would either throw it or spin off the red top and shoot him with it.

Then she relaxed and buckled her harness even though the thump told both the gunslinger and the prisoner the aircarriage had already landed. She turned to the army woman she was sitting with and said something. The other woman laughed and nodded, but if that was a real laugh, the gunslinger thought, he was a river-toad.

The gunslinger wondered how the man whose mind had become temporary home for the gunslinger's own ka, could be so stupid. Some of it was what he was putting into his body, of course ... one of this world's versions of devil-weed. Some, but not all. He was not soft and unobservant like the others, but in time he might be.

They are as they are because they live in the light, the gunslinger thought suddenly. That light of civilization you were taught to adore above all other things. They live in a world which has not moved on.

If this was what people became in such a world, Roland was not sure he didn't prefer the dark. "That was before the world moved on," people said in his own world, and it was always said in tones of bereft sadness ... but it was, perhaps, sadness without thought, without consideration.

She thought I/he求meant to grab a weapon when I/he求bent down to get the papers. When she saw the papers she relaxed and did what everyone else did before the carriage came down to the ground again. Now she and her friend are talking and laughing but their faces求her face especially, the face of the woman with the metal tube求are not right. They are talking, all right, but they are only pretending to laugh ...and that is because what they are talking about is I/him.

The air-carriage was now moving along what seemed a long concrete road, one of many. Mostly he watched the women, but from the edges of his vision the gunslinger could see other air-carriages moving here and there along other roads. Some lumbered; some moved with incredible speed, not like carriages at all but like projectiles fired from guns or cannons, preparing to leap into the air. As desperate as his own situation had become, part of him wanted very much to come forward and turn his head so he could see these vehicles as they leaped into the sky. They were man-made but every bit as fabulous as the stories of the Grand Featherex which had supposedly once lived in the distant (and probably mythical) kingdom of Garlan求more fabulous, perhaps, simply because these were man-made.

The woman who had brought him the popkin unfastened her harness (this less than a minute since she had fastened it) and went forward to a small door. That's where the driver sits, the gunslinger thought, but when the door was opened and she stepped in he saw it apparently took three drivers to operate the air-carriage, and even the brief glimpse he was afforded of what seemed like a million dials and levers and lights made him understand why.

The prisoner was looking at all but seeing nothing求Cort would have first sneered, then driven him through the nearest wall. The prisoner's mind was completely occupied with grabbing the bag under the seat and his light jacket from the overhead bin ... and facing the ordeal of the ritual.

The prisoner saw nothing; the gunslinger saw everything.

The woman thought him a thief or a madman. He求or perhaps it was I, yes, that's likely enough求did something tomake her think that. She changed her mind, and then the other woman changed it back ...only now I think they know what's really wrong. They know he's going to try to profane the ritual.

Then, in a thunderclap, he saw the rest of his problem. First, it wasn't just a matter of taking the bags into his world as he had the coin; the coin hadn't been stuck to the prisoner's body with the glue-string the prisoner had wrapped around and around his upper body to hold the bags tight to his skin. This glue-string was only part of his problem. The prisoner hadn't missed the temporary disappearance of one coin among many, but when he realized that whatever it was he had risked his life for was suddenly gone, he was surely going to raise the racks ... and what then?

It was more than possible that the prisoner would begin to behave in a manner so irrational that it would get him locked away in gaol as quickly as being caught in the act of profanation. The loss would be bad enough; for the bags under his arms to simply melt away to nothing would probably make him think he really had gone mad.

The air-carriage, ox-like now that it was on the ground, labored its way through a left turn. The gunslinger realized that he had no time for the luxury of further thought. He had to do more than come forward; he must make contact with Eddie Dean.

Right now.

9

Eddie tucked his declaration card and passport in his breast pocket. The steel wire was now turning steadily around his guts, sinking in deeper and deeper, making his nerves spark and sizzle. And suddenly a voice spoke in his head.

Not a thought; a voice.

Listen to me, fellow. Listen carefully. And if you would remain safe, let your face show nothing which might further rouse the suspicions of those army women. God knows they're suspicious enough already.

Eddie first thought he was still wearing the airline earphones and picking up some weird transmission from the cockpit. But the airline headphones had been picked up five minutes ago.

His second thought was that someone was standing beside him and talking. He almost snapped his head to the left, but that was absurd. Like it or not, the raw truth was that the voice had come from inside his head.

Maybe he was receiving some sort of transmission求AM, FM, or VHF on the fillings in his teeth. He had heard of such th求

Straighten up, maggot! They're suspicious enough without you looking as if you've gone crazy!

Eddie sat up fast, as if he had been whacked. That voice wasn't Henry's, but it was so much like Henry's when they had been just a couple of kids growing up in the Projects, Henry eight years older, the sister who had been between them now only a ghost of memory; Selina had been struck and killed by a car when Eddie was two and Henry ten. That rasping tone of command came out whenever Henry saw him doing something that might end with Eddie occupying a pine box long before his time ... as Selina had.

What in the blue fuck is going on here?

You're not hearing voices that aren't there, the voice inside his head returned. No, not Henry's voice求older, dryer ... stronger. But like Henry's voice ... and impossible not to believe. That's the first thing. You're not going crazy. I AM another person.

This is telepathy?

Eddie was vaguely aware that his face was completely expressionless. He thought that, under the circumstances, that ought to qualify him for the Best Actor of the Year Academy Award. He looked out the window and saw the plane closing in on the Detta section of Kennedy's International Arrivals Building .

Idon't know that word. But I do know that those army women know you are carrying. ...

There was a pause. A feeling求odder beyond telling求of phantom fingers rummaging through his brain as if he were a living card catalogue.

... heroin or cocaine. I can't tell which except求except it must be cocaine because you're carrying the one you don't take to buy the one you do.

"What army women?" Eddie muttered in a low voice. He was completely unaware that he was speaking aloud. "What in the hell are you talking ab求"

That feeling of being slapped once more ... so real he felt his head ring with it.

Shut your mouth, you damned jackass!

All right, all right! Christ!

Now that feeling of rummaging fingers again.

Army stewardesses, the alien voice replied. Do you understand me? I have no time to con your every thought, prisoner!

"What did you求" Eddie began, then shut his mouth. What did you call me?

Never mind. Just listen. Time is very, very short. They know. The army stewardesses know you have this cocaine.

How could they? That's ridiculous!

I don't know how they came by their knowledge, and it doesn't matter. One of them told the drivers. The drivers will tell whatever priests perform this ceremony, this Clearing of Customs求

The language of the voice in his head was arcane, the terms so off-kilter they were almost cute ... but the message came through loud and clear. Although his face remained expressionless, Eddie's teeth came together with a painful click and he drew a hot little hiss in through them.

The voice was saying the game was over. He hadn't even gotten off the plane and the game was already over.

But this wasn't real. No way this could be real. It was just his mind, doing a paranoid little jig at the last minute, that was all. He would ignore it. Just ignore it and it would go awa求

You will NOT ignore it or you will go to jail and I will die! the voice roared.

Who in the name of God are you? Eddie asked reluctantly, fearfully, and inside his head he heard someone or something let out a deep and gusty sigh of relief.

10

He believes, the gunslinger thought. Thank all the gods that are or ever were, he believes!

11

The plane stopped. The FASTEN SEATBELTS light went out. The jetway rolled forward and bumped against the forward port door with a gentle thump.

They had arrived.

12

There is a place where you can put it while you perform the Clearing of Customs, the voice said. A safe place. Then, when you are away, you can get it again and take it to this man Balazar.

People were standing up now, getting things out of the overhead bins and trying to deal with coats which were, according to the cockpit announcement, too warm to wear.

Get your bag. Get your jacket. Then go into the privy again.

Pr求

Oh. Bathroom. Head.

Ifthey think I've got dope they'll think I'm trying to dump it.

But Eddie understood that part didn't matter. They wouldn't exactly break down the door, because that might scare the passengers. And they'd know you couldn't flush two pounds of coke down an airline toilet and leave no trace. Not unless the voice was really telling the truth ... that there was some safe place. But how could there be?

Never mind, damn you! MOVE!

Eddie moved. Because he had finally come alive to the situation. He was not seeing all Roland, with his many years and his training of mingled torture and precision, could see, but he could see the faces of the stews求the real faces, the ones behind the smiles and the helpful passing of garment bags and cartons stowed in the forward closet. He could see the way their eyes flicked to him, whiplash quick, again and again.

He got his bag. He got his jacket. The door to the jetway had been opened, and people were already moving up the aisle. The door to the cockpit was open, and here was the Captain, also smiling ... but also looking at the passengers in first class who were still getting their things together, spotting him求no, targeting him求and then looking away again, nodding to someone, tousling a youngster's head.

He was cold now. Not cold turkey, just cold. He didn't need the voice in his head to make him cold. Cold求sometimes that was okay. You just had to be careful you didn't get so cold you froze.

Eddie moved forward, reached the point where a left turn would take him into the jetway求and then suddenly put his hand to his mouth.

"I don't feel well," he murmured. "Excuse me." He moved the door to the cockpit, which slightly blocked the door to the first class head, and opened the bathroom door on the right.

"I'm afraid you'll have to exit the plane," the pilot said sharply as Eddie opened the bathroom door. "It's求"

"I believe I'm going to vomit, and I don't want to do it on your shoes," Eddie said, "or mine, either."

A second later he was in with the door locked. The Captain was saying something. Eddie couldn't make it out, didn't want to make it out. The important thing was that it was just talk, not yelling, he had been right, no one was going to start yelling with maybe two hundred and fifty passengers still waiting to deplane from the single forward door. He was in, he was temporarily safe ... but what good was it going to do him?

If you're there, he thought, you better do something very quick, whoever you are.

For a terrible moment there was nothing at all. That was a short moment, but in Eddie Dean's head it seemed to stretch out almost forever, like the Bonomo's Turkish Taffy Henry had sometimes bought him in the summer when they were kids; if he were bad, Henry beat the shit out of him, if he were good, Henry bought him Turkish Taffy. That was the way Henry handled his heightened responsibilities during summer vacation.

God, oh Christ, I imagined it all, oh Jesus, how crazy could I have b求

Get ready, a grim voice said. Ican't do it alone. I can COME FORWARD but I can't make you COME THROUGH. You have to do it with me. Turn around.

Eddie was suddenly seeing through two pairs of eyes, feeling with two sets of nerves (but not all the nerves of this other person were here; parts of the other were gone, freshly gone, screaming with pain), sensing with ten senses, thinking with two brains, his blood beating with two hearts.

He turned around. There was a hole in the side of the bathroom, a hole that looked like a doorway. Through it he could see a gray, grainy beach and waves the color of old athletic socks breaking upon it.

He could hear the waves.

He could smell salt, a smell as bitter as tears in his nose.

Go through.

Someone was thumping on the door to the bathroom, telling him to come out, that he must deplane at once.

Go through, damn you!

Eddie, moaning, stepped toward the doorway ... stumbled ... and fell into another world.

13

He got slowly to his feet, aware that he had cut his right palm on an edge of shell. He looked stupidly at the blood welling across his lifeline, then saw another man rising slowly to his feet on his right.

Eddie recoiled, his feelings of disorientation and dreamy dislocation suddenly supplanted by sharp terror: this man was dead and didn't know it. His face was gaunt, the skin stretched over the bones of his face like strips of cloth wound around slim angles of metal almost to the point where the cloth must tear itself open. The man's skin was livid save for hectic spots of red high on each cheekbone, on the neck below the angle of jaw on either side, and a single circular mark between the eyes like a child's effort to replicate a Hindu caste symbol.

Yet his eyes求blue, steady, sane求were alive and full of terrible and tenacious vitality. He wore dark clothes of some homespun material; the shirt, its sleeves rolled up, was a black faded almost to gray, the pants something that looked like bluejeans. Gunbelts crisscrossed his hips, but the loops were almost all empty. The holsters held guns that looked like .45s求but .45s of an incredibly antique vintage. The smooth wood of their handgrips seemed to glow with their own inner light.

Eddie, who didn't know he had any intention of speaking求anything to say求heard himself saying something nevertheless. "Are you a ghost?"

"Not yet," the man with the guns croaked. "The devil-weed. Cocaine. Whatever you call it. Take off your shirt."

"Your arms求" Eddie had seen them. The arms of the man who looked like the extravagant sort of gunslinger one would only see in a spaghetti western were glowing with lines of bright, baleful red. Eddie knew well enough what lines like that meant. They meant blood-poisoning. They meant the devil was doing more than breathing up your ass; he was already crawling up the sewers that led to your pumps.

"Never mind my fucking arms!" the pallid apparition told him. "Take off your shirt and get rid of it!"

He heard waves; he heard the lonely hoot of a wind that knew no obstruction; he saw this mad dying man and nothing else but desolation; yet from behind him he heard the murmuring voices of deplaning passengers and a steady muffled pounding.

"Mr. Dean!" That voice, he thought, is in another world. Not really doubting it; just trying to pound it through his head the way you'd pound a nail through a thick piece of mahogany. "You'll really have to求"

"You can leave it, pick it up later," the gunslinger croaked. "Gods, don't you understand I have to talk here? It hurts! And there is no time, you idiot!"

There were men Eddie would have killed for using such a word ... but he had an idea that he might have a job killing this man, even though the man looked like killing might do him good.

Yet he sensed the truth in those blue eyes; all questions were canceled in their mad glare.

Eddie began to unbutton his shirt. His first impulse was to simply tear it off, like Clark Kent while Lois Lane was tied to a railroad track or something, but that was no good in real life; sooner or later you had to explain those missing buttons. So he slipped them through the loops while the pounding behind him went on.

He yanked the shirt out of his jeans, pulled it off, and dropped it, revealing the strapping tape across his chest. He looked like a man in the last stages of recovery from badly fractured ribs.

He snapped a glance behind him and saw an open door ... its bottom jamb had dragged a fan shape in the gray grit of the beach when someone求the dying man, presumably求had opened it. Through the doorway he saw the first-class head, the basin, the mirror ... and in it his own desperate face, black hair spilled across his brow and over his hazel eyes. In the background he saw the gunslinger, the beach, and soaring seabirds that screeched and squabbled over God knew what.

He pawed at the tape, wondering how to start, how to find a loose end, and a dazed sort of hopelessness settled over him. This was the way a deer or a rabbit must feel when it got halfway across a country road and turned its head only to be fixated by the oncoming glare of headlights.

It had taken William Wilson, the man whose name Poe had made famous, twenty minutes to strap him up. They would have the door to the first-class bathroom open in five, seven at most.

"I can't get this shit off," he told the swaying man in front of him. "I don't know who you are or where I am, but I'm telling you there's too much tape and too little time."

14

Deere, the co-pilot, suggested Captain McDonald ought to lay off pounding on the door when McDonald, in his frustration at 3A's lack of response, began to do so.

"Where's he going to go?" Deere asked. "What's he going to do? Flush himself down the John? He's too big."

"But if he's carrying求" McDonald began.

Deere, who had himself used cocaine on more than a few occasions, said: "If he's carrying, he's carrying heavy. He can't get rid of it."

"Turn off the water," McDonald snapped suddenly.

"Already have," the navigator (who had also tooted more than his flute on occasion) said. "But I don't think it matters. You can dissolve what goes into the holding tanks but you can't make it not there." They were clustered around the bathroom door, with its OCCUPIED sign glowing jeerily, all of them speaking in low tones. "The DEA guys drain it, draw off a sample, and the guy's hung."

"He could always say someone came in before him and dumped it," McDonald replied. His voice was gaining a raw edge. He didn't want to be talking about this; he wanted to be doing something about it, even though he was acutely aware that the geese were still filing out, many looking with more than ordinary curiosity at the flight-deck crew and stewardesses gathered around the bathroom door. For their part, the crew were acutely aware that an act that was求well, overly overt求could provoke the terrorist boogeyman that now lurked in the back of every air-traveler's mind. McDonald knew his navigator and flight engineer were right, he knew that the stuff was apt to be in plastic bags with the scuzzball's prints on them, and yet he felt alarm bells going off in his mind. Something was not right about this. Something inside of him kept screaming Fast one! Fast one! as if the fellow from 3A were a riverboat gambler with palmed aces he was all ready to play.

"He's not trying to flush the John," Susy Douglas said. "He's not even trying to run the basin faucets. We'd hear them sucking air if he was. I hear something, but求"

"Leave," McDonald said curtly. His eyes flicked to Jane Dorning. "You too. We'll take care of this."

Jane turned to go, cheeks burning.

Susy said quietly: "Jane bird-dogged him and I spotted the bulges under his shirt. I think we'll stay, Captain McDonald. If you want to bring charges of insubordination, you can. But I want you to remember that you may be raping the hell out of what could be a really big DEA bust."

Their eyes locked, flint sparking off steel.

Susy said, "I've flown with you seventy, eighty times, Mac. I'm trying to be your friend."

McDonald looked at her a moment longer, then nodded. "Stay, then. But I want both of you back a step toward the cockpit."

He stood on his toes, looked back, and saw the end of the line now just emerging from tourist class into business. Two minutes, maybe three.

He turned to the gate agent at the mouth of the hatch, who was watching them closely. He must have sensed some sort of problem, because he had unholstered his walkie-talkie and was holding it in his hand.

"Tell him I want customs agents up here," McDonald said quietly to the navigator. "Three or four. Armed. Now."

The navigator made his way through the line of passengers, excusing himself with an easy grin, and spoke quietly to the gate agent, who raised his walkie-talkie to his mouth and spoke quietly into it.

McDonald求who had never put anything stronger than aspirin into his system in his entire life and that only rarely求turned to Deere. His lips were pressed into a thin white line like a scar.

"As soon as the last of the passengers are off, we're breaking that shithouse door open," he said. "I don't care if Customs is here or not. Do you understand?"

"Roger," Deere said, and watched the tail of the line make its way into first class.

15

"Get my knife," the gunslinger said. "It's in my purse."

He gestured toward a cracked leather bag lying on the sand. It looked more like a big packsack than a purse, the kind of thing you expected to see hippies carrying as they made their way along the Appalachian Trail, getting high on nature (and maybe a bomber joint every now and then), except this looked like the real thing, not just a prop for some airhead's self-image; something that had done years and years of hard求maybe desperate求travelling.

Gestured, but did not point. Couldn't point. Eddie realized why the man had a swatch of dirty shirting wrapped around his right hand: some of his fingers were gone.

"Get it," he said. "Cut through the tape. Try not to cut yourself. It's easy to do. You'll have to be careful, but you'll have to move fast just the same. There isn't much time."

"I know that," Eddie said, and knelt on the sand. None of this was real. That was it, that was the answer. As Henry Dean, the great sage and eminent junkie would have put it, Flip-flop, hippety-hop, offa your rocker and over the top, life's a fiction and the world's a lie, so put on some Creedence and let's get high.

None of it was real, it was all just an extraordinarily vivid nodder, so the best thing was just to ride low and go with the flow.

It sure was a vivid nodder. He was reaching for the zipper求or maybe it would be a velcro strip求on the man's "purse" when he saw it was held together by a crisscross pattern of rawhide thongs, some of which had broken and been carefully reknotted - reknotted small enough so they would still slide through the grommetted eyelets.

Eddie pulled the drag-knot at the top, spread the bag's opening, and found the knife beneath a slightly damp package that was the piece of shirting tied around the bullets. Just the handle was enough to take his breath away ... it was the true mellow gray-white of pure silver, engraved with a complex series of patterns that caught the eye, drew it求

Pain exploded in his ear, roared across his head, and momentarily puffed a red cloud across his vision. He fell clumsily over the open purse, struck the sand, and looked up at the pale man in the cut-down boots. This was no nodder. The blue eyes blazing from that dying face were the eyes of all truth.

"Admire it later, prisoner," the gunslinger said. "For now just use it."

He could feel his ear throbbing, swelling.

"Why do you keep calling me that?"

"Cut the tape," the gunslinger said grimly. "If they break into yon privy while you're still over here, I've got a feeling you're going to be here for a very long time. And with a corpse for company before long."

Eddie pulled the knife out of the scabbard. Not old; more than old, more than ancient. The blade, honed almost to the point of invisibility, seemed to be all age caught in metal.

"Yeah, it looks sharp," he said, and his voice wasn't steady.

16

The last passengers were filing out into the jetway. One of them, a lady of some seventy summers with that exquisite look of confusion which only first-time fliers with too many years or too little English seem capable of wearing, stopped to show Jane Dorning her tickets. "How will I ever find my plane to Montreal ?" she asked. "And what about my bags? Do they do my Customs here or there?"

"There will be a gate agent at the top of the jetway who can give you all the information you need, ma'am," Jane said.

"Well, I don't see why you can't give me all the information I need," the old woman said. "That jetway thing is still full of people."

"Move on, please, madam," Captain McDonald said. "We have a problem."

"Well, pardon me for living," the old woman said huffily, "I guess I just fell off the hearse!"

And strode past them, nose tilted like the nose of a dog scenting a fire still some distance away, tote-bag clutched in one hand, ticket-folder (with so many boarding-pass stubs sticking out of it that one might have been tempted to believe the lady had come most of the way around the globe, changing planes at every stop along the way) in the other.

"There's a lady who may never fly Detta's big jets again," Susy murmured.

"I don't give a fuck if she flies stuffed down the front of Superman's Jockies," McDonald said. "She the last?"

Jane darted past them, glanced at the seats in business class, then poked her head into the main cabin. It was deserted.

She came back and reported the plane empty.

McDonald turned to the jetway and saw two uniformed Customs agents fighting their way through the crowd, excusing themselves but not bothering to look back at the people they jostled aside. The last of these was the old lady, who dropped her ticket-folder. Papers flew and fluttered everywhere and she shrilled after them like an angry crow.

"Okay," McDonald said, "you guys stop right there."

"Sir, we're Federal Customs officers求"

"That's right, and I requested you, and I'm glad you came so fast. Now you just stand right there because this is my plane and that guy in there is one of my geese. Once he's off the plane and into the jetway, he's your goose and you can cook him any way you want." He nodded to Deere. "I'm going to give the son of a bitch one more chance and then we're going to break the door in."

"Okay by me," Deere said.

McDonald whacked on the bathroom door with the heel of his hand and yelled, "Come on out, my friend! I'm done asking!"

There was no answer.

"Okay," McDonald said. "Let's do it."

17

Dimly, Eddie heard an old woman say: "Well, pardon me for living! I guess I just fell off the hearse!"

He had parted half the strapping tape. When the old woman spoke his hand jerked a little and he saw a trickle of blood run down his belly.

"Shit," Eddie said.

"It can't be helped now," the gunslinger said in his hoarse voice. "Finish the job. Or does the sight of blood make you sick?"

"Only when it's my own," Eddie said. The tape had started just above his belly. The higher he cut the harder it got to see. He got another three inches or so, and almost cut himself again when he heard McDonald speaking to the Customs agents: "Okay, you guys stop right there."

"I can finish and maybe cut myself wide open or you can try," Eddie said. "I can't see what I'm doing. My fucking chin's in the way."

The gunslinger took the knife in his left hand. The hand was shaking. Watching that blade, honed to a suicidal sharpness, shaking like that made Eddie extremely nervous.

"Maybe I better chance it mys求"

"Wait."

The gunslinger stared fixedly at his left hand. Eddie didn't exactly disbelieve in telepathy, but he had never exactly believed in it, either. Nevertheless, he felt something now, something as real and palpable as heat baking out of an oven. After a few seconds he realized what it was: the gathering of this strange man's will.

How the hell can he be dying if I can feel the force of him that strongly?

The shaking hand began to steady down. Soon it was barely shivering. After no more than ten seconds it was as solid as a rock.

"Now," the gunslinger said. He took a step forward, raised the knife, and Eddie felt something else baking off him求rancid fever.

"Are you left-handed?" Eddie asked.

"No," the gunslinger said.

"Oh Jesus,'' Eddie said, and decided he might feel better if he closed his eyes for a moment. He heard the harsh whisper of the masking tape parting.

"There," the gunslinger said, stepping back. "Now pull it off as far as you can. I'll get the back."

No polite little knocks on the bathroom door now; this was a hammering fist. The passengers are out, Eddie thought. No more Mr. Nice Guy. Oh shit.

"Come on out, my friend! I'm done asking!"

"Yank it!" the gunslinger growled.

Eddie grabbed a thick tab of strapping tape in each hand and yanked as hard as he could. It hurt, hurt like hell. Stop bellyaching, he thought. Things could be worse. You could be hairy-chested, like Henry.

He looked down and saw a red band of irritated skin about seven inches wide across his sternum. Just above the solar plexus was the place where he had poked himself. Blood welled in a dimple and ran down to his navel in a scarlet runnel. Beneath his armpits, the bags of dope now dangled like badly tied saddlebags.

"Okay," the muffled voice beyond the bathroom door said to someone else. "Let's d求"

Eddie lost the rest of it in the unexpected riptide of pain across his back as the gunslinger unceremoniously tore the rest of the girdle from him.

He bit down against a scream.

"Put your shirt on," the gunslinger said. His face, which Eddie had thought as pallid as the face of a living man could become, was now the color of ancient ashes. He held the girdle of tape (now sticking to itself in a meaningless tangle, the big bags of white stuff looking like strange cocoons) in his left hand, then tossed it aside. Eddie saw fresh blood seeping through the makeshift bandage on the gunslinger's right hand. "Do it fast."

There was a thudding sound. This wasn't someone pounding for admittance. Eddie looked up in time to see the bathroom door shudder, to see the lights in there flicker. They were trying to break it in.

He picked his shirt up with fingers that suddenly seemed too large, too clumsy. The left sleeve was turned inside out. He tried to stuff it back through the hole, got his hand stuck for a moment, then yanked it out so hard he pulled the sleeve back again with it.

Thud, and the bathroom door shivered again.

"Gods, how can you be so clumsy?" the gunslinger moaned, and rammed his own fist into the left sleeve of Eddie's shirt. Eddie grabbed the cuff as the gunslinger pulled back. Now the gunslinger held the shirt for him as a butler might hold a coat for his master. Eddie put it on and groped for the lowest button.

"Not yet!" the gunslinger barked, and tore another piece away from his own diminishing shirt. "Wipe your gut!"

Eddie did the best he could. The dimple where the knife had actually pierced his skin was still welling blood. The blade was sharp, all right. Sharp enough.

He dropped the bloody wad of the gunslinger's shirt on the sand and buttoned his shirt.

Thud. This time the door did more than shudder; it buckled in its frame. Looking through the doorway on the beach, Eddie saw the bottle of liquid soap fall from where it had been standing beside the basin. It landed on his zipper bag.

He had meant to stuff his shirt, which was now buttoned (and buttoned straight, for a wonder), into his pants. Suddenly a better idea struck him. He unbuckled his belt instead.

"There's no time for that!" The gunslinger realized he was trying to scream and was unable. "That door's only got one hit left in it!"

"I know what I'm doing," Eddie said, hoping he did, and stepped back through the doorway between the worlds, unsnapping his jeans and raking the zipper down as he went.

After one desperate, despairing moment, the gunslinger followed him; physical and full of hot physical ache at one moment, nothing but cool ka in Eddie's head at the next.

18

"One more," McDonald said grimly, and Deere nodded. Now that all the passengers were out of the jetway as well as the plane itself, the Customs agents had drawn their weapons.

"Now!"

The two men drove forward and hit the door together. It flew open, a chunk of it hanging for a moment from the lock and then dropping to the floor.

And there sat Mr. 3A, with his pants around his knees and the tails of his faded paisley shirt concealing求barely求his jackhandle. Well, it sure does look like we caught him in the act, Captain McDonald thought wearily. Only trouble is, the act we caught him in wasn't against the law, last I heard. Suddenly he could feel the throb in his shoulder where he had hit the door求what? three times? four?

Out loud he barked, "What in hell's name are you doing in there, mister?"

"Well, I was taking a crap, " 3A said, "but if all you guys got a bad problem, I guess I could wipe myself in the terminal求"

"And I suppose you didn't hear us, smart guy?"

"Couldn't reach the door." 3A put out his hand to demonstrate, and although the door was now hanging askew against the wall to his left, McDonald could see his point. "I suppose I could have gotten up, but I, like, had a desperate situation on my hands. Except it wasn't exactly on my hands, if you get my drift. Nor did I want it on my hands, if you catch my further drift." 3A smiled a winning, slightly daffy smile which looked to Captain McDonald approximately as real as a nine-dollar bill. Listening to him, you'd think no one had ever taught him the simple trick of leaning forward.

"Get up," McDonald said.

"Be happy to. If you could just move the ladies back a little?" 3A smiled charmingly. "I know it's outdated in this day and age, but I can't help it. I'm modest. Fact is, I've got a lot to be modest about." He held up his left hand, thumb and forefinger roughly half an inch apart, and winked at Jane Dorning, who blushed bright red and immediately disappeared up the jetway, closely followed by Susy.

You don't look modest, Captain McDonald thought. You look like a cat that just got the cream, that's what you look like.

When the stews were out of sight, 3A stood and pulled up his shorts and jeans. He then reached for the flush button and Captain McDonald promptly knocked his hand away, grabbed his shoulders, and pivoted him back toward the aisle. Deere hooked a restraining hand into the back of his pants.

"Don't get personal," Eddie said. His voice was light and just right求he thought so, anyway求but inside everything was in free fall. He could feel that other, feel him clearly. He was inside his mind, watching him closely, standing steady, meaning to move in if Eddie fucked up. God, it all had to be a dream, didn't it? Didn't it?

"Stand still," Deere said.

Captain McDonald peered into the toilet.

"No shit," he said, and when the navigator let out a bray of involuntary laughter, McDonald glared at him.

"Well, you know how it is," Eddie said. "Sometimes you get lucky and it's just a false alarm. I let off a couple of real rippers, though. I mean, we're talking swamp gas. If you'd lit a match in here three minutes ago, you could have roasted a Thanksgiving turkey, you know? It must have been something I ate before I got on the plane, I g求"

"Get rid of him,'' McDonald said, and Deere, still holding Eddie by the back of the pants, propelled him out of the plane and into the jetway, where each Customs officer took one arm.

"Hey!" Eddie cried. "I want my bag! And I want my jacket!"

"Oh, we want you to have all your stuff," one of the officers said. His breath, heavy with the smell of Maalox and stomach acid, puffed against Eddie's face. "We're very interested in your stuff. Now let's go, little buddy."

Eddie kept telling them to take it easy, mellow out, he could walk just fine, but he thought later the tips of his shoes only touched the floor of the jetway three or four times between the 727's hatch and the exit to the terminal, where three more Customs officers and half a dozen airport security cops stood, the Customs guys waiting for Eddie, the cops holding back a small crowd that stared at him with uneasy, avid interest as he was led away.