8:30 P.M. - 11 P.M. (CST)



Chapter One



ONCE MORE, Joe Patroni returned to the warmth of his car and telephoned the airport. The TWA maintenance chief reported that the road between himself and the airport was still blocked by the traffic accident which had delayed him, but the chances of getting through soon looked good. Was the Aereo-Mexican 707, he inquired, still stuck in mud out on the airfield? Yes, he was informed, it was; furthermore, every few minutes, everyone concerned was calling TWA to ask where he was, and how much longer he would be, because his help was needed urgently.



Without waiting to warm himself fully, Patroni left the car and hurried back down the highway, through the still falling snow and deep slush underfoot, to where the accident had occurred.



At the moment, the scene around the wrecked tractor-trailer transport looked like a staged disaster for a wide screen movie. The mammoth vehicle still lay on its side, blocking all four traffic lanes. By now it was completely snow covered and, with none of its wheels touching ground, seemed like a dead, rolled-over dinosaur. Floodlights and flares, aided by the whiteness of the snow, made the setting seem like day. The floodlights were on the three tow trucks which Patroni had urged sending for, and all had now arrived. The brilliant red flares had been planted by state police, of whom several more had appeared, and it seemed that when a state trooper lacked something to do, he lit another flare. As a result, the display of pyrotechnics was worthy of the Fourth of July.



The arrival of a TV camera crew, a few minutes earlier, had heightened the stage effect. The self-important crew had come with blaring horn and illegal flashing beacon, driving down a shoulder of the road in a maroon station wagon blazoned WSHT. Typically, the four young men who comprised the TV crew had taken over as if the entire event had been arranged for their convenience, and all further developments could now await their pleasure. Several state troopers, having ignored the illegal beacon on the station wagon, were engaged in waving the tow trucks from their present positions into new ones, as the TV men directed.



Before he left to make his telephone call, Joe Patroni had carefully coaxed the tow trucks into locations which would give them the best leverage, together, to move the disabled tractor-trailer. As he left, the truck drivers and helpers were connecting heavy chains which he knew would take several more minutes to secure. The state police had been glad of his aid, and a burly police lieutenant, by that time in charge at the scene, had told the tow truck drivers to take their instructions from Patroni. But now, incredibly, the chains were removed, except for one which a grinning tow truck operator was handling as photofloods and a portable TV camera focused on him.



Behind the camera and lights a crowd of people, even larger than before, had assembled from other blocked vehicles. Most were watching the TV filming interestedly, their earlier impatience and the cold bleak misery of the night apparently forgotten for the moment.



A sudden gust of wind slapped icy wet snow into Joe Patroni's face. Too late, his hand went to the neck of his parka. He felt some of the snow slide in, penetrate his shirt, and soak him miserably. Ignoring the discomfort, he strode toward the state police lieutenant and demanded, "Who in hell changed the trucks? The way they're lined now, you couldn't move a peck of coondirt. All they'll do is pull each other."



"I know, Mister." The lieutenant, tall, broad-shouldered, and towering above the short, stocky figure of Patroni, appeared fleetingly embarrassed. "But the TV guys wanted a better shot. They're from a local station, and it's for the news tonight---all about the storm. Excuse me."



One of the television men---himself huddled into a heavy coat---was beckoning the lieutenant into the filming. The lieutenant, head up, and ignoring the falling snow, walked with brisk authority toward the tow truck which was the center of the film shot. Two state troopers followed. The lieutenant, being careful to keep his face toward the camera, began giving instructions, with gestures, to the tow truck operator, instructions which were largely meaningless, but on screen would look impressive.



The maintenance chief, remembering his need to get to the airport speedily, felt his anger rise. He braced himself to race out, grab the TV camera and lights, and smash them all. He could do it, too; instinctively his muscles tightened, his breathing quickened. Then, with an effort, he controlled himself.



A trait of character of Joe Patroni's was a white-hot, violent temper; fortunately the violent part was not easily set off, but once it was, all reason and logic deserted him. The exercise of control over his temper was something he had tried to learn through his years of manhood. He had not always succeeded, though nowadays a single memory helped.



On one occasion he had failed to have control. The result, forever after, haunted him.



In the Army Air Forces of World War II, Joe Patroni had been a redoubtable amateur boxer. He fought as a middleweight and, at one point, came within sight of the Air Forces championship, within his division, of the European Theater.



In a bout staged in England shortly before the Normandy invasion, he had been matched against a crew chief named Terry O'Hale, a tough, tough Bostonian with a reputation for meanness in the ring, as well as out of it. Joe Patroni, then a young Pfc. aviation mechanic, knew O'Hale and disliked him. The dislike would not have mattered if O'Hale, as a calculated part of his ring technique, had not whispered constantly, "You greasy dago wop... Whyn't you fighting for the other side, you mother lovin' Eytie?... You cheer when they shoot our ships down, dago boy?" and other pleasantries. Patroni had seen the gambit for what it was---an attempt to get him rattled---and ignored it until O'Hale landed two low blows near the groin in swift succession, which the referee, circling behind, did not observe.



The combination of insults, foul blows, and excruciating pain, produced the anger which Patroni's opponent had counted on. What he did not count on was that Joe Patroni would deliver an onslaught so swift, savage, and utterly without mercy that O'Hale went down before it and, after being counted out, was pronounced dead.



Patroni was exonerated. Although the referee had not observed the low blows, others at ringside had. Even without them, Patroni had done no more than was expected---fought to the limit of his skill and strength. Only he was aware that for the space of seconds he had been berserk, insane. Alone and later, he faced the realization that even if he had known O'Hale was dying, he could not have stopped himself.



In the end, he avoided the cliche of abandoning fighting, or "hanging up his gloves for good," as the usual fiction sequence went. He had gone on fighting, employing in the ring the whole of his physical resource, not holding back, yet testing his own control to avoid crossing the hairline between reason and berserk savagery. He succeeded, and knew that he had, because there were tests of anger where reason struggled with the wild animal inside him---and reason won. Then, and only then, did Joe Patroni quit fighting for the remainder of his life.



But control of anger did not mean dismissing it entirely. As the police lieutenant returned from camera range, Patroni confronted him heatedly. "You just blocked this road an extra twenty minutes. It took ten minutes to locate those trucks where they should be; it'll take another ten to get them back."



As he spoke, there was the sound of a jet aircraft overhead---a reminder of the reason for Joe Patroni's haste.



"Now listen, mister." The lieutenant's face suffused a deeper red than it already was from cold and wind. "Get through your head that I'm in charge here. We're glad to have help, including yours. But I'm the one who's making decisions."



"Then make one now!"



"I'll make what I'm..."



"No!---you listen to me." Joe Patroni stood glaring, uninhibited by the policeman's bulk above him. Something of the maintenance chief's contained anger, and a hint of authority, made the lieutenant hesitate.



"There's an emergency at the airport. I already explained it; and why I'm needed there." Patroni stabbed his glowing cigar through the air for emphasis. "Maybe other people have reasons for hightailing it out of here too, but mine's enough for now. There's a phone in my car. I can call my top brass, who'll call your brass, and before you know it, somebody'll be on that radio of yours asking why you're polishing your TV image instead of doing the job you're here for. So make a decision, the way you said! Do I call in, or do we move?"



The lieutenant glared wrathfully back at Joe Patroni. Briefly, the policeman seemed ready to vent his own anger, then decided otherwise. He swung his big body toward the TV crew. "Get all that crap out of here! You guys have had long enough."



One of the television men called over his shoulder, "We'll just be a few minutes more, chief."



In two strides the lieutenant was beside him. "You heard me! Right now!"



The policeman leaned down, his face still fierce from the encounter with Patroni, and the TV man visibly jumped. "Okay, okay." He motioned hastily to the others and the lights on the portable camera went out.



"Let's have those two trucks back the way they were!" The lieutenant began firing orders at the state troopers, Who moved quickly to execute them. He returned to Joe Patroni and gestured to the overturned transport; it was clear that he had decided Patroni was more use as an ally than an antagonist. "Mister, you still think we have to drag this rig? You sure we can't get it upright?"



"Only if you want to block this road till daylight. You'd have to unload the trader first, and if you do..."



"I know, [ know! Forget it! We'll pull and shove now, and worry about damage later." The lieutenant gestured to the waiting line of traffic. "If you want to get moving right after, you'd better hustle your car out of line and move up front. You want an escort to the airport?"



Patroni nodded appreciatively. "Thanks."



Ten minutes later the last pindle tow hook snapped into place. Heavy chains from one tow truck were secured around the axles of the disabled transport tractor; a stout wire cable connected the chains to the tow truck winch. A second tow truck was connected to the toppled trailer. The third tow truck was behind the trailer, ready to push.



The driver from the big transport unit, which, despite its overturning, was only partially damaged, groaned as he watched what was happening. "My bosses ain't gonna like this! That's a near-new rig. You're gonna tear it apart."



"If we do," a young state trooper told him, "we'll be finishing what you started."



"Wadda you care? Ain't nothing to you I just lost a good job," the driver grumbled back. "Maybe I should try for a soft touch next time---like bein' a lousy cop."



The trooper grinned. "Why not? You're already a lousy driver."



"You figure we're ready?" the lieutenant asked Patroni.



Joe Patroni nodded, He was crouching, observing the tautness of chains and cables. He cautioned, "Take it slow and easy. Get the cab section sliding first."



The first tow truck began pulling with its winch; its wheels skidded on snow and the driver accelerated forward, keeping the tow chain straining. The overturned transport's front portion creaked, slid a foot or two with a protesting scream of metal, then stopped.



Patroni motioned with his hand. "Keep it moving! And get the trailer started!"



The chains and cable between the trailer axles and the second tow truck tightened. The third tow truck pushed against the trailer roof. The wheels of all three tow trucks skidded as they fought for purchase on the wet, packed snow. For another two feet the tractor and trailer, still coupled together, as they had been when they rolled over, moved sideways across the highway to an accompanying ragged cheer from the crowd of onlookers. The TV camera was functioning again, its lights adding brightness to the scene.



A wide, deep gash in the road showed where the big transport had been. The tractor cab and the body of the loaded trailer were taking punishment, the trailer roof beginning to angle as one side of the trailer dragged against the road. The price to be paid---no doubt by insurers---for reopening the highway quickly would be a steep one.



Around the road blockage, two snowplows---one on either side like skirmishers---were attempting to clear as much as they could of the snow which had piled since the accident occurred. Everything and everyone, by this time, was snow covered, including Patroni, the lieutenant, state troopers, and all others in the open.



The truck motors roared again. Smoke rose from tires, spinning on wet, packed snow. Slowly, ponderously, the overturned vehicle shifted a few inches, a few feet, then slid clear across to the far side of the road. Within seconds, instead of blocking four traffic lanes, it obstructed only one. It would be a simple matter now for the three tow trucks to nudge the tractor-trailer clear of the highway onto the shoulder beyond.



State troopers were already moving flares, preparatory to untangling the monumental traffic jam which would probably occupy them for several hours to come. The sound, once again, of a jet aircraft overhead was a reminder to Joe Patroni that his principal business this night still lay elsewhere.



The state police lieutenant took off his cap and shook the snow from it. He nodded to Patroni. "I guess it's your turn, mister."



A patrol car, parked on a shoulder, was edging onto the highway. The lieutenant pointed to it. "Keep close up behind that car. I've told them you'll be following, and they've orders to get you to the airport fast."



Joe Patroni nodded. As he climbed into his Buick Wildcat, the lieutenant called after him, "And mister... Thanks!"