IN THE CLOUD CAPTAIN'S Coffee Shop, Captain Vernon Demerest ordered tea for Gwen, black coffee for himself. Coffee---as it was supposed to do---helped keep him alert; he would probably down a dozen more cups between here and Rome. Although Captain Harris would be doing most of the flying of Flight Two tonight, Demerest had no intention of relaxing mentally. In the air, he rarely did. He was aware, as were most veteran pilots, that aviators who died in their beds of old age were those who throughout their careers had been ready to cope instantly with the unexpected.



"We're both unusually quiet," Gwen said in her gentle English voice. "We scarcely said a word coming into the terminal."



It was just a few minutes since they left the departure concourse, after announcement of the one hour flight delay. They had managed to snare a booth near the rear of the coffee shop, and now Gwen was looking into the mirror of her compact, patting her hair into place where it flowed superbly from beneath the smart Trans America stewardess cap. Her dark, expressive eyes switched briefly from the mirror to Vernon Demerest's face.



"I wasn't talking," Demerest said, "because I've been thinking; that's all."



Gwen moistened her lips, though not applying lipstick---airlines had strict rules against stewardesses applying make-up in public. In any case, Gwen used very little; her complexion was the milk and roses kind which so many English girls seemed born with.



"Thinking about what? Your traumatic experience---the announcement we're to be parents?" Gwen smiled mischievously, then recited, "Captain Vernon Waldo Demerest and Miss Gwendolyn Aline Meighen announce the approaching arrival of their first child, a... what?... We don't know, do we? We won't for another seven months. Oh well, it isn't long to wait."



He remained silent while their coffee and tea was set before them, then protested, "For God's sake, Gwen, let's be serious about this."



"Why should we be? Especially if I'm not. After all, if anyone's worrying, it ought to be me."



He was about to object again when Gwen reached for his hand under the table. Her expression changed to sympathy. "I'm sorry. I suppose it really is a bit shattering---for both of us."



It was the opening Demerest had been waiting for. He said carefully, "It needn't be shattering. What's more, we don't have to be parents unless we choose to be."



"Well," Gwen said matter-of-factly, "I was wondering when you'd get around to it." She snapped her compact close, and put it away. "You almost did in the car, didn't you? Then thought better of it."



"Thought better of what?"



"Oh really, Vernon! Why pretend? We both know perfectly well what it is you're talking about. You want me to have an abortion. You've been thinking about it ever since I told you I was pregnant. Well, haven't you?"



He nodded reluctantly. "Yes." He still found Gwen's directness disconcerting.



"What's the matter? Did you think I'd never heard about abortions before?"



Demerest glanced over his shoulder, wondering if they could be overheard, but the clatter of the coffee shop, the buzz of conversation generally, were all-pervading.



"I wasn't sure how you'd feel."



"I'm not sure either." It was Gwen's turn to be serious. She was looking down at her hands, the long slender fingers he admired so much now clasped in front of her. "I've thought about it. I still don't know."



He felt encouraged. At least there was no slammed door, no blank refusal.



He tried to make himself the voice of reason. "It's really the only sensible thing to do. Maybe in some ways it's unpleasant to think of, but at least it's over quickly, and if it's done properly, therapeutically, there's no danger involved, no fear of complications."



"I know," Gwen said. "It's all terribly simple. Now you have it; now you don't." She looked at him directly. "Right?"



"Right."



He sipped his coffee. Perhaps this was going to be easier than he had thought.



"Vernon," Gwen said softly, "have you considered that what's inside me is a human being; that it's alive, a person---even now? We made love. It's us, you and me; a part of us." Her eyes, more troubled than he had yet seen them, searched his face for a response.



He said emphatically, his voice deliberately harsh, "That isn't true. A fetus at this stage is not a human being; nor is it a person, not yet. It could be later, but it isn't now. It doesn't have life or breath or feeling. An abortion---particularly this soon---isn't the same as taking a human life."



Gwen reacted with the same quick temper she had shown in the car on their way to the airport. "You mean it might not be such a good thing later on? If we waited, then had an abortion, it might not be so ethical when the baby was perfectly formed, its fingers and toes all there. To kill it then might be a little worse than now. Is that it, Vernon?"



Demerest shook his head. "I didn't say that."



"But you implied it."



"If I did, I didn't mean to. In any case, you're twisting words around."



Gwen sighed. "I'm being womanly."



"No one's more entitled to be." He smiled; his eyes moved over her. The thought of Naples, with Gwen... a few hours from now... still excited him.



"I do love you, Vernon. I really do."



Under the table he retrieved her hand. "I know. It's why this is hard for us both."



"The thing is," Gwen said slowly, as if thinking aloud, "I've never conceived a child before, and until it happens a woman always wonders if she can. When you find out, as I have, that the answer's yes, in a way it's a gift, a feeling... that only a woman knows... that's great and wonderful. Then suddenly in our kind of situation, you're faced with ending it all, of squandering what was given." Her eyes were misty. "Do you understand, Vernon? Really understand?"



He answered gently, "Yes, I think so."



"The difference between you and me is that you've had a child."



He shook his head. "I've no children. Sarah and I..."



"Not in your marriage. But there was a child; you told me so. A little girl; the one from the 3-PPP Program"---Gwen gave the ghost of a smile---"who was adopted. Now, whatever happens there's always someone, somewhere, that's you again."



He remained silent.



Gwen asked, "Do you ever think about her? Don't you ever wonder where she is, what she's like?"



There was no reason to lie. "Yes," he said. "Sometimes I do."



"You've no means of finding out?"



He shook his head. He had once inquired, but was told that when an adoption was sealed, they threw away the files. There was no way to know---ever.



Gwen drank from her teacup. Over its rim she surveyed the crowded coffee shop. He sensed that her composure had returned; the trace of tears was gone.



She said with a smile, "Oh dear, what a lot of trouble I'm causing you."



He answered, and meant it: "It isn't my worrying that matters. It's what's best for you."



"Well, I suppose in the end I'll do what's sensible. I'll have an abortion. I just have to think it through, talk it out, first."



"When you're ready, I'll help. But we shouldn't lose much time."



"I suppose not."



"Look, Gwen," he assured her, "the whole thing is fast, and I promise you it'll be medically safe." He told her about Sweden; that he would pay whatever the clinic cost; that the airline would cooperate in getting her there.



She acknowledged, "I'll make up my mind, for sure, before we get back from this trip."



He picked up their check, and they rose to leave. It was nearing time for Gwen to be on hand to greet passengers boarding Flight Two.



As they left the coffee shop, she said, "I guess I'm pretty lucky you're the way you are. Some men would have walked away and left me."



"I won't leave you."



But he would leave her; he knew that now. When Naples and the abortion were over, he would finish with Gwen, break off their affair---as considerately as he could, but completely and definitely just the same. It would not be too difficult. There might be an uncomfortable moment or two when Gwen learned of his intention, but she was not the kind to make a fuss; she had demonstrated that already. In any event, he could handle the situation, which would not be a new one. Vernon Demerest had disentangled himself successfully from amorous affairs before.



It was true that this time there was a difference. No one before had ever had quite the same effect on him as Gwen. No other woman had stirred him quite so deeply. No one else---at least, whom he remembered---had caused him to enjoy her company, just being with her, quite so much. Parting, for himself, would not be easy, and he knew he would be tempted, later on, to change his mind.



But he would not. Through all his life so far, once he had decided on a course of action, Vernon Demerest had seen it through. Seff-discipline was a habit he enforced.



Besides, commonsense told him that if he did not break with Gwen soon, the time might come when he could not, when---self-discipline or not---he could never bring himself to give her up. If that happened, it would entail a need for permanence and, along with that, the kind of catastrophic upheaval---marital, financial, emotional---which he was determined to avoid. Ten or fifteen years ago, maybe; not now.



He touched Gwen's arm. "You go on. I'll follow in a minute."



Ahead of them, as the crowds in the central concourse parted briefly, he had observed Mel Bakersfeld. Vernon Demerest had no particular objection to being seen with Gwen; just the same, there was no sense in advertising their relationship around the family.



His brother-in-law, he noticed, was talking earnestly with Lieutenant Ned Ordway, the efficient, amiable Negro who commanded the airport police detachment. Perhaps Mel would be too absorbed to notice his sister's husband, which was perfectly all right with Demerest, who had no particular wish for a meeting, though at the same time he had no intention of avoiding one.



Gwen disappeared into the crowd; his last glimpse of her was of shapely, nylon-sheathed legs, and ankles equally as attractive and proportionate. O Sole Mio... hurry up!



Damn! Mel Bakersfeld had seen him.



"I WAS LOOKING for you," Lieutenant Ordway had told Mel a few minutes earlier. "I've just heard we're having visitors---several hundred."



Tonight the airport police chief was in uniform; a tall, striking figure who looked like an African emperor, though for one so big, he spoke with surprising softness.



"We already have visitors." Mel glanced around the crowded, bustling concourse. He had been passing through on the way to his office on the executive mezzanine. "Not hundreds; thousands."



"I don't mean passengers," Ordway said. "The ones I'm talking about may cause us more trouble."



He told Mel about the Meadowood mass meeting to protest airport noise; now the meeting had adjourned and most of its members were on their way to the airport. Lieutenant Ordway had learned about the meeting, and its intended follow-up, from a TV news crew which had requested permission to set up cameras inside the terminal. After talking with the TV people, Ordway telephoned a friend on the Tribune city desk downtown, who read him the gist of a news story which a reporter at the original meeting had just phoned in.



"Hell!" Mel grumbled. "Of all the nights to choose! As if we don't have enough trouble already."



"I guess that's the idea; they'll get noticed more that way. But I thought you'd better be warned because they'll probably want to see you, and maybe someone from the FAA."



Mel said sourly, "The FAA goes underground when they hear of something like this. They never come out until the all clear's sounded."



"How about you?" The policeman grinned. "You plan to start tunneling?"



"No. You can tell them I'll meet a delegation of half a dozen, though even that's a waste of time tonight. There's nothing I can do."



"You realize," Ordway said, "that providing they don't create a disturbance or damage property, there's nothing I can do legally to keep the rest of them out."



"Yes, I realize it, but I'm not going to talk to a mob, though just the same, let's not look for trouble. Even if we get pushed around a little, make sure we don't do any pushing ourselves unless we have to. Remember that the press will be here, and I don't want to create any martyrs."



"I already warned my men. They'll make with the jokes and save the jujitsu."



"Good!"



Mel had confidence in Ned Ordway. The policing of Lincoln International was handled by a self-administering detachment of the city force, and Lieutenant Ordway represented the best type of career policeman. He had been in charge of the airport police detail a year, and would probably move on to a more important assignment downtown soon. Mel would be sorry to see him go.



"Apart from this Meadowood thing," Mel inquired, "how's everything else been?" He was aware that Ordway's force of a hundred policemen, like most others at the airport, had done extra hours of duty since the storm began.



"Mostly routine. More drunks than usual, and a couple of fist fights. But that figures because of all the flight delays and your busy bars."



Mel grinned. "Don't knock the bars. The airport takes a percentage from every drink, and we need the revenue."



"So do airlines, I guess. At least judging by the passengers they try to sober up, so they can put them aboard. I have my usual beef about that."



"Coffee?"



"Right. The moment a passenger in his cups shows up at an airline check-in counter, somebody from passenger relations gets assigned to pour coffee into him. Airlines never seem to learn that when the coffee's in, all you have is a wide-awake drunk. Mostly, that's when they call us."



"You can handle it."



Ordway's men, Mel was aware, were expert at dealing with airport drunks, who were rarely charged unless they became obstreperous. Mostly they were salesmen and businessmen from out of town, sometimes exhausted after a grueling, competitive week, whom a few drinks on the way home hit hard. If flight crews wouldn't allow them aboard---and captains, who had the last word on such matters, were usually adamant about it---the drunks were escorted to the police detention building and left to sober up. Later, they were allowed to go---usually sheepishly.



"Oh, there is one thing," the police chief said. "The parking lot people think we have several more dumped cars. In this weather it's hard to be sure, but we'll check it out as soon as we can."



Mel grimaced. Worthless cars abandoned on parking lots were currently a plague at every big city airport. Nowadays, when an old jalopy became useless, it was surprisingly hard to get rid of it. Scrap and salvage dealers were jammed to the limits of their yards and wanted no more---unless car owners paid. So an owner was faced with the alternatives of paying for disposal, renting storage, or finding a place to abandon his vehicle where it could not be traced back to him. Airports had become obvious dumping grounds.



The old cars were driven into airport parking lots, then license plates and other obvious identification quietly removed. Engine serial numbers could not be removed, of course, but the time and trouble involved in tracing them was never worth while. It was simpler for the airport to do what the ex-owner would not---pay for the car to be taken away and junked, and as quickly as possible sitice it was occupying revenue parking space. Recently, at Lincoln International, the monthly bill for old car disposal had become formidable.



Through the shifting throng in the concourse, Mel caught sight of Captain Vernon Demerest.



"Aside from that," Ordway said genially, "we're in great shape for your Meadowood visitors. I'll let you know when they get here." With a friendly nod, the policeman moved on.



Vernon Demerest---in Trans America uniform, his bearing confident as usual---was coming Mel's way. Mel felt a surge of irritation, remembering the adverse snow committee report which he had heard about, but still hadn't seen.



Demerest seemed disinclined to stop until Mel said, "Good evening, Vernon."



"Hi." The tone was indifferent.



"I hear that you're an authority, now, on snow clearance."



"You don't have to be an authority," Vernon Demerest said brusquely, "to know when there's a lousy job being done."



Mel made an effort to keep his tone moderate. "Have you any idea how much snow there's been?"



"Probably better than you. Part of my job is studying weather reports."



"Then you're aware we've had ten inches of snow on the airport in the past twenty-four hours; to say nothing of what was there already."



Demerest shrugged. "So clear it."



"It's what we're doing."



"Goddamned inefficiently."



"The maximum recorded snowfall here---ever," Mel persisted, "was twelve inches in the same period. That was an inundation, and everything closed down. This time we've come near to it, but we haven't closed. We've fought to stay open, and we've managed it. There isn't an airport anywhere that could have coped better than we have with this storm. We've had every piece of snow-moving machinery manned around the clock."



"Maybe you haven't got enough machinery."



"Good God, Vernon! Nobody has enough equipment for the kind of storm we've had these past three days. Anybody could use more, but you don't buy snow-clearing machinery for occasional maximum situations---not if you've any economic sense. You buy for optimums, then when an emergency hits, you use everything you have, deploying it to best advantage. That's what my men have been doing, and they've done damned well!"



"Okay," Demerest said, "you have your opinion, I have mine. I happen to think you've done an incompetent job. I've said so in my report."



"I thought it was a committee report. Or did you elbow the others out so you could take a personal stab at me?"



"How the committee works is our business. The report is what matters. You'll get your copy tomorrow."



"Thanks a lot." His brother-in-law, Mel noticed, had not bothered to deny that the report was directed personally. Mel went on, "Whatever it is you've written won't change anything, but if it gives you satisfaction, it'll have a nuisance value. Tomorrow I'll have to waste time explaining how ignorant---in some areas---you really are."



Mel had spoken heatedly, not bothering to conceal his anger, and for the first time Demerest grinned. "Got under your skin a little, eh? Well, that's too bad about the nuisance value and your precious time. I'll remember it tomorrow while I'm enjoying Italian sunshine." Still grinning, he walked away.



He had not gone more than a few yards when the grin changed to a scowl.



The cause of Captain Demerest's displeasure was the central lobby insurance booth---tonight, clearly doing a brisk business. It was a reminder that Demerest's victory overr Mel Bakersfeld had been picayune, a pinprick only. A week from now, the adverse snow committee report would be forgotten, but the insurance counter would still be here. So the real victory was still with his smooth, smug brother-in-law, who had defeated Demerest's arguments in front of the Board of Airport Commissioners, and made him look a fool.



Behind the insurance counters two young girls---one of them the big-breasted blonde---were rapidly writing policies for applicants, while another half dozen people waited in line. Most of those waiting were holding cash in their hands---representing more quick profits for the insurance companies, Demerest reflected sourly---and he had no doubt the automatic vending machines in various locations in the terminal were just as busy.



He wondered if any of his own Flight Two passengers-to-be were among those in line. He was tempted to inquire and, if so, do some proselytizing of his own; but he decided not. Vernon Demerest had tried the same thing once before---urging people at an insurance counter not to buy airport flight insurance, and telling them why; and afterward there had been complaints, resulting in a sharply worded reprimand to him from Trans America management. Though airlines did not like airport insurance vending any more than aircrews did, the airlines were subject to differing pressures which forced them to stay neutral. For one thing, airport managements claimed they needed the insurance companies' revenue; if they didn't get it from that source, they pointed out, maybe the airlines would have to make up the difference in higher landing fees. For another, airlines were not eager to offend passengers, who might resent not being able to buy insurance in a way they had become used to. Therefore the pilots alone had taken the initiative---along with the abuse.



Preoccupied with his thoughts, Captain Demerest had paused for a few seconds, watching the insurance booth activity. Now he saw a newcomer join the queue---a nervous-looking man---spindly and stoop-shouldered, and with a small, sandy mustache. The man carried a small attache case and seemed to be worrying about the time; he cast frequent glances at the central lobby clock, comparing it with his own watch. He was clearly unhappy about the length of the line-up ahead of him.



Demerest thought disgustedly: the man had left himself with too little time; he should forget about insurance and get aboard his flight.



Then Demerest reminded himself: he should be back on the flight deck of Flight Two. He began to walk quickly toward the Trans America departure concourse; at any moment now the first boarding announcement would be made. Ah!---there it was.



"Trans America Airlines announces the departure of Flight Two, The Golden Argosy, for Rome..."



Captain Demerest had stayed in the terminal longer than he intended. As he hurried, the announcement, clear and audible above the babel in the concourses, continued.