THE SUBJECT of Mel's thoughts---Captain Vernon Demerest of Trans America---was at the moment, some three miles from the airport. He was driving his Mercedes 230 SL Roadster and, compared with the journey he had made to the airport earlier from home, was having little trouble negotiating local streets, which had been recently plowed. Snow was still falling heavily, abetted by a strong wind, but the fresh covering on the ground was not yet deep enough to make conditions difficult.



Demerest's destination was a group of three-story apartment blocks, close to the airport, known colloquially to flying crews as Stewardess Row. It was here that many of the stewardesses based at Lincoln International---from all airlines---maintained apartments. Each apartment was usually shared by two or three girls, and the initiated also had a name for the individual menages. They were known as stewardess nests.



The nests were often the scene of lively, off-duty parties, and sometimes headquarters for the amorous affairs which occurred, with predictable regularity, between stewardesses and male flying crews.



Taken as a whole, the stewardess nests were neither more nor less freewheeling than other apartments occupied by single girls elsewhere. The difference was that most of what transpired in the way of swinging, amoral activities, involved airline personnel.



There was good reason for this. Both the stewardesses and male crew members whom they met---captains, and first and second officers---were, without exception, high-caliber people. All had reached their jobs, which many others coveted, through a tough, exacting process of elimination in which those less talented were totally eclipsed. The comparative few who remained were the brightest and best. The result was a broth of sharp, enlightened personalities with a zest for life and the perceptiveness to appreciate one another.



Vernon Demerest, in his time, had appreciated many stewardesses, as they had appreciated him. He had, in fact, had a succession of affairs with beautiful and intelligent young women whom a monarch or a male movie idol might well have desired without attaining. The stewardesses whom Demerest and fellow pilots knew, and regularly made love to, were neither whores nor easy lays. They were, however, alive, responsive, and sexually endowed girls, who valued quality, and took it when so obviously and conveniently close to hand.



One who had taken it---so to speak---from Vernon Demerest, and seemed inclined to continue to, was a vivacious, attractive, English-born brunette, Gwen Meighen. She was a farmer's daughter who had left home to come to the United States ten years earlier at the age of eighteen. Before joining Trans America she was briefly a fashion model in Chicago. Perhaps because of her varied background, she combined an uninhibited sexuality in bed with elegance and style when out of it.



It was to Gwen Meighen's apartment that Vernon Demerest was headed now.



Later tonight, the two of them would leave for Rome on Trans America Flight Two. On the flight deck, Captain Demerest would command. In the passenger cabins, aft, Gwen Meighen would be senior stewardess. At the Rome end of the journey, there would be a three-day layover for the crew, while another crew---already in Italy for its own layover-would fly the airplane back to Lincoln International.



The word "layover" had long ago been adopted officially by airlines and was used deadpan. Possibly, whoever coined the term had a sense of humor; in any case, flying crews frequently gave it a practical application as well as its official one. Demerest and Gwen Meighen were planning a personal definition now. On arrival in Rome, they would leave immediately for Naples for a forty-eight-hour "layover" together. It was a halcyon, idyllic prospect, and Vernon Demerest smiled appreciatively at the thought of it. He was nearing Stewardess Row, and as be reminded himself of how well other things had gone this evening, his smile broadened.



He had arrived at the airport early, after leaving Sarah, his wife, who---placidly as usual---had wished him a pleasant trip. In an earlier age, Sarah might have busied herself with needlepoint or knitting during her liege's absence. As it was, he knew that as soon as he had left, she would become immersed in her curling club, bridge, and amateur oil painting which were the mainstays of her life.



Sarah Demerest's placidity, and her dullness which naturally went with it, were qualities her husband had come to accept and, in a perverse way, valued. Between flying trips and affairs with more interesting women, he thought of his sojourns at home, and sometimes spoke of them to intimates, as "going into the hangar for a stand down." His marriage had another convenience. While it existed, the women he made love to could become as emotional and demanding as they liked, but he could never be expected to meet the ultimate demand of matrimony. In this way, he had a perpetual protection against his own hasty action in the heat of passion. As to sexual intimacy with Sarah, he still obliged her occasionally, as one would play "throw the ball" with an old dog. Sarah responded dutifully, with conventional body heavings and quickened breath, though he suspected both were more from rote than passion, and that if they quit copulation entirely she would not be overly concerned. He was also sure that Sarah suspected his philandering, if not in fact, then at least by instinct. But, characteristically, she would prefer not to know, an arrangement in which Vernon Demerest was happy to cooperate.



Another thing which bad pleased him this evening was the Airlines Snow Committee report in which he had delivered a verbal kick in the crotch, aimed at his stuffed-shirt brother-in-law, Mel Bakersfeld.



The critical report had been solely Demerest's idea. The other two airline representatives on the committee had at first taken the view that the airport management was doing its best under exceptional conditions. Captain Demerest argued otherwise. The others had finally gone along with him and agreed that Demerest would personally write the report, which he made as scathing as he could. He had not bothered about accuracy or otherwise of the indictment; after all, with so much snow around, who could be sure of anything? He had, however, made certain that the widely circulated report would cause a maximum of embarrassment and irritation to Mel Bakersfeld. Copies were now being Xeroxed and would be sent to regional vice-presidents of all airlines, as well as airline headquarters, in New York and elsewhere. Knowing how everyone enjoyed finding a scapegoat for operational delays, Captain Demerest was confident that telephones and teletypes would be busy after its receipt.



A revenge, Vernon Demerest thought pleasurably---small but satisfying---had been exacted. Now, perhaps, his limping, quarter-cripple brother-in-law would think twice before antagonizing Captain Demerest and the Air Line Pilots Association, as Mel Bakersfeld had presumed to do---in public---two weeks ago.



Captain Demerest swung the Mercedes into an apartment building parking lot. He stopped the car smoothly and got out. He was a little early, he noticed---a quarter of an hour before the time he had said he would collect Gwen and drive her to the airport. He decided to go up, anyway.



As he entered the building, using the passkey Gwen had given him, he hummed softly to himself, then smiled, realizing the tune was 0 Sole Mio. Well, why not? It was appropriate. Naples... a warm night instead of snow, the view above the bay in starlight, soft music from mandolins, Chianti with dinner, and Gwen Meighen beside him.... all were less than twenty-four hours away. Yes, indeed!---O Sole Mio. He continued humming it.



In the elevator going up, he remembered another good thing. The flight to Rome would be an easy one.



Tonight, though Captain Demerest was in command of Flight Two---The Golden Argosy---he would do little of the work which the flight entailed. The reason was that he was flying as a line check captain. Another four-striper captain---Anson Harris, almost as senior as Demerest himself---had been assigned to the flight and would occupy the command pilot's left seat. Demerest would use the right seat---normally the first officer's position---from where he would observe and report on Captain Harris's performance.



The check flight arrangement had come up because Captain Harris had elected to transfer from Trans America domestic operations to international. However, before flying as a full-fledged international captain, he was required to make two flights over an overseas route with a regular line captain who also held instructor's qualifications. Vernon Demerest did.



After Captain Harris's two flights, of which tonight's would be the second, he would be given a final check by a senior supervisory captain before being accepted for international command.



Such checks---as well as regular six-monthly check flights, which all pilots of all airlines were required to undergo---entailed an aerial scrutiny of ability and flying habits. The checks took place on ordinary scheduled flights, and the only indication a passenger might have that one was in progress would be the presence of two four-striper captains on the flight deck up front.



Despite the fact that captains checked each other, the tests, both regular and special, were usually serious, exacting sessions. The pilots wanted them that way. Too much was at stake---public safety and high professional standards---for any mutual back-scratching, or for weaknesses to be overlooked. A captain being checked was aware that he must measure up to required standards in all respects. Failure to do so would mean an automatic adverse report which, if serious enough, could lead to an even tougher session with the airline's chief pilot, with the testee's job in jeopardy.



Yet, while performance standards were not relaxed, senior captains undergoing flight checks were treated by their colleagues with meticulous courtesy. Except by Vernon Demerest.



Demerest treated any pilot he was assigned to test, junior or senior to himself, in precisely the same way---like an errant schoolboy summoned to the headmaster's presence. Moreover, in the headmaster's role, Demerest was officious, arrogant, condescending, and tough. He made no secret of his conviction that no one else's ability as a pilot was superior to his own. Colleagues who received this brand of treatment raged inwardly, but had no choice but to sit and take it. Subsequently they vowed to one another that when Demerest's own time came they would give him the meanest, toughest check ride he had ever had. They invariably did, with a single consistent result---Vernon Demerest turned in a flawless performance which could not be faulted.



This afternoon, characteristically, Demerest prefaced his check session by telephoning Captain Anson Harris at home. "It'll be a bad night for driving," Demerest said without preamble. "I like my crew to be punctual, so I suggest you allow plenty of time to get to the airport."



Anson Harris, who in twenty-two unblemished years with Trans America had never been late for a single flight, was so outraged, he almost choked. Fortunately, before Harris could get any words out, Captain Demerest hung up.



Still fuming, but to make absolutely sure that Demerest would not catch him out, Captain Harris had arrived at the airport almost three hours ahead of flight time instead of the usual one hour. Captain Demerest, fresh from his stint with the Airlines Snow Committee, had encountered Harris in the Cloud Captain's Coffee Shop. Demerest was wearing a sports jacket and slacks; he kept a spare uniform in his airport locker and planned to change into it later. Captain Harris, a graying, grizzled veteran whom many younger pilots addressed as "sir," was in Trans America uniform.



"Hi, Anson." Vernon Demerest dropped into an adjoining seat at the counter. "I see you took my good advice."



Captain Harris's grip on his coffee cup tightened slightly, but all he said was, "Good evening, Vern."



"We'll start the pre-flight briefing twenty minutes earlier than usual," Demerest said. "I want to check your flight manuals."



Thank God, Harris thought, his wife had gone through his manuals only yesterday, inserting the very latest amendments. But he had better check his mail slot in the dispatch office. This bastard was likely to fault him for not making an amendment published only this afternoon. To give his hands---which were itching---something to do, Captain Harris filled and lit his pipe.



He was aware of Vernon Demerest looking at him critically.



"You're not wearing a regulation shirt."



For a moment, Captain Harris could not believe his colleague was serious. Then, as he realized he was, Harris's face suffused a deep plum red.



Regulation shirts were an irritant to Trans America pilots, as they were to pilots of other airlines. Obtainable through company sources, the official shirts cost nine dollars each, and were often ill fitting, their material of dubious quality. Though contrary to regulations, a much better shirt could be purchased independently for several dollars less, with the difference in appearance scarcely noticeable. Most pilots bought the unofficial shirts and wore them. Vernon Demerest did too. On several occasions Anson Harris had heard Demerest speak disdainfully of the company's shirts and point to the superior quality of his own.



Captain Dernerest motioned to a waitress for coffee, then reassured Harris, "It's all right. I won't report on your wearing a non-reg shirt here. As long as you change it before you come on my flight."



Hold on! Anson Harris told himself. Dear God in heaven, give me strength not to blow, which is probably what the ornery son-of-a-bitch wants. But why? Why?



All right. All right, he decided; indignity or not, he would change his unofficial shirt for a regulation one. He would not give Demerest the satisfaction of having a single miniscule check point on which to fault him. It would be difficult to get a company shirt tonight. He would probably have to borrow one---exchange shirts with some other captain or first officer. When he told them why, they would hardly believe him. He hardly believed it himself.



But when Demerest's own check flight came up... the next, and all others from this moment on... let him beware. Anson Harris had good friends among the supervisory pilots. Let Demerest be wearing a regulation shirt; let him hew to regulations in every other trifling way... or else. Then Harris thought glumly: The foxy bastard will remember; he'll make sure he does.



"Hey, Anson!" Demerest seemed amused. "You've bitten off the end of your pipe."



And so he had.



Remembering, Vernon Demerest chuckled. Yes, it would be an easy flight tonight---for him.



His thoughts returned to the present as the apartment block elevator stopped at the third floor. He stepped into the carpeted corridor and turned to the left familiarly, heading for the apartment which Gwen Meighen shared with a stewardess of United Air Lines. The other girl, Demerest knew because Gwen had told him, was away on an overnight flight. On the apartment door bell he tapped out their usual signal, his initials in Morse... dit-dit-dit-dah dah-dit-dit... then went in, using the same key which opened the door below.



Gwen was in the shower. He could hear the water running. When he went to her bedroom door, she called out, "Vernon, is that you?" Even competing with the shower, her voice---with its flawless English accent, which he liked so much---sounded mellow and exciting. He thought: Small wonder Gwen had so much success with passengers. He had seen them appear to melt---the men especially---when her natural charm was turned toward them.



He called back, "Yes, honey."



Her filmy underthings were laid out on the bed---panties, sheer nylons; a transparent bra, flesh colored, with a girdle of the same material; a French silk, hand-embroidered slip. Gwen's uniform might be standard, but beneath it she believed in expensive individuality. His senses quickened; he moved his eyes away reluctantly.



"I'm glad you came early," she called again. "I want to have a talk before we leave."



"Sure, we've time."



"You can make tea, if you like."



"Okay."



She had converted him to the English habit of tea at all times of day, though he had scarcely ever drunk tea at all until knowing Gwen. But now he often asked for it at home, a request which puzzled Sarah, particularly when he insisted on it being correctly made---the pot warmed first, as Gwen had taught him, the water still boiling at the instant it touched the tea.



He went to the tiny kitchen, where he knew his way around, and put a kettle of water on the stove. He poured milk into a jug from a carton in the refrigerator, then drank some milk himself before putting the carton back. He would have preferred a Scotch and soda, but, like most pilots, abstained from liquor for twenty-four hours before a flight. Out of habit he checked his watch; it showed a few minutes before 8:00 P.M. At this moment, he realized, the sleek, long-range Boeing 707 jet which he would command on its five-thousand mile flight to Rome, was being readied for him at the airport.



He heard the shower stop. In the silence he began humming once again. Happily. 0 Sole Mio.