The Night Flier
by Stephen King

1

 

In spite of his pilot's license, Dees didn't really get interested until the murders at the airport in Maryland — the third and fourth murders in the series. Then he smelled that special combination of blood and guts which readers of Inside View had come to expect. Coupled with a good dimestore mystery like this one, you were looking at the likelihood of an explosive circulation boost, and in the tabloid business, increased circulation was more than the name of the game; it was the Holy Grail.

For Dees, however, there was bad news as well as good. The good news was that he had gotten to the story ahead of the rest of the pack; he was still undefeated, still champeen, still top hog in the sty. The bad news was that the roses really belonged to Morrison . . . so far, at least. Morrison, the freshman editor, had gone on picking away at the damned thing even after Dees, the veteran reporter, had assured him there was nothing there but smoke and echoes. Dees didn't like the idea that Morrison had smelled blood first - hated it, in fact - and this left him with a completely understandable urge to piss the man off. And he knew just how to do it.

'Duffrey, Maryland, huh?'

Morrison nodded.

'Anyone in the straight press pick up on it yet?' Dees asked, and was gratified to see Morrison bristle at once.

'If you mean has anyone suggested there's a serial killer out there, the

answer is no,' he said stiffly.

But it won't be long, Dees thought.

'But it won't be long,' Morrison said. 'If there's another one — '

'Gimme the file,' Dees said, pointing to the buff-colored folder lying on Morrison's eerily neat desk.

The balding editor put a hand on it instead, and Dees understood two things: Morrison was going to give it to him, but not until he had been made to pay a little for his initial unbelief . . . and his lofty I'm-the-veteran-around-here attitude. Well, maybe that was all right. Maybe even the top hog in the sty needed to have his curly little tail twisted every now and then, just to refresh his memory on his place in the scheme of things.

'I thought you were supposed to be over at the Museum of Natural History, talking to the penguin guy,' Morrison said. The corners of his mouth curved up in a small but undeniably evil smile. 'The one who thinks they're smarter than people and dolphins.'

Dees pointed to the only other thing on Morrison's desk besides the folder and the pictures of his nerdy-looking wife and three nerdy-looking kids: a large wire basket labelled DAILY BREAD. It currently contained a single thin sheaf of manuscript, six or eight pages held together with one of Dees's distinctive magenta paper-clips, and an envelope marked CONTACT SHEETS DO NOT BEND.

Morrison took his hand off the folder (looking ready to slap it back on if Dees so much as twitched), opened the envelope, and shook out two sheets covered with black-and-white photos not much bigger than postage stamps. Each photo showed long files of penguins staring silently out at the viewer. There was something undeniably creepy about them — to Merton Morrison they looked like George Romero zombies in tuxedos. He nodded and slipped them back into the envelope. Dees disliked all editors on principle, but he had to admit that this one at least gave credit where credit was due. It was a rare attribute, one Dees suspected would cause the man all sorts of medical problems in later life. Or maybe the problems had already started. There he sat, surely not thirty-five yet, with at least seventy per cent of his skull exposed.

'Not bad,' Morrison said. 'Who took them?'

'I did,' Dees said. 'I always take the pix that go with my stories. Don't you ever look at the photo credits?'

'Not usually, no,' Morrison said, and glanced at the temp headline Dees had slugged at the top of his penguin story. Libby Grannit in Comp would come up with a punchier, more colorful one, of course — that was, after all, her job — but Dees's instincts were good all the way up to headlines, and he usually found the right street, if not often the actual address and apartment number. ALIEN INTELLIGENCE AT NORTH POLE, this one read. Penguins weren't aliens, of course, and Morrison had an idea that they actually lived at the South Pole, but those things hardly mattered. Inside View readers were crazy about both Aliens and Intelligence (perhaps because a majority of them felt like the former and sensed in themselves a deep deficiency of the latter), and that was what mattered.

'The headline's a little lacking,' Morrison began, 'but — '

' — that's what Libby's for,' Dees finished for him. 'So . . . '

'So?' Morrison asked. His eyes were wide and blue and guileless behind his gold-rimmed glasses. He put his hand back down on top of the folder, smiled at Dees, and waited.

'So what do you want me to say? That I was wrong?'

Morrison's smile widened a millimeter or two. 'Just that you might have been wrong. That'd do, I guess — you know what a pussycat I am.'

'Yeah, tell me about it,' Dees said, but he was relieved. He could take a little abasement; it was the actual crawling around on his belly that he didn't like.

Morrison sat looking at him, right hand splayed over the file.

'Okay; I might have been wrong.'

'How large-hearted of you to admit it,' Morrison said, and handed the file over.

Dees snatched it greedily, took it over to the chair by the window, and opened it. What he read this time — it was no more than a loose assemblage of wire-service stories and clippings from a few small-town weeklies — blew his mind.

I didn't see this before, he thought, and on the heels of that: Why didn't I see this before?

He didn't know . . . but he did know he might have to rethink that idea of being top hog in the tabloid sty if he missed any more stories like this. He knew something else, as well: if his and Morrison's positions had been reversed (and Dees had turned down the editor's chair at Inside View not once but twice over the last seven years), he would have made Morrison crawl on his belly like a reptile before giving him the file.

Fuck that, he told himself. You would have fired his ass right out the door.

The idea that he might be burning out fluttered through his mind. The burnout rate was pretty high in this business, he knew. Apparently you could spend only so many years writing about flying saucers carrying off whole Brazilian villages (usually illustrated by out-of-focus photographs of light-bulbs hanging from strands of thread), dogs that could do calculus, and out-of-work daddies chopping their kids up like kindling wood. Then one day you suddenly snapped. Like Dottie Walsh, who had gone home one night and taken a bath with a dry-cleaning bag wrapped around her head.

Don't be a fool, he told himself, but he was uneasy just the same. The story was sitting there, right there, big as life and twice as ugly. How in the hell could he have missed it?

He looked up at Morrison, who was rocked back in his desk chair with his hands laced together over his stomach, watching him. 'Well?' Morrison asked.

'Yeah,' he said. 'This could be big. And that's not all. I think it's the real goods.'

'I don't care if it's the real goods or not,' Morrison said, 'as long as it sells papers. And it's going to sell lots of papers, isn't it, Richard?'

'Yes.' He got to his feet and tucked the folder under his arm. 'I want to run this guy's backtrail, starting with the first one we know about, up in Maine.'

'Richard?'

He turned back at the door and saw Morrison was looking at the contact sheets again. He was smiling.

'What do you think if we run the best of these next to a photo of Danny DeVito in that Batman movie?'

'It works for me,' Dees said, and went out. Questions and self-doubts were suddenly, blessedly set aside; the old smell of blood was back in his nose, strong and bitterly compelling, and for the time being he only wanted to follow it all the way to the end. The end came a week later, not in Maine, not in Maryland, but much farther south, in North Carolina.

 

 

2

 

It was summertime, which meant the living should have been easy and the cotton high, but nothing was coming easy for Richard Dees as that long day wound its way down toward dark.

The major problem was his inability — at least so far — to get into the small Wilmington airport, which served only one major carrier, a few commuter airlines, and a lot of private planes. There were heavy thunderstorm cells in the area and Dees was circling ninety miles from the airfield, pogoing up and down in the unsteady air and cursing as the last hour of daylight began to slip away. It was 7:45 P.M. by the time he was given landing clearance. That was less than forty minutes before official sundown. He didn't know if the Night Flier stuck to the traditional rules or not, but if he did, it was going to be a close thing.

And the Flier was here; of that Dees was sure. He had found the right place, the right Cessna Skymaster. His quarry could have picked Virginia Beach, or Charlotte, or Birmingham, or some point even farther south, but he hadn't. Dees didn't know where he had hidden between leaving Duffrey, Maryland, and arriving here, and didn't care. It was enough to know that his intuition had been correct - his boy had continued to work the windsock circuit. Dees had spent a good part of the last week calling all the airports south of Duffrey that seemed right for the Flier's MO, making the rounds again and again, using his finger on the Touch-Tone in his Days Inn motel room until it was sore and his contacts on the other end had begun to express their irritation with his persistence. Yet in the end persistence had paid off, as it so often did.

Private planes had landed the night before at all of the most likely airfields, and Cessna Skymaster 3375 at all of them. Not surprising, since they were the Toyotas of private aviation. But the Cessna 337 that had landed last night in Wilmington was the one he was looking for; no question about it. He was on the guy.

Dead on the guy.

'N471B, vector ILS runway 34,' the radio voice drawled laconically into his earphones. 'Fly heading 160. Descend and maintain 3,000.'

'Heading 160. Leaving 6 for 3,000, roger.'

'And be aware we still got some nasty weather down here.'

'Roger,' Dees said, thinking that ole Farmer John, down there in whatever beer-barrel passed for Air Traffic Control in Wilmington, was sure one hell of a sport to tell him that. He knew there was still nasty weather in the area; he could see the thunderheads, some with lightning still going off inside them like giant fireworks, and he had spent the last forty minutes or so circling and feeling more like a man in a blender than one in a twin-engine Beechcraft.

He flicked off the autopilot, which had been taking him around and around the same stupid patch of now-you-see-it, now-you-don't North Carolina farmland for far too long, and grabbed a handful of wheel. No cotton down there, high or otherwise, that he could see. Just a bunch of used-up tobacco patches now overgrown with kudzu. Dees was happy to point his plane's nose toward Wilmington and start down the ramp, monitored by pilot, ATC, and tower, for the ILS approach.

He picked up the microphone, thought about giving ole Farmer John there a yell, asking him if there happened to be anything weird going on downstairs — the dark-and-stormy-night kind of stuff Inside View readers loved, perhaps — then racked the mike again. It was still awhile until sunset; he had verified the official Wilmington time on his way down from Washington National. No, he thought, maybe he'd just keep his questions to himself for a little while longer.

Dees believed the Night Flier was a real vampire about as much as he believed it was the Tooth Fairy who had put all those quarters under his pillow when he was a kid, but if the guy thought he was a vampire — and this guy, Dees was convinced, really did — that would probably be enough to make him conform to the rules.

Life, after all, imitates art.

Count Dracula with a private pilot's license.

You had to admit, Dees thought, it was a lot better than killer penguins plotting the overthrow of the human race.

The Beech jounced as he passed through a thick membrane of cumulus on his steady downward course. Dees cursed and trimmed the plane, which seemed increasingly unhappy with the weather.

You and me both, babes, Dees thought.

When he came into the clear again, he could see the lights of Wilmington and Wrightsville Beach clearly.

Yes, sir, the fatties who shop at 7-Eleven are gonna love this one, he thought as lightning flashed on the port side. They're gonna pick up about seventy zillion copies of this baby when they go out for their nightly ration of Twinkies and beer.

But there was more, and he knew it.

This one could be . . . well . . . just so goddam good.

This one could be legitimate.

There was a time when a word like that never would have crossed your mind, ole buddy, he thought. Maybe you are burning out.

Still, big stacked headlines danced in his head like sugarplums. INSIDE VIEW REPORTER APPREHENDS CRAZED NIGHT FLIER. EXCLUSIVE STORY ON HOW BLOOD-DRINKING NIGHT FLIER WAS FINALLY CAUGHT. 'NEEDED TO HAVE IT,' DEADLY DRACULA DECLARES.

It wasn't exactly grand opera — Dees had to admit that — but he thought it sang just the same. He thought it sang like a boid.

He picked up the mike after all and depressed the button. He knew his blood-buddy was still down there, but he also knew he wasn't going to be comfortable until he had made absolutely sure.

'Wilmington, this is N471B. You still got a Skymaster 337 from Maryland down there on the ramp?'

Through static: 'Looks like it, old hoss. Can't talk just now. I got air traffic.'

'Has it got red piping?' Dees persisted.

For a moment he thought he would get no answer, then: 'Red piping, roger. Kick it off, N471B, if you don't want me to see if I can slap an FCC fine on y'all. I got too many fish to fry tonight and not enough skillets.'

'Thanks, Wilmington,' Dees said in his most courteous voice. He hung up the mike and then gave it the finger, but he was grinning, barely noticing the jolts as he passed through another membrane of cloud. Skymaster, red piping, and he was willing to bet next year's salary that if the doofus in the tower hadn't been so busy, he would have been able to confirm the tail-number as well: N101BL.

One week, by Christ, one little week. That was all it had taken. He had found the Night Flier, it wasn't dark yet, and as impossible as it seemed, there were no police on the scene. If there had been cops, and if they had been there concerning the Cessna, Farmer John almost certainly would have said so, sky-jam and bad weather or not. Some things were just too good not to gossip about.

I want your picture, you bastard, Dees thought. Now he could see the approach lights, flashing white in the dusk. I'll get your story in time, but first, the picture. Just one, but I gotta have it.

Yes, because it was the picture that made it real. No fuzzy out-of-focus lightbulbs; no 'artist's conception'; a real by-God photo in living black-and-white. He headed down more steeply, ignoring the descent beep. His face was pale and set. His lips were pulled back slightly, revealing small, gleaming white teeth.

In the combined light of dusk and the instrument panel, Richard Dees looked quite a little bit like a vampire himself.

 

 

3

 

There were many things Inside View was not — literate, for one, over-concerned with such minor matters as accuracy and ethics, for another — but one thing was undeniable: it was exquisitely attuned to horrors. Merton Morrison was a bit of an asshole (although not as much of one as Dees had thought when he'd first seen the man smoking that dumb fucking pipe of his), but Dees had to give him one thing - he had remembered the things that had made Inside View a success in the first place: buckets of blood and guts by the handful.

Oh, there were still pictures of cute babies, plenty of psychic predictions, and Wonder Diets featuring such unlikely ingestibles as beer, chocolate, and potato chips, but Morrison had sensed a sea-change in the temper of the times, and had never once questioned his own judgement about the direction the paper should take. Dees supposed that confidence was the main reason Morrison had lasted as long as he had, in spite of his pipe and his tweed jackets from Asshole Brothers of London. What Morrison knew was that the flower children of the sixties had grown into the cannibals of the nineties. Huggy therapy, political correctness, and 'the language of feelings' might be big deals among the intellectual upper class, but the ever-popular common man was still a lot more interested in mass murders, buried scandals in the lives of the stars, and just how Magic Johnson had gotten AIDS.

Dees had no doubt there was still an audience for All Things Bright and Beautiful, but the one for All Shit Grim and Gory had become a growth stock again as the Woodstock Generation began to discover gray in its hair and lines curving down from the corners of its petulant, self-indulgent mouth. Merton Morrison, whom Dees now recognized as a kind of intuitive genius, had made his own inside view clear in a famous memo issued to all staff and stringers less than a week after he and his pipe had taken up residence in the corner office. By all means, stop and smell the roses on your way to work, this memo suggested, but once you get to there, spread those nostrils — spread them wide — and start sniffing for blood and guts.

Dees, who had been made for sniffing blood and guts, had been delighted. His nose was the reason he was here, flying into Wilmington. There was a human monster down there, a man who thought he was a vampire. Dees had a name all picked out for him; it burned in his mind as a valuable coin might burn in a man's pocket. Soon he would take the coin out and spend it. When he did, the name would be plastered across the tabloid display racks of every supermarket checkout counter in America, screaming at the patrons in unignorable sixty-point type.

Look out, ladies and sensation seekers, Dees thought. You don't know it, but a very bad man is coming your way. You'll read his real name and forget it, but that's okay. What you'll remember is my name for him, the name that's going to put him right up there with Jack the Ripper and the Cleveland Torso Murderer and the Black Dahlia. You'll remember the Night Flier, coming soon to a checkout counter near you. The exclusive story, the exclusive interview . . . but what I want most of all is the exclusive picture.

He checked his watch again and allowed himself to relax the tiniest bit (which was all he could relax). He still had almost half an hour till dark, and he would be parking next to the white Skymaster with red piping (and N101BL on the tail in a similar red) in less than fifteen minutes.

Was the Flier sleeping in town or in some motel on the way into town? Dees didn't think so. One of the reasons for the Skymaster 337's popularity, besides its relatively low price, was that it was the only plane its size with a belly-hold. It wasn't much bigger than the trunk of an old VW Beetle, true, but it was roomy enough for three big suitcases or five small ones . . . and it could certainly hold a man, provided he wasn't the size of a pro basketball player. The Night Flier could be in the Cessna's belly-hold, provided he was (a) sleeping in the fetal position with his knees drawn up to his chin; or (b) crazy enough to think he was a real vampire; or (c) both of the above.

Dees had his money on (c).

Now, with his altimeter winding down from four to three thousand feet, Dees thought: Nope, no hotel or motel for you, my friend, am I right? When you play vampire, you're like Frank Sinatra — you do it your way. Know what I think? I think when the belly-hold of that plane opens, the first thing I'm gonna see is a shower of graveyard earth (even if it isn't, you can bet your upper incisors it will be when the story comes out), and then I'm gonna see first one leg in a pair of tuxedo pants, and then the other, because you are gonna be dressed, aren't you? Oh, dear man, I think you are gonna be dressed to the nines, dressed to kill, and the auto-winder is already on my camera, and when I see that cloak flap in the breeze —

But that was where his thoughts stopped, because that was when the flashing white lights on both runways below him went out.

 

 

4

 

I want to run this guy's backtrail, he had told Merton Morrison, starting with the first one we know about, up in Maine.

Less than four hours later he had been at Cumberland County Airport, talking to a mechanic named Ezra Hannon. Mr Hannon looked as if he had recently crawled out of a gin-bottle, and Dees wouldn't have let him within shouting distance of his own plane, but he gave the fellow his full and courteous attention just the same. Of course he did; Ezra Hannon was the first link in what Dees was beginning to think might prove to be a very important chain.

Cumberland County Airport was a dignified-sounding name for a country landing-field which consisted of two Quonset huts and two crisscrossing runways. One of these runways was actually tarred. Because Dees had never landed on a dirt runway, he requested the tarred one. The bouncing his Beech 55 (for which he was in hock up to his eyebrows and beyond) took when he landed convinced him to try the dirt when he took off again, and when he did he had been delighted to find it as smooth and firm as a coed's breast. The field also had a windsock, of course, and of course it was patched like a pair of Dad's old underdrawers. Places like CCA always had a windsock. It was part of their dubious charm, like the old biplane that always seemed to be parked in front of the single hangar.

Cumberland County was the most populous in Maine, but you never would have known it from its cow-patty airport, Dees thought . . . or from Ezra the Amazing Gin-Head Mechanic, for that matter. When he grinned, displaying all six of his remaining teeth, he looked like an extra from the film version of James Dickey's Deliverance.

The airport sat on the outskirts of the much plusher town of Falmouth, existing mostly on landing fees paid by rich summer residents. Claire Bowie, the Night Flier's first victim, had been CCA's night traffic controller and owned a quarter interest in the airfield. The other employees had consisted of two mechanics and a second ground controller (the ground controllers also sold chips, cigarettes, and sodas; further, Dees had learned, the murdered man had made a pretty mean cheeseburger).

Mechanics and controllers also served as pump jockeys and custodians. It wasn't unusual for the controller to have to rush back from the bathroom, where he had been swabbing out the John with Janitor-in-a-Drum, to give landing clearance and assign a runway from the challenging maze of two at his disposal. The operation was so high-pressure that during the airport's peak summer season the night controller sometimes got only six hours' worth of good sleep between midnight and 7:00 A.M.

Claire Bowie had been killed almost a month prior to Dees's visit, and the picture the reporter put together was a composite created from the news stories in Morrison's thin file and Ezra the Amazing Gin-Head Mechanic's much more colorful embellishments. And even when he had made the necessary allowances for his primary source, Dees remained sure that something very strange had happened at this dipshit little airport in early June.

The Cessna 337, tail-number N101BL, had radioed the field for landing clearance shortly before dawn on the morning of July 9th. Claire Bowie, who had been working the night shift at the airfield since 1954, when pilots sometimes had to abort their approaches (a maneuver in those days known simply as 'pulling up') because of the cows that sometimes wandered onto what was then the single runway, logged the request at 4:32 A.M. The time of landing he noted as 4:49 A.M.; he recorded the pilot's name as Dwight Renfield, and the point of N101BL's origination as Bangor, Maine. The times were undoubtedly correct. The rest was bullshit (Dees had checked Bangor, and wasn't surprised to find they had never heard of N101BL), but even if Bowie had known it was bullshit, it probably wouldn't have made much difference; at CCA, the atmosphere was loose, and a landing fee was a landing fee.

The name the pilot had given was a bizarre joke. Dwight just happened to be the first name of an actor named Dwight Frye, and Dwight Frye had just happened to play, among a plethora of other parts, the role of Renfield, a slavering lunatic whose idol had been the most famous vampire of all time. But radioing UNICOM and asking for landing clearance in the name of Count Dracula might have raised suspicion even in a sleepy little place like this, Dees supposed.

Might have; Dees wasn't really sure. After all, a landing fee was a landing fee, and 'Dwight Renfield' had paid his promptly, in cash, as he had also paid to top off his tanks — the money had been in the register the next day, along with a carbon of the receipt Bowie had written out.

Dees knew about the casual, hipshot way private air-traffic had been controlled at the smaller fields in the fifties and sixties, but he was still astonished by the informal treatment the Night Flier's plane had received at CCA. It wasn't the fifties or sixties any more, after all; this was the era of drug paranoia, and most of the shit to which you were supposed to just say no came into small harbors in small boats, or into small airports in small planes . . . planes like 'Dwight Renfield's' Cessna Skymaster. A landing fee was a landing fee, sure, but Dees would have expected Bowie to give Bangor a shout about the missing flight-plan just the same, if only to cover his own ass. But he hadn't. The idea of a bribe had occurred to Dees at this point, but his gin-soaked informant claimed that Claire Bowie was as honest as the day was long, and the two Falmouth cops Dees talked to later on had confirmed Hannon's judgement.

Negligence seemed a likelier answer, but in the end it didn't really matter; Inside View readers weren't interested in such esoteric questions as how or why things happened. Inside View readers were content to know what had happened, and how long it took, and if the person it happened to had had time to scream. And pictures, of course. They wanted pictures. Great big hi-intensity black-and-whites, if possible — the kind that seemed to leap right off the page in a swarm of dots and nail you in the forebrain.

Ezra the Amazing Gin-Head Mechanic had looked surprised and considering when Dees asked where he thought 'Renfield' might have gone after landing.

'Dunno,' he said. 'Motel, I s'pose. Musta tooken a cab.'

'You came in at . . . what time did you say? Seven o'clock that morning? July ninth?'

'Uh-huh. Just before Claire left to go home.'

'And the Cessna Skymaster was parked and tied down and empty?'

'Yep. Parked right where yours is now.' Ezra pointed, and Dees pulled back a little. The mechanic smelled quite a little bit like a very old Roquefort cheese which had been pickled in Gilbey's Gin.

'Did Claire happen to say if he called a cab for the pilot? To take him to a motel? Because there don't seem to be any in easy walking distance.'

'There ain't,' Ezra agreed. 'Closest one's the Sea Breeze, and that's two mile away. Maybe more.' He scratched his stubbly chin. 'But I don't remember Claire saying ary word about callin the fella a cab.'

Dees made a mental note to call the cab companies in the area just the same. At that time he was going on what seemed like a reasonable assumption: that the guy he was looking for slept in a bed, like almost everyone else.

'What about a limo?' he asked.

'Nope,' Ezra said more positively, 'Claire didn't say nothing about no limbo, and he woulda mentioned that.'

Dees nodded and decided to call the nearby limo companies, too. He would also question the rest of the staff, but he expected no light to dawn there; this old boozehound was about all there was. He'd had a cup of coffee with Claire before Claire left for the day, and another with him when Claire came back on duty that night, and it looked like that was all she wrote. Except for the Night Flier himself, Ezra seemed to have been the last person to see Claire Bowie alive.

The subject of these ruminations looked slyly off into the distance, scratched the wattles below his chin, then shifted his bloodshot gaze back to Dees. 'Claire didn't say nothing about no cab or limbo, but he did say something else.'

'That so?'

'Yep,' Ezra said. He unzipped a pocket of his grease-stained coverall, removed a pack of Chesterfields, lit one up, and coughed a dismal old man's cough. He looked at Dees through the drifting smoke with an expression of half-baked craftiness. 'Might not mean nothing, but then again, it might. It sure struck Claire perculyer, though. Must have, because most of the time old Claire wouldn't say shit if he had a mouthful.'

'What was it he said?'

'Don't quite remember,' Ezra said. 'Sometimes, you know, when I forget things, a picture of Alexander Hamilton sorta refreshes my memory.'

'How about one of Abe Lincoln?' Dees asked dryly.

After a moment's consideration — a short one — Hannon agreed that sometimes Lincoln also did the trick, and a portrait of this gentleman consequently passed from Dees's wallet to Ezra's slightly palsied hand. Dees thought that a portrait of George Washington might have turned the trick, but he wanted to make sure the man was entirely on his side . . . and besides, it all came out of the expense account.

'So give.'

'Claire said the guy looked like he must be goin to one hell of a fancy party,' Ezra said.

'Oh? Why was that?' Dees was thinking he should have stuck with Washington after all.

'Said the guy looked like he just stepped out of a bandbox. Tuxedo, silk tie, all that stuff.' Ezra paused. 'Claire said the guy was even wearin a big cloak. Red as a fire engine inside, black as a woodchuck's asshole outside. Said when it spread out behind him, it looked like a goddam bat's wing.'

A large word lit in red neon suddenly flashed on in Dees's mind, and the word was BINGO.

You don't know it, my gin-soaked friend, Dees thought, but you may have just said the words that are going to make you famous.

'All these questions about Claire,' Ezra said, 'and you ain't never once ast if I saw anything funny.'

'Did you?'

'As a matter of fact, I did.'

'What was that, my friend?'

Ezra scratched his stubbly chin with long, yellow nails, looked wisely at Dees from the corners of his bloodshot eyes, and then took another puff on his cigarette.

'Here we go again,' Dees said, but he produced another picture of Abe Lincoln and was careful to keep his voice and face amiable. His instincts were wide awake now, and they were telling him that Mr Ginhead wasn't quite squeezed dry. Not yet, anyway.

'That don't seem like enough for all I'm tellin you,' Ezra said reproachfully. 'Rich city fella like you ought to be able to do better'n ten bucks.'

Dees looked at his watch — a heavy Rolex with diamonds gleaming on the face. 'Gosh!' he said. 'Look how late it's getting! And I haven't even been over to talk with the Falmouth police yet!'

Before he could do more than start to get up, the five had disappeared from between his fingers and had joined its mate in the pocket of Hannon's coverall.

'All right, if you've got something else to tell, tell it,' Dees said. The amiability was gone now. 'I've got places to go and people to see.'

The mechanic thought it over, scratching his wattles and sending out little puffs of ancient, cheesy smell. Then he said, almost reluctantly: 'Seen a big pile of dirt under that Skymaster. Right under the luggage bay, it was.'

'That so?'

'Ayuh. Kicked it with my boot.'

Dees waited. He could do that.

'Nasty stuff. Full of worms.'

Dees waited. This was good, useful stuff, but he didn't think the old man was wrung completely dry even yet.

'And maggots,' Ezra said. 'There was maggots, too. Like where something died.'

Dees stayed that night at the Sea Breeze Motel, and was winging his way to the town of Alderton in upstate New York by eight o'clock the next morning.

 

 

5

 

Of all the things Dees didn't understand about his quarry's movements, the thing which puzzled him the most was how leisurely the Flier had been. In Maine and in Maryland, he had actually lingered before killing. His only one-night stand had been in Alderton which he had visited two weeks after doing Claire Bowie.

Lakeview Airport in Alderton was even smaller than CCA — a single unpaved runway and a combined Ops/UNICOM that was no more than a shed with a fresh coat of paint. There was no instrument approach; there was, however, a large satellite dish so none of the flying farmers who used the place would have to miss Murphy Brown or Wheel of Fortune or anything really important like that.

One thing Dees liked a lot: the unpaved Lakeview runway was just as silky-smooth as the one in Maine had been. I could get used to this, Dees thought as he dropped the Beech neatly onto the surface and began to slow it down. No big thuds over asphalt patches, no potholes that want to ground-loop you after you come in . . . yeah, I could get used to this real easy.

In Alderton, nobody had asked for pictures of Presidents or friends of Presidents. In Alderton, the whole town — a community of just under a thousand souls - was in shock, not merely the few part-timers who, along with the late Buck Kendall, had run Lakeview Airport almost as a charity (and certainly in the red). There was really no one to talk to, anyway, not even a witness of the Ezra Hannon caliber. Hannon had been bleary, Dees reflected, but at least he had been quotable.

'Must have been a mighty man,' one of the part-timers told Dees. 'Ole Buck, he dressed out right around two-twenty, and he was easy most of the time, but if you did get him riled, he made you sorry. Seen him box down a fella in a carny show that came through P'keepsie two years ago. That kind of fightin ain't legal, accourse, but Buck was short a payment on that little Piper of his, so he boxed that carny fighter down. Collected two hundred dollars and got it to the loan comp'ny about two days before they was gonna send out someone to repo his ride, I guess.'

The part-timer shook his head, looking genuinely distressed, and Dees wished he'd thought to uncase his camera. Inside View readers would have lapped up that long, lined, mournful face. Dees made a mental note to find out if the late Buck Kendall had had a dog. Inside View readers also lapped up pictures of the dead man's dog. You posed it on the porch of the deceased's house and captioned it BUFFY'S LONG WAIT BEGINS, or something similar.

'It's a damn shame,' Dees said sympathetically.

The part-timer sighed and nodded. 'Guy musta got him from behind. That's the only way I can figger it.'

Dees didn't know from which direction Gerard 'Buck' Kendall had been gotten, but he knew that this time the victim's throat had not been ripped out. This time there were holes, holes from which 'Dwight Renfield' had presumably sucked his victim's blood. Except, according to the coroner's report, the holes were on opposite sides of the neck, one in the jugular vein and the other in the carotid artery. They weren't the discreet little bite marks of the Bela Lugosi era or the slightly gorier ones of the Christopher Lee flicks, either. The coroner's report spoke in centimeters, but Dees could translate well enough, and Morrison had the indefatigable Libby Grannit to explain what the coroner's dry language only partially revealed: the killer either had teeth the size of one of View's beloved Bigfeet, or he had made the holes in Kendall's neck in a much more prosaic fashion - with a hammer and a nail.

DEADLY NIGHT FLIER SPIKED VICTIMS, DRANK THEIR BLOOD, both men thought at different places on the same day. Not bad.

The Night Flier had requested permission to land at Lakeview Airport shortly after 10:30 P.M. on the night of July 23rd. Kendall had granted permission and had noted a tail-number with which Dees had become very familiar: N101BL. Kendall had noted 'name of pilot' as 'Dwite Renfield' and the 'make and model of aircraft' as 'Cessna Skymaster 337'. No mention of the red piping, and of course no mention of the sweeping bat-wing cloak that was as red as a fire engine on the inside and as black as a woodchuck's asshole on the outside, but Dees was positive of both, just the same.

The Night Flier had flown into Alderton's Lakeview Airport shortly after ten-thirty, killed that strapping fellow Buck Kendall, drunk his blood, and flown out again in his Cessna sometime before Jenna Kendall came by at five o'clock on the morning of the twenty-fourth to give her husband a fresh-made waffle and discovered his exsanguinated corpse instead.

As Dees stood outside the ramshackle Lakeview hangar/tower mulling these things over, it occurred to him that if you gave blood, the most you could expect was a cup of orange juice and a word of thanks. If you took it, however — sucked it, to be specific — you got headlines. As he turned the rest of a bad cup of coffee out on the ground and headed toward his plane, ready to fly south to Maryland, it occurred to Richard Dees that God's hand might have shaken just a tiny bit when He was finishing off the supposed master-work of His creative empire.