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...5:10 P.M., MST...

The weather report had been wrong. The cloud cover extended all the way to the Rockies, and now that the sun was below the mountains, the endless billowy carpet had turned to the color of slate. The 747 was at 38,000 feet, and the Rockies looked like a snow-covered archipelago anchored in a fantastic, undiscovered sea.

Leland still loved flying — and happily, he spent more time in the air than ever. He wasn't going to live long enough to get into space, but at times he wondered how close he would be able to come before he died. In the back of his mind was the notion to take a trip to Europe simply to fly over on the Concorde.His old wingman Billy Gibbs up in Eureka had not been in an airplane in thirty years. Leland had watched him pull barrel rolls over the English Channel, howling like a savage; but once the war was over, Billy Gibbs put flying out of his mind forever. There was a line in Shakespeare about the fault lying not in our stars, but ourselves. The passage of time had made so much clear. Everything we do, everything that happens to us, rises out of impulses most people can't even feel, much less understand.

After the dinner clamor, he strolled back to the galley to get acquainted with Kathi Logan. After serving a full flight, she looked a little frazzled.

"Thanks for your help."

"Hi. Did the aspirins work?"

"Sure. I'm hoping you do plastic surgery."

She stared at his brow. "No, that isn't elegant."

"How did you spot me back at the airport?"

"You area cop, aren't you? I took the call from the terminal on you. The officer told me you had a cut, but actually I went out there looking for the one who carried a gun. It was a test."

"How did you do?"

"I got an A."

He remembered that a marshal was on the plane. Usually when he was confronted with a problem like that, he had it solved before the plane reached cruise altitude. Under Leland's own rules, Kathi Logan was not supposed to tell him who the guy was.

"Would you like another Coke?"

"Get your work out of the way, first."

"It's no trouble."

"Can I ask what kind of a policeman you are?"

"I'm a consultant on security and police procedures. I just finished a three-day seminar at McDonnell Douglas."

"You make it sound simple. I know how much weight you carry."

He grinned. "My name is Joe."

"I'm Kathi. How long have you been sober?"

He tried to conceal his surprise with her directness. "Oh, a long time. I didn't have a bad case anyway, knocking myself out at night. I quit when I realized I was looking forward to getting loaded at lunch."

"I had to wait until I woke up in Clark County jail. That's Vegas."

"I know."


"Not now. In fact, I'm getting to like it."

The plane rocked through another dish-rattling patch of turbulence. She grinned. "You remind meof a boxer I used to know..."

He laughed aloud. "Cut it out."

"No, he was always mannerly and soft-spoken. He never forced himself on people."

"How did he do in the ring?"

"He was welterweight champion of the world."

She kept her eyes on him as he smiled. She was selling hard, but it still felt good. He glanced at the ice in his glass. When he looked up again, she laughed at him silently.

"What I was about to say was that he was shy, too."

Kathi Logan had a condo on the beach north of San Diego, a studio with a sleeping loft, fireplace, and skylights. It sounded beautiful. He lived outside of New York in a garden apartment and spent most of his time in Washington and Virginia motel rooms. When he got out to the Coast, it was more of the same in Palo Alto. He had been to Santa Barbara twice. Fortunately, she flew east almost every other week. As long as she was home within seven days to water her plants, her schedule caused her no problems.

He believed it. She was a native Californian, complete with that fierce optimism. She said she would have loved American Graffitiif it had been made five years earlier. She had grown up on the beach. "I wasn't exactly an early hippy, but I was sort of semiliberated. I went with it for a long time, up to Vegas for Sinatra's openings, being the champ's girl for a while. It was fun." More turbulence, thumping the bottom of the plane. "I would just as soon forget all the years Nixon was in office. I don't know why, but my whole life just went crappo."

"A cab driver in St. Louis told me Christmas is always hell for him. This right after he ran into a station wagon."

She looked at his Band-Aid. When Stephanie had been a child, he remembered he and Karen had called the Band-Aids for her scrapes "battle ribbons." Kathi Logan could see that he had disappeared inside himself for a moment. "I'm going to visit friends this year," she said. "Tonight I'll get the lights up and watch it on television."

"Have a Merry Christmas, Kathi."

"I will. You have one, too."

The other girl needed drinks for passengers upstairs in the lounge, so Leland stepped out of the way and looked down at the snow blowing off the jagged peaks of the mountains. Human beings could not survive down there, yet here they were floating far above with dinner in their bellies and drinks in their hands, and the loudest sound was that of their conversation.

The geography books of Leland's childhood had made him believe that the Rockies were Americans great unconquerable natural wonder. Prices slightly higher west of the Rockies, the ads used to say. Kathi Logan had grown up on the beach. Leland could remember writing to Karen during the war of the world that would come after. In fact, no one could have imagined it. And here he was going with it, as Logan the Californian had just said, playing with the way she expressed herself as much as the cab driver had done back in the snow in St. Louis. In so many ways it was still America the Beautiful, just as it always had been. Robert Frost had explained it in saying we had become the land's — there was a common denominator inside people like the cab driver and Kathi Logan: they were open to themselves, free, and not small, which was the best of the American national identity.

Now you could see the break in the cloud coyer, and the desert disappearing into the accumulating purple of twilight.

When Kathi Logan had another break, they started talking again. He told her of his plans to drive up the Coast. Route One, she said; she told him to have lunch on Saturday in Santa Cruz, but she wouldn't tell him why.

They went on. Her idea of a vacation was a week on Kona — more lying on the beach. She kept promising herself that she was going to do some exploring, but she never got around to it. He saw no point in telling her that his "vacations" consisted of those conferences, conventions, and seminars that took him to parts of the world that he didn't need to be reminded of.

Lake Mead, reflecting the sky, and Hoover Dam, a tiny crescent of lights, appeared below. Las Vegas could be seen blinking and flashing to the north. He could tell Logan things about Vegas, but they could wait.

Leland had her telephone number. He was going to call tomorrow night and ask her to meet him in San Francisco. Maybe he was too tame for her. He assumed she knew San Francisco better than he did, and he thought she was the kind of woman who wanted to stay on an even footing with a man. All that was a bore to a kid looking for action, or a forty-year-old recently sprung from a bad marriage, but it was the way he had always been, and he could not function any other way.

The reduction in the power developed by the engines was so gradual that it was on the edge of perception, but the plane was beginning to descend, and the practiced eye could see the desert floor slowly rising, like an oversized elevator.

"I'd better get back to my seat. You have a nice day tomorrow. I think we're going to be friends. We're going to enjoy each other."

She was watching him. "I'd like that, yes."

He touched her arm, an involuntary, unconscious, gesture of good-bye, and in the moment he was wondering if he had gone too far, she stepped toward him, surprising herself as he had just been surprised. He kissed her. They were alone. Nobody saw. When they moved away, she was flushed with excitement.

"Mariana," he said, and winked.

She laughed. "Ole!"

He was back in his seat before he thought of the marshal again. The man could know him. What did Leland's behavior look like from that point of view? The idea made Leland uneasy. Under the circumstances, he couldn't rubberneck around and try to identify him now. If the accident in St. Louis and its aftermath somehow became a matter of public record, this fellow might be moved to report that he had seen Leland spending more than an hour on the flight warming up one of the stewardesses. There was nothing you could do about the way people saw such things. Leland wanted to think that the screwiness had started in the taxi when they turned onto the approach road, but at last he realized that he had been going since early morning after three hard days' work, and he was tense and tired no matter how lucky he had just been with Kathi Logan, and he needed a night's sleep.

Three months after Leland released what he knew of the old botched murder case, Leland's partner Mike went home early one afternoon and found his wife Joan coupled doggy-style with her other high school boyfriend. Leland and Karen had expected something like that of Joan, but not with such exquisite timing. Joan was one of those connivers who worked hardest against those who were wise to her — like the Lelands, for example. Leland and Karen were still formally separated at the time, but that was having less and less effect on their lives with each other.

Leland did not know it at the time, but the agency was ready to break out nationally. For as long as they had been in business together, Leland had been free to develop new business while Mike handled the books and ran the agency day-to-day. Now Mike was an emotional wreck. It took Leland another year to see that his case was hopeless, and by then Mike was beset on the other side, too, being sued by Joan. Leland wanted Mike out, but it cost two years' earnings, with Joan and her lawyer getting nearly all of it. In eighteen months, Leland negotiated seven different loans, wheeling his assets and factoring accounts receivable, to keep all his creditors, including Mike, satisfied. Inevitably, he and Mike had a personal falling out. Leland hadn't heard anything of the guy in ten years.

Leland knew he would have done better with Mike if he had not had problems of his own. All through that period, he was under tremendous pressure, counting on his health and his skills to keep from going under. There had always been a limit to what Karen could take. The week he paid off the last of the notes, Leland's mother went into the hospital. His father assured him that she was going to recover, and Leland wanted to take his father's word for it. He had never felt all that dose to his mother, but when she died within the month, Leland felt a shock he could not have been able to imagine. That was the year he cleared seventy-three thousand dollars for himself and started reaching for the bottle. He knew what he was doing to himself, but he didn't give a damn.

The pilot reported cloud cover over the L.A. basin, but no rain, and a five o'clock temperature of sixty-five degrees, which caused a gleeful murmur among the passengers. The San Bernadino mountains were on the right, rising above the dirty yellow soup lying heavily in the valleys. Then came the half-dozen truly tall buildings of downtown, all of them ablaze for the holidays. The big sign on the hill was dimly visible, too, newly repaired: HOLLYWOOD. The last time he had seen it, it had read HULLYWOD. He felt himself sinking into the strangeness of Los Angeles. Stephanie had been here more than ten years, and she loved it. She had a pleasant house on a nice street in Santa Monica, but even there at night he felt something eerie in the way the palm trees were silhouetted against the baleful yellow sky.

The streets rolled backward under the wings, the landing gear thumped into place, and the 747 chirped onto the runway of the only airport in the world known by the letters on its baggage tags — LAX. Leland thought it's typical of the city's character. His seatmate sighed, and Leland looked over: the man was smiling as if he had, survived a trial-by-terror. The last time Leland had taken notice of him had been in the cold and darkness of St. Louis, and now Leland felt chilled, as if someone was pursuing him.

...3:49 P.M., CST... | Nothing Lasts Forever | ...6:02 P.M., PST...