'The Smyrna Run'

By Phineas Redux

—OOO—

Summary:— Several passengers onboard a Douglas DC7C in 1958, overflying a certain part of Greece, become embroiled in a curious and terrifying incident.

Note 01:— Xena, Gabrielle, and Callisto, under various guises, appear in this story. Note 02:— The British Empire International Airways company is entirely fictional, and not meant to represent any similar such business. Note 03:— You've heard of aircraft near-misses? This story describes a Xena-Gabrielle near-miss.

Disclaimer:— MCA/Universal/RenPics own all copyrights to everything related to 'Xena: Warrior Princess' and I have no rights to them. All other characters are copyright © 2017 to the author.

—O—

"—five thousand every ten minutes—that's production fer ya right enough."

The big middle-aged man sat back in his seat, on the starboard aisle side of the aircraft's interior, twisting his lips into a self-satisfied smirk which, sadly, came across as more of a cold snarl.

The much younger woman sitting by the window beside him, Laura Titchfield, took somewhat less pleasure in her companion's account of his working methods. She had been corralled in her seat, by the man's determined resistance to move in order to let her stretch her legs, since the plane had taken off from Naples, Italy, some thirty minutes earlier, en-route for Smyrna, Turkey—and now she was losing what little patience she had primarily brought to the man's offensive attitude of self importance.

"Say, d'ya mind movin', while I get up t'—"

"—and that means, o'course," He went on, oblivious to his companion's needs. "when they retool, in the factories, they'll have some'er's aroun' one hundred an' twenty per cent increase in production—which ain't t'be sneezed at, lady, I tell ya. I'll be tourin' them all over the next three weeks, when I get back from this Turkey run. What'd'ya think o'that, eh?"

"Can you let me—"

"So I sez t'my production manager, back at Elstree, London; Mr Flannigan, we got a prime chance here t'expand inta the Yankee market—y'know how easy these Yanks can be flummoxed by someone with brains and bravado; it'll be easy t'flannel 'em along, an' get massive orders. I'll see t'that, no mistake." He paused for breath, but not long enough for Laura to shoehorn her present needs into the conversation. "Lem'me see, I can give you the last year's profits—that'll show you how successful my little line is; let's see, yes—so, what I did was—"

"Mr Taume?"

This interruption came with the sudden arrival of a lightly-built blonde stewardess, wearing a dark blue British Empire International Airways uniform which by chance set-off her grass-green eyes perfectly.

"Yeah, wot'is'it? I'm engaged here." Mr Taume never had time for underlings who were of no particular use in the matter to hand.

"Mr Taume, I believe the lady by the window would like to step out to visit the forward saloon." The stewardess smiled sweetly at the frowning man. "If you would just move into the aisle for a moment?"

"Here, wot's this?" Taume registered instant offence; after all, wasn't he someone to be reckoned with on the business-council of Elstree? "I'm comfortable as I am, madam, an' I'll move when I dam' well want to, an' not before. Go away."

There was a short pause, whilst ice formed on the expressive features of the young stewardess.

"Mr Taume, I'll ask one last time for you to move to let the lady out." Her tone was as cold as a glacier in Norway. "If you refuse again, I can inform the Captain; you will then be forcibly made to give way to the lady; and, on arrival in Turkey, you will be arrested for causing a nuisance on an aircraft; held in durance vile and then, eventually, sent back to Britain on the earliest available flight to appear before magistrates. Your call?"

A brief moment of time ensued; while Taume squirmed in his seat, coming to terms with a power greater than his own. Finally, amidst a mumbled jumble of curses and low imprecations he levered himself up and moved unwillingly into the aisle.

Laura followed, free at last, smiling warmly at the stewardess.

"Thanks Miss, thought I was trapped for the duration." She turned to the pale fuming business-man, who was still scowling at each woman in turn. "Mr Taume, I hope you'll be as polite an' ready t'give way when I return. Manners maketh man, y'know—but I think you still have a ways t'go in that department—an' no, I haven't the faintest interest in hearin' any more o'your business shenanigans. See ya."

Leaving the irate and temporarily speechless bully to his own devices Laura walked off behind the stewardess, heading for the small saloon in the forward section where she could at least relax on a wide comfortable sofa with a cool drink.

—O—

"Everything warming up nicely, Harold?"

"Yes boss." Second Officer Harold Murray, the engineer, replied via the intercom-headset from his seat in the rear of the flight-deck. "All engines running at standard levels."

"Good, I'd like a smooth flight this trip." Captain Bernard Inglesett nodded to himself, then addressed his co-pilot. "How's our position, George?"

"Straight down the middle o'the track, sir." First Officer George Davis looked up from the notebook on his lap; gave the compass near his knee a swift glance, and grinned. "Be reaching our turning-point over the Ionian Sea in about ten minutes; then we'll be on course to overfly Greece after that. Arrival at Smyrna in approximately one hour and forty-five minutes—approximate total flight time two hours and 17 minutes."

"Fine. Pity about having to lengthen the journey somewhat by flying south to avoid Albanian airspace, but it can't be helped." Captain Inglesett was happy; a straightforward flight always being a comfort. "What's our quota today?"

"A slight increase on the last leg, sir." The co-pilot glanced down at the details on the list balanced on his knee. "Eighty-three passengers. One baby; four children; the rest adults. About as full as you could hope for, I think."

"You know London HQ, they'll always want as near a full ship as possible." Captain Inglesett made a sarcastic noise between compressed lips. "This is the third leg of our London-Cairo run, and the bigwigs must know there's not much chance of full capacity. I mean, how many people find it necessary to fly from Naples to Smyrna regularly?"

"Shouldn't think many, sir; at least not as an on-going thing."

"And as for making Naples our destination and point of departure; well, you know my opinion about that."

"Yes-sir." George had been listening to his Captain's grumbles about the basic planning of their route since take-off at Croydon.

"This'll be the fourth proving flight for this new route, and I can't help thinking it won't make the grade." Captain Inglesett shook his head forcefully. "Without touching Rome, how can you possibly hope for enough regular passengers to meet overheads and what-not. Take my word for it, George, this route won't last till the end of the year; after which the brass-hats in London'll think up some other asinine direction to send us in. Well, fancy I'll step back to join the paying customers for a while—lay out some of the Company's soft-soap on 'em, eh?"

"Just so, sir." Lieutenant Davis smiled easily at his Captain's stab at humor. "Keep 'em all happy—though someone'll probably complain about the service; they always do."

"Hah!"

—O—

The saloon, situated forward of the First Class section, with only the stewardess's small private cabin and the cockpit further ahead of it, was laid out with a long sofa on the port side and three comfortable armchairs to starboard. Drinks, when ordered, came via the stewardesses from their kitchen area located towards the rear, before Standard Class.

"Thanks, yes, I'd like a small gin." Laura relaxed on the sofa appreciatively, flashing a wide grin at the stewardess. "Good of you coming to my aid, back there. I was just about despairing."

"Oh, it's nothing." The slight, green-eyed woman smiled easily in return; her red-gold hair held in place by the perky cap she wore as part of her BEIA uniform. "We get a nose for customers of that sort—we have to rescue people all the time; he's just par for the course. Don't let him bully you again, though. Threaten him with me, if you have to—that should scare him quiet."

"I bet it just will, too."

As the stewardess left Laura bent to riffle through a bunch of magazines on a low table, itself bolted to the floor, on her right-hand side. As she flicked the pages of a month old copy of 'The House Beautiful' the door to her left, leading to the private domain of the stewardesses, opened to reveal a medium-sized thin-haired man in a BEIA pilot's uniform. He immediately stopped to nod pleasantly at Laura.

"Hallo, I'm Captain Inglesett; in charge of this flight. Hope you're comfortable?"

"Yes, thanks." Laura smiled politely back. "The stewardess has been very helpful; she's just off rounding up a drink for me."

"Oh well, that's fine. I'll leave you to relax. I'll just go on back and make myself known to the rest of the passengers. Goodbye."

"Thanks.'

—O—

"Hoi, you! Yes, you, sir." Mr Taume had been sitting nursing his grievances in silence; but the sight of the uniform, and especially the officer's cap, had brought him back to arrogant life. "What's the meaning of it, eh? Well, answer me, dam' you. What's the meaning o'this dammed impolite treatment by those dam' stewardesses? Well, answer me, man."

Captain Inglesett was in no way put-out by this sudden distraction; recognising the type straight-off he went into his patented bully-caressing routine, like a well-rehearsed vaudeville artist.

"A little softer if you please, sir." He leaned over the man in what, to the other nearby passengers, appeared a friendly manner; but which to Mr Taume suddenly took on the likeness of the War God Ares considering a particularly lax follower. "Trouble with the stewardesses? I think you may have misinterpreted their actions, sir. But of course, if you want me to file an official complaint, that'll be fine. Let me see, first you'll have to remain at Smyrna airport, on arrival, while the usual official channels are gone through. That'll take, oh, three-four hours. Then you'll have to go straight to our BEIA office in the city, to make your formal complaint in front of the Manager. He may be away on business, so you'll maybe have to wait several more hours. If you decided to leave that, of course, will negate your complaint, and we shall have to file for reimbursement of our time from you. Why, I don't imagine the whole process will take any longer than, oh, six-seven hours. Turkey being a foreign country, y'know—and BEIA having to go through all the necessary official channels with extreme caution, as a result. So, sir, what's your complaint?"

Flopping in his seat, like a mixture of a Hermit crab going back into its shell and a particularly loose-seamed rag doll, Mr Taume admitted defeat for the second time; waving his hand helplessly in dismissal of the triumphant pilot.

Captain Inglesett nodded agreeably, smiled happily at adjacent passengers, and passed on along the aisle spreading joy and comfort as he went, like an out-of-season but still carefree Father Christmas.

—O—

"Here you are, ma'am. One pink gin."

"Thanks, I need that." Laura brushed her long black hair from her brow and smiled at her Beau Sabreur. "I'd love to ask you to join me—but I suppose that's frowned on—not allowed, eh?"

"Sadly, that's the case, ma'am." The sparkle in the blonde woman's green eyes was infectious. "Even BEIA, relaxed as they are, would take umbrage at that, I'm afraid. Anything else I can get for you?"

"No, I'm fine here." Laura laughed. "I'll just enjoy the silence, after that horrible man trying to give me his entire business history from the day he joined as office-boy till the day he sat on the Board."

"Yes, there's a lot of that sort around, I'm afraid." The stewardess laughed. "Well, I'd better return to the main cabin. If you want anything else just push that bell-button on the wall there, and a stewardess will be along."

"OK."

—O—

The Douglas DC7C was a fine modern aircraft, a longer wider-range variant of the original DC7; at least modern in the sense of being newly built, the present specimen being less than eighteen months old. However it also suffered from that fatal modern problem of being a piston-engined aircraft in a world of burgeoning jet engines. It was in fact, as everyone associated with it well knew, obsolete before the original prototype DC7 had first gotten its wheels off the tarmac five years previously. There was, in the expanding and ever more cut-throat business of worldwide air passenger transport, no room for leftovers from the past; even the recent past, of which the DC7C was a prime example. To mix metaphors, it was a fine airplane which had simply had the misfortune to miss the boat. Styles had changed; science and the market-niche had moved forward; and, before it hardly had a chance to establish the meanest of footholds, the DC7C was no longer required in its particular field of operations.

Captain Inglesett himself had already begun cross-over lessons in the new DC8 jet-engined aircraft; this present flight being one of the last he would command on piston-engined planes. The Company was testing a variety of new routes; with the intention of putting the new DC8's on them as fast as possible. Whether, as Inglesett thought, many of these routes were impracticable in the long term was perhaps not a very large worry to the mandarins back in London; they thinking more of the kudos and publicity to be gained by a fleet of sparkling new jets flying large numbers of customers to every available part of the world. Meanwhile the DC7C's, themselves hardly out of their cradles, battled on like old warhorses.

—O—

"How are the passengers behaving, today, Miss Maitland?"

"Pretty fair, sir." Alyson brushed her red-gold hair to one side, glancing at the Captain, as they stood in the small kitchen between First Class and Standard Class. "There's a young man in Standard—you'll probably be able to pick him out when you go through there in a minute—who's working up a tremendous thirst, mainly vodka. Might have t'kindly request him t'cease an' desist, in about ten minutes or so."

"Hummph, there's always one." Inglesett frowned, not liking the undisciplined natures of so many young men of the present generation. "Well, if he finally causes any kind of an upset give me a tinkle and I'll send George back, t'bend his arm a little—show him who's boss on this crate, eh?"

"Thanks, sir." Alyson took this with the pinch of salt it was meant to be consumed with. "There's another trouble-maker, in First Class. One of those aisle sit-tighters—won't let the window passenger out for love nor money. I've already had to talk to him."

"So he told me." Inglesett smiled at the memory. "Gave him the squeeze with the old official complaints procedure; that quietened him down admirably. Again, if he persists, don't hesitate t'tell me, an' I'll return, like an Avengin' Angel, and sort him out properly this time. OK, I'll get on and smile at the Standard passengers—have t'make it quick, mind you, George an' Harold will be wondering where I've got to. Cheerio."

—O—

Ernest Coggleton, middle-aged but still acid-tongued literary critic and essayist for the esteemed literary journal 'Allardyce's Monthly', had been squirming around in his seat some way along in First Class since the plane had left Naples. The single source of this discomfort not being connected with the aircraft in any way, but a great deal with the passengers; or, at least one such. For he had recognised, on first entering the plane, Laura Titchfield taking up her residence further forward; she having been, in the last edition of the rag which employed him, the victim of perhaps the most acidic critique he had produced to date: his widely disseminated nickname of 'Waldo', or 'Waldo Lydecker's brother', both of which he loathed as merely crass, not having been earned for nothing.

The victims of this barely contained disdain being both the latest of Laura's novels, and a concomitant work she had brought out on Italian hotels in Naples and the tourist trade there in general. He had been forthright; he had spared no censure; he had been ruthless and merciless, he having a habit of gilding the lily at every opportunity; and now he was awash with embarrassment, and a faint but steadily growing feeling of shame.

Being faced, at close quarters, with the victim whom you had only a short time before castigated in print to within, metaphorically speaking, an inch of their lives, was curiously discomfiting. Especially as, on such a plane, he could easily see that personal contact was inevitable at some stage in the flight. How was he going to handle the shameful experience; that was the question. For shameful, he expected, it would certainly be. What would she say; how would she hold herself in his abject presence; would she assume the regal disdain of a Cleopatra, or clothe herself in the steel chainmail of a Boudicca, and attack him in his stead—perhaps even physically?

And so he decided, eventually, to take a quick walk up the aisle to the sanctuary of the saloon, where, he hoped, a strong gin and tonic would come to his assistance.

—O—

"Oh God,—I mean, er, hello, Miss Titchfield."

"Well, well, who'd a'thought it; they actually let the apes out'ta their cages now an' again." Laura lifted her right eyebrow in the single most devastating act of contempt Ernest had ever experienced—he wilted. "Here, y're lookin' some under the weather; take a pew, and press that blue button on the wall. A stewardess'll be along t'marshall up your poison of choice. So, how's life in the critic's corner? Savaged any other unsuspectin' authors lately?"

"—er, er, perhaps I might have been, umm, somewhat exuberant in my discussion of your, er, work."

"Both of 'em, buster." Laura, now she had the onlie begetter of her anger in her sights, meant to give him the hiding of his life, verbally speaking; internally she was almost laughing. "My novel, 'Jettisoned Orchards'; and my little piece on the high life in Italy, 'Oranges, Lemons, And How Not To Be Taken For A Ride In Naples'. Perhaps, as my editor did delicately hint, not the smoothest of titles t'run off the tongue; but it amused me—though not, as it turns out, you."

"Arr, umm,—"

"No need to apologise so eloquently." Laura could be scathing in her own right. "It's all part of the game, after all. One publishes one's virgin work—are you blushing, Waldo?—and what is the result? 'Vile assignations,—broken hearts, and heads'; as Lord Byron so beautifully phrased it, more or less."

"Oh, really, Miss Titchfield; let us not be—"

'Vile Assignations'?" Laura rolled the phrase round her tongue, then followed it with a cleansing sip of gin. "That'd make a great title for a volume of miscellaneous essays, y'know. Mostly gettin' my own back on all the b-st-rds, sorry critics, who've put the boot in over the last four years or so."

"Dear me, if I had known you took simple literary criticism so much to heart, I should have seasoned my own efforts with, ah, some gentler epithets; or, er, something."

"Too late now, Waldo, the damage's done." Laura sat back on the sofa and passed her hand melodramatically over her forehead, in a manner she had lately seen Pier Angeli adopt in a recent film. "We authors are rara avis's; delicate birds of passage; only existing for a brief interval of paradisiacal beauty; then gone, forever. The wounds of cold arrows cutting us off in our prime; before our masterpieces can change the world. OH, OH!"

This piece of ham had a flavour so strong even Wald-, er, Ernest realised he was being taken for a fool; but what can you do when you know dam' well you deserve such.

Their delicate mingling of unequal minds was cut short, however, by the arrival in the saloon of another thirsty voyager in search of the necessary: yet again, to Laura's sorrow and disbelief, someone else she could dam' well do without—Frederick Taume.

"Oh. Ah, hum, ha."

Following this less than enthusiastic acknowledgement of the lady's presence Taume blundered to the far armchair; threw himself down with enough force, Laura felt, to have rocked the aircraft on its bearings; then leaned across to press the ubiquitous blue bell-push.

In less than a minute, she having been nearby in the main aisle, Alyson entered the Artically chilly confines of the saloon with a bright smile.

"Ah, gentlemen, what can I do for you?"

"I think—"

"Whisky, double, straight, single malt, quick as yer like."

Ernest's weak attempt at ordering was comprehensively drowned by the short bark of the business-man in search of a cooling refreshment; but Alyson was up for the challenge.

"What was that, Mr Coggleton? I didn't quite catch your order."

"I said whisky, an' da—"

"Just a moment, if you will, Mr Taume." Alyson had suddenly assumed the tone of the Medusa, preparing to eyeball yet another unwary visitor. "I'll take you in due course; Mr Coggleton first: after all, everything in its rightful place, as my Sunday-School teacher often used to tell us. Now, Mr Coggleton, what would you like?"

Defeated yet again by the forces of Good, Taume settled morosely back in his chair; wearing the aspect, a passing observer might well have been forgiven for supposing, of one of the nastier Roman Emperors only just realising his latest orgy was proving an unadulterated flop.

—O—

The tension in the saloon had relaxed to some extent, a few minutes later. A pink gin, a gin and tonic, and a single malt whisky all having made their various impressions on the situation. Laura had returned to her style magazine; Ernest, still blushing slightly, had engrossed himself in the 'Times'; while Taume was immersed in a multi-page report he had brought with him. Silence, if not tranquility, reigned overall; then the door to the forward section opened to reveal another crewman in uniform.

"Good morning, all. I'm Lieutenant Davis, co-pilot on this trip. Everybody comfortable?"

A quick anxious upward glance from the 'Times' reader, like that of a hunted rabbit; a scowl of contempt from the report-reader; and a swift but reserved smile from the magazine reader, all combined to let George know he had made a bloomer with his very first remark. Deciding that escape was the best defence George nodded vaguely all round and made a quick lunge for the door to the passenger compartment. Regarding the newly-closed door thereof a few moments later, Laura decided to take the same course, rising from her sofa and putting her magazine back on the table. She forbore to give her fellow customers any farewell as she passed through the exit, to more civilised climes.

Back in her window seat she had just settled when another stewardess, a brunette, appeared and bent forward to speak softly to her.

"Ah, Miss Titchfield, Alyson asked me to let you know she's arranged for Mr Taume to be given another seat, further down in First Class. He'll be by himself; there's enough spare seats on this flight. So you'll be more comfortable for the rest of the journey to Smyrna."

"Oh, that's excellent." Laura was indeed pleased at this unexpected conclusion to her discomfort. "Tell, er, Alyson, thank you from me, please."

"I'll just go forward and give Mr Taume the good news."

—O—

"Coming up on the course change, sir." First Officer Murray looked up from his notebook as he addressed the captain from his side desk further back on the flight-deck. "We'll leave Corfu well north; then overfly the Pindus Mountains, before passing over Chalcis. Then the Aegean, and Chios, before finally Smyrna."

"Good, course change it is." Captain Inglesett nodded happily, with everything going comfortably to plan. "George'll be glad, when he returns from molly-coddling the passengers. There's not much cloud about today; and the customers, on the port side at least, should be able to catch a glimpse of Corfu in the distance."

—O—

Alyson was busy in the kitchen area; this small cluttered domain being situated forward of the merely tolerable Standard Class, acting as a buffer between that and the more fortunate lotus-eating inhabitants of Arcadi-, er, First Class. This present flight was not long enough to allow of the serving of meals, but anyone who required a cup of tea or coffee; or a snack or sandwich, could ask for it. And soft drinks and alcohol were on call throughout. The other three stewardesses were going up and down the aisles, seeing that everyone was comfortable and had all they wanted. Any requests for food or drink would be relayed back to Alyson who, during her kitchen stint, would provide it from the cupboards, trays and packed meals held there. At the moment she was absently buttering a slice of bread, part of the foundation for a beef sandwich ordered by a hungry traveller in Standard.

"Is she here?"

Alyson was miles away, in a daydream focussed on a sandy beach, blue water, and the trim beautiful form of her last, now sadly ex-, girl-friend—she being that way inclined, though no-one in BEIA knew this, of course. Blinking quickly, because of a sharp flickering brilliant light which seemed almost blindingly bright for a fraction of a second, and absently imagining it was one of the stewardesses who was addressing her, she frowned slightly and spoke without turning her head.

"Is that you, Jane? Who? Who d'you want?"

"Her."

This single-word reply was delivered in such a low growling feminine snarl that Alyson stopped her work with the butter knife and raised her head in astonishment—what on earth could have gotten into Jane to make her sound so angry. Before Alyson could turn, however, there came another all-encompassing bright glare, rapidly disappearing; leaving her wondering if she had actually experienced it in reality. Then turning fully she regarded the open space separating both sides of the kitchen; the aisle cutting right through the middle from Standard to First. It was empty of all but herself. The curtains at each end of the ten-foot long area were closed and unwavering; and of the person who had spoken these strange words, in such a curious tone, there was no sign.

"Well, I'll be damned."

Alyson put down her knife and eyed the curtain closing the kitchen off from Standard; before she could move towards it, though, the curtain from First opened to allow the entry of Jane herself, looking bright and chirpy.

"Hi Alyson, I've—"

"Was that you, a moment ago?" Alyson frowned at her workmate, somewhat mystified. "You sounded mighty angry at someone."

"What?" Jane, in her turn looked curiously at her superior officer. "I'm not angry at anyone. Just come back from giving Mr Taume the good news about his change of seat—merely grunted, and sort'a snarled under his breath. Not a nice man."

"Someone,—I think someone was in here just before you." Alyson looked all round the kitchen again. "A woman; she asked if another woman was here."

"Who?"

"That's what I asked." Alyson nodded in agreement. "Before I could turn to see who was talking there was a bright flash—"

"So there was a flash; thought so. I saw it too."

"What?"

"The flash you saw; I saw it too." Jane nodded happily. "Thought it was a figment of my imagination for a mo', it was so fast. Only saw the flicker through the curtain edges as I was coming right up to them. Didn't register with the passengers, I'm sure."

"Jeesus!" Alyson was now completely out of her depth. "What the Hell's going on? The overhead light didn't flicker when I was here at any time during the, er, incident. Could it have been one of the electrical units in the kitchen?"

"A short-circuit, y'mean?" Jane glanced casually round the enclosed space. "Can't see anything out of order, can you?"

The two women spent the next two minutes quickly checking everything of an electrical nature in the kitchen they could reach; those that were supposedly switched off, as well as the functioning items. Just as they finished the third stewardess, Sheila, appeared from Standard.

"Hallo gals, how's things in the Ritz?"

"Sheila, did ya see anyone, other than us stewardesses, come in or go out of the kitchen here over the last five minutes or so, say?"

"No, why." Sheila put a tray down on the table surface and eyed the others with interest. "Not that I had the curtain in my sights all the time, of course. Plenty of opportunity for anyone t'shoot in an' then whip back out without my seeing 'em."

Alyson tapped her fingertips on the short counter-top, chewing her bottom lip as she considered the problem.

"I'm certain I really heard the woman's voice." She looked from one stewardess to the other. "Her speech was too sharp and clear to be anything but real. But I didn't see anyone. Then the flash."

"Well, it doesn't seem to have been anything electrical." Jane shrugged her shoulders. "At least, that we can see. D'you want t'tell the captain?"

"Think I'd better." Alyson heaved a sigh and turned to the forward curtain. "If it was just my imagination, that's alright; but if there's some basis to the thing, the captain'll have t'be brought in on it. OK gals, look after the shop while I'm gone; won't be long."

—O—

The forward First Class saloon, rapidly becoming the centre of the known world for those aboard the aircraft, was still relatively quiet. After the withdrawal of Laura from the fray, Coggleton and Taume had observed peace and quiet through the simple act of ignoring each other; as Britishers who had not been properly introduced always did.

Coggleton had moved on to an old copy of 'Country Life', while Taume was still wrestling with his report; wherein he had been mortified, a few minutes earlier, to discover a mistake in the accounts of the last six months output. As a result of which he was not a happy punter.

Alyson's entrance, on her way to interview the captain, was looked on in differing ways by the two saloon residents. Taume sat up, thinking about another, stiffer, whisky; Coggleton, not being thirsty, was disinterested, merely giving her a passing glance before returning to the goings-on of the gentry as related in the pages of his magazine.

As things turned out, before Taume had a chance to fully vocalise his thirst-quenching longings, something occurred which left him with more important things to consider.

"Ah, stewardess, I think I'll hav—"

Just then there was a blinding white light, lasting only a fraction of a second but illuminating the whole interior of the saloon; then the normal level of lighting was restored in the shut-off space. But now there was another person present, other than the two passengers and Alyson. A tall blonde woman —white-haired with long tresses, in fact—dressed in the strangest manner; and, to Alyson of most import, armed with a long-bladed sword which she held in both hands over to her right side. The expression with which she glared all round was imbued,—quite obviously, to all concerned,—with absolute madness.

"Where is she? I want her. Give her to me."

"Good God,—madam, hand over that-that weapon to me at once." Alyson was astounded; this unforeseen scenario bursting on her so unexpectedly and with so much intensity. "This is a BEIA aircraft; you can't have weapons onboard. Where did you get that thing, anyway; and who are you? I don't remember seeing you before. What's that you're wearing? Some kind'a fancy-dress? Madam, give me that sword, right now."

Alyson, took a step towards her still glaring, and clearly unhinged adversary. Before there was time for anything to occur, however, another bright flash ripped through the saloon, blinding everyone for an instant. When their eyes had recovered again, seconds later, the sword-wielding apparition had disappeared as if never having been present in the first place—leaving one astounded stewardess, and two astonished passengers, all looking at each other as if neither could believe their eyes. Curiously, Taume was the first to recover.

"Stewardess, go get the captain, immediately." The business-man's voice had taken on a note of deep, almost harsh, authority, entirely unlike his previous tone. "Yes, she was really here; no, it wasn't a dream or vision. We may be in some danger; get the captain, right now. Coggleton, stay where you are. No, in fact, stand by the door; if another passenger tries to enter fob 'em off with some excuse; if it's another stewardess, let her through. Miss Maitland, the captain?"

—O—

"—so what old Rodgers did was to stagger up from his wicker chair—dam' uncomfortable things, those, even in 'Raffles' in Singapore; if y'ain't got a cushion." Inglesett was happily in the middle of an anecdote detailing the activities of an old friend he had met on one of his jaunts to the Far East, and which he firmly believed the rest of the flight-crew would find irresistible. "Then he went—"

"Captain, an incident in the saloon." Alyson kept her voice low as she entered the flight-deck; but the tension and note of seriousness in her tone rang clear, all the same. "We need you back here, right away."

Without another word Inglesett nodded over for Davis to take the plane's controls, then heaved himself out of his seat and extended an arm, beckoning Alyson to proceed him back to the saloon.

—O—

"That's the, er, facts in a nutshell, captain." Taume had described the whole of the extraordinary occurrence without extraneous detail. "As Miss Maitland here has already told you, also; it happened just as she describes; though I can't speak for the earlier kitchen episode—much as I am sure of its authenticity too, as it happens."

"A madwoman with a sword? Dressed in a short two-piece, skirt and top, both of black leather; and wearing heavy boots?" Inglesett's tone showed his amazement. "Mad as a hatter, flailing a sword, and requesting some other woman should be pointed out to her, for what purpose we have no idea? This is certainly madness. Are you really absolutely sure, Alyson? I mean to say, I don't disrespect either of you two gentlemen's testimony, by the way. Yet you all say she appeared, and disappeared, in a bright white flash of light? Are you actually saying the thing's supernatural? A ghost, in fact?"

"No, captain." Taume was standing in the middle of the saloon floor, hands by his side and an expression of seriousness and determination on his face. All sign of the earlier glowering angry man having vanished from his personality. "Not a ghost. Ghosts are entirely harmless; this, however, is an apparition; a devil, if you will—which can wreak havoc if it feels so inclined. We, all aboard, are in serious danger."

Inglesett stopped stroking his chin in thought and looked over at the man; eyes fixed on him steadily and musingly.

"You seem, if I may say so, curiously certain about your, er, facts. Why so?"

"For the very simple reason that Miss Maitland saw and heard it twice; and that Mr Coggleton and I were both close eye-witnesses to the second visitation here not ten minutes ago. This, umm, swords-woman really appeared; she was really here; she really bears great physical danger to everyone aboard. If she appears again—"

Taume let his sentence tail-off; leaving a note of tension hanging in the air.

"What makes you particularly think the, er, thing, is so dangerous?" Inglesett raised an enquiring brow towards the curiously cool man.

"During the War I was in, umm, Military Intelligence." Taume shrugged, as if dismissing his part in some entirely unimportant Department. "I was stationed in Greece latterly; not far from the area we're presently over-flying, in fact. During my time there I saw several incidents of a similar nature; they seemed to dam' well follow me about like a pet bloody dog. Anyway, I've had experience of things of this nature; and I can definitely say, if we don't act quickly, there is every likelihood of the lady, on her next appearance, doing something entirely unacceptable."

Inglesett stood motionless, absorbing this new information; Alyson and Coggleton were close to the door leading back to the main passenger compartment; Taume, looking more authoritative than ever, watched the pilot with sharp dark blue eyes.

"What do you suggest we do, in the circumstances, Mr Taume?" Inglesett addressed the business-man, from under lowered brows. "I ask as you seem to have previous experience in this situation."

"First, change course right away." Taume nodded in agreement, as if acknowledging a simple fact. "We're over a particularly significant part of Greece right now. This devil—because that's what it is—is focussed on a point down there, on the ground. To make things simple—her grave, or tomb. The sooner we get this plane away from the area the better."

"Well, supposing for one moment you all actually did experience something," Inglesett was clearly not happy with the situation. "Whether supernatural or not, the safety of all the passengers is, of course, my main concern."

"And that will best be addressed by doing as I say, captain." Taume had a bead or two of sweat showing on his forehead. "This thing, whatever it is, doesn't just have a sword; she is capable of exerting what, for want of a better term, might be called supernatural forces of immense power. She could be capable of destroying this plane with ease."

Inglesett paused for a few more seconds, then nodded with a new determination.

"Which direction do you suggest? North, or South?"

"South, just as quickly as you can turn this crate."

Without another word Inglesett nodded and departed through the door which led, first, to the small stewardesses' compartment then the flight-deck.

Taume was going on to say something further when the passenger compartment door opened and Laura entered; her expression showing a complete innocence of anything being wrong as she joined the group; Coggleton obviously having been too embarrassed to do anything to stop her.

"Hallo, a council of war?" Laura grinned widely as she glanced around. Then she caught the serious intent of the group. "What? What's wrong?"

Making an instant decision Alyson decided to inform her of the ongoing situation. She did glance towards Taume but, to her astonishment, he merely nodded as if understanding her thoughts. It took a couple of minutes, and afterwards there was a silence in the small room; only the drone of the aircraft's engines thrumming gently in the enclosed space.

"Well, well, this is a pretty kettle of fish and no mistake." Laura looked at all three eye-witnesses. "Hmm, I'm of the opinion that when enough right-minded people say something happened, then that something happened—dam' strange as it may be. So what's—Ho, we're turning—rather steeply. Hang on, everyone."

The plane had indeed inclined abruptly to starboard, if not quite so dramatically as Laura had chosen to describe the manoeuvre. Seconds later it came back to an even keel again.

"We're heading south." Alyson eyed each person present one by one. "What do you think's gon'na happen now, Mr Taume?"

Interested by the woman's enquiring tone, and the person to whom she had addressed her question, Laura looked curiously at the tall heavy-set business-man—only now appreciating the fact that he was no longer the grumpy bore, but someone much more in command of events.

"If we get away from this area fast enough, nothing." He swept his right arm round, to emphasise his point. "But, if not—then—"

Before he could finish another flash of scintillating light blinded everyone—then, instants later it had gone and they could see once more: and, yet again, the strange curiously-clothed and armed woman was in their midst, seemingly still as enraged as previously.

"She's here. One of you. Which is it?" The woman's long white tresses flowed to her shoulders, while her sharp features were warped by a wide grin of complete insanity—her eyes glaring fiercely as she took stock of the people in the room: meanwhile holding her sword raised above her head, long thin fingers twitching nervously around the hilt.

"Ha! Gabrielle, the green-eyed Amazon b-tch. You still her puppy-dog?" The swords-woman's tone was scathing as she glared at Alyson. "Don't you ever get bored with her? Where is she, then? Your, ever so beloved, partner? Is this her? Something's wrong. I don't get her power, her aura, from this tall b-tch here."

"Who are you? And my name's Alyson." Alyson found herself amazed she was actually speaking to what to all intents and purposes was either an hallucination or a downright ghost. "What d'you want? There are other passengers on this aircraft, whose safety I have to account for."

"I want—her! I want Xena."

Again the white-haired warrior woman hissed this in a tone of the deepest fury, her head angling from side to side as she examined those present with wild eyes, as if unsure of her next move.

"Go back to where you came from." Taume uttered this phrase with a deep resonance, as if intoning a religious incantation; then glared in his turn at the apparition.

"Ha, go back?" The creature jerked her head and screamed in high-pitched fury; a sound which seemed to fill the small room like an echo-chamber. "I have nowhere to go back to—not for these thousands of years. No-one believes in the Old Gods anymore; and they can't survive if there is no belief. Hades is dead, and Tartarus is an empty wasteland. Olympus itself is as the snows of yesteryear—gone forever. Who's left of the Old Ones? Only me, and I'm dying. Soon my strength will wane, and I shall become just another of those cold winds that chill your bones as you pass by an old graveyard. But before that happens I mean to get her—Xena. Where is she? I wan'na slice her head off, an' glory in her death at last. Where is she?"

The thing, her head moving from side to side like a lizard's, looked once more at Laura. Her interest was again centred on the author; but she still seemed hesitant, as if the tall black-haired woman in some way fell short of the spirit's expectations.

"Put your weapon down." Alyson, much to her own amazement, faced up to the woman or spirit; whichever turned out to be the case. "This is no place for a fight, particularly a sword-fight. I don't know who you're looking for, but they're not one of us. Not Miss Titchfield, not I, not Jane, not anybody on this aircraft. Who are you? Where did you come from?"

The apparition turned her head, slowly and at a curious angle; her wide grin seeming to exude even more of an insane menace than before.

"If you're here, she must be too." The seeming warrior raised her sword threateningly. "But not this tall black-haired b-tch. Nor that other dark girl there. So, where're ya hidin' her, then? I want her; I want t'kill her, now. Where's Xena? Give her t'me!"

Before Alyson could offer any reply a subtle change came over the bare-legged leather-clad woman. She had been exuding a curious intense white glow, as if she was in some way almost radio-active; but now this weakened, to be replaced by a flickering reddish-pink aura. At the same time the woman's temperament changed too. Her voice took on a weaker distant tone, and everyone present suddenly realised they could see straight through the apparition's now rapidly fading body—as if she were made of nearly transparent glass. The thing seemed to realise this, for she raised her sword high and darted towards Laura, rage emanating from every pore of her being.

Without thinking Alyson jumped in front of the warrior-woman; there was an instant of penetrating cold as the spirit passed straight through every atom of her body; then came another flash, and Alyson collapsed on the floor, feeling as if all her available energy had been drained from her.

—O—

"Come along, everything's alright now; just a slight faint, nothing more." Taume finished dabbing Alyson's forehead with a wet cloth, and extended his arm for her to stand upright once more. "There we are, no harm done—thank Goodness."

Taking a deep breath, and looking all round, Alyson saw that the saloon had returned to its normal ambience. Of the unwanted extra passenger, and her sword, there was no sign.

"Is she—is she gon'na come back?"

"Hell, no." Taume spoke with a certainty which gave authority to his words. "It's all over; she's gone. We've overflown the area where she had her, er, base of power. She weakened, and simply faded out. The circumference of the area she has power over isn't really all that wide; and, I fancy, it's drawing-in as every day passes. Perhaps, even, in a few months there won't be any chance of her returning at all; much as she might so wish. No, whoever she was, er, threatening in that amazing manner, is quite safe now, I dare say."

"How do you, er, feel, Miss Maitland?" Coggleton still stood near the passenger compartment door. "We—I, was worried for a moment there."

"Oh, I'm fine-just fine." Alyson rapidly took a grip on her slight remaining feeling of light-headedness and smiled at those around. "I'll be OK; better go an' tell Captain Inglesett what's happened. You sure, Mr Taume, there's no further danger?"

"Certain, put your mind at rest on that account; we've seen the last of that, umm, strange apparition." Taume looked significantly at those in the saloon. "If it comes about that we all think the best thing, in the circumstances, is to just forget anything ever happened; well, I won't complain. But certainly, tell the Captain the details, Miss Maitland."

—O—

Half an hour later a relatively rational level of common-sense had returned to the flight-deck and forward saloon of the DC7C. Some quiet, and subtle, questioning by the stewardesses had found the passengers entirely unaware of anything untoward having occurred. Inglesett had undertaken an in-depth discussion with Alyson, Jane, Coggleton, Laura, and Taume; the end result being that, seeing no harm had come to the passengers—nor would now, according to Taume—it was decided to let the curious incident die a natural death, and be forgotten.

"I shan't put any report in to the authorities." Inglesett's glance encompassed everyone present in the saloon. "Seems entirely out of line with proper requirements, of course; but, then, how does one report a supernatural occurrence and the apparition of an angry vengeance-seeking ghost?"

"With some difficulty, I should imagine." Coggleton made this statement with none of his customary acidity; having learned from recent experience.

"Just so." Inglesett nodded in agreement. "No good can come from making the incident public. And Mr Taume, who seems to have had personal experience along similar lines before in his career, seems to think the danger past."

"Yes." Taume nodded in his turn; all sign of his former impolite manner having disappeared. "When I was in Intelligence during the War I was down there, in Greece, for some time. Certain, ah, events took place over several months of a broadly similar nature to what everyone experienced here today. That's why I may have exhibited, er, some level of tension and impoliteness during the early flight. I was worrying about over-flying the area, I'm afraid. I apologise for my manner to all concerned, if you'll accept such now. Those who saw the, er, warrior-woman will have noted, at the very end, the pale reddish colour of that aura of energy she emitted?"

Several heads nodded at this. Alyson certainly recalled the pink glow which had seemed to encompass her whole being, mental and physical; she shivered in remembrance.

"Well, it was almost certainly a sign of her energy reaching its limit." Taume scratched his chin thoughtfully. "Yes, I'm as certain as I can be—and that's dam' certain,—she lost most of her ginger in those last few seconds. And it's not the kind that renews itself after a rest or sleep. She's gone for good, if my experience is anything to go by."

"Well, taking everything into consideration, there seems to be only one acceptable line of action." Inglesett looked round at the group of men and women. "First, no report. Second, we forget it ever happened. Third, tell no-one. Fourth, pray like fury no other plane overflying the area we've just left experiences the same thing. Fifthly, when everyone leaves the plane, in Smyrna, they go to their hotels, take a solid slug of whatever alcoholic poison they favour, and never mention the dam' thing again, ever. You all agree?"

Everyone making it plain that, yes, they did indeed agree, Inglesett closed the meeting and returned to the flight-deck; leaving the passengers and stewardesses to consider their several positions.

"I shan't be requiring any more liquid refreshment, Miss Maitland." Taume essayed a smile of sorts; which made his features quite pleasant. "I'll just go and sit down in my seat again. Sorry, once more, for any unpleasantness I may have been responsible for earlier."

"No worries, Mr Taume." Alyson felt, to her surprise, all her professional instincts returning to the fore. "And thank you for your assistance and help."

After Taume had closed the door behind him Coggleton took up the subject of apologies.

"I find I have sadly misjudged all sorts of things, Miss Maitland." He too smiled, wearily. "I fancy I shall be writing a further review, to appear in 'Allardyce's Monthly' fairly soon, giving my changed views on all sorts of matters; not least your fine books, Miss Titchfield."

"Dam' straight of ya, Coggleton." Laura found herself almost embarrassed. "Thanks."

Jane now left, along with the chastened reviewer; so leaving Alyson alone with Laura for the first time.

"Well, it's been quite a flight, an' no mistake, Aly—I mean, Miss Maitland."

"Alyson, call me Alyson, please." The green-eyed stewardess smiled widely as she glanced around the slightly shambolic saloon. "If you return to your seat, I'll spend a few minutes clearing up here. Then I can come back and see if you require anything. Will you be requiring anything, d'you suppose?"

Laura gave the young red-haired woman a clear straight look. From the beginning of the flight she had retained a suspicion that Alyson partook of the same nature as herself, and now she was certain—Laura being able to read body-language and personality as precisely as anyone else of her own and, as she now knew, the stewardess's persuasion.

"Only your attendance at my hotel in Smyrna this evening." Laura smiled widely, with a gentle radiance. "To help a gal through the vicissitudes of loneliness in a foreign clime. Are ya charitable that way, Miss Maitland?"

Alyson, too, knew what was what in the world and all its subjects therein.

"I surely am, ma'am." She grinned broadly, as Laura turned to leave the saloon. "And I'll be there, ready t'dance the night away, like the best. Is your bed gon'na be big enough t'hold an unexpected guest overnight, d'you think?"

"Dam' straight, lady." Laura laughed over her shoulder, as she opened the saloon door. "Which side o'the bed d'ya favour, gal?"

"The right."

"Dammit, I just knew it. Oh well, got'ta keep the guests happy, I suppose. Y'don't snore, d'ya?"

"Like a ship's foghorn, dear; an' for just about as long."

"Hah!"

The End.

—OOO—