Monday, October 18, 4:30 A.M.
The hum of the commuter plane's engines was ragged. One moment they were screaming as the plane headed inexorably earthward, the next they were eerily silent, as if they had been inadvertently switched off by the pilot.
Jack Stapleton watched in terror, knowing that his family was aboard and there was nothing he could do. The plane was going to crash! Helplessly he shouted NO! NO! NO!
Jack's shouting mercifully yanked him from the clutches of his recurrent nightmare, and he sat bolt upright in bed. He was breathing heavily as if he'd been playing full-court basketball, and perspiration dripped from the end of his nose. He was disoriented until his eyes swept about the interior of his bedroom. The intermittent sound wasn't coming from a commuter plane. It was his telephone. Its raucous jingle was relentlessly shattering the night.
Jack's eyes shot to the face of his radio alarm clock. The digital numbers glowed in the dark room. It was four-thirty in the morning! No one called Jack at four-thirty. As he reached for the phone, he remembered all too well the night eight years ago when he'd been awakened by a phone call informing him that his wife and two children had perished.
Snatching the receiver from its cradle Jack answered the phone with a rasping and panicky voice.
"Uh oh, I think I woke you up," a woman's voice said. There was a significant amount of static on the line.
"I don't know why you'd think that," Jack said, now conscious enough to be sarcastic. "Who is this?"
"It's Laurie. I'm sorry I've awakened you. It couldn't be helped." She giggled.
Jack closed his eyes, then looked back at the clock just to make sure he had not been mistaken. It indeed was four-thirty in the morning!
"Listen," Laurie continued. "I've got to make this fast. I want to have dinner with you tonight."
"This has got to be a joke," Jack said.
"No joke," Laurie said. "It's important. I have to talk with you, and I'd like to do it over dinner. It's my treat. Say yes!"
"I guess," Jack said, reluctant to commit.
"I'm going to take that as a yes," Laurie said. "I'll tell you where when I see you at the office later on this morning. Okay?"
"I suppose," Jack said. He wasn't as awake as he'd thought. His mind wasn't working up to speed.
"Perfect," Laurie said. "See you then."
Jack blinked when he realized Laurie had disconnected. He hung up the phone and stared at it in the darkness. He'd known Laurie Montgomery for more than four years as a fellow medical examiner in the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner for the City of New York. He'd also known her as a friend---in fact, more than a friend---and in all that time she'd never called him so early in the morning. And for good reason. He knew she was not a morning person. Laurie liked to read novels far into the night, which made getting up in the morning a daily ordeal for her.
Jack dropped back onto his pillow with the intent of sleeping for another hour and a half. In contrast to Laurie, he was a morning person, but four-thirty was a bit too early, even for him.
Unfortunately it was soon apparent to Jack that more sleep was not in the offing. Between the phone call and the nightmare, he couldn't get back to sleep. After half an hour of restless tossing and turning, he threw back the covers and padded into the bathroom in his sheepskin slippers.
With the light on, Jack regarded himself in the mirror while running a hand over his stubbled face. Absently he noted the chipped left incisor and the scar high on his forehead, both mementos of some extra-office investigating he'd done in relation to a series of infectious-disease cases. The unexpected fallout was that Jack had become the de facto guru of infectious diseases in the medical examiner's office.
Reprinted from Vector by Robin Cook by permission of G. P. Putnam's Sons, a member of Penguin Putnam Inc. Copyright 1999 by Robin Cook
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No Man's Land
by Simon Tolkien
Inspired by the experiences of his grandfather, J. R. R. Tolkien, during World War I.
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