Fallen Idols

Ralph Arnote

Tor Books

Fallen Idols
"How in the hell do you think we get so many lousy books on the best-seller lists?"
--Willy Hanson
Willy Hanson stood fourth in line at the seat selection counter at the TWA satellite in Los Angeles International Airport. He had stood in hundreds of airports before, and the businessmen lined up at the check-in counter were, as always, impatient. The man behind him, perspiring, red-faced, with a too-tight collar, muttered to anyone who would listen, and in his impatience to get aboard, he was getting downright nasty.
"These cheap bastard airlines will never get it right," the man said. "This heap is supposed to take off in eleven minutes and it takes that retarded clerk eleven minutes to check in a single passenger."
Willy studied the man's anxious face carefully and then in a steady voice, the same reassuring voice that he would have used at a directors' meeting, he said, "The flight's overbooked. Perhaps you'd like my placein line. I am going to sit down for a while." He strolled over to the boarding-lounge seat nearest the window.
The red-faced passenger couldn't believe his good fortune and stepped forward quickly before Willy could change his mind.
"Last call for TWA Flight Two for New York's JFK Airport. All passengers on Flight Two should be on board." The announcement droned throughout an empty boarding area.
Willy sat alone, tearing his ticket into little squares and piling them neatly into the ashtray next to him. Moving to the window, he watched the big 747 taxi away from the gate. With a trace of a smile he noticed that it was on time. He hoped the red-faced man was happy.
As Willy stood at the window, he personified the successful businessman. He looked like the man in the famous Scotch advertisement who had everything. He was impeccably dressed from shoes to necktie. He was tall, late forties, and still muscular. Anyone would realize at once that he was as physically disciplined as he was successful.
However, no one was looking at Willy. There was just Willy and the faint image of himself in the large plate-glass window.
He scrutinized his reflection, detecting no change from yesterday. He was still Willy Hanson.
As the 747 taxied out onto the runway, he thought of the forthcoming panic at ConCom. He thought of old Archibald Kingman running amok and shouting obscenities when the Welling book contract--the publishing plum of the year--came apart.
Flight 2 was now rising off the runway at Los AngelesInternational Airport and William Hanson--that titan of American publishing--was not on board. As of this moment, Willy Hanson was a missing person, and when the plane landed at JFK, all the world would know.
Leaving the boarding area, he paused to stare at the telephone from which he had called Jennifer in New York. He had told her to meet Flight 2 that evening, not to bring anyone with her, and to make a reservation for dinner for two that night at the Old Inn. This had seemed to please her, and for a moment he was swept by remorse for breaking the date. He would have to fight these feelings about Jennifer often. None of this was really her fault or her doing.
Perhaps one day she would understand.
He moved swiftly from the terminal and climbed aboard a limousine marked "Long Beach."
I have made everyone else happy, he thought. Particularly my competitors.
He pressed his face to the window to watch a tiny speck disappearing into the sky. That could be Flight 2, he thought. Jennifer crossed his mind again for a moment. His tears startled him. One by one he ran over his reasons for betraying her. He was starting to believe that a good case could be made for his insanity, and Jennifer just might be the first to jump on that bandwagon. Especially when his business affairs were made public.
Willy checked into an obscure motel in Long Beach a few blocks from the ocean. The first thing he did was buy a razor and shave off his mustache. Then he went to a nearby store and bought some T-shirts andjeans. By the time he got back to his motel, Flight 2 was approaching the runway at JFK and William Conrad Hanson was not aboard.
The new denims fit well but looked too new to suit Willy. He walked back to the beach and plunged into the surf.
Copyright © 1992 by Ralph Arnote