IT WAS ALMOST an hour since Tanya Livingston had left Mel Bakersfeld in the central lobby of the main terminal. Even now, though other incidents had intervened, she remembered the way their hands touched at the elevator, the tone he used when he had said, "It'll give me a reason to see you again tonight."
Tanya hoped very much that Mel remembered too, and---though she was aware he had to go downtown---that he would find time to stop by first.
The "reason" Mel referred to----as if he needed one---was his curiosity about the message received by Tanya while in the coffee shop. "There's a stowaway on Flight 80," a Trans America agent had told her. "They're calling for you," and "the way I hear it, this one's a dilly."
The agent had already been proved right.
Tanya was once more in the small, private lounge behind the Trans America check-in counters where earlier this evening she had comforted the distraught young ticket agent, Patsy Smith. But now, instead of Patsy, Tanya faced the little old lady from San Diego.
"You've done this before," Tanya said. "Haven't you?"
"Oh yes, my dear. Quite a few times."
The little old lady sat comfortably relaxed, hands folded daintily in her lap, a wisp of lace handkerchief showing between them. She was dressed primly in black, with an old-fashioned high-necked blouse, and might have been somebody's great-grandmother on her way to church. Instead she had been caught riding illegally, without a ticket, between Los Angeles and New York.
There had been stowaways, Tanya recalled reading somewhere, as long ago as 700 B.C., on ships of the Phoenicians which plied the eastern Mediterranean. At that time, the penalty for those who were caught was excruciating death---disembowelment of adult stowaways, while children were burned alive on sacrificial stones.
Since then, penalties had abated, but stowaways had not.
Tanya wondered if anyone, outside a limited circle of airline employees, realized how much of a stowaway epidemic there had been since jet airplanes increased the tempo and pressures of passenger aviation. Probably not. Airlines worked hard to keep the whole subject under wraps, fearing that if the facts became known, their contingent of non-paying riders would be greater still. But there were people who realized how simple it all could be, including the little old lady from San Diego.
Her name was Mrs. Ada Quonsett. Tanya had checked this fact from a Social Security card, and Mrs. Quonsett would undoubtedly have reached New York undetected if she had not made one mistake. This was confiding her status to her seat companion, who told a stewardess. The stewardess reported to the captain, who radioed ahead, and a ticket agent and security guard were waiting to remove the little old lady at Lincoln International. She had been brought to Tanya, part of whose job as passenger relations agent was to deal with such stowaways as the airline was lucky enough to catch.
Tanya smoothed her tight, trim uniform skirt in the gesture which had become a habit. "All right," she said, "I think you'd better tell me about it."
The older woman's hands unfolded and the lace handkerchief changed position slightly. "Well, you see, I'm a widow and I have a married daughter in New York. Sometimes I get lonely and want to visit her. So what I do is go to Los Angeles and get on an airplane that's going to New York."
"Just like that? Without a ticket."
Mrs. Quonsett seemed shocked. "Oh, my dear, I couldn't possibly afford a ticket. I just have Social Security and this small pension my late husband left. It's all I can do to manage the bus fare from San Diego to Los Angeles."
"You do pay on the bus?"
"Oh, yes. The Greyhound people are very strict. I once tried buying a ticket to the first stop up the line, then staying on. But they make a check at every city, and the driver found my ticket wasn't good. They were quite unpleasant about it. Not like the airlines at all."
"I'm curious," Tanya said, "why you don't use San Diego airport."
"Well, I'm afraid, my dear, they know me there."
"You mean you've been caught at San Diego?"
The little old lady inclined her head. "Yes."
"Have you been a stowaway on other airlines? Besides ours?"
"Oh, yes. But I like Trans America best."
Tanya was trying hard to remain severe, though it was difficult when the conversation sounded as if they were discussing a stroll to the corner store. But she kept her face impassive as she asked, "Why do you like Trans America, Mrs. Quonsett?"
"Well, they're always so reasonable in New York. When I've stayed with my daughter a week or two, and I'm ready to go home, I go to your airline offices and tell them."
"You tell them the truth? That you came to New York as a stowaway?"
"That's right, my dear. They ask me the date and the flight number---I always write it down so I'll remember. Then they look up some papers."
"The flight manifest," Tanya said. She wondered: was this conversation real or just imagination.
"Yes, dear, I think that's what it's called."
"Please go on."
The little old lady looked surprised. "There isn't anything else. After that, they just send me home. Usually the same day, on one of your airplanes."
"And that's everything? Nothing else is said?"
Mrs. Quonsett gave a gentle smile, as she might have done at a vicarage afternoon tea. "Well, I do sometimes get a little scolding. I'm told I've been naughty, and not to do it again. But that really isn't much, is it?"
"No," Tanya said. "It certainly isn't."
The incredible thing, Tanya realized, was that it was all so obviously true. As airlines were aware, it happened frequently. A would-be stowaway merely boarded an airplane---there were plenty of ways it could be done---and sat quietly, waiting for departure. As long as the stowaway stayed away from the first class compartment, where passengers could be identified easily, and unless the flight was full, detection was unlikely. It was true that stewardesses would count heads, and their tally might disagree with the gate agent's manifest. At that point a stowaway would be suspected, but the agent in charge would be faced with two choices. Either he could let the airplane go, recording on the manifest that the head and ticket counts did not agree, or a recheck could be made of the tickets of everyone aboard.
A recheck, if decided on, would take most of half an hour; meanwhile, the cost of holding a six-million-dollar jet airplane on the ground would soar. Schedules, both at origin and down the line, would be disrupted. Passengers with connections to make, or appointments, would grow angrily impatient, while the captain, conscious of his punctuality record, would fume at the agent. The agent would reason that he might have made a mistake anyway; moreover, unless he could show good reason for a delay, he would get a roasting later on from his District Transportation Manager. In the end, even if a stowaway was found, the loss in dollars and goodwill would far exceed the cost of providing a free ride for a single individual.
So what happened was that the airline did the only sensible thing---it closed the doors, and sent the airplane on its way.
That was usually the end of it. Once in flight, stewardesses were too busy to do a ticket check, and passengers would certainly not submit to the delay and annoyance of one at journey's end. Therefore the stowaway walked off, unquestioned and unhindered.
What the little old lady had told Tanya about returning was just as accurate. Airlines took the view that stowaway incidents should not happen and, when they did, it was their own fault for failing to prevent them. On the same basis, airlines accepted responsibility for insuring that stowaways were returned to their point of origin and---since there was no other way to convey them---offenders went back in regular seats, getting normal service, including airline meals.
"You're nice, too," Mrs. Quonsett said. "I can always tell nice people when I meet them. But you're a lot younger than the others in the airline---those I get to meet, I mean."
"You mean the ones who deal with cheats and stowaways."
"That's right." The little old lady seemed unabashed. Her eyes moved appraisingly. "I should say you're twenty-eight."
Tanya said shortly, "Thirty-seven."
"Well, you have a young mature look. Perhaps it comes from being married."
"Come off it," Tanya said. "That isn't going to help you."
"But you are married."
"I was. I'm not now."
"Such a pity. You could have beautiful children. With red hair like your own."
Red hair, perhaps, but not with the beginnings of gray, Tanya thought---the gray she had noticed again this morning. As to children, she might have explained that she did have a child, who was at home in their apartment and, she hoped, asleep. Instead, she addressed Mrs. Ada Quonsett sternly.
"What you've done is dishonest. You've defrauded; you've broken the law. I suppose you realize you can be prosecuted."
For the first time, a gleam of triumph crossed the older woman's innocent face. "But I won't be, will I? They never do prosecute anybody."
There was really no point in continuing, Tanya thought. She knew perfectly well, and so apparently did Mrs. Quonsett, that airlines never prosecuted stowaways, on the theory that publicity would be more harmful than otherwise.
There was just a chance, though, that some more questions might produce information useful in the future.
"Mrs. Quonsett," Tanya said, "since you've had so much free travel from Trans America, the least you can do is help us a little."
"I'll be glad to if I can."
"What I'd like to know is how you get aboard our flights."
The little old lady smiled. "Well, my dear, there are quite a few ways. I try to use different ones as much as I can."
"Please tell me about them."
"Well, most times I try to be at the airport early enough so I can get myself a boarding pass."
"Isn't that difficult to do?"
"Getting a boarding pass? Oh, no; it's very easy. Nowadays airlines use their ticket folders as passes. So I go to one of the counters and say I've lost my ticket folder, and please may I have another. I pick a counter where the clerks are busy, with a lot of people waiting. They always give me one."
Naturally they would, Tanya thought. It was a normal request which occurred frequently. Except that, unlike Mrs. Quonsett, most people wanted a fresh ticket folder for a legitimate reason.
"But it's just a blank folder," Tanya pointed out. "It isn't made out as a gate pass."
"I make it out myself---in the ladies' room. I always have some old passes with me, so I know what to write. And I keep a big black pencil in my purse." Depositing the lace handkerchief in her lap, Mrs. Quonsett opened her black beaded purse. "See?"
"I do see," Tanya said. She reached out, removing the crayon pencil. "Do you mind if I keep this?"
Mrs. Quonsett looked faintly resentful. "It's really mine. But if you want it, I suppose I can get another."
"Go on," Tanya said. "So now you have a boarding pass. What happens after that?"
"I go to where the flight is leaving from."
"The departure gate?"
"That's right. I wait until the young man checking the tickets is busy---he always is when a lot of people come together. Then I walk past him, and on to the airplane."
"Suppose someone tries to stop you?"
"No one does, if I have a pass."
"Not even the stewardesses?"
"They're just young girls, my dear. Usually they're talking to each other, or interested in the men. All they look at is the flight number, and I always get that right."
"But you said you don't always use a boarding pass."
Mrs. Quonsett blushed. "Then, I'm afraid, I have to tell a little white lie. Sometimes I say I'm going aboard to see my daughter off---most airlines let people do that, you know. Or, if the plane has come in from somewhere else, I say I'm going back to my seat, but I left my ticket on board. Or, I tell them my son just got on, but he dropped his wallet and I want to give it to him. I carry a wallet in my hand, and that works best of all."
"Yes," Tanya said, "I imagine it would. You seem to have thought everything out very carefully." She had plenty of material, she mused, for a bulletin to all gate agents and stewardesses. She doubted, though, if it would have much effect.
"My late husband taught me to be thorough. He was a teacher---of geometry. He always said you should try to think of every angle."
Tanya looked hard at Mrs. Quonsett. Was her leg being gently pulled?
The face of the little old lady from San Diego remained impassive. "There's one important thing I haven't mentioned."
On the opposite side of the room a telephone rang. Tanya got up to answer it.
"Is that old biddy still with you?" The voice was the District Transportation Manager's. The D.T.M. was responsible for all phases of Trans America operations at Lincoln International. Usually a calm, good-natured boss, tonight he sounded irascible. Clearly, three days and nights of flight delays, rerouting unhappy passengers, and endless needlings from the airline's Eastern head office were having their effect.
"Yes," Tanya said.
"Get anything useful out of her?"
"Quite a lot. I'll send you a report."
"When you do, use some goddarn capitals for once, so I can read it."
She made the "sir" sufficiently pointed, so there was a momentary silence at the other end. Then the D.T.M. grunted. "Sorry, Tanya! I guess I'm passing on to you what I've been getting from New York. Like the cabin boy kicking the ship's cat, only you're no cat. Can I do anything?"
"I'd like a one-way passage to Los Angeles, tonight, for Mrs. Ada Quonsett."
"Is that the old hen?"
The D.T.M. said sourly, "I suppose, a company charge."
"I'm afraid so."
"What I hate about it is putting her ahead of honest-to-goodness fare-paying passengers who've been waiting hours already. But I guess you're right; we're better off to get her out of our hair."
"I think so."
"I'll okay a requisition. You can pick it up at the ticket counter. But be sure to alert Los Angeles, so they can have the airport police escort the old hag off the premises."
Tanya said softly, "She could be Whistler's Mother."
The D.T.M. grunted. "Then let Whistler buy her a ticket."
Tanya smiled and hung up. She returned to Mrs. Quonsett.
"You said there was an important thing---about getting aboard flights---that you hadn't told me."
The little old lady hesitated. Her mouth had tightened noticeably at the mention, during Tanya's conversation, of a return flight to Los Angeles.
"You've told me most of it," Tanya prompted. "You might as well finish. If there's anything else."
"There certainly is." Mrs. Quonsett gave a tight, prim nod. "I was going to say it's best not to choose the big flights---the important ones, I mean, that go non-stop across the country. They often get full, and they give people seat numbers, even in Economy. That makes it harder, though I did it once when I could see there weren't many others going."
"So you take flights that aren't direct. Don't you get found out at intermediate stops?"
"I pretend to be asleep. Usually they don't disturb me."
"But this time you were."
Mrs. Quonsett pressed her lips in a thin, reproving line. "It was that man sitting beside me. He was very mean. I confided in him, and he betrayed me to the stewardess. That's what you get for trusting people."
"Mrs. Quonsett," Tanya said. "I imagine you heard; we're going to send you back to Los Angeles."
There was the slightest gleam behind the elderly, gray eyes. "Yes, my dear. I was afraid that would happen. But I'd like to get a cup of tea. So, if I can go now, and you'll tell me what time to come back..."
"Oh, no!" Tanya shook her head decisively. "You're not going anywhere alone. You can have your cup of tea, but an agent will be with you. I'm going to send for one now, and he'll stay with you until you board the Los Angeles flight. If I let you loose in this terminal I know exactly what would happen. You'd be on an airplane for New York before anybody knew it."
From the momentary hostile glare which Mrs. Ouonsett gave her, Tanya knew she had guessed right.
Ten minutes later, all arrangements were complete. A single seat reservation had been made on Flight 103 for Los Angeles, leaving in an hour and a half. The flight was non-stop; there was to be no chance of Mrs. Quonsett getting off en route and heading back. D.T.M. Los Angeles had been advised by teletype; a memo was going to the crew of Flight 103.
The little old lady from San Diego had been handed over to a male Trans America agent---a recently recruited junior, young enough to be her grandson.
Tanya's instructions to the agent, Peter Coakley, were precise. "You're to stay with Mrs. Quonsett until flight time. She says she wants some tea, so take her to the coffee shop and she can have it; also something to eat if she asks, though there'll be dinner on the flight. But whatever she has, stay with her. If she needs the ladies' room, wait outside; otherwise, don't let her out of your sight. At flight time, take her to the departure gate, go aboard with her and hand her over to the senior stewardess. Make it clear that once aboard, she is not to be allowed off the airplane for any reason. She's full of little tricks and plausible excuses, so be careful."
Before leaving, the little old lady grasped the young agent's arm. "I hope you don't mind, young man. Nowadays an old lady needs support, and you do so remind me of my dear son-in-law. He was good-looking, too, though of course he's a lot older than you are now. Your airline does seem to employ nice people." Mrs. Quonsett glanced reproachfully at Tanya. "At least, most of them are."
"Remember what I said," Tanya cautioned Peter Coakley. "She's got a barrelful of tricks."
Mrs. Quonsett said severely, "That isn't very kind. I'm sure this young man will form his own opinion."
The agent was grinning sheepishly.
At the doorway, Mrs. Quonsett turned. She addressed Tanya. "Despite the way you've behaved, my dear, I want you to know that I don't bear any grudge."
A few minutes later, from the small lounge which she had used for tonight's two interviews, Tanya returned to the Trans America executive offices on the main mezzanine. The time, she noticed, was a quarter to nine. At her desk in the big outer office she speculated on whether the airline had heard the last, or not, of Mrs. Ada Quonsett. Tanya rather doubted it. On her capital-less typewriter she began a memo to the District Transportation Manager.
from: tanya liv'stn
sbject: whistler's mum
She stopped, wondering where Mel Bakersfeld was, and if he would come.