11 P.M. - 1:30 A.M. (CST)

Chapter One


AS ALWAYS at the beginning of a flight, Senior Stewardess Gwen Meighen experienced a sense of relief as the forward cabin door slammed closed and, a few moments later, the aircraft began moving.

An airliner in a terminal was like a dependent relative, subject to the whims and succor of its family. Such life as it had was never independent. Its identity was blurred; supply lines hobbled it; strangers, who would never join its airborne complement, moved in and out.

But when doors were sealed as the airplane prepared for takeoff, it became once more an entity. Crew members were most keenly aware of the change; they were returned to a familiar, self-contained environment in which they could function with skill and independence for which they had been trained. No one impeded them; nothing was underfoot, except what they were used to and at home with. Their tools and equipment were the finest; their resources and limitations were inventoried and known. Self-reliance returned. The camaraderie of the air---intangible, yet real to all who shared it---was theirs once more.

Even passengers---the more sensitive ones---were attuned to a mental transformation and, once in the air, awareness of the change increased. At high altitude, looking down, concerns of the everyday world seemed less important. Some, more analytical than others, saw the new perspective as a shedding of the pettiness of earth.

Gwen Meighen, occupied with pre-takeoff rituals, had no time for such analysis. While four of the five stewardesses busied themselves with housekeeping chores around the airplane, Gwen used the p.a. system to welcome passengers aboard. With her soft English voice, she did the best she could with the treacly, insincere paragraph from her stewardess manual, which the company insisted must be read on every flight.

"On behalf of Captain Demerest and your crew... our most sincere wish that your flight will be pleasant and relaxing... shortly we shall have the pleasure of serving... if there is anything we can do to make your flight more enjoyable..."

Gwen wondered sometimes when airlines would realize that most passengers found such announcements, at the beginning and end of every flight, a boring intrusion.

More essential were the announcements about emergency exits, oxygen masks, and ditching. With two of the other stewardesses demonstrating, she accomplished them quickly.

They were still taxiing, Gwen observed---tonight more slowly than usual, taking longer to reach their takeoff runway. No doubt the reason was traffic and the storm. From outside she could hear an occasional splatter of wind-driven snow on windows and fuselage.

-- Advertisement --

There was one more announcement to be made---that which aircrews liked least. It was required before takeoffs at Lincoln International, New York, Boston, Cleveland, San Francisco, and other airports with residential areas nearby.

"Shortly after takeoff you will notice a marked decrease in engine noise, due to a reduction in power. This is perfectly normal and is done as a courtesy to those who live near the airport and in the direct flight path."

The second statement was a lie. The power reduction was neither normal nor desirable. The truth was: it was a concession---some said a mere public relations gesture---involving risk to aircraft safety and human life. Pilots fought noise abatement power restrictions bitterly. Many pilots, at risk of their careers, refused to observe them.

Gwen had heard Vernon Demerest parody, in private, the announcement she had just made... "Ladies and gentlemen, at the most critical point of takeoff, when we need our best power and have a hundred other things to do in the cockpit, we are about to throttle back drastically, then make a steep climbing turn at high gross weight and minimum speed. This is an exceedingly foolish maneuver for which a student pilot would be thrown out of flying school. However, we are doing it on orders from our airline employers and the Federal Aviation Administration because a few people down below, who built their houses long after the airport was established, are insisting that we tiptoe past. They don't give a damn about air safety, or that we are risking your lives and ours. So hang on tight, folks! Good luck to us all, and please start praying."

Gwen smiled, remembering. There were so many things she appreciated about Vernon. He was energetically alive; he possessed strong feelings; when something interested him, he became actively involved. Even his failings---the abrasive manner, his conceit---were masculine and interesting. He could be tender, too---and was, in lovemaking, though responding eagerly to passion as Gwen had cause to know. Of all the men she knew, there was no one whose child she would bear more gladly than Vernon Demerest's. In the thought there was a bitter sweetness.

Replacing the p.a. microphone in its forward cabin niche, she was aware that the aircraft's taxiing pace had slowed; they must be near the takeoff point. These were the last few minutes she would have---for several hours to come---with any opportunity for private thoughts. After takeoff there would be no time for anything but work. Gwen had four stewardesses to supervise, as well as her own duties in the first class cabin. A good many overseas flights had male stewards directing cabin service, but Trans America encouraged senior women staffers like Gwen to take charge when they proved themselves capable.

Now the aircraft had stopped. From a window Gwen could see the lights of another aircraft ahead, several others in line behind. The one ahead was turning onto a runway; Flight Two would be next. Gwen pulled down a folding seat and strapped herself in. The other girls had found seats elsewhere.

She thought again: a bitter sweetness, and always the same single question recurring. Vernon's child, and her own---an abortion or not?... Yes or no? To be or not to be?... They were on the runway... Abortion or no abortion?... The engines' tempo was increasing. They were rolling already, wasting no time; in seconds, no more, they would be in the air... Yes or no? To permit to live or condemn to die? How, between love and reality, conscience and commonsense, did anyone decide?

AS IT HAPPENED, Gwen Meighen need not have made the announcement about power reduction.

On the flight deck, taxiing out, Captain Harris told Demerest gruffly, "I plan to ignore noise abatement procedures tonight."

Vernon Demerest, who had just copied their complicated route clearance, received by radio---a task normally performed by the absent First Officer---nodded. "Damn right! I would too."

Most pilots would have let it go at that, but, characteristically, Demerest pulled the flight log toward him and made an entry in the "Remarks" column: "N.A.P. not observed. Reason: weather, safety."

Later, there might be trouble about that log entry, but it was the kind of trouble Demerest enjoyed and would meet head on.

The cockpit lights were dimmed. Pre-takeoff checks had been completed.

They had been lucky in the temporary traffic lull; it had allowed them to reach their takeoff point, at the head of runway two five, quickly, and without the long ground hiatus which had plagued most other flights tonight. Already though, for others following, the delay was building up again. Behind Trans America Flight Two was a growing line of waiting aircraft and a procession of others taxiing out from the terminal. On radio, the ATC ground controller was issuing a swift stream of instructions to flights of United Air Lines, Eastern, American, Air France, Flying Tiger, Lufthansa, Braniff, Continental, Lake Central, Delta, TWA, Ozark, Air Canada, Alitalia, and Pan Am, their assorted destinadons like an index of world geography.

Flight Two's additional fuel reserves, ordered by Anson Harris to allow for extra ground running time, had not, after all, been needed. But even with the heavy fuel load, they were still within safe takeoff limits, as Second Officer Jordan had just calculated, spreading out his graphs once more, as he would many times tonight and tomorrow before the flight ended.

Both Demerest's and Harris's radios were now switched to runway control frequency.

On runway two five, immediately ahead of Trans America, a British VC-10 of BOAC, received word to go. It moved forward, with lumbering slowness at first, then swiftly. Its company colors---blue, white, and gold---gleamed briefly in the reflection of other aircrafts' lights, then were gone in a flurry of whirling snow and black jet exhaust. Immediately the ground controller's voice intoned, "Trans America Two, taxi into position, runway two five, and hold; traffic landing on runway one seven, left."

One seven, left, was a runway which directly bisected runway two five. There was an element of danger in using the two runways together, but tower controllers had become adept at spacing aircraft---landing and taking off---so that no time was wasted, but no two airplanes reached the intersection at the same moment. Pilots, uncomfortably aware of the danger of collision when they heard by radio that both runways were in use, obeyed controllers' orders implicitly.

Anson Harris swiftly and expertly jockeyed Flight Two on to runway two five.

Peering out, through snow flurries, Demerest could see the lights of an airplane, about to touch down on one seven. He thumbed his mike button. "Trans America Two, Roger. In position and holding. We see the landing traffic."

Even before the landing aircraft had bisected their own runwav, the controller's voice returned. "Trans America Two, cleared for takeoff. Go, man, go!"

The final three words were not in any air traffic control manual, but to controller and pilots they had identical meaning: Get the hell moving, now! There's another flight landing right after the last. Already a fresh set of lights---ominously close to the airfield---was approaching runway one seven.

Anson Harris had not waited. His outspread fingers slid the four main throttles forward to their full extent. He ordered, "Trim the throttles," and briefly held his toe brakes on, allowing power to build, as Demerest set pressure ratios evenly for all four engines. The engines' sound deepened from a steady whine to a thunderous roar. Then Harris released the brakes and N-731-TA leaped forward down the runway.

Vernon Demerest reported to the tower, "Trans America Two on the roll," then applied forward pressure to the control yoke while Harris used nose wheel steering with his left hand, his right returning to the throttles.

Speed built. Demerest called, "Eighty knots." Harris nodded, released nose wheel steering and took over the control yoke... Runway lights flashed by in swirling snow. Near crescendo, the big jet's power surged... At a hundred and thirty-two knots, as calculated earlier, Demerest called out "V-one"---notification to Harris that they had reached "decision speed" at which the takeoff could still be aborted and the aircraft stopped. Beyond V-one the takeoff must continue... Now they were past V-one... Still gathering speed, they hurtled through the runways' intersection, glimpsing to their right a flash of landing lights of the approaching plane; in mere seconds the other aircraft would cross where Flight Two had just passed. Another risk---skillfully calculated---had worked out; only pessimists believed that one day such a risk might not... As speed reached a hundred and fifty-four knots, Harris began rotation, easing the control column back. The nose wheel left the runway surface; they were in lift-off attitude, ready to quit the ground. A moment later, with speed still increasing, they were in the air.

Harris said quietly, "Gear up."

Demerest reached out, raising a lever on the central instrument panel. The sound of the retracting landing gear reverberated through the aircraft, then stopped with a thud as the doors to the wheel wells closed.

They were going up fast---passing through four hundred feet. In a moment, the night and clouds would swallow them.

"Flaps twenty."

Still performing first officer duty, Demerest obediently moved the control pedestal flap selector from thirty degrees to twenty. There was a brief sensation of sinking as the wing flaps---which provided extra lift at takeoff---came partially upward.

"Flaps up."

Now the flaps were fully retracted.

Demerest noted, for his report later, that at no point during takeoff could he have faulted Anson Harris's performance in the slightest degree. He had not expeeted to. Despite the earlier needling, Vernon Demerest was aware that Harris was a top-grade captain, as exacting in performance---his own and others---as Demerest was himself. It was the reason Demerest had known in advance that their flight to Rome tonight would be, for himself, an easy journey.

Only seconds had passed since leaving the ground; now, still climbing steeply, they passed over the runway's end, the lights below already dimming through cloud and falling snow. Anson Harris had ceased lookingout and was flying on instruments alone.

Second Officer Cy Jordan was reaching forward from his flight engineer's seat, adjusting the throttles to equalize the power of all four engines.

Within the clouds there was a good deal of buffeting; at the outset of their journey, the passengers behind were getting a rough ride. Demerest snapped the "No Smoking" light switch off; the "Fasten Seat Belts" sign would remain on until Flight Two reached more stable air. Later, either Harris or Demerest would make an announcement to the passengers; but not yet. At the moment, flying was more important.

Demerest reported to departure control. "Turning portside one eight zero; leaving fifteen hundred feet."

He saw Anson Harris smile at his use of the words "turning portside" instead of "turning left." The former was correct but unofficial. It was one of Demerest's own phrases; many veteran pilots had them---a minor rebellion against ATC officialese which nowadays all flying people were supposed to hew to. Controllers on the ground frequently learned to recognize individual pilots by such personal idioms.

A moment later Flight Two received radio clearance to climb to twenty-five thousand feet. Demerest acknowledged while Anson Harris kept the aircraft climbing. Up there in a few minutes from now they would be in clear, calm air, the storm clouds far below, and high above, in sight, the stars.

THE "TURNING PORTSIDE" phrase had been noticed on the ground---by Keith Bakersfeld.

Keith had returned to radar watch more than an hour ago, after the time spent in the controllers' locker room, alone, remembering the past and reaffirming his intention of tonight.

Several times since then Keith's hand had gone instinctively into his pocket, touching the key of his covertly rented room at the O'Hagan Inn. Otherwise, he had concentrated on the radarscope in front of him. He was now handling arrivals from the east and the continuing heavy traffic volume demanded intensive concentration.

He was not concerned directly with Flight Two; however, the departure controller was only a few feet away and in a brief interval between his own transmissions Keith heard the "turning portside" phrase and recognized it, along with his brother-in-law's voice. Until then, Keith had no idea that Vernon Demerest was flying tonight; there was no reason why he should. Keith and Vernon saw little of each other. Like Mel, Keith had never achieved any close rapport with his brother-in-law, though there bad been none of the friction between them which marred relations between Demerest and Mel.

Shortly after Flight Two's departure, Wayne Tevis, the radar supervisor, propelled his castor-equipped chair across to Keith.

"Take five, buddyboy," Tevis said in his nasal Texan drawl. "I'll spell you. Your big brother dropped in."

As he unplugged his headset and turned, Keith made out the figure of Mel behind him in the shadows. He remembered his earlier hope that Mel would not come here tonight; at the time Keith feared that a meeting between the two of them might be more than he could handle emotionally, Now he found that he was glad Mel had come. They had always been good friends as well as brothers, and it was right and proper there should be a leave-taking, though Mel would not know that it was that---at least, until he learned tomorrow.

"Hi," Mel said. "I was passing by. How have things been?"

Keith shrugged. "I guess, all right."

"Coffee?" Mel had picked up two take-out coffees from one of the airport restaurants on his way. They were in a paper bag; he offered one of the cups to Keith and took the other himself.

"Thanks." Keith was grateful for the coffee as well as for the break. Now that he was away from the radarscope, if only briefly, he realized that his own mental tension had been accumulating again within the past hour. He observed, as if watching someone else, that his hand holding the coffee cup was not entirely steady.

Mel glanced around the busy radar room. He was careful not to look too obviously at Keith whose appearance---the gaunt, strained face with deep hollows beneath the eyes---had shocked him. Keith's appearance had deteriorated over recent months; tonight, Mel thought, his brother looked worse than at any time before.

His mind still on Keith, he nodded toward the profusion of radar equipment. "I wonder what the old man would have thought of all this."

The "old man" was---had been---their father, Wally (Wild Blue) Bakersfeld, stick-and-goggles aviator, stunt flier, crop duster, night mail carrier, and parachute jumper---the last when he needed money badly enough. Wild Blue had been a contemporary of Lindbergh, a crony of Orville Wright, and had flown to the end of his life, which terminated abruptly in a filmed Hollywood stunt sequence---an airplane crash, intended to be simulated, but which turned out to be real. It happened when Mel and Keith were in their teens, but not before Wild Blue had inculcated in both boys an acceptance of aviation as their way of life, which persisted into adulthood. In Keith's case, Mel sometimes thought, the father had done his younger son a disservice.

Keith shook his head without answering Mel's question, which didn't matter because it had been only rhetorical, Mel marking time while wondering how best to approach what was uppermost in his mind. He decided to do it directly.

Keeping his voice low, Mel said, "Keith, you're not well; you're looking damned awful. I know it, you know it; so why pretend? If you'll let me, I'd like to help. Can we talk---about whatever the trouble is? We've always been honest with each other."

"Yes," Keith acknowledged, "we've always been that." He sipped his coffee, not meeting Mel's eyes.

The reference to their father, though casual, had moved Keith strangely. He remembered Wild Blue well; he had been a poor provider---the Bakersfeld family was perpetually short of money---but a genial man with his children, especially if the talk was about flying, as the two boys usually wanted it to be. Yet in the end it was not Wild Blue who had been a father figure to Keith, but Mel; Mel Bakersfeld who possessed the sound sense and stability, as far back as Keith remembered, which their father lacked. It was Mel who always looked out for Keith, though never being ostentatious about it, or overprotective as some older brothers were, robbing a younger boy of dignity. Mel had a facility, even then, for doing things for people and making them feel good at the same time.

Mel had shared things with Keith, had been considerate and thoughtful, even in small ways. He still was. Bringing the coffee tonight was an example, Keith thought, then checked himself: Don't wax sentimental over a carton of coffee just because this is a last meeting. This time, Keith's aloneness, his anguish and guilt were beyond Mel's fixing. Even Mel could not bring back to life little Valerie Redfern and her parents.

Mel motioned with his head and they moved to the corridor outside the radar room.

"Listen, old chum," Mel said. "You need a break from all this---a long one; perhaps more than a break. Maybe you need to get away for good."

For the first time Keith smiled. "You've been listening to Natalie."

"Natalie's apt to talk a lot of sense."

Whatever Keith's other problems might be, Mel reflected, he had been outstandingly fortunate in Natalie. The thought of his sister-in-law reminded Mel of his own wife, Cindy, who presumably was still on her way to the airport. Comparing your own marriage unfavorably with someone else's was disloyal, Mel supposed; at times, though, it was hard not to do it. He wondered if Keith really knew just how lucky---at least in that important area---he had been.

"There's something else," Mel said. "I haven't brought it up before, but maybe now's the time. I don't think you've ever told me the whole of what happened at Leesburg---that day, the accident. Maybe you didn't tell anyone, because I've read all the testimony.Is there something else; that you've never told?"

Keith hesitated only momentarily. "Yes."

"I figured there might be." Mel chose his words carefully; he sensed that what was passing between them could be of critical importance. "But I also figured if you wanted me to know, you'd tell me; and if you didn't, well, it was none of my business. Sometimes, though, if you care about someone enough---say, like a brother---you ought to make it your business, whether they want you to butt in or not. So I'm making this mine now." He added softly, "You hear me?"

"Yes," Keith said, "I hear you." He thought: He could stop this conversation, of course; perhaps he should stop it now, at once---since it was pointless---by excusing himself and going back to the radarscope. Mel would assume they could resume later, not knowing that for the two of them together, there would be no later.

"That day at Leesburg," Mel insisted. "The part you've never told---it has something to do with the way you feel, the way youare, right now. Hasn't it?"

Keith shook his head. "Leave it alone, Mel. Please!"

"Then I'm right. There is a relationship, isn't there?"

What was the point of denying the obvious? Keith nodded. "Yes."

"Won't you tell me? You have to tell someone; sooner or later you have to." Mel's voice was pleading, urgent. "You can't live with this thing---whatever it is---inside you forever. Who better to tell than me? I'd understand."

You can't live with this... Who better to tell than me?

It seemed to Keith that his brother's voice, even the sight of Mel, was coming to him through a tunnel, from the distant end, far away. At the farther end of the tunnel, too, were all the other people---Natalie, Brian, Theo, Perry Yount, Keith's friends---with whom he had lost communication long since. Now, of them all, Mel alone was reaching out, striving to bridge the gap between them... but the tunnel was long, their apartness---after all the length of time that Keith had been alone---too great.

And yet...

As if sorreone else were speaking, Keith asked, "You mean tell you here? Now?"

Mel urged, "Why not?"

Why not indeed? Something within Keith stirred; a sense of waating to unburden, even though in the end it could change nothing... Or could it? Wasn't that what the Confessional was all about; a catharsis, an exorcism of sin through acknowledgment and contrition? The difference, of course, was that the Confessional gave forgiveness and expiation, and for Keith there could be no expiation---ever. At least... he hadn't thought so. Now he wondered what Mel might say.

Somewhere in Keith's mind a door, which had been closed, inched open.

"I suppose there's no reason," he said slowly, "why I shouldn't tell you. It won't take long."

Mel remained silent. Instinct told him that if wrong words were spoken they could shatter Keith's mood, could cut off the confidence which seemed about to be given, which Mel had waited so long and anxiously to hear. He reasoned: if he could finally learn what bedeviled Keith, between them they might come to grips with it. Judging by his brother's appearance tonight, it had better be soon.

"You've read the testimony," Keith said. His voice was a monotone. "You just said so. You know most of what happened that day."

Mel nodded.

"What you don't know, or anybody knows except me; what didn't come out at the inquiry, what I've thought about over and over..." Keith hesitated; it seemed as if he might not continue.

"For God's sake! For your own reason, for Natalie's sake, for mine---go on!"

It was Keith's turn to nod. "I'm going to."

He began describing the morning at Leesburg a year and a half before; the air traffic picture when he left for the washroom; supervisor Perry Yount; the trainee controller left in immediate charge. In a moment, Keith thought, he would admit how he had loitered; how he failed the others through indifference and negligence; how he returned to duty too late; how the accident, the multiple tragedy of the Redferns' deaths, had been solely his own doing; and how others were blamed. Now that at last he was doing what he had longed to, without knowing it, there was a sense of blessed relief. Words, like a cataract long damned, began tumbling out.

Mel listened.

Abruptly, a door farther down the corridor opened. A voice---the tower watch chief's---called, "Oh, Mr. Bakersfeld!"

His footstcps echoing along the corridor, the tower chief walked toward them. "Lieutenant Ordway has been trying to reach you, Mr. Bakersfeld; so has the Snow Desk. They both want you to call." He nodded. "Hi, Keith!"

Mel wanted to cry out, to shout for silence or delay, plead to be alone with Keith for a few minutes more. But he knew it was no good. At the first sound of the tower chief's voice Keith had stopped in mid-sentence as if a switch were snapped to "off."

Keith had not, after all, reached the point of describing his own guilt to Mel. As he responded automatically to the tower chief's greeting, he wondered: Why had be begun at all? What could he have hoped to gain? There could never be any gain, never any forgetting. No confession---to whomever made---would exorcise memory. Momentarily he had grasped at what he mistook for a faint flicker of hope, even perhaps reprieve. As it had to be, it proved illusory. Perhaps it was as well that the interruption occurred when it did.

Once more, Keith realized, a mantle of loneliness, like an invisible thick curtain, surrounded him. Inside the curtain he was alone with his thoughts, and inside his thoughts was a private torture chamber where no one, not even a brother, could reach through.

From that torture chamber... waiting, always waiting... there could be only one relief. It was the way be had already chosen, and would carry through.

"I guess they could use you back inside, Keith," the tower watch chief said. It was the gentlest kind of chiding. Keith had already had one work-break tonight; another inevitably threw a heavier load on other people. It was also a reminder to Mel, perhaps unintended, that as airport general manager his writ did not run here.

Keith mumbled something and gave a distant nod. With a serise of helplessness, Mel watched his brother return to the radar room. He had heard enough to know that it was desperately important he should hear more. He wondered when that would be, and how. A few minutes ago he had broken through Keith's reserve, his secrecy. Would it happen again? With despair, Mel doubted it.

For sure, there would be no more confidences from Keith tonight.

"I'm sorry, Mr. Bakersfeld." As if belatedly guessing Mel's thoughts, the tower chief spread his hands. "You try to do the best for everybody. It isn't always easy."

"I know." Met felt like sighing, but restrained himself. When something like this happened, you could only hope for the right occasion to occur again; meanwhile you got on with other things you had to do.

"Tell me, please," Mel said, "what were those messages again?"

The tower chief repeated them.

Instead of telephoning the Snow Control Desk, Mel walked down one floor of the control tower and went in. Danny Farrow was still presiding over the busy snow clearance command console.

There was a query about priorities in clearing the aircraft parking areas of competing airlines, which Mel settled, then checked on the situation concerning the blocked runway, three zero. There was no change, except that Joe Patroni was now on the airfield and had taken charge of attempts to move the mired Aereo-Mexican 707, which was still preventing the runway being used. A few minutes earlier, Patroni had reported by radio that he expected to make a new attempt to move the aircraft within an hour. Knowing Joe Patroni's reputation as a top-notch troubleshooter, Mel decided there was nothing to be gained by demanding a more detailed report.

At the Snow Desk Mel remembered the message to call Police Lieutenant Ordway. Assuming that the lieutenant was still in the terminal, Mel had him paged and, a few moments later, Ordway came on the line. Mel expected the lieutenant's call to be about the anti-noise delegation of Meadowood residents. It wasn't.

"The Meadowood people are starting to come in, but they haven't been a problem and they haven't asked for you yet," Ned Ordway said when Mel raised the question. "I'll let you know when they do."

What he had called about, the policeman reported, was a woman who had been picked up by one of his men. She was crying, and apparently wandering aimlessly in the main terminal. "We couldn't get any sense out of her, but she wasn't doing anything wrong so I didn't want to take her to the station house. She seemed upset enough without that."

"What did you do?"

Ordway said apologetically, "There aren't many quiet places around here tonight, so I put her in the anteroom outside your office. I thought I'd let you know in case you got back and wondered."

"That's all right. Is she alone?"

"One of my men was with her, though he may have left by now. But she's harmless; I'm sure of that. We'll check on her again soon."

"I'll be back at my office in a few minutes," Mel said. "I'll see if I can do any good myself." He wondered if he would have more success talking with the unknown woman than he had had with Keith; he doubted if he could do worse. The thought of Keith, who seemed close to breaking point, still troubled Mel deeply.

As an afterthought, he asked, "Did you find out the woman's name?"

"Yes, we got that much. It's a Spanish-sounding name. Just a minute; I have it written down."

There was a pause, then Lieutenant Ordway said, "Her name is Guerrero. Mrs. Inez Guerrero."

TANYA LIVINGSTON said incredulously, "You mean Mrs. Quonsett's aboard Flight Two?"

"I'm afraid there's no doubt of it, Mrs. Livingston. There was a little old lady, exactly the way you've described her." The gate agent who had supervised boarding of The Golden Argosy was in the D.T.M.'s office with Tanya and young Peter Coakley, the latter still mortified at having been bamboozled by Mrs. Ada Quonsett while she was in his charge.

The gate agent had come to the office a few minutes ago in response to Coakley's telephoned warning, to all Trans America gate positions, about the elusive Mrs. Quonsett.

"It just didn't occur to me there was anything wrong," the gate agent said. "We let other visitors aboard tonight; they came off." He added defensively, "Anyway, I'd been under pressure all evening. We were short staffed, and apart from the time you were there helping, I was doing the work of two people. You know that."

"Yes," Tanya said, "I know." She had no intention of passing out blame. If anyone was responsible for what had happened, it was Tanya herself.

"It was just after you left, Mrs. Livingston. The old lady said something about her son, I think it was, leaving his wallet. She even showed it to me. It had money in it, she said, which was why I didn't take it."

"She'd already figured that. It's one of her regular gags."

"I didn't know it, so I let her go aboard. From then until a few minutes ago when I got the phone call, I never gave her another thought."

"She fools you," Peter Coakley said. He gave a sideways glance at Tanya. "She sure fooled me."

The agent shook his head. "If I didn't have to believe it, I wouldn't, even now. But she's aboard, all right." He described the discrepancy between the tourist section head count and the ticket tally, then afterward, the ramp supervisor's decision to let the aircraft go, rather than incur further delay.

Tanya said quickly, "I suppose there's no doubt Flight Two's already taken off."

"Yes, they have. I checked on my way here. Even if they hadn't, I doubt they'd bring the aircraft back in, especially tonight."

"No they wouldn't." Nor was there the slightest chance, Tanya knew, of The Golden Argosy changing course and returning for a landing, merely because of Ada Quonsett. The time and cost to disembark one stowaway would run to thousands of dollars---far more than to take Mrs. Quonsett to Rome and bring her back.

"Is there a refueling stop?" Sometimes, Tanya knew, Europe-bound flights made non-scheduled stops for fuel at Montreal or Newfoundland. If so, there would be a chance to pull Mrs. Quonsett off, robbing her of the satisfaction of getting all the way to Italy.

"I asked Operations about that," the agent answered. "The flight plan shows they're going right through. No stops."

Tanya exclaimed, "Damn that old woman!"

So Ada Quonsett was going to get her ride to Italy and back, with probably a night's lodging in between, and with meals supplied---all at airline expense, Tanya thought angrily: she had underestimated the old lady's determination not to be sent back to the West Coast; she had erred also in assuming that Mrs. Quonsett would head only for New York.

Barely fifteen minutes earlier Tanya had thought of the developing contest between herself and Ada Quonsett as a battle of wits. If it was, without doubt the little old lady from San Diego had won.

With uncharacteristic savageness, Tanya wished that the airline would make an exception and prosecute Mrs. Quonsett. But she knew they wouldn't.

Young Peter Coakley started to say something.

Tanya snapped, "Oh, shut up!"

The District Transportation Manager returned to his office a few minutes after Coakley and the gate agent left. The D.T.M., Bert Weatherby, was a hard-working, hard-driving executive in his late forties, who had come up the hard way, beginning as a ramp baggage handler. Normally considerate, and with a sense of humor, tonight he was tired and testy from three days of continuous strain. He listened impatiently to Tanya's report in which she accepted the main responsibility herself, mentioning Peter Coakley only incidentally.

Running a hand through his sparse graying bair, the D.T.M. observed, "I like to check that there's still some left up there, It's things like this that are making the rest of it fall out." He considered, then rasped, "You got us into this mess; you'd better do the salvaging. Talk to Flight Dispatch; ask them to call the captain of Flight Two on company radio and fill him in on what happened. I don't know what he can do. Personally, I'd like to throw the old hag out at thirty thousand feet, but that'll be up to him. By the way, who is the captain?"

"Captain Demerest."

The D.T.M. groaned. "It would be. He'll probably think it's all a great joke because management boobed. Anyway, advise him the old biddy's to be detained on board after landing, and is not to be allowed off without escort. If the Italian authorities want to jail her, so much the better. Then get a signal off to our station manager in Rome. When they arrive it'll be his baby, and I hope he's got more competent people around him than I have."

"Yes, sir," Tanya said.

She started to tell the D.T.M. of the other matter concerning Flight Two---the suspicious-looking man with an attache case whom Customs Inspector Standish had seen going aboard. Before she could finish, the D.T.M. cut her off.

"Forget it! What do the Customs people want us to do---their job? As long as the airline's not involved, I don't give a damn what the guy's carrying. If Customs here want to know what's in his case, let them ask Italian Customs to check, not us. I'll be damned if I'll interrogate, and maybe offend, a fare-paying passenger for something that's none of our business."

Tanya hesitated. Something about the man with the attache case---even though she hadn't actually seen him---bothered her. There were instances she had heard of where... Of course, the idea was absurd...

"I was wondering," she said. "He might not be smuggling at all."

The D.T.M. snapped, "I said forget it."

Tanya left. Back at her desk, she began writing the message to Captain Demerest of Flight Two concerning Mrs. Ada Quonsett.

-- Advertisement --