THE HOT hors d'oeuvres, which Captain Vernon Demerest had called for, had been served to the pilots of Flight Two. The appetizing assortment on a tray, brought by one of the stewardesses from the first class galley, was disappearing fast. Demerest grunted appreciatively as he bit into a lobster-and-mushroom tartlet garnished with Parmesan cheese.
As usual, the stewardesses were pursuing their campaign to fatten the skinny young second officer, Cy Jordan. Surreptitiously they had slipped him a few extra hors d'oeuvres on a separate plate behind the two captains and now, while Jordan fiddled with fuel crossfeed valves, his cheeks bulged with chicken livers in bacon.
Soon, all three pilots, relaxing in turn in the dimly lighted cockpit, would be brought the same delectable entree and dessert which the airline served its first class passengers. The only things the passengers would get, which the crew did not, were table wine and champagne.
Trans America, like most airlines, worked hard at providing an excellent cuisine aloft. There were some who argued that airlines---even international airlines---should concern themselves solely with transportation, gear their in-flight service to commuter standards, and dispense with frills, including meals of any higher quality than a box lunch. Others, however, believed that too much of modem travel had become established at box lunch level, and welcomed the touch of style and elegance which good airborne meals provided. Airlines received remarkably few complaints about food service. Most passengers---tourist and first class---welcomed the meals as a diversion and consumed them zestfully.
Vernon Demerest, searching out with his tongue the last succulent particles of lobster, was thinking much the same thing. At that moment the Selcal call chime sounded loudly in the cockpit and the radio panel warning light flashed on.
Anson Harris's eyebrows went up. A single call on Selcal was out of the ordinary; two within less than an hour were exceptional.
"What we need," Cy Jordan said from behind, "is an unlisted number."
Demerest reached out to switch radios. "I'll get it."
After the mutual identification between Flight Two and New York dispatch, Vernon Demerest began writing on a message pad under a hooded light. The message was from D.T.M. Lincoln International, and began: UNCONFIRMED POSSIBILITY EXISTS... As the wording progressed, Demerest's features, in the light's reflection, tautened. At the end he acknowledged briefly and signed off without comment.
Demerest handed the message pad to Anson Harris, who read it, leaning toward a light beside him. Harris whistled softly. He passed the pad over his shoulder to Cy Jordan.
The Selcal message ended: SUGGEST RETURN OR ALTERNATE LANDING AT CAPTAIN'S DISCRETION.
As both captains knew, there was a question of command to be decided. Although Anson Harris had been flying tonight as captain, with Demerest performing first officer duty, Vernon Demerest---as check pilot---had overriding authority if he chose to exercise it.
Now, in response to Harris's questioning glance, Demcrest said brusquely, "You're in the left seat. What are we waiting for?"
Harris considered only briefly, then announced, "We'll turn back, but making a wide slow turn; that way, passengers shouldn't notice. Then we'll have Gwen Meighen locate this guy they're worried about, because it's a sure thing one of us can't show up in the cabin, or we'll alert him." He shrugged. "After that, I guess we play it by ear."
"Okay," Demerest assented. "You get us faced around; I'll handle the cabin end." He depressed the stewardess call button, using a three-ring code to summon Gwen.
On a radio frequency he had been using earlier, Anson Harris called air route control. He announced laconically, "This is Trans America Two. We seem to have a problem here. Request clearance back to Lincoln, and radar vector from present position to Lincoln."
Harris's swift reasoning had already ruled out landing at an alternate air-port. Ottawa, Toronto, and Detroit, they had been informed at briefing, were closed to air traffic because of the storm. Besides, to deal with the man they were concerned about back in the cabin, the crew of Flight Two needed time. Returning to Lincoln International would provide it.
He had no doubt that Demerest had reached the same conclusion.
From Toronto Air Route Center, more than six miles below, a controller's voice responded. "Trans America Two, Roger." A brief pause, then: "You may begin a left turn now to heading two seven zero. Stand by for an altitude change."
"Roger, Toronto. We are commencing the turn. We'd like to make it wide and gradual."
"Trans America Two. A wide turn approved."
The exchange was low key, as such exchanges usually were. Both in the air and on the ground there was mutual awareness that most would be gained by calm, least by dramatics or excitement. By the nature of Flight Two's request, the ground controller was instantly aware that an emergency---real or potential---existed. Jetliners, in flight at cruising altitude, did not abruptly reverse course without a major reason. But the controller also knew that if and when the captain was ready, he would officially declare an emergency and report its cause. Until then, the controller would not waste the time of the crew---undoubtedly occupied with urgent business of their own---by asking needless questions.
Whatever help was sought from air route control, however, would be given without query, and as speedily as possible.
Even now, on the ground, procedural wheels were turning. At Toronto Air Route Center, located in a handsome modern building some fourteen miles beyond the city limits, the controller receiving Flight Two's transmission had summoned a supervisor. The supervisor was liaising with other sectors, clearing a path ahead of Flight Two, as well as altitudes immediately below---the last as a precaution. Cleveland Center, which earlier had passed the flight to Toronto Center and now would receive it back, had been alerted also. Chicago Center, which would take over from Cleveland, was being notified.
On the flight deck of Flight Two, a new air route control message was coming in. "Begin descent to flight level two eight zero. Report leaving flight level three three zero."
Anson Harris acknowledged. "Toronto Center, this is Trans America Two. We are beginning descent now."
On Harris's orders, Second Officer Jordan was reporting to Trans America dispatch, by company radio, the decision to return.
The door from the forward cabin opened. Gwen Meighen came in.
"Listen," she said, "if it's more hors d'oeuvres, I'm sorry, but you can't have them. In case you hadn't noticed, we happen to have a few passengers aboard."
"I'll deal with the insubordination later," Demerest said. "Right now"---he mimicked Gwen's English accent---we've got a spot o' bother."
Superficially, little had changed on the flight deck since a few moments ago when the message from D.T.M. Lincoln had come in. Yet, subtly, the relaxed mood prevailing earlier had vanished. Despite their studied composure, the three-man crew was all-professional and sharp, their minds at peak acuity, each sensing the adjustment in the other two. It was to achieve such moments, responsively and quickly, that years of training and experience marked the long route to airline captaincy. Flying itself---controlling an airplane---was not a difficult achievement; what commercial pilots were paid high salaries for was their reserve of resourcefulness, airmanship, and general aviation wisdom. Demerest, Harris, and---to a lesser extent---Cy Jordan, were summoning their reserves now. The situation aboard Flight Two was not yet critical; with luck, it might not be critical at all. But if a crisis arose, mentally the crew was ready.
"I want you to locate a passenger," Demerest told Gwen. "He isn't to know that you're looking for him. We have a description here. You'd better read the whole thing." He handed her the pad with the Selcal message. She moved nearer, holding it under the hooded light beside him.
As the aircraft rolled slightly, Gwen's hand brushed Vernon Demerest's shoulder. He was conscious of her closeness and a faint famfliar perfume. Glancing sideways, he could see Gwen's profile in the semidarkness. Her expression as she read was serious, but not dismayed; it reminded him of what he had admired so much earlier this evening---her strength in no way lessening her femininity. In a swift, fleeting second he remembered that twice tonight Gwen had declared she loved him. He had wondered then: had he ever truly been in love himself? When you kept tight rein on personal emotions, you were never absolutely sure. But at this moment, instinct told him, his feeling about Gwen was the closest to loving he would ever know.
Gwen was reading the message again, more slowly.
Momentarily he felt a savage anger at this new circurnstance which was contriving to delay their plans---his own and Gwen's---for Naples. Then he checked himself. This was a moment for professionalism only. Besides, what was happening now would merely mean delay, perhaps for a full twenty-four hours after their return to Lincoln; but eventually the flight would go. It did not occur to him that the bomb threat might not be disposed of quickly, or that it would fail to end as tamely as most others.
Alongside Demerest, Anson Harris was still holding the aircraft in its gentle turn, using only the slightest amount of hank. It was a perfect turn, exactly executed, as demonstrated by each pilot's needle and ball indicator---the granddaddy of aviation flight instruments, still used on modern jets, as it was used in Lindbergh's Spirit of St. Louis, and airplanes long before. The needle was tilted, the ball dead center. But only compass and gyro betrayed the extent of the turn---that Flight Two was coming around a hundred and eighty degrees in course. Harris had declared that passengers would be unaware of the course reversal, and he would be right---unless someone, peering through a cabin window, happened to be familiar with positions of stars and moon in relation to westerly and easterly courses. Then they would observe the change, but that was a chance which had to be taken; fortunately, the ground being obscured by cloud meant that no one could see and identify cities. Now Harris was beginning to lose height also, the aircraft's nose lowered slightly, with throttles pulled back the barest amount, so that the note of engines would change no more than was usual during any flight. Harris was concentrating, flying with textbook precision, ignoring Gwen and Demerest.
Gwen handed the message pad back.
"What I want you to do," Demerest instructed her, "is go back and locate this man. See if there's any sign of the bag, and whether there's a good chance of getting it away from him. You realize that one of us from here can't go back---at least for now---in case we scare him."
"Yes," Gwen said. "I understand that. But I don't need to go either."
She said quietly, "I know where he is already. In seat fourteen-A."
Vernon Demerest regarded her searchingly. "I don't have to tell you that this is important. If you've any doubt, go back and make sure."
"I haven't any doubt."
Half an hour or so ago, Gwen explained, after serving dinners in first class, she had gone aft into the tourist section to help out there. One of the passengers---in a window seat on the left---had been dozing. When Gwen spoke to him he awakened instantly. He was nursing a small attache case on his knees and Gwen suggested that she take it, or that he put it down, while having dinner. The passenger refused. He continued to hold the case where it was, and she noticed that he clasped it as if it were important. Later, instead of letting down the folding table from the back of the seat ahead, he used the case, still held on his lap, to support his dinner tray. Accustomed to passengers' peculiarities, Gwen thought no more of it, though she remembered the man well. The description in the message fitted him exactly.
"Another reason I remember is that he's sitting right alongside the old lady stowaway."
"He's in a window seat, you say?"
"That makes it harder---to reach across and grab." Demerest was remembering the portion of the D.T.M.'s message: IF SUPPOSITION TRUE, LIKELY THAT TRIGGER FOR EXPLOSIVES WILL BE ON OUTSIDE OF CASE AND EASILY REACHABLE. THEREFORE USE EXTREME CAUTION IN ATTEMPTING TO SEIZE CASE FORCIBLY. He guessed that Gwen, too, was thinking of that warning.
For the first time a feeling, not of fear but doubt, intruded on his reasoning. Fear might come later, but not yet. Was there a possibility that this bomb scare might prove to be more than a scare? Vernon Demerest had thought and talked of this kind of situation often enough, yet could never really believe it would happen to himself.
Anson Harris was easing out of the turn as gently as he had gone into it. They were now headed around completely.
The Selcal chime sounded again. Demerest motioned to Cy Jordan, who switched radios and answered, then began copying down a message.
Anson Harris was talking once more with Toronto Air Route Center.
"I wonder," Vernon Demerest said to Gwen, "if there's any chance of getting those other two passengers alongside Guerrero out of their seats. That way he'd be left there, in the three-seat section, on his own. Then maybe one of us could come from behind, lean over and grab."
"He'd suspect," Gwen said emphatically. "I'm sure he would. He's edgy now. The moment we got those other people out, whatever excuse we used, he'd know something was wrong and he'd be watching and waiting."
The second officer passed over the Selcal message he had been copying. It was from D.T.M. Lincoln. Using the hooded light, Gwen and Demerest read it together.
NEW INFORMATION INDICATES EARLIER POSSIBILITY OF EXPLOSIVE DEVICE IN POSSESSION OF PASSENGER GUERRERO IS NOW STRONG PROBABILITY REPEAT STRONG PROBABILITY. PASSENGER BELIEVED MENTALLY DISTURBED, DESPERATE. REPEAT PREVIOUS WARNING TO APPROACH WITH EXTREME CAUTION. GOOD LUCK.
"I like that last bit," Cy Jordan said. "That's real nice, wishing us that."
Demerest said brusquely, "Shut up!"
For several seconds---apart from routine flight deck sounds---there was silence.
"If there were some way," Demerest said slowly, "...some way we could trick him into letting go of that case. All we'd need would be a few seconds to have our hands on it, then get it clear away... if we were quick, two seconds would be enough."
Gwen pointed out, "He wouldn't even put it down..."
"I know! I know! I'm thinking, that's all." He stopped. "Let's go over it again. There are two passengers between Guerrero and the aisle. One of them..."
"One of them is a man; he has the aisle seat. In the middle is the old lady, Mrs. Quonsett. Then Guerrero."
"So grandma's right beside Guerrero; right alongside the case."
"Yes, but how does it help? Even if we could let her know, she couldn't possibly..."
Demerest said sharply, "You haven't said anything to her yet? She doesn't know we're on to her?"
"No. You told me not to."
"Just wanted to be sure."
Again they were silent. Vernon Demerest concentrated, thinking, weighing possibilities. At length he said carefully, "I have an idea. It may not work, but at the moment it's the best we have. Now listen, while I tell you exactly what to do."
IN THE TOURIST section of Flight Two most passengers had finished dinner, and stewardesses were briskly removing trays. The meal service had gone faster than usual tonight. One reason was that due to the delayed takeoff, some passengers had eaten in the terminal and now, because of the lateness of the hour, they had either declined dinner or merely nibbled at it.
At the three-seat unit where Mrs. Ada Quonsett was still chatting with her new friend, the oboe player, one of the tourist cabin stewardesses---a pert young blonde---asked, "Have you finished with your trays?"
"Yes, I have, miss," the oboist said.
Mrs. Quonsett smiled warmly. "Thank you, my dear; you may take mine. It was very nice."
The dour man on Mrs. Quonsett's left surrendered his tray without comment.
It was only then that the little old lady from San Diego became aware of the other stewardess standing in the aisle.
She was one whom Mrs. Quonsett had observed several times previously, and appeared to be in charge of the other girls. She had deep black hair, an attractive, high-cheekboned face, and strong dark eyes which at the moment were focused, directly and coolly, on Ada Quonsett.
"Pardon me, madam. May I see your ticket?"
"My ticket? Why, of course." Mrs. Quonsett affected surprise, though she guessed immediately what lay behind the request. Obviously her stowaway status was either suspected or known. But she had never given up easily, and even now her wits were working. A question was: how much did this girl know?
Mrs. Quonsett opened her purse and pretended to search among its papers. "I know I had it, my dear. It must be here somewhere." She glanced up, her expression innocent. "That is, unless the ticket man took it when I came aboard. Perhaps he kept it and I didn't notice."
"No," Gwen Meighen said, "he wouldn't have. If it was a round-trip ticket, you'd be holding a return flight coupon. And if it was one-way, you'd still have the ticket stub and boarding folder."
"Well, it certainly seems strange..." Mrs. Quonsett continued fumbling in her purse.
Gwen inquired coldly, "Shall I look?" From the beginning of their exchange, she had shown none of her customary friendliness. She added, "If there's a ticket in your purse, I'll find it. If there isn't, it will save us both wasting time."
"Certainly not," Mrs. Ouonsett said severely. Then, relenting: "I realize you mean no harm, my dear, but I have private papers here. You, being English, should respect privacy. You are English, aren't you?"
"Whether I am or not doesn't matter. At this moment we're talking about your ticket. That is, if you have one." Gwen's voice, pitched louder than usual, was audible several seats away. Heads of other passengers were turning.
"Oh, I have a ticket. It's just a question of where it is." Mrs. Quonsett smiled engagingly. "About your being English, though, I could tell you were from the very first moment you spoke. So many English people---people like you, my dear---make our language sound delightful. It's such a pity so few of us Americans can do the same. My late husband always used to say..."
"Never mind what he said. What about your ticket?"
It was hard for Gwen to be as rude and unpleasant as she was being. In the ordinary way she would have dealt with this old woman firmly, yet remained friendly and good-natured; Gwen also had a reluctance to bully someone more than twice her own age. But before she left the flight deck, Vernon had been explicit in his instructions.
Mrs. Ouonsett looked a little shocked. "I'm being patient with you, young lady. But when I do discover my ticket I shall certainly have something to say about your attitude..."
"Will you really, Mrs. Quonsett?" Gwen saw the old woman start at the use of her name, and for the first time there was a weakening behind the prim faqade. Gwen persisted, "You are Ada Quonsett, aren't you?"
The little old lady patted her lips with a lace handkerchief, then sighed. "Since you know I am, there's no point in denying it, is there?"
"No, because we know all about you. You've got quite a record, Mrs. Quonsett."
More passengers were watching and listening now; one or two had left their seats to move closer. Their expressions were sympathetic for the old lady, critical of Gwen. The man in the aisle seat, who had been talking with Mrs. Quonsett when Gwen arrived, shifted uncomfortably. "If there's some misunderstanding, perhaps I can help..."
"There's no misunderstanding," Gwen said. "Are you traveling with this lady?"
"Then there's nothing you need concern yourself about, sir."
So far, Gwen had not let herself look directly at the man seated farthest away, by the window, whom she knew to be Guerrero. Nor had he looked at her, though she could tell by the inclination of his head that he was listening intently to everything that was being said. Also without being obvious, she observed that he was still clasping the small attache case on his knees. At the thought of what the case might contain she experienced a sudden, icy fear. She felt herself tremble, with a premonition of something terrible to come. She wanted to run, return to the flight deck and tell Vernon to handle this himself. But she didn't, and the moment of weakness passed.
"I said we know all about you, and we do," Gwen assured Mrs. Quonsett. "You were caught earlier today as a stowaway on one of our flights from Los Angeles. You were placed in custody, but you managed to slip away. Then, by lying, you got aboard this flight."
The little old lady from San Diego said brightly, "If you know so much, or think you do, it won't do any good arguing about it." Well, she decided, it was no good worrying now. After all, she had expected to get caught; at least she hadn't been until she'd had an adventure and a good dinner. Besides, what did it matter? As the redheaded woman back at Lincoln admitted, airlines never prosecuted stowaways.
She was curious, though, about what came next. "Are we going to turn back?"
"You're not that important. When we land in Italy you'll be handed over to the authorities." Vernon Demerest had warned Gwen to let it be thought that Flight Two was proceeding on to Rome, certainly not to admit that they were already turned around and heading back. He also impressed on her that she must be rough with the old lady, which Gwen had not enjoyed. But it was necessary to make an impression on the passenger Guerrero, to carry out Demerest's next step.
Though Guerrero didn't know it---and if all went well, he would not know until too late to make any difference---this entire performance was solely for his benefit.
"You're to come with me," Gwen instructed Mrs. Quonsett. "The captain has had a signal about you, and he has to make a report. Before he does, he wants to see you." She asked the man in the aisle seat, "Will you let this woman out, please?"
For the first time the old lady looked nervous. "The captain wants me?"
"Yes, and he doesn't like to be kept waiting."
Hesitantly, Mrs. Quonsett released her seat belt. As the oboe player moved out, unhappily, to let her pass, she stepped uncertainly into the aisle. Taking her arm, Gwen propelled her forward, conscious of hostile glances all around---directed at herself---as they went.
Gwen resisted an impulse to turn, to see if the man with the case was watching too.
"I'M CAPTAIN Demerest," Vernon Demerest said. "Please come in---as far forward as you can. Gwen, shut the door and let's see if we can squeeze everybody in." He smiled at Mrs. Quonsett. "I'm afraid they don't design flight decks for entertaining visitors."
The old lady from San Diego peered toward him. After the bright lights of the passenger cabin from which she had just come, her eyes were not yet adjusted to the cockpit's semidarkness. All she could make out were shadowy figures, seated, surrounded by dozens of redly glowing dials. But there had been no mistaking the friendliness of the voice. Its effect and tone were far different from what she had braced herself to expect.
Cy Jordan pushed an armrest upward on an empty crew seat behind Anson Harris. Gwen---gently, in contrast to her behavior of a few minutes ago---guided the old lady into the seat.
There was still no turbulence outside, which made it easy to move around. Though losing height, they were still far above the storm, and despite the airplane's speed of more than five hundred miles an hour, it was riding easily as if on a calm, untroubled sea.
"Mrs. Quonsett," Vernon Demerest said, "whatever happened outside just now, you can forget it. It's not the reason you were brought here." He asked Gwen, "Were you pretty rough with her?"
"I'm afraid so."
"Miss Meighen was acting on my orders. I told her to do exactly what she did. We knew one particular person would be watching and listening. We wanted it to look good, to have a plausible reason for bringing you here."
The big shadowy figure speaking from the right-hand seat was becoming clearer to Ada Quonsett now. From what she could see of his face, he seemed a kind man, she thought. At the moment, of course, she had no idea what he was talking about. She looked about her. It was all very interesting. She had never been on a flight deck before. It was much more crowded and a smaller space than she expected. It was also warm, and the three men whom she could now see were all in shirtsleeves. This would certainly be something else to tell her daughter in New York---if she ever got there.
"Grandma," the man who had introduced himself as the captain said, "do you get frightened easily?"
It seemed an odd question, and she thought about it before answering. "Not easily, I think. I get nervous sometimes, though not as much as I used to. When you get older there isn't a lot left to be frightened of."
The captain's eyes were fixed searchingly on her fare. "I've decided to tell you something, then ask for your help. We don't have too much time, so I'll make it fast. I suppose you've noticed the man sitting next to you, back in the cabin---on the window side."
"The skinny one, with the little mustache?"
"Yes," Gwen said. "That's him."
Mrs. Quonsett nodded. "He's a strange one. He won't talk to anybody, and he has a little case with him that he won't let go of. I think he's worried about something."
"We're worried, too," Vernon Demerest said quietly. "We've reason to believe that in that case he has a bomb. We want to get it away from him. That's why I need your help."
One of the surprising things about being up here with the pilots, Ada Quonsett thought, was how quiet it was. In the silence which followed what had just been said, she could hear a message coming in on an overhead speaker near where she was seated. "Trans America Two, this is Toronto Center. Your position is fifteen miles east of Kleinburg beacon. Advise your flight level and intentions."
The man in the other front seat, on the left, whose face she hadn't yet seen, was answering. "Toronto Center from Trans America Two. Leaving flight level two niner zero. Request continued slow descent until we advise. No change in our intentions to return for landing at Lincoln."
"Roger, Trans America. We are clearing traffic ahead of you. You may continue slow descent."
A third man, at a little table to her right, facing still more dials, leaned across to the one who had been speaking. "I make it an hour and seventeen minutes in. That's using forecast winds, but if the front's moved faster than expected, it could be less."
"We are going back, aren't we?" Mrs. Quonsett found it hard to restrain the excitement in her voice.
Demerest nodded. "But you're the only one who knows, besides ourselves. For the time being you must keep it a secret, and above all, Guerrero---that's the man with the case---mustn't find out."
Ada Ouonsett thought breathlessly: was this really happening to her? It was all quite thrilling, like something on TV. It was a little frightening perhaps, but she decided not to think too much about that. The main thing was---she was here, a part of it all, hobnobbing with the captain, sharing secrets, and what would her daughter say about that?
"Well, will you help us?"
"Oh, of course. I expect you want me to see if I can get that case away..."
"No!" Vernon Demerest swung farther around, leaning over the back of his seat for emphasis. He said sternly, "You must not so much as put your hands on that case, or even near it."
"If you say so," Mrs. Quonsett acknowledged meekly, "I won't."
"I do say so. And remember, it's important that Guerrero have no idea we know about his case or what's inside. Now, as I did with Miss Meighen a little while ago, I'm going to tell you exactly what to do when you go back to the cabin. Please listen carefully."
When he had finished, the little old lady from San Diego permitted herself a small, brief smile. "Oh, yes; yes, I think I can do that."
She was getting out of her seat, with Gwen about to open the flight deck door for them to go, when Demerest asked, "That flight from Los Angeles you stowed away on---they said you were trying to reach New York. Why?"
She told him about being lonely sometimes on the West coast, and wanting to visit her married daughter in the east.
"Grandma," Vernon Demerest said, "if we pull this off I'll personally guarantee that not only will any trouble you're in be taken care of, but this airline will give you a ticket to New York, and back, first class."
Mrs. Quonsett was so touched, she almost cried.
"Oh, thank you! Thank you!" For once she found it hard to speak. What a remarkable man, she thought; such a kind, dear man!
HER GENUINE emotion as she was about to leave the flight deck helped Mrs. Quonsett in her progress through the first class compartment and then into the tourist cabin. With Gwen Meighen grasping her arm tightly and shoving her along, the old lady dabbed at her eyes with her lace handkerchief, giving a tearful, credible performance of acute distress. She reminded herself, almost gleefully beneath her tears, that it was her second performance tonight. The first, when she pretended to be ill, had been staged in the terminal for the young passenger agent, Peter Coakley. She had been convincing then, so why not now?
The performance was sufficiently authentic for one passenger to ask Gwen heatedly, "Miss, whatever she's done, do you have to be so rough?"
Gwen replied tartly, already aware that she was within hearing of the man Guerrero, "Sir, please don't interfere."
As they passed into the tourist cabin, Gwen closed the draw curtain in the doorway separating the two passenger sections. That was part of Vernon's plan. Looking back the way they had come, toward the front of the aircraft, Gwen could see the flight deck door slightly ajar. Behind it, she knew, Vernon was waiting, watching. As soon as the curtain between first class and tourist was closed, Vernon would move aft and stand behind it, watching through a chink which Gwen was careful to leave open. Then, when the proper moment came, he would fling the curtain aside and rush through swiftly.
At the thought of what was going to happen within the next few minutes---whatever the outcome---once more an icy fear, a sense of premonition, came to Gwen. Once more she conquered it. Reminding herself of her responsibilities to the crew, and to the other passengers---who were oblivious of the drama being played out in their midst---she escorted Mrs. Quonsett the remaining distance to her seat.
The passenger Guerrero glanced up quickly, then away. The small attache case, Gwen saw, was still in the same position on his knees, his hands holding it. The man from the aisle seat next to Mrs. Quonsett's---the oboe player---stood up as they approached. His expression sympathetic, he moved out to let the old lady in. Unobtrusively, Gwen moved in front of him, blocking his return. The aisle seat must remain unoccupied until Gwen moved out of the way. Gwen's eyes caught a flicker of movement through the chink she had left in the doorway curtain. Vernon Demerest was in position and ready.
"Please!" Still standing in the aisle, Mrs. Ouonsett turned pleadingly, tearfully to Gwen. "I beg of you---ask the captain to reconsider. I don't want to be handed over to the Italian police..."
Gwen said harshly, "You should have thought of that before. Besides, I don't tell the captain what to do."
"But you can ask him! He'll listen to you."
D. O. Guerrero turned his head, took in the scene, then looked away.
Gwen seized the old lady's arm. "I'm telling you---get into that seat!"
Ada Quonsett's voice became a wail. "All I'm asking is to be taken back. Hand me over there, not in a strange country!"
From behind Gwen the oboe player protested, "Miss, can't you see the lady's upset?"
Gwen snapped, "Please keep out of this. This woman has no business here at all. She's a stowaway."
The oboist said indignantly, "I don't care what she is. She's still an old lady."
Ignoring him, Gwen gave Mrs. Quonsett a shove which sent her staggering. "You heard me! Sit down and be quiet."
Ada Quonsett dropped into her seat. She screamed, "You hurt me! You hurt me!"
Several passengers were on their feet, protesting.
D. O. Guerrero continued to look straight ahead. His hands, Gwen saw, were still on the attache case.
Mrs. Quonsett wailed again.
Gwen said coldly, "You're hysterical." Deliberately, hating what she had to do, she leaned into the section of seats and slapped Mrs. Quonsett hard across the face. The slap resounded through the cabin. Passengers gasped. Two other stewardesses appeared incredulous. The oboist seized Gwen's arm; hastily she shook herself free.
What happened next occurred so swiftly that even those closest to the scene were uncertain of the sequence of events.
Mrs. Quonsett, in her seat, turned to D. O. Guerrero on her left. She appealed to him, "Sir, please help me! Help me!"
His features rigid, he ignored her.
Apparently overcome by grief and fear, she reached toward him, flinging her arms hystericafly around his neck. "Please, please!"
Guerrero twisted his body away, trying to release himself. He failed. Instead, Ada Quonsett wound her arms around his neck more tightly. "Oh, help me!"
Red-faced and close to choking, D. O. Guerrero put up both hands to wrench her away. As if in supplication, Ada Quonsett eased her grasp and seized his hands.
At the same instant, Gwen Meighen leaned forward toward the inside seat. She reached out and in a single even movement---almost without haste---she grasped the attache case firmly and removed it from Guerrero's knees. A moment later the case was free and in the aisle. Between Guerrero and the case, Gwen and Ada Quonsett were a solid barrier.
The curtain across the doorway from the first class cabin swept open. Vernon Demerest, tall and impressive in uniform, hurried through.
His face showing relief, he held out his hand for the attache case. "Nice going, Gwen. Let me have it."
With ordinary luck the incident---except for dealing with Guerrero later---would have ended there. That it did not was solely due to Marcus Rathbone.
Rathbone, until that moment, was an unknown, unconsidered passenger, occupying seat fourteen-D across the aisle. Although others were unaware of him, he was a self-important, pompous man, constantly aware of himself.
In the small Iowa town where he lived he was a minor merchant, known to his neighbors as a "knocker." Whatever others in his community did or proposed, Marcus Rathbone objected to. His objections, small and large, were legendary. They included the choice of books in the local library, a plan for a community antennae system, the needed disciplining of his son at school, and the color of paint for a civic building. Shortly before departing on his present trip he had organized the defeat of a proposed sign ordinance which would have beautified his town's main street. Despite his habitual "knocking," he had never been known to propose a constructive idea.
Another peculiarity was that Marcus Rathbone despised women, including his own wife. None of his objections had ever been on their behalf. Consequently, the humiliation of Mrs. Ouonsett a moment earlier had not disturbed him, but Gwen Meighen's seizure of D. O. Guerrero's attache case did.
To Marcus Rathbone this was officialdom in uniform---and a woman at that!---impinging on the rights of an ordinary traveler like himself. Indignantly, Rathbone rose from his seat, interposing himself between Gwen and Vernon Demerest.
At the same instant, D. O. Guerrero, flushed and mouthing incoherent words, scrambled free from his seat and the grasp of Ada Quonsett. As he reached the aisle, Marcus Rathbone seized the case from Gwen and---with a polite bow---held it out. Like a wild animal, with madness in his eyes, Guerrero grabbed it.
Vernon Demerest flung himself forward, but too late. He tried to reach Guerrero, but the narrowness of the aisle and the intervening figures---Gwen, Rathbone, the oboe player---defeated him. D. O. Guerrero had ducked around the others and was heading for the aircraft's rear. Other passengers, in seats, were scrambling to their feet. Demerest shouted desperately, "Stop that man! He has a bomb!"
The shout produced screams, and an exodus from seats which had the effect of blocking the aisle still further. Only Gwen Meighen, scrambling, pushing, clawing her way aft, managed to stay close to Guerrero.
At the end of the cabin---like an animal still, but this time cornered---Guerrero turned. All that remained between him and the aircraft's tail were three rear toilets; light indicators showed that two were empty, one was occupied. His back to the toilets, Guerrero held the attache case forward in front of him, one hand on its carrying handle, the other on a loop of string now visible beneath the handle. In a strained voice, somewhere between a whisper and a snarl, he warned, "Stay where you are! Don't come closer!"
Above the heads of the others, Vernon Demerest shouted again. "Guerrero, listen to me! Do you hear me? Listen!"
There was a second's silence in which no one moved, the only sound the steady background whine of the plane's jet engines. Guerrero blinked, continuing to face the others, his eyes roving and suspicious.
"We know who you are," Demerest called out, "and we know what you intended. We know about the insurance and the bomb, and they know on the ground, too, so it means your insurance is no good. Do you understand?---your insurance is invalid, canceled, worthless. If you let off that bomb you'll kill yourself for nothing. No one---least of all your family---will gain. In fact, your family will lose because they'll be blamed and hounded. Listen to me! Think."
A woman screamed. Still Guerrero hesitated.
Vernon Demerest urged, "Guerrero, let these people sit down. Then, if you like, we'll talk. You can ask me questions. I promise that until you're ready, no one will come close." Demerest was calculating: If Guerrero's attention could be held long enough, the aisle might be cleared. After that, Demerest would try to persuade Guerrero to hand over the case. If he refused, there was still a chance that Demerest could leap forward, throw himself bodily onto Guerrero and wrest the case free before the trigger could be used. It would be a tremendous risk, but there was nothing better.
People were easing nervously back into their seats.
"Now that I've told you what we know, Guerrero; now you know that it isn't any good going on, I'm asking you to give me that case." Demerest tried to keep his tone reasonable, sensing it was important to keep talking. "If you do as I say, I give you my solemn word that no one in this airplane will harm you."
D. O. Guerrero's eyes mirrored fear. He moistened thin lips with his tongue. Gwen Meighen was closest to him.
Demerest said quietly, "Gwen, take it easy. Try to get in a seat," If he had to leap, he wanted no one in the way.
Behind Guerrero the door of the occupied toilet opened. An owlish young man with thick glasses came out. He stopped, peering short-sightedly. Obviously he had heard nothing of what was going on.
Another passenger yelled, "Grab the guy with the case! He's got a bomb!"
At the first "click" of the toilet door, Guerrero half turned. Now he lunged, thrusting the man with glasses aside, and entered the toilet which the newcomer had vacated.
As Guerrero moved, Gwen Meighen moved too, remaining close behind him. Vernon Demerest, several yards away, was struggling fiercely aft, down the still crowded aisle.
The toilet door was closing as Gwen reached it. She thrust a foot inside and shoved. Her foot stopped the door from closing, but the door refused to move. Despairing, as pain shot through her foot, she could feel Guerrero's weight against the other side.
In D. O. Guerrero's mind the last few minutes bad been a jumbled blur. He had not fully comprehended everything that had occurred, nor had he heard all that Demerest said. But one thing penetrated. He realized that like so many of his other grand designs, this one, too, had failed. Somewhere---as always happened with whatever he attempted---he had bungled. All his life had been a failure. With bitterness, he knew his death would be a failure too.
His back was braced against the inside of the toilet door. He felt pressure on it, and knew that at any moment the pressure would increase so that he could no longer hold the door closed. Desperately be fumbled with the attache case, reaching for the string beneath the handle which would release the square of plastic, actuating the clothespin switch and detonating the dynamite inside. Even as he found the string and tugged, he wondered if the bomb be had made would be a failure also.
In his last split second of life and comprehension, D. O. Guerrero learned that it was not.