Page 20 of Airport


And that was it.

A finger through the loop, a tug on the string! Inside the case, the piece of plastic would fly out from the head of the clothespin, and the thumstacks would connect. The electric current would flow, and the explosion would be instant, devastating, final, for whomever or whatever was nearby.

Now that it was done, Guerrero relaxed and lit a cigarette. He smiled sardonically as he reflected again on how much more complicated the public–including writers of detective fiction–imagined the manufacture of a bomb to be. In stories he had read there were always elaborate mechanisms, clocks, fuses, which ticked or hissed or spluttered, and which could be circumvented if immersed in water. In reality, no complications were required–only the simple, homely components he had just put together. Nor could anything stop the detonation of his kind of bomb–neither water, bullets, nor bravery–once the string was pulled.

Holding the cigarette between his lips, and squinting through its smoke, D. O. Guerrero put some papers carefully into the attaché case, covering the dynamite, clothespin, wires, battery, and string. He made sure the papers would not move around, but that the string could move freely under them. Even if he opened the case for any reason, its contents would appear innocent. He closed the case and locked it.

He checked the cheap alarm clock beside the bed. It was a few minutes after 8 P.M., a little less than two hours to flight departure time. Time to go. He would take the subway uptown to the airline terminal, then board an airport bus. He had just enough money left for that, and to buy the flight insurance policy. The thought reminded him that he must allow sufficient time at the airport to get insurance. He pulled on his topcoat quickly, checking that the ticket to Rome was still in the inside pocket.

He unlocked the bedroom door and went into the mean, shabby living room, taking the attaché case with him, holding it gingerly.

One final thing to do! A note for Inez. He found a scrap of paper and a pencil and, after thinking for several seconds, wrote:

I won’t be home for a few days. I’m going away. I expect to have some good news soon which will surprise you.

He signed it D.O.

For a moment he hesitated, softening. It wasn’t much of a note to mark the end of eighteen years of marriage. Then he decided it would have to do; it would be a mistake to say too much. Afterward, even without wreckage from Flight Two, investigators would put the passenger list under a microscope. The note, as well as all other papers he had left, would be examined minutely.

He put the note on a table where Inez would be sure to see it.

As he went downstairs D. O. Guerrero could hear voices, and a jukebox playing, from the greasy-spoon lunch counter. He turned up the collar of his topcoat, with the other hand holding the attaché case tightly. Under the carrying handle of the case, the loop of string like a hangman’s noose was close to his curled fingers.

Outside, as he left the South Side building and headed for the subway, it was still snowing.

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PART TWO

8:30 P.M. - 11 P.M. (CST)

01

ONCE MORE, Joe Patroni returned to the warmth of his car and telephoned the airport. The TWA maintenance chief reported that the road between himself and the airport was still blocked by the traffic accident which had delayed him, but the chances of getting through soon looked good. Was the Aéreo-Mexican 707, he inquired, still stuck in mud out on the airfield? Yes, he was informed, it was; furthermore, every few minutes, everyone concerned was calling TWA to ask where he was, and how much longer he would be, because his help was needed urgently.

Without waiting to warm himself fully, Patroni left the car and hurried back down the highway, through the still falling snow and deep slush underfoot, to where the accident had occurred.

At the moment, the scene around the wrecked tractor-trailer transport looked like a staged disaster for a wide screen movie. The mammoth vehicle still lay on its side, blocking all four traffic lanes. By now it was completely snow covered and, with none of its wheels touching ground, seemed like a dead, rolled-over dinosaur. Floodlights and flares, aided by the whiteness of the snow, made the setting seem like day. The floodlights were on the three tow trucks which Patroni had urged sending for, and all had now arrived. The brilliant red flares had been planted by state police, of whom several more had appeared, and it seemed that when a state trooper lacked something to do, he lit another flare. As a result, the display of pyrotechnics was worthy of the Fourth of July.

The arrival of a TV camera crew, a few minutes earlier, had heightened the stage effect. The self-important crew had come with blaring horn and illegal flashing beacon, driving down a shoulder of the road in a maroon station wagon blazoned WSHT. Typically, the four young men who comprised the TV crew had taken over as if the entire event had been arranged for their convenience, and all further developments could now await their pleasure. Several state troopers, having ignored the illegal beacon on the station wagon, were engaged in waving the tow trucks from their present positions into new ones, as the TV men directed.

Before he left to make his telephone call, Joe Patroni had carefully coaxed the tow trucks into locations which would give them the best leverage, together, to move the disabled tractor-trailer. As he left, the truck drivers and helpers were connecting heavy chains which he knew would take several more minutes to secure. The state police had been glad of his aid, and a burly police lieutenant, by that time in charge at the scene, had told the tow truck drivers to take their instructions from Patroni. But now, incredibly, the chains were removed, except for one which a grinning tow truck operator was handling as photofloods and a portable TV camera focused on him.

Behind the camera and lights a crowd of people, even larger than before, had assembled from other blocked vehicles. Most were watching the TV filming interestedly, their earlier impatience and the cold bleak misery of the night apparently forgotten for the moment.

A sudden gust of wind slapped icy wet snow into Joe Patroni’s face. Too late, his hand went to the neck of his parka. He felt some of the snow slide in, penetrate his shirt, and soak him miserably. Ignoring the discomfort, he strode toward the state police lieutenant and demanded, “Who in hell changed the trucks? The way they’re lined now, you couldn’t move a peck of coondirt. All they’ll do is pull each other.”

“I know, Mister.” The lieutenant, tall, broad-shouldered, and towering above the short, stocky figure of Patroni, appeared fleetingly embarrassed. “But the TV guys wanted a better shot. They’re from a local station, and it’s for the news tonight–all about the storm. Excuse me.”

One of the television men–himself huddled into a heavy coat–was beckoning the lieutenant into the filming. The lieutenant, head up, and ignoring the falling snow, walked with brisk authority toward the tow truck which was the center of the film shot. Two state troopers followed. The lieutenant, being careful to keep his face toward the camera, began giving instructions, with gestures, to the tow truck operator, instructions which were largely meaningless, but on screen would look impressive.

The maintenance chief, remembering his need to get to the airport speedily, felt his anger rise. He braced himself to race out, grab the TV camera and lights, and smash them all. He could do it, too; instinctively his muscles tightened, his breathing quickened. Then, with an effort, he controlled himself.

A trait of character of Joe Patroni’s was a white-hot, violent temper; fortunately the violent part was not easily set off, but once it was, all reason and logic deserted him. The exercise of control over his temper was something he had tried to learn through his years of manhood. He had not always succeeded, though nowadays a single memory helped.

On one occasion he had failed to have control. The result, forever after, haunted him.

In the Army Air Forces of World War II, Joe Patroni had been a redoubtable amateur boxer. He fought as a middleweight and, at one point, came within sight of the Air Forces championship, within his division, of the European Theater.

In a bout staged in England shortly before the Normandy invasion, he had been matched against a crew chief named Terry O’Hale, a tough, tough Bostonian with a reputation for meanness in the ring, as well as out of it. Joe Patroni, then a young Pfc. aviation mechanic, knew O’Hale and disliked him. The dislike would not have mattered if O’Hale, as a calculated part of his ring technique, had not whispered constantly, “You greasy dago wop… Whyn’t you fighting for the other side, you mother lovin’ Eytie?… You cheer when they shoot our ships down, dago boy?” and other pleasantries. Patroni had seen the gambit for what it was–an attempt to get him rattled–and ignored it until O’Hale landed two low blows near the groin in swift succession, which the referee, circling behind, did not observe.

The combination of insults, foul blows, and excruciating pain, produced the anger which Patroni’s opponent had counted on. What he did not count on was that Joe Patroni would deliver an onslaught so swift, savage, and utterly without mercy that O’Hale went down before it and, after being counted out, was pronounced dead.

Patroni was exonerated. Although the referee had not observed the low blows, others at ringside had. Even without them, Patroni had done no more than was expected–fought to the limit of his skill and strength. Only he was aware that for the space of seconds he had been berserk, insane. Alone and later, he faced the realization that even if he had known O’Hale was dying, he could not have stopped himself.

In the end, he avoided the cliché of abandoning fighting, or “hanging up his gloves for good,” as the usual fiction sequence went. He had gone on fighting, employing in the ring the whole of his physical resource, not holding back, yet testing his own control to avoid crossing the hairline between reason and berserk savagery. He succeeded, and knew that he had, because there were tests of anger where reason struggled with the wild animal inside him–and reason won. Then, and only then, did Joe Patroni quit fighting for the remainder of his life.

But control of anger did not mean dismissing it entirely. As the police lieutenant returned from camera range, Patroni confronted him heatedly. “You just blocked this road an extra twenty minutes. It took ten minutes to locate those trucks where they should be; it’ll take another ten to get them back.”

As he spoke, there was the sound of a jet aircraft overhead–a reminder of the reason for Joe Patroni’s haste.

“Now listen, mister.” The lieutenant’s face suffused a deeper red than it already was from cold and wind. “Get through your head that I’m in charge here. We’re glad to have help, including yours. But I’m the one who’s making decisions.”

“Then make one now!”

“I’ll make what I’m…”

“No!–you listen to me.” Joe Patroni stood glaring, uninhibited by the policeman’s bulk above him. Something of the maintenance chief’s contained anger, and a hint of authority, made the lieutenant hesitate.

“There’s an emergency at the airport. I already explained it; and why I’m needed there.” Patroni stabbed his glowing cigar through the air for emphasis. “Maybe other people have reasons for hightailing it out of here too, but mine’s enough for now. There’s a phone in my car. I can call my top brass, who’ll call your brass, and before you know it, somebody’ll be on that radio of yours asking why you’re polishing your TV image instead of doing the job you’re here for. So make a decision, the way you said! Do I call in, or do we move?”

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