Now, the young Customs man who had dealt with Mrs. Mossman originally was standing at Inspector Standish’s side. Most of the other passengers, who had arrived aboard a Scandinavian Airlines DC-8 from Copenhagen had cleared Customs and had left. Only this well-dressed American woman posed a problem, insisting that all she had bought in Europe was some perfume, costume jewelry, and shoes. The total declared value was ninety dollars–ten dollars less than the free exemption she was allowed. The young officer had been suspicious.
“Why should I sign anything?” Mrs. Harriet Du Barry Mossman demanded.
Standish glanced at an overhead clock; it was a quarter to eleven. He still had time to finish this and reach Flight Two before it left. He answered patiently, “To make things easier for yourself, madam. We’re merely asking you to confirm in writing what you’ve already told us. You say the dresses were purchased…”
“How many times must I tell you? They were bought in Chicago and New York before I left for Europe; so were the sweaters. The coat was a gift–purchased in the United States. I received it six months ago.”
Why, Harry Standish wondered, did people do it? All the statements just made, he knew with certainty, were lies.
To begin with, the dresses–six, all of good quality–had had their labels removed. No one did that innocently; women were usually proud of the labels in quality clothes. More to the point–the workmanship of the dresses was unmistakably French; so was the styling of the fur coat–though a Saks Fifth Avenue label had been sewn unskillfully in the coat lining. What people like Mrs. Mossman failed to realize was that a trained Customs man didn’t need to see labels to know where garments originated. Cutting, stitching–even the way a zipper was put in–were like familiar handwriting, and equally distinctive.
The same thing was true of the three expensive sweaters. They also were without labels, and were unmistakably from Scotland, in typical British “drab” shades, not available in the United States. When a U.S. store ordered similar sweaters, the Scottish mills made them in much brighter colors, which the North American market favored. All this, and much else, Customs officers learned as part of their training.
Mrs. Mossman asked, “What happens if I sign the form?”
“Then you may go, madam.”
“And take my things with me? All my things?”
“Supposing I refuse to sign?”
“Then we shall be obliged to detain you here while we continue the investigation.”
There was the briefest hesitation, then: “Very well. You fill out the form; I’ll sign.”
“No, madam; you fill it out. Now here, please describe the items, and alongside where you say they were obtained. Please give the name of the stores; also from whom you received the fur coat as a gift…”
Harry Standish thought: He would have to leave in a minute; it was ten to eleven now. He didn’t want to reach Flight Two after the doors were closed. But first be had a hunch…
He waited while Mrs. Mossman completed the form and signed it.
Commencing tomorrow, an investigative officer would begin checking out the statement Mrs. Mossman had just made. The dresses and sweaters would be requisitioned and taken to the stores where she claimed they were purchased; the fur jacket would be shown to Saks Fifth Avenue, who would undoubtedly disown it… Mrs. Mossman–though she didn’t know it yet–was in for a great deal of trouble, including some heavy Customs duty to be paid, and almost certainly a stiff fine.
“Madam,” Inspector Standish said, “is there anything else you wish to declare?”
Mrs. Mossman snapped indignantly, “There certainly isn’t!”
“You’re sure?” It was Customs Bureau policy to give travelers the utmost opportunity to make voluntary declarations. People were not to be entrapped unless they brought it on themselves.
Not deigning to reply, Mrs. Mossman inclined her head disdainfully.
“In that case, madam,” Inspector Standish said, “will you kindly open your handbag?”
For the first time the haughty woman betrayed uncertainty. “But surely, purses are never inspected. I’ve been through Customs many times…”
“Normally they are not. But we do have the right.”
Asking to see the contents of a woman’s handbag was a rarity; like a man’s pockets, a handbag was considered personal and almost never looked into. But when an individual chose to be difficult, Customs men could be difficult too.
Reluctantly, Mrs. Harriet Du Barry Mossman unclipped her purse.
Harry Standish inspected a lipstick and a gold compact. When he probed the powder in the compact, he extracted a diamond and ruby ring: he blew the powder on the ring away. There was a tube of hand lotion, partially used. Unrolling the tube, he could see that the bottom had been opened. When he pressed the tube near the top, there was something hard inside. He wondered when would-be smugglers would come up with something original. Such old tricks! He had seen them all many times.
Mrs. Mossman was noticeably pale. Her hauteur had disappeared.
“Madam,” Inspector Standish said, “I have to leave for a short while, but I’ll be back. In any case, this is going to take some time.” He instructed the young Customs officer beside him, “Inspect everything else very carefully. Check the linings of the bag and cases, the seams and hems of all the clothes. Make a list. You know what to do.”
He was leaving when Mrs. Mossman called after him. “Officer!”
He stopped. “Yes, madam.”
“About the coat and dresses… perhaps I did make a mistake… I was confused. I did buy them, and there are some other things…”
Standish shook his head. What people never seemed to learn was that there had to be a cut-off point somewhere; after that, cooperation was too late. He saw that the young officer had found something else.
“Please!…. I beg of you… my husband…” As the Inspector turned away, the woman’s face was white and drawn.
Walking briskly, Harry Standish used a short cut, below the public portion of the terminal, to reach Concourse “D” and gate forty-seven. As he went, he reflected on the foolishness of Mrs. Harriet Du Barry Mossman and the many like her. Had she been honest about the coat and dresses, and declared them, the duty payable would not have been great, especially for someone who was clearly well-to-do. The young Customs officer, though noticing the sweaters, probably would not have bothered with them; and certainly her handbag would not have been inspected. Customs men were aware that most returning travelers did a little smuggling, and were often tolerant about it. Also, if asked, they would help people lump high-duty items under their duty-free exemption, charging duty on other articles which were entitled to lower rates.
The people who got nabbed, hit hard, and were sometimes prosecuted, were invariably the greedy ones like Mrs. Mossman, who tried to get away with everything. What had depressed Harry Standish today was the number of others of her kind.
He was relieved to see that the doors of Trans America Flight Two had not yet closed, and a few remaining passengers were still being checked in. His U.S. Customs uniform was a passport anywhere within the airport, and the busy gate agent barely glanced up as Inspector Standish went past. The gate agent, Standish noticed, was being helped by a red-headed woman passenger relations agent whom he knew as Mrs. Livingston.
The inspector entered the walkway to the tourist section; a stewardess was at the rear airplane doorway. He smiled. “I’ll only be a moment. Don’t take off with me aboard.”
He found his niece, Judy, in an aisle seat of a three-seat section. She was keeping a baby amused, the baby belonging to a young couple in the two seats alongside. Like all airplane tourist sections, this one already seemed cramped and crowded, the seats oppressively close to one another. On the few air journeys Inspector Standish made himself, he traveled tourist, but always had a sense of claustrophobia. Tonight he didn’t envy any of these people the monotonous ten-hour journey which lay ahead of them.
“Uncle Harry!” Judy said. “I thought you weren’t going to make it.” She handed the baby back to its mother.
“I just came to say God bless!” he told her. “Have a good year, and when you come back don’t try any smuggling.”
She laughed. “I won’t. Goodbye, Uncle Harry.”
His niece put her face up to be kissed, and be bussed her affectionately. He felt good about Judy. He had a feeling she would not grow up to be a Mrs. Mossman.
Leaving the aircraft, with a friendly nod to the stewardesses, the Customs inspector paused a moment at the concourse gate, watching. The last moments before departure of any flight, especially one for some far distant place, always fascinated him, as it did many people. The final call… “Trans America Airlines announce the immediate departure of Flight Two, The Golden Argosy…” was just coming over the p.a. system.
The knot of people waiting to board had been reduced to two. The redheaded passenger agent, Mrs. Livingston, was gathering up her papers as the regular gate agent dealt with the last arrival but one–a tall blond man, hatless, and wearing a camel-hair coat. Now, the blond man left the agent’s desk and entered the tourist section walkway. Mrs. Livingston left too, walking away from the departure gate, toward the main section of the terminal.
While he had been watching, Inspector Standish was aware, almost subconsciously, of someone else nearby, facing a window which looked away from the departure gate. Now the figure turned. He saw that it was an old lady; she appeared small, demure, and frail. She was dressed primly in black in an old-fashioned style, and carried a black beaded purse. She looked as if she needed somebody to take care of her, and he wondered why someone so old, and apparently alone, was here so late at night.
Moving with surprising spryness, the old lady crossed to where the Trans America ticket agent was dealing with the last Flight Two passenger. Standish heard some, though not all, of what was said; the old lady’s words were punctuated by noise from outside, from the aircraft engines, which were being started. “Excuse… my son just boarded… blond hair, no hat, camel-hair coat… forgot his wallet… all his money.” The old lady, Standish observed, was holding what looked like a man’s billfold.
The gate agent glanced up impatiently. He appeared harassed; gate men usually were at the last moments of departure. The agent put out his hand to take the wallet, then, observing the old lady, changed his mind and said something quickly. He pointed to the tourist boarding walkway and Standish heard, “Ask a stewardess.” The old lady smiled and nodded, and entered the walkway. A moment later she was out of sight.
All that Customs Inspector Standish had observed had taken only moments–perhaps less than a minute. Now, he saw a newcomer arrive–a stoop-shouldered, spindly man, hurrying down Concourse “D” toward gate forty-seven. The man had a gaunt face and a slight sandy mustache. He was carrying a small attaché case.
Standish had been about to turn away, but something about the man attracted his attention. It was the way the newcomer was holding his case–under his arm, protectively. Harry Standish had watched people, many times, doing the same thing as they came through Customs. It was a giveaway that whatever was inside the case was something they wanted to conceal. If this man had been coming in from overseas, Standish would have had him open the case, and would have examined its contents. But the man was going out of the United States.