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 Aéreo-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?”
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 attaché 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 attaché 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.
IN A TAXI en route to the airport from downtown, Cindy Bakersfeld leaned back against the rear seat and closed her eyes. She was neither aware, nor cared, that outside it was still snowing, nor that the taxi was moving slowly in heavy traffic. She was in no hurry. A wave of physical pleasure and contentment (Was the right word euphoria? Cindy wondered) swept over her.
The cause was Derek Eden.
Derek Eden, who had been at the Archidona Relief Fund cocktail party (Cindy still didn’t know which Archidona); who had brought her a triple-strength Bourbon, which she hadn’t drunk, then had propositioned her in the most unimaginative way. Derek Eden, until today only a slightly known Sun-Times reporter with a second-grade by-line; Derek Eden with the dissolute face, the casual air, the nondescript unpressed clothes; Derek Eden and his beat-up filthy-inside-and-out Chevrolet; Derek Eden, who had caught Cindy in a barriers-down moment, when she needed a man, any man, and she hadn’t hoped for much; Derek Eden who had proved to be the finest and most exciting lover she had ever known.
Never, never before had Cindy experienced anyone like him. Oh, God!, she thought; if ever there was sensual, physical perfection, she attained it tonight. More to the point; now that she had known Derek Eden… dear Derek… she wanted him again–often. Fortunately, it was unmistakable that he now felt the same way about her.
Still leaning back in the rear of the taxi, she relived mentally the past two hours.