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 attaché 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.”