“What you’ve done is dishonest. You’ve defrauded; you’ve broken the law. I suppose you realize you can be prosecuted.”
For the first time, a gleam of triumph crossed the older woman’s innocent face. “But I won’t be, will I? They never do prosecute anybody.”
There was really no point in continuing, Tanya thought. She knew perfectly well, and so apparently did Mrs. Quonsett, that airlines never prosecuted stowaways, on the theory that publicity would be more harmful than otherwise.
There was just a chance, though, that some more questions might produce information useful in the future.
“Mrs. Quonsett,” Tanya said, “since you’ve had so much free travel from Trans America, the least you can do is help us a little.”
“I’ll be glad to if I can.”
“What I’d like to know is how you get aboard our flights.”
The little old lady smiled. “Well, my dear, there are quite a few ways. I try to use different ones as much as I can.”
“Please tell me about them.”
“Well, most times I try to be at the airport early enough so I can get myself a boarding pass.”
“Isn’t that difficult to do?”
“Getting a boarding pass? Oh, no; it’s very easy. Nowadays airlines use their ticket folders as passes. So I go to one of the counters and say I’ve lost my ticket folder, and please may I have another. I pick a counter where the clerks are busy, with a lot of people waiting. They always give me one.”
Naturally they would, Tanya thought. It was a normal request which occurred frequently. Except that, unlike Mrs. Quonsett, most people wanted a fresh ticket folder for a legitimate reason.
“But it’s just a blank folder,” Tanya pointed out. “It isn’t made out as a gate pass.”
“I make it out myself–in the ladies’ room. I always have some old passes with me, so I know what to write. And I keep a big black pencil in my purse.” Depositing the lace handkerchief in her lap, Mrs. Quonsett opened her black beaded purse. “See?”
“I do see,” Tanya said. She reached out, removing the crayon pencil. “Do you mind if I keep this?”
Mrs. Quonsett looked faintly resentful. “It’s really mine. But if you want it, I suppose I can get another.”
“Go on,” Tanya said. “So now you have a boarding pass. What happens after that?”
“I go to where the flight is leaving from.”
“The departure gate?”
“That’s right. I wait until the young man checking the tickets is busy–he always is when a lot of people come together. Then I walk past him, and on to the airplane.”
“Suppose someone tries to stop you?”
“No one does, if I have a pass.”
“Not even the stewardesses?”
“They’re just young girls, my dear. Usually they’re talking to each other, or interested in the men. All they look at is the flight number, and I always get that right.”
“But you said you don’t always use a boarding pass.”
Mrs. Quonsett blushed. “Then, I’m afraid, I have to tell a little white lie. Sometimes I say I’m going aboard to see my daughter off–most airlines let people do that, you know. Or, if the plane has come in from somewhere else, I say I’m going back to my seat, but I left my ticket on board. Or, I tell them my son just got on, but he dropped his wallet and I want to give it to him. I carry a wallet in my hand, and that works best of all.”
“Yes,” Tanya said, “I imagine it would. You seem to have thought everything out very carefully.” She had plenty of material, she mused, for a bulletin to all gate agents and stewardesses. She doubted, though, if it would have much effect.
“My late husband taught me to be thorough. He was a teacher–of geometry. He always said you should try to think of every angle.”
Tanya looked hard at Mrs. Quonsett. Was her leg being gently pulled?
The face of the little old lady from San Diego remained impassive. “There’s one important thing I haven’t mentioned.”
On the opposite side of the room a telephone rang. Tanya got up to answer it.
“Is that old biddy still with you?” The voice was the District Transportation Manager’s. The D.T.M. was responsible for all phases of Trans America operations at Lincoln International. Usually a calm, good-natured boss, tonight he sounded irascible. Clearly, three days and nights of flight delays, rerouting unhappy passengers, and endless needlings from the airline’s Eastern head office were having their effect.
“Yes,” Tanya said.
“Get anything useful out of her?”
“Quite a lot. I’ll send you a report.”
“When you do, use some goddarn capitals for once, so I can read it.”
She made the “sir” sufficiently pointed, so there was a momentary silence at the other end. Then the D.T.M. grunted. “Sorry, Tanya! I guess I’m passing on to you what I’ve been getting from New York. Like the cabin boy kicking the ship’s cat, only you’re no cat. Can I do anything?”
“I’d like a one-way passage to Los Angeles, tonight, for Mrs. Ada Quonsett.”
“Is that the old hen?”
The D.T.M. said sourly, “I suppose, a company charge.”
“I’m afraid so.”
“What I hate about it is putting her ahead of honest-to-goodness fare-paying passengers who’ve been waiting hours already. But I guess you’re right; we’re better off to get her out of our hair.”
“I think so.”
“I’ll okay a requisition. You can pick it up at the ticket counter. But be sure to alert Los Angeles, so they can have the airport police escort the old hag off the premises.”
Tanya said softly, “She could be Whistler’s Mother.”
The D.T.M. grunted. “Then let Whistler buy her a ticket.”
Tanya smiled and hung up. She returned to Mrs. Quonsett.
“You said there was an important thing–about getting aboard flights–that you hadn’t told me.”
The little old lady hesitated. Her mouth had tightened noticeably at the mention, during Tanya’s conversation, of a return flight to Los Angeles.
“You’ve told me most of it,” Tanya prompted. “You might as well finish. If there’s anything else.”
“There certainly is.” Mrs. Quonsett gave a tight, prim nod. “I was going to say it’s best not to choose the big flights–the important ones, I mean, that go non-stop across the country. They often get full, and they give people seat numbers, even in Economy. That makes it harder, though I did it once when I could see there weren’t many others going.”
“So you take flights that aren’t direct. Don’t you get found out at intermediate stops?”
“I pretend to be asleep. Usually they don’t disturb me.”
“But this time you were.”
Mrs. Quonsett pressed her lips in a thin, reproving line. “It was that man sitting beside me. He was very mean. I confided in him, and he betrayed me to the stewardess. That’s what you get for trusting people.”
“Mrs. Quonsett,” Tanya said. “I imagine you heard; we’re going to send you back to Los Angeles.”
There was the slightest gleam behind the elderly, gray eyes. “Yes, my dear. I was afraid that would happen. But I’d like to get a cup of tea. So, if I can go now, and you’ll tell me what time to come back…”
“Oh, no!” Tanya shook her head decisively. “You’re not going anywhere alone. You can have your cup of tea, but an agent will be with you. I’m going to send for one now, and he’ll stay with you until you board the Los Angeles flight. If I let you loose in this terminal I know exactly what would happen. You’d be on an airplane for New York before anybody knew it.”
From the momentary hostile glare which Mrs. Ouonsett gave her, Tanya knew she had guessed right.
Ten minutes later, all arrangements were complete. A single seat reservation had been made on Flight 103 for Los Angeles, leaving in an hour and a half. The flight was non-stop; there was to be no chance of Mrs. Quonsett getting off en route and heading back. D.T.M. Los Angeles had been advised by teletype; a memo was going to the crew of Flight 103.
The little old lady from San Diego had been handed over to a male Trans America agent–a recently recruited junior, young enough to be her grandson.
Tanya’s instructions to the agent, Peter Coakley, were precise. “You’re to stay with Mrs. Quonsett until flight time. She says she wants some tea, so take her to the coffee shop and she can have it; also something to eat if she asks, though there’ll be dinner on the flight. But whatever she has, stay with her. If she needs the ladies’ room, wait outside; otherwise, don’t let her out of your sight. At flight time, take her to the departure gate, go aboard with her and hand her over to the senior stewardess. Make it clear that once aboard, she is not to be allowed off the airplane for any reason. She’s full of little tricks and plausible excuses, so be careful.”
Before leaving, the little old lady grasped the young agent’s arm. “I hope you don’t mind, young man. Nowadays an old lady needs support, and you do so remind me of my dear son-in-law. He was good-looking, too, though of course he’s a lot older than you are now. Your airline does seem to employ nice people.” Mrs. Quonsett glanced reproachfully at Tanya. “At least, most of them are.”
“Remember what I said,” Tanya cautioned Peter Coakley. “She’s got a barrelful of tricks.”
Mrs. Quonsett said severely, “That isn’t very kind. I’m sure this young man will form his own opinion.”
The agent was grinning sheepishly.
At the doorway, Mrs. Quonsett turned. She addressed Tanya. “Despite the way you’ve behaved, my dear, I want you to know that I don’t bear any grudge.”
A few minutes later, from the small lounge which she had used for tonight’s two interviews, Tanya returned to the Trans America executive offices on the main mezzanine. The time, she noticed, was a quarter to nine. At her desk in the big outer office she speculated on whether the airline had heard the last, or not, of Mrs. Ada Quonsett. Tanya rather doubted it. On her capital-less typewriter she began a memo to the District Transportation Manager.
from: tanya liv’stn
sbject: whistler’s mum
She stopped, wondering where Mel Bakersfeld was, and if he would come.
HE SIMPLY couldn’t, Mel Bakersfeld decided, go downtown tonight.
Mel was in his office, in the mezzanine administrative suite. His fingers drummed thoughtfully on the surface of his desk, from where he had been telephoning, obtaining latest reports on the airport’s operating status.
Runway three zero was still out of use, still blocked by the mired Aéreo-Mexican jet. As a result, the general runway availability situation was now critical, and traffic delays–both in the air and on the ground–were worsening. The possibility of having to declare the airport closed, some time within the next few hours, was very real.