Whatever help was sought from air route control, however, would be given without query, and as speedily as possible.
Even now, on the ground, procedural wheels were turning. At Toronto Air Route Center, located in a handsome modern building some fourteen miles beyond the city limits, the controller receiving Flight Two’s transmission had summoned a supervisor. The supervisor was liaising with other sectors, clearing a path ahead of Flight Two, as well as altitudes immediately below–the last as a precaution. Cleveland Center, which earlier had passed the flight to Toronto Center and now would receive it back, had been alerted also. Chicago Center, which would take over from Cleveland, was being notified.
On the flight deck of Flight Two, a new air route control message was coming in. “Begin descent to flight level two eight zero. Report leaving flight level three three zero.”
Anson Harris acknowledged. “Toronto Center, this is Trans America Two. We are beginning descent now.”
On Harris’s orders, Second Officer Jordan was reporting to Trans America dispatch, by company radio, the decision to return.
The door from the forward cabin opened. Gwen Meighen came in.
“Listen,” she said, “if it’s more hors d’oeuvres, I’m sorry, but you can’t have them. In case you hadn’t noticed, we happen to have a few passengers aboard.”
“I’ll deal with the insubordination later,” Demerest said. “Right now”–he mimicked Gwen’s English accent–we’ve got a spot o’ bother.”
Superficially, little had changed on the flight deck since a few moments ago when the message from D.T.M. Lincoln had come in. Yet, subtly, the relaxed mood prevailing earlier had vanished. Despite their studied composure, the three-man crew was all-professional and sharp, their minds at peak acuity, each sensing the adjustment in the other two. It was to achieve such moments, responsively and quickly, that years of training and experience marked the long route to airline captaincy. Flying itself–controlling an airplane–was not a difficult achievement; what commercial pilots were paid high salaries for was their reserve of resourcefulness, airmanship, and general aviation wisdom. Demerest, Harris, and–to a lesser extent–Cy Jordan, were summoning their reserves now. The situation aboard Flight Two was not yet critical; with luck, it might not be critical at all. But if a crisis arose, mentally the crew was ready.
“I want you to locate a passenger,” Demerest told Gwen. “He isn’t to know that you’re looking for him. We have a description here. You’d better read the whole thing.” He handed her the pad with the Selcal message. She moved nearer, holding it under the hooded light beside him.
As the aircraft rolled slightly, Gwen’s hand brushed Vernon Demerest’s shoulder. He was conscious of her closeness and a faint famfliar perfume. Glancing sideways, he could see Gwen’s profile in the semidarkness. Her expression as she read was serious, but not dismayed; it reminded him of what he had admired so much earlier this evening–her strength in no way lessening her femininity. In a swift, fleeting second he remembered that twice tonight Gwen had declared she loved him. He had wondered then: had he ever truly been in love himself? When you kept tight rein on personal emotions, you were never absolutely sure. But at this moment, instinct told him, his feeling about Gwen was the closest to loving he would ever know.
Gwen was reading the message again, more slowly.
Momentarily he felt a savage anger at this new circurnstance which was contriving to delay their plans–his own and Gwen’s–for Naples. Then he checked himself. This was a moment for professionalism only. Besides, what was happening now would merely mean delay, perhaps for a full twenty-four hours after their return to Lincoln; but eventually the flight would go. It did not occur to him that the bomb threat might not be disposed of quickly, or that it would fail to end as tamely as most others.
Alongside Demerest, Anson Harris was still holding the aircraft in its gentle turn, using only the slightest amount of hank. It was a perfect turn, exactly executed, as demonstrated by each pilot’s needle and ball indicator–the granddaddy of aviation flight instruments, still used on modern jets, as it was used in Lindbergh’s Spirit of St. Louis, and airplanes long before. The needle was tilted, the ball dead center. But only compass and gyro betrayed the extent of the turn–that Flight Two was coming around a hundred and eighty degrees in course. Harris had declared that passengers would be unaware of the course reversal, and he would be right–unless someone, peering through a cabin window, happened to be familiar with positions of stars and moon in relation to westerly and easterly courses. Then they would observe the change, but that was a chance which had to be taken; fortunately, the ground being obscured by cloud meant that no one could see and identify cities. Now Harris was beginning to lose height also, the aircraft’s nose lowered slightly, with throttles pulled back the barest amount, so that the note of engines would change no more than was usual during any flight. Harris was concentrating, flying with textbook precision, ignoring Gwen and Demerest.
Gwen handed the message pad back.
“What I want you to do,” Demerest instructed her, “is go back and locate this man. See if there’s any sign of the bag, and whether there’s a good chance of getting it away from him. You realize that one of us from here can’t go back–at least for now–in case we scare him.”
“Yes,” Gwen said. “I understand that. But I don’t need to go either.”
She said quietly, “I know where he is already. In seat fourteen-A.”
Vernon Demerest regarded her searchingly. “I don’t have to tell you that this is important. If you’ve any doubt, go back and make sure.”
“I haven’t any doubt.”
Half an hour or so ago, Gwen explained, after serving dinners in first class, she had gone aft into the tourist section to help out there. One of the passengers–in a window seat on the left–had been dozing. When Gwen spoke to him he awakened instantly. He was nursing a small attaché case on his knees and Gwen suggested that she take it, or that he put it down, while having dinner. The passenger refused. He continued to hold the case where it was, and she noticed that he clasped it as if it were important. Later, instead of letting down the folding table from the back of the seat ahead, he used the case, still held on his lap, to support his dinner tray. Accustomed to passengers’ peculiarities, Gwen thought no more of it, though she remembered the man well. The description in the message fitted him exactly.
“Another reason I remember is that he’s sitting right alongside the old lady stowaway.”
“He’s in a window seat, you say?”
“That makes it harder–to reach across and grab.” Demerest was remembering the portion of the D.T.M.‘s message: IF SUPPOSITION TRUE, LIKELY THAT TRIGGER FOR EXPLOSIVES WILL BE ON OUTSIDE OF CASE AND EASILY REACHABLE. THEREFORE USE EXTREME CAUTION IN ATTEMPTING TO SEIZE CASE FORCIBLY. He guessed that Gwen, too, was thinking of that warning.
For the first time a feeling, not of fear but doubt, intruded on his reasoning. Fear might come later, but not yet. Was there a possibility that this bomb scare might prove to be more than a scare? Vernon Demerest had thought and talked of this kind of situation often enough, yet could never really believe it would happen to himself.
Anson Harris was easing out of the turn as gently as he had gone into it. They were now headed around completely.
The Selcal chime sounded again. Demerest motioned to Cy Jordan, who switched radios and answered, then began copying down a message.
Anson Harris was talking once more with Toronto Air Route Center.
“I wonder,” Vernon Demerest said to Gwen, “if there’s any chance of getting those other two passengers alongside Guerrero out of their seats. That way he’d be left there, in the three-seat section, on his own. Then maybe one of us could come from behind, lean over and grab.”
“He’d suspect,” Gwen said emphatically. “I’m sure he would. He’s edgy now. The moment we got those other people out, whatever excuse we used, he’d know something was wrong and he’d be watching and waiting.”
The second officer passed over the Selcal message he had been copying. It was from D.T.M. Lincoln. Using the hooded light, Gwen and Demerest read it together.
NEW INFORMATION INDICATES EARLIER POSSIBILITY OF EXPLOSIVE DEVICE IN POSSESSION OF PASSENGER GUERRERO IS NOW STRONG PROBABILITY REPEAT STRONG PROBABILITY. PASSENGER BELIEVED MENTALLY DISTURBED, DESPERATE. REPEAT PREVIOUS WARNING TO APPROACH WITH EXTREME CAUTION. GOOD LUCK.
“I like that last bit,” Cy Jordan said. “That’s real nice, wishing us that.”
Demerest said brusquely, “Shut up!”
For several seconds–apart from routine flight deck sounds–there was silence.
“If there were some way,” Demerest said slowly, “…some way we could trick him into letting go of that case. All we’d need would be a few seconds to have our hands on it, then get it clear away… if we were quick, two seconds would be enough.”
Gwen pointed out, “He wouldn’t even put it down…”
“I know! I know! I’m thinking, that’s all.” He stopped. “Let’s go over it again. There are two passengers between Guerrero and the aisle. One of them…”
“One of them is a man; he has the aisle seat. In the middle is the old lady, Mrs. Quonsett. Then Guerrero.”
“So grandma’s right beside Guerrero; right alongside the case.”
“Yes, but how does it help? Even if we could let her know, she couldn’t possibly…”
Demerest said sharply, “You haven’t said anything to her yet? She doesn’t know we’re on to her?”
“No. You told me not to.”
“Just wanted to be sure.”
Again they were silent. Vernon Demerest concentrated, thinking, weighing possibilities. At length he said carefully, “I have an idea. It may not work, but at the moment it’s the best we have. Now listen, while I tell you exactly what to do.”
IN THE TOURIST section of Flight Two most passengers had finished dinner, and stewardesses were briskly removing trays. The meal service had gone faster than usual tonight. One reason was that due to the delayed takeoff, some passengers had eaten in the terminal and now, because of the lateness of the hour, they had either declined dinner or merely nibbled at it.
At the three-seat unit where Mrs. Ada Quonsett was still chatting with her new friend, the oboe player, one of the tourist cabin stewardesses–a pert young blonde–asked, “Have you finished with your trays?”
“Yes, I have, miss,” the oboist said.
Mrs. Quonsett smiled warmly. “Thank you, my dear; you may take mine. It was very nice.”
The dour man on Mrs. Quonsett’s left surrendered his tray without comment.
It was only then that the little old lady from San Diego became aware of the other stewardess standing in the aisle.