Page 68 of Airport

Ada Ouonsett thought breathlessly: was this really happening to her? It was all quite thrilling, like something on TV. It was a little frightening perhaps, but she decided not to think too much about that. The main thing was–she was here, a part of it all, hobnobbing with the captain, sharing secrets, and what would her daughter say about that?

“Well, will you help us?”

“Oh, of course. I expect you want me to see if I can get that case away…”

“No!” Vernon Demerest swung farther around, leaning over the back of his seat for emphasis. He said sternly, “You must not so much as put your hands on that case, or even near it.”

“If you say so,” Mrs. Quonsett acknowledged meekly, “I won’t.”

“I do say so. And remember, it’s important that Guerrero have no idea we know about his case or what’s inside. Now, as I did with Miss Meighen a little while ago, I’m going to tell you exactly what to do when you go back to the cabin. Please listen carefully.”

When he had finished, the little old lady from San Diego permitted herself a small, brief smile. “Oh, yes; yes, I think I can do that.”

She was getting out of her seat, with Gwen about to open the flight deck door for them to go, when Demerest asked, “That flight from Los Angeles you stowed away on–they said you were trying to reach New York. Why?”

She told him about being lonely sometimes on the West coast, and wanting to visit her married daughter in the east.

“Grandma,” Vernon Demerest said, “if we pull this off I’ll personally guarantee that not only will any trouble you’re in be taken care of, but this airline will give you a ticket to New York, and back, first class.”

Mrs. Quonsett was so touched, she almost cried.

“Oh, thank you! Thank you!” For once she found it hard to speak. What a remarkable man, she thought; such a kind, dear man!

HER GENUINE emotion as she was about to leave the flight deck helped Mrs. Quonsett in her progress through the first class compartment and then into the tourist cabin. With Gwen Meighen grasping her arm tightly and shoving her along, the old lady dabbed at her eyes with her lace handkerchief, giving a tearful, credible performance of acute distress. She reminded herself, almost gleefully beneath her tears, that it was her second performance tonight. The first, when she pretended to be ill, had been staged in the terminal for the young passenger agent, Peter Coakley. She had been convincing then, so why not now?

The performance was sufficiently authentic for one passenger to ask Gwen heatedly, “Miss, whatever she’s done, do you have to be so rough?”

Gwen replied tartly, already aware that she was within hearing of the man Guerrero, “Sir, please don’t interfere.”

As they passed into the tourist cabin, Gwen closed the draw curtain in the doorway separating the two passenger sections. That was part of Vernon’s plan. Looking back the way they had come, toward the front of the aircraft, Gwen could see the flight deck door slightly ajar. Behind it, she knew, Vernon was waiting, watching. As soon as the curtain between first class and tourist was closed, Vernon would move aft and stand behind it, watching through a chink which Gwen was careful to leave open. Then, when the proper moment came, he would fling the curtain aside and rush through swiftly.

At the thought of what was going to happen within the next few minutes–whatever the outcome–once more an icy fear, a sense of premonition, came to Gwen. Once more she conquered it. Reminding herself of her responsibilities to the crew, and to the other passengers–who were oblivious of the drama being played out in their midst–she escorted Mrs. Quonsett the remaining distance to her seat.

The passenger Guerrero glanced up quickly, then away. The small attaché case, Gwen saw, was still in the same position on his knees, his hands holding it. The man from the aisle seat next to Mrs. Quonsett’s–the oboe player–stood up as they approached. His expression sympathetic, he moved out to let the old lady in. Unobtrusively, Gwen moved in front of him, blocking his return. The aisle seat must remain unoccupied until Gwen moved out of the way. Gwen’s eyes caught a flicker of movement through the chink she had left in the doorway curtain. Vernon Demerest was in position and ready.

“Please!” Still standing in the aisle, Mrs. Ouonsett turned pleadingly, tearfully to Gwen. “I beg of you–ask the captain to reconsider. I don’t want to be handed over to the Italian police…”

Gwen said harshly, “You should have thought of that before. Besides, I don’t tell the captain what to do.”

“But you can ask him! He’ll listen to you.”

D. O. Guerrero turned his head, took in the scene, then looked away.

Gwen seized the old lady’s arm. “I’m telling you–get into that seat!”

Ada Quonsett’s voice became a wail. “All I’m asking is to be taken back. Hand me over there, not in a strange country!”

From behind Gwen the oboe player protested, “Miss, can’t you see the lady’s upset?”

Gwen snapped, “Please keep out of this. This woman has no business here at all. She’s a stowaway.”

The oboist said indignantly, “I don’t care what she is. She’s still an old lady.”

Ignoring him, Gwen gave Mrs. Quonsett a shove which sent her staggering. “You heard me! Sit down and be quiet.”

Ada Quonsett dropped into her seat. She screamed, “You hurt me! You hurt me!”

Several passengers were on their feet, protesting.

D. O. Guerrero continued to look straight ahead. His hands, Gwen saw, were still on the attaché case.

Mrs. Quonsett wailed again.

Gwen said coldly, “You’re hysterical.” Deliberately, hating what she had to do, she leaned into the section of seats and slapped Mrs. Quonsett hard across the face. The slap resounded through the cabin. Passengers gasped. Two other stewardesses appeared incredulous. The oboist seized Gwen’s arm; hastily she shook herself free.

What happened next occurred so swiftly that even those closest to the scene were uncertain of the sequence of events.

Mrs. Quonsett, in her seat, turned to D. O. Guerrero on her left. She appealed to him, “Sir, please help me! Help me!”

His features rigid, he ignored her.

Apparently overcome by grief and fear, she reached toward him, flinging her arms hystericafly around his neck. “Please, please!”

Guerrero twisted his body away, trying to release himself. He failed. Instead, Ada Quonsett wound her arms around his neck more tightly. “Oh, help me!”

Red-faced and close to choking, D. O. Guerrero put up both hands to wrench her away. As if in supplication, Ada Quonsett eased her grasp and seized his hands.

At the same instant, Gwen Meighen leaned forward toward the inside seat. She reached out and in a single even movement–almost without haste–she grasped the attaché case firmly and removed it from Guerrero’s knees. A moment later the case was free and in the aisle. Between Guerrero and the case, Gwen and Ada Quonsett were a solid barrier.

The curtain across the doorway from the first class cabin swept open. Vernon Demerest, tall and impressive in uniform, hurried through.

His face showing relief, he held out his hand for the attaché case. “Nice going, Gwen. Let me have it.”

With ordinary luck the incident–except for dealing with Guerrero later–would have ended there. That it did not was solely due to Marcus Rathbone.

Rathbone, until that moment, was an unknown, unconsidered passenger, occupying seat fourteen-D across the aisle. Although others were unaware of him, he was a self-important, pompous man, constantly aware of himself.

In the small Iowa town where he lived he was a minor merchant, known to his neighbors as a “knocker.” Whatever others in his community did or proposed, Marcus Rathbone objected to. His objections, small and large, were legendary. They included the choice of books in the local library, a plan for a community antennae system, the needed disciplining of his son at school, and the color of paint for a civic building. Shortly before departing on his present trip he had organized the defeat of a proposed sign ordinance which would have beautified his town’s main street. Despite his habitual “knocking,” he had never been known to propose a constructive idea.

Another peculiarity was that Marcus Rathbone despised women, including his own wife. None of his objections had ever been on their behalf. Consequently, the humiliation of Mrs. Ouonsett a moment earlier had not disturbed him, but Gwen Meighen’s seizure of D. O. Guerrero’s attaché case did.

To Marcus Rathbone this was officialdom in uniform–and a woman at that!–impinging on the rights of an ordinary traveler like himself. Indignantly, Rathbone rose from his seat, interposing himself between Gwen and Vernon Demerest.

At the same instant, D. O. Guerrero, flushed and mouthing incoherent words, scrambled free from his seat and the grasp of Ada Quonsett. As he reached the aisle, Marcus Rathbone seized the case from Gwen and–with a polite bow–held it out. Like a wild animal, with madness in his eyes, Guerrero grabbed it.

Vernon Demerest flung himself forward, but too late. He tried to reach Guerrero, but the narrowness of the aisle and the intervening figures–Gwen, Rathbone, the oboe player–defeated him. D. O. Guerrero had ducked around the others and was heading for the aircraft’s rear. Other passengers, in seats, were scrambling to their feet. Demerest shouted desperately, “Stop that man! He has a bomb!”

The shout produced screams, and an exodus from seats which had the effect of blocking the aisle still further. Only Gwen Meighen, scrambling, pushing, clawing her way aft, managed to stay close to Guerrero.

At the end of the cabin–like an animal still, but this time cornered–Guerrero turned. All that remained between him and the aircraft’s tail were three rear toilets; light indicators showed that two were empty, one was occupied. His back to the toilets, Guerrero held the attaché case forward in front of him, one hand on its carrying handle, the other on a loop of string now visible beneath the handle. In a strained voice, somewhere between a whisper and a snarl, he warned, “Stay where you are! Don’t come closer!”

Above the heads of the others, Vernon Demerest shouted again. “Guerrero, listen to me! Do you hear me? Listen!”

There was a second’s silence in which no one moved, the only sound the steady background whine of the plane’s jet engines. Guerrero blinked, continuing to face the others, his eyes roving and suspicious.

“We know who you are,” Demerest called out, “and we know what you intended. We know about the insurance and the bomb, and they know on the ground, too, so it means your insurance is no good. Do you understand?–your insurance is invalid, canceled, worthless. If you let off that bomb you’ll kill yourself for nothing. No one–least of all your family–will gain. In fact, your family will lose because they’ll be blamed and hounded. Listen to me! Think.”

A woman screamed. Still Guerrero hesitated.

Vernon Demerest urged, “Guerrero, let these people sit down. Then, if you like, we’ll talk. You can ask me questions. I promise that until you’re ready, no one will come close.” Demerest was calculating: If Guerrero’s attention could be held long enough, the aisle might be cleared. After that, Demerest would try to persuade Guerrero to hand over the case. If he refused, there was still a chance that Demerest could leap forward, throw himself bodily onto Guerrero and wrest the case free before the trigger could be used. It would be a tremendous risk, but there was nothing better.