MEL USED the private elevator, which operated by passkey only, to descend from the tower to the administrative mezzanine. Though his own office suite was silent, with stenographers' desks cleared and typewriters covered, the lights had been left on. He entered his own interior office. From a closet, near the wide mahogany desk he used in daytime, he took out a heavy topcoat and fur-lined boots.
Tonight Mel himself was without specific duties at the airport. This was as it should be. The reason he had stayed, through most of the three-day storm, was to be available for emergencies. Otherwise, he mused, as he pulled on the boots and laced them, by now he would have been home with Cindy and the children.
Or would he?
No matter how objective you tried to be, Mel reasoned, it was hard to be sure of your own real motives. Probably, if it had not been the storm, something else would have arisen to justify not going. Not going home, in fact, seemed lately to have become the pattern of his life. His job was a cause, of course. It provided plenty of reasons to remain extra hours at the airport, where lately there had been big problems facing him, quite apart from tonight's imbroglio. But---if he was honest with himself---the airport also offered an escape from the incessant wrangling between himself and Cindy which seemed to occur nowadays whenever they spent time together.
"Oh, hell!" Mel's exclamation cut across the silence of the office.
He plodded in the fur-lined boots toward his desk. A glance at a typed reminder from his secretary confirmed what he had just recalled. Tonight there was another of his wife's tedious charity affairs. A week ago, reluctantly, Mel had promised to attend. It was a cocktail party and dinner (so the typed note said), downtown at the swank Lake Michigan Inn. What the charity was, the note didn't specify, and, if it had ever been mentioned, he had since forgotten. It made no difference, though. The causes with which Cindy Bakersfeld involved herself were depressingly similar. The test of worthiness---as Cindy saw it---was the social eminence of her fellow committee members.
Fortunately, for the sake of peace with Cindy, the starting time was late---almost two hours from now and in view of tonight's weather, it might be even later. So he could still make it, even after inspecting the airfield. Mel could come back, shave and change in his office, and be downtown only a little late. He had better warn Cindy, though. Using a direct outside line, Mel dialed his home number.
Roberta, his elder daughter, answered.
"Hi," Mel said. "This is your old man."
Roberta's voice came coolly down the line. "Yes, I know."
"How was school today?"
"Could you be specific, Father? There were several classes. Which do you want to know about?"
Mel sighed. There were days on which it seemed to him that his home life was disintegrating all at once. Roberta, he could tell, was in what Cindy called one of her snotty moods. Did all fathers, he wondered, abruptly lose communication with their daughters at age thirteen? Less than a year ago, the two of them had seemed as close as father and daughter could be. Mel loved both his daughters deeply---Roberta, and her younger sister, Libby. There were times when he realized they were the only reasons his marriage had survived. As to Roberta, he had known that as a teen-ager she would develop interests which he could neither share nor wholly understand. He had been prepared for this. What he had not expected was to be shut out entirely or treated with a mixture of indifference and condescension. Though, to be objective, he supposed the increasing strife between Cindy and himself had not helped. Children were sensitive.
"Never mind," Mel said. "Is your mother home?"
"She went out. She said if you phoned to tell you you have to be downtown to meet her, and for once try not to be late."
Mel curbed his irritation. Roberta was undoubtedly repeating Cindy's words exactly. He could almost hear his wife saying them.
"If your mother calls, tell her I might have to be a little late, and that I can't help it." There was a silence, and he asked, "Did you hear me?"
"Yes," Roberta said. "Is there anything else, Father? I have homework to do."
He snapped back, "Yes, there is something else. You'll change your tone of voice, young lady, and show a little more respect. Furthermore, we'll end this conversation when I'm good and ready."
"If you say so, Father."
"And stop calling me Father!"
"Very well, Father."
Mel was tempted to laugh, then supposed he had better not. He asked, "Is everything all right at home?"
"Yes. But Libby wants to talk to you."
"In a minute. I was just going to tell you---because of the storm I *may not be home tonight. There's a lot happening at the airport. I'll probably come back and sleep here."
Again a pause, as if Roberta was weighing whether or not she could get away with a smart answer: So what else is new?Apparently she decided not. "Will you speak to Libby now?"
"Yes, I will. Goodnight, Robbie."
There was an impatient shuffle as the telephone changed hands, then Libby's small breathless voice. "Daddy, Daddy! Guess what!"
Libby was always breathless as if, to a seven-year-old, life were excitingly on the run and she must forever keep pace or be left behind.
"Let me think," Mel said. "I know---you had fun in the snow today."
"Yes, I did, But it wasn't that."
"Then I can't guess. You'll have to tell me."
"Well, at school, Miss Curzon said for homework we have to write down all the good things we think will happen next month."
He thought affectionately: he could understand Libby's enthusiasm. To her, almost everything was exciting and good, and the few things which were not were brushed aside and speedily forgotten. He wondered how much longer her happy innocence would last.
"That's nice," Mel said. "I like that."
"Daddy, Daddy! Will you help me?"
"If I can."
"I want a map of February."
Mel smiled. Libby had a verbal shorthand of her own which sometimes seemed more expressive than conventional words. It occurred to him that he could use a map of February himself.
"There's a calendar in my desk in the den." Mel told her where to find it and heard her small feet running from the room, the telephone forgotten. It was Roberta, Mel assumed, who silently hung up.
FROM THE general manager's office suite, Mel walked onto the executive mezzanine which ran the length of the main terminal building. He carried the heavy topcoat with him.
Pausing, he surveyed the thronged concourse below, which seemed to have become even busier within the past half-hour. In waiting areas, every available seat was occupied. Newsstands and information booths were ringed by crowds, among them many military uniforms. In front of all airline passenger counters were line-ups, some extending around corners out of sight. Behind the counters, ticket agents and supervisors, their normal numbers swelled by colleagues from earlier shifts retained on overtime, had schedules and passage coupons spread out like orchestral scores.
Delays and reroutings which the storm had caused were taxing both scheduling and human patience. Immediately below Mel, at Braniff ticketing, a youngish man with long, blond hair and a yellow scarf was proclaiming loudly, "You've the effrontery to tell me I must go to Kansas City to get to New Orleans. You people are rewriting geography! You're mad with power!"
The ticket agent facing him, an attractive brunette in her twenties, brushed a hand over her eyes before answering with professional patience, "We can route you directly, sir, but we don't know when. Because of the weather, the longer way will be faster and the fare is the same."
Behind the yellow-scarfed man, more passengers with other problems pressed forward urgently.
At the United counter, a small pantomime was being played. A would-be passenger---a well-dressed businessman---leaned forward, speaking quietly. By the man's expression and actions, Mel Bakersfeld could guess what was being said. "I would very much like to get on that next flight."
"I'm sorry, sir, the flight is fully booked. There's also a long standby..." Before the ticket agent could complete his sentence, he glanced up. The passenger had laid his briefcase on the counter in front of him. Gently, but pointedly, he was tapping a plastic baggage tag against a corner of the case. It was a 100,000-Mile Club tag, one of those United issued to its favored friends---an inner elite which all airlines had helped create. The agent's expression changed. His voice became equally low. "I think we'll manage something, sir." The agent's pencil hovered, crossed out the name of another passenger---an earlier arrival whom he had been about to put on the flight---and inserted the newcomer's name instead. The action was unobserved by those in line behind.
The same kind of thing, Mel knew, went on at all airline counters everywhere. Only the naive or uninformed believed wait lists and reservations were operated with unwavering impartiality.
Mel observed that a group of new arrivals---presumably from downtown---was entering the terminal. They were beating off snow from their clothing as they came in, and judging from their appearance, it seemed that the weather outside must be worsening. The newcomers were quickly absorbed in the general crowds.
Few among the eighty thousand or so air travelers who thronged the terminal daily ever glanced up at the executive mezzanine, and fewer still were aware of Mel tonight, high above them, looking down. Most people who thought about airports did so in terms of airlines and airplanes. It was doubtful if many were even aware that executive offices existed or that an administrative machine---unseen, but complex and employing hundreds---was constantly at work, keeping the airport functioning.
Perhaps it was as well, Mel thought, as he rode the elevator down again. If people became better informed, in time they would also learn the airport's weaknesses and dangers, and afterward fly in and out with less assurance than before.
On the main concourse, he headed toward the Trans America wing. Near the check-in counters, a uniformed supervisor stepped forward. "Evening, Mr. Bakersfeld. Were you looking for Mrs. Livingston?"
No matter how busy the airport became, Mel thought, there would always be time for gossip. He wondered how widely his own name and Tanya's had been linked already.
"Yes," he said. "I was."
The supervisor nodded toward a door marked, AIRLINE PERSONNEL ONLY.
"You'll find her through there, Mr. Bakersfeld. We just had a bit of a crisis here. She's taking care of it."