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Dead at the Take-Off
By Lester Dent
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1946 Lester Dent
All rights reserved.
HE SWUNG HIS HEAD away, tried to pass on. But the man named Fertig saw him and thrust out an enthusiastic hand. "Hello, Mr. Molloy!" Fertig cried. "How are you, Mr. Molloy? ... God-amighty, this is a nice surprise, Mr. Molloy!"
He felt trapped. He could not ignore Fertig, so he halted, but his attitude made it plain that he had only paused on his way into the terminal. He realized with relief that he barely knew Fertig. He did not so much as know Fertig's other name; therefore, Fertig must scarcely know him. So he gazed at Fertig tolerantly, blankly, without recognition, and waited. And presently Fertig's face became redder than the heat in the street had already made it. "Aren't you Mr. Molloy?" Fertig asked.
"No," he lied.
He let his tolerant expression become slightly smiling. But he did not speak again, avoiding the chance that Fertig might become sure of his voice. The heat pressed against him; it reflected up from the sidewalk and hurt his eyes, and it was inside his crisp, medium-gray, tropical-worsted suit. Suddenly he remembered where he had met Fertig, at an executive session where Fertig had presented some dull sketches for the new BETA terminal in Atlanta. Fertig, an architect, had impressed him at the time as being stodgy and without imagination, and he recalled disliking Fertig, resenting the man's callow glad-handing and obvious salesmanship; even Roy Cillinger, vice-president in charge of maintenance, who had no imagination beyond keeping air liners flying, had thought Fertig's ideas stupid, and they had dismissed Fertig as being quite inadequate, then had forgotten about it. Now he felt no qualms at having to stare Fertig down.
"Aren't you Mr. Molloy?"
He shook his head.
"That's funny ... I'd have sworn ..." Fertig was smoking a fat, mink-colored cigar, and he took it from his mouth with a quick grab, leaving a damp flake of tobacco clinging to his moist, full lower lip. "I guess I made a mistake."
"Sorry," Fertig said.
The taxi driver came across the sidewalk with Molloy's bag. Fertig crowded into the revolving door ahead of the taxi driver and simultaneously a colored porter, wearing gray trousers piped in maroon and a white shirt, hastened for the bag, so that for a moment all three—Fertig, cabby, and porter—seemed to chase each other around in the revolving door, while the door made tired breathing and flapping sounds and emitted gasps of chilly, conditioned air from within.
He waited. He was shaken. His plans, laid with such meticulous care, now seemed menaced at the very beginning.
Presently the taxi driver came out again, and pushing on the door with one hand and fending behind him with the other, accepted the fare of two-twenty and a dollar tip with no visible surprise on his perspiring face, and went to his cab.
The revolving door was still turning when Molloy stepped into it briskly. For a quickstepping moment he was imprisoned in glass with the hot street air. Swiftly, but only for a second, he was affected by the dislike for tight places which he'd always had; he jammed his palms against the door and shoved almost frantically until he was able to jump clear of the confinement. He stopped then, his eyes on the porter, who already stood on an escalator with the bag, moving upward.
Not liking the incident inside the door, he paused to compose himself. The hot street air that had come in with him was fanned away, and the cool, momentarily almost icy, air in the terminal lobby made itself felt on his face and hands and crept coolingly up his coat sleeves. He breathed deeply for a few moments, tying down his emotions, before he stepped on the escalator and was borne quietly upward.
He addressed AEA's reservations clerk:
"I am Mr. Rand ... Walter Rand. I believe I have a ticket and a reservation to Albuquerque."
"Do you recall what flight?" the girl asked.
The girl rewarded him with a quick smile, for knowing the flight number made her check-off much easier. He leaned against the shiny chrome edge of the counter, watching the porter tie an AEA tag to his bag. Alert, the porter had heard him say flight fourteen, and already the porter was stamping the tag with a large maroon 14. The girl clerk, on the telephone, was telling the main office she was ticketing Mr. Rand now. When she saw him glance at her she smiled again to show him that all was well. She filled out his ticket and seat check, tucked them in an envelope, and handed them to him.
"You have seat fourteen, Mr. Rand. And you have almost an hour to wait. When the limousine is ready it will be announced. In the meantime, if you have nothing to do, there are reading material, billiards, and ping-pong in the lounge. Just ask the lounge hostess for whatever you wish. And thank you very much, Mr. Rand. I hope you have a pleasant flight."
He nodded pleasantly. Fertig stood facing him when he turned around, and Fertig was looking at him with a puzzled expression. He stepped around Fertig without changing expression and crossed to the lounge, his footfalls silenced by the deep nap of the taupe carpeting. He was sure Fertig had heard him called Mr. Rand.
When the lounge hostess, who was very pretty, came toward him he shook his head. He passed to a deep chair done in bronze leather and bright copper nails, in a secluded spot, and sank into it. He selected a magazine from a low table, although he had no intention of reading, was in no frame of mind for reading.
Relax. That was what he had better do. The tension he was under was making itself felt in his muscles as a tightness, and certainly it was affecting his nerves. Actually he had felt this way for days. Anger was making the tension; there was nothing much he could, or wanted, to do about the anger. But he knew he shouldn't let it do quite so much to him.
Finding there was a mirror in front of him, he inspected his reflection grimly. He saw a man with a bony but presentable face and large hands, a rangy man with a businesslike and nearly hard neatness about him. His brown eyes, wide open and earnest, betrayed none of the rage that had been burning him for days. He opened his mouth wide with surprise at the reflection, something he always did when he looked at himself in a mirror; the mouth was mobile, but the lips were firm, not given to smiling very much. He took off his hat, and the sheen of his blond hair was a contrast to his darkly tanned skin. He took a cigarette out of a silver case and was tapping it on the case when George sank into another chair, a few inches from his own.
"She's here," George said.
"In there, where you get your tickets."
"When did she arrive?"
"Just now. A minute ago."
"I believe you should keep watch on her continually."
"Kiggins is doing that."
He placed the cigarette between his lips and explored for a match. George quickly struck a light, saying, "Here you are, Mr. Molloy." He bent toward George's match; the flame leaned toward his cigarette three times as he drew on it. He was not an inhaler, and he cleared his mouth of smoke before he spoke.
He said, "Have any trouble?"
"Think she might know you have been trailing her?"
He was sure of George. But he had never liked George's bold self-assurance any more than he liked George's bawdy displays of immorality. "Every man is wrong once in his life," he said sharply.
"She left her hotel about nine," George said. "She rushed out and did what every woman does at the last minute before she leaves New York—bought a hat. Then back to the hotel. I trailed her out. Kiggins brought her back. She didn't see either one of us. And she didn't leave the hotel again until about fifteen minutes ago, when she came straight here."
"Just so you're certain she didn't notice anything."
"Not a chance."
"I trust you're neither one wearing the same clothes you wore when you trailed her this morning." He was still irked by George's assurance.
"We're not, Mr. Molloy."
"All right then ... What did you say she is doing now?"
"Getting her tickets, the last I saw of her."
"How many tickets?"
"I don't know."
George came back presently and stated, "She picked up two tickets, Mr. Molloy."
"Two," he said thoughtfully. Then he asked a question which had occurred to him: "How did she act when she came into the terminal? Did she look around?"
George said, "She looked around all right. Whoever she expected wasn't here, and then she seemed worried." George consulted a flashy yellow-gold watch held on his hairy wrist by an expanding band of yellow gold. "We haven't too much time for what we've got to do to her," George said.
He stubbed out his cigarette on the tray and hold out his hand to George. "Let me have the pictures."
There were two photographs.
Janet Lord's picture, both George and Kiggins had assured him, was an excellent likeness. It was a studio shot, so probably it was retouched. Janet Lord's face was rather monotonously oval, the way pretty girls' faces are oval, but the mouth was nice, the nose had character, and there was alertness about the eyes. His interest in the picture was more than ordinary.
"Some babe," George said.
Molloy knew Janet Lord was twenty-five. He wondered why, with all the Lord money and prestige in her background, she had not yet married ... Janet Lord, he realized suddenly—rage whipping through him—looked enough like her father, Senator Wendell Lord, for it to hit him hard. Staring at the photograph, he noted the Lord chin, the Lord eyes, even the Lord sweep of her hairline. His rage—the wrath that had fired him for days—at Senator Lord, made a taste like rusty nails in his mouth.
He put Janet Lord's photograph aside. "So this is her nephew," he said, looking at the other picture.
"Yeah, the senator's grandson. Wouldn't guess it, would you?"
Taylor Lynn's picture was a snapshot of a slight young man with a girlish chin and pop eyes. Molloy, hating the young man whom he did not know and had never seen, hating him because he was the senator's grandson—full of this abhorrence, Molloy searched for some family resemblance young Lynn might bear to his grandfather. He could perceive none. Taylor Lynn seemed much what Molloy had heard he was, a dissolute scion, a weakling, a braggart with more than a few vicious twists in his character.
He placed both photographs inside his coat, then straightened his coat. He asked, "What about this Taylor Lynn?"
George said, "Huh?" George's eyes were fixed on Molloy's coat, on the spot where Janet Lord's photograph had disappeared.
"Has Lynn shown?"
"No ... Not since he sent her that telegram telling her to get two airline reservations to New Mexico and he would fly back to the senator's ranch with her, after he transacted some business in New York."
"Taylor Lynn's telegram was sent from Kansas City, wasn't it?"
"Have you a copy?"
"Let's have it."
He placed the copy, which was on a telegraphic blank but written in pencil, in his outside right coat pocket.
He suddenly stood up. He felt tight, on edge; now he was apprehensive of what lay ahead, so concerned that he found it difficult merely to sit any longer. "What are the chances that Taylor Lynn got in touch with her and had her cancel the reservations, so that they won't be going out on flight fourteen?"
"Mighty little chance," George said. "We covered telegrams and telephone at her hotel, and she didn't get any mail. Anyway, she just picked up two tickets, didn't she?"
"If she picked up two."
"Kiggins said she did."
Molloy reshaped the crown of his hat, then put the neat dark hat on his head.
He said, "I think I'll have a look at Miss Janet Lord."
"We haven't got so much time, Mr. Molloy." George was concerned.
"We have enough," he said.
He walked across the lounge, jogged to miss a billiard table where a small dark man with a lopsided smile was playing with a large man, passed under an air-conditioning vent which blew coldly on him for a moment, then on into the larger waiting room. He noticed Fertig. The man was buying fat cigars, filling both upper vest pockets with them. Of perhaps forty people in the room, four were at the TWA ticket counter, five at United, the rest divided among the other airline ticket counters and the newsstand, the fountain, the long leather seats.
He saw the one who must be Janet Lord. Because it was all right for her to notice him, and might fit in well with the plan if she did, he went over to stand beside her. She seemed to be looking at magazines; he pretended to look at them, too.
Janet Lord was taller than he had expected, and better-looking than in the photograph. She wore deep navy, with barely enough white in accessories to lend a frosty crispness. He searched, from the corner of an eye, for the family resemblances to the senator which he had discovered and which had stirred his anger in the photograph. Surprisingly he could see none, none at all, in the profile view he was getting of her.
Doubt seized him. There was a chance he had mistaken the girl, and this was not Janet Lord, but in a moment he saw Kiggins standing primly at the soda fountain with a limeade in her hand. Kiggins, when she had his eye, nodded almost imperceptibly.
So she was Janet Lord. She had not, apparently, noticed him. She would be astonished, he was inclined to think, if she were aware of how much he knew about her. A believer in fullest preparation, he had learned all he could about her in the time available. George and Kiggins had done a good job of corralling information, helped, probably, by a private-detective agency; he did not know what methods George and Kiggins had used, and did not consider it important. Long ago he had trained himself to be concerned with only the conception of an idea and its final outcome; it had not been easy for him to learn to hand the mechanics of executing projects to subordinates, but he had mastered the facility and it had been, he was sure, an important acquisition; it had been his making as an executive.
Janet Lord ... Five feet six, weight one-eighteen, twenty-five, unmarried, unengaged, a Stephens graduate, Kappa Phi, held a private pilot's license, made very good amateur photographs, danced well. Her brand of cigarettes was Virginia Rounds; when she drank, which was infrequently, she preferred manhattans ...
Factual, but unimportant, he had thought. He felt that, detailed as his investigation of her had been, it had not, somehow, given him a feel of her character. These things about her—fairly ordinary things they were too—were too external. They portrayed her, to his disbelief, untouched by the hard, eccentric, piratelike nature of her father, Senator Lord. He did not believe this. He did not think it was possible. The senator was an amateur photographer of fame, and she had the same hobby, but something like that somehow hadn't been what he was seeking. It wasn't the sort of stark inward thing he had expected to find. He regarded the senator as nothing less than a devil, and he had expected to find the devil's daughter. He hadn't. He wasn't satisfied and he was disturbed, also, because what he planned to do might become very distasteful if she were not a true Lord.
He studied her. Yes, she would be surprised if she were aware of how much he knew about her. Another thought leaped into his mind —how horrified she would be if she knew his intent.
He watched her hands, supple, slender, tuck a magazine she had selected under her arm. Then her hands became busy with her purse that was black cordé piped in white. A moment later the magazine escaped from under her elbow, fell to the floor.
"Oh—damn!" She grabbed for the magazine and missed and slapped her thigh with her hand instead.
He picked up the magazine and returned it to her.
"Thank you," she said, her voice without interest.
He had planned to smile pleasantly; if he could make a genteel pickup at this point, fine; it would save time and skulduggery. But his smile wouldn't function; it became congealed in the muscles of his face when he saw her family resemblance to Senator Wendell Lord. Now, when she had faced him, the likeness was shocking. He would have been affected less, infinitely less, if she had turned out to have a snake's head.
He said, "You're on flight fourteen also, aren't you? ... Be nice if we hit some cooler weather, wouldn't it?" Emotion—the hate— made him sound crude.
She looked through him and beyond him and said, "Thank you for picking up my magazine." The words made her meaning plain. She was squelching him. She turned and paid for the magazine and walked away.
I pushed too hard, he thought.
He went back into the lounge and sat where he had sat before.
Excerpted from Dead at the Take-Off by Lester Dent. Copyright © 1946 Lester Dent. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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