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The Puzzle of the Pepper Tree
A Hildegarde Withers Mystery
By Stuart Palmer
MysteriousPress.comCopyright © 2008 The Rue Morgue Press
All rights reserved.
That morning saw the mighty Pacific, in the guise of a chill and luminous fog, sweep in upon the arid valley of Los Angeles. It drifted up the slope of cactus-clad hills, obscuring alike the clean, serrated ridge of the northern mountains and the nearer gaunt skeletons of the oil derricks, and left only a greasy black ribbon of highway down which a Ford roadster flung itself headlong into the mist.
The lone driver shivered as the fog seeped through his light sport jacket. His plumply handsome face, over-soft from frequent massage, was gray with cold.
He glanced at a white-gold strap watch on his wrist and saw that it indicated fourteen minutes before ten. That left him plenty of time, unless somewhere he had taken the wrong turning.
No—he was all right. He jammed on the brakes as the mists ahead of him lifted a little to disclose the outlines of a mammoth excursion steamer, bearing at masthead and stack a blue flag with a large white "W" in its center.
The man in the cocoa-colored sport outfit knew this apparition almost at once for what it was—a tall billboard standing dead ahead at a V in the road. Above the exceedingly lifelike painting of the white excursion steamer stood forth a legend in scarlet—"Catalina Terminal—one-quarter mile—turn right," and beneath it was the assurance, "In All the World No Trip Like This!"
With a screech of tires on wet pavement the little roadster swung to the right and was immediately swallowed up in the mist.
Ten minutes later the man in brown scrambled out of his car to stand a little foolishly upon a barren and deserted wharf. For the second time that morning he was seeing the outlines of a gay white excursion steamer through a curtain of fog.
On masthead and stack were the familiar blue flags with the big white "W"—but this time a wisp of steam followed by a tantalizing farewell blast from her siren assured him that here was no billboard, but the pleasure steamer Avalon herself, departing without him.
For some reason never explained satisfactorily by science, there is nothing more thoroughly ludicrous than the sight of a man missing a train or a boat, except, perhaps, a man losing his hat.
As if determined to afford his audience—limited as it was to idlers and a few longshoremen—the highest possible gratification, the man in the brown sport outfit whipped off his modish straw and deposited it before him on the dock, where he proceeded to leap upon it with both heels. His lips moved, as if in silent prayer.
A young man in blue coveralls detached himself from a sheltered spot in the lee of a cluster of piles and approached briskly.
"Park your car, mister? All day for fifty cents."
The stranger removed his tan suede shoes from the wreckage of his hat, rammed both fists into the pockets of his razor-edged trousers of pinstriped creamy flannel, and finally found words.
He wanted to know what kind of a so-and-so steamship company this was to send out its so-and-so ships ahead of schedule. With unnecessary unction he displayed his watch, which still hovered a little before the hour of ten.
The man in the blue coveralls grinned widely. Then he raised his eyes to the big clock which was visible over the open doors of the garage end of the terminal. Here the time was represented as fourteen minutes past the hour.
"You're not the only one to miss this boat," he confided. "Lots of them get on the wrong boulevard coming down from L.A. or else set their watches by those screwy time signals that come over the radio."
"I haven't needed to set this watch since—in the last month," insisted the man in brown. He pronounced it "wartch."
He went on, his voice rising. "I'd like you to tell me why I should pay you to park my car now!" he demanded. "I ain't going anywhere."
"You can still hop on the Dragonfly," he was told. A greasy thumb was extended toward the wharf at the right, where for the first time since his arrival the man in brown noticed a thick-winged flying boat rocking lazily at the foot of a slip.
"They always hold back a few minutes so as to pick up them as miss the boat," went on the garage helper. "It's only three-fifty fare—and you'll be on the island two hours before the Avalon."
The man in brown looked down at the varnished newness of the red-and-gilt Douglass amphibian without visible enthusiasm. He shook his head. "You don't get me on one of those box kites again," he decided. "I'll wait for the next boat—when is it?"
"Same as always, ten o'clock." The man in the blue coveralls reached tentatively toward the handle of the car door.
"What? No boat till tonight?"
"Ten tomorrow morning," he was laconically corrected. "Plane's your only chance. Here's your parking ticket."
The Ford rolled smoothly in through the gaping doors of the Terminal Garage, while he who had driven it here pocketed his parking slip mechanically. Down beside the waiting cabin plane a young man in a white uniform surveyed him speculatively and swung a pair of goggles. Out in the harbor the mist was beginning to give way before the sea wind and the sun. There the man in brown saw the steamer, three decks loaded with pleasure-bent humanity, as she derisively swung toward him her high fat buttocks.
Be it marked down upon the Everlasting Record that at this crucial moment the belated traveler was seen to hesitate. Whether it was the sound of merry laughter mingled with dance music which drifted back from the departing S.S. Avalon or the crisp "All aboard!" from the pilot in the white uniform which impelled him to take the leap, no one will ever be able to say with authority. At any rate, the man in brown quietly and fervently kicked the remains of his straw hat off the dock and then hurried down the steep-slanting gangplank onto the slip.
Here he paused before a miniature ticket office and information booth, manned at the moment by a white-clad duplicate of the first pilot. This young man was somewhat officiously making entries in a ledger. His name, as attested by an "on duty" card beside him, was Lewis French, and the silver wings on his lapel had not yet dulled.
"It won't be rough up there, will it?" the would-be passenger wanted to know, as he put down a five-dollar bill and waited for change. "I was sick as a dog coming out on the Transcontinental."
"Fog's clearing," French told him. "Air hadn't ought to be rough. Anyway, the trip takes less than twenty minutes. We'll have you in Avalon before you have time to be sick." He proffered an official release-from-damages form. "Sign this, please."
With practiced fingers he tore off the stub bearing the illegible scrawl of a signature and put it with a sheaf of others in the tin cash box beside him. The rest of the ticket, together with a small envelope containing two wads of ear-cotton and three pellets of sugarcoated chewing gum, he handed to the man in brown.
"You can tickle her, Chick!" he called toward the plane. The pilot with the goggles waved his hand and popped through a narrow door near the tail fins.
French closed and locked the little office, handed up the cash box to an office boy who appeared suddenly behind the piling of the wharf, and then herded the last passenger across the slip and into the gently rocking plane. They stooped to pass through the door, though the man in brown was not by any means tall.
On their right was a cubicle for baggage, now well filled with overnight bags, cameras, and various impedimenta. From one of the cases, through a wire window, there sounded an appealing whine as they passed down three steps into the cabin itself.
Here were ten deeply upholstered seats of blue leather, five on each side, with only the narrowest of aisle between. Eight of the seats were filled. There was a strong smell of leather, burned gasoline, and gardenia scent, for the heavy plate-glass windows were hermetically sealed, and the pilot French had already slammed and made fast the single door behind him.
The man in brown made a quick survey of the situation in which he found himself. There were only two girls aboard the plane. The blonde in plaid, who was responsible for the scent of gardenia, interested him most. But she was sitting in the front seat on the left, with a bored, baldish man in riding breeches close behind her, and a dull, middle-aged person lurking behind a paunch and an elk's tooth across the aisle. She would, he decided, have to come under the head of "unfinished business."
With the decisiveness of an old campaigner, the man in brown chose the third seat from the front on the right, placing himself thus directly in front of the girl with the red curls. The usual pair of dark sun glasses obscured her eyes, but her mouth was pleasantly tinted in an orange that matched her hair and contrasted well with the blue of her corduroy trousers. The seat across the aisle was likewise vacant, but since it would only have placed him between the riding breeches and the slick young man with whom the redhead was sharing a package of chewing gum, he never considered it for a moment.
It was not that his intentions were dishonorable, or even that he had any intentions, but just that, as he had often remarked philosophically, "You never can tell what'll happen." In this case he was quite right.
Pilot French made his way up the aisle, greeted a paunchy person in a front seat with, "Morning, Mr. Tompkins," and paused in the doorway of the control room where the young man he had called "Chick" was already tickling the motor.
"All right, folks," he said cheerily, his eyes paying a passing compliment to the blonde in the front seat. "In four minutes we'll be looking down on Uncle Sam's Fleet. And—you know what the paper containers are for."
Phyllis La Fond moved her slim hips to a more comfortable position in the blue leather seat and arranged the skirt of her plaid suit so that her crossed ankles got the ace display position in the aisle to which nature and her last pair of four-dollar stockings entitled them.
She magnificently failed to notice the flare of interest in the handsome, bronzed face of Lew French, for all the glory of his new white uniform with the crossed wings. Phyllis had outgrown uniforms these many moons. Now she gave herself to a survey of her fellow passengers, her wide gray-green eyes staring insolently, lazily, beneath their heavy lashes.
There was something of the grace of a hunting panther in the poise of her body, something feline, mysterious, and beautifully sinister. What was in her mind we shall not inquire. It is enough to say that her worldly goods and chattels consisted at the moment of a five-dollar bill, a gold vanity case, a suitcase full of dresses and underwear, and a small black and white terrier.
She was intensely aware of the bored man in riding breeches and a turtleneck sweater immediately behind her, but she wasted no time on him. Across the aisle was Tompkins, the middle-aged, paunchy personage with the elk's tooth. His hands were overmanicured, and his face a little spotty and choleric, but Phyllis mentally rated him eighty-five and passed on. Behind him was a massive man with so many freckles that they even dotted forehead and ears. His eyes, which were a bright innocent China blue, were fixed on some notations on the back of an envelope. Now and again he added painfully a few more figures. He looked prosperous, in spite of his well-worn suit of dark blue serge, but all the same Phyllis only gave him a seventy.
Behind Freckles was the newcomer for whom they had all been kept waiting—the man in the brown symphony of color. He was at the moment busily engaged in strapping himself in his seat, and Phyllis in spite of herself smiled widely. He saw her, realized that he was the only one in the plane to take this precaution, and looked vaguely uncomfortable.
"Damn," said Phyllis to herself. "I've done it again—and he's the best bet on this plane."
His rating would be in the nineties, certainly, for there was an aroma of the easy spender about him, an air of good living. Any man who takes the trouble to match handkerchief to socks, and tie to suit, is apt to interest himself in the other niceties of life, Phyllis had discovered.
Behind him was the redhead in the corduroy trousers. Phyllis never gave her a glance, except to note that at least the girl had sense enough not to use scarlet rouge with that shade of henna.
In the two rear seats of the plane were two young men in turtleneck sweaters and flannel trousers, at the moment busily matching dimes. In ordinary times Phyllis would have rated them at around seventy-five, but since she knew that they were satellites of the man who sat behind her, she gave them an even ninety apiece.
An absolute zero was chalked up for the slick youngster who was leaning across the aisle to talk to the girl in the corduroys. Phyllis had no time for petty larceny, and the redhead had quite evidently taken up her option on him.
That left an even hundred percent for the bored man behind her, but Phyllis wasted no ammunition on him this early in the game.
Slowly Chick swung the stick hard over, and the red-and-gilt flying boat slid away from its mooring. They taxied easily along the waterway, past barges and anchored windjammers, slowly picking up speed. Then the Dragonfly swung sharply to port, and the roar of the twin motors became a scream in Phyllis's ears.
A wall of white water rose against the windows on either side, shutting out the busy harbor world and leaving only these eleven human beings in the darkened box which they optimistically hoped would take them aloft and down again. The Dragonfly was skimming the surface like a flung pebble now. Her tail wagged like a salmon's attempting to leap the falls. Once she rose in the air, only to fall back with a sickening crash on the crest of the next roller.
The pilot cut his motor down and turned to murmur something unmentionable to French. "Air's goofy again today," he added.
The white wall of water fell momentarily away from the windows and then rose again higher than ever as the motors screamed their loudest. The tail wagged, and Chick rammed the stick into his chest.
"Climb, you damn mud scow!" he implored.
The damn mud scow climbed, skimming above the smooth surface of the next roller and slanting up steeply as the offshore wind lifted beneath her wings. All sense of motion was gone, and the harbor seemed to be lazily pushing its way past beneath them.
"Passing over the battleship Texas," French called back into the cabin. The man in brown had his nose pressed against the window. Phyllis, who had no interest in battleships or sailors, seized the opportunity to touch up her lips.
Three hundred feet beneath them a stone-gray battleship rocked at anchor, her decks crawling with busy blue-jackets. One moment all was serene and calm, and then—
Suddenly the battleship Texas, together with the blue-jackets on her decks and the motor tenders lined alongside to transport them to the delights of the San Pedro waterfront, all leaped madly toward the plane for a delirious moment, and then fell away to one side with difficulty.
Blonde hair tumbled across Phyllis's eyes, and the lipstick pencil drew a crimson gash across her face. The man with the freckled ears dropped his envelope and forgot that he had ever had it, while the girl in the blue corduroy trousers let out a shrill yip and clutched wildly at the shoulders of the cocoa-colored sport jacket in front of her.
As was the obvious duty of the copilot, Lewis French turned with a somewhat mechanical smile. "Just an air pocket," he began to recite glibly. "Caused by running through a column of cool and descending air."
He swallowed the last of his sentence as the plane suddenly bucked her tail high in the air and regained in one fell swoop all the altitude that she had lost.
From that moment the nine passengers on board the Dragonfly lost all traces of dignity, even of individuality. They were peas, shaken in the same pod. Most of them were too busy affixing around themselves the straps that they had scorned, to notice the white steamer Avalon, bound to the city of the same name, when she tooted in salute beneath them as they rocketed past.
"Bumpier every damn trip," complained French.
Chick showed a mouthful of strong white teeth. Five years with the air mail had burned the seriousness from his hot brown eyes. "It'll all be nice and smooth when we get Technocracy," he promised. "They say—"
Whatever it was that they said was forgotten as he braced both feet against the kicking rudder in an effort to keep the Dragonfly from going completely crazy. The floor beneath their feet fell away and then rose shudderingly, fitfully swaying from side to side.
Excerpted from The Puzzle of the Pepper Tree by Stuart Palmer. Copyright © 2008 The Rue Morgue Press. Excerpted by permission of MysteriousPress.com.
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